I have learned a profound lesson. I will never forget it.
I recently wrote a blog here about the Asian American movement and newer Chinese immigrants. It went “viral.” I had hoped to promote cooperation. I urged an audience of progressive activists to reach out and respect their cousins who have arrived more recently and might not agree with all of their advocacy.
However, good intentions are not enough; consequences matter. I was insensitive to how the words would be received, including in translation and repetition. Many people interpreted my message as its opposite. They understood me as saying I, an American proud to be of Chinese heritage, felt superior to Chinese who have come to these shores in the past generation.
An apology that implies the offended party was to blame is hardly worthwhile. I do not begrudge my friends who were hurt. I see how they inferred tone. “They” noticed the framing of “us” versus “them.” The shared aspiration is for “them” and “us” to be as one.
To make amends, it is worth repeating: Bridge building is crucial. That means across the Pacific Ocean, as well as with whites and blacks. Yet it also encompasses the vast Chinese diaspora. There are generational divides that can be united through effort, and only through effort.
In addressing the long-time civil rights champions, whom I admire, about the community for whom they would fight, among whom I count myself, I made two points.
First, as a matter of principle, we must strive to be inclusive. This is a pure concept. We cannot say we are fighting for someone if in fact we are fighting with them. It would be hypocritical.
Second, if that were not persuasive on its own, the demographic trends matter. We cannot condescend to people who are like us but for a few years difference in residence here. All of us, “we” and “they,” must be welcoming. That is not simply for strategy. But for those to whom I was speaking, unwilling to accept the first point, they ought to be won over by the second point.
It might be tempting to suggest that issues of race, culture, and identity are fraught, contentious, and subject to misreading. That is all the more so played out among strangers through social media. But I realize that I should have been more clear. I am entrusted with a leadership role. I am both honored and humbled that others believe I can represent them, including to those who already have stereotypes in their head that are less than positive. That means I have to fulfill a responsibility.
Please allow me to conclude personally. So many who had contacted me have responded with the intensity we usually reserve for intimates. I embrace those who have come from China to America. My parents were once among them. I would not be who I am but for their sacrifices. They believed in a dream that continues to beckon the world over. Indeed, my father helped me appreciate the problem I caused. We — specifically I — can do better.
I applaud those who would argue with me for their assertiveness. If only we all stood up and spoke out as they do.
Addendum. Speaking for myself subjects others to risks. Needless to say, my observations are mine, and mine alone. None of those great institutions with which I am privileged to be affiliated should be impugned by any of this, ranging from University of California Hastings College of the Law to Committee of 100 to the United States Department of Education.