The inheritance of voice

Guest commentary by Charlene Jin Lee

When I came home after throwing my Jessica McClintock prom dress in the fire, my dad greeted me at the front door and extended a firm handshake.

I was a first-year college student returning from a protest against inhumane conditions of covert “sweatshops” operated by major retail brands. It was my dad who took me to my first protest; he woke my sisters and me one spring morning to march for peace in the aftermath of the LA riots in 1992. We drove 20 miles into the tarred city from our suburban home, in the family Volvo station wagon no less. “Koreans need to join the march so many Black people suffered for,” our dad would repeat throughout those chaotic days.

My dad arrived in the U.S. from South Korea as a freshman at Georgetown University. It was 1954, a year after the Korean war ended, the year of Brown v. Board of Education, one year before the lynching of Emmet Till. In the thick of the civil rights movement, at the nation’s capital, my dad witnessed up close the cruel profits of white supremacy and the transcendent fortitude of the struggle for equality. When he traveled southbound, he was allowed to sit in the “whites only” section of the bus. He remembers how he could not dare to look back upon the dignified elders relegated to seats behind him. In Korea, every young person knows to rise the moment an elder boards a bus. I imagine my dad found himself stuck in the complicated middle of appreciating the mild tolerance he was spared while recognizing something was very wrong with this lopsided social organization.

Asian Americans remain stuck somewhere between gratitude for the benevolence of a nation that opened its immigration gates to them and criticism of its historical and persistent systems of oppression. We worry that entangling ourselves in protests for social change will be judged as betrayal against a government that provided us a place for relative prosperity. As a community, we remain largely reserved or afraid – if not too comfortable – to endanger the fragile standing we have secured in navigating the metrics of privilege along the Black and white spectrum in this country.

The model minority is a myth because such notions never capture the whole and nuanced textures of a group. However, the notion exists because it reflects some layer of reality. Asians who came to the U.S. after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 jumped ahead of other minorities in upward mobility. We submitted to the social contract of assimilation to American life, which in essence meant an adoption of white America’s guidelines for nominal acceptance. Over time, Asian immigrants were heralded as model minority — the kind of minority that earns the approval of the dominant group. We bowed to a rigged meritocracy that leaned in our favor, so we stayed silent and climbed. We busied ourselves in every enterprise to multiply the seed money and skills brought from our motherlands. Kids unlocked front doors to empty homes as their parents wearily worked 12-hour shifts and rose early for dawn prayer services where a thousand petitions for their children’s successes rose like incense. As a generation endured, these same kids would bear the bittersweet fruit of their parents’ sacrifices: they would enroll in Ivy-league schools and become the doctors and lawyers who assured their immigrant parents that America was indeed a melting pot of opportunity.

Newcomers quick to praise the structures they managed to climb were too breathless to learn the history of the systems to which they gave their earnest compliance. Guarding whatever gains they were able to glean, few could afford to consider the complexities of their polite allegiance to a government that sanctioned exploitation, exclusion and mass incarceration of Asian Americans who arrived as immigrants in earlier waves from the same shores. Acculturation to American life came with an insidious consciousness of fear of Black people, matched only by the xenophobia of immigrants coming from homogenous native cultures. As newcomers, few recognized that their access to good schools, to business and property ownership and to basic freedoms of civic life were directly won by African Americans who asserted their voice at a cost to their bodies, to their lives.

As a Korean immigrant, my dad lives in a contentious mixture of allegiances. He recalls savoring morsels of the Hershey’s chocolate bar that a blue-eyed G.I. handed him when he followed his dad to the 8th Army military base in Seoul. The sweetness of what he knew as America would be mixed in the memory of his father kidnapped overnight by North Korean soldiers in an ambushed raid against South Korean government authorities. When the Korean War ended in 1953, a handful of university students were selected to pursue studies in the US. As an international student, my dad took a fair share of painful racist blows in a time in America’s history when white supremacy was both cultural ideology and law. Yet, he remained quietly  grateful to a country that salvaged his possibilities. Though he could not claim his agency in this foreign land, he witnessed the abiding integrity of African Americans who demanded equal protection of rights from a government that denied their very humanity. He heard the freedom songs rising from centuries-long cries of enslaved people and recognized his own pain as a young man traumatized by war, as a son of a colonized nation, as a human who has known powerlessness and loss.

Zora Neale Hurston speaks about the soul of those who “have been in sorrow’s kitchen and licked all its pots” (in “Dust Tracks on a Road”). From African American elders and civil rights activists whom I have had the privilege to know, to relative newcomers like my dad who come from a people with their own history of empires’ stamping oppression, I have seen that the soul intimate with deep sorrow is large. From its wide and profound generosity resounds a particular kind of voice. It is a voice of advocacy. It is a voice of compassion. It is a voice of radical inclusion. So, it is a voice of protest.

All of us, those of us historically minoritized and those of us historically privileged, are debtors to our nation’s freedom fighters who persisted in protest and still continue to lead us in the pursuit for just humanity. Their unyielding insistence on equity keeps our collective knit on course toward a more perfect union, toward a more faithful Beloved Community.

Racism and bigotry, unchecked entitlements and condescension cloaked in politeness, systemic injustices and personal prejudices, are all symptoms of a grossly inequitable foundation that has been making us all very ill. In Asian philosophy, illness is understood as imbalance. In order for all of us to heal, we need to be led by those who have embodied knowledge of the jagged, buckling edges of our foundation. They will have the clarity to guide the hard, long work of repairing the breach. We must heed their prophetic vision for a common path for restoration.

As I see my own children raise their cardboard signs marching to the enduring call of justice, I pass on the inheritance of voice I have received from my dad made rich by the inimitable strength of those who marched before him. They are still marching. May we rise and be counted among them.

CHARLENE JIN LEE is a practical theologian and community activist based in Los Angeles.