When I taught in San Francisco at a summer program, our director stood in front of us and clasped her hands together, looking out to each of us with emphatic purpose and declaring: “You have to be okay with leaning into discomfort.” I remember turning that phrase around over and over in my head until I grew dizzy with attempting to grapple with what that meant. How do we as humans perceive discomfort, or conflate it with conflict? How do we balk at the first sign of an obstruction in the road, and search for the next available alternative, in hopes that it will be less painful or difficult than the first? It wasn’t until I started teaching throughout the program when I started to better understand what that phrase meant.
When Peter Liang, former NYPD police officer and Hong Kong American who fatally shot Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, appeared in the international spotlight for multiple reasons, many of which centered around the fact that this was yet another police shooting of a young black man, and many others which focused on the fact that Liang was the first NYPD cop to be convicted in a shooting while on duty in more than 10 years. Jay Kang from the NYTimes wrote a piece that dissected the Asian American responses to the shooting and conviction, specifically as it relates to what Kang calls “the nation’s racial hierarchies.” He also notes, very honestly, that:
“I cannot adequately describe the conflict in feeling like a race traitor for applauding Liang’s conviction while also feeling like a race traitor for questioning it. I know the lifeblood of my conditional whiteness as an educated, upwardly mobile Asian-American lies somewhere in those conflicts. And because it’s historically been in the best interests of people like me to never discuss these things, even in private, I lack the vocabulary to discuss it.”
What Kang is talking about in this article has never rung more true for me. There are very few Asian American activists out there who speak out about race relations in the United States, and most who do tend to focus on Asian American media representation and the model minority myth—both of which are, of course, important issues. But that’s just it—just because one race-related issue is important doesn’t mean it should eclipse or take away from other salient race issues. And the violence, particularly police-inflicted violence, against black people is undoubtedly one such salient race issue. Yet it seems as though many Asian Americans are remaining silent on it. This could be due to a belief that it does not relate to them, that it is not “their problem.” Or it could be because, as Kang says, that they feel conflicted about how to talk about these issues as an Asian American, especially if they believe that they do not have the vocabulary to discuss it.
But it is our problem. It is a problem that sits upon the shoulders of everyone in this country as it continues to destroy black lives here in the U.S., and the more we avoid understanding it as our problem, the more the onus is put on black people, the more we are erroneously fostering an expectation that those who are oppressed should bear the weight of dismantling their oppressors alone.
Talking about the #blacklivesmatter movement and racism against black people is definitely uncomfortable for me as an Asian American sometimes. But that doesn’t mean I shouldn’t. Of course, there are hundreds of conversations that revolve around police brutality and violence against black people where I have no authority or perspective from an experiential or personal lens. But in those moments, I have to step down but not leave the conversation. My role is still to be a part of the movement as an ally without speaking for black people who constantly face these dangerous moments of profiling and violence. Just because you do not have a sound byte to add, a small remark to pitch in, does not mean it is time to exit the discussion.
When the incident with Gurley and Liang happened, the response from the Asian American community—a term I hesitate to use due to the pluralistic nature of said community, one that too often ends up being a lump sum of wildly diverse nationalities and cultures—had been disappointingly removed from understanding the #blacklivesmatter movement. In fact, it seemed to further distance Asian Americans from sympathizing with the cause, which felt like even more of a shame because so rarely do we see Asian Americans advocating and rallying behind a race-related cause.
But after the shootings of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, a crowdsourced open letter to Asian American families surfaced, and it seemed to touch on so many of the barriers that Asian Americans often seem to feel when broaching the topic with their family—language barriers, differing cultural values and beliefs, confusion about where and how to start the conversation. But this letter was a concrete, tangible step toward pushing Asian Americans to finally stand for the movement. And that feels like progress. But the thing about progress is that in a movement, it should never signal or represent the finish line.
Leaning into discomfort means anticipating and responding to oftentimes intense moments of feeling a desire to escape, to turn around, to opt out of that discomfort, and still pushing forward anyway. It means, in this case, acknowledging that the lack of vocabulary to discuss the #blacklivesmatter movement and how Asian Americans can play a role in it is just the first of many difficult, uncomfortable steps. It means pushing past the easiness and comfort of complicity and understanding that race relations in the United States has been built upon a system that benefits and serves whiteness, which may be uncomfortable and difficult to talk about, but it is ultimately everybody’s responsibility to lean into that discomfort.