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.