advocacy

Unity Is Not Groupthink

One of the great misconceptions about social justice advocates is that they’re perfect. They came out of the womb with picket signs and slogans for the cause. They live their lives to serve other people. We see this myth perpetuated in the many posts and statuses about Maya Angelou and Yuri Kochiyama that inaccurately portray them as saints. People seem to think that there is only one way to be an advocate–to be like the advocates of the past, or like the prominent advocates of today.

In this sudden frenzy to model ourselves after successful predecessors, there seems to be an obsession with unity within Asian America. While I believe unity has its place in the grand scheme (where numbers have sometimes been enough to make progress), I would like to contradict the idea that unity has ultimate importance. I would rather hear the unaltered and diverse opinions of community members, even the misinformed ones, if it brought us closer to true representation.

I’ve been growing weary of the way many Asian American organizations silence the perspectives of newer or less popular members if they convey an ounce of dissent to the status quo. It seems as though if a person expresses a contrary opinion even once, they’re suddenly labeled as the outspoken maverick of the group. If they continue to speak up, community members will slowly turn away until they are no longer listening to that person, god forbid anyone joins them and turns into a team of renegades. Is this how fragile our community is, that we fear a few new ideas are a threat to the entire structure? Are these the actions of an inclusive community?

I used to work with a South Asian advocacy organization stationed in Tampa the summer before my senior year in college. I was the newest and youngest person on the board, which had about 12 members, all South Asian women. One of the reasons why I joined was because I wanted to initiate sex education discussions for the youth of the community, especially the middle and high school ages. In addition to the standard sex-ed lesson of STDs, using contraception, and practicing safe sex, I wanted these students, especially the girls, to be educated on what consent is, looks like, and feels like. I specifically wanted to create a yearly workshop that discussed all these issues.

This idea was not met with particular enthusiasm, which did not surprise me. In my experience, South Asians have never been too inclined to talk about sex. But what really surprised me was how easily they dismissed the feasibility of the idea. One of the board members said there would be complications because we would be talking to minors, and she clearly did not want to deal with parents. Another complaint was that they didn’t want to be held accountable for any “ideas” that kids got. One member said, verbatim, that she didn’t want to kids to think “oh, I thought ‘this’ [referring to some sexual act] was okay because [the organization] said I could do it”.

They relegated my proposal to the pile of other proposals they were on the fence about. It was put off for 4 months, and then never happened because I wasn’t around to push for it since I had graduate school applications. I can’t help but ask, who exactly benefits from this? Something that is intended to help a community never sees the light of day because it’s inconvenient or embarrassing to care about it.

I can think of countless similar examples in other organizations. What is most frustrating about this bureaucracy is that it perpetuates the very stereotypes we claim to be working against. By selecting only the people whose opinions are the most agreeable to represent us, we are saying loud and clear to the rest of the world that we only value conformity and submission.

Essentially, people are scared of advocating because, cliche as it is, they do not think they are good enough to represent. That idea of the representative’s life is the community’s and not their own is noble, but a little outdated. While Yuri and Maya came to be icons of certain movements, they were absolutely acting of their own accord. And while all thoughts shouldn’t always be acted on, that doesn’t mean they shouldn’t be heard. How will we know what ills people suffer from if they are forced to be silent? What has deluded us into thinking we are doing such a great job when we’re not even listening when someone tries to express themselves?

I don’t want to be represented by the most distilled, bland, obsequious people any more. They do not represent me, and in my opinion, they do not represent Asian America either. Our community needs leaders who are confident enough that they can take criticism and admit when they are wrong. We do not need heroes that wait in the sidelines and swoop in at the last second to save us from ruin. We need humans: people with the ability to empathize, be vulnerable, and above all else, the integrity to say what needs to be said, not what people want to hear.

Advertisements

Mobilize

I often reflect on the time I spent in elementary school. Many of the experiences I had then take on a different meaning now that I see them from a social justice perspective. I find it interesting that, in spite of society’s best efforts to be “colorblind”, I was very aware at a young age that I was not white (or not “normal”). This may have been because my mother taught me my family’s cultural practices early on, thereby conditioning me to present as a person of color. There were other indicators as well, like the way my parents and I thought I had to adhere to rules more strictly than a lot of my same-aged peers. For example, there was a very lenient uniform code at my school. While I showed up every day in red or white school polos and pairs of khaki or blue pleated shorts at my mother’s behest, other girls showed up in tee shirts of every color and jeans and denim shorts, and no one ever passed a comment for them.

I believe the real red flag for me was the way people treated me. It’s not as if they were ever rude, but I distinctly felt that people didn’t listen to me. In group projects, I’d give suggestions that somehow never made it on the paper. I’d volunteer for tasks, and then my name wouldn’t appear on the list. I might have taken it personally, except I knew other Asian American students to whom the same things happened. However, if a white student said something, anything, no matter how silly, misinformed, or off-target it was, they inevitably received some reply, even if it was just another student saying “shut up!” or “that’s stupid.”

One particular incident comes to mind to illustrate this point. I was nine years old, in fourth grade. It was after lunch one day, and I was waiting outside the cafeteria for the next class period to begin. There were several other students out there, too, and we were queuing up to go back to our classroom. I was standing behind two girls from my class. We all knew one another, but we weren’t good friends or anything. I was in choir with one of the girls, and they were talking about how she was nervous because she had received the solo in one of the songs we were going to perform. I tried saying something to help her feel better, but I received no reply. Just in case they hadn’t heard me the first time, I repeated myself, louder this time. They still did not reply. Both continued to speak only to each other.

It’s been a while since fourth grade, but I still remember the embarrassment I felt after that encounter. I had wondered if anyone had watched me being ignored. I also felt strongly indignant because the two girls had behaved as if they did not have to reply to me. It made me think twice before approaching either of them again.

At school, all the white children fell into a hierarchy. They also seemed to have a protocol in place when someone at the bottom of the social hierarchy happened to encroach on another person or another group’s space. In their own special way, they would tell the unpopular ones to get lost.

For me, there was no place in this hierarchy. Regardless of whether I was welcomed or not, I invariably received little to no acknowledgement in the social groups of white children. On one hand, that meant I could flit in and out of groups at will, and stick with whichever ones I pleased. On the other, it also meant I never truly belonged to any group, and if I needed help or got hurt, I usually had to deal with it by myself.

Now this is not to say I’ve been heartily accepted into every group of Asian people I’ve ever come across (as I’ve mentioned previously). This is also not to say that there aren’t groups of white people into which I have been truly accepted nor that there aren’t white people out there who are not accepted by other white people. In spite of the picture I am painting, I had a lot of fun in school as a child. It is where I discovered how smart, creative, and capable I am. But I think knowing what I know now gives a depth to those experiences that I couldn’t see when I was that young.

Years later, in college, I received the education that helped me understand being a person of color at a predominantly white institution. I learned the vocabulary–microaggressions, bias incidents, internalized racism–to describe what had gone on for years in my life. The 20-year-old me could not help wishing that someone had told me these things a long, long time ago. I think this is something that we, the children of Asian Americans, need to encourage Asian American parents to do more, or perhaps do for our own children. Sheltering me did not help me at all; if anything, it kept me from speaking up when I should have. In the work that I do, I hope I can bring the age threshold down for when Asian American children learn the truth about race in America. This movement would move faster if, instead of having to educate twenty-somethings on basic social justice issues, they already knew the issues and were ready to mobilize when they reach adulthood.

Invisible Disabilities 101

Today, I was reading these great blog posts about chronic illness and the spoon theory. (You might want to read them, too, before you read this post). They inspired me to create a workshop about understanding chronic illness and invisible disabilities. Because I have a background in programming for undergraduate college students, I envisioned that this workshop could be facilitated by people who work directly with students, such as professors, resident assistants, staff members in student activities, multicultural centers, service learning, and others who work on college campuses.

I ought to preface this: I do not personally work with people who have chronic illnesses or disabilities. I also do not have a chronic illness or disability, and I do not speak for anyone who has one either.

I do, however, think able-bodied privilege is something people need to be more aware of, and I think this activity is an easy way to raise that awareness.

In my experience, undergrads are usually introduced to conversations about disability through simulations. You may be familiar–think “disability dinner/lunch/meal,” in which the facilitator randomly chooses a disability for each participant and then proceeds to tie a bandana around one student’s head to cover their eyes, tie an arm for another, give ear plugs to yet another, and so on, and this is supposed to help students “feel” what it’s like to have a disability. The participants then eat their food in slight discomfort, admit this would be a frustrating life to lead, and then never think about it again beyond the 30-minute discussion. Rarely do invisible disabilities and chronic illnesses (besides STDs) make their way into this conversation. Yet, there are millions (up to one in two people in the United States, according to disabled-world.com) in this country living with autoimmune disease, mental illness, hormone imbalances, and degenerative disease.

In the post about the spoon theory, the author talks about the choices a person with chronic illness has to make every day. Students in college hardly ever think of these decisions because they assume they are at the peak of their physical fitness and that no one their age could ever be chronically ill. My hope is that this activity will introduce students who have no prior experience or knowledge to the needs of people living with invisible disabilities.

Invisible Disabilities Activity

Materials:

pencils

paper

*10-15 plastic spoons for each participant

*may be replaced with any number of small objects, such as beads, slips of paper, paper clips, etc., as long as each participant gets between 10-15.

Procedure:

1. Hand each participant between 10-15 spoons, but don’t give everyone the same number.

2. Ask everyone to make a list of tasks they did that day, and tell them to include things they still have to do. Tell them to be very detailed. For example, instead of “I woke up”, tell them to break it down into brushing their teeth, showering, putting on clothes, wearing makeup, walking up or down stairs (if that’s what they did), cooking, eating, etc. Tell them to include chores like homework, laundry, and washing dishes, as well as social activities like meeting friends, shopping, or going to the movies.

3. Instruct participants to count the number of spoons they have. Explain that this represents how much energy they have to do what they need to do in the day.

4. Tell them to count the number of tasks they have written down. Ask how many of them have enough spoons to do everything they have written down (it shouldn’t be that many).

5. Tell them to go back through their lists and pick the tasks they would most like to get done in the day given the number of spoons they have. Explain that if they have skipped a meal, that also costs a spoon.

6. Allow participants to discuss how their days would go differently if they “had” a chronic illness. Draw attention to what choices they had to make. What did they choose not to do? Why did they make that choice? What do they choose to spend time doing? How do they think their lives would change if they had to make choices like this every day, with the same number of spoons for each day? Explain that it may be possible to use more “spoons” than usual in one day, but then they would have fewer to work with the next day, since they would have to recover from having exerted themselves.

7. Discuss ways to be an ally to people with disabilities and chronic illness. For some suggestions, click here.

 

I realize this is a simulation, too. And if there’s anything that needs to be changed or can be improved, please let me know. My goal in creating this workshop was to change the one-sided and reductionist conversations that come from “disability dinners”. I was getting tired of how participants are often more patronizing after leaving those dinners than when they begin. I hope this activity shows that people with disabilities still have agency and independent lives, albeit it’s different than what able-bodied people might imagine.

Something that struck me about the spoon theory post is when the author said she has forced herself to slow down. She has to constantly think about several factors that affect what she can do, and that it is the “beautiful ability” of able-bodied individuals to just do things without thinking.

I want people to reflect on that, on how they have unlimited spoons that they can spend doing whatever they want every day.