One Friday night in early March, after a long work week during the lege, I received a text message from a white friend. The noting of my friend’s “whiteness” is an essential part of understanding the lens through which I see things. It is a critical part of being able to have a purposeful conversation about race. She sent me a text with a TikTok link of a comedian telling a joke titled “how to tell Asians apart only by their accents.” This friend followed up her text link with texts for me to “wait for it” and “so funny.” At the end of this comedian’s skit was a reference to how a Vietnamese person speaks “as if they had been doing cocaine, or as if they are speeding car, driving past you as they spoke.” By the way, I am Vietnamese. I am also American. When I received the text, I was still busy working. I did not watch the video and just responded with a “laughing emoji” in response to her “so funny” comment. I said nothing.
When I finally had a moment, I watched the video. Rather than finding it amusing, I was profoundly offended, and in my Asian-ness, I said nothing. At that moment, I was like water, formless. I did what has generally been expected of me all my life. I put someone else’s opinion, thoughts above my own. This behavior is somewhat a reflex for me. To never offend, confront, or make anyone feel uncomfortable at the cost of my discomfort. It’s just what Asians do. We assimilate.
“Be like water making its way through cracks. Do not be assertive, but adjust to the object, and you shall find a way around or through it. If nothing within you stays rigid, outward things will disclose themselves. Empty your mind, be formless. Shapeless, like water. If you put water into a cup, it becomes the cup. You put water into a bottle, and it becomes the bottle. You put it in a teapot; it becomes the teapot. Now, water can flow, or it can crash. Be water, my friend.”
Lee’s teaching highlights a common mindset of many Asian Americans. A mindset formed in response to ideologies that perpetuate images of the model minority, enhance the sexualizing of Asian women through the pejoratively-termed yellow fever, and selectively leave out parts of American history that deny anything else other than a European White American history.
Now my friend who sent this message had no ill intent, no racist thoughts. She just found the joke to be funny. It is just as simple as that. However, in light of what is happening in this country – a global pandemic, a very contentious presidential election, The Black Lives Matter movement, an immigration crisis, the Capitol insurrection, and the rise of Asian hate crimes, to list a few of the significant issues we are facing – I found this to be relatively insensitive. It took me a few weeks to process it and grapple with my reaction to it in the context of all that has happened. I found myself deeply saddened, extremely emotional, and fearful.
But as an Asian American immigrating here when I was six years old, wanting to fit in while not fitting in, I lived a life that existed between two worlds, oceans apart. At home, I was Vietnamese in every traditional sense. My parents would chastise me if I spoke in English in our home or “acted” American in any way. At school, I just wanted to assimilate into the “American” culture. I wanted to be white. I wanted to have blonde hair. I wanted blue eyes. In this desire to fit in, I kept my head down, did my work, and excelled as a model minority. Even when my family and I faced discrimination, I said nothing. Through the teasing and bullying in my childhood, I said nothing.
This year, I will turn 50 years old. I am educated. I have two degrees and am working on my third. I’ve had three different careers, a beautiful marriage, and beautiful children. I love my life, and I finally feel safe and secure. I would say that I have succeeded in the American dream. So when I watched as senior Asian Americans were being attacked and Asian American women were targeted and killed, it shook me. All the safety of what I thought assimilating would provide was lost. I was once again a foreigner.
As I process all of these things, I said nothing, or instead, this time, I said little. I remember mentioning something about the increase in Asian hate crimes to my fellow legislative interns, and someone said, “I didn’t know.” Early this year, these crimes went unreported by major news outlets. As the incidences of Asian hate crimes rose, the news media began to give these stories coverage. I don’t know for a fact, but I would hasten to guess that most Americans still would not know about the racial attacks against Asians if asked.
Five days after the Atlanta Spa Shooting, our University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work legislative intern group met for a virtual Advocacy class with Dr. Pritzker. In checking in, she asked us to share how we all were doing. I couldn’t hold back the pain of my history and talked about my feelings over the shooting and other Asian hate crimes. My professor and my fellow social workers opened their hearts and mind to my feelings, creating a safe space for dialogue. Without words, they allowed me to express my fears, and in doing so, I acknowledged my history and moved towards finding my place and my voice in this area of political social work. In a private conversation later, Dr. Pritzker encouraged me to get involved with advocacy groups around the Texas Capitol engaging in advocacy on behalf of Asian American communities. She suggested that seeing how others were acting to help advocate for change may help me process my own feelings.
When working during the Texas Legislative session, there is a definite balance and parallel attention you have to give to what happens on the national stage and what is going on in Texas. It is an interesting dynamic to pay attention to in performing your job here as an intern. Here in Austin, minimal talk about Asian hate crimes is heard, as so many are distracted by the recent energy crisis. However, as I began work that next week, Representative Gene Wu of District 137, in Harris County, filed HCR 66, a Texas House resolution condemning racism against Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
During a Texas House Public Education Committee meeting, where Representative Wu was present, this time, I took the opportunity to say something. I hesitated at first, resorting to my old patterns of saying nothing but then I realized if I didn’t speak up, I would forever regret that moment. I approached Rep. Wu and thanked him for filing the bill and told him what it meant to me. He invited me to sit down, and we spoke with such a knowing connection to our collective history. There was a nod, a look, and an utterance of complete understanding in our short conversation. He ended by saying, “we can no longer afford to be silent.”
In absolute agreement, I realized that it is not just enough to be not racist, but that to work towards equality truly, we have to be anti-racist, which means for me, if I see something, I must say something. I have been silent all my life. If you ask me about my feelings, I will speak of love and equality and oneness to my being’s depths. However, it’s not enough to feel it; it’s not enough to live without hate. It is not enough if we want an equal tomorrow. If you see something, say something.
I should have said something to my friend. I should have told her that I was offended. I should have told her it was not funny. I should have told her those types of jokes hurt those who do not have the privilege to speak and defend themselves. Perhaps this conversation is one to come in my future. For now, here’s what I am doing to live my truth. I will report hate incidents, donate to support victims and their families, and volunteer in organizations that seek to keep people safe and educate the public. Help fight against hate; if you see something, say something.
By: Phuong Nguyen, intern in the Texas Legislative Study Group
Originally posted from University of Houston Graduate College of Social Work’s Austin Legislative Internship Program. The College selects graduate MSW students to intern at the Texas Legislature during its legislative session every two years. This post was syndicated with permission from its authors.
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