Notes on privilege and anti-Asian violence

Eight people were gunned down and killed nearly 36 hours ago at three Asian-owned massage parlors in the Atlanta area. Six were of Asian descent, and seven were women. I’ve been absolutely overwhelmed by the pain and grief of processing this. One of my white friends said to me last night, “I’m so furious that for one second you’d feel less safe because of these assholes,” and I replied, “I don’t know that I’ve ever truly felt safe.”

I had never said that before. Upon reflection, I think it’s more accurate to say, “I don’t know that I’ve ever truly felt safe as an adult.” I am Korean, adopted when I was four months old by upper-middle-class white parents, and I know that my light East Asian skin and proximity to whiteness have afforded me privilege not shared by other non-white people or even other Asians — especially when I was a child and blissfully ignorant. Being raised by white parents in a 90% white town in the late ’90s and early 2000s, it was almost a relief to hear my white friends say they would “forget” I’m Asian. It was comforting to feel accepted by whiteness, to be told it was “cool” that I was adopted, especially when the less colorblind kids would mock my eyes or envy my straight hair.

As I got older, it got more complicated. People I trusted as friends would make thoughtless or cruel Asian jokes, and while it was discomforting, I didn’t want to be That Girl™ who didn’t have a sense of humor or made a big deal out of nothing. I was reassured that I was “only Asian when it was convenient for a joke,” which I took to mean, essentially, no one really thinks I eat dogs. No one really means what they’re saying. They’ve just watched Austin Powers in Goldmember too many times, right? When someone said, “I know we don’t have those floor cushions your people like, but you can sit on the couch, you know,” I told myself not to take it personally, that it was meant to be a harmless joke. Same way the racist cartoons drawn in my yearbook were meant to be harmless. Same way constantly being interrogated about my grades and test scores was meant to be harmless. But, though I didn’t fully recognize it at the time, none of it was harmless.

I could only convince myself of that for so long, and I think deep down, I always knew the jokes weren’t funny, that they weren’t jokes so much as dehumanizing and disrespectful jabs at people who looked and/or lived differently — including me. Since then I’ve spent a considerable amount of time trying to learn about all the ways I was wrong and unpacking the dichotomy between my racial and cultural identities, the privilege of my proximity to whiteness, intersectionality, and the specific experience of being an Asian woman in America. For a long time, I felt guilty for ever being upset at racist treatment because it “wasn’t as bad” as what others experienced. I still have a hard time forgiving myself for my ignorance and past complicity. I’m working on healing, on holding myself accountable while also forgiving myself — and while also giving myself permission to validate my own experiences and acknowledge my trauma.

Because ultimately, even though I am well aware that I benefit in ways from being racially East Asian and culturally Western living in a system built on white supremacy, it doesn’t mean I ever feel safe. There are times when the complexities of existing between fixed identities simply don’t matter.

My privilege didn’t stop the white man with an Asian fetish who stalked me at work when I was in college. It didn’t stop any of the men who’ve harassed and assaulted me on the street.

It didn’t stop any of the countless men who’ve messaged me on dating apps from asking, “What are you?” and it didn’t stop the man who grunted, “Ooh, my first Korean pussy,” while we were having sex.

It didn’t stop any of the people who gave me nasty looks last spring in the early days of the coronavirus pandemic on the rare occasion that I left my Brooklyn apartment, and it wouldn’t have stopped a white supremacist “having a bad day” from shooting me at an Atlanta massage parlor last night.

Anti-Asian racism in America is not a new phenomenon. It did not begin with the pandemic, and it will not end with it. Bigotry is so embedded in our culture, and any claim that suggests all Americans are equal and free is patently false. Women, racial minorities, the LGBTQ+ community, sex workers, and other marginalized groups are not a monolith, yet all are expected to monitor and adjust their behavior, to make themselves smaller and suppress their identities so as not to invite violence — and that still won’t and can’t make any of us safe from being murdered merely for existing.

I’ve been hesitant to post anything on social media about any of this, given my aforementioned dichotomous racial and cultural identities and adjacence to whiteness — it’s so hard to explore anything with any nuance in a Twitter thread or Instagram post, and I don’t want to appear to present myself as self-pitying or like I’m trying to represent others’ experiences — I can only speak for myself. I’ve instead opted to share the words and sentiments of others in the AAPI community, but I’m still grieving deeply. I’m still in pain. I still feel unsafe living under the violence of white supremacy and patriarchy, and I still resent it.

And so, I’m holding space for the victims of last night’s shootings and for their families. For the thousands of others who have been injured or killed in hate crimes. For those suffering from the perpetuation of the model minority myth, particularly the impoverished and homeless. For those struggling with depression, anxiety, or other mental illness — especially those who feel like they can’t ask for or receive help. For the non-English speaking, for the mixed race and adopted Asians existing between fixed identities, for the East Asians and South Asians and the white passing and dark skinned. I see you. None of us are free til all of us are free.

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I forget; I remember

Early spring always triggers something in me that makes me feel like a teenager again.

It comes in waves, usually only for moments. Sometimes it’s the way the air smells on the first warm night. Sometimes it’s feeling the warmth of the sun disappear the moment you move into a building’s shadow. Sometimes it’s when I feel the pollen in my hair and sneeze.

It happens every year. No matter how my life is going, I’m suddenly dissatisfied again. No matter how filled with love my life is, I suddenly feel lonely. There’s an ache in my chest that I know will go away again when the pollen dies down and the truly warm nights have arrived. I know it will.

In the meantime, I struggle with all this out of place angst that doesn’t belong in an adult body, all these foreign feelings I’d learned to forget. Isn’t forgetting a funny thing? The moment you realize you’ve forgotten something, you no longer have forgotten it.

The moment you realize you forgot what this felt like, you realize you’re feeling it again.

It’s so strange, to walk around feeling like the past is present. Remembering things I know everyone else from that time has forgotten and has no interest in being reminded of. Nobody wants to be a teenager again.

I certainly don’t. And yet, every spring, everything I’d forgotten over the past year comes back again, except my mind and body and mood have to dig deeper to recall the emotions, the spaces I once occupied. Every year, the feelings fight to take over the alien being I’ve become. I at once feel less like myself and more like myself.

I’m everywhere and nowhere. I’m in between. I am both and neither. I am everything and nothing.

I don’t particularly enjoy this little ritual my body seems to indulge in without my permission. There’s a certain shame attached to it, stemming from a buried belief that to feel this way is wrong, but I wonder: next spring, should I not experience a sudden transformation, a reversion back to emotional adolescence, would I miss it?

Would I be happier if it never happened again?

Would I?

“I am not my white man’s name.”

Sometimes I find myself wanting to yell this at other people. One of those times was today, when yet again, I handed my membership card to the ticket seller at BAM, and she looked at me with narrowed, suspicious eyes, and asked, “This is you? Can I see another form of ID?”

The same person has done this to me before there, and she isn’t the first person in the world to do so. Sometimes I say something wry or dryly funny to make it less awkward for both of us. Today I handed her my driver’s license, waited while she processed my credit card, took my ticket, walked outside, and cried.

I cried for a couple hours. I left the movie early (it was I Am Not Your Negro and I feel like there’s probably some kind of irony there) and on the way out, asked the membership representative how I would go about cancelling mine. She asked if I minded telling her why, and through tears, I tried explaining that I, with my Asian face and Irish name, was tired of being treated like I couldn’t possibly be someone who paid $85 for a BAM membership, of having my identity questioned because my race didn’t match my white name.

As I tried to explain, it occurred to me that I sounded like I was making a big deal out of nothing. She tried telling me she was sure the people didn’t mean to treat me with suspicion and that the protocol for confirming member’s ID’s has changed, and so on and so forth. I gave up.

I walked down the street still in tears, feeling guilty and like an overemotional jerk because this was nothing compared to the prejudice and bigotry African Americans, Latinx people, and Muslim people experience on a way more frequent basis because of the color of their skin, their faith, etc. Then I thought of a line from an Everyday Feminism piece I read a while ago:

“I thought because the racism I knew was different from the kind my Latinx and Black friends were familiar with, that it wasn’t legitimate. Wasn’t real. Wasn’t that bad. Yet while our experiences as Asian Americans differ from other groups, we — like all other people of color in the United States — live with the daily ramifications of white supremacy. And that distinguishes us from white America.”

I continually find myself trying to keep my mouth shut about any instance of racial bias I experience, because I find myself placing more value on the experience of other minorities, determining that their voices need to be heard more than mine. I feel guilty for the privileges I experience as a person of color with white parents, for the privileges I experience as that mythical “model minority,” for being of a race that has historically exhibited so much anti-black racism. I struggle regularly to remind myself that I am still a racial minority who experiences racial bias, and that it’s not okay.

Particularly recently, I’m struggling with finding a space in feminism where I feel like I belong. More and more it seems like most calls I hear for intersectionality, for dismantling white feminism, focus almost solely on the inclusion of black and brown bodies. For the most part, I don’t have a problem with this. The Black Lives Matter movement, for instance, has been vital to raising awareness and affecting change. Still, the emphasis for inclusion of black and brown people makes me hyper aware that I am none of the above. I am not enough of a minority to be included in those calls, but I also am not white, and Asian racism is very real.

It chips away at your spirit. No one is raising awareness about the fact that the Asian homelessness population is vastly understated and ignored because of the number of Asians who won’t admit to being homeless due to cultural ideas of pride. It’s so frustrating that Asians are unfairly held to higher standards in the college admissions process than any other racial group, but are assumed to deserve that unequal treatment. It was heartbreaking to cheer for Chris Rock’s “Oscars So White” monologue, just to have him turn around and exploit Asian stereotypes for a joke. The racism is different, but it exists.

I also struggle with feeling like I am Asian enough to demand that Asians be seen and heard and represented, but I’m realizing more and more that it’s necessary. The ticket seller at BAM wasn’t in the box office when I left, but I wish she had been, so that I could’ve told her that I am not my white man’s name.

I wish I could go back in time and tell all my peers in high school who ever made a joke rooted in my race that I am more than my Asian eyes.

I wish I could tell the white man who stalked me in college that I am more than my Asian hair and skin.

I wish I had known, back then, that it was okay for me to demand to be seen and heard, from this space between fixed identities.

See me now. Hear me now. I’m here.

Your Best American Girl

“I still haven’t found it, with a capital I,” Mitski explains. “In the U.S., I don’t quite feel American and I don’t quite feel white enough. But then, to fellow Asian people or in Japan, I’m also a foreigner. I’m mixed, I’m half white, I’m not Asian enough, I don’t understand… I’m stuck in this kind of middle ground of not being allowed in either camp.”

Ever since Mitski released “Your Best American Girl” months ago, no matter where I am when I listen to it, there’s a 95% chance I’m gonna have tears in my eyes by the end of the first chorus.

your mother wouldn’t approve
of how my mother raised me
but I do, I think I do
and you’re an all-American boy
I guess I couldn’t help try to be
your best American girl…

I understand that Mitski wrote this song about a very specific relationship, a specific experience that belonged to her, but it feels so much more universal than that. She wrote it for herself, but in ways, it feels like she wrote it for every woman of color, every woman with a complex identity, who ever fell in love with a white American guy.

It’s that feeling when you exist between fixed identities and because you don’t belong anywhere, you are both everywhere and nowhere.

It’s that feeling when “America” is supposed to be a “melting pot” but you know you’ll never be that “American girl.”

It’s that feeling when you know that you can’t — and shouldn’t try — change who you are in order to be what someone else wants, but that means you feel like you might never be enough of anything for anyone.

It’s that feeling when you resent media and culture for breeding in you an attraction to that white American boy aesthetic, but it doesn’t change the fact that that IS what you’re attracted to.

And, it’s not learning how to stop feeling any of those things, but learning how to live with them.

Dear Mr. Albee,

In my early twenties, I wrote this letter to Edward Albee, my favorite playwright, thanking him for writing, and though the letter itself now feels puerile in ways,  I am certain that I still could not come up with better words to describe how much his plays meant to me. I can’t believe he won’t pen any more insightful, incisive, utterly absurd plays. His plays truly changed my life, and I’m so grateful. Rest easy, sir.

When I was sixteen, my high school English teacher gave me a copy of The Zoo Story. At first, it baffled me – I felt a heart-wrenching empathy, but I didn’t understand it. I devoured a number of your other works, trying to reconcile these emotions. When I had the chance to see Peter and Jerry at Second Stage Theater as a 20 year old, I thought I started to understand.

At the time, I was an undergraduate in a film and theater studies program, and I clearly remember a class in which we discussed the early work of Todd Haynes. In an interview, he spoke about the role of “deviance” in his films. He talked of exploring what threatens people’s sense of normalcy, and this struck me as a lens through which I could view your work. Sitting front row center at Second Stage, I watched Jerry threaten to bring the conventional structure of Peter’s world crashing to the ground.

I think that is when I understood why I love your plays so much. In them I see that the surface absurdities are masking pathos and earnestness, reveling in the ridiculous that which threatens the comfort of our world’s established social constructs. Of course, I can’t presume I understand what your intentions were while writing, but I don’t believe that my interpretations are invalid. This is my lengthy way of saying that your work has profoundly affected my attitude toward and general perspective of the human condition, and I could never effectively express my gratitude to you for helping me grow in the ways I have.

Ever since reading Joseph Campbell’s The Hero With a Thousand Faces, I’ve firmly believed that the work of an artist is the work of a hero. Campbell’s hero looks deep within himself, identifies the demons of dream and myth that we avoid because they threaten our security and comfort, and in tackling them, he discovers his true self. Upon resurfacing, the hero becomes something better, and then helps the world become better as well. I think it takes courage for an artist to find and destroy such demons and create from the ashes something that will elicit truth through the reaction to it. To then also have the greater courage to share that creation so the world can experience and react to it, makes the artist an undeniable hero.

Thank you, Mr. Albee, for being a hero.

Most sincerely,

Coda

I spent the holiday weekend in Palm Beach with my friend Danielle and returned to New York with a broken suitcase zipper and a whole lot of ambivalence. I thought if I waited a couple days, I might be able to unpack all the feelings and tidily reassemble them into a few pithy sentences that held some meaning, but I was wrong. I can explain it all, but not succinctly.

I still feel like I should not have had the privilege to be in attendance at Jessica Fekete’s life celebration for her husband Thomas; as a relative stranger, witnessing the deep, lovely grief of those closest to him, felt invasive. I am grateful for having been allowed there, though in ways, it felt wrong of me to take advantage of that privilege. Most of the time I was there, I felt out of place, like I didn’t belong. It made me truly appreciate that many who spoke observed that Thomas touched the lives of people he barely knew, or didn’t know at all, and that these people are part of his legacy – I am one of them.

Social media has made celebrity a more complex thing than Andy Warhol could ever have imagined. It allows us to craft personal relationships with public figures with great ease, and what’s more, it makes it acceptable and legitimate to do so. It’s how Thomas shared his journey with the world, and though I met him a number of times in person, it’s his social media presence that most deeply moved me. As I said before, obviously you get a limited view of a person’s life when you view it only through social media, but that doesn’t make Thomas’s any less beautiful.

I guess it should be enough for me to simply say, RIP Thomas and thank you Jessica, and in ways, it feels narcissistic to say more – but it also felt wrong not to acknowledge that I am thankful, and why. It’s a testament to Thomas’s wife and family’s love that they were so generous as to open the celebration of his life to the public, and even amidst my ambivalence towards my being there, I know am so very glad and grateful that I was.

Thomas Fekete, and social media mourning

I’ve seen Surfer Blood about fifteen times. That’s not an exaggeration. About a dozen of those times were between 2011 and 2014, before guitarist Thomas Fekete’s cancer diagnosis forced him to drop out. I’m feeling a lot of feelings about his death — including hesitance to mourn on the internet — but mostly, I’m glad that I never let self-consciousness stop me from going to their shows, stop me from enjoying their performances, while Thomas was alive.

On one of the last tours I saw him on, I went to see the band at The Saint on a last-minute impulse, even though I had a ticket to see them in Brooklyn two days later. At the Brooklyn show, at the merch table, Thom said, “Hey, weren’t you at the Asbury show the other night?” I was mortified that he recognized me (though we’d met before, and I had been up front taking pictures, so I shouldn’t have been surprised), but when I said yes, he grinned and said, “Thank you so much for coming again!” so sincerely, that I immediately felt better. We chatted a bit, and it was a nice thing. The show was great, like all Surfer Blood shows are, and flooded me with joy. I am grateful to the whole band for all the wonderful experiences I’ve had watching them, dancing to them, singing at the top of my lungs to them. Thom, though, was magnetic. Incandescent. And man, he could do amazing things with a guitar.

His social media engagement was eclectic and erratic and strange; he frequently shut down one account and started another, or changed his username, but he mostly kept the same Instagram account for the past year, and we followed each other. His occasional random comments and likes always made me smile, but the real privilege was getting to follow his post-Surfer Blood journey. Of course a social media feed isn’t a completely picture of someone’s life, but his was inspirational: always optimistic, always observing beauty, always radiating good vibes, and always, always professing deep love and respect for his wife Jessica, who is an inspiration as well.

Social media is funny, and it gives you an odd sort of relationship with people you perhaps don’t know well and a space to share of yourself with the world. The high profile deaths of David Bowie, Alan Rickman, and Prince this year have made me think more about what is appropriate in terms of social media grieving, but I haven’t come to any kind of conclusion. What right do I have to publicly mourn this human that I met a couple times briefly, had a couple mutual acquaintances with, and followed back on social media? Is it okay for me to share in a public forum that this person inspired me, that he changed me? His death is not about me, and I shouldn’t use it as a reason to talk about me, right? And yet, here I am. Here we all are, pouring out memory after memory of the wonderful ways in which this kind soul changed us, and I think it’s okay to do that, because his death is not okay.

I did mail a get-well card last fall and a letter last week that that said some of these things to Thomas himself, which I hope he got to read, because we don’t say them enough. This is something I’ve believed for a long time: our time with people is limited, so we do what we can with them with the time that we have, and when they’ve changed our lives for the better, they deserve to know that. It doesn’t have to be eloquent or fancy — this certainly isn’t — it just has to be sincere. “I love you,” “you’re beautiful,” “thank you” — these aren’t hard things to say, so we should say them while we can, and not just when a person is gone, not just when we grieve.

Still, though. Thank you, Thomas. You’re beautiful.