by Matthew E. Henry
Content warning: racial language and violence
This world is white and they are black.
—James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time
He knows the myth, but he is the model minority. The all-around A-student: attentive, astute, Asian. He’s good at math and science, but also garners excellent grades and respect in my sophomore honors English class. He’s soft spoken, but thoughtful. So as the others call out, he raises his hand and waits patiently. When I acknowledge that he will be next, he lowers it back to his desk, places the other over a delicate wrist. When he does speak, on an average Wednesday, I will swear in front of a class for the first time in twenty years of teaching.
I make my kids uncomfortable, mostly because I expect them to do more than understand why it’s “may I go to the bathroom,” why we place punctuation inside of quotation marks, and why knowing why a thesis statement—the point they will prove in their papers—is important. I want them to feel something. Put themselves into the text and take something out of it. If it doesn’t get personal it was a waste of our time. At the beginning of the year, I tell them they will end up
sharing things they never thought they would. They scoff until they find themselves stunned revealing truths they normally reserve for shower conversations. And God help them when I ask an unrhetorical question in class: how their eyes are suddenly interested in the color of the tiles and the sound of the ventilation system. But with time, with effort, everyone becomes more comfortable with being more vulnerable. Having difficult conversations. Telling their stories. Hearing the stories of others.
It’s our drama unit. While reading Claudia Rankine’s The White Card and Jackie Sibblies Drury’s Fairview, we’ve been diving into the deep, murky waters of race, race relations, and racism in the US. I’ve placed our playwrights in conversation with Robin DiAngelo, Franz Fanon, Ibram X Kendi, and recent events in the world. We attempt to speak honestly about our experiences, knowing we see both allies and aggressors in the room. While avoiding a hate crime, I’ve been trying to beat into their heads that this is not only a “Black and white” issue. But, while being 40 percent of this class, getting my Asian students to speak up about their experiences and the experiences of their families, has been tough going. They confess in writing more than in speech. They say their silence is not only cultural, it’s survival. Many have been told explicitly by parents and grandparents not to discuss the racism this country—this town, this school—has spit in their faces. The nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Silence is a source of great strength. Comfort is better than pride. The reasons are myriad as their ancestral homes, but the message is singular: keep your head down, keep your mouth closed. One kid made the obvious joke about Asians not airing dirty laundry. I wasn’t sure if I was allowed to laugh.
Last week Friday, during our last class, we discussed how the fetishization of Asian women—mostly by white men—can lead to physical violence. Claims some dismissed as going too far, doing too much. Two of the young Asian women spoke up, forcefully assured the class the danger was real. An added reason to clutch keys between knuckles when walking at night. Or to question what a guy feels he is owed at the end of a date. His belief that they won’t be “stuck-up” or “a frigid bitch” like with some white girls. That their quiet demeanor barely holds back a reserve of untapped lust. That they have been genetically predisposed to let their inhibitions fall when he unties their black hair. That they will transform into a submissive, yet voracious lover. They spoke of the fear they carry of not meeting the standards of another myth. While they spoke, the other Asian girls were silently nodding. Students of all backgrounds had a lot to say about this, especially the girls, and too many of the boys. But today things are different. Today the Asian students have the floor. Everyone else is, appropriately, shutting the hell up.
Hand back on his desk, half-listening to his classmates, his head fills with the slights he lives with. He’s used to being called by the wrong name, mistaken for every other Asian boy the speaker has ever met. Used to being asked, “where are you from… no, where are you really from?” Asked for assistance on math and science homework, regardless of whether he is helping or hurting the curve. Asked if his mother works at a nail salon, if his father ever smiles. Asked why his lunch smells so bad, and if his family is the reason for the number of missing pet flyers in town. Hell, at this point he’s used to being seen as “Asian,” after learning in elementary school that being “Chinese” wasn’t enough.
All of this he’s carried years before hearing the president of his country encourage klans of auditoriums to chant of a “China virus,” seeing a pandemic of people and pathogens. Hearing conspiracy theories of a bioweapon made to exterminate “real Americans,” which he knows means “white.” He’s carried these long before the kids he’s known since kindergarten began to blame everyone who remotely looks like him for the inconvenience of masks in the supermarket, an abusive mother home on furlough, the death of a grandfather. He’s watched the videos of his elders assaulted on the street, one shoved to death at high speeds. Watched his peers being threatened and attacked on trains and buses. The black eyes, broken noses, shouts of “all fucking Asians gotta die!” But he feels this is different.
Yesterday six women of Asian heritage were shot to death. Murdered while working at two different spas in Atlanta. Of course the assailant was white and male. Of course another white man—one with a badge—made excuses for his brother’s behavior, saying he was “having a bad day.” Of course too many more white hands joined in a rousing song of “mental health,” reducing these women to a “temptation he wanted to eliminate,” a result of a supposed “sex addiction.” Of course we hear more about the oppressor than the oppressed.
In the aftermath of these murders, many of my Asian students—my kids, past and present—have come to me to process. In part, because I’m the person they’re used to discussing discomfort with. In part, because they know I’m used to Black blood spilled on city streets like loose cigarettes or Skittles. I’m old enough to remember Rodney King and Amadou Diallo, Walter Scott and Eric Garner, without Googling their faces. My kids know, or at least are aware of Philando Castile, Botham Jean, Atatiana Jefferson, George Floyd, and Breonna Taylor. But I remember a time before the memorials of hashtags and black squares darkened social media. I’ve carried the weight of my skin through weekly stories of slaughter from before they were born. They want to know how to do the same.
It’s his turn. With a single finger, he gently pushes his black-framed glasses up on his nose, clears his throat, and speaks in a baritone belying his age and size. He doesn’t want to speak of his people as an aggregate, but for the sake of ease and perception, he will.
Their parents are first and second-generation immigrants living out the American Dream, cashing in on the promissory note guaranteeing the right to pursue life, liberty, and happiness. Some were refugees fleeing for their lives. Some were well-off and seeking to do even better. All believing the bill of goods they were sold, that people are treated more equally in some countries than others. That they can achieve anything. So they became physicians and engineers. Biochemists and corporate headhunters. Dentists and real estate agents. Patent lawyers and tenured professors at Harvard, MIT, Tufts and BU. They reside within a top 1 percent community, living in an aggressively white-flight suburb of Boston. They are now 15 percent of the population and growing. They have mastered peak country club living: playing golf and networking. They argue local politics in the town’s closed Facebook groups. They have very strong opinions on how long lawns should be, and how long trashcans can sit on the curb before and after collection. Their children take every honors and AP class they can, alongside orchestra and jazz choir, running the literary magazine and video game club and female empowerment club. A few participate in the Asian Student Union. But not enough. He thinks more will now. After school, they are enrolled in Russian Math. On the weekend, they study Mandarin, Cantonese, German, and Spanish. They play tennis and run track. Dive off the high board and leap after volleyballs. Co-captain the football and crew teams. He sees all of this. Despite—or even because of—the mistaken identities, the whitewashing, the ignorant questions and assumptions, and the blatant racism they’ve had to endure, he has always thought that they had “made it.” But then this happened. The bank of justice is bankrupt. The check has bounced.
And it’s not just the deaths of women who look—but don’t—like his mother and sisters, his grandmothers and aunts. It’s the silence. How days have passed without one word from the principal. How the superintendent’s office, for all her talk of “diversity, inclusion, and equity,” has said nothing to the community at large. He desperately wishes he was not surprised. But, without realizing it, he expected more. Now he is wondering why that was the case. He’s disturbed by the answer.
My class is a silent audience as he works it out, mostly talking to himself in front of us. He remembers the response to the Black Lives Matter movement the year before. He remembers all the people on campus, in the district, who tried to brush it aside, make excuses. The sudden resurgence of MAGA hats. The birth of counter-slogans: all lives matter / blue lives matter. To some degree, his heart hurt for his Black friends, the Black community—no one should have to deal with a history of tragedy, then have the resulting generational trauma consistently ignored—but it did not touch him beyond an intellectual, moral exercise. He remembers how long it took the district to respond to that grief, despite student and faculty activism—the incompetent email the administration was eventually shamed into sending. The length of time it took for them to organize the wrong words was an implicit statement of perceived worth. But he’s realizing his miscalculation. His assimilation arithmetic was off. He thought Asians rated higher in the white gaze of his educators, his classmates, and their parents. But they are just as comfortable seeing his body—splayed and bloodied—as any Black one. He stops talking, his hand unconsciously clenched on the desk. My mouth mumbles expletives faster than my brain can censor.
Someone picks up the thread of the conversion, agreeing with his point, adding examples and nuance. But I’m holding back tears, trying to grasp why this hurts more than watching my own get gunned down. It will take weeks of replaying this moment and having other conversations to realize it’s not every day you watch a young man’s world crumble the moment he understands what it’s like to be treated like a nigger.
Matthew E. Henry (MEH) is the author of the Colored page (Sundress Publications, 2022), Teaching While Black (Main Street Rag, 2020) and Dust & Ashes (Californios Press, 2020). He has two collections forthcoming in 2023 from NYQ Books (The Third Renunciation) and Harbor Editions (said the Frog to the scorpion). He is editor-in-chief of The Weight Journal and an associate poetry editor at Pidgeonholes. MEH’s poetry and prose appear or are forthcoming in Barren Magazine, The Florida Review, Massachusetts Review, Ninth Letter, Ploughshares, Shenandoah, Solstice, and Zone 3, among others. MEH’s an educator who received his MFA yet continued to spend money he didn’t have completing an MA in theology and a PhD in education. You can find him at www.MEHPoeting.com writing about education, race, religion, and burning oppressive systems to the ground.