“What Happened At Pride”: Thoughts on Inter-Generational Dialogue

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(Originally published July 18, 2016) I attended an event last week called “What Happened at Pride?,” which was meant to be a dialogue amongst the Asian Toronto community around Black Lives Matter Toronto’s action at this year’s Pride parade. It was hosted by Asian Community AIDS Services, a multi-lingual community organization which provides HIV/AIDS education, prevention, and support services to the East and Southeast Asian Canadian communities in Toronto.

Many of us were hoping for a dialogue that centred on the importance of tackling anti-Black racism in our own communities. Instead, we witnessed an incredibly disheartening and difficult conversation that showed just how challenging it is to have intergenerational dialogue when people feel their own discrimination has never been adequately addressed. We were told this event was meant to facilitate difficult conversations in a way that everyone could hear each other, including opposing voices. But by the end of the evening what became apparent was that most folks had not only refused to hear the other side, each side seemed even more entrenched in their own righteousness. There was a very clear generational divide in terms of younger folks speaking up for BLM and older folks wanting to centre their own experiences and histories of discrimination (not everyone, but this was a pattern in the room).

I have to admit that I was one of those people who was unable to hear many elders by the end of the evening. I think part of this was due to poor facilitation, but I also think part of this was the energy and attitude I (and many others) took in to the meeting. So many of us were still reeling from the news cycle last week, and its sometimes hard to know what to do with this kind of energy, especially as folks who are not Black but who really want to demonstrate our desire for solidarity with Black people. (Sometimes, as I demonstrated to myself, this energy makes us yell at our loved ones and close our eyes to their pain because we are so convinced we know more than they do). Some of us were strategizing beforehand to make sure anti-Black racism was not centred in this discussion, and because the ground rules made it clear that that might very well be the case (we were going to talk about “feelings” without politics, apparently), we became increasingly hostile and reactionary as the discussion went on.

This event — I hesitate to call it a dialogue — reminded me how easily our own righteousness can become a cudgel to beat others with. The folks in this room were people I hope to call my elders. They were part of the generation that forced the parade to stop in 1992 because people were dying of AIDS and nobody gave a shit. Their resistance to hearing us or even hearing BLM was not “simply” because they were being anti-Black racist, it was also because they were in mourning. Some of them had been marching in mourning — and I think about how painful it is that I could not bring myself to sit with their pain or learn how to hold it for them so that they could hear me.

I also think about how much history, knowledge and wisdom must have been in that room that we never got to hear about.

I have written about this elsewhere, but when it comes to our own community members, we need to be able to have a lot more patience and empathy for why people may be holding on to their oppressive behaviours. I am not trying to excuse oppressive behaviour; I am saying that if we cannot learn how to unearth the pain that lies underneath these prejudices they will remain unspoken even as they continue to circulate like a whiff of bad air all around us. There will be no space where our people can work through their own traumas and histories of violence, with each other, in community.

How do we create space for people to feel comfortable enough to share difficult and even ugly truths that they hold about the world? Truths that sometimes make our skin crawl but remain truths for people we love? How do we do this while centering anti-Black racism and taking care of our own emotional needs?

As I was reminded after this event, we have some models for how to do this work. The Alliance for South Asians Taking Action, the Asian Pacific Environmental Network (APEN), South Asian Americans Leading Together, and others have been doing work around inter-generational community building and have resources on addressing anti-Blackness in our communities. Desis Rising Up and Moving(DRUM) held a multilingual gathering and discussion literally on the streets of New York last year. They have also made their curriculum publicly available and it is an incredibly useful resource. APEN works with largely non-English speaking Chinese and Cambodian migrants to build community organizers and have held multi-generational sessions on anti-Blackness in the past. Seeding Change also has a resource on Grassroots API’s for Racial Justice that has some useful tips.

All of this to say that we still have so much work to do but there are models for how to do multi-lingual, multi-generational work. There is so much momentum and urgency for this work right now, and that urgency can make it feel like everyone we know needs to be on the same page RIGHT NOW or they are failing completely. But we need to remember that this work cannot be done lightly — if we are going to do this right it has to be a long haul process. Committing to fighting anti-Black racism in our communities means committing more wholeheartedly to our communities as well — and it means committing to this work on a long term basis and not only when Black death is being televised across the globe. It’s been so heartening to see so many different kinds of diaspora Asians working together and crowdsourcing so much knowledge. We need to build momentum with folks like API4BL while also recognizing the necessity of working with organizations that support our populations in depth — even though their analysis may not be where we want it to be at.

One of the points ACAS brought up in their intro was that they cannot centre anti-Black racism because they are not experts in anti-Black racism. This is a copout — yes — but it is also a reality that an organization like ACAS can barely support Asians living with AIDS, or adequately support Asian newcomers and refugees in seeking care, let alone show up for other kinds of violences. The system isn’t broken, it was set up this way. Let’s not forget that.