By Arturo R. García
Colorado State University graduate student Suey Park opened up another welcome Twitter discussion into diversity and race relations over the weekend when she coined the tag #POC4culturalenrichment, which picked up steam within a day of her beginning to recount her own experiences. But rather than try to sum up the story, we contacted Park — who has also blogged about the #KeepVeronicaHome campaign — to get her account of what led her to delve into the topic, and where it led her.
AG: From what I could tell — and please, correct me if I’m mistaken — the tweet above was your first tweet that used the tag. But let’s talk about what led you to coin it and begin to elaborate on your experiences.
SP: It’s been building up for a while, honestly. It seems I’m only allowed to talk about racism if I center my world around the feelings, power, and learning of white people. I have consistently been reprimanded from both people of power who have progressed within a white heteopatriachal system and white folks that the pathway to success is playing your cards the right way. That is, acting like the focus of racial justice should be centering our work around developing white allies and reinforcing hurtful power dynamics. It also means shifting from focusing on baseline survival of people of color to the self-improvement of white folks who want to challenge biases to feel less guilty. This doesn’t actually fix the situation, it gives white people a free pass for letting racism continue by letting them point to and identify something might be racist, why deflecting any personal responsibility. And although it’s cliche to say, people totally think people of color should still pull themselves up by their bootstraps to some extent. Even the first lady and President talking about the “personal responsibility” of people of color to improve their situations, but we never talk about the personal responsibility of white folks to do something very simple: to educate themselves.
I guess the event that pushed me over the edge was when a higher education administrator tweeted something like “Go Indians” and myself and a Native professor challenged the support for a team with an indigenous mascot. My alma mater [the University of Illinois-Champaign] had (and continues to unofficially have) a racist mascot. My friends and I boycotted sporting events because of our school’s blatantly racist history and continual displays of disrespect for students of color. Anyway, I asked something like “What if this was a school mascot, as a higher education administrator, would you support this if it was on your college?” He responded very defensively and some white folks chimed in with comments like “if we’re supposed to model appropriate conversations, why the accost, Suey Park? And of course, that set me off because he has been just as aggressive. Hence my first tweet of the series. Even in dialogue settings, white people can be as aggressive and as ignorant as they want, but people of color have to be well read and soft spoken.
I remember this one time in class last year when I was livid about “Accidental Racist” by Brad Paisley playing during break. The line that made me think “wow this is messed up was when LL Cool J says “If you don’t judge my gold chains, I’ll forget about the iron chains.” This white dude from the South was super enraged when I pointed out how that song dismisses slavery and simplifies current racial tensions to a white guy and a black guy getting along. He was all “Why should I respect your culture when you won’t respect my culture? I can’t display my Confederate flag and you get to parade around your ethnicity in America?”
Anyway, I was triggered and probably wasn’t as eloquent or patient as white people would prefer I be as a #POC4CulturalEnrichment, but something inside me snapped. After doing social justice education work, I finally thought, “This isn’t enough and it’s at my own expense.” As usual, it wasn’t about what or how I said it, it was about someone else not being ready or willing to hear me.
I’ve always been the token Asian girl who is well spoken. It bothers me because even in that phrase, people admit they have a bias against Asian-Americans who aren’t “well spoken.” Or hearing racist comments about international students or other Asian-American students on campus and having friends say things like “don’t worry, we don’t think you’re Asian,” like my whole race and ethnicity are some sort of horrible thing to claim.
AG: And this tweet, where you mention white friends being concerned about their feelings, also stands out relatively early on. Can you talk about how you explained it to them?
SP: So a pet peeve of mine is when my so-called anti-racist white friends use me as an “approval giver.” Like Suey outwardly talks about and calls out racism, so I need her approval. It sounds too much like “I’m not racist because I have a friend who is Asian.” Cliche, but we can’t stop doing it.
I remember last year, a white peer was hurt that I didn’t invite her to a student of color meeting. She felt disincluded and was worried first and foremost that we didn’t invite her because we thought her racist. This was terribly ironic for me because she could not see her whiteness playing out. She couldn’t conceptualize being excluded from a space and put her own needs at the forefront.
The politics of having white friends is difficult. On a subtly rhetorical level, many of my white friends list their other marginalized identity first when introducing themselves. As if another marginalized identity can counteract their whiteness itself. I get into the most trouble when I have to talk to progressive friends who think they already know everything. The whole “let me educate you on your own experiences” happens way too often.
It’s also really hard to keep my educator hat on at all times. It doesn’t matter where I am, white people will ask me questions about diversity or social justice, but when I point it out harmful behavior first, it is almost most certainly unwanted feedback.
AG: When did you notice the tag start to pick up traction? What was your initial reaction to that?
SP: I didn’t really notice it was happening to be honest. I just thought a few of my internet neighbors found it amusing and jumped in. I was volunteering on campus for this late night program and my session ended at 3 a.m., so I just kept tweeting on my phone to stay awake. On your phone, you can’t really see too many social media metrics.
I think the Youngist, who did an article here, asked if they could write about it and that’s when I saw it was trending and had gone viral. For the most part, it was nice to not feel so alone about my experiences. It was sad, funny, and therapeutic. Of course, I noticed it was getting pretty big when white trolls kept asking me questions about what I meant, further reinforcing my inspiration for the tweet. I’m not an educational hotline, go away!
AG: There was also a moment Sunday in which you referenced difficulties bringing these issues up in an ostensibly activist setting. How did that happen?
SP: This is mainly a jab at my not so groundbreaking experiences working with and leading non-profits. Most of the work that I have done that feels good has not been through formal organizations at all.
AG: To piggyback off of that, can you talk about your experiences as a social justice advocate while you were in university?
SP: Haha, I can’t share all my secrets just yet, but my friends as an undergraduate, my friends and I started a quote-unquote “militant campus group.” We met secretly and carried out our own initiatives. I had a few really awesome friends at that time who were livid about a hate crime that happened (found here.) After it happened, there were a super-racist “University of Illinois’ Memes Page” that was protected under the freedom of speech. Racial tensions were high because our school wanted to build a multicultural center and combine our cultural houses, so that was a thing as well. When I went off to Miami of Ohio, I wrote about “@OxfordAsians” as a response to similar social media biases.
All of it, from the hate crime to messages in tweets and memes, demonstrates how racism continues to exist and play out in day to day life, which harms students of color. One white male friend in particular has been the most supportive of me as I have progressed through various stages of identity development and made sense of my purpose. To me, he has done what I wish more aspiring allies would do: behind the scenes work, listening, and empowering me to realize I have a voice of my own worth using. Instead, I deal with a lot of self-proclaimed allies and anti-racists that simply want to advance their own access into marginalized spaces and exhibit symptoms of a white savior.
Of course I also did social justice education work on campus as well. I used to hide out at the university’s women’s center and diversity education and social justice center to claim my own safer space. There were a couple of really nice administrators that worked there, which is why I wanted to go into the field of student affairs in higher education to do diversity work in the first place.
AG: Mikki Kendall described similarities between this discussion and #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen by writing, “same problems, different people.” Your reaction to that? What was your takeaway from the discussion she generated?
SP: I love Mikki Kendall’s work and many of the women for used #SolidarityIsForWhiteWomen. In fact, I find her and many other twitter friends to be inspiring. I think it’s different because more youth and other nobody students like me dared to use their voice. I think there’s a big risk in being young and not having really proved yourself yet. I’m constantly told “do and say xyz after you get a Ph D.” It’s pretty dismissing because it speaks to extent to which the youth are silenced. Additionally, it was good to see more Asian-American and Native voices in the mix. Especially for Asian-Americans, there is a lot of expectations and stereotypes of being submissive and people fear being labeled as an “angry Asian person”. God forbid we get stereotyped in the same way that Black women do. And of course even now, I feel I’m being identified as the token angry Asian feminist. People just aren’t used to my feelings mattering, too.
AG: It feels a little odd to ask, “what next?” in part because of the nature of Twitter discussions, but I’m curious to know what you took away from the weekend of activity around the tag and how you can integrate it into your future writings and work.
SP: Oh boy, it starts and ends with a decision that will set me free. This hashtag started by being fed up with the field I am and was committed to being in. I guess the most liberating and also frightening decision I made was this summer. I cut ties directing a non-profit and switched into a different Masters program. There were a lot of big decisions made that have given me more clarity and ease.
In the pit of my confusion, I went to a conference in Denver where was an amazing scholar/activist who blew my mind! In his speech, I heard so many things that verified that I’ve been using my focus and energy to do work that doesn’t necessarily align with my beliefs. For example, teaching students about diversity and social justice so they can end up going to work for big corporations. It sounds silly and unnecessary to say, but he’s super down to earth and scribbled a few names on a piece of paper before leaving the conference when I asked for some advice. Anyway, those names were those of ethnic studies professors and their work has changed everything. Although I don’t plan on going into student affairs in higher education anymore, I still suggest more professionals read writing outside of the discipline of higher education. There’s some really groundbreaking stuff being written in ethnic studies that could change the way the institution of higher education operates. But for now, I want to focus less on blogging and such and prepare for doctoral apps! Being a POC4CulturalEnrichment can be distracting to my own goals and dreams.