This essay is part of The Spectrum, a weekly forum in our Opinion section for marginalized voices to share their perspectives. To submit a piece for The Spectrum or discuss story ideas, please email [email protected]
As a Filipino-American who grew up sufficiently able to assimilate into an overwhelmingly white community, I’m still learning what it means to be a person of color in America. Throughout my childhood, my racial identity was a label, one of many hats. Being Filipino meant eating my tita’s food for dinner, going to mass and learning folk dances with other Fil-Am kids from nearby towns. It could be put on at home or in the presence of other pinoys and taken off at school.
My mom would say that if I didn’t behave exceptionally, people would attribute it to my race because I stuck out. I thought, “How could anyone persecute me for something that was simply another hat I wore?” Tennis player, music lover, Filipina… Of course I couldn’t fathom a history of pain, colonization and stereotypes — I was a child. Only now am I beginning to grasp this pervasiveness, allowing me to better identify with other people of color.
It clicked for me at For Members Only’s reflection event in November after the decision not to indict Darren Wilson was announced. Many black students mentioned being called by their parents, or calling their siblings to express love and concern for each other following the decision. “Now all you have to do to get away with murder in America is shoot someone who looks like me,” one student said. These words brought clarity for me.
This is why it makes no sense to demand complete calmness and rationality in discussing identity, be it due to race, religion, sexual orientation or otherwise. We can try to compartmentalize aspects of our identities, as I unknowingly did growing up, but ultimately, they are intricately woven into every moment of our lives. Our identities shape the way we experience the world and, as humans, our every experience is tied to visceral emotion.
I tend to avoid conflict as part of my personality, and thus I used to fear anger and wish for levelheadedness in these discussions. Yet we can hardly stay rational about sports, music, politics and other preferences we can indulge or ignore at will. How, then, can we ask people to be 100 percent detached when trying to unpack something so integral to their being, something they can never walk away from?
Patience is key. To those of you who are also afraid — of saying the wrong thing, of being attacked, of feeling confused, of what you might find if you dig deeper — have courage. Ask questions and genuinely listen. Learning takes time and persistence. You never know when something you read or hear will provide you with a level of empathy. I chose to be The Spectrum’s editor with the hope that our columns might spread that sensitivity.
This week, I attended the Black People Making History Committee’s “Breathe-In: Teach-In” and Muslim-cultural Students Association’s vigil for the three young Muslims slain in Chapel Hill, North Carolina.
While leaving both events, I had a strange feeling that I was leaving one world and entering another. Years of unconsciously donning and removing my “PoC hat” have yet to be erased, but progress has been made. I am encouraged by sentiments shared at both events. We must constantly nurture each other’s well-being. And in seeking to build solidarity, we must remember true solidarity is only possible when we support and listen to each other unconditionally.
I reiterate the importance of patience in practicing solidarity. We may be tired of hearing these conversations, particularly if we believe we will never identify with them. It’s OK to not identify; everyone has different perspectives. But we should strive to be patient. We don’t need to agree with or fully understand each other, but we can all contribute to a space of positivity and openness. A student at the vigil said, “Do your best,” and I fully agree. We’re just humans grappling with things greater than ourselves.