Published on June 11th, 2020 | by Lisa Lim1
Let’s Talk About Racism
I don’t want to go! I resisted leaving my home when the pandemic hit New York City. My partner and I got into full on fights about leaving. They weren’t pretty. Not even our therapist could quell the many storms happening inside the thin walls of Apartment 5D.
I was adamant that I was going to fight this virus and win from my home turf.
Then the news started coming out about the violent backlash against Asians. Political rhetoric fanned the fury, and the country raged against the “model minority.”
It got so bad that Chinatown’s across the nation were forming community street patrols.
Anti-Asian attacks were happening in my own neighborhood. “You fucking Chinese. Where’s your fucking mask?” one man screamed at an Asian man before shoving his face. This was not an isolated incident. And it was happening right in Queens. A place known and celebrated for its diversity. A place full of Asians. Some people told me, “You’re being too paranoid.” But I wasn’t. Crimes against Asians were rapidly growing in both numbers and magnitude of rage displaced against them. The hate was real.
One headline read, “From Guns to GoPros, Asian Americans Seek To Deter Attacks.” It was Mad Max. My people love posting about food porn and taking selfies while traveling the world. And now they were at Walmart buying ammo.
I was worried about my father who also lived in Queens.
I asked him, “Baba
are you getting your groceries delivered?”
“I’m going to Costco. I have to pick up stuff,” he brushed me off.
“Stay home. Please. Costco is swarming with the virus,” I insisted.
“Ma needs her meds,” he said.
“Baba, have you heard of prescription delivery?” I asked. “No!” he hollered and then he hung up on me.
I texted him back, “Make sure you’re covered up. I don’t want anyone harassing you because you’re Asian.”
He sent back a picture and wrote, “Don’t worry. Have you seen my gear. I’m what you call incognito?” He was covered head to toe. He had a large black mask. Huge opaque sunglasses. A baseball hat. And a raincoat that covered every inch of him. He kind of looked like a Marvel villain. But most important, he was unidentifiable. So, I guess he was safe-ish.
I was worried about my mother who lived in Rockland County. “Mommy, are you staying home?” I grilled.
“Me and my friend take walks,” she said.
“Together? With masks? 6 feet apart?” I nagged.
“We’re careful,” she said
“Mommy, you have to be careful because you live in a very white neighborhood and there is a huge backlash against Asians. Have you read the news? People hate us right now. I don’t want anything to happen to you,” I said.
“Don’t worry. I’m an old lady. Nobody will bother me. My mask covers my face. And who’s going to bother a woman with a flip phone. Get real,” she reassured me.
One day, we walked into the elevator bank of our apartment building, and there was a notice hung up indicating that someone in the building had contracted COVID19 and was self-quarantining. Our nerves were rattled.
Just take the stairs. Don’t take the elevator. So, we climb up five flights. Climb down 5 flights. We don’t touch any handles. But what if he falls down the stairs? Better than catching the virus. What if he falls and ends up at the hospital? That’s where everyone with the virus goes. We can’t go to the hospital. That’s a death sentence.
Just don’t touch anything. Don’t touch the door. Miles! Miles! Miles! Don’t touch the door. OMG he touched it. He touched the door. Omg. Where’s the Purell????
We only had a small bottle of Purell to share between the 3 of us. And every time I checked to see if the 99cents store restocked, it was gone. At least they had party hats. That same day, we found out our neighbor with COVID19 died.
Around the same time The New York Times came out with a chilling video featuring the many morgue trucks parked outside Elmhurst Hospital. We felt so trapped and anxious. It was one of the hardest decisions ever. But we decided to leave Queens. At least until the virus died down.
We left the day before the CDC issued a travel advisory urging all New Yorkers to stay put and not to travel outside of the state. Patrols in other states were beginning to stop people on the road. Our car was packed up. We had five outfits each. Two pairs of shoes. All of our groceries thrown into a trash bag. We held our breath every time we saw a patrol car.
We made one stop on the road and peed while cars watched. It was better than going to the public bathrooms. When we finally pulled into my in-laws’ house we kissed the ground and cried.
We had gone from a super diverse neighborhood in Queens to a super white suburb of Massachusetts. For the first month, I would only go out for runs around the house. Literally I ran in circles around the house. I had never felt my Asian-ness so strongly. I was scared even though I was in a safer place. I had nightmares of my white neighbors cursing me out and telling me to go back to China.
My partner, who’s Jewish Italian, told me we’re in a peaceful community. That I shouldn’t fear. That I was being too sensitive. But he wasn’t following the same news I was following. He didn’t get the same kind of stares I was getting.
For the first month I legitimately feared going out with my family because I thought it would make them a target.
For the first month I would cover my face with a hoody and wear large sunglasses so you couldn’t make out my Asian features. My father had taught me well. I thought about how this intense and sudden hatred towards Asians was something I had never had to deal with before. And then…
On February 23rd, Ahmaud Arbery, a 25-year-old black man, was gunned down while jogging in his hometown.
On March 13th, Breonna Taylor, a 26-year-old black woman, was shot eight times when police broke down her door in an alleged drug sting.
On May 25, I watched and the whole world watched a police officer put a knee on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds. Until he killed him. As George desperately cried out, “I can’t breathe . . . Mama.”
That was the moment that changed America’s story. It was the act that changed my story. Yes, I had started this comic to speak out about racism against Asian Americans. But after George Floyd’s murder, and so many more senseless killings of Black people, I changed my narrative. Because I wanted to. Because I had to.
This one woman’s protest sign captured it all. It read, “All mothers were summoned when George Floyd called out for his Momma.”
I had to acknowledge my privilege as an Asian American. I wasn’t white. And I would never know what it means to be Black. But what I did know is my own experience. Before coronavirus hit, I felt safe. But this feeling of safety was in fact a privilege. The safety of not having to think twice about where I lived. Where I ate. Where I hung out. Where I traveled. Where I jogged.
I also thought long and hard about my privilege in being able to pick up and leave Queens. We had money to rent a car. We had the means. I had a job that allowed me to work remotely. I thought about my friends who couldn’t afford to just move, or who didn’t have the luxury of sheltering in place at their in-laws’ summer home. We were lucky.
I thought about the safety of my parents, my family, and my friends. And yes, I still feel rage when I read yet another story of an Asian-hate crime. But today, I find myself also checking my privilege. I realized that this new-fangled fear is just that: New. That my Black friends and colleagues were born into this fear. And they have to face that fear every single day of their lives. That is their reality. And it is fucked up.
I kept thinking about “the talk” Black Moms and Dads have to have with their kids. How to avoid being killed just walking down the street. The talk starts early because as one Black Mom, Julee Wilson, put it in Vogue, “There’s no other choice—it’s a matter of life and death.”
What could I do to help? I didn’t have the answers. How do I teach my child to be anti-racist? I didn’t know if Miles was too young to understand racism. My partner sure didn’t think he was up for it.
“He’s colorblind. And that’s a good thing. Don’t mess his head up with talk of racism. He’s too young to understand that shit,” he said.
But that’s not the answer. Because that’s not reality. The world is not colorblind. It judges. It prejudices. It discriminates.
We can’t ignore how his lighter skin color will factor into his privilege, along with family wealth, class, and so many other factors. Because whiter skin tends to mean you have a better chance at living in higher income zip codes. And that means better-rated schools. And that means higher paying jobs. And that means better healthcare. And that just means institutionalized racism persists, unchecked.
I knew that I also needed to have “a talk” with my son. A different kind of talk. But how was I going to have it? In my research, I stumbled upon Vera Ahiyya’s video. She is a Kindergarten teacher who goes by the Instagram handle @thetututeacher. In her video, she explains to kids, “We are combating a different kind of disease. This is not the disease that you catch from germs, but it’s something that happens with the way that people think.”
I remember hearing Trevor Noah liken racism to a disease. It’s systemic. It’s sometimes silent. It’s passed down from generation to generation. And it’s fatal.
After we watched Ms. Ahiyya’s video, Miles and I talked about how if he was ever in a situation where people are being mistreated, especially because of the color of their skin, he had an obligation to step up and use that voice. To turn his empathy into a superpower. Because it was a superpower. His voice, my voice, our voices are powerful.
That’s when he said to me, “Mommy, I like fighting bad guys.” All while making blasting noises as if he was obliterating racism. “Pew. Pew. Pew.”
That same weekend, I started talking about racism with my young nieces and nephews. My sister’s children are Egyptian Chinese Cuban. My brother’s children are Chinese. And my child, Miles is Jewish Chinese Italian. We talked about our different skin colors, in addition to our ethnicities. And just like the story, “Let’s talk about race” that Ms. Ahiyya read to us in her video, we talked about how there are so many parts to our stories. Our skin color being just one part of that story. We talked about how the color of your skin, in particular Black skin, should never be the reason you’re treated differently or unfairly. We talked about standing up to the bullies of the world because we can. And we should.
These are the first of many talks I intend to have. Because anti-racism starts at home. Because getting comfortable about uncomfortable conversations is necessary. Because Black lives matter. As parents, we get to create and shape a woke generation. Full of compassion and love. A generation that fights against racism and stands up for justice.
So, let’s talk about racism. And let’s talk about it often. It may be the only cure.