The American chapter of my family began a quarter century ago. My father moved to Huntsville, Alabama in the early 1990’s to pursue a master’s degree in the United States. My mother would raise two kids in America and work as a successful career software engineer — eleven years of that career at Intel. My parents credit the massacres at Tiananmen Square as the moment they decided to leave mainland China./p>
Although I appreciated my parents’ boldness in coming to the U.S., I didn’t always want this skin I was born into. Being told that your home smells funny, that your eyes are too small and slanty, that your English is pretty good for a chink, that your family should “go back to where they came from, that you’re too different to be equal – those things hurt. You internalize so many of those words, the shame of growing up different in Portland – you learn to operate as a second-class citizen. You accept that who you are and where you come from is a flaw, not a feature, not something you should widely broadcast or ever fully embrace. My experiences growing up taught me that being Chinese was less than desirable.
After the 2016 election, my fear was that Chinese children would grow up in America thinking they were unimportant, unworthy, lesser – that they didn’t belong. That they believed they had to surrender something about themselves for acceptance from others that they could never truly gain.
After a year of pandemic and racist anti-Asian sentiment spoked by demagogues and elected officials, that fear has taken new root — will people who look like me even get to live, to grow old in this country without a target on their back? Afterall, what is to stop the same societal impulses that assault 90 year old Asian elders, cage Brown children, and suffocate Black lives from gaining unimpeachable political power yet again?
I wish, when I was growing up, I had known someone who had spoken to some of my insecurities who could have mentored and guided me. Someone who had figured out how to exist in this third world, caught between the two worlds of not being “American” enough to feel comfortable (or even safe now) and not being Chinese enough to feel authentic (or whitewashed due to the pressure to conform). I wish I had had someone in my life who understood the devastating racism and xenophobia that exists in our world and how to not let it wreck you – to be proud of what makes you different, to bring your whole self to this world. I wish someone had looked into my small, black, slanted eyes and told me that everyone is a little different and the world wouldn’t be as beautiful without all of us in it.
Philanthropy can help bridge the gaps in leadership. Philanthropy must resist the urge to “depoliticize” in this time. Politics is fundamentally about questions of how we exist in community together, of who belongs in our society, and how we allocate precious resources to execute our values. I see no bigger set of worthy questions with which to engage.
Philanthropy can invest in mentorship, in projects that help others find their voices, to tell stories that only they can tell, to build permission structures for people to be themselves. Philanthropy can unapologetically support BIPOC folks to build solidarity between each other, to set up precious BIPOC spaces to counter decades of political segregation and division. To stop perpetuating a non-profit complex and human rights regime that seeks to continue raising the bar for what kind of oppression or how novel or recent the oppression has occurred as barometers for what is grantworthy. For-profit news models cover what is new, exciting, or conflicting. Philanthropy can help bolster the steady civic education of the public, repeating values that incorporate elements of race-class narrative that doesn’t sanitize the problem or avoid calling out what’s really going on — abuse of power.
My hope is to see our philanthropic and community leaders meet the political moment with the amount of fervor and sustained funding to persistently draw attention to the root causes, to battle against narratives that economic distress and public health hardships are somehow excusable allowances for hate.