A few weeks ago, I marched alongside my Asian mother with the #BlackLivesMatter movement in Washington, D.C. I never thought I would have the opportunity to write those words, or to spend four and a half hours talking with my mother about race, or to learn together about how our identities are connected to this movement. Despite how distinctive racial differences in our family and our communities were, we grew up never talking about it. We claimed the title of “global citizens,” ignoring the ways in which anti-Blackness and our longing for Whiteness defined the way we lived.
My mother is from northern Thailand and my father is from a small rural town in Minnesota. I am the mix of them both – a Thai-American, mixed race, Leukreung, woman of color. Leukreung in Thai literally means “Half Child,” an apt description of how torn between two identities I felt growing up. Yet, the halfway line was never clearly drawn. Often, my White Identity would fight for greater ownership, claiming more of me so that my connection to my Asian Identity – and therein, my Asian mother – would diminish into thirds, then quarters, then slices of eighths.
When you are Leukreung, you know that systems of racial hierarchy do not disappear once they are bound under marriage. I saw how the restaurant service I’d receive was dependent on which parent I would walk in with. I saw how my brother and I found greater value in our dad’s advice, how we sought his approval for our own self-worth, and how we knew that a “no” from Mom was insignificant as long as Dad agreed. I saw how embarrassed I’d feel to have my mom drop me off at birthday parties and soccer practices, how angry I was that she was never part of the PTA Mom Club, how frustrated I’d get when she asked me to write her emails, cover letters, and resumes for job applications I always worried would toss her materials aside.
Despite the hardships, my mother got her driver’s license at age 40, continued her education at NYU, became certified in holistic medicine and massage therapy, and helped support our family by working part-time at a spa in New Jersey, while still making it to all my sports games, forensics tournaments, and piano recitals. By many definitions, she was seen as the perfect “Immigrant Success Story” of how Asian Americans have “made it” in the United States.
The subtext of her Immigrant Success Story, however, was the unspoken expectation of gratuity. Japanese Americans were forced into internment camps during World War II, Chinese immigrants were looted and murdered during the Gold Rush, and Chinatowns across the country continue to be exploited by gentrification. Yet, any utterance of our past and present oppression are grossly taboo – both within the Asian American community, as well as within mainstream society.
Embedded within our expected silence is a deep-seeded sense of anti-Blackness. Walking along downtown Manhattan, my mother would pull me closer to her side whenever we passed by homeless Black men. In Thailand, skin-whitening ads are plastered on billboards and aired constantly on TV. All around us, we see the workings of the Model Minority Myth – a social construct where Asian Americans are used as pawns, charged with doing the dirty work to ensure that Black Americans remain at the bottom of our country’s social hierarchy. Until we acknowledge these unspoken truths we will remain pawns in the game of White Supremacy, allowing our identity to serve the needs of those in power while never granting us true liberation.
Thus, in the midst of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, we must understand that this concerns us. As Asian Americans, we have not “made it” if our success continues to be built on the backs of gunned down, incarcerated, criminalized Black Americans. Our safety subscribes to an agenda, and unless we tear down the systems designed to restrict our identities, we will never be safe. We must realize that our liberation is tied to our fellow Black sisters and brothers. We are not free until they are free.
As White people, our silence is violent. We cannot justify our inaction with ignorance, with “fear of saying the wrong thing.” While the #BlackLivesMatter movement is not for us, it involves us. If we truly believe that “all lives matter,” then we must be ready to listen to our society’s most marginalized voices and reject the institutions that were never built to protect Black lives. Appreciating the police officers who protect us is not mutually exclusive to demanding integrity and accountability in our country’s policing systems.
And lastly, to my Leukreung community, we must not allow our “Half Child” status to deter us from finding a whole-hearted place in the movement for racial justice. While the world may always see us in fractions, we must assure ourselves and our communities that we are unapologetically whole. I am both wholly Asian, and wholly White. By acknowledging the wholeness of our identities, we must also acknowledge the wholeness of both our oppression and our privilege. How can we learn the oppressive histories of our parents and channel them into power and self-love? How can we acknowledge the privilege that our proximity to Whiteness brings, and dismantle the oppressive systems upon which our privilege is founded?
Being Luekreung gives us both the curse and opportunity to act as bridges. As #BlackLivesMatter continues their fight, we cannot ignore the role we must play in bridging the contradictions of our existence and spreading compassion into the warring forces of our lives.