|Tomb figure, Han dynasty (Field Museum)|
"Silence is complicity," the president said Friday, in the aftermath of eight people, six of them Asian American women, being murdered in Atlanta.
Well, I thought, guess I know what I’m going to write about for Monday. Don’t want to be complicit in any murders.
Although I don’t agree with Joe Biden.
Silence can be many other things. For instance, I jammed something about the murders into Friday’s column about getting vaccinated because I didn’t want to be accused of ignoring them. But the reference clashed with the jokey tone of the column, and my editor didn’t like it. So I took it out. In that case, silence was tact.
One murder is terrible. Eight murders are extra terrible. Eight murders stemming from racial animus or dehumanizing sexism or religious repression or heck, all three—journalists are not supposed to announce the culprit of a crime, never mind decide upon his motive—with a few psychoses and way-too-lax gun laws tossed in, are super extra terrible. Do you really need me to tell you that? I hope not; I try not to traffic in the obvious. When Kamala Harris said Friday, “Racism is real,” who is her audience? Because those listening to her tend to already be all-too aware of the pervasive reality of racism. And those who need to hear it sure aren’t taking their cues from the vice president.
The most important voices over the past few days have been Asian Americans, themselves, talking about the hostility they’ve coped with. That has to be news to a lot of white Americans. But those sharing their stories don’t need me standing over their shoulder, nodding. “What she said!” Silence can be deference.
I’ve been writing about mass shootings since 1988, when Laurie Dann shot up a classroom at Hubbard Woods Elementary in Winnetka, and I’ve always hated, hated, hated doing so. Such stories can be exploitive, particularly in the mad rush to grill survivors and declare motives. Puff away the pieties and vows for change, and you’ve often got morbid fascination putting on airs. Plus an opportunistic dipping of your fingers into real people’s blood to finger draw your favorite conclusions. If I were going to use Atlanta as an occasion for self-expression, I’d do a mural about mind-stunting, body-shaming fundamentalist misogyny and repression. Where’s the rally denouncing that? But then, that’s me. So silence can be humility.
Statistics show Donald Trump’s cruel slurs and his irresponsibly blaming COVID-19 on China increased hate crimes against Asian Americans. That was true last week and last month and last year, even if the Atlanta shooter — I’m not using his name — is so crazy he didn’t even notice his victims were Asian. An example isn’t proof, even of something you know to be true.
People are trained to hate, and it’s a diminishment of the Asian American journey in this country to even mention Donald Trump, which is basically the past five minutes of a gantlet of abuse we can trace back to the United States sending Admiral Perry prying open Japan at gunpoint, the West’s century-long subjugation of China, the Opium War, building the railroads, the first don’t-think-about-setting-foot-here racial laws, World War II internment camps, World War II propaganda, Korean War propaganda, Vietnam War propaganda, not to mention blasting our geopolitical paranoia for about a dozen years over that devastated small country. There’s more, but that’s a start. Silence can be a recognition of the complexity of an issue.
The truth is, we all suffer from bias, both as perpetrators and victims, in various times and various places. I tend to keep quiet at these moments, because what I have to say — bigotry isn’t going away because you have a rally, no matter how good you feel afterward — well, I read the room, and can tell it won’t be appreciated. Silence can be self-protective.
The trouble with demanding that people weigh in on a matter is that it runs into the tendency to condemn anybody who phrases something in a slightly different way, or betrays a sentiment that isn't as highly polished as theirs, or is a little behind the times, or departs from the most simplistic slogan. I'm all behind #StopAsianHate; I just don't feel inclined to chant it, and don't see the utility of flooding Twitter with it. If you do, well, that's great. But I'm not saying your failure to do so makes you an accomplice in any crime.
It comes down to this: Are we working to be a better society by learning and growing together? Or by brutalizing those who fail to bark the right virtue-signaling slogan on cue along with everybody else? If the president is going to demand that we all speak out about racism, it raises the question of who will be speaking, what will be said, and whether anybody is listening.