For Asian American Heritage Month: Three Painful Conversations About Race, One Positive

I would like to share with those who are sympathetic about racial justice the three most painful conversations I have had about the subject. I am generalizing, which I do with adequate misgivings about the risks of doing so, and paraphrasing to offer a stylized composite of actual conversations to make the point. Those who are hostile toward civil rights to begin with should stop reading. But those who are supportive of the cause might be challenged. I write to provoke those wiser than me, to solicit their insight.

People who are progressive who have figured out the best responses to any of these scenarios are invited to offer their suggestions. My intent is to open dialogue.

At the outset, I should say that as an Asian American I do not walk around on a daily basis compiling a list of ethnic aggrievement. To the contrary, I am positive about my life. More specifically, I cannot imagine an identity other than as an American. I am as guilty as others in unconscious bias.

For present purposes, I do not bother about confrontations with outright bigotry, not because they are pleasant, nor due to their rarity. I pass over them because they might present risk of physical harm and they are upsetting, but they are not unsettling in the same manner as what I describe below. Hatred is what it is.

Here is the trio of troubling occasions. From time to time, other Asian Americans contact me in their frustration. That confirms I am not alone in my feelings. It is through discussion that we try to give meaning to the world; take this as an epistle.

First are when white friends are genuinely hurt as they realize someone who happens to be Asian American is about to assert themselves as equal. They turn out to be as taken aback by my lack of appreciation toward them, as I am incredulous that they expect me to kowtow.

No different than they are, I am a native-born American. And those who proclaim that their lineage dates back further on these shores likely won't be appeased about anything upon being informed that Asian Americans have been around since the 1830s. The sincerity of their surprise does not vindicate them.

In one of those revelatory slip ups, they divulge that they, apparently all along, have presumed they and their family were in the role of host and I (even more so, my family) are relegated to the role of guests. I am at a loss to explain how wrong they are in their self-aggrandizement, especially since they imply these assignments are permanent; they and their line will always have priority. The discussion is rendered difficult, because I am referring to friends, not enemies. We have (or had) goodwill toward one another.

Second are when black friends do not welcome non-black allies wishing to join the movement. I say that respectfully and hesitantly. I do not begrudge them the tacit monopoly. They reject categorically the possibility that Asian Americans could have a civil rights claim deserving consideration. They are wary of self-interested parties usurping media, competing for funding, or becoming the preferred minority with which to compare them unfavorably if unfairly. Asians are foreigners or honorary whites, not to be counted among domestic minorities or people of color.

I would like to reassure them that I have no desire to displace them. I hope to help.

The principle is that assistance is mutual; it need not be uniform and identical. African American history sets an example for everyone else. There is a good argument that it was the black civil rights movement -- I have no qualms about adding the adjective "black" before "civil rights movement" in the historical reference -- that enabled immigration reform, without which the majority of Asian Americans or their ancestors would have been excluded or subjected to meager quotas. People probably are oblivious that the exact term, "quota," limited their ability to cross the border.

Third, and worst on my list, may draw a negative reaction even if the first two did not. That's fine. I just have to say it. It's so exasperating. The most painful conversation I have had about race, more than once, is with other Asians -- Asians who are willing to say that have never witnessed racism, who then proceed to display it toward others, including whites but more commonly blacks.

Since I myself am stereotyping, self-consciously allow me to add that it is often (not always) Asian Asians or Asian immigrants; I'm not sure if it is more maddening if it's an Asian American, assimilated and not a recent arrival. They even manifest, without compunction, their sense of caste: the Mandarin-speaking Chinese looking down on the Cantonese-speaking cousin, and vice versa.

Anyway, I would have no quarrel with the individual if they in fact had been so lucky as to lead a life free of prejudice. In some instances, I am enough acquainted with their experiences that I feel sorry for them; they are merely in denial, embracing some sort of delusion. I am appalled, however, by their casual, old-school attitudes about how blood will tell: they take for granted that a person's genealogy informs you whether they can be trusted or not.

A friend of mine who is expert in social psychology has a hypothesis: these Asians, he posits, are not dissimilar to others, but they have not been schooled in the etiquette of our society. That may be, and my concern reflects an affinity with them as well as awareness they could be mistaken for me.

These patterns affect, ironically, Asian Americans who are committed to belonging. They yearn for acceptance. The problems of race in America do not upset Asian Asians who are the norm where they are or where they came from and will return to, who don't intend to alter their status quo to their disadvantage. They can afford to be indifferent. Likewise, the Asians who are transnational, such as businesspeople who are expatriates on assignment in the States, are able to take comfort in any humiliation being temporary. Their children who have accompanied them may feel the awkwardness more acutely.

I close with the opposite of the above: the best moments of talking about race. A few times, not more than a half dozen in my life, someone who is with me who is not Asian American has caught a glimpse for herself of anti-Asian impulses, the mundane variety -- someone using a slur ("chink" or "jap" or "gook") in a dispute over a parking space. They have reacted more than I have. I am touched that they are incensed.

It's just business as usual. But I now know that they know of what I speak, even if only indirectly.

In a democracy, we make progress as people take issue with one another -- with one another's opinions, not with their right to be present and to offer an opinion. I trust thoughtful people to share thoughtful responses.