A year ago, I signed on to be a representative of the Asian and Asian American community to the larger community, without any clue of the long ride ahead. Now, with a week left, I will fulfill what is left of my duties, but I will do it my way.
Throughout this year, my team and I, in the face of racism, defaulted onto the methods of “gladvocates.” We always put smiles on our faces, we always tried to speak in other people’s language, we always told people what a great job they were doing in trying to learn about the issues of race and how much we appreciated their efforts. Being a “gladvocate” is not my default style, but I went with it because I was a team player. It was only last week that we finally switched strategies after a year of no progress. And it was only last week that progress was finally made, after we switched to my default style of asking hard questions and pinning people to their responsibilities.
During elections for new representatives, it became clear that my team and my community were obsessed with “positivity” and “positive energy,” and it also became clear that they disapproved of an effective but “negative” strategy. At the time, my only reaction was to cry.
I have been repeatedly told, by this team and by my community, that I am not a team player. I have also been open about my mental illness and my past history of abuse, and because of this, people have repeatedly dismissed me with “she’s just crazy.” I bought into people’s ideas of me, and throughout this year, I have sacrificed much of my individuality in order to be a team player. I have constantly censored myself because I recognize how I can divide the community. I have sent the vast majority of my emails and details of pre-meditated actions to the team leader for prior approval because I am a “loose cannon.” I like to think that I have proved myself as a team play, yet whenever I needed my team, they were not there for me. Because of the structure of the team, whenever something I do goes wrong, the shit ends up back in my lap. Whenever something I do goes right, the glory ends up back to the team, specifically to the team leader. I was fine with that until now. The glory that was bought with my blood, sweat, and tears, has caused heads and egos to swell. When it came time to defend me and my actions, my team was not there for me. “Oh, stop being so negative, focus more on the positive,” I kept hearing.
I am not a negative person. If I was a negative person, I would have successfully committed suicide. Each time I tried, I always ended up at a crossroads: to either actively undo the damage I had already done to my body, or to allow myself to slip peacefully off. Each time, I chose the former. This was during a time when I could not even see the light at the end of the tunnel; the only reason why I chose to live was because I had hope that things would be better. I reasoned that if I knew such loneliness, darkness, and pain, then I must have known happiness at some point and that I would experience it again.
At the beginning of this semester, the team leader and I made the decision that I would serve as the buffer between the larger community and my team and community. I would handle all the negativity, and let as little as possible seep through, because others on the team and in the community had shown that they could not handle the negativity. I do not regret that decision, and I will continue my duties until the end of my term. I, however, foolishly expected people to understand the difficult position I was in, and I foolishly thought people would trust my decisions and my actions to further the community. I foolishly thought that people would be grateful for the difficult decisions I have made. I forgot to hope for the best, but expect the worst. My ego caused me to have unrealistic expectations, and ultimately, I have only myself to blame.
Working on race relations, racism, and power structures of oppression is inherently negative. I am not a negative person for stating such; I am just an honest person. I will call a pile of shit for what it is. Choosing to focus on the positive often means ignoring the negative. Which is more effective: staring the tiger in the eyes and choosing to fight it head on, or running away from the tiger and allowing it to maul you from behind?
To the incoming leaders: you are not special. Unless you take the time to learn from the mistakes of the past, you will make the same mistakes. You are not that powerful or influential; there are larger sociocultural and sociopolitical forces that inform the thought processes and decisions of others. If you choose to only focus on the “positive” or the “objective,” nothing will get done. I have seen it, time and time again, when a group of leaders come together to throw a program or to solve a particular issue. Everyone wants to focus on the positive, so the negatives are never discussed. And each time, the leaders ask themselves why is it that their program was not successful, why is it that they contributed nothing to solving the problem. For progress to be made, the negatives must be discussed and lessons must be learned.
I have no regrets about anything I have done this year because I learned from each mistake I made. I would like to think that my efforts have been worth it, that I have positively contributed to the world in my little way. I am sorry that at the end, I was alienated by my team and community, and I wish I was not leaving with such bitterness. I hope that next year, those who may be continuing the work I began will not be thrown under the bus, by their team mates and their community, as I was.
Whenever I tell fellow activists that I perform Chinese folk, traditional, and classical dances, eyebrows shoot up into hairlines. Especially for activists of race-based issues, “food fun fabric festivals” are the source of a lot of ulcers. In the world of activist hierarchy, my involvement in planning, executing, and participating in “food fun fabric festivals” takes me down a few notches.
I agree that by themselves, “food fun fabric festivals” can do more harm than good. They provide a venue for mainstream society to turn cultures into exotic fetishes while trivializing the practices of those cultures and the issues of those who identify with those cultures. However, I also think that traditional activism has limited influence and impact. I think that cultural celebrations intended to build community are a form of activism and that they are political statements.
When I dance, I am celebrating my cultural heritage and my identity. So often my identity is about what is missing and negative space, as opposed to what is there; dancing is an opportunity in which I find what is there and find power in my identity. When I plan and execute cultural festivals, I am bringing together a community to celebrate our heritage. As a community, we are asserting that there is a space for our cultural practices. We are asserting that there is a space for our community, our ideas, and our voices. We are asserting that in the realm of politics, our identity has a space; our issues are not particular because they are universal.
Surviving and thriving in the margins is an act of resistance. Asserting and creating a space for your identity is an act of resistance. Before more recognizable acts of resistance can take place, a solid foundation must be established, and cultural celebrations allow for that.