A Preference for Breathing p.2: Examining Our Warts

Written by Sammie Riedman

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

To visualize of white supremacy as a societal context, I think of a joke that writer David Foster Wallace used to open a commencement speech: “there are these two young fish swimming along; and they happen to meet an older fish, who nods to them and says ‘morning boys, how’s the water?’ And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one looks over to the other and says “What the hell is water?” While Wallace’s intention was not to discuss the effects of living in a [global] society that functions to perpetuate white supremacy, I have co-opted it for this purpose. Discussed in part one, originally published in the Asian American Arts Zine Volume II, as members of historically undervalued groups, we often communicate to the dominating force as opposed to each other. This realization has urged me to focus on communicating to my fellow people of color and AIPA’s. I think it is necessary and urgent to speak directly to you, rather than continue to tailor discussion to the dominant group, so that some of the information can be disseminated back down to each other. 

One of the places I’ve found essential to build spaces that decentralize whiteness is within myself. Internalized racial oppression often goes unspoken. It has been labeled as “taboo” because in identifying it, we sit comfortably in our own participation in the perpetuation of white supremacist ideologies— which is too often conflated with the falsehood that, we as people from historically targeted communities for disenfranchisement are responsible for our own oppression. Let me be clear, this is not true. Oppressed people are not responsible, or the source of their oppression. 

Ideological oppression is representative of the water, a core idea that one group is somehow better than another; therefore, giving the “better” group the authority to control the other. They are disseminated through institutional— whether it be the way school systems whitewash and romanticize American history, or how non-Eurocentric bodies of knowledge are generally elective courses. Our institutions inform our interpersonal interactions, and this can be through overt discrimination, microaggressions; and it is also the form of discrimination that is subtle and often presented as a means of preparing us for the harsh reality of being societally considered other—family warning us not to wear a certain color because it doesn’t go with our complexion, or how to avoid to sun to keep skin as light possible, etc. These messages that are presented as protection, become internalized, and we lug them around with a false sense of security that, “if I am already saying it to myself, it won’t hurt as much when someone else says it to me.” I’m sure that we all know on a certain level, that self-flagellation, does not remove the sting of another’s strike. But it does normalize it. When we are giving ourselves messages of self-depreciation, it serves to make external sources of deprecation feel familiar. 

Learning to uninternalize oppression is not a one-time deal. It involves regular examination of the narratives we tell ourselves. And the ask ourselves: who does this message serve? Does it enable joy, contentment, acceptance, compassion? Or does it serve as a means of control? That if I follow these rules then I will be considered better than those who do not. It is not just putting a filter in your fish tank, but remembering to clean it regularly. We must be still, listen to our internal monologue, and listen to others who are also targeted for exploitation by systems of oppression— whom have been on the path of self-determination longer, as they have cleared the path for us to walk more freely. We must lean into the discomfort of not knowing, and remember this discomfort so that we can be patient while others catch up to us on this journey. And we must be accountable, for the harm we have caused ourselves and others because of our internalization of ideas that seek to keep us small and isolated. It’s hard to change something we are unaware of. We must examine our warts – how as Asian Americans we internalize the model minority myth and it leads to us to cause interpersonal oppression toward Black people specifically.

My intentions were to write a paper outlining how we as a community can value ourselves and each other in ways that appreciate our differences; and be brave enough to love ourselves even when we are fed messages that say we must be better before we are deserving of certain rewards. But I’m finding it difficult to give directions to an intangible place. And I guess that’s because we’ve already arrived, and that arriving at this place is not the destination, but a development of awareness of how we serve what does not serve us. I often think of a story that my professor, Dr. Joye Hardiman told me on the last day of my first college class:

“One day an elephant was walking down a path, and it came across a bird laying with its feet up in the air. The elephant asked the bird what it was doing laying in the road like that, and the bird replied that they were holding up the sky. The elephant scoffed and said that such a little bird couldn’t possibly hold up the sky. To that the bird said “You’re right. But I can do my part.” And at that, the elephant laid down next to the bird and put their feet in the air.” 

I still feel extremely honored remembering the time she told me that I reminded her of that bird, and her belief in my power and capacity to exact the change keeps my feet to sky— reminding me that while I cannot change the world on my own, I can do my part, and others will join. When doing the work to uproot our white supremacy in all places we cross paths, it can feel suffocating in its immensity when it feels like we are doing the work alone. Identifying and addressing the ways in which we all have internalized white supremacy— even the most woke among us have work to do – is not the beginning or end of centering ourselves and each other. It’s a shift in perspective that can open doors to self-acceptance that had previously felt perpetually out of reach.

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