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Want To Be Nice? Don't Stay Silent

Protesters hold placards during a demonstration against racism on March 26, 2021, in Taiwan.  (Daniel Tsang/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)
Protesters hold placards during a demonstration against racism on March 26, 2021, in Taiwan. (Daniel Tsang/SOPA Images/LightRocket via Getty Images)

A couple years ago, I saw a man scream at two women speaking Chinese on the T. “Go back to your country,” he yelled.

I looked around the subway car. Everyone was looking at their phones or shoes — anywhere except the man. “Shut the ---- up,” I told him, quietly at first.

The man kept screaming, so I got louder.

“Shut the ---- up,” I yelled every time he opened his mouth. It was important, I thought, to show these women that at least someone thought what the man was doing was wrong. Now there were two of us screaming on the train. People were looking at me like I’d lost my mind. I felt foolish. Why was I the only person saying something? Did everyone else know something I didn’t know?

“Sweetie,” the man sitting across from me said, “What are you doing?”

“He’s a racist,” I said. “Someone has to say something.”

“You gotta let it go,” he said. “You’re too cute to be yelling like that.”

I got off at the next stop and walked the rest of the way home, too embarrassed to stay on the train. I wonder if my response had just embarrassed the woman and if I should have kept my mouth shut.

People walk past digital billboards display 'stop asian hate' messages near Penn Station on March 30, 2021 in New York City.(Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)
People walk past digital billboards display 'stop asian hate' messages near Penn Station on March 30, 2021 in New York City.(Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images)

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I grew up in Minnesota, the paradise of small talk and steering away from the inflammatory. As a child I got into trouble because I was constantly angry about something: poverty in India, how my classmates made fun of Chinese people’s eyes, why my parents thought it was a good idea to raise a half-Chinese and half-Indian child (aka me) in Minnesota and expected it to go smoothly. If it’s not nice, don’t say it, classmates told me over and over again, because I was prone to saying whatever I wanted, preferably loudly and insistently.

I learned to swallow the anger, and slowly the adage melted into my bones and became deeply engrained. To this day, I struggle to raise my voice in public or show anger. To be honest, it’s very probable that my angry yelling on the subway car sounded a whole lot like squeaking. On social media I prefer to stick to observations about chocolate, books and the weather: all the hard-hitting topics. I assume that people know I support minority rights and I care about social justice even if I don’t always tweet about it.

That started to change in the wake of the Black Lives Matter movement. It became abundantly clear to me that our justice systems were broken and as a society we’d looked the other way for far too long. But I wasn’t sure what to do. If I posted about it, would I be seen as an imposter? Did checking in on Black friends tokenize them? What if I just donated and told no one about it so I wouldn’t seem like I was virtue signaling?

Then, news of the Atlanta and Indianapolis shootings broke. In an environment where there was a 150% increase in hate crimes around Asian Americans, I started looking at people differently. I’ve stopped automatically assuming that people are allies. In the subway car, I’d assumed no one knew what to do. Now, I wondered how many people secretly agreed with the screaming man and if that was the reason I was the only cursing him out.

In an environment where there was a 150% increase in hate crimes around Asian Americans, I started looking at people differently. I’ve stopped automatically assuming that people are allies.

This was an unwilling transition. To be honest, I feel a little ridiculous. My personal reckoning seems like an overreaction compared to what other minority groups face in America, especially in the wake of George Floyd’s murder. Many of my Asian-American friends felt similarly: on the one hand, many of us had economic and academic privilege, and being Asian in America confers its own blessings and curses. On the other hand, we were terrified that we were now walking targets. For many of us, this was a new feeling. Nevertheless, feeling ridiculous couldn’t change the fact that our trust that we were safe and wanted had been shattered.

An Asian-American friend told me she’d taken to scrolling through Instagram to check which of her friends posted in support of #StopAsianHate. I’d been doing the same thing. Suddenly I had a tally of who had said something and who hadn’t, and with a few exceptions I was disappointed. The majority of the people posting about #StopAsianHate on my feeds were Asian or Asian-American.

Of course, there’s a more complicated discussion to be had about the difference between lip service and genuinely doing the work, but I wanted acknowledgement. Now if someone doesn’t speak up, I wonder what that means. Do they not care? What do they believe? The silence nurses fear. Seeing that someone has posted something means they care enough to at least make a conscious gesture of support.

Now, I regretted every time I had been silent, every time I’d assumed that people understood I was an ally for marginalized groups, even if I wasn’t always a vocal ally. I’m learning when your trust has been broken, other people’s silence isn’t enough. You need the reassurance that your pain is seen, that it’s been heard, and that others  find the circumstances that lead to your pain unacceptable.

I’m learning when your trust has been broken, other people’s silence isn’t enough.

I can’t control whether or not anyone gives me this reassurance but I can do it for other people. I’m determined to be a more outspoken advocate on behalf of other marginalized groups. In turn, I hope it becomes a social norm: that we all learn to speak up for each other.

A good friend who still lives in Minnesota called me shortly after George Floyd’s murder. For years, she was exactly who I wanted to be: intelligent, physically fit and most important of all, sunny tempered. I’d never once seen her angry.

She was spitting with rage when we talked. “We’ve got to stop this” she said. “We’ve got to start talking about everything instead of being nice all the time.”

“My mom cussed someone out yesterday,” she said and went on to describe how her mother called out some people for being racist at the gas station — a huge shock to me, because until then, I hadn’t even realized her mother knew how to swear.

I whooped. “Tell your mom I’m proud of her,” I said.

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Shalene Gupta Twitter Cognoscenti contributor
Shalene Gupta is the co-author of The Power of Trust and a research associate at Harvard Business School.

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