I turned around in my chair and met eyes with the blue-eyed boy who was now three inches away from my face. He slumped back into his chair with a grin, while a small audience of laughing boys surrounded him. Well if a reaction is what he’s craving, then I’m not going to give him one. In that moment, I convinced myself that pride turned me away from that situation. But when I got home that day, I stared at myself in the bathroom mirror. I pulled back my eyes into slants with my fingers, which were now wet with tears. And now I knew that in actuality, I had swallowed my pride. Fear of conflict and the sudden inability to stand up for myself weighed me down. At the end of that day in third grade, I felt like the loser in that situation and that somehow I let the blue-eyed boy win.
“How do Asian people name their kids? They throw a pot down the stairs!”
This time, four years later, I didn’t need to turn around. This boy said it right in front of my face. The blond-haired boy was my friend. I laughed faintly, but I knew although I was not physically turning myself from the situation, that fear of conflict I had in elementary school was allowing me to turn a blind eye. But after a repetition of the same situation over the following weeks, my growing frustration finally sparked a new determination. I told myself, I am not going to be the loser this time. At the end of that day in seventh grade, I looked in the mirror at a face with no tears. Almost like a mantra, I rehearsed my lines of confrontation. The image of the determined girl in the mirror soon reflected reality. “How incredibly insensitive could you be to repeat these jokes?” I pieced together the blond-haired boy’s words to craft an antagonizing identity for him. The audience surrounding us in the hallway arrived at the premature conclusion that he was racist. Although a part of me felt that I left as the winner in that situation, I left it losing a friend, who was now vilified.
I stared blankly at my phone screen. Under the video of an Asian influencer I came across a handful of the countless xenophobic comments, triggered by misconceptions of the cause of the COVID-19 pandemic. I could have easily turned away from the comments. All it took was 2 inches of scrolling. But the fear of conflict I had before was overcome by the headlines flashing in my mind.
I remembered the stories of the attempted murder of an Asian American family in Texas, the acid attack against a woman in Brooklyn, the accounts of verbal and physical harassment against people who look like me. Staying silent makes me a bystander to my own oppression. Yet, I knew my words needed to aim for unification and not condemnation. I did research, read articles and anecdotes about the scapegoating of East Asians across the globe. I took the pivotal step and replied to as many comments as I could find. The successes of my initiative were statements of remorse and a new group of people who could spread the information I shared. In choosing to create discourse for understanding, to expand knowledge and sympathy, I became a voice for the Asian American experience.
Rather than building walls between conflicting perspectives, we must seek to crumble them. We often fail to engage in civil discourse, set off by our differences and courteous anxieties, either by avoiding it altogether or ostracizing each other. In the end, the civil project of a unified body doesn’t call for winners or losers, heroes or villains. I continue to educate, not berate, and seek to start the conversations for those who feel voiceless, just as I did, and for the little girls who look like me.