Microaggressions, calling out, giving power and eating our young:

Why how we treat Suey Park might matter more than her campaign to cancel Colbert

You may be bored by now with the #CancelColbert controversy. I was bored with it before it became a media sensation. And yet here I am, because I just found out that Suey Park is 23, and that turned everything that’s happened in the past five days on its head for me.

By way of background: My best friend and I have occasional debates about microaggressions, and I’m usually the one saying that those small daily sleights people of color experience do contribute a great deal to racial oppression, while he (who has a lot more reason to feel oppressed than I do as a Black man in America) usually argues that focusing on microaggressions detracts from the really critical issues that have widereaching impact. But honestly, when #CancelColbert trended, I was the one thinking, “Wow. I cannot bring myself to care.” It felt like a misunderstanding and also like a stunt. I would have been bothered by the joke without context, but the context was adequate for me not to be offended. I was a little embarrassed when I did watch Suey Park’s interview with that guy on Huffington Post, because I thought she had better arguments in her than telling him she wouldn’t argue with him because he was a White man. I thought Colbert himself handled the situation well.

But I just read an article by Julia Wong that Suey Park is 23.

That matters to me for three reasons:

1)      If I had a dollar for every person I alienated before the age of 30, I would not be poor right now.

2)      People are threating to violate, rape and kill a 23-year-old woman for tweeting about canceling a TV show.

3)      Her supporters and detractors are giving her a lot more power than is probably healthy (for the movement or for her).

Oh, and another one: People are threatening to violate, rape rape and kill a 23-year-old woman for tweeting about canceling a TV show. I know I said that one already, but it bears repeating.

I’ve tweeted along with her and many others on a few twitter campaigns (#NotYourAsianSidekick, #NotYourMascot, #BlackPowerYellowPeril, or as I prefer, #BlackPowerLiberAsian). I’ve been heartbroken by her public and petty breakup with 18 Million Rising, which is one of my favorite organizing movements out there. I’ve been both inspired by and concerned about her “you’re either for us or against us” approach to organizing, which reminds me of the equally inspiring and ultimately tragic life of second wave radical feminist Shulamith Firestone. I’ve found myself thinking that the best part of third wave feminism was that we could embrace a legacy of equality while also embracing the complexity that we might not always agree on method but we could still remain in relationship across difference, and that Suey joins a long line of activists I treasure and work with here in Oakland who extend little compassion to those who do not stand exactly where they do and who simultaneously receive very little compassion from anyone who does not stand exactly where they do.

 

I think that the justice movement in general suffers from a lack of compassion internally. (Any movement that locates itself in self-defined righteousness suffers from the same thing: Six months before he died, Fred Phelps was removed from membership of Westboro Baptist Church because he disagreed with the leadership’s unkind treatment of a member; he suggested they show more compassion to their own even while they publicly proclaimed God hated gay people and the military for tolerating gay people.) It’s why I was so grateful when my friend Laura Jean sent me the article about cultivating a culture of Calling In instead of always only calling people out, the movement equivalent of Amish shunning practices. Suey Park is shaped by that calling out culture within the movement. And the level of public conflict that has emerged between her and erstwhile supporters shows why that culture is so damaging.

I also find myself again reflecting on the need of a radical edge to hold me accountable as I get older and more mellow. I did put more people off when I was younger, but I think I did contribute something different, more raw and pretty valuable at the time that allows me at the age of 38 a little “elder statesperson” role in the movement now. I’ve written about this before, but we need a cross-generational movement. And historically, the reason young people break off from the movement isn’t solely disrespect for the older people. It’s a sense that their distinct contributions aren’t respected.

Listen, I’m under no illusion that Suey Park is the Stokely Carmichael or that any API movement I’m a part of is the Southern Christian Leadership Coalition or Montgomery Improvement Association. I also recognize I’m walking the fine line of saying, “She doesn’t know any better.” And that’s not what I mean to say. But I do hope we elder statespeople of the movement can find a way of saying to the Suey Parks in our midst, “Be powerful. Don’t let hate destroy you. And if slash and burn is what you have to do in the midst of really legitimate rage at systems of oppression, and if you think we are weak for engaging issues differently than you, I hope you can find it in yourself to forgive us for being where we are.” Most importantly, I hope that all of us together can help this nation realize that all Asian Pacific Islander activists do not speak with a single voice, and that doesn’t mean our multiple voices can therefore be dismissed.

At the end of the day, though, the fact that a 23-year-old Asian American woman from central Illinois is causing so much outrage says a lot more about racism and white privilege and the ways that communities of color are set up to destroy each other instead of destroying racism and patriarchy than it says about a 23-year-old Asian American woman from central Illinois.

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