We attended the Black Lives Matter demonstration in Abilene on June 4, exactly 31 years after another demonstration in my home country, which did not go so well.
We had feared that we, as Asians, would be awkward there, but we blended in well. To bring some levity to the situation, we Chinese are said to be like pandas; we can be both Black and white, or neither, depending on how you see it.
I aspire to be neutral, opposing police brutality against the Black people, while opposing riots and the disintegration of order that happen in many parts of the country. Partisan politics sometimes make us forget we are capable of holding seemingly opposing positions, or even contradictions.
Berlin Fang (Photo: Provided photo)
Walt Whitman once said: “Do I contradict myself? Very well, then I contradict myself, I am large, I contain multitudes.”
On a deeper level, supporting law and order and supporting BLM aren’t that contradictory. In both cases, we choose to affirm the humanity and dignity of others. It is not even about picking sides. As one speaker at the demonstration so aptly put it: “It is not even Black versus white. It is everyone against racial discrimination.”
Some counter “Black Lives Matter” by saying that “All Lives Matter,” which is true, but it does not help. When a baby is born, you would be telling the truth by saying: “All people will eventually die.” However, the parents would not be happy with that. There is a time for everything.
This is a time for us to say Black Lives Matter when a Black man just lost his life needlessly and there is a pattern about it. If we choose not to stand with the oppressed when injustices happen, who will stand with us when injustices happen to us?
As an immigrant from Asia, I do not get to experience some of the racial tension between Black and white people. I resort to some reading to understand what is going on. From Colson Whitehead’s “Underground Railway,” I get to understand the painful past of slavery and brutality. As a side note, Whitehead won the Pulitzer prize for this book in 2017, and he went on to win the prize again in 2020 for his book “The Nickel Boys.”
Whitehead is Black and brilliant, in case anyone tries to talk down to people like him.
Then I read “I’m Still Here: Black Dignity in a World Made for Whiteness” by Austin Channing Brown, whom Abilene Christian University invited to speak last year. Brown’s parents named her as if she were a white male so that she does not have her applications tossed away at the first glance.
I empathize with her parents in this detail. I understand what college admission officers or HR officers might be thinking when they see a Zhang, Huang or, in our case, a Fang as an applicant. There is discrimination of another type working against us in situations like this. People judge when there is little information available. Subtle discriminations are real, and we should all fight them. It is not about what we say; it is about what we truly think.
So, what is the way forward? I don’t have the answers, but I think we need more than raising awareness.
One effective way to change attitudes about a group of people is to interact with them. I have seen some people in our community support through adoption and CASA sponsorship. Others pay lip services to equality and justice at a safe distance, retreating mostly to cozy bubbles in day-to-day living. And then you have those in neighborhoods with well-manicured lawns spreading alarm and fear about a Black teenager walking down the street, when many neighbors are heavily armed. Who is more intimidating?
I also find great value to grow empathy through dialogue.
Recently, I have been translating Colum McCann’s novel “Apeirogon,” which is about a Palestine father who lost a daughter to a rubber bullet from an Israel soldier, and an Israel father who lost a daughter to a human bomb. In their grief, the two fathers from opposing sides come together to talk to each other and then to the audiences, spreading the call for peace and reconciliation through what McCann calls “radical empathy.”
When you hear others’ stories, you see them as humans just like yourselves.
That Israel father in Apeirogon has a bumper sticker which we all should have, or better, commit to memory: “It will not be over until we talk.” When we stop talking, history will repeat itself in ugly ways.
Originally published with Abilene Reporter News, June 19, 2020