Confronting the Racist in Me
How the violence against Asian-American elders watered the seeds of Anti-Blackness in me, and what I am doing to confront my racism.
Fear. Hatred. Apathy. Loathing. Demonization.
These are emotions that racist people systematically ascribe toward People of Color, especially Black people. Once cultivated, these feelings manifest as the racist policies and practices that cause lasting individual and collective harm. I am not proud to share that — in the past two months — these feelings, particularly toward Black men, have manifested in me.
I first noticed them in early February, when I read about the tragic death of Mr. Vicha Rapanapakdee, an 84-year old immigrant from Thailand who was out for his morning walk in San Francisco’s Anza Vista neighborhood. Nineteen-year old Antoine Watson, just happened to be nearby. Security footage shows Mr. Watson charging Mr. Rapanapakdee at full speed from across the street, violently shoving the elder to the pavement. Mr. Rapanapakdee died two days later. Mr Watson pleaded not guilty on charges of murder and elder abuse.
Three days later, 28-year old Yahyah Muslim was charged with assault, battery and elder abuse against three seniors in Oakland Chinatown. Video of Mr. Muslim violently shoving 91-year old Gilbert Diaz to the ground quickly went viral. While all three of Mr. Muslim’s victims survived, they sustained major injuries..
- Mr. Watson and Mr. Muslim are both Black men.
- Neither of them seemed to have a motive (eg robbery) other than inciting violence toward a vulnerable person. Authorities are still determining of the violent acts were racially motivated, and the men could possibly be charged with hate crimes.
- I am very familiar with both neighborhoods. My cousin lives one block away from where Mr. Rapanapakdee was killed. And Mr. Diaz was attacked in front of the Asian Resource Center, where I worked for eight years.
The reports and images of these senseless acts of violence against my elders made my blood boil. To me, these perpetrators were monsters, deserving the full punishment of the law. I felt no empathy for them. To this day, I am scared to leave the house for my daily walk. My feelings of fear, hatred, apathy, loathing, and demonization were not only directed at these men, but to their families and communities, and to all Black people.
The speed that these emotions manifested amazed me. I had devoted my career to fighting racism. I live, breathe, and teach the work. And yet, as evolved as I might be, I went back to square one in an instant. Furthermore, I was convinced that anyone who viewed the videos would feel the same about these Black men, thereby justifying my racist thoughts.
Even though I had devoted my adult life to fighting racism, the seeds of anti-Blackness manifested within me in a blink of an eye, and I was forced to confront the racist in me.
Fortunately, my friends, colleagues, and teachers were both patient and generous, sharing these practices that are guiding me through my journey.
PAUSE & NOTICE BEFORE RESPONDING
When I first learned about the violence inflicted upon Vicha Rapanapakdee and Gilbert Diaz, my heart started racing. My chest shivered, my legs became heavy, and my throat tightened, hampering my ability to speak. That is how my body responds when the negative seeds like fear, hate, apathy, loathing, and demonization, are watered. My friend Brooke Deterline, CEO of Courageous Leadership, describes this as my “red zone.”
“Going into the red zone blocks our ability to feel natural compassion,” Brooke said. “If a lion is attacking us, we don’t feel compassion for her because she needs to feed her cubs.” We know the three common ways people respond to threat are fight, flight, and freeze. According to my body response as described above. I tend to freeze. How does your body respond when you feel stressed or threatened?
“This response happens in a fraction of a second,” Brooke said, “and the problem is that doesn’t give us time to determine if the threat is real or perceived.” Neither Mr. Watson nor Mr. Muslim were direct threats to me. I have never met them, nor was I in their proximity when they committed these acts of violence. But that doesn’t lessen the fact that I had a freeze response. And it doesn’t lessen the fact that, to this day, I have a freeze response when I think about going for my morning walk. The very perception that someone like Mr. Watson or Mr. Muslim might harm me is enough for me to freeze up and stay home.
The important thing I have learned is to stop and notice when my heart races or my chest shivers. Am I in actual danger? If the threat is not real, like when I home preparing to go for a walk, I can take a breath, shake it out, and choose a different response.
WATER YOUR SEEDS OF CONSCIOUSNESS SELECTIVELY
My friend Trish lives adjacent to an orthodox neighborhood. Whenever she goes out, she notices the subtle messages in the air. As a Black woman, how is she being perceived? While she notices her body’s response and makes her choices accordingly, Trish takes it one step further. “I can control my environment by influencing them with good thoughts,” she said. “Whenever I encounter them, I whisper, ‘Peace be with you and also with me.’ I don’t even have to make eye contact with them to know that they understand my intent and I can relax. If I emanate kindness, I will receive it.”
Zen master Thich Nhat Hanh (Thay, or teacher) describes emotions as “seeds of consciousness,” Seeds of fear, hatred, loathing, apathy and demonization — like the seeds of love, empathy, compassion, and belonging — are embedded just below the surface of our psyche — what Thay refers to as “store consciousness.” The seeds that are nurtured — both by our environment (our home and work conditions, as well as people and media that influence us) and our own memories and motivations — determine how our thoughts and actions manifest in the physical world — which Thay refers to as “mind consciousness.”
“Good things and bad things happen all the time. We can determine which seeds we water — seeds of suffering, pain, or sorrow — or seeds of love, compassion and mindfulness,” Thay says.. “A good practitioner knows how to water the wholesome seeds in him or her every day,”
Trish and Thay taught me that, by selectively watering seeds of kindness, compassion, and love toward my perceived threats, I can change my world. Rather than nurture racist thoughts and feelings toward Black men, I chose a different path. For each article I read or video about Black-Asian tensions (and there were many), I doubled down and devoted all of my free reading, viewing and listening time to positive stories of Black people (contact me for some recommendations).
The media did not make it easy on me, with its’ constant barrage of bad news. The New York Times reported that 87% of the Covid coverage by national media sources in 2020 was negative. In the case of Black-Asian tensions, even a reputable news source like NPR produced a two-minute story that repeatedly played the viral, one-second video of Mr. Muslim assaulting Mr. Diaz nine times.
“Many of us are intoxicating ourselves (with negative news) every day,” said Thay, “which causes so much anger, frustration, and suffering. Therefore, it is extra important that you water positive seeds to balance your perspective. It requires constant attention, but in the end you will find that the positive seeds (eg. kindness, compassion, mindfulness) will overtake the negative seeds (eg. fear, anger, apathy), and we will co-exist more harmoniously.”
SEEK SUPPORT IN COMMUNITY
One of my greatest blessings of the past year has been my monthly meetups with friends from many races, places and cultures. I gather with one group of friends on the second Tuesday, another group on the Third Friday, and share virtual lunch with others on the Fourth Friday. And there is my weekly Ohana group. Each gathering is organized around a simple question — “How’s your heart?” We rarely talk about racism but it is ever present, in its myriad forms, through our stories. Each circle brings its own wisdom and medicine,
The worst thing I did during these past two months was pull away from my community, especially from my Black friends. I was ashamed that they would see through my thoughts, feelings and fears, and call me out for being the racist that I was. This self-isolation put me in an accelerated cycle as my seeds of racism blossomed.
Then the tragedy in Atlanta happened, and my Black friends started reaching out to me with expressions of love and support. I told them I was suffering, and they stepped up. Through Juanita’s guidance and care, I summoned the courage to share this story with thirty of her students at UC Berkeley, opening a pathway for them to have honest and courageous conversations with each other. With the briefest request, Trish dropped everything, showed up, and gave me the gift of these words — “Peace be with you, and also with me.” After listening to my struggle, Charles looked me in the eye and promised me that if he knew I was in danger, he’d fly to California from Mississippi, and inform my attacker that they would have to go through him to get to me. And Ms. Jackie simply said, “I love you.”
Like social distancing, mask-wearing, and good ventilation work to prevent Covid-19, my friends have taught me that I can prevent the spread and possibly eliminate the pandemic of racism by embracing some common-sense practices -
1. Have the clarity to admit that we struggle with racist thoughts and feelings all the time. Therefore, we can never deny it when someone calls us a racist.
2. Know how racism shows up in our body, and how we can confront it by watering seeds of kindness, empathy, compassion, and love.
3. Healing racism is too big to face alone. The only chance we have to heal ourselves and the world of this insidious disease is by seeking support in community.
I hope you will join me in taking these steps to confront racism as it manifests both in ourselves and our society. While the journey won’t be easy, together we can forge a pathway toward balance, perspective, inspiration and hope. And together, we can eliminate racism within our lifetime.
Questions and Resources for Reflection and Consideration
1. How does your body respond when you feel stressed or threatened? What practices can you employ to pause and notice before responding?
2. Here are some mantras that will help us strengthen the master gardener in ourselves.
o Loving Kindness: “Peace be with you and also with me,”
o Compassion: “My practice is to keep my heart open to the suffering in others.”
o Joy: “I bring joy to every person I meet.”
o Loving Speech: “I speak from the heart when it is true and when it is appropriate.”
o Fear: “When fear arises, I am aware of it and consciously shift to loving myself and others.”
o Anger: “Today I aspire to look deeply at the source of my anger.”
o Violence: “I aspire to avoid contact with violence in all forms.
3. Do you have a group of friends/colleagues from multiple races, places, and cultures? If so, what can you do to cultivate and support each others’ journeys? If no, what do you need to change about your life in order to build that community?
4. Here is a good source for Anti-Asian Violence resources