Many children grow up hearing fantastical tales and listening to nursery rhymes. A magical forest here and furry talking creatures there. I grew up listening to the nightmares of chaos and terror as tragedy consumed Cambodia.
On April 17th, 1975, Phnom Penh fell to the Khmer Rouge. Like many Khmer Americans, my family came to the United States as refugees from Cambodia in 1982. My grandparents reflect back on the day the Khmer Rouge scoured the city and announced over their loud speakers that the Americans were going to begin dropping their bombs. Greeting the citizens with smiles, they expressed that safety was their priority and all those living within the city should evacuate to the countryside. They promised that the invasion would be over and they would be able to return to the city. Yet, it would be four years of terror before any lucky survivors would be able to return to the remains of their homes. My family had no choice but to abandon all of their belongings and at that precise moment, their entire lives.
I recently remarked to a longtime Twitter friend that I feel we live in a magical time, and I always wonder if young movement folks in the past felt that way, too. My friend suggested that not every generation gets to feel that way but there are definitely moments that people live through when they know they are in a magical time. I feel confident saying we live in one such time, but there’s still a question of what we’re going to do with that magic.
The internet has played no small part in the moment we’re in. More than ever, young people are connected to each other, having conversations about the things that matter to us, from pop music to police violence. We’re realizing there are more of us than there are of them, and that’s an incredibly hopeful thing. We live in a time of rapid reinvention, and at a moment when the conversations we are having online—for better or worse—are catching the attention of the mainstream.
For me, the internet always filled the gap between the community where I live and the one I long for. Growing up, finding my peers in the suburban Michigan town where my mom bought a house after she and my dad divorced was a challenge. I didn’t lack for friends, but there were conversations I wanted that I just couldn’t have with them. I was itching to define my politics, which is something I ultimately found online.
I often talk with my children about different aspects of life, without bringing up being Native American, as they grow into adults. Honestly, it had been a while since I asked them about what being Cherokee is like outside our home. What their views on identity has meant to them? Have I helped them navigate the confusing Native American waters?
A deep coversation is what followed that I want to share bits of with you. I hope after reading this you can have similar conversations with others. Being able to vocalize how we feel about our place in the world is an important topic. It can give a sense of validation and understanding between people, be it a parent to child or friend to friend.
My daughter told me that once she had watched Peter Pan without me there. “I guess you were at work or something. I don’t remember,”she said. It left her confused. She didn’t talk to me about it. She just didn’t know what to make of it. After all, none of the “Indians” in the movie resemble us. “The pickaninnies” don’t resemble the Natives we meet at pow-wows or stomp dances either. The “singing Indian’s music” doesn’t sound like the Cherokee children’s music I play for my kids in the car. Being so immature, she was unable to describe what she felt. So, she didn’t say anything to us.
Of course, I felt bad for not having prevented her watching those clips. I felt guilty that I had no idea at all about it happening. I asked her if she felt I had let her down? “No, mom. I am not confused about being Cherokee. You should see some of the Native American kids at school. Sometimes they make “Indian” jokes just to fit in. When they act like that, I just walk away.”I understood what she meant. Sometimes, when your a kid, it’s easier to leave a conversation. It shouldn’t be up to kids to explain that embracing Native American stereotypes for the amusement of non-Natives isn’t healthy for a person’s mentality. Plus, confronting a Native child in front of the peers she/he is trying to impress can embarrass a Native kid with self-esteem issues to begin with.
“Mom, do you remember when I came home with a coloring page of Pilgrims I had to do in class,” my other daughter chimed in. “I told the teacher it was a lie. She made me color it anyways,” she said.
Since Chick-Fil-A CEO Dan Cathy sounded off on traditional marriage and biblical principles, everyone from conservative provocateurs to liberal politicians to my Facebook friends voiced their Johnny-come-lately support or opposition to waffle fries and iced tea. You can recap who said what when elsewhere. My point is that this entire faux flaptrap is really stupid.
Normally I reach for more eloquence, but it’s difficult to write poetry without inspiration, and I find nothing inspiring in another fake controversy designed only to increase page views and public profiles while further dividing Americans. It’s hard to ignore the obvious free speech implications – however ill-advised, Dan Cathy is a private citizen who expressed political views publically. It stretches credibility to taint his business with discrimination’s stench when no evidence of any kind has been unearthed to suggest that Chick-Fil-A franchises have ever discriminated against anyone based on sexual orientation or perceptions thereof. If one doesn’t wish to patronize a business based on the private political views of its chief executive, that’s fine. But we don’t call that a strike against intolerance. It’s just a personal choice.
And that’s what rankles – we aren’t supposed to exhibit independent thinking in America anymore. Independent thought – the ability to decide issues for yourself – allowed me to oppose many elements of the gay rights movement for years. I didn’t understand why rainbow flags and safe spaces and same sex public displays of affection were important, or why they should be to me. I never heard of the concept of gay marriage before college. I once thoroughly embarrassed a friend of mine by visiting his sociology class as I toured Penn State at seventeen. The professor invited some spokespeople from a local gay rights group to discuss their experiences before the class. One woman discussed feeling trapped in her body – she desired men, but felt she should have been born a man.
For whatever reason, this concept floored me. I didn’t possess the good sense to shut up. My hand shot skyward. My voice intoned disbelief. “Doesn’t what you’ve described make you straight? Wouldn’t it simply be easier to remain female? What could you possibly hope to gain by surgery? You’ve just listened to two gay men describe their persecution: why choose that?” The class reeled. The teacher blanched. My friend seethed. I was young, but not innocent.
Now I’m neither. I recognize that I turned that classroom into a public hearing on the nature and morality of gender manipulation, an experience which no trans person should ever be subject. It was hurtful. I pressed the interrogation without regard for the practiced indifference to personal narrative adults call tolerance. I was honest – I didn’t understand her point of view, and I wanted her to explain it further. Years later, I can’t say I’ve personally experienced anything like what that woman described, but I do understand that other people can. That matters. Being exposed to mind-bendingly different points of view matters. If anything, the widespread support gay marriage enjoys among members of my generation stems directly from the personal familiarity many of us have with gay people. We know, much more than our parents can know, that gay people are just and fallible and beautiful as the rest of us. They are us, and nothing is gained by denying human liberty to any of us based on identity alone.
The point is that we (some of us, anyway) have to have the space and the time and the desire to learn that. Independent thought is still the only real American freedom. Not to paraphrase Aaron Sorkin in The American President, but it’s true – this is advanced citizenship. You have to be willing to choose what you believe for yourself, and change your mind when presented with new data. I believe earning one’s keep here means engaging the debates about our economic future and our unemployed present, about our eagerness to incarcerate and our unwillingness to educate, about our desire to assimilate immigrants and our fear of losing ourselves.
And foolish culture war hysteria like this Chick-Fil-A thing is killing the debate! We can’t discuss culture anymore without safe spaces and political correctness. Warring camps aim potshots across the rhetorical demilitarized zone that used to represent public consensus on domestic and foreign policy – even when that consensus denied opportunity and full citizenship to many minority groups. Even when we were wrong, we were wrong together! Or so I’ve read. This is another one of those American lives I’ve never personally experienced.
I was born after Atwater; weaned during the era of welfare queens and Star Wars. Corporate clientelism and microtargeting campaigns dissected the American electorate before I learned to walk. By elementary school it didn’t matter if you kept Hope alive; Willie Horton kept your playmate’s parents afraid of you. The point is that we have always suffered Americans who benefit from the perpetual campaign, who profit from cultural demarcation and segregated society. Given this, we have the benefit of hindsight. Yet too many liberals today emulate the dividers! I used to have the same three debates every time I hung out with friends in Drinking Liberally Tucson – why do conservatives run the media, why do conservatives hate science, and why aren’t conservatives as tolerant and multicultural as me?
My answers? They don’t. They don’t profit. You’re not.
But the questions are the trouble. Using labels to discuss people ensures that your audience will only recognize the humanity in those people if they view themselves in the subject group. This was why in my experience at Drinking Liberally Tucson, no one was ever chastised for using the word ‘conservative’ as a pejorative, but people were regularly offended when I spoke about White people. Look, this isn’t anti-label advocacy, this is a appeal to common sense. Liberals, unless you have personally purchased a chicken sandwich and lemonade from Chick-Fil-A only to find Leviticus 18 and 20 printed like some Jerry Falwell fortune cookie inside the oily foil wrapper, shut up about boycotting Chick-Fil-A.
I didn’t say go purchase food from them, I said shut up about it. The company isn’t intolerant, Dan Cathy is. And he’s within his rights to be as intolerant as he likes. You don’t have to support his company, or all the service industry workers who process chicken parts into fried breaded goodness with pickles. But you can’t pretend you are fighting corporate intolerance when the corporation isn’t intolerant! It’s just silly. Divisive. Stupid.
Nor has biting into a chicken sandwich become a partisan fuck you to the gay rights community. It’s just a damn sandwich. When a politician who once championed weight loss (including his own) as a public health issue encourages increased fried fast food consumption in a dangerously obese nation to support those to oppose gay marriage, his public comments lack import, and respectable voters no longer need heed his words. Stop taking pictures of yourself buying and eating Chick-Fil-A sandwiches, people! Gay people don’t care about your lunch. Your Facebook friends don’t care about your lunch. No one cares about your lunch! You can’t order solidarity with Christian tradition by number in a drive thru.
Especially since the company is guilty of nothing. Dan Cathy transformed ‘Eat Mor Chikin’ into yet another cultural Rorschach on which we project our biases, and we can’t have a reasoned debate about gay marriage or any other cultural touchstone amid all the projecting. America is neither Christian theocracy nor cosmopolitan Europe. America is the debate. We have the right to disagree with the choices’ other people make, but our Union is best preserved when we attempt to understand those social and political choices. I’m older now. I’ve known different people. I’ve read Randy Shilts. More than just a positive life choice, marriage in my view is a human right that should exist for all people. If you disagree, that’s fine. Let’s talk about it. After you are done with your lunch.
Bao Phi writes about the little-known stories of victims of police brutality. Here’s an excerpt:
We all have our fears. Some of these fears are consciously and subconsciously taught to us by society, some of them may be reinforced by personal experience. And these fears are absolutely impacted by race, gender, class, sexual orientation. Those of us who are people of color, women, from poor and GLBTT communities have the added fear that if we are victimized by violence, we will be harmed more than helped by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.
Take the case of Michael Cho, a 25 year-old artist who was shot 10 times and killed by two La Habra police who claimed he was unresponsive to their demands and was threatening them with a tire iron. However, Michael Cho was physically disabled and found it difficult to walk quickly, let alone threaten two police officers.
Or Marlo and Romel Custodio, who were shot with tasers and beaten by 8 San Jose police officers for allegedly possessing less than half an once of marijuana, and who were cooperating with their arrest. They managed to call their 50 year-old mother, Marilou Alvarado Custodio, who was violently restrained when she arrived on the scene, her head repeatedly banged into a squad car’s door.
And “The Quincy 4,” young Asian American activists who were brutalized by Boston police as they returned from an engagement party. They were talking to a state trooper in the parking lot of a supermarket when a police squad car rolled up and without warning they were pepper-sprayed and attacked. One of the victims, a young woman named Karen Chen who is just above 5 feet tall, was tackled and beaten by three male police officers, giving her a black eye and numerous bruises. Not only were the police officers unpunished, they filed false charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, of which a Boston judge found them guilty and sent one of these young people, who had done no wrong, to prison.
Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far for incidents involving police brutality.
Act Now! Bao Phi, along with other artists and poets, are putting on a fund-raising performance for the family of Fong Lee, a Hmong-American boy who was shot and killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Proceeds from the performance will go towards legal costs for the Lee family. Here are the details:
UP IN ARMS: A Night of Hip Hop and Spoken Word to Honor Fong Lee and End Police Brutality
Saturday, October 3rd, 8 p.m. (doors at 7:30)
Kagin Commons at Macalester College
1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105
Featuring performances by Magnetic North (NY), Nomi of Power Struggle (Bay Area), Michelle Myers of Yellow Rage (Philadelphia), Maria Isa, Blackbird Elements, Guante, Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria, e.g. bailey, Tou SaiKo Lee with PosNoSys, True Mutiny, Shá Cage, Kevin Xiong with Pada Lor, Tish Jones, Maipacher, Logan Moua, Bobby Wilson, Poetic Assassins, Hilltribe, and special guests. Tou Ger Xiong and Amy Hang will emcee and DJ Nak will be on the one’s and two’s.
$5-$10 suggested donation. All proceeds go towards legal costs for the Family of Fong Lee.