Half in and yet half out
This is about being half Korean and half white during this time of surging support for Black Lives Matter (BLM), and in the face of institutionalized racism, segregation, and discrimination — second of two articles
Why am I writing this?
A couple weeks ago, I said to my wife, “I don’t feel like I can say anything about BLM because I’m not really a person of color.”
She raised her eyebrows at me.
I continued, unsure what that gesture meant, “Sure, I can examine my own biases, I can amplify and be an ally for other people of color, and can help by donating to appropriate groups but I don’t feel like I have anything to say.”
Again, she raised her eyebrows at me. And later that night, I began writing the first part.
Over the past couple months, anger has erupted in American cities over the death of George Floyd in Minneapolis police custody — in the form of protests, demonstrations, and marches. And not just here, we saw actions all around the world as well — some as moral grandstanding by U.S. adversaries and some in the form of support rallies with Black communities. The effects of racism appear for BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, People of Color) in all sorts of ways — weathering (a theory by Arline Geronimus, Sc.D., professor at the University of Michigan School of Public Health, about how marginalized groups in a population, such as Black people in America, endure chronic stress from living in an unequal society which results in health inequalities across a range of biological systems) as well as limited potential opportunities for income and wealth generation, limited access to education, the psychological and emotional tolls of being seen as “less than”, and needing the neighbors to know you’re staying in a nearby Airbnb.
See, a friend of mine has a property in a Northern California county that gets rented out from time to time. And a few months ago, they received an email from a potential guest:
Is your house still available to rent from May 16th to Jun 16th? I would be staying there as I work from home. I work for (hidden by Airbnb). I’d like to inquire about safety. Since I’m a single female traveler, I just want to make sure the place is secure and if it’s fairly close to town.
Also, do you make your neighbors aware that someone is staying in your house from Airbnb? I just want to make sure people are aware so that my presence doesn’t surprise anyone. I know this might be uncomfortable to ask but as I’m African-American I want to make sure people are aware, so that your neighbors don’t call the police if they see me entering and leaving your home.
These are things that I have to think about when traveling alone which I do often. Thank you so much for your reply and I do hope we can make the dates work.
There are many weird things that I’ve asked before staying in an Airbnb or even a hotel but I’ve never asked a question like this. I never felt like I had to.
This is a small town with about 1,000 people — and like many small towns all up and down the state of California — its population is mostly white faces with very few BIPOC so these are fair questions she’s asking. And it’s both sad and unfair that she feels like she has to ask these questions.
African-Americans are important, their issues are important, and they should not be overshadowed. And saying the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is neither racist nor is it anti-white. It is about equal rights. It’s about Black people having the same access to justice and fairness. And I don’t believe that they do, not now and not in the past. Did you know that people who are Black are twice as likely to be killed by a police officer while unarmed, compared to a white person?
According to a 2015 study, African-Americans died at the hands of police at a rate of 7.2 per million, while whites were killed at a rate of 2.9 per million. Bui AL, Coates MM, Matthay EC. Years of life lost due to encounters with law enforcement in the USA, 2015–2016. J Epidemiol Community Health 2018;72:715–718.
And unfortunately, it’s not just George Floyd; it’s Ahmaud Arbery, it’s Breonna Taylor, it’s Elijah McClain, it’s Eleanor Bumpers, it’s Trayvon Martin, it’s names that we’ve heard, and many that we haven’t. Case in point, see the Incalculable Loss Project and their powerful version of the Memorial Day cover of the New York Times featuring some of the 7,000 names of Black lives lost to police violence in this country along with the status of their case. All since 2000. That’s just two decades. That is f*cked up. It’s been f*cked up for a long time. I don’t know how else to say it.
And those are just a few reasons why I’m writing this.
From my work as a designer and my experience as a human in the world, I believe it’s paramount to listen first — really sit in that tension of not speaking and listen hard, resist the temptation to jump in. That’s first and foremost.
Then, before doing anything else, learn about the situation at-hand as well as the problems that users are facing. Seek to understand as much as you can from a diverse set of voices. This way, if I can grok some of what those folks (read: in design speak, users) are feeling, a solution can be designed that might address some of those gaps. And my story about my friend’s Airbnb guest is but one in a chorus of stories that demonstrate how the broken state of our world.
So, how can we fix it? I’m glad you asked.
Listen and learn
Authors and resources exist in abundance on the subject of racism and ways to combat racism, and the literature spans centuries, but here are a number of things to consider — things to read online, books, and stuff to watch or listen to online.
Five things to read online:
- “The Prison-Industrial Complex”
Written by Eric Schlosser in The Atlantic, Dec 1998
- “The Case for Reparations”
Written by Ta-Nehisi Coates in The Atlantic, Jun 2014
- “75 Things White People Can Do for Racial Justice”
Written by Corinne Shutack, Aug 13, 2017
- “My White Friend Asked Me to Explain White Privilege”
Written by Lori Lakin Hutcherson, Sep. 8, 2017
- The 1619 Project by the New York Times
These are but five, there are miles and miles of people who’ve written on the subject of racism.
Here are six books to read:
- How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi (2019)
- White Fragility: Why It’s So Hard for White People to Talk about Racism by Robin J. Diangelo (2018)
- Why I’m No Longer Talking to White People About Race by Renni Eddo-Lodge (2017)
- The Color of Law: A Forgotten History of How Our Government Segregated America by Richard Rothstein (2017)
- The New Jim Crow: Mass Incarceration in the Age of Colorblindness by Michelle Alexander (2010)
- I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings by Maya Angelou (1969)
The first in a seven-volume series
I’m linking these titles on bookshop.org because I think you should support your local bookstores first — you can also find them on your own, local shops are happy to order publications they don’t have in-stock.
There are shelves and shelves of books to read on the history as well as the current state of racism, these are just a few — the tip of the iceberg.
And here are seven things you can watch or listen to:
- Do the Right Thing (1989)
This classic from Spike Lee feels just as current today
- When They See Us (2019)
A four-part film series by Ava DuVernay on Netflix that examines five Black teenagers who were wrongly convicted of raping a jogger in Central Park in 1989 — there was also a documentary called The Central Park Five in 2012
- 13th (2016)
Some people consider this DuVernay deep dive into the 13th Amendment to the Constitution a kind of prequel to When They See Us
- I Am Not Your Negro (2016)
This documentary/adaptation by Raoul Peck of an unpublished James Baldwin memoir, contrasting America’s past and its present racism
- History of American Slavery and Reconstruction
Jamelle Bouie and Rebecca Onion explore the history of American slavery and examine how it came to shape our country’s politics, economy, and culture — and then in the follow-up series, examine the era of Reconstruction that followed the Civil War
- The Watermelon Woman (1996)
A film by Cheryl Dunye about a young Black lesbian who works a day job in a video store while trying to make a film about a Black actress from the 1930s known for playing “mammy” roles
- Segregated by Design(2020)
A short film based on the book, The Color of Law by Richard Rothstein (referenced above), directed by Mark Lopez
There are tons more. And right now, you can find some of them free — at AppleTV, on HBO, and at the Criterion Collection among others.
Two more suggestions, if you have kids, you can look at this list of resources with which you can talk to your kids about race. And make sure your book/movie/television library has stories that involve BIPOC characters — by that, I mean main characters, important characters, and not just villians or side characters. Three off the top of my head:
- Last Stop on Market Street
Written by Matt de la Peña and illustrated by Christian Robinson
Written by Lupita Nyong’o and illustrated by Vashti Harrison
The 2019 Kickstarter success story about an African-American father styling his daughter’s hair won an Academy Awards for Best Animated Short Film
They’re all great. My daughter loves them.
So, those are 23 things to get you started in learning more. I’m also listening to, watching, or reading some of these as well — I’m halfway through a third listen of Slate’s History of American Slavery myself.
Finally, if you can, donate. Consider Black Lives Matter or National Bail Fund Network. And if your politicians and local leaders aren’t reflecting what you think should be done in your community, in your state, or in the country at-large, speak your mind to your national, state, and local representatives and vote.
Myself, I’m starting by listening, learning, thinking, and doing as much as I can — and when considering my own experiences as someone who is half Korean and half white and the long history of violence against Black people, I know that racism is a problem.
Racism 👏 is 👏 a 👏 problem.
And it has been a problem. Racism is a problem with deep roots in this country, in this world. And that tree has grown formidable over centuries with lots of tending and care from many people — including me, including other Asians, including other BIPOC, including white people.
You can’t fix racism with hashtags and superfical allyship. Case in point, #blacklivesmatter has been around for eight years and still young Black men are being killed for jogging outside, for selling CDs, and for falling asleep in a fast food drive-thru. Neither will divesting funds from police departments for other social services or adding BIPOC to your C-Suite or board of directors, but we have to start somewhere. And for me, the buck stops here — with me, right here.
I am committed to being more than just an ally, or as my friend Shannon McCormick said on Facebook, an accomplice, to bring more diversity and inclusion into all parts of American life, to make things equal. Because as thinking, feeling human beings in the world, I believe that we know better. Or, we should know better.
It was so great hearing all sorts of people talking about Juneteenth last Friday and over the weekend. Many talked about the history of the occasion and some have talked about it as America’s second independence day but there’s still so much work to do. Jason Kottke mentioned on his blog 93-year-old Texas resident Opal Lee who is working to get Juneteenth recognized as a national holiday. Follow her efforts here and sign her petition. And that’s one other way to start.
I am committed to doing more. As much as I can in my work life, in my home life, and everywhere in between. Because Black lives matter. 🖤
Thanks for reading. Let me know what you think.
And if you’re looking for more ways to be an ally (or an accomplice), diversity and inclusion advocate Michelle Kim’s widely shared post provides a list of more than 20 tips. Paradigm also has a great blog post about allyship. All of this information is meant to be a place to start, this isn’t the end.
Did you miss the first part where I talk about my own experience growing up half Korean and half white and the myth of Asians as the “model minority”? Read it here.