3/10/2009

Kimberly McLaughlin-Smith

The night before I left for WSU, we picked up the mail and I found that my godmother had sent me a copy of a a guest column written by WSU prof Alex Kuo. Although I I never had the chance to take a class from Dr. Kuo, I've read a few articles by him. I read the column in haste between packing bags for the trip. The tone of the letter disturbed me - it was apparent Kuo was angry and trying to cram more information into the piece than was easily comprehensible given the length. The copy came with just a sticky note from my godmother "an editorial in our Sunday paper. Hope all is well with you." I found it strangely timely that her letter arrived the night I was leaving for the symposium.

Although we don't communicate much with each other, I do get the occasional spam-meme-of-good-luck from my godmother as well as news that my alma mater hasn't been all that friendly to folks like us. As before, I was disturbed by the article, recalling the other articles she'd sent me about racial incidents on the WSU campus flaring up every few years. When I attended school, I conducted workshops in the dorms (er Residence Halls) on effective cross-cultural communication and helped organize cultural programs. Still, my activism was limited to these small events and I wasn't involved with any of the coalitions and student groups who sponsored my workshop last weekend. WSU is a college tucked in a small town surrounded by wheat fields. When I attended, there was a Filipino restaurant and a few Chinese restaurants, but these were like small rocks in a very large stream, and honestly I let myself get swept along quite often. It's wearing to think the worst in people, that at any given moment, someone might say or do something racist and/or sexist toward you. I just knew that there were certain places that I wasn't welcome and didn't try to change that.

My self-racism and sexism ran deep and rarely touched the surface for examination, but I think I knew that those things existed on campus and off. It was a given. I remember being followed around in stores as if I were a likely shoplifter. I remember the epithets shouted against my supposed Muslim heritage because I wore a particular scarf in winter. I remember when the black man was found hung in the UI (next county over) arboretum and the days after when we wondered if he'd been lynched by folks from Hayden Lake and the days after that when we breathed a sigh of relief when it was determined he'd killed himself. We were relieved about a suicide. Better than a hate crime, somehow.

Nearly 20 years later, I sat listening to Kim McLaughlin-Smith talkin' 'bout bein' ire, shakin' her dreadlocks, and makin' a case for better cross-cultural communication. Can't make assumptions, she say, can't be afraid o'aksin' questions. As it turns out, Kim haint no Jamaican born, but she uses the persona to emphasize how easy it can be to slide into assumptions even with the best of intentions. Kim was our keynote for the symposium, setting the tone of the event as one where we needed to extend our comfort zone a bit, see where we still harbored prejudice and experienced racism/sexism, then use our knowledge in a constructive, creative, and artistic way. Here's the notes I jotted down during her talk:

* Exposure to anything is Everything. Lack of or poor exposure can lead to poor relations and confusion among the masses.
* We hate some persons because we do not know them
* Understand your own cultural lenses. Apply this understanding to enhance relationship.
* Things that inhibit positive cross-communication: fear of the unknown; more differences than similarities; relying on "That's just the way they are."; don't say the wrong thing, mistakes can be irreparable; stick to what you know; don't ask dumb questions!
* See people how they see themselves.
* Poor cross-cultural communication is based on cross-cultural misinformation
* Limitations of US culture - arrogance, ignorance, and presumptuousness
* The historic inability of many majority Americans to view minorities as palatable unless they are repackaged, stems from a particular mindset that prefers to remain within a specific comfort zone. Any behavior or marker outside that zone creates tension.
* The racial struggle of black peoples in America is very often the first point of reference used in the argument to gain GBLTQ equity
* The women's sufferance movement was probably one of America's most exclusive (meaning designed to exclude women of color) civil rights initiatives in our country's history.
* "Life is not a playground, but a classroom." -- Susan Taylor
* "Be the change you want to see." -- Ghandi

Each night after the symposium, my in-laws would ask me how my sessions went. A harmless enough question, but there was a certain tension in the air that I couldn't place right away. I thought perhaps that they were uncomfortable with me leaving the girls behind and being the one out in the world doing things instead of DH. When I returned home, I started researching Dr. Kuo's article after reading the scathing comments to his column. One of the symposium organizers had mentioned that there had been a backlash online about his column, but no one knew if there was any sanctioning of him professionally because of his piece (but isn't it interesting that this was even a worry? Would we be concerned if it had been a member of the majority who spoke against the racial climate?).

As it turns out, Kuo's column was a response to a column in the International Examiner which painted a very rosy picture of life as an Asian student at WSU. In turn, this piece was a response to an even earlier letter sent to the Greater Seattle Chapter of the Organization of Chinese Americans which was quite the opposite. Given this thread of statements and rebuttals as well as the verbal attacks on Asian American women in 2005 and the more recent attacks on gay men on the WSU campus, no wonder my in-laws were concerned that I was turning into a radical activist bent on causing all sorts of headache for the WSU administration.

We protested in 2006 against one campus group's an untimely choice of using Chinese tokenism at a dinner hosted in the same building as the CAPTIVATE conference, but this year we were definitely focused on flexing our creativity and art to make space for positive dialogue. Ultimately, I was challenged by Kim's words and I began to ask myself if I really am doing all I can to eliminate racism and sexism in my own community. I realized that I still have much work on myself to do to heal the self-racism and sexism within me. But I was also inspired by the students I met who believed in making positive change and were looking for effective ways to do that. We created a community in a short time designed to support each other's work going forward. Truly an amazing symposium.

Next: Lunch with the Speakers

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