Below is an excerpt from my new Kickstarted book, But I Don’t See You as Asian: curating Conversations about Race.
As I mentioned in the opening chapter about Lorenzo, I attended high school in Sacramento, California, in the mid-1980s. The community of my upbringing was middle-class, Asian-American, and suburban; the high school I attended was quite different culturally and socioeconomically, and decidedly more urban feeling.
Luther Burbank High School also had the reputation of being a place from which you might not emerge alive. The home of the mighty Trojans, for those of us outside of that community it was also known as Luther Bloodbank High School, a name meant to reinforce the stereotypes and myths about that school and its community—none of them positive. I soon discovered that it was just a normal school for all intents and purposes, and I got really upset when I noticed it was often used as the geographic reference point for any local violence. Many reports started with something like, “A man was shot and killed a mile from Luther Burbank High School.”
On the other hand, I had never thought that I was naïve or sheltered, but it didn’t take too long for this Asian-American, middle-class kid from the suburban Greenhaven neighborhood to learn otherwise.
Those four years were transformative for me in so many ways, in terms of learning about economics, education, access, and family, but I was changed most by and through my friends in terms of issues of race. In a school that had no majority group, I sat with my White friends as they grappled with being White in a new reality; I begin to see how racism impacted people in deep ways, personally and institutionally; I was inspired by teachers and community leaders who were committed to teaching in this multiracial context; and I was forever transformed because I had friends of different races.
I have so many stories, and many will be saved for my “tell-all” memoir to be published after my children reach adulthood. However, one of the most significant lessons for me, quite honestly, related to the lives and experiences of the African-American community. Again, I was not totally oblivious to issues of race, as my family was deeply involved with politics and social movements—but while we fought for racial justice, especially for the African-American community, we didn’t have all that many Black friends.
One of my best friends during this time was a guy named Craig. Along with Eric, Kevin, and Jason, Craig and I were part of a group that was a social experiment all on its own—we came from such diverse racial backgrounds and religious traditions and we leaned all over the place politically. We also dealt with all of the regular stuff that teenagers deal with: drama in our love lives, chaos in our families, yearning for success, cars, sports, drinking, and so on.
Again. Many stories.
At a certain point, all of my friends got to know my family. They were included in invitations to family gatherings and welcomed as “part of the family.”
That said, I vividly remember talking with one particular member of my family about Craig, the only African-American member of our crew.
“I like your friend, Craig—he’s not like other Blacks.”
Are you kidding me?
Similar to cases when my emotions rose after stupid racist comments were directed at me, my first reaction was pure fury.
Craig was like a brother to me.
I can only imagine the person said this to affirm the choices I made with regard to friends, but it was ultimately a statement that disrespected my friend’s community and justified acts of discrimination, exclusion, and violence.
“He’s not like other Blacks.”
How dare you.
While I would like to believe that things are different now, I lift this up because I know that this sentiment is alive and well today. We want to interact with people who fit into some category that we can label “safe” and “appropriate.” We may couch it in justifications around economics, style of dress, musical tastes, or whatever else, but make no mistake: to hold this perspective is to insist upon interacting with the racial “other” on our terms.
We must remember that not only is it the prerogative of each community to define and describe its own reality, but that a common method of control used by dominant or majority populations has been to try and define what is acceptable behavior for a marginalized group before its members can gain acceptance and inclusion.
Yes, we can have larger discussions about what is acceptable in larger social contexts. For instance, there are appropriate contexts where we can talk and should talk about overarching First Nation, Latino, or Southeast Asian culture and how historic and cultural events and perspectives impact people’s behavior today. These types of big-picture conversations about culture are an important part in developing understanding. That said, a “He’s not like other Blacks” attitude will not develop common understandings of behavior; instead, it reinforces stereotypes, division, and the cultural status quo.
Of course, we cannot switch this attitude off like a light, but we can be deliberate in finding appropriate and meaningful ways to interact with people who are different than us and begin experience the diversity that exists within every group. I am not talking about looky-loo trips, where we visit a community different that our own as if “they” were merely specimens for us to observe. Merely walking through a neighborhood populated by people from a different culture, observing without establishing a personal connection, feels like a field trip to the cultural zoo, where people of privilege can watch communities in their natural habitats.
We must dive into experiences like my transformative time at a very different high school, so that our relationships can be deepened beyond cultural window dressings. Food, music, and dress are important, yes, but not ultimately transformational.
There are better ways to get to know people from different communities. You might frequent businesses in different parts of town so you can get to know the workers, patrons, and owners. It could be helpful to develop relationships with community leaders in different areas in order to build common understandings of issues they face and develop solutions that leverage influence and resources. Or perhaps you could just spend some time taking an honest inventory of your own divisive attitudes toward and unfounded stereotypes about other communities.
Then, take all of these experiences and do your best to hold yourself accountable when negative thoughts and perceptions try to express themselves in unhelpful and unhealthy ways. Ideally, we can then gain a fuller and more genuine understanding of the beautifully complex cultures that surround us.