Behind the Stories
Jennifer Shimako Abe
Famed photographer, Dorothea Lange, took this image of an Oakland storefront owned by Japanese Americans, who posted the sign in December, 1941, after the bombing of Pearl Harbor. Asian Americans have been long viewed as "perpetual foreigners" in this country so that experiences of racism, both personal and societal, have been largely invisible to other Americans. Many of us have heard the phrase, "Go back where you came from" as if we didn't belong here. Well, we belong.
My parents are immigrants, so my whole all my life experiences have been NEW. Learning English, earning two degrees, and working in education is all new. I'm creating these new potential life paths for my family and it's a lot of pressure. Not only that, without prior context, I have no idea if I'm doing this right. I feel like I have made it this far in life by the skin of my teeth. What if someday, someone finds out that I have no idea what I’m doing?
There are a million reasons not to be hopeful at this moment as it regards institutional America's relationship to systemic racism; however, there is one reason to maintain hope: the unwavering commitment of Black citizens to justice and freedom. Based on our historical ability to achieve excellence "in spite of" the worst circumstances, I have faith that we will be victorious in this time of tumult. As the refrain goes: "When we fight, we win!"
As a child of first-generation Italian Americans, I heard all the stories about being profiled beat up, forced to live in immigrant ghettos. So when my parents moved us to CA, they likely believed those days were in the past. In ‘68, my father built a house and we moved onto a nice street with kids my age. I was 5 and excited to make new friends. The first kid I met asked me, “Are you a n*****?” I had never heard that word and didn’t know what it meant. But it didn’t sound like something I wanted to be.
Freedom comes from speaking truth to power in a long-awaited female narrative--speaking "the other" truth against the tradition of male patriarchy and white supremacy that surround decision-makers in powerful organizations. The ugliness of inequity rears its head and inaction is not an option. It won't be pushed down until other voices combine to rise up and out and TAKE CONTROL of the table. The good news: The table is round and represents the circle of Hope. The time is past due.
(photo credit: Getty Images)
I have been blessed to work at LMU, go to school at LMU and graduate from LMU. I have met and taken classes from Dr. Ron Barrett, Dr. John Davis and Dr. Erylene Piper-Mandy. These people encouraged me to be proud of majoring in African-American Studies while other discouraged me by saying what could I do with that major. I learned about myself, my people and how to use knowledge to navigate through systems designed to hold me back.
So often we're so worried about how others perceive us that we can get lost when we have to see ourselves without the filters. When we allow ourselves to no longer assimilate to others' ideals, we can feel their pressure and expectations lift off us. As you feel safe, allow yourself to stop code-switching, internalizing projections, and making yourself digestible to the guilt of others. As Megan Thee Stallion once said, "Once you really know yourself, can’t nobody tell you nothing about you."
I grew up learning the importance of advocacy and activism, speaking up for myself, giving back to my community, and always being kind to others. I also grew up learning that I, and especially my older brothers, were starting out in society with two strikes against us because of the color of our skin and where we come from. This is the case for a lot of Black children in this country. We are taught to both be loving and to fight, so that we can survive in a world that does not see us as who we are, but as how we are interpreted.
There is a parallel of this with plenty other marginalized groups and intersectional identities. As a young woman, I was taught how to prevent and defend myself against sexual assault. As a person who has been overweight all my life, I was taught how to present myself "for my size," and taught how important it is to "keep my weight down."
I wonder how many children from privileged backgrounds are given the same talks in their households. How early do white children learn about the harms of racism compared to children of color? How many young boys are taught to respect women compared to the young girls who are taught to protect themselves? What are children learning about body shame? While marginalized people grow up with tools to make it in an oppressive system, others are inadvertently taught how to be oppressors. We all can do more to teach the next generation what oppression looks like, and more importantly, how to eradicate it from all sides.
The times we find ourselves in have caused a stir of emotions. Sadness, anger, fear, resentment, anxiety and stress, pride, and too many others to name! As I thought about this project and where the world is, looking through a black lens, the following stories started to come forth:
The revolution's been televised, now what?
Black Lives Matter...why shouldn't they?!
Sojourner. Harriett. Rosa. Audre. Alicia. Me?
damn. Damn. DAMN! We're here again!
But, what I would like to put forth is, “Sojourner. Harriett. Rosa. Audre. Alicia. Me?”
Sojourner Truth, an American abolitionist, and civil and women's rights activist. Harriett Tubman, abolitionist and the most famous conductor of the Underground Railroad. Rosa Parks deemed the “first lady of civil rights” by the US Congress. Audre Lorde dedicated her life to confronting and addressing injustices of racism, sexism, classism, and homophobia. Alicia Garza, the co-founder of the Black Lives Matter movement. Women dedicated to fighting injustice and putting it all on the line to be the change they wanted/want to see in the world. These are my superheroines, my inspiration, the epitome of Black Girl Magic. I am sure they experienced the same emotions that I am feeling but they pushed through them to make this world a better place…even if doesn’t currently seem like it! So I asked myself, what can I do to tap into that magic of change? I started by leaning into the work of BFSA, I accepted the Chair position for University Advancement’s DEI Work, and I offered the idea of “In Six Words…” to begin sharing the struggles and triumphs of our collective work and experiences. I invite you to tap into your power and take one step for all of us to listen, to learn, to educate, to bring the human race to a higher level.
Grace Y. Kao
I grew up hearing my Taiwanese immigrant parents greet their friends and relatives this way. This pleasantry (also common in other Asian cultures) originally arose in contexts of food scarcity. To ask someone this was to show real concern for their well-being. As we journey together to fight racism, may we ask one another versions of this question. To riff off of Yuri Kochiyama, “tomorrow’s world is ours to build,” but we will need the community’s care & support to make it through the long haul.
I was supposed to be a son. After all, my Dad is the first-born son of the first-born son, and heir to the Wang family dynasty. We did not have gender determining ultrasound technology 45+ years ago, so everyone just prayed to the heavens that my Dad’s first child will also be a son. They even consulted a celebrity Chinese fortune teller to offer auspicious name options, and chose a unique one that had the least number of strokes (easier to write)…and for the expected son. The name means “seeking scholarship and knowledge.”
To everyone’s surprise, I entered the world as a female. The family decided to keep the auspicious and male leaning name, as I was still the first born child (albeit a daughter) of the first-born son. I was groomed at a young age to be both a son and daughter. I learned traditional Chinese calligraphy, opera, martial arts, poetry, history, music, and dance. I was going to be the good daughter that was supposed to be a son.
I immigrated from Taiwan to the U.S. in the third grade, and became the only Asian in my East Coast elementary school. For the first time in my life, my Chinese training meant nothing when I boarded that yellow school bus each day. The school cafeteria served strange breakfast foods such as tater tots, pancakes, and overcooked scrambled eggs. I was the only student in ESL in the predominately White and Black school, and received many stares and comments. No one seemed to care about calligraphy, Chinese history and opera. But my identity was highlighted when a boy chanted, “Chink, gook, ching chong, ching chong, donkey kong” in my face and made the slanty eyes gesture that many Asian-Americans are aware of. I decided to show how “Chinese” I was by sharing a Kung Fu front kick into his abdomen. My mom received a call from the school later that day, but to my surprise, she said she was proud that I stood up for myself against the racist slur. From that moment on, I realized that my Asian identity was not fully accepted in America, and I would have to continually fight against racism as an immigrant.
My grandfather died when I was in high school, and we flew back to Taiwan for a large traditional funeral. After the long funeral, the family met to discuss the distribution of my grandfather’s belongings and family heirloom items. I quietly asked my Dad if I could have the family sword, which had a special engraving of “water dragon” in honor of my grandfather’s name. Hence this sword was passed to the eldest son, who gave it to his first and only child, a daughter…who has two daughters. My 2nd daughter dressed up as Mulan last Halloween, and wielded our family sword. We embody Mulan as daughters and warriors. We carry our family name, honor, and cultural heritage in both Asia and America, and will keep fighting against racism and injustice. I am the proud daughter of the first-born son, from a multi-generational immigrant family, who holds the “water dragon” sword.
Since the pandemic started in March 2020, we have seen a spike in racist incidents against the Asian American community. My daughters and I have personally experienced this at an Asian grocery store parking lot. We resist to urge to fight racism with racism, which will just make us the same as the perpetrators. Instead, we wield the sword of solidary and coalition building with BIPOC community partners, and will continuously speak up with a lifelong commitment to justice for all.
I was born in Hong Kong, and grew up in a bilingual household learning both Cantonese and English. When we moved to the US at age 5, my mom deliberately disclosed that English was my first language at my new elementary school (in a predominantly White community in Oregon). Even with this, my "immigrant status" and my presumed lack of English proficiency continued to impact my academic opportunities well into high school.
Eric J. Miller
In fighting for racial justice, including reparations for the descendants of enslavement and racial violence during Jim Crow or by the police, Black people are told we should have protested before now, and that we should wait until white folks are ready. That gaslighting provides excuses to avoid facing up to transformational racial and social justice, which we need right now. We have waited too long; we can wait no longer.
Author, educator, and activist Bettina Love shared in a conference that to fight racism is not to simply be an ally but be a co-conspirator. Being conspirator is not simply knowing the language but to sacrifice for someone else, whether speaking up for historically marginalized groups that are often not in the room when it comes to policy decision-making or fighting for representation in hiring and recruitment. Be willing to use your social capital to fight injustices wherever you are.
Four years of Trump, social and political unrest, culture wars, and a pandemic, people want to go back to normal. I understand that feeling, but at the same time, I don't want to go back to the old normal. What for? Look where it got us too. Why not develop a new normal? One with a future where we ALL can thrive with love and respect and do so on this planet. Learn from the past. We can do better. We have to do better.
Erica J. Privott
Reflecting on this last year, hearing deeper stories from my parents, aunts and uncles experiences growing up during the civil rights movement, watching and reading more and more documentaries and articles of my ancestors continued struggle for freedom and human rights, each era received the same response from white America and the government: Wait, just be patient. If not then, and not now, when? How much longer are we supposed to wait? No more words. Actions are vital for change.
Martina Giselle Ramirez
Brad Elliott Stone
Year after year, I have taught the Black Thought Seminar as part of the TLC Program. It is hard to teach young Black minds that, contrary to the stories of pain and pathos incessantly presented to them about Black people, that there is nothing wrong with them. We must be careful to not simply present Black people as if they are a problem. The truth is that Black people are a solution that the United States desperately needs. To do this, an undoing of a miseducation is required.
Eric Haruki Swanson
This past year, we all either personally experienced or witnessed in the media the abhorrent incidents of American citizens being told to “go back to their country” simply based on the way they look. The first time I was told to “go back to your country” was some twenty years ago. I still remember it clearly today. Let us not forget that this nation and its culture is not a monolith. There can be unity in diversity. This is also my country and my home.
Answering questions on applications and surveys has always been a challenge because I come from differing backgrounds, differing cultures, differing religions. And now, I raise children of an additional new religion. I hope we can find a way to be seen with all our parts and have all of our parts be seen.
Paul Vu, S.J.
The earth and its creatures needs diversity when it comes to surviving and thriving. I am Vietnamese. I am American. I am a proud Vietnamese American and am very fortunate to live in this country which has been shaped and transformed by immigrants. Let's celebrate our diversity instead of being afraid of it.
Noriko Sato Ward
Driving solo on a stretch of PCH with no cars in sight in broad daylight. I was 15 minutes from my destination when I saw a white pickup truck gaining on me in the rearview mirror. I quickly checked my cell phone coverage. As the truck passed me, I saw 3 males. The truck sped past me and turned into a dirt road. Until then, I did not realize I was holding my breath.
My commitment to anti-racist work emerged from bearing witness to the impact of systemic racism on the lives of people I love, while simultaneously recognizing how white privilege sheltered me from ever directly experiencing the brutality of the prison-industrial-complex or the vulnerability and despair that undocumented people face as they are barred from accessing opportunities afforded to those who have obtained citizenship status. I learned to hear and see beyond my own limited perspective.
Thinking about what has happened in the history, what I have witnessed during the past six years, and what I have experienced during the past year, I want to say I support all people to have equal rights. No one should be discriminated by skin color, religion, race, gender identity/expression, body image, or experience. Together, we can make the change happen. Like water, has different forms, but it's powerful when each single water drop comes together and moves toward one direction.