On Oppression, White Comfort, Self-Care, and Agency

Recently, a Democrat, self-labeled liberal, upper-class white woman, who prided herself in being on the board of several non-profits, sat across me and told me that the first thing she would notice about me, if we were to pass each other on the street as strangers, was that I was short. Not that I was Asian. But that I was short. The same woman told me that she didn’t see herself as white, that I was not giving her “enough credit” in “understanding” my struggle because she was a woman in corporate America once, that she was afraid of her family continuously being on edge if I were to talk about race and class privilege. The same woman told me that, after I explained to her my main goal in life—and thus for graduate school—is fighting oppression, “it’s a lot of work for nothing concrete.” The same woman nodded as her white, upperclass husband told me that I had a “choice” in whether I politicize something, anything, or everything. The same couple dismissed my comment when I told them that I’ve walked on eggshells ever since I came to the U.S. The same couple I was supposed to welcome into my family. After that conversation over drinks, I broke down crying as I walked to a restaurant where the three of us were to  have dinner. We arrived separately, thankfully. I tried my best, from the moment I stepped out of the car to the moment I got to the door, to stop my tears. I wanted to show them that it wasn’t going to be awkward, that we could talk and disagree about race and class privilege without influencing our personal, familial relationship.

That night, it hit me that white America doesn’t really know anything about racism. (We didn’t even touch on class privilege.) That night, it hit me that I have internalized oppression so much that I sat there–like a good girl, taking everything they threw at me without even considering standing up, saying goodbye, and walking out of the door. Instead, I tried to explain myself to them, desperately trying—as so many people of color have before—to get them to see my realities, our realities, to bridge the gap between their filtered consciousness and my lived experiences, to beg them to take off that white veil hanging in front of their faces. Instead, I put my emotional health and my own community in the back burner and made peace. Instead, I played the “good immigrant,” “the good minority,” “the submissive Vietnamese woman” who just wanted to belong, to fit in, to assimilate.

What was I aiming to prove throughout that evening?

That night, I almost blamed myself for not approaching the conversation in a different way. Maybe I could have said something else. Maybe I could have discussed privilege from another angle. But I stopped myself. People of color have, from the beginning of racism, blamed ourselves for “miscommunications.” We have blamed ourselves for not being eloquent enough (for not getting ourselves into “trouble,” for not working hard enough”) in our explanation of oppression to our white enemies and worse our white allies. I realized that if they could have said all those things to my face, it wasn’t about my messaging. It was about their comfort. They only cared about their comfort, their colorblind selves, their position within society, their perspective. After all, if enough people of color talk about racism and enough white people get defensive…

So that night, I decided that, while I don’t have a choice in whether I politicize life, I do have a choice in who I want in my family. That night, I made a conscious decision to stop engaging in a relationship with those two individuals, until they truly want to learn about contemporary racism. I wrote to them, explaining how their comments were hurtful, offensive and racist. I demanded an apology in order for us to move forward. That night, for the first time since I came to the U.S., I stopped giving a shit about how white people feel. And the moment I did, I took off the subtle chain that has, not only wrapped around my wrists, but permeated into my skin. I had walked out of the cage of mental slavery twice before. Once when I was sixteen and I realized that something isn’t right in this country and I refused to hate myself and my parents and my people. Another when I was twenty-two and I watched a documentary about the Freedom Riders and I decided that I couldn’t do anything else for the rest of my life but trying my best to figure out how to fight oppression.

I believe it is much easier to stand up to our enemies, to make fun of the ultra-conservatives who spit out overt racist chants, than it is to stand up to our friends, our alleged allies, our family. After all, the latter group is so close…“they are almost there”…“they almost get us”…“they must get some credit”…“they have good intentions.” What we fail to realize is that, this is oppression in another form, and in the words of Audre Lorde, “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” By appealing to our oppressor’s consciousness, we leave certain groups behind and we leave social progress to them. For example, coming out of any movement is a dichotomy between the good and the bad “oppressee.” The successful-despite-obstacles African-American man (Barack Obama) vs. the troubled black youth (Michael Brown). The righteous congresswoman vs. the slut who deserves to be raped. The hard-working but unfortunately undocumented college student vs. the 40-year-old job-robbing illegal immigrant. The happy white gay men who just want their union recognized by the state vs. the men-hating, angry black lesbians.

I do not want to say that all communications or conversations between the marginalized and their oppressors are hopeless, unhelpful or dangerous to social progress. I do want to make a point that, when it comes to our emotional → psychological → physical health, we should not “just take it” for the higher cause. Such communications and conversations are incredibly taxing since we are forced to expose our vulnerabilities/bare ourselves in an unequal power dynamic, we often share/relive our past trauma (e.g., story of a hate crime or employment discrimination), we go in with faith and love and optimism…with the result depending entirely upon a group of people who could very well say “you’re wrong” at the end and get back to their life—one that is unaffected by oppression—unchanged. We shouldn’t feel obligated to do such a thing–especially over and over, no matter what other activists ask of us.

People of color do not exist to educate white people or to help them “grow,” just as women do not exist to educate men, queer people for those who are straight, transgender people for the cisgender. To again borrow the words of Audre Lorde, “All too often, the excuse given is that the literatures of women of Color can only be taught by Colored women, or that they are too difficult to understand, or that classes cannot ‘get into’ them because they come out of experiences that are ‘too different.’ I have heard this argument presented by white women of otherwise quite clear intelligence, women who seem to have no trouble at all teaching and reviewing work that comes out of the vastly different experiences of Shakespeare, Moliere, Dostoyefsky, and Aristophanes. Surely there must be some other explanation.”

I’m happy I chose to speak on race and class privilege with two white people. While I felt angry and sad and hopeless at their responses and my own internalized oppression, I’m happy I chose to discontinue the relationship simply because it would have been dreadful. It’s one thing to hear a strange homeless man yell “China! China!” to me as I walked past him, it’s another to engage in meeting after meeting, event after event with white people who made clear they cared more about their personal comfort than understanding what it is like for me to have this skin, this sex, and my working class background every moment of my life.

I didn’t have a choice in whether or not I look away. I didn’t have a choice in whether or not I can “move past” that night—because everyday I am reminded of our oppressive system and thus everyday I am reminded of that white couple. And that’s the thing that people don’t get about contemporary racism. Sure, they didn’t point at me and said “chink” or “gook” or “twinkie.” But for them to tell me that I had a choice to not politicize things (among other problematic statements) is to tell me that they could tolerate my presence as long as I don’t bring the baggage that comes along with being a woman of color, as long as they can feel comfortable. They were essentially telling me to stop being a woman of color. They were essentially telling me to be voiceless. They were essentially telling me to take the chain I have worked so hard to free myself from and put it back on my wrists and walk myself into the cage of mental slavery. (Of course, their biggest need, after reading my email, is to hear from another family member say that they are still good people. If I had a dollar every time I discussed the concept of privilege with someone who had privilege and we ended up with me assuring them that they were deep down “good people,” well…I’d be…actually not that rich because as a part of the marginalized, I don’t choose to have that conversation often to begin with. But I must ask you–if you acknowledge that oppression exists and you don’t actively oppose it, then how are you not a horrible human being? Even if you’re not shouting the N-word. Especially because you’re shouting the N-word in an elusive way.)

So where does that leave us—women of color and many other marginalized groups in American society? I’m not exactly sure. What I know is we cannot continue to sacrifice bits and pieces of other marginalized populations (as in the case of white women’s movement) for some scrapes of “understanding” that our oppressors throw at us, we cannot continue to sacrifice ourselves for the comfort of our oppressors, and any social justice work that asks us to do that—isn’t really social justice. In the words of (again) Audre Lorde, “There is a distinction I am beginning to make in my living between pain and suffering. Pain is an event, an experience that must be recognized, named and then used in some way in order for the experience to change, to be transformed into something else, strength or knowledge or action. Suffering, on the other hand, is the nightmare reliving of unscrutinized and unmetabolized pain.”

The marginalized might not have much agency in our lives and to claim that we do is to, in a way, gloss over the effects of oppression on us and the powerful hold it has on our emotional, psychological, physical, financial well-being—no matter how empowered such words might help us feel in the moment. However, we do get to take that pain and not let it turn into suffering. After all, until we complete that beautiful world where we are free, we have only one life and each moment counts. After all, until we find freedom in physical reality, we have freedom in our mind. The world existing inside us, past our eyes, underneath our skin, dwelling deep inside our head matters just as much as our fight for justice. While it is hard not to suffer with so much pain (and while it is hard to live at all in a world that is designed to kill many of us), I ask you to try. That attempt, whether you and I accomplish it everytime or not, is agency.

"The Asian American Movement: protesters protest police brutality and racial profiling during the 1970’s (photo credit: Corky Lee). For a far better description of this photo and associated protests than I could provide, please read the fantastic comment from Gavin Huang in the comments section immediately following this post, as well as his post on the subject here." Taken from: http://reappropriate.co/?p=3995

“The Asian American Movement: protesters protest police brutality and racial profiling during the 1970’s (photo credit: Corky Lee). For a far better description of this photo and associated protests than I could provide, please read the fantastic comment from Gavin Huang in the comments section immediately following this post, as well as his post on the subject here.” Taken from: http://reappropriate.co/?p=3995

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