"I am not a writer. I am a speaker," writes Angela Oh, yet her book Open: One Woman's Journey" is a vivid memoir of her work as advocate and witness. In her words:
"My perspective is a product of who I am -- a second generation Korean woman, and first generation new American, born and raised in Los Angeles at the historical moment when Civil Rights, Women's Rights, and the Free Speech Movement were emerging in the collective consciousness of a nation."
I had the good fortune a few weeks ago to meet Angela Oh at CAPTIVATE 2006, an API women's conference at Washington State University, and I discovered she speaks as she writes - with a gentle lucidity that was both refreshing and challenging. A key presence during the days and months after the LA riots, she historicized the events and related to us her first-hand knowledge of current racial acts toward APAs:
The LA riots defined Korea America. "Because Korean Americans had been thrust violently into the headlines, a new definition of "community" emerged that helped awaken a nation. Political engagement in American society, cultural expression, social outreach, and ecumenical exchange emerged as the next step in self-reflection and community growth."
She spoke clearly on how difficult it is to build coalitions among all minorities due to the dominant structures aflicting our society.
"The desire to exclude APIs (from coalition building on college campuses) can be justified by numbers and political discourse that is popularly devoured in times of distress. The insecurity of APIs arises out of feeling of ambiguity about the data that suggest achievement (i.e. guilt, shame, pride, joy). Thus questions arise as to whether APIs are, in fact, just greedy, self-interested, and complicit with those powers tha continue to deprive Blacks and Latinos of achieving in America. Rather than take power and inspiration from the achievements to leverage more change on behalf of others who have been marginalized, oppressed, or silenced, APIs seem confused about how to define a new role in the movement for social change and justice. Just because it doesn't exist now, doesn't mean a new generation cannot create...what is needed now in order for unnecesary suffering and confusion to stop."
She had a calming presence, one very much needed considering that the conference was being held during the preparations of the Pullman Chamber of Commerce annual fundraiser. The theme this year? Orient Express, complete with red banners, gold Chinese lettering, a large statue of a meditiating Buddha, a display of Chinese women's dress, and ikebana flower arrangements. The irony was not lost on any of us in attendence.
Through her, though, I saw another face of activism, one that looks unflinchingly at racism and says "this is unjust" then moves to a space of grace which seeks healing rather than 'an eye for an eye.' She is a woman who lives and embodies her faith as Zen Buddhist Priest, Rinzai Sect. She is unapologetic of her race and the history of struggle, using it instead to reveal the cultural strengths that make Asians survivors. "APIs should not apologize for, or feel embarrased about, succeeding in a society that has a clear history of racism and bigotry against non-Europeans...we cannot ignore the face that people still link skin color and physical traits to cultural and social characteristics...but it would be a mistake to respond to ignorance with ignorant strategies."
I admired her because she also believed in the power of story:
"I am convinced that one of the ways for people of conscience to move toward a common ground is to share our stories."
She also provided clues as to why 1.5 and 2nd generation Asians often feel lost and outside both cultures in which they exist...
"Not surprisingly, (successful immigrant parents) believed if they provided money for food and after-school programs such as tutoring, or life their children home with televisions and computers, things would be find. The parents were wrong."
...while providing a possible space for healing...
"People of multi-racial heritage have opened the door for the rest of us to begin experiencing what the real issue is when it comes to racial reconciliation -- the issue of our common humanity. This humanity lies at the core of relations to one another, no matter what the physical traits, the geographic region, or level of prosperity or pverty. Recognition of our inter-connectedness is the first step toward recognition of our common humanity. Multi-racial people, in their very being, teach us ths powerful lesson...the social reality is that today's multi-racial generation insists on claiming both as having equally important bearing on their identity."
This was an issue I often heard at the conference, that the women of mixed-heritage felt as if they were embodying the disconnection and racism they saw in their society. They were conflicted, unable to settle in one culture or another, when in reality they are our hope for an integrated society, a physical presence of strength just in their Being. It is important, then for us to be mentors to this generation, even as we mentor each other on how to effectively express our inherent strengths.