I’m super sensitive to perpetuating the silent Asian woman stereotype. So as an Asian American who lives in Denver—a very white place and I’m not talking snow—when I’m in a situation like I found myself in yesterday at a civic engagement event, I speak up to throw my two cents in to the conversation. Except yesterday it felt more like I threw in a beat up, hardly recognizable, old, oxidized penny.
The overarching topic of the discussion was minority interests. Before group discussion, a professor who teaches at DU spoke about how U.S. government was designed to protect minorities (in number, not ethnicity); an executive director of a non-profit that serves the Latinx community in Colorado spoke about self determination and the politics of funding; and an individual who self-identified as the descendent of slaves, slave masters, and indigenous people talked about reparations or separation.
After they all presented, discussion was opened to all. It’s hard to talk about an issue this big and complex, with people coming from various positions and experiences and understandings. The continued effort to do this is one of the things I appreciate about the organization who hosts these civic engagement events.
A woman sitting behind me was the first to speak up. She brought up art and mythos, questioned which came first. She did something I’m used to hearing women do, which is apologize for possibly not making sense or rambling, and that flipped the switch in my brain and I immediately felt compelled to tell her I understood where she was coming from and how I could see what she brought up related to what we were talking about. So I raised my hand. And I spoke.
I told her I got what she was saying, related it to narratives of minorities in general, and posed we all question who is telling the narrative. Usually it’s not the minority. I mentioned representation of minorities in popular culture and the limited ways they’re represented on television shows. Then I did this thing that felt clunky and awkward and ill-prepared because it was impromptu. I think I did this thing because I was the only Asian American in the room and felt fed up that the mention of race issues by the presenters was the binary one I’m used to hearing—black and white.
To try and make my point of questioning the narrative and who’s telling it, I mentioned how the term “model minority” was created by the media in the 60s to drive a wedge between blacks and Asians. I didn’t give any context or even explain the term to those unfamiliar with it, because I was trying to be succinct and not take up too much time talking (yet maybe it would have been better to talk more so I didn’t leave feeling resentment toward the dominant talkers). I cut myself off from tidying up my comments and summarizing them. Rather, I just sort of faded out and felt myself feeling unheard and/or not understood.
I knew that if I left without talking more, I’d just fume. So I stayed to talk to a friend sitting nearby. We talked and listened to each other. It felt good, and our conversation had a depth that I find difficult to reach with large groups.
The thing about a lot of the civic engagement discussions I attend is that they leave me feeling unsettled. They are all open ended and address complex issues. What I’ve realized recently is that it’s my personal responsibility to take the experience and let it inform something specific in my life. I Googled “asian community denver” this morning, hoping to find a lead on somewhere I could go to connect with other Asian Americans in Denver. Top results weren’t that helpful.
Then I got a little more specific and Googled “asian american community denver.” This search led me to the Korean Academy of Colorado. It’s a place that offers youth and adult classes for people who want to learn Korean language and culture. I emailed them inquiring about their adult spring course, because I know taking action to address my interests is a better use of my time and energy than to complain about the unbearable whiteness of being in Denver these days.