White supremacy works best when we’re isolated from each other. When I ask people where their politics come from, it’s because I’m hoping to find something in common, those places of overlap in how our hearts and minds are constructed, and the political commitments rooted therein. As uncomfortable as it is, it’s in this spirit that I offer some of my back-story here. I hope others will do the same.
It should come as no surprise that as a kid, I was marked as different in the ways that many Asians growing up in white America experience; name-calling, eyelid pulling, the ridiculous mimicry of Asian accents, and ignorant questions asked through squinting eyes like, “How can you see?” But honestly, my earliest consciousness of systemic injustice centered on gender. Of course I felt the visceral rage at being racialized(especially in gendered ways), but in my youth, that rage had no name. It had nowhere to go until later.
I grew up in a lily-white suburb of Buffalo, New York, in the 1980s, during the halcyon days of Reagan, the Cold War, the War on Drugs, and the AIDS crisis. I was 12 when Vincent Chin was beaten to death, but I wouldn’t learn about it until years later, in an intense, shifting racial milieu in New York marked by incidents like the Tawana Brawley case, the Central Park Jogger, and the tenth anniversary of Vincent Chin’s death. But I’m getting ahead of myself.
My early youth was shaped by things like Olivia Newton-John, Luke and Laura, Rubik’s Cube, and the days when MTV was all music, all the time. Like a typical ‘80s suburban kid, I loved roller-skating, wore oversized sweaters with shoulder pads, and big, dangly earrings. But I moved through the world thinking that my difference, which was always felt, meant something was wrong with me. If I tried hard enough (which involved many bad perms), I’d overcome it. There was no one to tell me otherwise. There were other Korean kids around, but they weren’t allowed to hang out with me.
Here’s what happened. My mother left my father when I was about eight, and I lived with her until high school. Because of this, the local Korean community cast both her and me out as disreputable, untouchable, morally tainted. For a time, my mother and me, we were all we had. It cemented in my mind that breaking gender rules meant losing stuff – your friends, your nice middle-class neighborhood, your cultural ties, and your sense of identity. The Korean community ostracized my mother, who had founded and scrubbed the floors of Buffalo’s first Korean church, not because her actions were wrong, but because her gender was. There was no reason good enough for a Korean immigrant woman to leave her husband, and no castigation severe enough. On the other hand, my father maintained his place and privilege in the community.
Mom and I moved into a small, downtown apartment with no furniture. I’d hear the phone ring late at night, and find her on the kitchen floor listening to church leaders tell her that she’d die alone and burn in hell. The upshot was that growing up, I learned to hate Koreans. And at school, in the seemingly perfect white faces of those around me, I saw not myself, but my deficiencies. Rather than seeing white supremacy as the source of my alienation, it was easier to blame all Korean people for how I felt.
Being Asian American in the ‘80s wasn’t cool. The auto wars defined political rhetoric on the economy, and anti-Japanese sentiment was at a broil. Vincent Chin was murdered in Detroit, and his killers were never held responsible. The dehumanizing model minority myth found popular audience and became accepted truth. There was an explanation for the rage permanently smoldering in my rib cage, and it had everything to do with race. Still, I didn’t have the words to piece this together, never having experienced the kind of criminalization or vigilantism that led to the deaths of Trayvon Martin, or Vincent Chin, or Fong Lee.
By 12, I was a rebellious kid with too much free time. My mother worked full-time and went to school at night, which left me with lots of time to find trouble. I tried all the bad stuff pretty early, but with few consequences. One night, a couple of cops found me drinking on the golf course. They simply brought me home. Despite breaking the law in various ways, my life options remained intact. I would graduate from high school. I would go on to college. And thankfully, I would find some political footing there.
Studying race and gender led me to notice two things about my place in the world: First, the indictment of Korean culture for everything bad that I’d experienced growing up stood in stark contrast to my inability to name whiteness as the source of my racial humiliation. After all, those weren’t Korean kids mocking me on the school bus or calling me “chink” – but somehow the thought of losing my foothold in white America was terrifying enough to keep me trying to fit in. The second thing I realized was that my racial position as a middle-class Korean American, as crappy as it was, was a privileged one. I got to move in and out of white social, cultural, and political spaces with very little policing. These two insights, in one way or another, have shaped the 20-plus years of my political work.
I consider myself lucky. I was part of the fight for Columbia University’s Asian American Studies program in the early ‘90s, which led me to meet people like Yuri Kochiyama, one of our advisers, and Jane Bai, one of our instructors who would go on to found the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence, a seedbed for powerful racial justice leaders and campaigns. The experience gave me the words, the lessons, and the passion to connect my rage to something more than a white, middle-class understanding of gender norms. I began to see how race shaped gender, sexuality, and class in America, and how it was at the root of my own family’s story, through a war that has divided Korea for 60 years now. And, I learned how white supremacy used people who look like me as tools to advance anti-Black racism, and how my silence was tantamount to complicity in a system with deadly consequences.
Making these intellectual connections was critical because of all that white supremacy had enticed me to excuse. Like many Asian American activists, I applied and refined them later as a community organizer. There are many different paths to political consciousness. But it always happens as part of asking ourselves, “Why?” and fighting alongside others to change the conditions in which we find ourselves. But we are not all the same. Part of building solidarity among ourselves as Asian Americans, and with other people of color, is sharing our stories to see where our experiences overlap, but also, to learn from the places where they don’t.
Soya Jung is Senior Partner at ChangeLab.