I was never struck, or treated with physical violence, but I was made to feel that I was Other. I and others like me (immigrant, poor, person of color) did not belong. That was a time of great awakening. I was introduced to a different America than one I'd known, one that strips humanity from a large subsection of its citizenry. This was the America that shelled, dropped bombs, and shot into my parents' villages in Vietnam. These acts can only happen when a government believes that Other lives are not as valuable as (white) American lives.
I live in Fordham housing off campus and one day I was walking home quite late. I happened to be walking behind a white girl and I knew she lived in my building as she was bringing out her keys as we were approaching it. I was holding a lot in my hand so I was glad someone had their keys available, for convenience's sake, but she started walking faster, looking behind her as though I was following her.
Geoffrey Holder stopped his stride, cupped my hand, and told me what a breathtaking vision I was in that deep joyous bass of his. I will never forget that moment, that gift given as loud as any of these ID checkers, that accompanying bellylaughlove ringing across the ballroom. I very rarely feel beautiful, according to the world's eyes, but my elders remind me to listen to them. Listen up. Lean in.
Just because I live in white skin doesn’t mean I should be blind to the hurt that dwells within colored skin. I can never know the pain that comes from having others judge and persecute me and my family for the hue of my body. I can never understand what it means to be bruised by centuries of oppression.
Could he have an easier life than I had? It was the first time I felt a body-knowledge that my son might inhabit a world that I could only guess at. What would it mean about what I could teach him? How useful would my experience be to him— mediated as it always is as a woman of color? How much would he want to align himself with me? How much of him is lost to me by virtue of the fact that we do not look alike?
At 7 years and 5 years old respectively, my sister and I joined the all-white children’s choir and began practicing for the Christmas cantata. There were around 40 children in the choir. The choirmaster would direct us to sing and would record us and play the tape back. There were several occasions that the choirmaster was absolutely convinced that my sister and I were singing out of tune. She kept playing the tape and jabbing her finger at us saying, “I know it is the two of you that are out of tune.”
This is not the legacy I wanted for you. This is a disturbing and heartrending time for people like myself, who have come out of the muck of despair, and seen what can and could be done...only to see us sinking back into a deliberately created pool of ignorance. In my small way I have fought the battle for myself and for my kin, but at my age it causes physical pain to read the latest election results and think of what could have been.
Once, when I was walking down Fordham Road, a young woman bumped into me as she was walking the other way. She apologized, and I--in a rush--kept walking. ""Damn white people,"" she muttered under her breath. She was Latina, and I'm a young white man. I didn't respond to her apology not because of her skin tone, but because I was in a rush and because brushing shoulders with strangers is a fact of life in NYC. I wasn't bothered that she had bumped into me.
No, I do not need direction to whose office and what department in this university building where I've been employed for over a decade. This aromatic Chinese food I'm carrying in a plastic bag is my lunch I picked up myself.
You know how many Cubans I’ve met in my life? Two. I’ve been to three states, six different schools, eight different neighborhoods, and I’ve met two Cubans in my life. I’m only close with one of them, and her family’s story, though not mine to tell, is just as heartbreaking as mine. People don’t see us. People don’t think about us. Me especially, because of my privilege, which I have come to hate because it prevents me from doing what I have always wanted to do: own my heritage. I’m not here to cry about white boy problems to you because I’m not here as a white boy – I’m Hispanic, for Christ’s sake. All I can really have is the language, and I’ll practice that until I die. Anything to throw it in their faces that I’m not who they think I am, anything to be proud.
I remember living as a queer Asian American in Bed-Stuy and how profoundly I stuck out being neither black nor white as I went about my daily errands of groceries and laundry. The children who laughed at me were bemusing, because I admit, I did look strange. I wear huge glasses and vivid sweaters everyday. My nails are usually painted, and my hair most likely disheveled.