Real Talk: Reflecting on Race after MLK Day

Darkness cannot drive out darkness; only light can do that. Hate cannot drive out hate; only love can do that.   -Dr. Martin Luther King Jr.

2015 was a huge year in terms of racial relations in the United States. The momentum of the Ferguson protests in late 2014 carried over and incited a yearlong conversation on police brutality and systemic racism in law enforcement, as well as various other issues. In other words, 2015 was the year where enough of the marginalized population finally stood up and said a resounding, “Fuck you,” to the rest of the United States. And this time, the United States was forced to listen.

The first step to solving a problem is recognizing that there is one. 2015 helped us to recognize that there is a problem, so now all we have to do is go about fixing it. Easy, right?

Hah.

Look, I’m pretty passionate about social justice. It was kind of my thing in college. I loved having intense, sometimes uncomfortable discussions about injustice and inequality. I loved learning about race and racism in the United States and reflecting on my own identity as an Asian-American. And I loved talking to other people, inviting them to imagine other perspectives, to challenge their preconceived notions, while trying my damn hardest to listen to their views as well.

Sometimes, I wasn’t successful. Convinced that I was right, I would ignore the valid points they were making, pick out the ones that were problematic, and just watch for their lips to stop moving so I could blow their minds with my impeccable logic and fast rhetoric. More often than not, however, those were the times I couldn’t convince them of anything at all and instead made them more steadfast in their beliefs.

This is the state we’re in right now. We’re all just mindlessly screaming at each other, taking things to the extreme because we can’t just disagree anymore, we also have to belittle each other, I have to hate you. If you want evidence, look at one of our leading presidential candidates, Donald Trump. He is the embodiment of this “I-don’t-care-what-you-say-I-can-yell-louder” mentality that seems to have formed in the public consciousness. And maybe I’m going for the low-hanging fruit here by picking on Trump, but may I remind you that he has a ton of support for his style of divisive language. Like a mind-boggling amount.

But still, let me give you a different example then. How about the incident at Yale from several months ago? For those of you who don’t know or can’t remember, an instructor at Yale penned an email arguing against the restriction of offensive/culturally appropriative Halloween costumes by the school administration. Speaking as a child development specialist, she made the case that by prohibiting certain types of costumes, the students are robbed of the opportunity to exercise their own judgement and self-censure.

The backlash against this email was immense. There were protests, a lot of yelling, and calls for the instructor’s resignation, which she eventually decided to do, probably because of death threats. All over an email. Sure, there were a few questionable statements made in the email and I think she had a skewed view on what cultural appropriation exactly is (on which, I would have loved to have a discussion with her about). But if you read the email, she’s not trying to be disrespectful, nor is she dismissive of offensive costumes. In fact, I’m pretty sure she’s not saying that blackface is all fine and dandy, but that the students should be allowed the freedom to figure that out themselves, instead having it spoon-fed to them by authority figures.

Whether you agree with her or not, whether you think that the negative effects of cultural appropriation overshadow the importance of young adults learning to judge these situations themselves or not, she still has the right to say what she believes. She shouldn’t have to resign for that. She certainly shouldn’t be receiving death threats.

I’m not saying that minorities don’t have a right to disagree or to be angry. Of course they do. The systematic oppression of people of color has gone ignored for too long and needs to be addressed, needs to die. But the people in power don’t seem to care, so of course it’s infuriating. And when the anger and the frustration boil over and things like the Baltimore riots happen, I understand it and I will even wholeheartedly defend it. The anger is justified.

Instead, what I’m saying is: pick your battles and try to love.

To the first point: you know, just as well as I do, that there are plenty of people who will use this Yale case of knee-jerk overreaction to have a knee-jerk overreaction themselves and invalidate the entire Black Lives Matter movement, the genuine grievances of minorities, and the legitimacy of Obama’s birth certificate, all in one fell swoop. When it’s the clash of the extremes, nobody wins. So choose a fight that you are sure that you can win. I guarantee that even those will be difficult enough.

And to the second point, isn’t that what Martin Luther King Jr. was all about? I’ve seen him being misrepresented all over the place these past few days, but I’m pretty confident about this one. Sure, he was steadfast in his beliefs and refused to back down, but that wasn’t because of hatred. It was because he loved everyone and couldn’t stand to see the way we treated each other. He loved those who would call themselves his enemies, those who would do him harm. He loved.

I know we can’t all be like Martin Luther King Jr. But if we can’t love, or even like, someone we disagree with, maybe we can at least allow for a little bit of compassion. That would be a step in the right direction.

For now, that’s enough.

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