By Aimee Suzara
As a Filipino-American — within that broad category of “Asian and Pacific Islander” — I’m struggling to find my place in all this. Maybe struggle is too strong of a word. In fact, at first it was no struggle. I just felt. It felt like mine. It felt like ours. It is said that the heart is the most intelligent of our faculties, and so with the news of the verdict on Mike Brown’s killing — swiftly followed by the killing of 12-year-old Tamir Rice, and the verdict on the case of Eric Garner — I felt that pressure, right in the middle of my chest, that place where we first feel brokenness and ache and heaviness before we can think. With the clouds and the rain, it’s been difficult for me, as for many of you, to make it through the days without several strong coffees and a brief cry.
These are times when, as we witness and feel the injustice and sorrow, rage and outrage, we may even feel sorry for ourselves. Those of us who are not Black but belong to the larger grouping of “people of color” may feel our buttons pushed. It brought up, for me, being underestimated, stereotyped, wrongly presumed to be x, y, or z — being hyper-invisible or hyper-visible, as women of color and immigrants often are. There was something pushed about a system that places the burden of proof upon individuals who are “othered” or “demonized.” And the history of the Philippines under US colonialism. Though my secondary pains had little to do directly with the Black men and boys who were wrongly killed by law enforcement and systems that did not ensure justice, this is what happened for me. I felt grief for the victims, their families; I shared the grief sweeping over the country; and yes, I felt grief for myself.
A note on how I learned from Black struggles in America. Since my earliest politicization, I have looked to African American leaders and movements to understand how to survive in the United States. Emerging from small-town upbringings and more than a small dose of assimilation, I arrived late to the words and actions of Martin Luther King, Malcolm X; writers like Audre Lorde, bell hooks, Maya Angelou. Spending my freshman year at UC Berkeley tromping around with a drum and frequenting Deadhead parties, I was not settled in my own skin. After soul-searching in Ghanaian music and South Asian religions, I came full circle to my own Filipino identity. Then, I started to understand how my life as a child of Filipino immigrants was patterned in grooves etched in large part by African Americans.
It was with Ishmael Reed in my first poetry class in 1994 that I saw how Black writers re-invented the literary canon. June Jordan was teaching at UCB at the time; I had the privilege of seeing her speak, and witnessed her influence in the impassioned poems of her students. I saw the possibility of being a teacher and writer who could change lives. As I gained pride in my culture, I became more vocal. My parents were not, but had given me the microphone, supporting my dream of writing. I did not see many other Filipinos performing or teaching; those I found, I cleaved to. I began to look to Audre Lorde for her courage to speak out despite the risk of being “bruised or misunderstood.” I remembered June Jordan on the steps of Sproul, and Ishmael Reed urging me to write, as I penned my first spoken word pieces.
I too, have felt that I have been in the wrong skin, in the wrong body, at the wrong time. And yet, because of my circumstances, I have not had to lose my life to this. And — because I am not Black. We know that none have been subjected to the same level of dehumanization that African-Americans have in this country. And so I cannot claim to truly understand that lived struggle.
But here is the connector. There is the body — in the common experience of a system that would exploit the possibility of power over another, would reduce a human to an object or an animal or machine to produce its food, run its machinery, raise its children. There is a common residence in the destroyed body. I write about the prevalence of the racist science and dehumanization which occurred at the turn of the 20th century, the height of US Imperialism and conquest of the Philippines, when Filipinos were called by US soldiers “niggers” and “rabbits,” put on display at the World’s Fair of 1904 and seen as (dubbed by Rudyard Kipling in “The White Man’s Burden,”) “half-devil and “half-child.” And so I know that there is a machinery to all of this violence. There is a common language and abuse of power that subjects brown and black bodies to literal and figurative death — in the American imagination and in fact.
And so I understand that, facing this common machinery which has and continues to demonize and fear the other, to rob people of dignity and safety — I have no choice but to stand in solidarity. This is not just about raising my hands or using a hash-tag, though these actions are a part. This means practicing and encouraging empathy, listening to those who are more directly affected, having conversations with people in my circles and those radically different from myself. This means using my tools and platform as a writer and educator to add to the discourse, helping carry the burden of those wronged and challenging the often racist or incomplete narratives in the media. There is the time to draw parallels with our own struggles — and this need not take away from the issues at hand. But now it is about helping restore humanity and justice to these Black men and boys. Solidarity is self-reflective; it calls upon our deepest capacity for compassion; and it is necessary.
Originally published at aimeesuzara.tumblr.com.