A Preference for Breathing

I still catch myself seeking the approval of people who do not wish me to succeed. Whether it be unhealthy friendships, the “cool” kids on campus, or to be validated in Eurocentric spaces. It’s exhausting, like swimming upstream to meet them at their understanding; but the current is strong and it feels like I’ll drown before I can reach them. It’s taken many years to realize that if I stop fighting against the current, they will eventually flow to me.

Being compassionate to myself is not something that comes naturally. I justified letting that critical voice in my head, telling myself that it pushes me to be better, to work harder, to keep my ego in check. As I’ve grown, I’ve noticed that I am not alone within the APIA community in being highly critical of oneself; and began to see that critical voice from a different perspective— as internalized racial oppression. 

An important tactic in Japanese colonization of the Korean Peninsula, as well as Taiwan, was the construction of an extensive railway system. These railways did not connect the towns, they remained isolated from each other. Railways led to the sea, to ports, to take resources away from the land in which it was reaped.  As an Asian American, I’ve noticed similar pathways of extraction— not of the land, but the mind, body and soul. I spent my teens holding myself to white standards of achievement, trying to convince the dominant (white) society of the only country I have known as home, that I belong here. As I stepped off the treadmill of production, I realized that even though I was moving my body, I wasn’t any closer to success, acceptance, community— the things I was urgently running toward. Once I stopped looking toward the horizon, I could see the things I searched for were already around me.

 Racial hierarchies that overvalue whiteness, tell us to drink the poison, to internalize racist ideologies, in order to ascend to a level so close to whiteness that you can see the table. Tell us to abandon our histories, our communities, our cultures and assimilate to the dominant culture. They tell us to do the dirty work of oppressing each other and other communities of color, so that their hands stay clean. You can sell your cultural identity and be that Asian face in a high place, only to realize that you are in the room to serve and not be seated. So, why try? Why try to convince a group that is willful or unable to empathize or understand us that our viewpoints are valid? Realizing that my desire to seek achievement in white dominant spaces is directly linked to my own internalized racial oppression, and a part of a mechanism of assimilation and the perpetuation of anti-blackness; how could I justify staying in this thought pattern?

During the many years in academia studying  Subaltern American history, the histories of BIPOC communities in America, I found myself needing to tailor my work in a way that white people would be able to digest.  This creates so much redundancy, so much explaining, so much time spent trying to explain to people who’ve been historically overvalued the effects of this power imbalance on the rest of us. Even when the content of class was about me, being in a white dominant space meant my perspective was undervalued and overlooked. The few other students of color and myself in class would pack-up, ready to back up each other’s point. Or go get a cup of tea and vent after being yelled at by a white classmate for not feeling obligated to give a gentle explanation as to why their behavior was racist. The bonds I formed with my classmates of color were trauma bonds— connections as a means of survival. Reminding each other that we’re being gaslit by societal structures. Out of survival we created spaces in our own hearts to seek refuge from the ever-present toxicity of being a person of color in a majority white town/institution. We carved this pocket out of survival, and now I maintain that internal space out of compassion and closeness. The need for air to breath that was not steeped in white supremacy has grown into a preference for breathing.

 Stepping off the treadmill of production and into a community-based space with people who have shared experiences, feels like ripping up the road to the sea, and repurposing the supplies to build bridges to each other. Freeing my mind from the impossible task of trying to reach the same level of achievement (or have my achievement be valued) based on white standards, in a system that was rigged to favor whiteness, feels like walking away from an abusive relationship. Full of unknowns, but full of hope.

What would it look like if we acknowledged that there is not a scarcity principle of APIA success, recognition, and representation is not actually based in scarcity, but in gatekeeping?  What can it look like if we decentralize whiteness as “the norm”, and start to centralize ourselves?

Written by Sam Riedman

This article first appeared in the October 2020 Issue of The Asian American Arts Zine

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