I listened carefully as the man in the center of the room, a well-respected black civil rights activist, shared about his years of experience in community organizing and advocacy.
Then he said a word that made my insides clench in shock: “Orientals.”
I hoped it was a slip of the tongue. Surely a longtime native of Los Angeles, where every one out of ten residents was Asian, wouldn’t mean to say that.
But then, with a calculating gaze, the man looked at my coworkers Liz and Karen, and me. Out of the two dozen people there, we were the only Asian Americans in the room.
“You, come here.” The man pointed at Liz. His voice wasn’t rude, but it wasn’t polite either. He expected Liz to comply.
After a moment’s hesitation, she stepped into the middle of the room. She looked perfectly composed, but I had known her long enough to see the wariness in her eyes.
“Where are you from?” the civil rights activist asked. He peered at her through his glasses; his salt and pepper hair glistened under the fluorescent lights.
It was the question that every Asian American has heard hundreds of times. The question that sets us apart as foreign and different, as individuals who can never be considered truly American.
But that question wasn’t supposed to be asked here. Not by this man, and not in front of this group of people.
“I grew up in the Bay Area,” Liz replied coolly.
“No, where are you from? Where were you born?” He tried again, impatience creeping into his voice.
“Berkeley.” She met stubbornness with stubbornness, a tactic I had often used before.
“What about your parents? Where are they from?”
“California and Hawaii.”
“What about their parents?”
I waited for someone to politely but firmly put a stop to this. No one moved.
With another group of people, such intervention might have been too much to expect. But these individuals—black, brown, and white—were our fellow laborers for social justice. We worked for the same nonprofit that had been founded on values of equality and empowerment. We trained other people on issues of race and privilege. We were supposed to be the experts, the ones who knew all the right things to say about communities of color and social change and the power of unity in diversity.
But at this moment, no one had anything to say. No one, it seemed, had any idea what to do. Unspoken questions wove themselves through the tension in the room: Who are we to challenge a man like this, a hero in his community? Isn’t he supposed to be even more of an expert on race relations than we are?
When Liz eventually admitted she had an ancestor from Japan, the man crowed, “That’s right,” as if she had finally answered correctly after many failed attempts. He turned to Karen. “You,” he said with that same commanding voice. “Come here.”
I wanted to say something before I was called up to be interrogated. I wanted to refuse when the man pointed a wrinkled finger at me and told me to step into the middle of the circle—apart, strange, unequal from my black and white brethren. But my voice had disappeared the moment this man began singling out the Asians for humiliation and no one defended us. Even among social justice advocates, there were those who had power and those who did not.
When the man had gotten the answer he wanted—“My parents are from Hong Kong,” I confessed, as if it was a crime—he turned to his captive audience and gave a rambling lesson on why we “Orientals” were so peculiar.
I couldn’t bear to listen. I focused instead on my own shallow breathing as I looked down at the carpet. Shame curled around my chest.
Still, none of our colleagues said anything. In the heat of the moment, our collective expertise had failed us.
And yet, as I stood there like a specimen on display, the last thing I needed was an expert to explain the complex dynamics of race, gender, age, and group think that were at play. What I really needed was a friend. I needed someone to acknowledge the deep hurt I was feeling. I needed someone to challenge me to extend grace and forgiveness to this man. I needed someone who would extend the same grace and forgiveness to me when I inevitably said or did something insensitive or hurtful—because, truly, we all fall short of understanding the lived experiences of those who aren’t like us.
There is no such thing as an expert on race, no such thing as a person who holds no stereotypes and always intervenes to stop an injustice. Even an illustrious, decades-long career in civil rights is not enough to form an individual who can embrace people of all colors equally.
The next day, when a colleague finally got around to asking me how I felt about what had happened, I fell back on the same tired, smart-sounding words. I blabbered something about recommitting to diversity within our organization and taking up the mantle to help my colleagues understand the Asian American experience.
Yet even as I said it, the words sounded hollow. I wasn’t an expert on race—mine or anybody else’s—and I never would be. The greater work, I was realizing, was learning to be a friend. To listen first. To speak words of affirmation. To practice receiving and extending an abundance of grace, for none of us will get it right all the time.
Dorcas Cheng-Tozun is an award-winning writer and editor who has found healing and hope through words. She writes the Personal Effects column for Inc.com and contributes regularly to Christianity Today, Her.meneutics, The Well, and Asian American Women on Leadership. Previously she worked as a nonprofit and social enterprise professional in the US and Asia. Dorcas lives in the San Francisco Bay Area but is currently enjoying an extended stay in Kenya with her husband and adorable hapa son.
Image credit: Pham Khoai