Part 3: If I’m Not Part of the Solution…
One lesson in anti-racism gained a lot of traction during the summer of 2020: de-centering the conversation. In a social media landscape that thrives on egocentricity, and a blogosphere that celebrates the cult of the individual perspective, it was valuable for White folks to learn that sometimes it is better to pause, to take our ideas and experiences off the table, and allow time for discussion among the groups that are impacted most and most directly.
This week, by posting my views on the South’s anti-Asian problem, I probably have not done the best job of de-centering. But today, I will give you fair warning that this is a fully self-centered discussion.
If I had to describe, in one word, the Asian presence in my world growing up, I would use the word “void.” It was not important enough to really discuss. It was a side topic, a random rumination here and there.
For people in the South, slapping a specific name on something more general is the way the language works. All soft drinks are Cokes, for instance. And all Asian people were Chinese.
(I say “were” as a matter of hopefulness. Given the increased popularity of various Asian cuisines and cultural phenomena, along with the emergence of other Asian communities in the South, I would think the typical Southerner doesn’t make this mistake anymore. But I could be wrong.)
To be sure, when it came to matters of war, the Asians did become diverse to some extent for Southerners: Korea, Vietnam, Cambodia, and Japan were participants in the largest American wars of the Baby Boom generation. But all those nations and cultures collapsed back down to Chinese when discussing anything other than war.
The first Asian people I recall in my childhood were the proprietors and waitstaff of a Chinese restaurant in Madison, Tennessee, The House of Choy. My family rarely ate Chinese food, and we only patronized this one place, and even then maybe once a year. I found the place magical–the building was pagoda-shaped and brightly painted in saturated colors. All of the dinnerware and glassware was exotic, ornamental, almost ceremonial. Every wall and surface was appointed for maximum effect.
My next distinct memory was in seventh grade, when my family moved me back to Nashville, or Madison more specifically. No, we did not start patronizing the restaurant more (which is odd–we did live much closer to the restaurant at that point). I started school at Neely’s Bend Middle School, where I encountered a number of firsts — my first gym class, my first gay classmate, and, yes, my first Asian classmate: a loud, mischievous Korean kid who upended every stereotype I had ingested over the course of my formative years.
I was rezoned to a different school the following year in eighth grade, and so it wasn’t until high school that I was able to settle in and get to know my classmates well. In high school and again in college, I had the privilege to cultivate friendships over four-year stretches.
In a different context, I would be delighted to name my friends and to describe their unique perspectives, talents, tastes, foibles, and downfalls. In this context, however, I find the risk of objectification too great, the temptation to treat each person’s character as significant only in how it confirmed or contradicted my prejudices or stacked up against American stereotypes of their backgrounds.
Suffice it to say that I have known a wide array of beautiful, complicated people, and that includes my Asian classmates, business associates, friends, and acquaintances.
A great deal of my exposure to cultures outside the binary Black/White paradigm occurred during the eight years of high school and college. It was those school-based friendships that allow me the latitude to say, with confidence, that I appreciate and respect the individuals I have known who are of Asian descent.
Where would I be without the purposeful diversity goals of my high school and college? Would I still entertain simplistic impressions of Asian culture? Would I be tempted to harm or harass because I was susceptible to suggestions that Asians created diseases or engendered temptation or poisoned my food? (I sure hope not, because the projection of government or systemic wrongdoing onto individual humans who just happened to live under those systems is hellacious reasoning–I’d hate to be guilty of that, regardless of my lack of exposure.)
As it stands, and even with all my diversity bombast, I yet feel woefully undereducated and underexposed to Asian culture. I can’t recall learning anything beyond the names of the most long-lived of the Chinese dynasties in world history class. Beyond a smattering of poetry, I can’t recall any significant Asian literature that I studied in school or have read in the years afterward. I was recently introduced to The Tale of Genji in a world lit online syllabus, and was embarrassed to have not heard of it before.
As a general rule, we do not learn enough about people. When we do not learn, we fill in the blanks. Bad people fill in the blanks in the wrong ways, and even the best people fill them in clumsy, unhelpful ways.
I have a lot of blanks to fill. It’s kind of unconscionable that my childhood awareness of the largest and by far most populous continent in the world, and the ancient cultural traditions it carries, was essentially a hunk of brightly painted concrete on Gallatin Road in Madison, Tennessee, that housed an earnest, but not culturally all-encompassing, Chinese restaurant.
When we know better, we do better. To that now-familiar saying (modified from Maya Angelou), I would add: when we know more, we do more. There’s so much more for us to know, so that we can do more to make the world safer for our neighbors and friends. After the events of last week, I hope it’s something we can make a priority.