The Table at Which I Would Want to Sit
When I was in high school, I was was one of only a handful of students of Color in a school of 1,400 students. Among the majority White student population were known Skinheads who walked the halls and sat in classrooms with their shaved heads, black bomber jackets with white power patches, and black combat boots with red laces. Swastikas would be found graffitied on lockers without mention or removal by the administration. Fights motivated by race would occur in the hallways, again with no mention or address by the administration. And there was no lack of those who – though they may not have donned the Skinhead regalia – enjoyed the institutional and social power and protection to share and carry out the same fear inducing and racist message as their more visible counterparts.
I was in art class sitting at a long table with several other students working on our projects when another student, who physically embodied the Aryan ideal with blond hair and blue eyes began yelling down the table at me, “Hey Chink, can you even see out of those eyes? What? Do you want to karate chop me?” It quickly escalated, “Why don’t you just go back to where you came from! You don’t belong here!” As I tried to ignore him, he then went on, “Oh, don’t you understand English? Ching chong ching chong! Do you understand that? Don’t you get it? You and your kind aren’t welcome here.” The rest at the table, some of whom I considered friends turned their eyes down to their projects and pretended not to hear as he continued. I retorted back at times as it was clear nobody else was going to speak up for me, but I reserved my energy to holding back my tears.
For many years I was hesitant to share this story because I held it as a story of my shame, and though I could get to the logical conclusion that it wasn’t my fault, deep down how I saw my Korean face and self was absolutely in line with how that kid at the end of the table saw me. Things have since shifted drastically for me, but I still feel the hesitation to share, but for different reasons.
This is not an exceptional story. Reading Jen Murphy’s post “My Eyes” is an indication of this. It is far too normative, an unfortunate community in trauma, and I imagine some of you reading this have your own caches of stories and experiences of racism and racial trauma and may feel with me the risk of sharing such stories. Because to share doesn’t feel that different than it did to be at the table in art class. I would guess few if any of you would respond as that kid at the end of the table did to me. But where I am left to wonder is: will you bear witness with your eyes down?
It is hard to look at the realities of racism even as it is played out before you, and those who are White have the privilege of turning your eyes down, and I get why you do. For those people around the table to look up to see me and acknowledge what was happening would have required them to see and own they were far closer to the kid at the end of the table by virtue of their skin, their privilege, and the power that is inherent to their skin color than to me. They got to share that for them there was no immediate cost to either their words or silence. It was “free speech” and there was freedom to look away, but just because it was free for them doesn’t mean there wasn’t a cost. I was not free to look away and ignore. I was not free to speak as I was a lone voice against a chorus of others housed in one, and my words were only met with more hate. I, along with the all other People of Color, have paid for the free speech and privileged silence of racism, and though there was no immediate cost to them, that kid and all those around the table were not left unscathed.
Indulgence leaves no room for gratitude or generosity because the privileges and benefits handed down and inherited are not seen as unearned or even unjustly earned gifts but entitlements.
They, along with you and me, have drunk from the poisonous and ubiquitous fount of White is right, White is good, White is beautiful, White is American, White is supreme. This is not a message of racial pride. This is a message of vulgar indulgence, and we are living intoxicated lives. There can be no question that if you are White you ought to know and have pride in your identity, but there is no goodness in indulgence, as it creates an inflated identity and demands for those around to bow to it. Indulgence leaves no room for gratitude or generosity because the privileges and benefits handed down and inherited are not seen as unearned or even unjustly earned gifts but entitlements. Therefore, the thought of sharing what you have feels more like thievery by others than a distribution of equity. Indulgence leaves no room for the language of trauma and harm or repentance, because everyone else is always wrong and, what you have or don’t have or what happened to you is only what you deserved. To live entitled without gratitude and in fear of being taken from is an awful way to live. But also to not fit into the prevailing narrative of who is right, good, beautiful, American, and supreme – yet still be obligated to live within it – bears its own suffocation.
I ask you to bear witness with your eyes up. And when you look up what do you see?
So more than wonder how you will bear witness, I imagine many of you will see what happened to me and want to offer words of kindness, sadness, or anger on my behalf. But that is not where I hope you stay. I ask you to look up to see what is before you/us. Will you acknowledge that racism and discrimination are florid today, and if you don’t see it, it is only because your eyes are down? Will you look up to actually allow yourself to feel not just what it might be like to be in my shoes but to be in your own? And if it is just guilt, keep listening to yourself and ask – especially if you are White – why guilt is so easy to access, because guilt never motivates change. Ask what may be harder to feel. And unfortunately simply looking up and bearing witness is not enough either, but will you look up and allow the kid at the end of the table’s words to hit you? Because we have had evidence of the realities and the impact of racism, and though the evidence has effected change, the countless stories of everything from redlining, rates of incarceration, to Muslim travel bans, racial profiling, lynchings, and police shootings has not been enough to convince the dominant culture to make a humanizing shift.
We need our White brothers and sisters to join, not by co-opting our pain, but by allowing themselves to feel the pain of living under White is right, White is good, White is beautiful, White is American, White is supreme. As you do, the demand for and obligation to indulgence can be transformed to communal grief, and entitlements can be transformed to freely received gifts to be shared. This is a table at which I would want to sit.