I spent years hating activists. Then I tried listening to them
"Do you have a visa?"
That is what the officer at Boston Logan International airport asked me after scanning my passport and flipping through its pages.
I was a little surprised by the question, since I had been naturalized years ago and had handed the officer an American passport. I started to get a bit nervous.
"I am an American citizen," I said.
The officer's eyes widened. He rescanned the passport and said, "A glitch. Now you can pass."
I smiled. "Thank you. Have a nice day."
Though the experience had shaken me a little, I reasoned later that the officer must have made an honest mistake. Maybe he had been up since 5:00 a.m. that day, and maybe he was right that his scanner wasn’t working. Looking back, I think of this incident as being a little awkward, but harmless. It was obvious to me that the officer realized he had made a mistake and immediately corrected it.
In a world of bias training and microaggressions, this would have been seen as a clear case of bias and even outright racism against me, a Chinese immigrant. I began to wonder how some Asian American activists I knew, who had grown up in the U.S., would react to this incident. An officer questioning the legitimacy of a person of color's lawful presence on American soil would likely be considered a serious offense, and evidence of white supremacy’s presence everywhere.
I am not a person who throws around terms like "white supremacy," and because of this I have been called a supporter of white supremacy by those Asian American activists.
Of course, I was furious. Not just with them, but with other activists as well, those who claimed Asian Americans are “white adjacent” and who benefit from “the model minority myth.” Activists say that America is a white supremacist country, and that white people allowed Asian people to become economically successful. Some have said that the Asian population has deeply-rooted anti-blackness.
For a long time, I thought these activists were crazy and malicious. “How dare you demonize all of us?” I thought. When the Atlanta spa shooting happened, activists in a neighboring town's school organized a "Healing Space'' event and explicitly barred white students from attending, as if they were somehow implicated in the murderer’s actions or supported this horrible tragedy. In my mind, implying that the majority of students were sympathizers of a mass murderer was not only a horrible demonization, but also traumatizing to everyone else. Now, the scared kids needed to not only mourn the six Asian women killed by a white gunman, but also to be fearful around all white kids.
After these surreal events, I started to wonder what kinds of lives these Asian American activists have lived that made our worldviews light-years apart.
I decided to read articles written by activists again, trying to truly understand them rather than seeing them as my adversaries. I tried to understand their lives and points of view. I found that I could actually relate to some of the frustrations they felt. For example, being stereotyped and othered was something I had also experienced, and I agreed with them that these feelings and thoughts were hard or awkward to explain to white peers. I also agreed that we as Asian Americans face problems that our white peers do not face, or at least not in the same way.
This was the beginning for me, but I still felt that the things the activists advocated for, such as “safe space racial affinity groups” in schools, are harmful. I wrote an article criticizing these racial affinity groups and instead advocating for a "common humanity" group, explaining my perspective. A couple of friends who identified as people of color explained to me passionately why they wanted these affinity groups and why they and their allies had advocated for them for decades. They wanted a space to talk about race, racism, and their experiences as people of color without having white people frowning upon them—or worse, accusing them of making things up. According to them, the white majority kept invading their spaces.
It was hard for me to hear these activists and accept their concerns. I had been fighting with them for nearly five years. I was tired and angry. I had endured disrespect, defamation, and vicious personal attacks from many activists. But I started to wonder what those activists had been through. I paid attention to their decades of advocacy instead of their troublesome proposals. I was fully aware that many American people are reluctant to have conversations about race, and it wasn’t until George Floyd's murder brought the topic to the center of Americans' consciousness that any of it began. I started to think about how hard it has been for the activists as well, how tired and angry they were, and what disrespect and vicious attacks they had suffered.
About a year ago, I accidentally got on the mailing list of an organization called "Embrace Race." Their message was all about how kids of color should build solidarity among themselves, and that “families of color” will naturally come together by viewing their oppression “through the lens of white privilege,” and by acknowledging that this oppression is caused by “the systemic racism upon which our society was built.” Every such email upset me. Why would someone want to embrace "race," a concept created by real white supremacists to justify atrocities? Why would someone want to teach kids to see themselves as victims? Isn't building meaningful friendships across racial lines for all kids more important than ever in this age of divisiveness?
For a while, organizations like this were villainous in my eyes. But instead of angrily screaming that they were causing harm, I decided to take a step back. I don't know what they and their peers went through in their lives, just like they don't know what has happened in my life—just like I didn’t know what was going on in that officer at Logan Airport’s life. It would have been wrong of me to assume the worst of him, and it’s wrong of me to assume the worst of activists and organizations.
After realizing this, I decided that these activists don’t deserve to be seen as villains, even though I strongly disagree with their ideology and their way of approaching race-related issues. They are human beings with unique stories, and they are protagonists in their own stories. When I started to see these people as people, first and foremost, it was hard to hate them. We may never agree with each other on issues that we are both passionate about, but after taking that step back I realized that I could not claim that I had been more tolerant or positive toward them than they were toward me. We grew up differently, and thus our worldviews are different. It is possible that I would be on their side if I had been born in the U.S., or if I had emigrated at the age of four rather than twenty-four. While I take pride in how I see the world, I also decided to strive to learn how to respect people who see the world differently.
In many ways, the Asian American activists and I want the same thing. We all want to feel like we belong. We just approach things differently. Perhaps, we should stop calling each other names like "white supremacist" and "woke." Maybe we could sit down, have a conversation, and try to understand each other's perspectives. Then there is an opportunity to cease fire and work together for the common good.
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I can't help but think that what is driving this 'embrace of race' narrative is a form of narcissism. Today, the individual reigns supreme and everyone is 'special'. The only thing that will cure this inward, self-consumed thinking is for people to forget about themselves for a moment and embrace other people and get involved in local government and organizations that used to and still provide 'community' - like churches & civic organizations. I have said to my kids on numerous occasions, "It's not always about YOU". To live a really satisfying life, this sentiment has to be embraced.
What so many don't understand about safe spaces is that there is an asking for equality, while also asking for special treatment, an asking for integration where it suits, and segregation where it allows victimhood to be celebrated. How am I to see you as an equal if you won't allow yourself to be seen that way?