Monday, June 19, 2017

The Meaning of Juneteenth to an Asian American

The Meaning of Juneteenth to an Asian American

(an address to the community of Eau Claire, WI on June 19, 2017)

To begin, I want to thank Selika Ducksworth-Lawton, Berlye Middleton, Donald Rosby, Mike Huggins, Terissa Leath, and everyone else involved in organizing this event and for the invitation to speak to you today. It’s truly my honor to stand before you on such a beautiful occasion.

The title of my talk today is “The Meaning of Juneteenth to an Asian American.” It took me over twenty years to come to think of myself in that way, as someone who identifies -- foremost -- as part of a larger community, defined on its own terms. I’m grateful for the opportunity to reflect upon and share my thoughts on what Juneteenth means to me. I never would have imagined doing so thirty years ago. But the fact that I’m standing here now to tell you that story is proof that your life can always change for the better.

Not knowing who you are is what can happen to you when you immigrate to this country when you are only a year old. When your parents are grown adults by the time they arrive in America, they’re not used to thinking about themselves as not white -- because they didn’t have to do that where they came from in China. Their identity came from lots of histories, just not one about the meaning of the color of their skin. But in California, you were Chinese, because the people there insisted on thinking about you that way -- usually politely but sometimes not. And so my parents learned soon enough that they were not white and all of the things that that meant.

When we moved to Texas, I’m sure that my parents were getting better at understanding what it meant not to be white, which is a necessary life skill for people of color in Texas.

But they didn’t tell me what they had learned.

They couldn’t really, for lots of reasons. Although they spoke pretty good English, they just didn’t have any practice talking about race that way. And even if they did, they would have to tell me that I shouldn’t always live up to my own conscience but one passed down by the white majority, which was comforted by it. Moreover, to give that talk would be to second guess themselves and the bravery it took to uproot a family from its home, a place where everyone looked and spoke like you.

So I grew up having to learn about the meaning of race on my own, in a suburb of Dallas, Texas, in the seventies and eighties. In 1979, I was in the fourth grade and remember getting to miss school in the morning to go somewhere with my parents. When I returned to class in the afternoon, all of my classmates broke out in applause. I had become a naturalized citizen that day, the same year that Juneteenth became an official holiday in Texas.

When I was little, I knew that I was different from my white classmates because they would give our teacher chocolates at Christmas, and I would give her these carved soapstone foo dogs from my parents’ import business. But other than special occasions like that and the day I became a citizen, it didn’t occur to me very often to think about myself as Chinese. And when I did, being Chinese just meant being different. Not worse.

But then I hit puberty.

This is when it would have been really nice to have parents who could talk to you about what it meant to be Chinese in this country. And so I continued to learn on my own. What I learned was this: that if you liked what your white friends liked, and you were the only non-white person in their friend group, some eventually told you that they didn’t see you as Chinese. They saw you as someone like themselves. And to an awkward Chinese American kid, that was exactly what I needed and wanted to hear at the time.

I want to make one thing clear. There is a world of difference between white people expecting to be treated as human beings and white people expecting to be treated as white people. Because one immoral idea that necessarily attends the latter is anti-blackness. And so I learned that too, growing up in Texas, where enslaved black people were not freed until two years after the Emancipation Proclamation.

Anti-blackness is not just about hate, although hate is the story we are usually told about it. It is just as often about omission. And when people and institutions keep you from knowing about the lives of black people, you have fewer possibilities for how to live your own life. You have fewer models for love and for righteousness in America. This is especially true if you are the son of immigrants -- just barely an immigrant yourself -- because you will end up making many of these decisions all on your own, guided by the institutions that be.

Growing up in Texas, I learned in history classes that the Civil War was fought over states’ rights, and I didn’t learn that the Texans who died at the Alamo were slaveholders fighting against a Mexican nation that had outlawed slavery over three decades before the end of the Civil War. I didn’t read a novel written by a black person until I was a junior in college. That book was Zora Neale Hurston’s Their Eyes Were Watching God.

Reading Hurston was nothing short of a revelation. An epic story about a socially-mobile black woman in the early twentieth century -- who loved black men and black women -- revealed what was missing from every other book I had read. It was almost like those other books understood only a fraction of what the world was like, and I realized then the meagerness of my own world.

My students are sometimes a little puzzled when I tell them that black writers saved my life. In our segregated suburb of Dallas, where there was only one black kid in your class, books are the way that you discover the reality that institutional racism has kept from you. If you’re a middle-class Chinese American, it’s all too easy to follow the path of institutional racism. If you choose to assimilate, your teachers praise your English, your smarts, and your industry, and you love them for it, maybe even want to become a teacher yourself.

When I say that black writers saved my life, I mean that their stories saved me from the path that institutional racism had laid out for someone like me -- an attractive path but one paved with exclusion, suspicion, and fear. The fear that I am talking about is one that leads you outside the bounds of reality, if you don’t know any better.

Institutional racism teaches white people and Asian Americans like me that random chance might steal something valuable away from you. This constant fear reminds you that anything and anyone can be a threat to what you have or think you deserve. You can live your life beholden to this version of reality, which becomes more tenable with every risk you sidestep and every milestone you reach. It’s simple. You do it by changing neighborhoods or schools, reading too much about vaccines on the internet, or not hitting like on your Facebook friend’s deeply moving political post. This is a fear borne out of a middle-class assumption that a good life awaits you if only cruel fate does not intervene. This fear exists only because the idea of the American Dream does too.

Black writers taught me that what is valuable can be taken from you not only by chance but by design. They taught me that owning this reality, while difficult and painful, is itself a liberation. It is freedom from the oppressive idea that one is entitled to comfort. Such freedom is essentially humanizing. You see the world as it is, struggle for justice when you are right, and try to love in spite of it all.

In short, black writers taught me the difference between what was real and what was fantasy.

James Baldwin discussed this in his book The Fire Next Time. He said that

People who cannot suffer can never grow up, can never discover who they are. That man who is forced each day to snatch his manhood, his identity, out of the fire of human cruelty that rages to destroy it knows, if he survives the effort, and even if he does not survive it, something about himself and human life that no school on earth -- and, indeed, no church -- can teach. He achieves his own authority, and that is unshakable. This is because, in order to save his life, he is forced to look beneath appearances, to take nothing for granted, to hear the meaning behind the words. If one is continually surviving the worst that life can bring, one eventually ceases to be controlled by a fear of what life can bring; whatever it brings must be borne. And at this level of experience one’s bitterness begins to be palatable, and hatred becomes too heavy a sack to carry.

James Baldwin saved me from a world of fantasy that nevertheless was ready to accept me into it, as long as my entrance was on its terms, which include subscribing to “a fear of what life can bring.” Too often, as we all know, those phantom fears can lead to suspicion, which can lead to hatred, which can lead to atrocities. Such terms, they demand too dear a price.

This fear makes authentic community impossible.

Juneteenth to me is about the need for community that rejects this fear and bears witness. The fear is not only the kind that Jeronimo Yanez felt seconds before he murdered Philando Castile. It is also the fear that a speaker feels when he utters the word murdered like this in public, and it is the fear that some must feel when they hear the word murdered in that context. These feelings mark the borderlands we inhabit between the world of fantasy and the world of reality.

To me, Juneteenth is about the authentic community that is at last possible when we know what freedom is. It is a community like this one here today. For this Asian American, Juneteenth commemorates the simultaneous struggle for freedom from oppression for not being white and also the struggle for freedom from privilege for not being black.

It is a beautiful struggle, ongoing and affirming, one I would trade for none other.

I thank you for honoring me by being a part of its story today.

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