For the longest time, whenever my mother would dream of a baby, she’d call me to talk about my future children. She’d describe in vivid details the child’s mix of features, curly hair, fat cheeks. If she saw a blonde baby she’d ask if I was dating una rubia, or someone possessing whatever other characteristics she knew didn’t exist in me. The answer was a resounding no. No, I wasn’t dating una rubia. No, I wasn’t even thinking about kids.
My mother still dreams of grandchildren. But the features have changed. Dirty blonde hair has become the darkest shade of brown. Light eyes have changed into black, tear drop shaped wells. Rather than some imaginary rubia, my mother’s imaginary grandchildren now reflect the features of my real-life partner. But the biggest change is that I’m at the point in my life where these imaginary children feel more real to me. I watch my cousins and friends welcome their own kids into the world and I find my mind drifting to the things I’ll get to teach: the carve of a snowboard through hardpack, the snap of a jab against a heavy bag.
But then I catch a glimpse of the news and I realize that the most important thing I’ll have to teach my children will be about hate.
My partner is Korean. I am Puerto Rican. Our children will have two wells of rich culture to pull from. They will also face prejudice on two different fronts, be forced to contend with ignorance and xenophobia that weaponize their own rich histories against them. And the worst part of it is that this isn’t even the worst part of it. Americans of color in this country know all too well what that looks like. And in case we’d forgotten, the past couple of years have made it abundantly clear.
In our relationship, my partner has often used her privilege to shield me, to stand up for me in situations where I could not stand up for myself. I always thought that this privilege would be something she could pass down to our children, that it would enable them to better stand up for themselves and others. Yet recently, I’ve found myself reconsidering exactly what privilege is. If it means being safer from the police than darker skinned individuals, then, statistically, they might be. But if it means being safer from hate and the violence that often accompanies it, I’m beginning to see the fallacy of this belief.
In the wake of the recent wave of violence and hate crimes against Asian Americans, I’ve felt angry. I’ve felt disappointed. But most of all I’ve felt powerless.There is nothing that I can provide my partner with beyond supportive words and solidarity. But these serve as a poor shield for the images that bombard her through the internet and social media. A middle-aged man coming home from work, blindsided by a suckerpunch. A young woman waiting for the train, assaulted by a man yelling slurs. An elderly woman working her food stall, punched by a 30 year-old man. Everyday there’s a new incident. And now, this latest incident.
Eight people murdered, six of them Asian, four of them Korean. Now, the world is diving into semantics over the intention behind the murders. But really, the intention is less important than the result; eight people murdered, six of them Asian, four of them Korean.
My partner was so disturbed by the news that she couldn’t bring herself to take my calls. Shortly after, she announced she was taking a break from social media. This is a grown woman, a woman who has made it her business to champion allyship between Asians and all people of color, a woman who has every tool at her disposal to analyze and interpret the things going on around her, and she just can’t deal with it anymore. I can only imagine the monumental task of trying to explain this to our children, to explain that people who share their features, who share their language, who sing to their kids the same lullabies that “halmoni” sings are dead because of just that.
There are some of you who will say that America is better than this. It’s not. It has proven that to us over and over again. This hate for Asians didn’t just come from nowhere. As enticing as it is to blame Trump for it, he’s just a symptom of the greater disease. This hate has always been here, always been weaponized against one group or another. The Indian Removal Act, the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Segregation Act and Jim Crow, the Mexican Repatriation Act, this is America. And as Americans of color, regardless of our respective privileges, we share a legacy of fear.
I first learned what fear looks like in the eyes of my mother. The same woman who dreams of beautiful babies has been haunted by worry ever since the 1980’s. As a child I brushed it off as just general overprotectiveness, someone who’s hard life had led them to see phantoms in every shadow. As an adult, I understand now that what she was afraid of wasn’t the phantoms, but her own powerlessness to protect the ones she loved once they walked out the door.
No amount of bravado or conciliatory words will change that. Everyday, I wonder if my partner will be alright when she walks out of the door, if her parents will be safe on their commute to and from work. And I realize that this is the beginning of a worry that will not end, even if these acts do.
One day, I will have to sit down with my children and explain to them this fear, explain to them why I am so hard on them, explain why my voice is so quick to break with anger. I will have to explain the hate they may face when they walk out the door, and how I am powerless to take it on for them. I’ll have to teach them about how the features that coalesce into everything beautiful in my mother’s dreams, could be the same ones that inspire our ugliest instinct. Even more difficult, I’ll have to explain that this hate might come from people who look like me.
This is the uglier side of that legacy of fear, that as Americans of color, we learn to fear each other. Our communities are united at the moment. Messages of allyship and anti-racism are ubiquitous, but I have to wonder how long this will last. How long before Asian Americans stop being our brothers-in-arms and become “los chinitos” again. And when the violence is done, how much of the ignorance that fuels it will remain?
Hate does not stop with our own. It serves as a catalyst for the hate we receive in return. A vicious cycle that keeps us divided. This is the world we bring our children into. And try as we might, it is not something we can protect them from, only something we can prepare them for when the time comes.
Thinking about this, I am reminded of a short story by James Baldwin, “Sonny’s Blues”. In it, a character reflects on how the adults in his life are burdened by fear, how they try to protect the children from having to carry that burden too soon. And as I cannot hope to be as eloquent as that titan of literature, I’ll simply end on words written in the 1950’s that remain just as accurate today:
“But something deep and watchful in the child knows that this is bound to end, is already ending. In a moment someone will get up and turn on the light. Then the old folks will remember the children and they won't talk anymore that day. And when light fills the room, the child is filled with darkness. He knows that every time this happens he's moved just a little closer to that darkness outside. The darkness outside is what the old folks have been talking about. It's what they've come from. It's what they endure. The child knows that they won't talk anymore because if he knows too much about what's happened to them, he'll know too much too soon, about what's going to happen to him.”