The Silence Between: an Asian-American in an anti-Black world
In the summer of 2014, I was at an induction program for my first job out of college. I was going to be a teacher. In the spirit of promoting diversity and inclusion, the organization doing the summer training created affinity groups so that we could unpack our relationship with our work as educators given our own racial identities. When they told us to find our affinity group, my options were Black and Low socioeconomic status (SES), Black and High SES, Latinx and Low SES, Latinx and High SES, White and Low SES, White and High SES.
As everyone trickled out of the main room, I was left alone with a few other AANHPI (Asian American, Native Hawaiian, Pacific Islander) identifying folks, and a few other colleagues, looking nervously at each other, suddenly taking up a painful amount of space with ironically no space of our own. I asked one of the facilitators where the rest of us should go. Instead of making a new space for us, we were told to head to our choice of the two White groups. Astounded and erased, I spent the rest of the day in silence.
Silence often comes up for me when I think about my identity as an Asian American, especially this May. May began, for me, as another grim month in isolation. An internet heavy isolation during which I came to learn with mild surprise that May is Asian American/Pacific Islander Heritage month. Despite being a daughter of the South Asian diaspora, of immigrant parents who lived through civil wars, I never knew about this month. Even as I write this I realize, maybe because I didn’t really want to.
What is an Asian American anyway?
Being an Asian, for me brings more questions than answers, read: how is the biggest continent on Earth with almost 50 distinct countries grouped into one giant, indistinct blob of a group? And why do I know so much more about the East Asian diaspora than my South Asian ancestry? These, and many more, are questions that I have grown up vaguely asking myself and never seeking the answers. We don’t really live in a world that makes space to ask, I never saw myself in books or on screen till I read The Namesake in one sobbing sitting late in college, or cried through Mindy Kaling’s Never Have I Ever just last week. You have no choice but to be silent when you don’t exist.
Lately, being Asian has also prompted reflection on what it means to be a non-Black person of color. I am complicit in anti-Blackness because, when racism isn’t directed at me, I have the privilege to be silent. I am not Black, I am not White.
Anti-Asian racism, particularly of the post 9/11 brand, has been an enormously prevalent and painful aspect of my life, and I am still figuring out how to grant myself permission to feel that pain. I also grew up in the Deep South, where conversations about race were literally Black and white; conversations in which, not only did I not belong, but found myself to sometimes benefit from, or even unintentionally promote White Supremacy Culture. My honors classes in college were diverse, yes, but if you broke down the data, you’d find very few Black people among those who identified as people of color. When I switched schools in seventh grade after we moved from a largely Black neighborhood to an almost completely white one, the quality of my education increased one hundred-fold.
What does it mean to be a non-Black person of color?
This AAPI heritage month, in particular, has painfully brought that question to the fore. Amidst ongoing racism toward the Asian community during COVID-19, a white chef I look(ed) up to disparaging two Asian women, and a socially distant Ramadan, came a debilitating reminder of the Anti-Blackness in this world that, despite my person of color status, will never kill me.
On May 5th, a video emerged depicting the murder of Ahmaud Arbery in my home state of Georgia. This May, this AAPI heritage month, as I sit with my own understanding of being an “Asian American” and of being a woman of color, I also sit with the question of how to be a non-Black person of color, not just in solidarity with the Black community, but in action. What am I doing to make sure that I am unpacking my own identity while also being a co-conspirator for the Black community?
For much of my life, being Asian has felt like an in-between, where my only choices are silence. Whether it is the silence of collective survival, or my own silent profit from privilege — either is fine as long as I don’t exist.
So what do I do?
In response to those questions, here are some oneTILTs (one, tiny, inclusive, little things) I’ve committed to:
- Reflecting on my day to day actions: how do I perpetuate, or dismantle White Supremacy Culture?
- Reading and educating myself about who I am. I’m learning how to cook Bangladeshi food from my adorable aunt’s YouTube channel and reading Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. For my learning about who I’m not, I’m turning to Black leaders like Wesley Morris and Jenna Wortham.
- Donating to a nonprofit, grassroots organization or policy organization .
- Addressing racial justice at work or school in some way (you can do it virtually with oneTILT!)
For much of my life, being Asian has felt like an in-between, where my only choices are silence. Whether it is the silence of collective survival or my own silent profit from privilege, either is fine as long as I don’t exist. I want to disrupt the silence that I’ve experienced in a culture that erases Asian heritage. I want to disrupt the silence that I create when I don’t speak up for, or act on behalf of, the Black community, and other communities to which I don’t belong.
I’m starting to do that, one, tiny, inclusive, little thing at a time.
I hope you’ll join me. Let me know if you do,