What should we do, for real?
On privilege, solidarity, tragedy, and the danger of making ciphers of the Atlanta victims.
A message from an anonymous reader of this newsletter stopped us in our tracks this week. “I had hoped after what occurred in Atlanta that you would offer [an] opportunity for the Asian American community to process the trauma and grief of this tragedy,” they wrote. Instead, they found our remarks to be inappropriately sweeping and breezy. Their harshest critique suggested that our stance on hate crime legislation, which we argued would increase the powers of police and prosecutors, was rooted in our social and economic privilege. “If you don’t share in the material conditions of the most vulnerable members of the community,” they wrote, “and cannot even hold space for their grief, please have some humility and do not tell them what they should or should not want.” They continued: “Acts of creation and solidarity so that we all become free sound nice, but what I’ve gleaned from your newsletter has mostly been a demonstration of how much social and cultural capital one can accumulate in association with academic institutions and how much freedom and autonomy that the very privileged few have.”
We take this criticism to heart. We do have blind spots, of course. We are embedded in networks of social, cultural, and economic conditions shaped by privilege. Indeed, one of our goals for this newsletter is to elevate the stories of people whose lives are shaped by different material conditions from our own. To that end, we’ll be sharing interviews we’ve had with a Uyghur activist, a labor organizer, two formerly incarcerated activists, the first ordained Korean American pastor at the Episcopal church, a pastor at the African Methodist Episcopal Church, and a pioneer on restorative justice approaches to domestic and gender-based violence among indigenous people and Asian Americans. We’re also always open to and grateful for your suggestions about how we can make this newsletter a more inclusive space.
In the meantime, we’ve been reflecting this week: what are the proper ways to process a grotesque act of violence? This reader came looking for a space of collective mourning and solidarity, but didn’t find it. How might we have failed in our attempt to strike the right tone? And what do we owe readers whose opinions, backgrounds, and life experiences differ from ours?
In any case, we stand by on our argument against hate crime legislation. Michelle and I are abolitionists: we’re convinced down to our bones that increased prosecutorial power and police presence are not the way forward. Evidence overwhelmingly shows that hate crime legislation doesn’t deter violent crime; it only further targets minorities and marginalized communities. And this position isn’t the result of some ivory-tower disconnect from those communities: Michelle has spent her entire career working with undocumented people, deported people, and incarcerated people. She has seen prosecutors abuse their power; she has seen police called in to arrest teenagers in places where the school-to-prison pipeline has taken the place of investment in therapists, counselors, and social workers. We’ve both witnessed in person how prisons debilitate and demoralize, and how the system is perverted by laws that enhance sentencing penalties. We’ve worked with individuals who were incarcerated for twenty-five years because they stole something whose value was less than $300.
In short, our opposition to hate crime legislation is rooted in our own experience and activism. We appreciate the value of dissent and acknowledge the reality of our privilege. We called this newsletter “A Broad and Ample Road” because, among other things, we believe it takes all kinds of experiences, all kinds of voices, all kinds of grief, to make genuine progress. But to accuse us of utopian thinking because we work in an academic institution, and to suggest that our politics is sheltered from “real” suffering, is to misunderstand the entirety of our work, our values, and our personhood.
Since last week’s Atlanta killings there has been an outpouring of stories about Asians in America. Stories about acts of violence, about being fetishized or reduced or made invisible, stories about being spat on or told to go home. I don’t know any Asian women who don’t have a story like this.
I am of two minds about this outpouring. On one hand, I believe it’s a good thing for people to finally talk about the ways violence can be rooted in fetishization, about the imperial “adventures” of colonial soldiers and more broadly the invisibility of Asians in the United States. On the other hand, I’m wary of false equivalencies. As I was waiting last week for facts to emerge about the victims in Atlanta, it struck me that the pull to identify with them comes at a risk: a risk of turning them into a cipher, of filling in the blanks of their precarious lives with my own injuries. I have a story, but what if it has nothing to do with theirs? What if, instead of potentially erasing their individualities by dwelling on my own, I admit the disparity between our experiences and admit the knowledge I lack? What if instead of beginning with I too am an Asian woman I began with the opposite proposition: I am not like them?
Unlike Yong Ae Yue, 63, who was shot when she opened the door for Robert Long, whom she thought was a customer, I am a member of the “intellectual class.” I’m not obligated to open my door for anybody.*
Unlike Hyun Jung Grant, 51, I will never have to hide what I do for work. “She would always tell me, if anyone asks,” her son said, “that she works at a makeup parlor.”
Unlike Daoyou Feng, 44, whose life remains a blank—journalists seem to have found virtually nothing about her, not even what country she was from—I will leave behind a well-documented trace of my existence, from a book to a LinkedIn profile I keep forgetting to update to this newsletter.
Unlike several of the victims, I do not worry about whether my child will be able to find a home in the event of my sudden death.
Last week I happened to be teaching one of my favorite essays, June Jordan’s “Report from the Bahamas, 1982.” Jordan, who was Black and of Caribbean descent, reveals in the first line that she’s chosen to stay at the Sheraton British Colonial on her trip, in spite of its shocking name, because “I did not want to be raped by anybody (white or Black) at all and I calculated that my safety as a Black woman alone would best be assured by a multinational hotel corporation.” A smaller hotel might not take her safety seriously, she reasons, so she opts to stay on the side of imperial power.
In the hotel, a Black maid named Olive makes up Jordan’s room. On the street, a Black woman tries to sell Jordan a straw hat. They haggle over the price, and Jordan considers that whether the vendor makes a sale might determine whether or not she can eat. “We are not particularly women anymore,” Jordan writes; “we are parties to a transaction designed to set us against each other.” Categories of gender and race, she concludes, aren’t enough to explain her relationship with these women. She writes:
“My ‘rights’ and my ‘freedom’ and my ‘desire’ and a slew of other New World values; what would they sound like to this Black woman described on the card atop my hotel bureau as ‘Olive the Maid’? ‘Olive’ is older than I am and I may smoke a cigarette while she changes the sheets on my bed. Whose rights? Whose freedom? Whose desire?
Jordan wants us to be honest about the material conditions that divide us. She asks us to acknowledge distinctions that include class, national origin, and conditions of labor. Absent this acknowledgment, solidarity is shallow and impossible. Freedom and desire are different things to different people. And why would she give a shit about mine, Jordan wonders, unless I do something, for real, about hers?
What does doing something “for real” look like? Trite as it may sound, I think it begins with literally reaching out and helping another. At the end of her essay Jordan tells us about a South African student of hers who is being beaten by her husband. Jordan asks an Irish student to help her intervene, but the student hesitates. They don’t know each other. They’re of a different race. Is it okay?
“I don’t know,” Jordan replies. “But let’s go.”
I love those lines. Those six words. The first half is a confession: honest, human. The second is a way of springing into a collective action. Together, these halves express the kind of spirit I want to live by. “Solidarity,” Robin D. G. Kelley once said, “is not a market exchange.” Solidarity is the kind of work Julia Valero does, dedicating herself to freeing imprisoned migrants of many different nationalities and racial backgrounds, and the kind of work done by so many of the people whose voices we’ve shared and will continue to share in this space. Solidarity is doing, going, showing up and becoming friends. It’s also admitting what we don’t know.
To historians, a colleague told me recently—especially those who write about slaves and migrants and the very poor—even a scrap of paper is precious because it’s a potential insight into a person’s dreams, fears, family, life. Historians operate in a world of unknowns and guesswork, with the reality that certain facts are gone forever. I’ve been trying to remember that when I think about the victims in Atlanta and situate them in historical context: “We’ll never know what aspect of their lives made them feel most vulnerable,” another friend said to me. That a gulf separates me from them doesn’t diminish my empathy. Indeed, it increases it. It challenges me, makes me want to learn what I can. And it lays the foundation, I hope, for a stronger, more genuine solidarity that begins with the distinctions among us.
*Still, as a friend pointed out to me, gun violence in the United States means that teachers in the classroom are in more physical danger than perhaps anywhere else. In concealed carry states especially, the possibility of a student shooter is real.
We’re trying to hold back on links this week. But we recommend the “Time to Say Goodbye” trio’s discussion on anti-Asian violence, which opens with a helpful primer on hate crimes. We also returned to this piece by Anne Cheng, who worries that our political imagination “predicates recognition on the price of visible harm.” We linked last week to STOP AAPI Hate. On Friday the students in our “Global Histories of Solidarity and Resistance” class gave a teach-in on street harassment that generated an intimate discussion about causes, solutions, and the “unpaid labor,” as a student put it, in providing a release valve for those who harass on the street. Students alerted us to a free online training on how to respond to anti-Asian or xenophobic harassment, as well as bystanders who want to stop it.
As always, we are thinking about solidarity movements across the world. We especially encourage people to read our interviews with the young women who work with imprisoned and deported immigrants, and whose work is directly connected to the deported Chinese from the late 19th century. We interviewed Nicole Ramos of Al Otro Lado in Tijuana, Sofia Kalogirou of The Florence Project in Arizona, and Julia Valero of RAICES Texas. We welcome any responses that you may have and thank you from the bottom of our hearts for reading.