Category Archives: race

The time I met Jericho Brown but didn’t know he was Jericho Brown

It was a warm day in March earlier this year. I was in Miami at AWP (Association of Writers and Writing Programs), the largest literary gathering in North America. Writers were everywhere. I remember taking a break in the conference hall, curled up in a nook and charging my phone. My eyes widened as I saw Ross Gay 20 feet from me, just catching up with Danez Smith, Fatima Asghar, and Franny Choi. Getting to listen to, interact with, or just stare at Tyehimba Jess, Bich Minh Nguyen, Patricia Smith, Don Mee Choi, and so on and so on.

So I should have expected to meet writers everywhere.

On the first day of the conference, at 8AM I was at an acai truck, because healthy foods help me feel better and more grounded when I travel. I leaned my uncorrected proof copy of francine j. harris’s poetry collection play dead against the metal siding of the truck as I put away my wallet. A tall, athletic man with dreadlocks, who had just pulled up in a sporty car with a woman, leaned in to look at the book. Squinting at it, he asked, “Is this yours?” I said no and explained how I ended up with the proof copy of the book. He asked to look at it and if I liked it. I started to talk about how harris came out of Cave Canem and Cave Canem writers have a reputation of being top-notch. He nodded and said he’ll look into the book. I got my acai bowl and left for my first-ever AWP session.

Fast forward two days. It’s Friday night and I’m at the Lambda Literary X Copper Canyon reading to support friends and for the hot writing. Poet Jericho Brown is last to read, and I’m happily surprised by his short poems and direct, tender lines, a style I feel contemporary poetry is moving away from. (Also, in all fairness, it was reassuring to hear poetry that resembled my poetry a little.) I also loved how casually he sat on the stool, reading and bobbing along with his lines, sometimes almost falling off.

When the event ended, Jericho quickly left to make it to another reading. I turned to him to say thank you and to tell him I appreciated his poetry. He shook my hand, smiled, and said, “Have we met?”

I was very certain we hadn’t and onto our separate nights we went.

Months later though, this moment still bothered me. I’m usually the person who recognizes familiar faces before they recognize me. I might not remember names or how we’ve met, but I always always remember faces. So, how come Jericho Brown thought we met, when I couldn’t recall him?

Obviously, I put it together that Jericho Brown was probably Mr. Acai from that first morning. But again why didn’t I remember his face?

I have to admit to myself that I did not remember him later, because I read him as a stereotype instead of looking at him fully when we first interacted. I wrote him off because of the sporty car, his Nikes, the joggers, and just how fit and attractive he is (y’all, Jericho Brown is the hottest). I also want to believe that race wasn’t a part of this. It would be easy to say that I don’t think of writers as athletic, attractive men. It is more difficult and important to say that I don’t think of writers as black, athletic, and attractive men. Was it the combination of these qualities or explicitly race itself that activated my implicit bias? I’m not sure, but I remember this initial moment with Jericho Brown and remind myself of all the races and colors of writers, all of our complexities– the shy awkward parts, the extroverts, the capitalist-in-us, the spiritualist, the revolutionary, even the athletic parts, and the shades of in-between that make living possible. I remember to hold myself responsible. I remember to reflect and confront my unconscious stereotypes and internalized racism.

You can read more of Jericho Brown’s work here and here.

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Where is There freedom?

I begin this essay at the beginning of my second day of my MFA program. One orientation week and one day in, I am showered with opportunities to learn, to create, to publish. I am reminded that almost every hour I have here may be used as a choice– to study, to write, to play, to rest. Though I am a Teaching Assistant, I am utterly privileged to do essentially whatever I want with my time. While I relish in this, I also find the disparity of opportunities like these in institutions like these compared to what is available to the everyday working person, shameful. An MFA graduate once called his program’s financial support and outcomes an “embarrassment of riches,” though I think I am emphasizing a literal definition of “embarrassment” more than the writer.

Yet, in some ways, I came here for this, for learning, for tools, for writing time, for freedom. I reflect on how my applications to programs last fall discussed the value of protest poetry and literature as well as its trap. How do we speak to people? Move them? How do we maintain accessibility and become artists who break boundaries? How do we free ourselves from their and our expectations? When we write for freedom, do we find ourselves in another kind of trap?

Yesterday, I was given a sign that these are the right questions when I came across Ravi Shankar’s interview with Gregory Pardlo, where Pardlo says that Callaloo’s Creative Writing Workshops “have a more catholic conception of diversity. And in terms of the theoretical constructs of identity that you are talking about, I think we interrogate identity in a way that a simple statement ‘I am a black writer’ or ‘I am a white writer’ reduces me to a two-dimensional concept. There’s no way that term can contain the breadth of my worldview and my sense of myself. And yes, it is a kind of shorthand that we use to trade between people in order to arrive at some brief and quick understanding of one another, but if the conception of myself that I bring to the page is merely that ‘I am an X writer’ then it could be that I am limiting myself of that I am acquiescing to the bureaucratic logic of the very institutions I would oppose.”

Pardlo goes on to say, “The world on the page is not the world outside. The rules that apply in our social world, and yes, we need community, whether hyphenated or not, these shorthands are very useful out in the world, but on the page, my imagination needn’t be delimited by a particular worldview or cultural imperative.” Shankar replies, “Of course, your experience will be inflected by that perspective of being a person of color, but you’re saying that it doesn’t need to be overtly manifest. Not unless you want it to be.”

As much as our identities are important, we may be limiting ourselves when we write. Shankar and Pardlo discuss the importance of choice. What are you choosing to do? Can you weld writing intelligently– as a tool– with precision? Can you put down the tool and choose to write for some other purpose? Some other kind of freedom?

I hope so, and honestly, I write this today to reaffirm that amidst crazy-making interactions with a housemate; the very white and wealthy town I live in; and the perceptions of undergrads, peers, and professors, I can make choices. I am not only in a physical location I realize, but also in a new psychological moment (as well as a historical moment nationwide). A moment where I am checking how I present myself against how others may perceive and receive me. A moment where I remind myself I may want to hold my cards closer to the vest. A moment where my whole self may not be welcomed. A moment where my mistakes may alienate me further personally and professionally. “Further” as in beyond how my gender and race already push me aside or erase me. I have experienced these moments before, but now they come in a package called Graduate School.

But now I come with more experiences, insights, and tools to make choices.

I reaffirm to myself everyday and every night who I am. For the breaths I have the right to take. I reaffirm I can choose who will know me fully. I reaffirm my desire to approach the page for personal freedom. I reaffirm my desire to work and write for collective freedom. I know this is not some ideal of freedom, but I get to make some choices. I will not let it trap me– not protest literature, not this institution, not this place, nor this moment.

Lift up your head and keep moving, (keep moving)…

Peace to fashion police, I wear my heart

On my sleeve, let the runway start

You know the miserable do love company

What do you want from me and my scars?

Everybody lack confidence, everybody lack confidence

How many times my potential was anonymous?

How many times the city making me promises?

So I promise this, nigga

And (I love my myself)

When you looking at me, tell me what do you see?

(I love myself)

-Kendrick Lamar

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For Racial Justice– towards an honest, internal look

What a week. I am listening to Beyonce’s Lemonade album all the way through for the umpteenth time, feeling in-love, excited, melancholic, and nostalgic. And that’s just on a personal level, not even considering our current, painful political climate. Of course I have been thinking and feeling, as most if us have about the murders of Black people and people of color in our country. These concerns have been intensified by international attacks in France to Turkey to Baghdad and the ongoingU.S. violence abroad. It has been a rough two weeks to be an empathetic human being in general, and even more so if one is black, queer/trans, woman, working-class, migrant, and other oppressed identities. As I hurl into my future and think about my various roles, I think of my parents’ adage– look at yourself first. Look internally, they would say. To diagnose the problem and think of solutions, we need to look internally. Even on the national level, we do not have to go too far to consider what we need to do for healing and justice. At least a part of what this means is to look at ourselves honestly as a country. Will the people (particularly officials) be upfront about the racist policies we have created, carried out, and continue enabling?

A few days ago, I returned to Michelle Alexander’s amazing book The New Jim Crow, after needing an emotional and intellectual break from it. Her research and the narrative she weaves is horrifying, illuminating, and so necessary. And I ask again, are we all ready to be honest and brave enough to acknowledge it? Only then can we dismantle these systems of injustice and create something different.

Will we acknowledge that the War on Drugs was stimulated to attack communities of color? Alexander writes, many studies have found that during the War on Drugs, law enforcement and media used a “predictable ‘us against them’ frame[…], with ‘us’ being white, suburban America, and ‘them’ being black Americans and a few corrupted whites” (Alexander, 105).

Will we acknowledge and critique that the Supreme Court has essentially legalized implicit bias? In the case of McCleskey v. Kemp, clear and well-researched evidence of discriminatory sentencing  in Georgia was not enough for the Supreme Court to consider the state’s practices unlawful. Alexander explains, “The court accepted the statistical evidence as valid but insisted that evidence of conscious, racial bias in McCleskey’s individual case was necessary to prove unlawful discrimination” (110). In other words, even if the prosecutors applied the death penalties in clearly racist patterns, it cannot be used as evidence of racism unless someone explicitly used race as part of the reasoning. And in today’s U.S. society, who is going to sentence someone and– for example– include a racial slur? What’s more, the McCleskey case evidence was so strong, it questioned the validity of the entire criminal justice system, to the point that the Supreme Court wrote, “Taken to its logical conclusion, [Warren McCleskey’s claim] throws into serious question the principles that underlie our criminal justice system… [I]f we accepted McCleskey’s claim that racial bias has impermissibly tainted the capital sentencing decision, we could soon be faced with similar claims as to other types of penalty” (Alexander, 111). The Court openly worries about claims of bias would weaken the criminal justice system. Their ruling that implicit bias could not be used as evidence of racism then could be read as an example of the corrupted system trying to save itself.

Finally, will we acknowledge and critique that the Supreme Court has essentially legalized the use of race-based discrimination? The “Supreme Court has indicated that in policing, race can be used as a factor in discretionary decision making. In United States v. Brignoni-Ponce, the Court concluded it was permissible under the equal protection clause of the Fourteenth Amendment for the police to use race as a factor in making decisions about which motorists to stop and search” (Alexander, 131).

These disgusting facts keep coming in The New Jim Crow, and I deeply hope these points are brought up more often in the national conversation. While recent events are about the murders of individual men, it is well-researched that racist policies enable and exacerbate these interpersonal encounters with police. Sometimes in our hashtags and comments, we do not raise just exactly how deeply rotten is our criminal justice system (and government). When the President invites people for meetings about police brutality, are government officials able to admit to this level of wrong-doing? I believe we need these conversations, and I hope some emotional vulnerability and rigorous analysis is happening from all parties.

That said, we are emotional beings and need to bring our honest and vulnerable selves  to see and to be seen by others. We need support to to do so, in personal ways and in systemic ways. I believe we must engage as a country in a truth and reconciliation process to begin to heal wounds and have space to continue systemic changes. National discussions would lead to a washing of deep wounds and hopefully bring us to some shared understandings. Without heart and historical clarity, any progress made in one generation will be maimed and contorted by the following. I hope we can move towards this as part of the work to end police brutality and the larger efforts for true justice.

There is a deep need to look at ourselves. We need cold, hard objective facts. We need warm, tender, difficult feelings. We need to look at ourselves honestly to create a healthy and just society and planet for ourselves and our loved ones. Finally, because we need uplifting and spirit and the intangible, I want to end by sharing this an amazing video from the Alvin Ailey American Dance Theater doing their thing with Beyonce and Kendrick as a soundtrack: Alvin Ailey “Freedom” Chereography.

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For the Women

There has been so much going on at work lately. So much, that I can only say, “I cannot even tell you. It’s confidential.”

I can tell you, however, it’s been tough. In all this, I reflect on the people I have leaned on. So this entry is all about the women. The ones who have made this slice of hell not only bearable, but a place for me to walk through the fire with my head held high, principles clutched tight.

I think of my friend who made the time to talk on the phone. Who asked questions to prepare me for the ones I would be asked. Who clearly said, you are doing the right thing.

Another friend who said the students will thank you, eventually they will understand what a big thing it is for someone to stand up. And I smile to think of her tough-as-nails attitude, when she said, if you need lawyers, give me a holler.

Yesterday, I went out with another friend, and we reflected on our positions as Asian-American women. She began to reflect on her experiences as a middle school student in a private school and her experiences with teachers and parents there. It brought us closer to think about how migration, language, and other forms of social capital have shaped us. And when my friend saw the chamomile flowers a student picked, she reminded me, one day that student will look back and remember you.

(Also, we both got to dress up, and there is nothing better than feeling good one’s own skin. Oh, to be in a body.)

I even think back to the professor whose class involved blogging, which led to my current WordPress account. I thank her for pushing the boundaries and offering classes that no one else could think of nor facilitate the way she did. I remember our shy tongues when we saw how she graced the classroom. I imagine the fires she’s walked through to arrive at her magnificence. I think about my 6th grade math teacher and her tough love. But always, we knew it was love. I picked flowers for her on my way to school and cradled corn snakes in her class. I think about how important it is to know that you are cared for because others work for you.

Oh yes. There are great men in my life too. Thank you to my colleague who has been a solid rock at work. Whose politics and morals extend into every fiber of his actions and words. To my friend this morning, who I drove to the airport, finally taking a long-awaited and much-deserved trip into the future of his dreams and fight for food justice. This friend’s gentleness reminds me to be there for myself, and when I am ready, the work will be there. As he handed the keys to the car to me, he handed me my own trust that I can always get myself back home.

Thank you and peace.

Peace.

 

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Strong fragility

After summer, I wilt a bit.

Dry and shrivel into myself.

Slow and turn inward, a mirror

in my blood.

By winter, I am still enough to see,

awaiting change.

I am as even as a winter solstice.

Cold as a frozen lake.

Crisp like the air.

I am fragile in my growing strength.

Strong as my grief.

Solid like the grey sky

we share and the chants we cry.

I am watching women mourn

the children of darker hues.

Humanity knitted in

the face of a deadly greed.

4 hours left in the cold,

Your dark skin on black cement.

28 hours to survive,

by spare chance.

4 year-olds learning how to

grow up too fast and

keep their hands real slow.

The list unfolds of names,

written on a scroll of white,

carried on marches,

recalling my ancestors’

color of mourning.

At any moment the skies

will bring a downpour.

The winds will rip us apart.

We are fragile in our growing strength.

The dead watch over us.

Please guide these mothers

become overnight spokespersons.

Buoy the voices of these high school poets

become protest chants.

Raise the volume of the thousand black fists

pounding this cruel world for

answers and justice and

liberation.

Pray our words rise from our throats

strong and solid

to shake down this hell.

Remind us to be humble,

reflective in our intentions.

Protect us–

We are fragile in our growing strength.

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Things heard at an Oakland public school*

I appreciate working with young people. They are literally our future and I tremble full of fear for where we are going as a society. I am definitely a disgruntled employee who is following her heart to different work, yet I think you would agree with me still about how frustrating some of these moments are. Sometimes I imagine leaving with a lot of maturity and grace, but moments like these make me want to pack my bags, drop some F-bombs, and drive off to a mental health institution. Like another teacher said, “OUSD is PTSD.”

 

 

Staff: The big copier is out. Note that the copy count was over a million copies!

 

Faculty: I wasn’t getting reimbursed for the art supplies I was buying.

Other faculty: Yea, I buy my own paper.

 

Principal: Mark is our full-time tech volunteer. [Our school now has 600 laptops and no tech staff.]

 

Faculty: …So, how many fights were there today?

 

Student: Yea, where is Mr. H (principal)? I never see him.

 

Me: I don’t have the online supplies request form.

Staff: Honestly, somedays, I have so much to do I forget to look at it and send people their supplies.

 

Me: Why are there 6 copy machines in this room and none of them work?

 

Faculty: They told us to practice the SBAC [online] test. Then they said, “But we’ll give you the laptop carts in January. No, make that April.”

 

Teaching Coach: Yea, see you’re slowly becoming a curriculum writer.

Me: …

 

Principal: Some people are just ready to work 70-80 hour weeks.

 

Principal: This is why I like young teachers.

 

Principal: I really don’t want to be dismissive but I hear you want me to change things. I want to be more solution-oriented.

 

Principal: I had to make a decision about the [curriculum], so I made the call from the top… [two minutes later:] I’m not the boss. I want this to be a collective.

 

Principal: I’m so sorry I missed the restorative justice circle. It was my fault I double-booked myself.

 

Assistant principal, after teachers chose an Asian American student to receive an award: Can we choose someone with a little more color?

 

Me: I think I’m going to buy books on racial formation, Asian American history, gender, and sitting with difficult emotions and place it in these male principals’ mailboxes.

 

 

*Obviously names have been changed for privacy.

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Asians healing to love, loving to heal

“It is easier to be furious than to be yearning. Easier to crucify myself in you than to take on the threatening universe of whiteness by admitting that we are worth wanting each other.” –Audre Lorde from “Eye-to-Eye: Black Women, Hatred, and Anger”

 

 

For a while now, I have been thinking about Asian/American women, love, and interracial dating. How talking about love and putting judgments on who someone loves (and how and why) is challenging. In college, I would participate in discussions about Black couples, love, and interracial relationships. The conversations were intense, emotional, and would eventually return to the point about how difficult it is to assign judgment or value on love. As much as we can be critical about the context in which love develops, how could we judge emotions and attraction? This same discussion gets raised in Oakland (or really the world) too about Asian/American women, and particularly we are commenting on the number of Asian women dating white men.*

 

I’m going to admit I’m bothered by the great number of these couplings too. What are the power dynamics? What does this mean about Asian/American assimilation? As someone who questions our socialization—specifically our internalized racism and colonialism—I’ve prioritized dating men of color. And I know people who try to prioritize dating within their race. This might seem restrictive, but if we are to challenge the self-hatred that has been fed to us, I believe we can give our people a second chance. In the extra date, second glance, or self-reflection, we may see that our lover’s flat-nose is more beautiful than we were taught by white media. We may see our difficulties communicating as weaknesses we are only growing stronger by addressing through practice. We may realize how healing this opportunity is to love one another.

 

But sometimes that doesn’t work. Sometimes, we fall in love with someone who is white. Maybe this person has grown up around a variety of healthy relationships and don’t have years of trauma to work through. Maybe they are able to be present and ready in ways that previous lovers and partners have not. So maybe an Asian/American woman ends up dating a white man. (I recognize that this pattern may exist in queer relationships too, but I have not observed such a great number as with heterosexual couplings. Am I wrong? Is this essay needlessly heterosexist? Please correct me if I’m in the wrong.)

 

In the case that you are walking down Piedmont Avenue in Oakland, or some other middle-class strip of shops (I believe this phenomenon is completely impacted by socio-economic class), and start to make some comment about that Asian and white couple, I have two things to say to you.

 

1) You don’t get to assume anything! Maybe—just maybe—this chica is the most down, self-loving, politicized and racially aware person. Her partner or date may even be a radical anti-racist activist. You don’t know. Even if she wasn’t and he wasn’t, you don’t know what that relationship has given these two. Maybe with this partner, she does not have to relive the trauma of being with someone who is not present or abusive. Maybe with her, he is challenged in new ways. Maybe this is a love that is good for the world and healing for these two.

 

When I hear men of color in particular judge these couplings, I wonder if their words perpetuate patriarchy in the name of anti-racism. There is a distrust of Asian/American women. Is there  even a glint of self-hatred in my own distaste for seeing Asian/American women with white men?

 

2) If you don’t like these racial dynamics, are you doing the hard work to change it? And no, I don’t mean the work of writing another patriarchal, racist, woman-policing blog post. I don’t mean holding a discussion about interracial dating. I mean the gritty, painful emotional work that men/ men of color avoid. Asian men and other men of color have work to do to prepare them for what Audre Lorde calls a “rigorous loving.” It takes re-conditioning to be in touch with our anger, our sadness, and our joy so that it does not strangle our ability to be in relationship.** What are men doing to heal the trauma that makes loving openly and deeply difficult? I write these questions with full awareness and love for the men I have been privileged to know who are doing this work for themselves and thus, for the benefit of generations to come. There are people—and beautiful Asian/American people for that matter—who are overcoming these challenges.

 

I also write this to hold Asian/American women and the entire Asian/American community accountable. We must do the work it takes to challenge our internalized racism and colonialism. While people have no right to judge us or make assumptions about our relationships, we still owe it to our lovers and partners (and families and communities and ourselves) to un-do the impact of racism. We too owe it to ourselves to dig through the dirt of trauma and commit to the hard emotional work of re-learning how to love ourselves and our community, whether or not we are in relationship with someone who is also Asian/American.

 

After war, colonialism, years of racism, all around us lay scattered pieces of ourselves we are collecting to learn to love again, wholly. The most crucial point is that we must heal in order to love and we must love in ways that heal. In that, we must develop a critical lens that recognizes how history and politics impact attraction and love, whomever our partners are.

 

*Remarks made in popular culture includes what Junot Diaz wrote in his short story, “The Cheater’s Guide to Love” which appears in This is How You Lose Her, “Is it me or does every Asian girl on the planet marry a white guy? Is it written on the genes or something?” And more recently, even a rabbi on The Mindy Show praised a character for being very Jewish… by dating an Asian woman (Mindy).

 

And then there is bullshit like this that I am not even trying to respond to. This is a wonderful in-depth analysis: http://tympan.blogspot.com/2012/09/i-refuse-to-ever-date-asian-man.html

 

**I think this essay can apply to people who prefer other dynamics in their relationships, be it friendships over romantic relationships, open relationships, casual sex. These relationships don’t absolve us from the responsibility to act with love and question the contexts that make love between people of color more difficult.

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