Growing up as a person of color in the United States usually means enduring racial stereotypes. In my experience, I’ve had people joke about “rice rockets” and been racially profiled as a “gangster youth” by schools I have worked in. I’ve also been asked to interpret languages I don’t speak, explain cultural traditions like Lunar New Year, and asked questions about math and science.
Alas, a classic Asian American stereotype — the Model Minority: quiet, submissive, industrious, and meek. In college, I was one of several peer facilitators for Asian American Studies classes. We asked each class to think of various stereotypes of people of color. When we asked, “Can you think of any Asian American militants?” We were met with complete silence.
As an Asian American, sometimes I find it hard to imagine that our rich history of resistance could be swept under the rug. Representation of Asian American history in education and media is limited. This, we don’t have complete control over, but what about our own responsibility to challenge the norm? Have we embraced the enormous standard of silence so much that it manifests in our personal interactions?
I faced this question full force when I entered a relationship that became abusive. It lasted almost a year, and unlike many women, I was fortunate enough to come out of it alive. After the breakup, I reached out to my community, friends, professors, and mentor, who referred me to counseling services and organizations serving abused Asian Pacific Islander women. I got the help I needed and made steps towards healing.
Initially, I remained silent about my experiences, only sharing with a few close friends. I did not feel safe enough to talk openly. I was wrestling with my own guilt and shame. I did not contact the police. I did not view the police or the judicial system as a way to safety, because I did not expect the same people I saw shooting and beating people of color and youth on television and YouTube to carry me to safety.
But when my ex began to enter community spaces that I organized in, I drew the line. I had to do something. However, when those community organizers turned their cheeks to my safety, I decided it was time to speak. Loudly. I spoke out against those who claimed to be for social justice and equality, but did nothing to provide safety for survivors of intimate partner violence and/or sexual assault.
You know these men and women. They speak out against police brutality, the prison-industrial complex, and educational inequity. They acknowledge the detrimental work of greater systems, but ignore the personal interactions that uphold those systems.
When I released an open letter addressed to community activists and organizers describing the response (or lack thereof) I received from my ethnic and organizing community, I was met with a variety of reactions. I was called a liar, a slut, and a drama queen. I was told the violence another person perpetrated against me was my fault. I was challenged by men AND women, and told that if I were to release my story, then I would be affirming the stereotype that Asian men are abusive.
But what about affirming the standard of silence?
From my own experience as a survivor, and speaking with survivors, social workers, and domestic violence/sexual assault advocates, women don’t break the silence, because when we speak our stories unapologetically, with conviction, and demand justice, we are slammed by people conditioned to protect the standard of silence. Our “issues” are overrode by more “demanding” causes.
We are called liars, sluts, told that we “must have done something” to warrant that action. We are pitied and canonized. We are told we must protect the perpetrators of violence for the sake of saving the face of a dysfunctional community. We are turned into stories and lessons for the less educated. Our stories are ripped from us. We are rarely asked what we need and we are constantly told what to do.
We are made to think we are isolated and unsupported, and that is what keeps us quiet. It took a lot of strength and courage for me to break my silence, but I learned that survivors are never alone. Every day, we resist against the standard of silence by centering our needs and speaking our stories. There are so many of us and will be so many more. We must choose to engage in the personal and emotional work, so that we can truly reflect the social justice values we speak for.