From ground zero, reflecting on the mix of privilege and prejudice that is the Asian American experience | By Phillip Lee (Summer 2020 issue)
It’s Thursday June 4 at 1 p.m. and I CAN breathe.
I was kneeling (while socially distancing) on the lawn in front of my church in North Minneapolis —- a space mobilized for people to pick-up basic supplies, food… and breathe. It was a space for people who wanted to help rebuild the community after the devastation and the aftermath of George Floyd’s murder on Memorial Day. On this day, George can’t breathe. But I can.
Today is George’s memorial. For some, it’s a time to cherish and celebrate George’s life. For others, it’s a day to mourn. For many, it’s another example of how skin tone can decide whether or not someone will be treated justly and humanely. For that reason, George cannot breathe any more.
The Geneva Convention’s policies were established after the World Wars for the purpose of “clear prohibition of torture and other cruel or inhumane treatment and outrages upon personal dignity, in particular humiliating and degrading treatment.” This international human rights law was created to protect enemies and prisoners of war to be treated humanely. How is it that in our own city, a black man is treated worse than an enemy during a time of war?
George was held faced down on a pavement while his hands were cuffed with another man kneeling on top of his neck for eight minutes and 46 seconds.
That’s not one minute
Not two minutes
Not three minutes
Not four minutes
Not five minutes
Not six minutes
Not seven minutes
Not eight minutes
At 1 p.m. today, collectively, we kneeled in remembrance of George for eight minutes and 46 seconds. I couldn’t believe how long that was. My knee hurt, my back hurt, I could feel the heat of the sun burning my neck… but I could breathe. No one had a knee on my neck for that eight minutes and 46 seconds restricting my breathing. I can’t even begin to imagine what that was like for George in his last minutes of life.
I’m left today feeling so many emotions —- anger, frustration, sadness, empathy, but I do also feel hope. As divided as we are in this country today, we have begun to expose the systemic issues which have been ignored for so long. We need to see it and name it so we can address it.
Racism isn’t everybody’s experience.
If you’ve been on the side of privilege, then racism hasn’t interrupted your life or made you uncomfortable, because you’ve benefited from it. As an Asian American man, I’ve experienced both. Growing up in a rough part of Chicago, I remember fearing getting jumped by gangs for wearing the wrong colors, or being the wrong race. As I grew older, while Asian Americans are people of color, many of us had the benefit of being the “model minority” or the “honorary whites.” Because of that, we’re treated better than other brothers and sisters of color. I work in a marketing department for a health care company. When I am at our hospitals and clinics for meetings, most of the time people assume I’m a doctor when they see me. This type of subversive racism divides the communities of color. While I’m a person of color, I’m not black, so I have privilege. I don’t worry about being pulled out of the car or being shot when I have an encounter with the police.
There are so many things I want to share with my friends and community about what’s going on. However, I still consider myself privileged and must listen more to the voices of my black and brown brothers and sisters.
Maybe I can share some of my thoughts for my other privileged friends. I do want to clarify that privileged people are not only white people, as privilege comes from many places; socio-economic status, gender, your address, your title, where you work and much, much more.
A common way to explain difficult things for consumers is in a form of an FAQ. Let me take a stab at some of the most frequently asked questions these days:
1. Why are all black people rioting, looting and burning buildings?
a. They’re not. Yes, some have been involved, but many have been started by groups instigating violence and destruction. There have been confirmed reports by law enforcement agencies that anarchists, white supremacists and opportunists are leading the destruction and looting. Let’s also be very clear that legal peaceful protesters are not grouped together with the group rioting and looting, as many people have assumed.
b. Another example I’ve shared with friends about the destruction is that if someone killed one of my children, and the police did nothing to try to catch or protect my family, and my other child’s life is in danger, what would I do to get their attention? I might burn down a building or two if that’s the only way to protect my family. Yes, I would try all other efforts first, but if no one would answer me, show me sympathy or care for who I lost, I would be moved to make my voice heard in other ways. Reflect on how much you love your family and what you would do to protect them. For the black community, it’s not just one child, it’s generations.
2. Why do only Black Lives Matter?
a. Nobody is saying that “only” black lives matter, but when they are systematically being treated inhumanely, we have to call it out. If I say that I love my daughter, that doesn’t mean I don’t love my son.
b. It’s the idea of the fragility of the privileged that prompts this question over and over again. We need to get past our own need to be recognized, and start seeing that historically and today, not all lives matter equally. Very sad, but true.
3. Why are you disrespecting the flag and the police by kneeling in protest?
a. As many of you may have seen, when the former 49ers quarterback Colin Kaepernick knelt in peaceful protest, the privileged went nuts. When seeing the former police officer Derek Chauvin (yes, we should say his name as well to recognize the perpetrator) kneeling on the neck of George, it was seen as “policing.” The kneeling protest by Kaepernick was in protest of the police brutality towards the black community. Instead of dealing with the core issue, there was an effort to divert the focus in order to demean this athlete’s peaceful protest as un-American, anti-police and anti-U.S. flag.
b. When white men, dressed in full body armor, armed with assault rifles, show up at the state capitals wielding confederate flags to protest their rights to free speech and right to bear arms, they are treated as loyal Americans defending their rights given to them by the Constitution of the United States. They are called patriots. When black communities gather in peaceful protest, unarmed and unarmored, they are shot at with rubber bullets, sprayed with water cannons, and tear gassed. They are called scumbags, fascists, and the so subtle “those people,” meaning not Americans. This is why Black Lives Matter.
As I struggle through so many feelings of anxiety and anger, I cannot fathom the feelings of despair that my black brothers and sisters are going through now, and have been enduring for decades. Seeing the tears, and hearing my friends share their fears for their black or brown children growing up in this country, with the fear that they can be killed without repercussion by those who are supposed to protect them, is heart-breaking, unjust and un-American.
As we all contemplate what our role is in abolishing racism, it starts with us. Do an inventory of the people in your life, i.e. your friends, neighbors, and colleagues. If you notice that everyone in your life looks like you and lives like you, then recognize that it is time to get to know people who are different from you. When was the last time you invited someone who didn’t look like you into your home to share a meal together? If you take this step, you will notice that you will learn a lot, and that your life will be so much more flavorful.
Speak up, take action and support those who need you. Privilege is a blessing. If you have it, use it to make a difference. Use to give life to those who may lose it.
Vote. When I went through my naturalization process to become a U.S. citizen, there was a question in the test, “What is the most important right promised to you by the Constitution of the United States?” I initially thought freedom of speech or freedom of religion. The correct answer was the right to vote. When I inquired about the reasoning, I was told that freedom of speech has no power, if speech couldn’t cause change. You can change policy and laws by voting elected officials who are interested in making needed systematic changes. The right to vote gives all of us power. It is important to utilize it.
For those who are still wondering: why should we get involved if we don’t struggle with racism?
Because we CAN breathe.
Phillip Lee is a cofounder of Korean Quarterly, and the chairman of the KQ board. He is a 1.5 generation Korean American, husband to an adopted Korean American spouse, father of two kids, and a member of the Sanctuary Covenant Church, one of the only sources of groceries and basic supplies for people in North Minneapolis after the recent events.