Your Realities, and Mine

My reflections on facilitating conversations around race and class:

Much of my entry point (personally, privately) to discussing race and class is really an attempt to unpack my own identity, which I consciously experience at the intersection of race, class, nationality, gender, ability, likeability, ambition and orientation.

I think a lot about the nuances of privilege – how it’s perceived, and what it really includes. I consider the fact that, as a middle-class Chinese American raised in the Silicon Valley, as a second generation college graduate and a first generation graduate student, I am poised for what my community glibly defines as success.

I am privileged. Yet, my freedom to travel upwards on the proverbial ladder has not translated into a capacity – for myself or for most other Asian Americans – to travel sideways, into all manners of careers and life choices. When people used to say, “You can be anything you want to be,” I didn’t believe them. While I was smart enough to hitchhike on roads less taken, I felt that neither my gender nor ethnicity – and the trappings of being either and both – would allow me to cross invisible yet unimaginably real divides. I’m very privileged, you see, but most days I don’t feel powerful, limitless or autonomous. Most days I feel…trapped. Trapped by what others expect of me, by expectations so insidiously conditioned within me that they’ve become my own inhibitions – ones I honor and worship even though I know my life ought to be bigger than that. On good days, I write reflections such as this one. On bad days, I avoid confronting it altogether.

What does that mean? Well, it means I certainly don’t situate on the ‘black’ side of the black-white paradigm. But it’s also made me recognize that this paradigm, this narrative, is regrettably incomplete. Because it forces us to identify according to proxies, rather than authentically and directly consider our realities as we see and feel them. Life isn’t supposed to be an ‘either or’ question. Anytime we measure ourselves against some false binary, we are struggling to fit ourselves into a category that clearly wasn’t tailored to accommodate our specific reality. We thereby perpetuate imposed structures that are inorganic to actual, human condition.

So my approach to discussions about race and class is much more holistic. Everyone is relevant to the discussion, and not just simply in ways that honor one particular perspective. “This is water,” David Foster Wallace says, pushing us to think always about the context of our personal truths, and how they inform broader realities. It’s instinctive for people to reap the riches of privilege without confronting the pain of lack. It’s also instinctive for people to present only their rage for not having without communicating their pain of always wanting. Both, are real. Both, are incomplete. For your reality has everything to do with my reality, even if I never confront or consider it. Even if I am woefully ignorant (or callously uncaring), your identity and your human experience have everything to do with mine. Because you, because me, therefore us. And we are always existing in ‘us’ – this is an inevitability that no physical, psychological and social segregation can prevent.

Our endeavor to unpack, I think, doesn’t begin with where we all exist. It starts with what we’re aware of (where we think we exist). And I never enter or construct any conversation with the assumption that I know more, feel more, live more. Already I know that can’t be true. All I have is the space I occupy, and that’s true of you, too. And so it is my firm belief that any authentic discussion first demands a profound and complete humility. If the facilitator doesn’t start there, it will be difficult (if not impossible) to get everyone else in the room to be humble and authentic. And, if you think about it, that’s essentially what we’re asking of privileged individuals when we enter such discussions – humility and authenticity. But how can we expect to receive what we have not modeled?

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