Photographs, Microaggressions & Choosing Silence

“Take a picture. It lasts longer.”

I don’t remember saying this to the white strangers, but my younger sister swears up and down that this was my response to white strangers staring at us while we were on a family vacation somewhere in the U.S. There were so many times our family of four would pull up in the Oldsmobile to find ourselves clearly out of place. We were Americans but we mine as well have been purple because we always saw people stare as if they, the white Americans, have never seen people who looked like we did. And apparently during one of those stare-downs I made eye contact  and said, “Why don’t you take a picture. It lasts longer.”

My parents couldn’t afford plane tickets but they could drive us anywhere and so we did – Florida, Vancouver, Maine, and so many national parks. That also meant finding ourselves in places even less diverse than “home,” and decades before I would hear the word “microaggression” I had already cataloged a lifetime of them through the Smokey Mountains, Yellowstone National Park, the Grand Tetons, and even Wall Drug. Maybe it was because my parents were stunning (and still are because Asian don’t raisin, which if you aren’t Asian you might not want to say out loud because some jokes and phrases and words aren’t yours to use) or because my sister and I were and still are stunning. But POC’s know when were are “the first” or one of the few. We know that look, that stare as if we ought to be caged animals in a zoo up for display.

It has happened when my spouse and I walk into a predominantly white space. It happened when my spouse and I were actually at a zoo and the white woman near us mentioned how interesting the Japanese snow monkeys were while trying to engage us in conversation by repeating, “Japanese snow monkeys” in slightly slower speed. It happened when we first moved into our current home. It happened yesterday when my friends and I were visiting the Quad Cities visiting one of “the kids” at college.

There were five of us, and we had just read on a historical marker about a public swimming pool in the area that would be opened to African Americans only to be drained and cleaned before being reopened to whites. All of this in the 1960s. It made me mad and sad and we talked about how things had changed and hadn’t and walked on at some point noticing that several people – white people – were staring at us, us meaning the two of us Asian Americans. M and I both knew it. We both saw it. We both looked at each other and finished each other’s thoughts out loud about being stared at, and we were both thinking about that phrase: Take a picture. It lasts longer. And we both knew it wasn’t safe to engage those people.

We chose silence for survival.

We did mention what was happening to the others. T asked if we would point it out if it happened as we retraced our steps to the car, and we said it wasn’t worth it because who knows what could happen.

I chose silence because I am not a brazen child but a grown woman in 2018 fully aware that one of the few things that have changed in the past few years is that there is permission and acceptance of public displays of racism and violence against POC. I am aware that engaging someone for a microaggression could actually put me and my friends in danger and in the public eye at fault if violence erupted.

We chose silence for survival, but as I wrote in Raise Your Voice there are other ways than your physical voice to raise your voice. So here I am back at the blog to remind my Dear Readers to keep fighting the good fight, open your eyes and remember when you get stared at like a caged animal in a zoo on display choose love. The older white couple, the younger white woman, the white man sitting alone all staring at me like you’d never seen beautiful, confident, strong Asian American women – you also are made in God’s image. I see you even though you cannot yet see me.

 

4 Comments

  1. Lynn October 10, 2018

    Oh Kathy, this causes lament inside me in so many ways. Thank you for sharing

    Reply
  2. Faye Waidley October 10, 2018

    Yes the fight continues. I just was told today I speak very good English. He spoke very good English too.

    Reply
    • Kathy Khang October 10, 2018

      ARGH! Someone tried to spin our surprise and disappointment whenever this kind of racist stuff happens as a reminder of our tendency towards optimism and hope. We are disappointed because we still believe things will and can change. May it be so.

      Reply
  3. Ann October 15, 2018

    Right there with you Lynn. The fight continues, but there is also a need to lament.

    Reply

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