I spent the first few days following the killing of George Floyd on the prowl for anybody I could indiscriminately rain my self righteous anger upon– I wanted to shove it into anyone’s face how much less they knew or understood about the situation than me. Do you know what rooftop Koreans refers to? Do you know what they used to do to Black activists during the Civil Rights Movement? Have you read Jesus and the Disinherited you know-nothing-faux-activist-wannabe (a book I complained about being forced to read but now pull out of my ass whenever I want to sound smart). As much lip service as I give to humility and active listening, it is never my first reaction, too often I am that which I hate most.
Fortunately for my friends, unfortunately for me, the world never fails to hold up a mirror in which my own immaturity and failings are made clear. Michelle Obama reminded me that there are brilliant, capable, well intention-ed people out there in the world, and there are more of them than social media will lead you to believe. President Obama’s pragmatism revealed how aimless and purposeless my words are, lacking any attempt to find a pathway forward to a solution. Kareem Abdul Jabbar made me uncomfortable with how as much as I want to believe that I’m “in the know” and I am not just another paternalistic, white knight, liberal, too often my arrogance leads me to become just that. Tom Herman’s raw emotion and Steven Jackson’s clarity shamed me into the realization of how little skin I personally have in the game, and how empty the “courage” and “strength” I perceive in myself actually is; while my speechlessness in the face of the destroyed storefronts and livelihoods of people I used to know betrays how detached from reality my words can be.
However, annoyingly enough, the clearest contrast of my own immaturity has been my father’s sermons, the few that I wasn’t clever enough to escape from and was forced to sit through. Much of my general demeanor, mannerisms, and idiosyncrasies I believe stem from my mother, but one thing I drew from my father is the way in which he builds up to a point. That makes sitting through one of his sermons an infuriating experience, because I never fail to fall into the same trap. Every time, as I sit in gleeful anticipation, appreciating how he’s taking his congregation down a path that is building up to a righteous admonition of wrongheadedness, I revel in the shameful realization of ignorance and failure that is about to spread across the audience. I know his structure, I know where he’s headed, and when the hammer will drop… except, it never does. My father consistently chooses a path antithetical to my natural instincts, he chooses to love and to empathize, trying to steer his message towards a teachable moment, while I dive into a pool of self righteous anger and arrogance. My immaturity lies in not seeing the fork in the road, speeding head on towards the off ramp. I don’t want people to learn or get better, I want them to know that I have already learned and that I am already better.
This is not to say that my father is a saint, what he is, relative to myself, is mature. I have seen him exhibit the same self righteous torrents of anger that have become my hallmark. He has his own demons to work through: but when he has the opportunity; when he isn’t caught off guard; when he can collect himself; he makes the conscious decision to forego anger and work towards love. I still have not forgiven him for when he spoke in front of an immature, entitled, straight up ig’nant ass group of Korean Church People following a particularly toxic period, took responsibility and apologized for THEIR wrongdoing, THEIR stupidity, MY father. I was fuming in the pews, wanting to bar the doors and burn the entire place to the ground… but that’s me, and my ego.
What does this have to do with George Floyd?
I fully recognize the hypocrisy of decrying my own arrogance and narcissism but then spending the next four paragraphs talking about myself. I say this in hopes that it appropriately colors what I say next, that I speak (or at least am trying) out of love and humility.
We as a community and as individuals need to re-calibrate our conceptions of fairness, equality, and “rightness”, as too often what we perceive to be “fair” is in actuality, “massively in our favor to the detriment of someone else”. Just as much as the “right way” to protest or be an activist is often code for the “white way”.
There are no innocent bystanders– we are all complicit in, beneficiaries, and victims of a system of oppression and marginalization.
I am heartened by the outpouring of support from younger Korean Americans, standing with those who fight against the system that keeps all of us down and in our place; however, the anger and indignation with which we spit on White Americans betrays how much we have forgotten of our own history. Just like Chauvin, WE need to be held accountable and take responsibility for our own contributions to building and perpetuating the system we see today, so that this is not just another cathartic release, after which we all go back to business as usual– we need to choose to change.
We jumped to fight alongside the US in the Vietnam War and impressed the white man with our brutality and cruelty; we massacred innocent men, women, and children to win over our white knights, not realizing our children would become squires. We traded in our POC cards for a spot in the house, putting on smiles for our survival, happy with the scraps thrown at our feet and the friendly pats on the head from our white masters, secure in the knowledge we wouldn’t have to sleep outside. We were the swords in the darkness, the watchers on the wall, and we too stopped asking who we were protecting, and from whom.
I saw it last year at a protest, where other POCs thought I was there to sell insurance, not expecting someone who looked like me standing with them. I see it in the mild amusement when I remind my white friends that I too am a minority, in the store owner’s relief when he sees my eyes, in the self-loathing, nonchalance with which I watch another microaggression “harmlessly” float on by, covered up, but not forgotten, with a smile and a shrug.
We must reclaim our rightful place as people of color, humbled and wiser for our past, but not fearful of it. We need to face our own history, not out of guilt or to place blame, but out of a need to understand. None of these were conscious decisions. Life is not a series of switches, one option entirely different from the next; it’s a progression of a million tiny steps, guided by the footprints left behind by those who came before.
The first generation gave up the freedom to follow their dreams, pouring out their blood, sweat, and dignity in order to learn how we could carve out a small part of this country for ourselves. The second generation reaped the rewards for being the model minority, trading in our dignity and pride for job security… how could we not? It would spit in the face of our parents’ efforts and sacrifices, not knowing we were inching ever closer to the glass ceiling of our own making. Although this may not seem the case during the chaos and uncertainty of today, the third generation has a much brighter future. I am consistently surprised by their energy, pragmatic optimism, and collective knowledge and ability; slightly irritated at how old and outdated they make me feel. I want to remind them of our own inequities, not to burden them with guilt or to lessen their enthusiasm, but so that we can move forward with clear eyes, vigilant against the pitfalls and mistakes that tripped us before.
Within this system, we are much more the masters of our fate than our darker skinned brethren, we need to realize the power that was gifted to us from previous generations, and the responsibility that comes with, to use it for the betterment of the next. Armed with the knowledge of our own failings and weaknesses so that we can understand the same in each other.
Too often we tear each other down with our doubts and insecurities, lashing out at those who would stand with us. This is a time where there are more reasons to be angry than not, more reasons to hate than not, more reasons to withdraw into our little parts of the world, than stand and fight within it. We cannot change our past, and standing alone, we cannot change our future; the one thing we can do is choose.