It was rainy and cold that March day. Gray clouds, layers of them, floated above the city. On the radio, the voices of men and women crying, a community in pain, filled my car. The Hennepin County attorney, Mike Freeman, had just announced that he would not indict the two Minneapolis officers in the November shooting death of Jamar Clark, a 24-year-old unarmed black man, in Minneapolis.
It was not yet noon. I was on my way home from class. Beside me in Brooklyn Park, stopped at the same red light on Brooklyn Boulevard, were two young black men in their car. The rain-splattered window did not shield me from the same radio station they were listening to or the expressions on their faces. The man in the passenger seat punched the glass pane of the window, hard. I turned my gaze away, granting them, I hoped, privacy to feel the moment through.
In class, my students were confused and hurting. All semester long, we had been reading and talking about the many different ethnic and the racial groups that comprise Minnesota. We had first learned about the native folk who had lived here and then the first European settlers. We read about the first African Americans in the state, and the Latino Americans. We were on the Asian-Americans, the first Chinese individuals to enter the state and set up shops, two laundromats to be exact, one in Minneapolis and the other in St. Paul. I had given them a pop quiz. A black student gave the quiz back to me, blank.
He said, “I didn’t do the reading.”
I asked, “Why?”
He answered, “I shut off when it is not relevant to me.”
There was a moment of silence. I thought about doing what I normally do when classroom situations necessitated that I rise beyond my emotions, redirecting their statements into questions so that a conversation can happen, but before I could, one of my Hmong students, a quiet girl, responded.
She said, “No one said that when we were all reading about the African-American experience.”
The young man turned toward the young woman. His eyes glittered.
He said, “Exactly because the African-American experience is relevant for all of us. In this country, if you want to live here, you have to know about slavery, you have to know about the Civil Rights movement, you have to know that there is no justice.”
For a moment, she had no response, and then she said, “When I was younger, that is how I felt. I always supported African-American people because I understood how it felt to be mistreated because of your skin color, to be discriminated against because you’re not white. I never said anything. But do you know that each time we talk about black and white, I feel destroyed inside.”
She repeated, “I am destroyed inside.”
Her pain, like the falling rain outside our classroom window, soaked the room. There was no argument to be had. I could see the softening of muscles in the young man’s shoulders.
I said, “Why don’t you take this quiz back with you, do the reading, and turn it into me next class period?”
He took the paper from me. He went back to his seat. I felt through my emotions in the moment, and then I slipped back in time.
Life on the back burner
I, too, was a young Hmong woman sitting in predominantly white classrooms. I remember being taught about slavery and the Civil War, learning about Rosa Parks and Martin Luther King Jr. I remember feeling one with the young African-American girl walking in her beautiful dress, white men and women, faces skewed in hate, staring and shouting at her, as she made her way to a white school under the watch of armed guards. All my life in America, I have been taught to speak of race in terms of black and white. Each time, I’ve associated with the African-American experience because I, too, lived a life that was full of pain and misunderstanding. At work, the white bosses told my father that his job was to talk to the machines, not to them. At work, my mother scrambled to meet the quotas along loud assembly lines, sat with her head bowed before her Tupperware of white rice and Hmong mustard greens, when the white women at the other table talked of the disgusting foods the Hmong ate. At school, in the free and reduced lunch lines with the many Hmong refugee children, I struggled to be brave and unflinching before the judging gazes of the lunch ladies with their fine hair caught up in nets as I whispered my lunch status each day. All the way through to that moment in that classroom last March, I had been committed fully to the African-American struggle. I had never given voice to the suffering that I know so many people of color went through in the conversations about black and white — for fear I would compromise the fight with my own pain. Like my student, each time I silenced my experiences, I felt more and more destroyed inside.
And then I was in my car coming home to my family, and I had turned on my radio in time to hear the voice of County Attorney Mike Freeman and the cries from the video he played of the residents of north Minneapolis on that dark, cold night in November when a young black man was killed by police officers whose job it was to keep him safe. All over this country, in the last couple of years, the faces of black men and women have filled my social media pages, the television screen, and the cries of Black Lives Matter have resounded in my heart. I have felt their pain as my own.
I tried to trace the destruction I had felt growing inside of me. Was I my student’s age, or younger, when the poet Bao Phi, a Vietnamese American, asked at a talk, “Why do we place ourselves on the back burners of a fight that we cannot free ourselves from?” My answer to him was, “We must because the fire is burning our African-American brothers and sisters and where they need us, we must stand.”
There was a moment of great pride when my younger sister and my nieces attended a Black Lives Matter meeting for people of color. When they told me they had signed up as volunteers on different committees where their skills may be of use, my heart filled with hope for the beauty of our young ones. When the weeks passed and none of them received the promised e-mail to attend the committee meetings, when I watched my sister’s anticipation give way to disappointment, I found myself struggling to give her space to say the words I knew were destroying her inside. All she managed was, “I feel so much, I don’t know what to say or do.” She did nothing because none of us were ready to challenge a movement we knew mattered.
Perhaps it was in the eyes of my 12-year-old brother, as he struggled to speak up against the white boys in his class who were throwing around the word “Nigga,” struggling to situate himself in a fight for his life, in the language of black and white, that I started feeling the weight of the destruction through the long years, and to hear on repeat the words of Bao Phi, “Why do we place ourselves on the back burners of a fight that we cannot free ourselves from?”
What have we gained in the process? A young woman who only knows how to fight for others, who struggles and fails to fight for herself, time and again, because she does not want to be in an olympics of oppression, because she is afraid of distracting from the movement. A young boy who does not know who he is or where to situate himself and his yellow skin in a world where all the paper is white and the dominant ink is black.
I am reminded of another student, Tou, born in America, raised on the outskirts of the Twin Cities. The young boy realized he was not black or white only in the fifth grade, when a teacher asked him to draw a picture of himself with black ink on white paper. He said he drew the single-lidded eyes, the side-swept hair across the round face, even the gold chain around his neck, its pendant a cross. When he showed his teacher, she repeated the assignment: “Draw a self-portrait.” When the boy pointed out the features of his own face mirrored on the paper, the teacher shook her head, “You’re not white.” The boy was confused. He’s been confused for years. As a young man in college, he was still asking, “How do you draw Asian with black ink on white paper?”
The day of Freeman’s news conference, in the gray fall of the rain across the polluted skies of cities I love, as I drove my car on the shadowed highways, I watched the cars on either side of me. The faces of the people, black and white, yellow and brown, gray and tan, looked exhausted. I listened to the commentaries on the radio, responses to Freeman’s no-charge announcement in the fatal shooting of Jamar Clark. White folk talked about how transparent this whole process has been, the showing of video footage, and how it should be a model for other places in the country where white men kill black men regularly. Black folk questioned a system in which so few officers have been indicted in the shooting deaths of black people. I yearned to hear what an Asian American perspective, what a Latino American perspective, what a Native American perspective could lend to the conversation.
I yearn to say to my sister, my nieces, my students and my younger self the words I have not had the courage to speak until now: “I, too, am responsible for the silence that has kept us isolated in our hurt, that has allowed the oppression to happen not only systematically but personally, each and every time I have not spoken of our pain, have confused and destroyed the validity of our experience so that the black and white conversation can happen — because it must. I have failed to teach you that we do not have to stand in anyone’s light, because we all stand beneath the same bright sun. I will no longer be silent.
“You, my Hmong brothers and sisters, my sons and my daughters, matter. We cannot draw ourselves with black ink on white paper for people who are not willing to see the beauty, the depth and complexity, that is beyond our skin. We cannot continue to die inside any longer.”
This essay first appeared in VOYA magazine.
Kao Kalia Yang is a teacher, public speaker and writer. Her books include the award-winning “The Latehomecomer: A Hmong Family Memoir” (Coffee House Press, 2008) and the new “The Song Poet: (Metropolitan Books, 2016). She is a graduate of Carleton College and Columbia University’s School of the Arts. She lives in St. Paul with her family.
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