November 06

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Toi-Sing Woo • • • • • • Seattle, WA • • • • • • • On Race

I am an Asian woman who does racial justice work. Too many times, I feel Asians are left out of the conversations and stories on the impact of racism.

I recently read a post, The Soapbox: On The “First Female Maasai Warrior” & The Power Of White Privilege, (www.thefrisky.com) that criticized an article about Mindy Budgor, a white woman who became the first Maasai warrior in Kenya, and by doing so helped to empower Maasai women and assure the survival of Massai culture. The author of the post was a black college student who took issue with the arrogance of the racial privilege embodied in Budgor’s experience.

The author wrote about her own spiritual quest when she was in her twenties on the island of Hawai’i. While she wrote about cultural and land appropriations by white people and the lack of opportunity to meet Hawaiians, she did not mention Asians, who constitute close to 80% of Hawai’i’s population. I’m sure that the author would say that her story had nothing to do with Asians, and therefore she had no obligation to mention them. Yet, I felt excluded. I found myself once again feeling a strong reaction of being left out of a conversation and story about race and how it impacts my life and the lives of other like me.

I would like to share a personal experience of how racism made me invisible and diminished my sense of security as  a racial justice advocate. About five years ago, I was co-facilitating a meeting with some white allies on the purpose of their work and developing new strategies to move it to the next stages. Halfway into the meeting, I provided comments on how white allies needed to hold themselves accountable when it comes to power and privilege before people of color could trust them.  One of the white allies responded by stating the usual “I don’t have any power or privilege, I grew up poor.” When I countered that by stating power and racial privilege is not earned but comes with the color of one’s skin, the white allies all had that blank look that asked, “What is she talking about?”

Less than a minute later, my white co-facilitator said the same thing I had said, and all of people in the meeting nodded in agreement.  I was stunned and felt marginalized. Here we were talking about racism and the roles of allies—the need for allies to own their privilege—and a racist moment happened.  My words were meaningless; they had no impact.  But when a white person said the same words I had spoken, those words became profound. I was rendered invisible again.

The incident scarred me. It left me hesitant to engage with white allies and it silenced me in ways I still cannot unpack even to this day.  And finally, as an Asian American, I wonder if there are any roles for us when white allies cavalierly dismiss us as we fight for racial equity.

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