Early last year, photos of my good friend’s birthday party were posted on Facebook—one that I had to miss, as I had been sick. Wanting to fully indulge my feelings of #FOMO and a reprieve from discrete math homework, I clicked through them. One photo had a comment. My friend had said something to the effect of, “Omg, why are my eyes so Asian in all these pictures?”
My heartbeat quickened. I reread her words again and again.
(For what it’s worth: what I heard, what I understood, from her words was that Asian eyes are and have been seen as undesirable. Intentionally or not—and I do not believe she intended to hurt me, but nonetheless—she drew on a history of upholding whiteness as the single barometer for beauty, a barometer that I myself learned to use early on. I have hated my eyes for awhile—mono-lidded, without so much as a single crease, framed by short and sparse eyelashes. I am still unlearning this hatred. I know what the expectations are. And even as I know that these expectations come from a place of exclusion and xenophobia, I also know all the ways I fail to meet them.)
So, I went back to discrete math. I kept losing my train of thought, though, and thinking back to my friend’s words. I returned to the comment periodically, to see if anyone had responded. A couple iterations into this exercise, it dawned on me that it might be up to me to say something. It seemed important that someone acknowledge the comment, the harmful message of it.
My heart raced again as I flipped through various responses in my head. I worried about coming off as angry, as irrational, as hostile, as being that person. Eventually I settled on something exceedingly simple: “there’s nothing wrong with asian eyes :-).”
I sent it with the constricted feeling in my chest that occurs every time I send a risky text.
My comment received support in the form of ‘likes’ from various friends; relief flooded through me. A conversation occurred, my friend deleted her comment. But I also wondered: why hadn’t anyone else spoken up? I brought up the comment with another friend and she responded, “Yeah, it was terrible, I didn’t even want to think about it.” I was struck with how it had been hard, impossible, for me not to think about it. And yet my own first reaction, too, was to try to ignore it—even in a situation like this, with the lowest of stakes, where the only action I really took was saying something.
Look: this is not about trauma. This is not about moral superiority. This is not about creating villains. But allyhood is more than agreeing that oppression is bad; it requires action.
I thought about this again after November 8th.
Well—first, I cried on and off for about a week, thinking about the little girls who had just seen misogyny prevail, the bigots who had just had seen their racism and xenophobia affirmed. And then I thought about myself. In all likelihood, I will basically be “fine” under a Trump Administration (unless the nuclear codes are used, or we become an increasingly authoritarian state, or the healthcare industry collapses, in which case most all of us will not be fine) (also, you know, global warming). Yes, I identify as a woman of color, but I am cisgender and heterosexual, among other privileges: a culture that insists I am somehow a “model minority,” an education at this very university, a relatively securely middle-class family.
So, I thought about allyhood—a privilege in itself. I thought about my own tendencies to wait and see what happens rather than immediately push for action, my own instincts of being aggressively non-confrontational. I have slipped up with my words, I have made non-constructive and sloppy arguments, and then I have all too often been silent.
Activism is not any more necessary now than it was before the inauguration of our new president; things were far from perfect then, too. But for some, the past election has certainly put a spotlight on the necessity of activism. Though the arc of the moral universe may bend towards justice, this bending does not happen passively. The fact is, in the meantime, injustice continues—not everything ends up “just fine” for everyone.
I saw Junot Díaz last week; he spoke about his own activism and art and politics. During the question and answer session, two (honestly, two, this happened twice) white cishet boys asked him how they, carrying the privilege of being white and being men, could help dismantle oppression. Díaz’s answers had two main themes: looking inward at what you yourself must unlearn, and vigilance. Our education system rarely equips us with the tools to examine our own internalized misogyny, heteronormativity, racism, all the ways we ourselves are oppressors. And it is so easy to regress. It is all too easy to ignore a problem which does not impact you. I was especially struck when Díaz said, “You don’t transcend hegemonic narratives—you manage them.” (The point about backsliding was made painfully clear by an old white man, who asked Díaz why the left was so “obsessed” with race, who insisted white supremacy was clearly “a fantasy,” who felt it necessary to defend this with the claim that he had “fought for civil rights” in the 60s.)
In the podcast Welcome to Night Vale, someone recently said, “Love is a lifetime of decisions.” I believe activism, too, is about a lifetime of decisions. Deciding to constantly, systematically confront your own biases, learn from others, invest in others. Deciding to examine the impacts of your (in)actions, deciding to take action.
I have been thinking about what actions I can take—must take—beyond sharing articles on Facebook (although I personally believe I have excellent taste in articles). I am putting thought into how the sign I brought to Women’s March on Lansing, with the slogan “MY PUSSY, MY CHOICE,” was not inclusive of all women. Inspired by the Parks and Recreation episode where Leslie Knope picks up her phone and says, “Dear Congress, it’s Leslie again,” I have put my elected representatives in my phonebook (Mike Bishop, WYA). I plan to devote more time to volunteering for political campaigns, not just in 2020, but in 2018, in 2017. I look forward to reading widely and deeply, having conversations which make me uncomfortable, listening to voices which have been marginalized, showing up for people whose oppressions may be different from my own, speaking out.
Here are a few tweets, podcasts, and articles that I have found helpful in thinking about intersectionality, activism, choices, and optimism:
The Ezra Klein Show, Ta-Nehisi Coates: “There’s not gonna be a happy ending to this story”
Call Your Girlfriend, #72: Giving and Gifting
Ta-Nehisi Coates, “My President Was Black,” The Atlantic
Vann R. Newkirk II, “Sometimes There Are More Important Goals Than Civility,” The Atlantic
“The only form of productive debate that people of color can engage in, it seems, is the gentle persuasion of white people who may or may not hold retrograde views. That advice is of course probably most appealing to white Americans, for whom the social cost of being called racist may loom larger than the effects of racism itself.”
Toni Morrison, “No Place for Self-Pity, No Room for Fear,” The Nation
Art Director, What the F Magazine