A response to Charlottesville

James Hong and his parents. (Photo courtesy of James Hong)

Editor’s note: This Globalist story has been adapted from a personal letter written by the author.

My heart has been heavy since I learned about the recent events in Charlottesville. I have neither words of condemnation that are strong enough to end White supremacy, nor condolences adequate enough to ease the terror, anxiety, grief and pain anyone who is reading this might be feeling.

But I can offer a piece of my story and experience with racism in hopes that we can confront it together. 

My family came to the United States as refugees from the Vietnam War. They started from scratch in a new country, learned a new language and worked tirelessly to make ends meet — from picking berries in Kent valley farms to sewing zippers on Jansport backpacks. As a child I thought these were “normal” jobs for “normal” families. Now I realize they are one of many examples of sacrifice my parents, aunts and uncles endured. As best they could, my parents shielded me and my sister from the pain and trauma they experienced as refugees, but they couldn’t protect us from everything. At 33, I am humbled by their resiliency and resolve.

But 16-year-old-James was embarrassed and ashamed — even resentful — that my parents were refugees, did not speak English fluently, worked multiple dead-end jobs, and didn’t act more “American,” which meant hosting BBQs, letting me attend sleepovers, or serving pizza for dinner.

My experience with racism was neither physical nor violent. No one came to my door with torches or attacked me. No one has ever denied me service at a restaurant or called the police on me for being Asian.

My experience of racism was more subtle and came from friends and strangers alike.

My friends casually joked about “gooks” and “chinks.” It was supposed to be funny so I laughed and played along. Strangers asked if I was Chinese, tried to say a few words in Chinese and then waited for a reaction (perhaps an applause?) I couldn’t tell who the bigger fool was in those moments. Now I look back and think it was me. I was smart enough to realize that I could never be racially White, but naive enough to try my damnedest to act culturally White.

My experience of racism is complicated, confusing and veiled. Racism takes on many forms. It can be direct and overtly violent, like in Charlottesville, or elusive and invisible to others.

My encounters with, and exposure to, racism have not changed much between 16 and 33 years old. For much of my life, I remained comfortably silent about the racism I experienced, as well as the racism others in my community have endured.

For that, I sincerely apologize. I won’t shower you with shallow condemnations about what happened in Charlottesville. We all deserve more: a response where words, actions, feelings and values all align, and a world where our commitment to long-term social change is supported.

Know that I am with you in community to create a world that honors and dignifies your best selves, complex identities and rich experiences. Let’s confront racism together.