The Discomfort of Learning Things I Didn’t Know I Should Know

I sat on the edge of my bed, a pair of socks in my hand, preparing to put on my shoes to leave. I gazed at the clock wondering, if I leave now, am I going to be too early? I figured now is about the right time, put on my shoes and headed out the door. I walked the short distance to the Ohio Union and once inside, began looking for the Alonso Student Life Room. Despite my wishes to speak to no one, I greeted the people at the help desk and they pointed me in the right direction. I entered the room and my heart sank. The room had probably 30 chairs set up in a grid, with only 2 of them filled. The projector screen read APIDA Activism 101, and I knew I was in the right place. I sat in the second row. I couldn’t sit at the back with so few people present. APIDA Activism 101; the session I was attending was an introductory education in activism in the Asian, Pacific Islander, Desi American Community. I am a white man with dark brown hair, hardly the look of a person within the APIDA community. As I sat there, the feeling of being isolated marinated. Despite the social anxiety, I was excited for the session. I was interested to learn more about the APIDA Community and their activism, as my knowledge in the realm of APIDA groups and issues was quite low. Through the APIDA Activism 101 session, I was able to learn a little of what it feels like socially to be the minoritized group; see the way that connectivity among groups extends much deeper than race; think on the way that race is viewed dichotomously in the U.S.; and begin to understand some of the many issues that plague APIDA communities.
As I sat in my chair, I couldn’t help but notice the many ways that I felt out of place. The Alonso Room was a round, quiet room with windows facing outside on two thirds of the walls. Between the windows were bookshelves, and comfortable chairs. The chair I was seated in was among a collection of black chairs arranged in a rectangle in the center of the room. A few chairs down from me another person sat reading a book, and I was jealous of their escape. Moments later, one of the people setting up the session began chatting with this person about something they were going to do after the session was over. I felt even more singled out. I couldn’t help but think that not only do I look different, but these people know each other! And in this unusual feeling of difference, I had a moment to recognize a menial amount of what minoritized groups deal with every day. It is simply tough to feel like you are the only person that looks like you in a room. Though, I wasn’t experiencing the same feeling as minoritized groups, as my discomfort was only temporary. After the session began, there were multiple instances where we had to break into small groups to discuss and at the first break, I turned around to find that there was another white person two rows behind me. Ashamedly, this brought me some comfort. My small group consisted of the other two people on my side of the room and in the first discussion we managed to converse, but as the small group discussions went on the discomfort of each of us was clear as we wanted to share little. I tried to start the discussions sometimes, but I wasn’t keen on the concept of Mr. White Man, leading the discussions on APIDA Activism. On the other side of the room, the only other small group was having full bodied conversation. The inability to speak with others only made the isolation and discomfort heighten. Despite the discomfort of feeling as though others were staring at me everyone was very accepting and at many moments I could relate to the ideas at hand.
The core of the APIDA Activism session, was quite familiar, as the core lessons regarding activism, were tenants that I could understand from my small forays into environmental activism. When the session began and the slideshow started moving, the first slide’s text made me feel a bit more at ease. In bold red print above a small passage read ‘Land Acknowledgement’. Upon seeing those two words, I was comforted, as I’d participated in land acknowledgements with other groups and that familiarity was enough to calm some nerves. I have found that people who are aware enough to acknowledge that the land we live on is stolen land, are often people with whom I get along. Despite the slight relief, I was still too aware of my discomfort to answer the question the speaker asked of why we do land acknowledgements, even though I felt I could answer it well. The thread of activism and awareness were both subjects that helped me to feel more at peace throughout the session. Often, we were called upon to discuss activism and why we engage in it, and those subjects helped me feel more comfortable with the people around me. Speaking to people about the importance of having your voice heard and enacting change was quite powerful. The universal desires to stand up to make a better world made me feel that I had much more in common with the small group of people around me. At the end of the session, they spoke about how to avoid burnout in an activist group, and this also made me feel welcome. I have discussed activist burnout in such similar terms with a friend who is big on activism. All of this together helped to remind me that I had a lot more in common with the people around me than I was thinking of when the session began.
Though, there were elements that I was familiar with in the activism, much of what I was exposed to was bringing me to new light on justice for APIDA and other minoritized groups. At one point, the speaker opened up to the audience to speak about some of the issues that APIDA groups face and the person sitting in the same row as me gave a thoughtful and compelling answer about the difficulties of APIDA groups to get attention and justice in the United States because U.S. racial issues are seen as a narrative of black and white. This bias had me spellbound. I stewed on this dichotomy and realized the effects that this binary has, and how it created my ignorance on APIDA issues. By only seeing black, white and the issues between, we belittle so many other groups. We see their problems as less significant because they don’t fit in the dichotomy. At one point during the APIDA Activism session, we went around the room and read short biographies of famous APIDA activists that were taped on the walls. What struck me about many of these activists, was their involvement in the Civil Rights Movement. The APIDA connection within the Civil Rights Movement made me reflect further on the racial dichotomy. I thought about how much support the Civil Rights Movement got from people of groups outside of the black community, but on the flip side, some of these larger more powerful groups were not sticking up for the other minoritized groups. These thoughts raged on in my head, and yet there was more to process about the issues and troubles that face APIDA communities.
Further into the presentation, the group made a word cloud regarding the issues that face APIDA groups and it broadened my horizon further by allowing me to see many issues that I hadn’t processed before. As a part of the group, I had to help come up with ideas of social issues for APIDA groups and as I began to think on it, I realized how little I knew of issues in the APIDA community, as I was only able to come up with immigration and mental health. Even then, I felt ignorant on those issues. As responses flowed in and the word cloud grew, I began to visually recognize my ignorance. As I would see a response, I would think of course, how did I not think of that? Seeing the model minority myth, I thought on how terrible it must be to have a wide swath of people called a ‘model minority’. No one wants to be judged about their abilities and what they should be based on their look and the color of their skin. Judgement across APIDA groups appeared on the screen and caught me by surprise. I’ve hardly ever acknowledged that people of Asian descent come from many different countries and cultures that vary widely in nature and have their own biases. I realized that I need to work to shirk my own sight of Asian people and cultures as being more homogenous than they truly are. The last words I noticed in the word cloud were sexual trafficking and abuse. I noted that it is an issue that I still lack a deep understanding of how it affects APIDA groups. In looking at the word cloud, seeing these issues, I began to notice my tunnel vision, and how U.S. society’s lack of emphasis on APIDA groups has affected my view of these groups.
The APIDA Activism 101 session was an important wake up call for me in my own duties of being a conscientious citizen. The session forced me to reflect upon my relationship with the social issues of APIDA groups, forcing me to realize the comfort I’d found in ignorance. I entered the session thinking that I was adequately versed on social issues but quickly realized the fallacy. My subconscious used that train of thought to be complacent in my knowledge and action on social issues. This complacency is a result of not desiring to think on the hardships that other groups face in this country and of the lack of attention we give to APIDA groups and many other groups outside of the black-white dichotomy. In following the session, I feel that I’ve been working to be more cognizant of the places where the assumption of a black and white social binary shields other issues from sight. I’ve also been working to shirk my biases about APIDA groups so that I can see their issues at a better level. Additionally, I’ve reflected on how important it was for me to feel that discomfort. I know I entered the session full of fear, but, I had little to fear, because the people around me were just people and we had more in common than I had bothered to reconcile beforehand. It was foolish of me to feel as uncomfortable as I did just because I looked different. People are people, no matter the outer image. The amount of self-reflection and realization I was able to achieve from even a short stint out of my comfort zone was a strong reminder that there is a great deal to learn and enjoy outside of the world that I bubble wrap myself in, seven days a week.

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