March 24, 2021

TIME TO BREAK THE SILENCE

Jeremy Lin, a famous Asian basketball player, says that he is upset with all the recent anti-Asian violence, but also afraid to speak up because it might escalate the situation and give the perpetrators more reason to hurt other Asians. On the surface that might sound reasonable, but what he shared reminded me of what I often heard as a child from my family and those in my community: Don’t cause any more trouble. If we stay quiet and just mind our own business it will go away.

What came to mind were two personal experiences that changed how I moved in the world. The first was as a new teacher at a high school in San Francisco. I kept wondering why all my copies that I sent to the Printing Department were so late in being returned to me. I confronted the white woman in the Printing Department about this and she responded by mimicking me back with both her hands on her eyes with that all so familiar ‘squinted chinaman eyes’ gesture and just mocked me. I went to my department head and complained and he said to me: Mun Wah, she’s probably just having a bad day. I think what you should do is bring her some flowers. Sound familiar? I was furious and adamantly refused. Within days, the woman from the Printing Department heard about my complaint and posted a huge poster at the front of her counter which read: Mr. Lee has accused me of being a racist. Please sign if you disagree. Over twenty teachers signed it. I felt so insulted and dismissed. But, even worse, I started to doubt myself and kept going over and over what I could possibly have done to so upset her. In other words, wondering what I had done.

The next experience was years later when I was assigned to a junior high and was attending my first faculty meeting. The music teacher, who was a tall white male, referred to Mrs. Wong (a Chinese instructor) as a cute little china doll. As he was talking about her, I could see that she was visibly upset as were many of the other folks of color in the room. I don’t know what possessed me, but I guess it had to do with how unfinished I felt from the previous incident with the white lady from the Printing Department, that I just stood and shouted at him: “Her name is not china doll! Her name is Mrs. Wong!!!” And then I just quickly sat down. Not a word was said. Everyone was shocked into dead silence. Then, after what seemed like forever, he continued to talk as if nothing had happened. I was so embarrassed and once again blamed myself for escalating a situation that might have been best left alone. As soon as the faculty meeting ended, I ran straight for the door, assured that I would never say a word again. As I got to the door, I felt a hand on my shoulder and it was Mrs. Wong. She thanked me profusely with tears in her eyes and shared how for years she wanted to tell him off and so appreciated my standing up for her. She vowed that she would never let him do that again to her or anyone else. From that day on, I never looked back with regret. I finally broke the silence that had become so deafening and harmful to my soul and to my community. Racism is racism. Not a joke and definitely not something that can be excused or dismissed as ‘having a bad day’, because those of us who are on the other end of that discrimination is another ‘bad day’ in America.

It’s time to break the silence. No more, not ever.

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