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tú me quieres blanca (may God forgive you)

Three months ago, I walked into a Cuban pharmacy to fill a prescription I’d been given at the clinic across the street.  I had recently come down with a case of photodermatitis, which maybe sounds bad, but the hospital specialist assured me that the scary name was mostly a bluff – I had probably just spilled lime juice on my hands and then unintentionally let the sun stain my skin with these leprotic spots.  The recommended treatment was essentially to not let the sun shine on my hands anymore, and to apply a healing salve every morning and evening.

While I was waiting for my medicine in the pharmacy, I witnessed the single most disturbing thing that I saw while in Cuba.

This was more sinister than any evil economic or political ideology I found on the island, more jarring than skinny dipping in the freezing Atlantic Ocean, more frightening than the time a Cuban soldier threatened to arrest me for taking a photo of him.

On a shelf next to medicine and contraceptives, I saw something for sale called skin whitening cream.  In case it isn’t obvious, the point behind this product is to lighten your skin, and therefore align it more closely with perfection and beauty.  This particular brand was called White Prestige™.

blanca

White Prestige.  Main ingredient: Hyaluronic Acid.

The implicit assumption at play here is that whiteness equals beauty.  Dark skinned folks, therefore, need only to assimilate to white standards and expectations if they want to truly be beautiful.  A cream like White Prestige might seem odd to some, but this “beauty product” is, after all, for sale in a country with a tired history of racial discrimination against black and brown bodies.  This greater context perhaps begins to explain why some darker skinned people would eventually learn to hate their skin so much that they would pay money to bleach it, to apply caustic chemicals (literally acid) to it, in order to escape the social shame associated with not being white enough.

Although these products comprise a multi-million dollar industry worldwide, they are not as mainstream here in the United States.  However, it would be a mistake to assume that the very literal whitewashing that takes place in other parts of the world is somehow absent from our society.  The all too familiar pattern of altering ones’ skin, eyes, and hair to better align it with how white bodies look has become a common trend in my country, and the twisted philosophy behind this practice (whiteness=beautiful) affects the lives of both whites and people of color, adults and infants.

Which doll is the nice doll?  It’s that one.  Which is the bad one, the scary one?  That one.  Why is that doll pretty? “Because it’s white and has blue eyes.”  Why is that doll ugly?  “Because he’s black.”

I hope you’ve watched the above video, which documents several studies examining how early childhood development and socialization often has racially fragmenting results.  Studies like these should break your heart, perhaps especially if you happen to believe that all people are created equally in the image of God.  It should utterly rile you that the greater trends of colonial violence operating in our society fracture and build to a rising spiritual conflict inside of our youth.

Since I left Christian fundamentalism (where I had several experiences with fake exorcisms and the like) I’ve been hesitant to name things “demonic” or “hellish.”  But the phenomenon recorded in the above video is truly nothing less than satanic, a devilishly fathered system of lies that incarnates itself inside the most innocent.

The kind of shame and self-hatred encouraged by this pattern can actually perhaps be aptly summarized by an old protest song originally written about an IRA terrorist attack in Northern England that left two children dead:

Another head hangs lowly, child is slowly taken

And the violence caused such silence

who are we mistaken?

But you see, it’s not me

It’s not my family in your head, in your head…

Young people begin to absorb horrific messages of White Prestige(™?) soon after they are born.  They learn very early to be ashamed of the fact that they don’t seem to match up with popular conceptions of goodness or beauty.  Children of color in particular know that it’s not them, not their faces or families, that people are picturing in their heads when we’re having a conversation about who or what is beautiful in this country.

Non-white children instinctively come to understand that their people aren’t represented positively or adequately in the media, that members of their communities aren’t holding a proportionate amount of societal power.  And so our young people naturally begin to internalize the unnatural rationale that being a different color consequently correlates to being untrustworthy, dangerous, ugly.

How can we – who believe that the color of one’s skin does not impact the content of one’s character – fight against a culture of such reckless hate?  For one, we can talk about it.  We can educate young people about this issue.  We can teach our children to take joy in their melanin-thick, sunburn-resistant skin, to celebrate their little dark eyes that squeeze almost completely shut when they laugh, to embrace their “wild,” natural hair that refuses to be tamed or pushed into a box.

We can help our children come to know that their own bodies are 100% unique, 100% acceptable.  We can work so that they will one day understand that the white supremacy which operates largely unchecked in our country is a system of evil from the devil himself.  May our little ones never come to believe the lie that they need to pick up a jar of acid to bleach their skin, and destroy themselves in order to become beautiful.

As Alfonsina Storní, one of Latin America’s most important and incisive poets, wrote almost one hundred years ago: “tú me quieres blanca…me pretendes blanca…(Dios te lo perdone).”

“You want me white…you expect me to be pale…(may God forgive you).”

How about you – do you believe you have been unconsciously affected by systemic racism?  Why or why not?

seniortime sadness (and writing through it)

Anne Lamott (who I consider to be a spiritual mother of sorts) says that writing can be about filling you up when you are empty, and also about dealing with the emptiness.  I’ve experienced this to be true at many points in my life, especially now as I am entering my final year of college.  There’s a certain kind of swelling sadness, or at least a new sense of depth, that is growing swiftly at this particular stage in my life.  It’s been comforting to use writing – the creation process – as a useful tool to help guide me through these uncertain waters.

When I came to this university just three years ago, the scary prospect of the real world™ suddenly paused.  Jobs, career, and future relationships didn’t demand any present concern.  I allowed myself to become imbued with the comforting knowledge that they would all work out in their proper time.  College, after all, would last forever.

I’ve experienced my undergraduate education here like a stilted version of purgatory.  I’ve been stretched and challenged and tugged in all the right ways, I’ve made mistakes and stumbled down weird roads, and I’ve loved well and grown as a human being.  Now, senior year is approaching.  The incessant “so what are you doing after graduation” question has already begun to surface.  Our eternal deadline is on the horizon and I’m honestly a bit frightened at the prospect of what comes next.

So here I am, these universally isolating thoughts clattering around in my head, spending a day “writing” and relaxing before residents move in, before classes start, before campus kicks off and all hell breaks loose.  I’ve had a few days like this in the past week, and I’m starting to notice that every time I “dedicate a day to writing,” I end up instead reading thought pieces and comic books, obsessively tweezing rogue body hairs, marathon-watching my favorite shows on Netflix, neurotically scrubbing my carpet clean with blue patches of tape.

I've got that summertime, summertime Netflix...

I’ve got that summertime, summertime Netflix…

As Anne Lamott has also observed, the one thing no one never tells you about writing (the one “fly in the ointment,” as she puts it) is just how much the actual act of writing sucks, how much it strains your mind and soul and smarts at every part of you.

I’m already a really undisciplined person.  And writing is therapeutic, but it doesn’t dish out rose-colored glasses; the whole ugly process of forcing myself to sit down and write only makes me realize just how bad I am at calmly organizing my thoughts coherently on paper.

I have over a hundred unfinished drafts sitting in my blog queue.  Some of these are almost totally completed, others have disparate thoughts I’ve vaguely fleshed out, and a few feature just one or two impossible sentences.  I’m sure many of these works will never see the light of day.  But the ones that do, I’m proud of them.  They aren’t just random, I take the time to create and polish them.  I want them to stretch their legs and get out there into the world and start walking all over the place.

I’ll admit it – when I’m feeling celestially dramatic, I have a real sense of guardianship over my words.  I almost see my individual posts or essays as my children.  (I also wonder if other writers or artists ever feel this way.)  Each individual labor is meaningful to me, a little piece of myself, born in love, and each of these little ones is unique and special in their own way.  Like a parent, I do my best to look in on my creations from time to time, and I always hope they are doing well.

Sometimes these babies will make a mess: sometimes they misbehave and cause a stir, stomping around and tracking muddy fingerprints all over the walls of my tiny social network.  Other times they just sit quietly and play in the corner, hoping no one will notice them.  (I tend to like these ones best.)  Other babies will silently pack up their things and light out, marching off into the unknown.  I don’t hear back from all of them, but way down the road, some might return with some tiny bit of gospel, of good news.

Like yesterday, for instance, I woke up to a Facebook message from an old enemy who had once been an old friend.  It was odd, considering the way things ended between us, but I was intrigued and excited to connect again after years of silence.  She mentioned that a friend of hers had linked to my blog, and that she’d clicked a few posts back to something I wrote about our freshman year of college.  The post made her feel sad and nostalgic encouraged her to take the initiative to reconcile things (an action I had not really been brave enough to take up to this point).

Through one five minute Facebook conversation, we both regained a friendship.  A bridge became unburned.  It was that easy.  We’d held onto the fear and regret for years now, and in the end, it was silly how simple solving our conflict was.  It made me want to grab ahold of the little one who helped orchestrate this healing and give her a hug and a blue ribbon, for humbling me and teaching me what it means to forgive and forget as children do.

Now, there’s probably one large downside (besides the spiritual arrogance, of course) to thinking of your words as your children: you’ll eventually have to kill them.  I was writing a newsletter article a month or so ago and I was given a word limit of 400.  I turned off Netflix and ate some cereal and mustered up the strength to work for an hour and a half, then whipped my head up to check the word count.  1000.  I spent the next three hours wracked with hot tears, stinging anger, and misplaced guilt as I culled a herd of my own precious children down by the hundreds.  (Okay, it wasn’t that intense, but seriously, it was hard, and I felt like a monster.)

Kill your darlings, is a valuable piece of advice that’s very popular among my writer friends.  I also hate it.  To kill your darlings essentially means that whenever you think you have written a sentence that is so fantastic, so clever, so amazing, that it’s sure to make everyone realize how wonderful and intelligent of a writer you are…whenever that happens, you need to swallow hard and kill the thing.  Cut the entire sentence from the piece, get rid of it now before anyone sees it.  It is almost certainly too floral, too verbose, or too self-important for anyone but you to stomach.  It means other things too, I think, but you might be better off asking my friends about that.

I kind of got off topic here.  My point, I think, is that even though writing is so horribly difficult and annoying, sometimes good things can come from the pain and awkwardness that go into it.  Disciplined writing, killing my darlings, helps me to understand a crazy world that can make me feel alone, a world that often scares the shit out of me.  As messy and infuriating as the whole writing process can be, the mental clutter and disarray actually help me fight off the emptiness and the unknown that the future brings.  And so I welcome the struggle.  Better chaos than oblivion.

a real rattlesnake, always ready to strike

Last month, I celebrated my 21st birthday.  Friends gathered together at my buddy Alex’s apartment for food, drinks, cigars, and music.  It was tons of fun, everybody got home safely, and then I schlepped off to work at 7am the next morning.

Overall, it was a great day and the party itself was a wonderful way to celebrate reaching college-adulthood.  I wanted to write this post because I think I’ll always remember in particular a few simple but amazing presents I received to commemorate the occasion:

The first gift I want to tell you about was that I had a nice lunch with my mom and dad.  It has been almost fourteen years since divorce split us all apart, and in this entire time I hadn’t gotten to sit down for a meal with both of my parents, even though they live five minutes from each other.  It was so nice just going out for a meal like a normal family (if there is such a thing), and feeling somewhat intact again for just a few minutes, even if my parents weren’t really speaking to each other.  I’d like to think the waiter didn’t even notice anything was wrong.

fam

would you?

The second gift that I really appreciated was a poem that my friend Heather wrote for me.  It’s kind of an unconventional gift, especially for a college student, especially for one’s 21st birthday.  I’ll admit, when she first told me my birthday present was going to be a poem, I heard something silly and juvenile inside of me crinkle up and die – a poem for a 21st birthday gift just sounded like the dullest thing in the world, like getting a pair of oversized socks for Christmas while your siblings received buckets of celebratory booze (and I may be mixing metaphors/celebrations here).

However, after I read this poem, I was struck.  I don’t think I’ve ever felt so happy at receiving a birthday gift.  It is silly, sharp, winsome, and wildly esoteric in the sense that unless you’re a nerd about my life, you won’t understand all of it (which is totally ok).  Heather has given me permission to share it here, at the end of this post.

I really appreciated all the work that went into writing it, and I’m grateful for all the time spent on the physical displays of love that people gave me.  (Not to disparage the lovely libations that many of you gifted me at our party, but store-bought things often can’t hold a flame to presents constructed from the heart.  Handmade gifts, born in love, really are the best.)  Another friend handwrote me a letter, and made me a super sweet mix CD.  My girlfriend took the time to create a jar with “ 21 reasons I love you ♥” inside of it, where she carefully wrote me kind observations and infatuations on red and pink slips of paper.  All of these gestures made me want to cry with happiness.

make a wish!

make a wish!

Anyhow, to all of my friends who made it out last week, and to those who were too far away to be there in person, I thank you for reading this and for being a positive presence in my life.  So much love to you today.  I’m very grateful for you, loved ones, whether we met in Spanish class or through Twitter, and I’m especially thankful for the support and insight you’ve brought my life (particularly when things feel overwhelming and confusing on this end).  Thank you all for reminding me I am a valuable and important part of your lives and this world – as I said on my birthday last year, sometimes you first have to see somebody else love something before you can really believe it’s worth loving.

I’ll leave you with the aforementioned poem:

“Be a mover, a shaker,
A voice for the lost.
Be a thinker, a doer
No matter the cost.
Be a blogger, a writer
A true friend to those
Who are heretics, doubters
Though you face many foes.
Be an activist, a fighter
For justice and love
A supporter of a faith
That we all fall short of.
Be a romantic, a dreamer
Conspirer, inspirer
Someone who’s willing to
To Carry the Fire.
Be bold and be loud
Be an outspoken voice
For those who are told
That their love is a choice
Be true and be kind
Be a transparent soul
Where people, not projects
Become the ultimate goal.
Be an acceptor, nonjudger
Encourager, and free
To say what you think
And with no apology
Be an author, a critic
Creative and sincere
Not avoiding the issues
That people need to hear
Be a listener, an empathizer
Someone who understands
The struggles and heartbreaks
Of both woman and man
Be a feminist, a marcher
For equality and truth
When the world tries to silence us
Because of our youth.
Be persistent, consistent
Mr. Brightside, the grey
Because nothing’s black or white
At the end of the day
Be present, be mindful
Be generous to others
Welcoming each stranger
As a new sister or brother
Be a real rattlesnake
Always ready to strike
Questioning the conventions
That white society likes
Be a wordsmith, an inventor,
Always outside the box
Willing to stand up for
causes others may mock
Be strong and be proud
Be unshakable through pain
Though others may scorn you
Because you don’t think the same
Be loving and vulnerable
No matter the scar
Be not afraid of the darkness
Just always be who you are”

an open letter to UIUC’s incoming Chinese international students (part 2)

Hello again!  I hope you’ve been well in our time apart.  When we left off yesterday, I mentioned that I’d share a few of the race-related experiences I’ve had as an Asian American student at UIUC.  Now, I don’t want to lead you to any conclusions at this point, and I’m not trying to scare you away from our school.  In fact, Chinese international students generally return to our campus at a rate of 97%, which is actually better than our in-state average, so clearly things aren’t downright unbearable for East Asian international students here.

My goal in writing you this letter is not to extrapolate, sensationalize, or editorialize – just to share my personal experiences relating to the ugly things I’ve seen on campus over the past few years, and how racism might affect you.

Sound alright?

Let me start by saying that I’m Japanese American, one of just a smattering of such students at our school.  I’m also multiracial, which means that I can sometimes get away with “passing” for another race.  But even I, in my ethnic ambiguity, have been harassed by anti-Asian slurs as I’ve walked around campus.  While such overt displays of bigotry are not daily visitors in my life, they certainly make semi-regular appearances around town.  For instance, if I’m walking along late at night with my sister or white girlfriend or other Asian American friends, and I see a group of drunk, white fraternity brothers stumbling my way, I can be reasonably sure that unkind comments or leers will be directed towards us.  Most of the time I’m right – “Asian persuasion!” they’ll yell.  “Ching chong!

I also work as a Resident Advisor, which means that I serve as a paraprofessional advocate and resource for a diverse community of students each year.  (Come to think of it, you might even end up on my floor!)  In the 2+ years I’ve been doing this job, inevitably I always hear from some of my East Asian residents, who reluctantly relay to me that they’ve been subjected to random hostility.  “Stupid orientals!” Ignorant students mutter at them in the hallways.  “Fucking fobs.”  “Go back to North Korea.”

a meme from a popular UIUC student Facebook group

a meme from a popular UIUC student Facebook group

In my experience, xenophobia and prejudice are persistent attitudes here, present in many spheres of campus life – I’ve walked into my white residents’ rooms to see them playing video games with characters labeled “chink” and “fag;” during a meeting I held earlier this month in which I spoke to summer residents about racism at our institution, one of my coworkers openly complained to the group that there were “too many Asians” here anyway.

Just this morning, I read comments from UIUC students who belittled the Chinese international student who was tricked into paying almost $4,000 for a “cab ride” from O’Hare to Champaign.  Last winter I witnessed “a handful” of our students take to social media with racist comments to denigrate and harass our Chinese American Chancellor for not canceling school when it was particularly cold outside.

Microaggressions and racist language cut deep, and more severe incidents happen as well.

Last year, one of my kindest residents – a Taiwanese-born international student named Jackie* – was walking across our university’s main quad on a Friday evening, on his way home from the library and a friend’s place, when he heard footsteps running behind him.  He turned to glimpse a group of white students who quickly pushed him to the ground and beat him senseless, grabbing at his clothes and backpack, shouting insults and yelling about their and his fraternity.  By the time it was finished, Jackie was left lying on the sidewalk next to Greg Hall, barely conscious, covered in his own blood.  He eventually made it home and spoke with the police, who couldn’t offer much.  When his parents gaped at his busted face over Skype the next day, Jackie told them he’d fallen.  He’s still unsure how much of what happened to him had to do with his race.

Now, I am not saying these things will happen to you when you arrive on campus.  I don’t mean to make you feel uncomfortable for choosing this university, and it’s not my intention to single you out and suggest you are in danger here.  These personal experiences are merely meant to illustrate that I have reasons to make the claim that our campus culture is, at times, highly racist.

But how might this culture affect you, as a Chinese international student at the University of Illinois?  Probably in a few big ways and in hundreds of little ones.  If you’ll allow me just a bit more of your time, I’ve compiled a few of the concrete ways in which you might experience xenophobia and racism at UIUC.

orange and blue orange and blue

The Greek system is one notable example of this – though there are exceptions, you will not be welcome in the wide majority of popular sororities or fraternities at our school.  These organizations will, for the most part, go out of their way to wholesale dismiss you (and American-born people of color), instead opting to recruit U.S.-born white students.  You may notice similar trends replicated throughout campus and you may be looked upon with derision or suspicion if you try and enter social spaces that are not traditionally inhabited by Chinese students.

You may also notice this weird phenomenon where apartment complexes and car dealerships desperately vie for your business, even as the rest of our institution doesn’t go about making the appropriate changes to welcome you into our classrooms, social clubs, and living communities.  You may find that while our student body is largely infatuated with white international students from Europe and Australia, few domestic students will fawn over your beauty, your accent, or your culture in a similar way.

My expectation is that you may feel our students have the tendency to see you as just another number, rather than as an equally valuable, unique contribution to our student body.  You may feel like this if people make comments about your English skills, if you are religiously proselytized to, or otherwise treated as a tally mark by a recruiter or student organization.  You may feel like this if our students mock your birth names, or when you’re asked what your “real name” is if you’ve just introduced yourself with an English one.

Though our university is taking some steps to help welcome you to campus, we’re also neglecting to make some embarrassingly basic cultural changes that would help welcome you to our school.  For instance, when in just two weeks you arrive in your residence halls (your dormitories), if you happen to go by an “American name,” you probably will not see it on any of your materials – even if you’ve been using that name for years.  Though our university has had a plethora of opportunities to ask if, like thousands of other Chinese students, you prefer to go by a chosen English name, the question will never be asked of you.  Your Resident Advisor may ignorantly craft door decorations that feature a name you don’t like going by.

You’re also going to see incredibly casual racist imagery here – Confederate flags and horrifying misrepresentations of Native culture – much of it hung proudly from dormitory windows, pinned to the backpacks of your classmates and Resident Advisors.  On Halloween, you may see people dressing up in costumes that openly disrespect your culture.

Finally, even though you are taking this brave step to move halfway across the world to a strange and violent country, our students will have the audacity to complain that you’ve “refused to assimilate.”  This is one of the primary charges I’ve heard leveled at Asian international students over the past few years – our students and collegiate structures will socially segregate you, implicitly and explicitly excluding you from our personal lives and professional organizations, and then we will actually complain that you “tend to stay in your own cliques.”  Although we won’t question the outstanding social and racial hegemony in, say, the Greek system, our students will judge you for trying to survive a strange place by hanging out with folks who look, eat, and talk in a familiar way.

* * * * *

I know that was kind of a lot.  I should say that you don’t have to agree with what I’ve written here at all.  My observations are, after all, just those of an outsider.  I’m not Sino-American (or an international student) so you should probably take what I’m saying with a grain of salt.  In fact, when you get to campus later this month, you may find that I’ve been completely off – you may feel fully welcomed and validated and readily incorporated into classroom discussions, living spaces, and social clubs and organizations.

But I want you to know that even if your experience here is perfect, not everyone’s is.  One 2010 report from the recently shut-down Center of Democracy in a Multiracial Society (closed due to budget cuts) compiled clinical research from several university professors and administrators who set about examining the lingering presence of racism on our campus.

Their findings were indicting:

“[many students of color] used the following words to describe their feelings: fear, anger, frustration, disbelief, awkward, uncomfortable, isolated, and invisible. One student almost dropped out after his freshman year because he felt so unwelcome…[Our] focus groups revealed that racial microaggressions occur in university housing, as well as in many different spatial contexts across campus and throughout the greater Champaign–Urbana community.”

My point?  Even if you do not personally feel the ugly threads of racism here on our campus, many of us do.  Just talk to some of your peers about the challenges they’ve faced as non-white students at the University of Illinois: ask your classmates how it feels to be black at UIUC.  Talk to my friend Clara*, who had to have police officers escort her to her classes for a full semester because of death threats she was receiving after she started doing activism with our Native American House.

This campus is beautiful, and it’s still full of wonderful opportunities for students like you.  You already know this.  I’m writing this letter because I also want you to be aware of some of the struggles you may face here.

To end on a lighter note: I just learned that the Chinese transliteration of the characters U I U C means something like “there is love and there is happiness.”  That’s so cool.  This is truly my hope and prayer for each of you: that your years at UIUC may be filled with love, happiness, joy, and learning, as you continue to find yourselves and your futures.

At the same time, my fear is that many of the “racial tensions” felt on our campus will continue to increase until our community visibly mobilizes itself in concrete ways to welcome diverse communities of scholars like you, and to create authentic opportunities to learn from new perspectives.  Until this happens – no matter how many study abroad trips we hold and no matter how many international students we bring here – we will never be a truly global institution.

(I want to end this open letter with an open invitation to let me show you around campus when you get here.  Seriously, please, let’s go out for some hot squid, or Chipotle, or anything else.  Email me and we’ll set it up.  I’ll be around.  Look out for an upcoming post containing tricks and tips from current Asian international students at UIUC.)

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Social justice is built one idea at a time...

David Westlake

What on earth is God doing and how do I join in

ywammercy

A blog about how to better serve the poor and vulnerable of our world.

Musings&Rants

So what's really going on?

Broken Believers ♥

For the Struggler, the Rascal, the Mentally Ill, and All Who Follow Jesus With a Limp

the life of ashley marie

Smile! You’re at the best WordPress.com site ever

Good Deeds Are Easy

Do something good today!

Married in Mile Square City

life & love in hoboken

Ad Dei Gloriam

My thoughts and work on philosophy, theology, and politics.

Walking Christian

One Way, One Truth, One Life

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