Immunity

Close your eyes. Take a moment to envision an American person.

Now open your eyes.

It isn’t me.


It was in elementary school when I came home one day and told my mom that I was American. She chastised me, as if I had burnt her as badly as overcooked, inedible rice.

“No, you’re not American. You’re Chinese.”

Elementary school me was confused, but didn’t talk back (#filialpiety). I knew not to bring it up again, because I had learned that saying this was just wrong in my mom’s eyes. To her, saying I was American was equal to saying that I was white and that I had abandoned my Chinese roots – almost in shame. I took that to heart, and have never said “I am American” to her again.


I don’t remember exactly when I learned the term “Asian American”, but I remember feeling some type of identification with it. To a high school me, this term was for people who “weren’t Asian enough”, and simultaneously “weren’t American enough” – but rather just existed in this middle haze. A term that did not diminish me because of something that I wasn’t. A term that unified people who also felt that they “weren’t enough”. In what we lacked, we strangely found unity. I stopped saying that I was Asian, or Chinese, or American, and now always say that I am Asian American, specifically Chinese American. The two words must come stuck together like two tapioca pearls up a bubble tea straw, of an order I made in English.

“We Asian Americans need to embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before. We need to step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.” – Andrew Yang (Washington Post)

Reading this severely angered my Asian American self. My identity that I had so strongly valued in its togetherness was separated, with one prioritized over another. I felt my Asian Americanness separate and unequal, with Americanness prioritized – no – STOMPING OVER AND SPITTING AT at my Asian roots. Is my existence as an “American” insufficient? Do I have to prove how “American” I could be? I already know the answers to both of those questions; I can never be sufficient or prove my “Americanness” no matter how much red, white, and blue clothing I don.

 “We are still, in the public eye, a perpetual foreigner.” – Tzi Ma (Time) 

“One moment we are Americans, the next we are all foreigners, who “brought” the virus here… our belonging is conditional.” – John Cho (LA Times)

Every day when I walk my dogs, you see my eyes and think FOREIGNER. Then you see my mask and you think COVID-19 – not because everyone else is or isn’t wearing a mask, but because I’m wearing a mask. What’s worse – my un-American eyes or my disease-ridden mask? I only feel somewhat safe when I have two medium sized dogs whose leashes are attached to my physical body, and even then, am I really? I no longer know how to react to being a Brooklyn, New York Asian woman if acid gets poured on someone else who is one also. I’m not safe alone. I don’t know if or when I will be again. If Jeremy Lin is pleading for people to “just accept us as humans”, is my existence beneath humankind?


“To be Asian in America during the time of coronavirus is to feel very alone. You might think that everyone’s alone during the pandemic. But it’s a different form of isolation carved out by that insidious model-minority myth, with its implication that as long as you worked hard and didn’t ask for handouts, racial inequities could be overcome.” – Cathy Park Hong (NY Times)

“Like fame, the “model minority” myth can provide the illusion of ‘raceless-ness.’ Putting select Asians on a pedestal silences those who question systemic injustice. Our supposed success is used as proof that the system works — and if it doesn’t work for you, it must be your fault.

Never mind that 12% of us are living below the poverty line. The model minority myth helps maintain a status quo that works against people of all colors.

But perhaps the most insidious effect of this myth is that it silences us. It seduces Asian Americans and recruits us to act on its behalf. It converts our parents, who in turn, encourage us to accept it. It makes you feel protected, that you’re passing as one of the good ones.” – John Cho (LA Times) 

I’m only American on the few days my dad made me ham sandwiches for lunch in elementary school because I asked for it instead of my Shanghainese or Cantonese rice dish. I’m only American when it’s convenient for the media to celebrate the successes of people whose faces resemble mine. I’m only American when the model minority myth works in my favor and has duped my parents into believing in the possibility of achieving an “American dream” where hard work could overcome racial inequities. Am I, and are others, truly included in #AllAmericans, one that extends beyond activism by and for Asian people, one that stands in solidarity with the disproportionate deaths of LatinX and black people due to societal inequities? While we all support healthcare workers (or at least I certainly hope we all do), when will we truly support each other without perpetuating further discrimination – Asians included? Am I really that radical by saying EVERYONE, STOP HATING EACH OTHER?


In my middle school, the loudspeaker blasted “Proud to Be An American” as sung by Toby Keith daily after we recited the pledge.

“And I’m proud to be an American, where at least I know I’m free.” – “I’m Proud to Be An American”, Toby Keith

Will I ever be free?
Will my parents ever be free?
Will my fellow Asian Americans ever be free?
Will Black, LatinX, Indigenous, and all marginalized groups ever be free?
Will America ever be free?

When you closed your eyes and imagined an American, did your own reflection come into the view of your eyes? Did you envision yourself? Are YOU free? Do you want to be free in America?

But questioning all of this, isn’t enough.


“I don’t want your love and light if it doesn’t come with solidarity and action.” – Rachel Cargle

My mother survived the “Cultural Revolution” in China. By the way, “Cultural Revolution” is read as cease all education, subscribe or die from the Mao Zedong’s Little Red Book, starve every day of your childhood, shut up or else during the house raids at my grandparents’ house, and the death of my grandfather – based on the little that my mother has told me.

I don’t know that I’ll ever be or feel fully free, but the one freedom I will never cease to use is my freedom of speech. My mom didn’t have it, and is terrified to use it now. I don’t blame her, but I can’t sit silent. Because of my parents immigrating here, I have this right, whether my “fellow Americans” acknowledge me and the fact that I can exercise it or not. I carry a lot of privilege to be able to use it, even if I feel it diminishing these days. But I have to take my chances.

Vaccines are never 100% effective, and I don’t know if any will be created that are in my lifetime. There’s one I’m testing out now, every single day and in all aspects of my personal and professional life.

I’m sharing this vaccine with you.

EU9dSGVXsAE0WFE(Source: Hate is a Virus)

It is okay to be fearful. I am.

But don’t stop in the tracks of hate. Immunize.

Immunize until you can picture yourself when I ask you to close your eyes. Immunize until you can picture EVERY SINGLE GROUP.

And then immunize again. We need all of the immunity we can get.

P.S. Additional immunizations include #washthehate and #RacismIsAVirus. Feel free to triple up.

“Safe Space”

So often, educators throw out this sentence to students, colleagues, families, and other stakeholders in education:

“You are in a safe space.”

What IS a “safe space”?

What does it mean to be in a “safe space”?

According to Crockett (2016), the history of the term “safe space” stems from the LGBTQ+ community:

“A ‘safe space’ is a place where LGBTQ people don’t have to think twice about whether they can show affection for their partners — and whether they can just be themselves.

It’s the same basic idea for other groups, like women and people of color, who tend to be less well-represented or well-respected by society at large. People whose voices are quite literally heard less than those of white men, since white men still tend to dominate conversations in mediaclassroomsboardroomspolitics, and everyday life.”

When I first started my teaching career, I thought a safe space was a place where students felt safe to learn – physically. As long as no one was hurting each other, and all students were able to sit quietly, listen to me when I spoke or gave directions, then we must have been in a safe space.

“You are in a safe space, and you are safe to take risks.”

After a few years, I started to learn about “feeling safe to take risks”. How could I encourage this in my classroom? Maybe if I just narrated “do not be afraid of mistakes; mistakes are part of the process”, students would feel safer. According to Harvard Politics, this attempt could be labeled as working towards an “academic safe space”:

“The idea of an academic safe space stresses the end goal of encouraging individuals to speak. In this type of space, people are still made to feel uncomfortable, yet it’s ‘safe’ to take intellectual risks and explore any line of thought. Here, ‘safety’ protects your right to make others uncomfortable with ideas and rational arguments. It’s important to note that in this setting, free speech is the end goal. This type of safety is commonly emphasized in classrooms and discussion groups, where open dialogue is particularly valuable.” (Ho, 2017).

So I adjusted my narration. I encouraged students to have what I thought were critical discussion points, and to explore disagreements in music and the music-making processes – all while respecting each other’s opinion by having politically correct and careful conversations. One student could express their thought, and as long as another student responded by starting with “I disagree because” in a mild-mannered, polite way, students could express their free speech and meet that specific end goal of having valuable, open dialogue. I was convinced that this was enough for intellectual safety because with this shift in my narration, students could be in a physically AND intellectually safe space.

“You are in a safe space, and you are safe to take risks and express your emotions.”

Just because my students were “nicely” (read: calmly, tracking the speaker, not being disruptive) disagreeing, does not mean they were able to express their emotions behind their words. According to the New York Times,

“In most cases, safe spaces are innocuous gatherings of like-minded people who agree to refrain from ridicule, criticism or what they term microaggressions… so that everyone can relax enough to explore the nuances of, say, a fluid gender identity.” (Shulevitz, 2015).

So my next adjustment was to ensure that students would agree to a set of behavioral norms in order to have productive conversation. Upon reflection, perhaps it was even less of an adjustment and more of a restatement of being politically correct in order to avoid discomfort.

Thus emerged a tension between academic and emotional “safety”. Ho (2017) wrote,

People begin to have bloated and unclear understandings of how academic spaces should be considered “safe”. A new iteration of the concept has emerged—some students advocate to expand emotional safe spaces to encompass the campus as a whole. This new space is a false extrapolation of the originals, mistakenly operating under the unshakable credo that in an academic setting, people should feel emotionally secure.

A problem arises in this case. There exists a tension between emotional safety and academic safety. If the goal of an academic setting is to keep people comfortable, then the acceptability of speech will be determined by how objectionable it is. And if arguments are limited based on how offensive they seem, people are expected to adhere to an implicit set of polite ideological norms. Speech is allowed so long it doesn’t appear to conflict with the socially accepted opinions on certain touchy topics. In this way, new safe spaces become less about respecting and empowering individuals than sanctifying certain ideas. Provocative speech is censored, which has pernicious effects on the academic tradition.

Most people understand the value of protecting disagreeable ideas in a classroom, and they appreciate the existence of cultural groups and organizations… But in a dorm or house, what should be the priority—courteousness or freedom of discussion?

In a recent discussion with Juliet Hess, Hess named that she did not believe there could be a truly safe space; rather the question is:

“How can we be as safe as possible?”

We can NEVER assume the space we are in safe, and it is up to each of us to ensure that the space is made as safe as possible by those of us within the space. As we continue to walk the fine line of encouraging safety while also upholding the norms we (ideally collaboratively with stakeholders) may set in order to have discussions that are productive, can a “safe space” truly be inclusive of the physical, intellectual, AND emotional? Are we taking on too much with this one term? Is this term meant to take on so much?

In our continued attempts to define what a “safe space” in our work, with our peers, our families, and everyone else we interact with in life is, I wonder how many of us can/will/reject the following questions:

“When I say “you are in a safe space”, what does that mean to you?”

“What should be the priority—courteousness or freedom of discussion?” (Ho, 2017).

“How can I help create space a space as safe as possible for us both?”

“What do you need in order for the space to be as safe as possible?”

Some words of advice from #44:

“You can be completely right, and you still are going to have to engage folks who disagree with you. … So don’t try to shut folks out, don’t try to shut them down, no matter how much you might disagree with them. There’s been a trend around the country of trying to get colleges to disinvite speakers with a different point of view, or disrupt a politician’s rally. Don’t do that — no matter how ridiculous or offensive you might find the things that come out of their mouths.” (Obama, 2016).

Crockett (2016) concluded,

“Inside or outside of safe spaces, the real problem is usually a failure of empathy, and the real solution is treating others with humility, respect, and compassion and being willing to learn from our own mistakes.”

I can learn from my mistakes, but can I truly create a safe space? Can you?