Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Dear Grown-Ups Working Hard to Break Down Racial Barriers

Dear Grown-Ups Working Hard to Break Down Racial Barriers,

I see you at the peace rallies, going out of your way to shake hands with everyone two shades browner than you.  I see you at church, walking way across the pews to welcome the new African-American family.  I know that you attend the MLK breakfast every year and some years you even bring your kids to march with you.  And was that you I saw at the Human Rights Commission banquet last fall?  Wasn't that you who showed up at the Trayvon Martin community discussion a few years ago too? And you always, always call the servers at China King and Mariachi's by their full names and ask them how their kids are doing.  The server at Olive Garden rarely gets that kind of love.

Here's the thing.  I think you might be complicating things. You see, I'm not even in second grade yet, so I can't do most of the things that you do - that is unless my parents make me.  And boy, they sure do.  Because like you, they also want me to live in that magical world that Dr. King speaks of in that children's book they read to me every January.  You know, where kids of all different colors play together. The funny thing is that, they keep talking about that world like it's one of those mythical realms on my favorite show, Adventureland, with rainbows and talking unicorns.  I don't understand why grown-ups always seem to be trying so hard when I already live in that world.  And really, it's no big deal.

This weekend I turned 7 and the grown-ups threw a birthday party for me.  They told me I could invite anyone I wanted to.  So I invited my friend Viktor, who was my very first friend in my very first daycare class when we were both just three months old!  Our moms keep in touch on Facebook and we've managed to have a few play dates since then even though we don't go to the same school.  And I invited my classmate, Gregory who was just as shy as I was in kindergarten.  His big sister helped translate my mom's directions into Spanish for Gregory's dad over the phone.  And I invited Telson, this totally awesome kid (from New York City just like in Home Alone!) that my mom introduced me to.  He goes to my school, but we're in different classes.  And Thurgood with the cool haircut, who sat with me at morning assembly everyday during first-grade.  And I invited my neighbor Elijah, my friends Colin, Jack H., Jack P., my classmates Rian and Wiley.  And the grown-ups wanted me to meet some friends of theirs who had two kids - Karston and Sadie.  And since the grown-ups were showing us a kids movie in the backyard, I told them to bring their whole families - brothers and sisters and all!  And at the end of the night, there were 20 kids from ages 3 - 12 running around my backyard, gulping up 80 beef, turkey, and tofu hot dogs.  And I never really noticed, but 12 of those kids (including me) were all different shades of brown.

And that's just my world.  It's not some magical land that I dream of, strive for, work towards.  It's my reality.  These are my friends that I play with, exchange toys with, make s'mores with, and play freeze tag with.  Sometimes I even fight with them, but we always make up.  These are the people I invite into my home, not to make some point or some big social statement, but simply because I like them.  And they like me.  Period.  I wonder when the grown-ups will figure out that they too can be a part of our "magical" world.  All they have to do is live it.

Jack M., Age 7

Photo credit: Jessica H.

Friday, July 18, 2014

If You Let Her In

If you let her in, one day she will tell countless young women that they can - because if someone had told her that, maybe it wouldn't have taken her 40 years to finally believe it.

If you let her in, on a cold, rainy day she will hand you a dollar, her wool coat, her tax refund, because she knows first-hand that the kindness of others can replenish a soul.

If you let her in, she will defend your child, speak up for your daughter, advocate for you, because she knows too well, what it's like to have a voice that doesn't count.

If you let her in, she will never let those high school boys who circled her when she was 6 and told her to go back to her own country, the customer who requested an "American" front desk worker instead, those men who called her gook, chink, chinamen just a few months ago - she will never let them represent all that is good and just in this country.

If you let her in, she will pour her heart and soul into your community, her community not merely by filling out some mandated tax form, but by actively participating, volunteering, maybe even running for an elected position that might allow her to do even more.

If you let her in, she will choose to take a pay cut, drive 40 miles away from her family every day, if she thinks there's a slight chance she can become part of the solution.

If you let her in, some day she will end up standing next to you at a peace rally in Washington D.C., fighting for the same justice that you seek. 

If you let her in, she will grow with you, build with you, dream with you.  Like you, she will do everything in her power to create a world that is beautiful and fair for your children, for hers...and for all the children across those imaginary lines we keep drawing to separate us from one another.

I was 14 when my parents stuck an "unaccompanied minor" tag on me, put me on a plane 9000 miles from home, and sent me to live with a distant relative in Kensington, Maryland.  While I was born and spent the first 8 years of my life in the suburbs of Chicago, my family moved to Thailand when I was 8.  The Asian stock market crashed, along with millions of Thais, my dad lost his job, and a series of other hopeless, option-less events took place far away from the land of the free, in the developing part of the world.  And just like that, my parents were faced with the hardest decision of their life.

Thank you for letting me (back) in 28 years ago.  I hope we don't miss the chance to always open our hearts and our borders to the young people who most desperately need us to embrace them.  You never know who they might become.  If we make a little room in our hearts, to let them in.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Actually, I'm Not Being Defensive, I'm Just Being Right

Be who you are.  Own what you know.  Speak your truth.  

Sounds simple enough, right?  Well, I have a confession.  For the first four decades of my life I did NONE of these things.  I'm not sure if it's fair for me to completely place blame on my cultural upbringing, but I certainly cannot deny the fact that I was immensely shaped and molded by these values:

To, at all costs, "save face" in order to keep the respect of others
To always pretend that it's the first time I've heard a great idea (even if I've voiced that same idea a million times prior)

To allow people to "teach" "dispel wisdom" and "dispense advice" on things I already knew or had more experience with than they did

To put a smile on my face even if I was simultaneously imagining slapping someone square across the face

And then one day I turned 40 and (for a wide range of reasons mentioned throughout this blog) woke up completely incapable of being anything less than authentic.  And there I was at "the table" - board meetings, among other professional colleagues, in committees. I still had that same smile on my face, but I no longer acted bewildered and amazed when someone shared their "innovative" and groundbreaking idea with me.  Now I never humiliated anyone or acted like a know-it-all. I was always respectful, and I always thanked people for their contributions. But I also gently let them in on the fact that other bright and talented people had been operating with those same "groundbreaking" ideas for some time now.  When a well-meaning person without the slightest grasp of the complexities of my work tried to offer unsolicited advice on how I could be more successful in my job, I no longer nodded politely and said, "Gee, that's so insightful.  Why didn't I think of that?"  Instead I courteously, but directly - told them that it's a bit offensive that they would assume that I haven't considered the breadth of MY OWN job.  Or the fact that I was actually being compensated to provide leadership and vision for an organization.   And when someone was abrasive, confrontational and acted like a bully, I no longer just smiled and took it in order to "save face".  I called them out and held them accountable for their lack of professionalism, and their unwillingness to learn to disagree respectfully. 

And while my husband has been acting in this direct and honest manner for his ENTIRE professional career with no one missing a beat, when I began to do this I was met with remarks like these:

Aren't you being a bit defensive Mae?  
I'm just trying to help.
I didn't mean to upset you.

So, let it be known from this day forward, that when I speak with authority and authenticity, I'm not being defensive - nor am I upset.  And please make no mistake, that I am grateful for continued opportunities to learn from others, to see value in perspectives different than mine, and to embrace the wisdom of those that surround me.  But after 40 years of wasting my time, your time, and passing up on chance after chance, for ALL of us to make progress on a multitude of things, I'm done being "accommodating nice" just to spare and validate condescending feelings of inferiority.  There's a whole world out there that desperately needs us to step up to the plate, and act in ways far beyond any personal need to self-affirm. 

So meet me at the table with the assumption that I am just as capable - or perhaps (gasp!) maybe even more capable than you.  Go ahead and get comfortable with the notion that the ideas of others might also be innovative and groundbreaking.  And that yours might not always be that great.  And for the love of God, don't bring your baggage of privilege and power to the table in order to force yourself to be heard.  You will be heard - or more importantly, you will be respected if you too speak your truth with authenticity.

See, I told you, I'm not upset at all.  I'm just right.

Photo courtesy http://www.parexcellencemagazine.com.