In the last few months I have taken a step back from visibility and a lot of the work in which I was previously involved. It’s been cool salsa dancing in Grant Park with my friend Jazzy and tripping over myself. It’s been refreshing to binge watch The Good Wife without worrying about traveling and deadlines. I started noticing all the ways in which fighting for racial and gender justice was causing me to lose my sense of self. During the height of the hashtag that shall not be named, I was not only dehumanized by how I was being characterized by the media, but by myself as well. I believe we all do the best we can with what we have and when we know better or have more support, we begin to operate in ways that affirm our own humanity and that of others.
It was through my personal experiences of trauma and marginalization that I began to do the work of gender and racial justice work–feeling as though I was both too much and not enough at the same time. I was never smart enough, pretty enough, nice enough, mean enough, articulate enough, or organized enough to be heard. As I become a more visible activist, I started becoming numb to acts of injustice because it seemed violence was the only constant in my life. Everything became a campaign. I very much regret letting my heart dissociate from my head, but it was a self-protective development. As an Korean American woman, my leadership was constantly questioned. I was always too emotional, too soft, too delicate to lead in ways American individualism and exceptionalism have taught us to value and respect. I remember one time I made an advocacy video about AAPI LGBT suicide for an organization I led. The male members of an Asian American group on Facebook instead ranked my attractiveness on a scale of 1 to 10 instead of engaging the words I spoke. I was 21 when this happened. Experiences like this one made me want to be “one of the guys” and become a direct and aggressive workaholic in order to be have my work and the issues I cared about taken seriously.
My friend Ryan likens me to the Wizard of Oz. It’s actually laughably funny how common of a reaction this is from people who meet me face-to-face. Have I really done that great job of building up self-protective walls? Yes. I relate so much to Maleficent and how, out of her own abuse, she began to build up walls of darkness. “You hurt me” or “I am hurt” was never enough to stop the abuse in my life. Maybe people would believe me if I shielded myself in intellect and took enough courses to explain my trauma in a logical and historical way. Maybe if hardened myself from feeling my own pain, then maybe I could be a scary and forceful agent of change to challenge white heteropatriarchy and make it shake in its boots. However, like Maleficent, I didn’t realize how much power I had hoarded up for myself. I got so used to being in attack mode and on the defense, that I forgot that hardening myself and doubling down isn’t the only or best option. In fact, it’s a bad habit that can actually injure others. It’s so much easier for me to go on a rant about critical race theory than it is for me to share my personal pain and how it informs my work. I almost always redirect personal questions that come my way into some sort of political commentary to deflect from having to remember all the ways in which this work still injures me. I wanted to be big enough to no longer be a victim without doing the work to heal and realize all the ways in which I continue to operate as if I’m being threatened.
I’m not just an angry activist, I’m a survivor. The latter is harder to admit than the prior. One of those labels makes me feel in control and the other as if I have no personal agency. Right now my main priority is figuring out how to not harden myself in response to abuse, but to soften myself and rediscover the parts of me I tucked away in order to feel less vulnerable. Not all critique is meant to injure. Critique can be a pathway to finding collective solutions to healing.
An injured animal will almost always bite back, especially if it feels backed into a corner. There’s been many times in my life I’ve had to bite back. To be honest, I ran away limping a few months ago, unwilling to stand strong and risk gaining another battle scar. The other day I met a dog who flinched whenever I tried to pet him. I think I do a lot of flinching because I can no longer tell when I’m safe or in danger. It definitely helps keep myself from being harmed further, but also shuts out the possibility of affection and healing. I flinch. I bite.
But people do the best they can with what they have. And it’s hard to gain a full picture of who someone is or what experiences they have or continue to walk through from the outside looking in. It’s easy to pass judgement and shut down conversation. And it’s even easier to assume critique is meant to injure and that we are again under attack. I call this being trigger happy.
Although I am used to endless backlash from people with institutional power who I challenge, I am most injured by hostility from other Asian American women. The pressure of being marginalized by both race and gender can cause almost a pressure cooker situation. Asian American women are already racialized/gendered constantly, so it becomes normative to turn that white male gaze inward at each other. We begin to police the behavior of one other, pick at insecurities of one other, and oftentimes assert our superiority over one another. I can’t tell you how many women in workshops I’ve facilitated say they don’t have a lot of friends who are women because they feel they are always in competition. If we are in competition then what is the prize? The “prize” is acceptance within white heteropatriarchy. The main backlash I receive from Asian Americans has been “you make us look too sensitive” or “you make us look ungrateful” which points to the fact that we still have representation (barely even scraping the surface of our other problems) issues. There was a petition going around after the hashtag that shall not be named called “remove Suey Park as spokesperson for Asian Americans” signed by thousands of Asian Americans. It was painfully ironic seeing as the very need to have a PR manager for Asian Americans is in itself a sign that we have internalized a lot of negative stereotypes about ourselves and still worry about being (mis)represented. To be a model minority is to approximate whiteness, which includes not naming white supremacy in return for justifying the logics of racism on a micro and macro level. If we keep our heads down, we will be rewarded. This has been the role of Asian Americans on the racial hierarchy. We will never reach whiteness, but by centering its needs we gain closer proximity to power, resources, and prestige. This is the story of assimilation.
We do the work of white heteropatriarchy ourselves when we begin to label one another as threats, as deviant outliers that must be attacked and removed for the sake of maintaining the status quo–for a false sense of safety that comes from ignoring injustice that surrounds us. Trust me, I would rather be the Asian American leader with cool Youtube covers or the owner of a trendy food truck. I have a high need for approval and love being liked, so please believe me when I say I don’t do or say anything unless I am 100% convicted it is necessary. But that conviction doesn’t make it any easier for me to deal with the hate.
I’m really encouraged by a reconciliatory experience I had this week (and have received permission to write about). There was a Korean American woman who had vehemently disagreed with my political understandings and because we had mutual friends, it hurt me greatly, since I already struggle to find community amongst my peers. I bit back. And we kept metaphorically shooting at each other. Although it was easy to say “settler colonialism and orientalism are relative and not comparative in social location” and “to be the model minority is to be non-black” I really wanted to say “you hurt me” and I’m sure she wanted to say “you hurt me” as well. I used my knowledge and expertise as a weapon. It wasn’t loving. It wasn’t educational. And I forgot to realize that her own life experiences have informed what she knows and understands of this world. Even though I had been figuratively wanting to chase her down to offer my forgiveness and make my pain known through my own strength and selfish desire to be the bigger person, the situation seemed hopeless. Just when I lose faith in my own ability to reconcile and find peace, I’m always in awe of God’s ability and reconciliatory heart to be made all the more profound. I had tweeted something random about waving an olive branch and buying coffee for my enemies and she happened to see it. She took me up on the offer. We talked face-to-face and it wasn’t scary or combative at all. It was actually very healing.
I gave her this copy of The Enemy, which clearly illustrates this preemptive shooting and doubling down rather than listening. The first line is “The Enemy is there but I have never seen him. Every morning, I shoot at him. Then he shoots at me.” I think this is how conflict happens oftentimes, but instead someone needs to stop shooting from afar and really see their “enemy” to realize our enemy isn’t one another. This story and experience clearly show the gospel at work as God is always trying to chase me down simply to grant me forgiveness and reconcile me to Him.
The enemy is white supremacy. The enemy is patriarchy. These structures of violence not only create economic violence, death, and inequity, but we would do well to realize the strains it puts between marginalized people. When I talk about decentering whiteness, I mean ceasing to do our advocacy in a way that envisions recognition and inclusion by white folks as our end goal. One way to decenter whiteness is to focus on the internal work, recognize and challenge horizontal violence, coalition building, learning to trust one another, and the healing that we need to do from centuries of both external and internalized racisms.
The enemy is the enemy.
Through Killjoy Prophets, I have seen transformative justice at work. We hold peace circles to work through conflict instead of running away from each other when things get hard. And when we are in community with one another (all different identities) and work through how we can support one another emotionally and spiritually. I would argue these skills are actually more useful and important in the larger work of justice and living missional lives than understanding white supremacy on an intellectual level. As Andy Smith says, abolition is a positive process. It’s not just about what we can dismantle, but what we can build together as alternatives to our current system. This is how we do the work of transformative justice. How do we decrease dependency on the police, prisons, and the criminal “justice” system? One way is to find community safety alternatives, which begins with trusting one another and showing up for each other in ways that aren’t just transformative in the anti-violence movement, but that also transform us. This is how we stop enhancing state power in the name of safety and begin to take matters into our own hands to become safe people.
Justice is also an internal process. If I die tomorrow I may have not made a dent in ending global oppression, but I have experienced much healing in my own life. If you asked me today “what does justice look like to you” I would no longer give you a dictionary answer and 5 political demands, but I would tell you about my personal struggle to find peace in my relationships and within myself.
What does justice look like to you?