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My Messy Journey Toward Woke
Lynnette Li

Lynnette Li

Columnist, Repurposing Family Culture at the Parent Voice, Magazine
Lynnette Li is a performing artist, music teacher, and part-time-stay-at-home mom. Read more under 'Columnists'.
Lynnette Li

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Every night my husband catches me with a look of disgust on my face while I’m staring into my phone. 

“What is it now?” he asks, while I scroll faster through whatever article/twitter chain/blogpost I’m reading, my face getting hotter and hotter. 

“Oh you know, just the daily outrage,” I say through clenched teeth. I click back to the original Facebook post, hover over the like button and slide all the way to the right. I select the angry face emoji, imagining my little flame of anger fuels some fight for good, but knowing it does not.  

Things on my outrage list lately include (in no particular order): 

- mothers getting shamed for breastfeeding in public or for “too long”

- whitewashing by Hollywood of stories originally featuring Asian characters

- white supremacists doing pretty much anything

- evangelical christians hating on the LGTBQIA community

- people of color being targeted and killed 

- immigrants being told to or forced to “go back to where they came from”

I need to stop making this list because I feel myself wanting to yell or at least WRITE IN ALL CAPS TO MAKE MY OUTRAGE CLEAR! But the Jewish days of reflection (the time between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur) have just passed, and so I’m moved to stop and take a breath. One of the best parts of being an Asian American married to a Jew is that I get three new years each year. Three chances to start over, to reflect, to try to make something better. 

Being an Asian American married to a Jew, I get to celebrate three new years each year. Click To Tweet

Our traditions around the Jewish high holidays change from year to year. Some years I make an effort to bake an apple honey cake or read a book about Rosh Hashanah to the kids. Maybe we’ll find a place to attend services someday. But the most meaningful thing I do each year is take part in a private online personal reflection called 10Q. I started five years ago when a friend shared her appreciation for this practice. Each day for the ten days between Rosh Hashanah and Yom Kippur, I record my answer to a question that encourages me to examine where I’m at, where I’ve come from, and where I’m heading. I’ve come to really value this time. You can do it too. You don’t have to be Jewish to try. 

I want to shine a light on times when it was I who took part in “racism,” when it was I who did or said something ignorant. I’m hoping it’s worth digging up the past in an effort to uncover what at least one “journey toward woke” looks like, and to gain wisdom about how we can encourage others on their journeys. Gulp. Here goes nothing.

Journey toward Woke

L.Li

This year, in reflecting on where I’ve come from, I find myself drawn to what I’ll call my “journey toward woke,” in other words, how I came to strive for awareness of social and racial justice issues. Like all people, I wasn’t born aware. Social justice wasn’t always important to me. My personal views and beliefs have formed and unformed, they’ve been revisited, reconsidered, repurposed, and some have completely changed. When I examine the past almost-four decades, and particularly my “coming of age” years, I’m struck by how awkward, painful, and messy the journey has been at times.

Like all people, I wasn’t born aware. Social justice wasn’t always important to me. My personal views and beliefs have formed and unformed, they’ve been revisited, reconsidered, repurposed, and some have completely changed.

I went to college at Western Michigan University, in Kalamazoo, MI, from 1998 to 2002. It’s a large state school with over 20,000 undergraduate students. Back in 1998, over 85% of the student body was white, around 6% was black, 1.8% checked the Hispanic box, and just 1.4% checked the box marked Asian/Pacific Islander. When I met my freshman roommate, she remarked that she’d never met a Chinese person in real life before. I was asked frequently why my English was so good or whether I’d been adopted by white parents.

Even so, I enjoyed college. I made lifelong friends. And, though this took longer for me to realize, it was invaluable to have lived in an environment that more accurately reflects the demographics of the majority of our country’s landscape than do the diverse urban environments (Boston, Los Angeles, Chicago) I’ve called home since then.

Social justice was not always important to me. Read how and why this changed. Click To Tweet

Being part of a very small minority at a largely white college contributed to the “messy” part of my journey toward woke, but maybe not in the way you might assume. While I could easily fill several blog posts with the times I was the victim of racism, that’s not what I want to talk about today. I want to shine a light on times when it was I who took part in “racism,” when it was I who did or said something ignorant. I’m hoping it’s worth digging up the past in an effort to uncover what at least one “journey toward woke” looks like, and to gain wisdom about how we can encourage others on their journeys. Gulp. Here goes nothing.

I was often asked about my good English and whether I’d been adopted by white parents. Click To Tweet



 

Signposts along the Journey

Halloween

My sophomore roommate (who is still one of my closest friends nearly 20 years later) and I decided that for Halloween, we were going to dress as “each other's ancestors.” I was “a hippie,” with my hair in a center part, a bandana around my head, wearing a tie dye shirt and bell bottoms. She was “a Chinese concubine.” She wore a dress with a mandarin collar, and I helped her use eyeliner to “make her eyes look more like mine.” I helped put my white friend in what I now would recognize as “yellow face.” 

Rice-Popcorn eating Chinese

In another instance, two of my best friends (who also remain two of my dearest friends today) joked with me while grocery shopping. They picked up a box of instant rice, squatted down low to the ground, tugged at the corners of their eyes, and said, “Hey, look, it’s Lynnette’s family at the movies,” while pretending to eat the rice “like popcorn” from the box. I laughed heartily and sincerely.

Scary Mexicans

Then there was a time I told my class a story about how my friends accidentally stranded me for three hours (pre-cell phones) at a gas station while on a road trip. For dramatic effect, I described the gas station as “full of scary Mexicans” without irony or knowledge of why my comment was offensive. My professor, who I hadn’t even realized was Mexican American, and who was the first person I’d ever met whose family was from Mexico, made a sound that was a cross between a gasp and a laugh. “Really, Lynnette? Are you sure you want to say that?”

Non-Puerto Rican looking Puerto Rican friend

When I returned home from college one year, I told my two high school best friends that I had a new, half-Puerto Rican friend (who’s still a close friend to this day). “But he doesn’t even look Puerto Rican,” I said, “well, except for maybe when he smiles.” They both laughed and cringed. The one who would become my husband went to Stanford, the other went to the University of Michigan, both schools with far more diverse demographics than WMU.

I’d venture to say (though I didn’t think about it this way at the time) that this may have expedited their own personal “journeys toward woke.” “Um, what do you mean by that?” they asked me. They teased me for the ignorant and racist comment but pushed me toward seeing the shortcomings of my assumptions regarding race and appearance. “Wouldn’t it feel weird if someone said you smiled ‘like a Chinese’?” my future husband asked. Huh, come to think of it, I wouldn’t like that one bit.

“Wouldn’t it feel weird if someone said you smiled ‘like a Chinese’?” my future husband asked. Click To Tweet

I didn’t have the lens to view our language and actions in these instances as offensive back then. But almost 20 years have passed. Since then, I lived a year in China, where I was seen as “majority” but felt like a secret minority. I moved to Boston and studied social work, took my first course in racism and discrimination, and learned about advocating for minority voices. I married someone of a different faith and race. Then I moved to Los Angeles and experienced what it was like to be an Asian American actor in an industry still struggling with how to tell stories about Asians. I made Latino/a/x friends. I gave birth to interracial children and started to see the world through their eyes. I moved to Hyde Park, on the south side of Chicago, the most truly diverse neighborhood I’ve ever stepped foot in. The lens through which I see the world now is different from the lens I used in college. When I think back to those days, I marvel at my ignorance. And it changes the way I perceive the ignorance I witness in others today.

I gave birth to interracial children and started to see the world through their eyes. Click To Tweet

The lens through which I see the world now is different from the lens I used in college. When I think back to those days, I marvel at my ignorance. And it changes the way I perceive the ignorance I witness in others today.

I’m not arguing that we should do away with outrage. I’m arguing that we should acknowledge the journey toward woke that has enabled us to feel outraged when we witness discrimination, racism, and injustice. Some of us were fortunate to have started the journey early in life, or to have covered a large distance in a short time. Others of us have been taking small, slow steps over the course of a long winding road, or are just now starting out on the path. There’s a big difference between the deadly damaging racism inspiring the events in Charlottesville and the awkward and ignorant racism of someone who is early on a personal journey toward woke. I believe how we respond to each is important. We might have the opportunity to help someone on the journey.

There’s a big difference between the deadly damaging racism inspiring the events in Charlottesville and the awkward and ignorant racism of someone who is early on a personal journey toward woke.

Lynnette Li

Can we talk about your costumes?

 

I’m so grateful that the people in my life responded to my ignorant comments with curiosity and a desire to help me understand. Where would I be if my Mexican American professor had kicked me out of class, instead of asking me to think about my statement? What if my high school friends didn’t push me to reconsider my comments, what if we’d just drifted apart after they deemed me “racist”? What if my college friends and I had been expelled for our offensive behavior, what if our jokes had been filmed and held against us now?

Fighting for racial and social justice doesn't mean yelling at those not as woke as we think we are. Click To Tweet

Are you thinking, but it’s 2017, we should be farther along!? I think that too sometimes. But who’s to say how long this journey should take? Who are we to judge someone else’s progress? Even today, living in this diverse, integrated, open-minded, progressive neighborhood of Hyde Park, a place I love more than any other place I’ve ever lived - that we’ve chosen intentionally for its potential to help our children start their own journeys toward woke sooner rather than later - I still encounter ignorance, racial insensitivity, and stereotyping on a weekly basis.

Are you thinking, but it’s 2017, we should be farther along!? I think that too sometimes. But who’s to say how long this journey should take? Who are we to judge someone else’s progress?  

As Yom Kippur passes this year, I’m also thinking about another main practice of the holiday: forgiveness. It’s something that, as a parent, I try to model for my kids. I ask them forgiveness when I’ve messed up, I forgive myself for mistakes I’ve made. I forgive them. I forgive my husband. And I forgive others, people I don’t even know, for the messy, awkward, painful, ignorant, racist actions and comments they make, because who knows, maybe they are on their own personal journeys toward woke. I think about how my compassion or anger in any single interaction could have the power to make or break their journey.

Related Posts

Fighting for racial and social justice does not have to be yelling at people who aren’t as woke as we think we are. In fact, I’d wager that all this yelling we do hinders our cause. But by discouraging yelling, I am by no means saying that “we should all just get along.” Fighting for racial and social justice can be pausing, asking a question, making a comment, or sharing a story in response to someone’s ignorance. Racial and social justice don’t stand a chance if we can’t leave our self-righteousness at the door.

I forgive others, people I don’t even know, for the messy, awkward, painful, ignorant, racist actions and comments they make, because who knows, maybe they are on their own personal journeys toward woke.

My own journey toward woke has woven in and out of different cities and communities, but someone else’s journey toward woke might start and end in Kalamazoo, MI. The journey can happen in any physical place and at any physical age. Where does my journey lead next? The next time I am staring into my phone, feeling my daily outrage, and my husband asks, “What is it now?” I hope to repurpose that anger into something productive for the fight, and I’ll answer, “Oh you know, just fueling up for the journey.”

Racial and social justice don’t stand a chance if we can’t leave our self-righteousness at the door. Click To Tweet


 

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Lynnette Li is a performing artist, music teacher, and part-time-stay-at-home mom. Read more under ‘Columnists’.

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2 Comments on "My Messy Journey Toward Woke"

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Séverine Perronnet
Member

Ah, so true! We all start our journey somewhere.

Jeanne
Guest

I love this post! Exactly how I feel about social justice, my own experience and the current climate. While I do agree with the more radical opinions, I am often pained that the preferred response is to shame and shut people up, rather than education and dialogue. It only makes people afraid to speak (or pushes those unafraid further into their errors), but it doesn’t help them understand anything, if what they think is indeed problematic.

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