Let’s start with a quote from Gloria E. Anzaldúa’s La Prieta.
“Does the root of the sickness lie within ourselves or within our patriarchal institutions? Did our institutions birth and propagate themselves and we merely their pawns? Do ideas originate in human minds or do they exist in a ‘no-osphere,’ a limbo space where ideas originate without our help? Where do we hang the blame for the sickness we see around us—around our own heads or around the throat of ‘capitalism,’ ‘socialism,’ ‘men, ‘white culture?’
“If we do not create these institutions, we certainly perpetuate them through our inadvertent support. What lessons do we learn from the mugger?
“Certainly racism is not just a white phenomenon. Whites are the top dogs and they shit on the rest of us every day of our lives. But casting stones is not the solution. Do we hand the oppressor/thug the rocks he throws at us? How often do we people of color place our necks on the chopping blocks? What are the ways we hold out our wrists to be slashed? Do we gag our own mouths with our ‘dios lo manda’ resignation? How many times before the cock crows do we deny ourselves, shake off our dreams, and trample them into the sand? How many times do we fail to help one another up from the bottom of the stairs? How still do we stand to be crucified?”
I remember being eleven and lying on my belly, my head tilting upwards to watch a Chinese drama from our small, bulky TV screen. I remember my mother telling me to not go outside. She said that the neighborhood was unsafe (“You never know when you’re going to accidentally step on a needle!”–one that drug addicts would use to shoot heroine) and that I shouldn’t go outside anyway because my skin would turn black. For a boy, that might have been fine, she reiterated, but for a girl, I had to have white skin because if I’m “too dark,” “no man” will want me. It’s funny that in the Vietnamese language, there is no word for tan or fair. There is only black and white.
It is then ironic that a year later, when I came to the U.S., I had the pleasure to meet white girl after white girl who intentionally ran, played, swam, and had fun outside so that their skin would be “tan”–regardless of how unhealthy that was for them. In order to fit in, I would put tanning lotion on mybody. I carefully rubbed it in a way that wouldn’t leave any weird lines, or worse, expose how fake I was! After three days, I gave up, mainly, because it was too hard to not get the lotion stain our furniture and because the lotion took forever to dry. (There were a myriad of other ways to fit in.) Of course, when my mother discovered what I was doing, she was mortified. “Why on Earth do you want to try to look black?” she asked me repeatedly. For her, there were no advantages to aligning myself with a group of people that America (and I dare say, the whole world) finds disgusting. She let me do it anyway. Why? Because I told her, straightforwardly, that white people were “doing it.” It took some convincing because for her, why white people would do such a thing is beyond reason. But when she understood, what was her response? “You do what you have to do.” A response that resonates with every single immigrant family I’ve come across. We assimilate in different ways, and we choose to give up our native culture in many different ways. But it all comes down to the same damn thing. You do what you gotta do. To fit in. To survive.
Today, whenever I’m at home and I look out a window, my mind always somehow brings up the hundreds of times my mother told me to not go outside and those three days. The memory doesn’t often get processed to give me some sort of lesson or future guidance. Most of the time, it sits there, half-buried, in my subconsciousness and I disregard it when it comes up. And for many, such a thing doesn’t seem to be consequential. But such a small experience illustrates—so precisely and concisely—the intersection of gender, race, class, immigration, and sexuality. That’s why, for me, the act of spending time outside is always a revolutionary act. And that’s why, for me, I cringe whenever a white person—often times a white woman—tells me that she is unfortunately too white, that she needs to spend more time under the sun, that she is proud of this little tan line. (Not black. But tan.)
How did we all get here? And more importantly, where do we go from here? I’m not attempting to solve the puzzle of oppression. Like Gloria Anzaldúa, I want us to ask ourselves: “Where do we hang the blame?” Not to feel better about ourselves. But how do we go about improving things when we’re unwilling to look into the mirror and acknowledge how oppression permeates into the fabric of ourlives? There is white supremacy. There arewhite people. And there are people of color. More generally, there are oppressive structures. There are the privileged. And there are the oppressed.
The question is: Who are the oppressors? Let’s pause for a second. Recently, the term white privilege has begun to enter mainstream conversations on race and racism. White privilege, of course, refers to the systematic advantages that whites (and those who pass as white) receive in our society purely because of their skin color. Even more recently, the term white fragility is starting to make appearances in articles (not so much in our conversational discussions yet) regarding white privilege. White fragility refers to white people’s defensive and negatively emotional reactions to other white people and especially people of color telling them that they have white privilege. What I have observed, in such spaces, is that people of color often put ourselves in a position where we end up helping those white people feel better about themselves. We tell them that they are not racist. We tell them that it is white supremacy, not white people, that we’re attacking or discussing about. We tell them that it is not their fault that oppression exists, that they just happen to inherit such advantages. We try to ease that white fragility.
But I ask you, can you sit in a park one afternoon and point to white supremacy? Literally point to it, like you would point to a street corner. Sure there are structural symbols of white supremacy like the White House or Wall Street or the KKK flag, but oppression doesn’t exist in inanimate concrete, or a gun, or a piece of cloth. Any slur is just another collection of syllables, our skin color pigmentation. It is our added value to things that brings oppression alive, is it not? It is me crossing my legs and putting on make-up and shaving my legs that brings gender roles alive. It is women slut-shaming other women that brings sexism alive. It is white managers laughing at black names and not calling them back for interviews that brings racism alive. And we don’t have to say or do something overtly racist or sexist or homophobic or transphobic or xenophobic to keep oppression alive. We don’t have to be Paula Deen, SAE frat boys, Darren Wilson, or Ronald Ebens to keep oppression alive. That goes for both white people and people of color, the privileged and the oppressed. I dare say that white supremacy exists in each of us, and through each of us, it manifests itself. I dare say that in a way, each of us is the oppressor. However, there is a difference between the way that white supremacy flows through white bodies and the way that it flows through bodies of color. I want to illustrate this with a personal story.
When I was twelve and I just had stepped foot on the U.S., I went by my entire Vietnamese first name: Cam Tu. (Cam Tu actually originated from Chinese, being one of thousands of Sino-Vietnamese words that stayed after a thousand years of Chinese colonization. So yes, even my original name is a product of oppression.) Like any kid with a foreign name, I hated it. It felt strange in the land of Mary’s, Sarah’s, Jennifer’s or Lisa’s. But I couldn’t do anything about it: it was on my birth certificate, on my green card, on my Social Security card, on my school rosters. I was stuck with it. I comforted myself by telling myself that at least, it wasn’t Bich, Phuc, Dong, or other Vietnamese names that unfortunately had a horrible association with certain English words.
So in 8th grade, when my homeroom teacher thought that Cam was my first name and Tu was a part of my middle name and yelled out “Cam” instead of “Cam Tu,” I raised my hand, without correcting her. I hesitated—just for a short second, and until now, I still don’t know why. But I learned that my name didn’t matter enough for me to stand up and tell my white teacher that she got it wrong, because I learned—as an immigrant—to not speak up, to not make waves, to just go with the flow. When more people started calling me “Cam,” I began to use it myself. After all, it could have passed as a short version of Cameron or Camilla. After all, until now, everyday, it has given me a sense of belonging. Cam, by itself, in Vietnamese, likely means “orange,” which makes a terrible name. Cam Tu, in contrast, means “a beautiful landscape.” My mother put so much thought into that name, and it is no wonder that every Vietnamese person from older generations I’ve come across always tells me what a beautiful name I have. My mother put her dreams and who she hoped to be the person I will become into that name. She had to fight my father, who wanted to name me after a famous singer in Saigon. Moreover, she wanted me to share the Cam in her Cam Tuyen. It is then so incredibly ironic that by accident and our choosing, both my mother and I are now simply called Cam by our American acquaintances. (For her, there’s no such thing as an American friend. “Non-Vietnamese just don’t get our struggle.” And how can you be someone’s friend without understanding their struggle?) It is too much of a hassle to keep on correcting non-Vietnamese. It is easier—and better—to just try to fit in. That’s a story of how white supremacy flows through the bodies of people of color. I’ve turned my cheek when people called me chink and gook. I’ve turned my cheek when people yelled “China! China!” or “Konichiwa!” I’ve turned my cheek when people told me to “go home.” I’ve turned my cheek when people continuously asked me what nationality I am—not knowing the difference between nationality and ethnicity. I’ve turned my cheek when people talk about Asian achievements with fear as if those achievements aren’t American achievements. I’ve turned my cheek when I see Vietnamese cuisine being butchered by white chefs who want to make their restaurant menu more interesting without caring about the lives of Vietnamese refugees. Despite being an activist, an organizer, a researcher of inequalities, a student of sociology, a strong person, I’ve turned my cheek when injustices like those happen everyday. That’s a story of survival.
The oppressed often ask ourselves: Do we fight or do we play the field the way it’s already designed and make the best of life? After all, many Asians often contemplate—whether consciously or subconsciously—if it’s better for Asians to accept the model minority myth (no matter how racist such a concept is and how harmful it can be) than to be killed on the streets like black and brown bodies, if it’s better for white men to exoticfy our eyes, our hair, and our p***ies than to find us completely undesirable like our dark-skinned sisters or our emasculated brothers, if it’s better for us to be seen as acceptable immigrants than to acknowledge the undocumented among us and stand up and join undocumented Latino immigrants. Those are questions of survival. So sure, people of color also reinforce white supremacy, but they don’t do it for the same reason that white people do. They do it to survive. Even if it’s short-sighted. Just as much as white supremacy lives through human beings, those human beings also only have one life to live. We don’t fool ourselves into thinking that things will change within a lifetime, and so we can sacrifice ourselves by standing up or we can take our chances and believe that we will be one of a few that make it through. As incredible and inspiring the story of Selma is, it comes from a history dating back to slavery where millions have died fighting for abolition then fighting for the right to vote then fighting for desegregation. (The story continues on with Black Lives Matter.) When you fight, you don’t know if you’ll get to have a stable life (or if you’ll be imprisoned or beaten or shot–leaving your loved ones behind), whereas, when you choose to play within the system, at least you know the beast well already. When you fight, you don’t know if you’ll go crazy because oppression permeates through every single second of your day, whereas, when you stay silent, at least you can learn (as many of us have so successfully) to just focus on the job, the rent, the electricity bills, the groceries and our family—to make it one day at a time.
White people, on the contrary, gave birth to racism and perpetuate it through their actions—actions that do not hinge on a survival mechanism the same way that actions of people of color do. So when we, the oppressed, talk about oppression to a person with privilege, how can we honestly tell them that there is a difference between white supremacy and white people, for it is through white people that white supremacy manifests itself most powerfully? Why do we give them a “way out”–by shifting the blame onto some imagined structure? At the end of the day, systems don’t appear out of nowhere like the Big Bang, and they don’t last if people don’t continue to give them meaning. So, if you are white and you know racism exists, and yet you don’t actively support the fight for equality (voting Democrat doesn’t count)—then how are you not personally responsible for inequalities? If you know of us and call us your friends or your family or your lovers and yet choose to stay oblivious to our struggles, how can we, people of color, sit here—face-to-face with you—and reassure you that you are not a bad person? If you benefit from immorality and you choose to stay silent, how are you not immoral? If you listen to stories of injustices and your first response is caring about your own comfort, how does that make you a good person? It is different for someone to carelessly yell at a cashier for taking too long. We might be able to separate the rare meanness from the person—the action from the entire character. However, when you side with white supremacy day after day—how do you expect us to separate it from yourself, how are you not racist? We have to stop easing white fragility.
The same goes for us, the oppressed. Despite our need for our short-term survival, if we don’t do anything to change the status quo or worse, if we actively reinforce the status quo through our beliefs and actions (internalized oppression), we must admit to ourselves that we, too, are responsible for white supremacy. The black brothers who called me chink. The Asian men who asked Asian women to shut up so they can feel like a man (even if society emasculates them). The white feminists who tell women of color to leave our racial identity at the door. Nobody is perfect, and we all have baggage that we work through. But what happens if we just resign and don’t try? What happens if I just stop forcing myself to not grab my bag a little bit tighter when I see a group of black men? What happens if I don’t speak up when a black sister told me she’s afraid of trans women in her school bathroom? What happens if I don’t march for immigration rights? What happens if I don’t talk to my parents when they say they don’t “understand” homosexuality? What happens if we leave our own future behind and if we throw those who suffer other oppressive structures under the bus? We can choose immediate survival (do we really get to survive?) over long-term dignity, but if we do, we must admit to ourselves that on us hangs the blame.