Find community, find unity: An interview with Sharon H. Chang

Michael Schmeltzer August 10, 2016 0

bookcover_Routledge

Scholar and activist Sharon H. Chang didn’t just write a sociological book examining racism in the United States. She wrote the historical, personal, and often neglected account of multiracial Asian children in America. Raising Mixed Race is a well-researched, nuanced book that balances academic vigor with interviews from 68 parents about raising mixed-race children inside a preexisting societal framework that invalidates their experiences and renders them invisible. It is as much a manual on empowering communities as it is one on dismantling biases within them.        

After reading her book I was able to interview Chang via email and ask about challenging family, building community, and her next project.

Michael Schmeltzer: Parental indoctrination, as you point out, contributes to harmful attitudes regarding race. Having interviewed parents of multiracial Asian children for your book, do you have advice on how to confront a partner or parent who holds some damaging beliefs?

Sharon H. Chang.

Sharon H. Chang.

Sharon H. Chang: This is such an emotional and sensitive issue. It’s one thing to confront a stranger or someone you know distantly. But how do you confront someone you love, with whom you hold a valued relationship, who may be a treasured member of your family? Not so easily answered and the price paid for a confrontation that does not go well here is so high—a price most of us don’t want to pay. That said, I think there are ways to do this that can be successful and rewarding for everyone.

One, it will take time. These racial beliefs we all live with have been deeply entrenched in our society for four centuries. Patience is hard when you’re in pain but if it comes to you, it will be a gift. Two, it will most likely be messy. The first confrontation may go well but probably won’t. You may question your approach, yourself, what you said, what you did … but don’t give up! Which leads me to: Three, find support for you and your worldview and know the best ways for self-care. When things don’t go well it can feel devastating. We need support when we feel like that so we can re-center, find our power, heal and maybe try again. And finally, remember there isn’t a one-size-fits-all approach because every person, every relationship is unique. So while the advice of others may be helpful—you are what knows best for you in the end. Do what feels right.

MS: You mention multiracial families often have to “deplete healthful energy” when dealing with intrusive, white-normative ideas. What are ways these families can energize themselves while still tackling issues of identity?  

SHC: Find community, find community, find community. Find unity. Find others who are going through what you’re going through so you can vent, commiserate, hug, cry, and then strategize, share ideas, thoughts and resources for strength. I think real flesh human beings come first, if you can (that’s not always possible if you live in an isolated and/or non-diverse community).

Next, grow your library of resources whether it be books for you, books for your children, movies, film, TV shows, YouTube vids, websites, magazines, whatever. Don’t stop at a few good things. Keep collecting. It’s very disorienting to deal with intrusive, white-normative ideas. Conflict can often leave one feeling hurt, confused and riddled with self-doubt. Have not only people but stuff you can go to, hold, read, receive, so that you can re-orient right away, re-affirm your struggles and who you are, and feed your spirit.

MS: In various interviews you cite the birth of your son in 2009 as one of the catalysts for this book. Can you describe what it was like raising a multiracial Asian child while simultaneously researching the history and effects of systemic racism on multiracial Asian people?

SHC: Awesome and hard. It’s been other-worldly raising a multiracial Asian child with a multiracial Asian partner while being myself multiracial Asian. On the one hand every day is a happy revelation. There’s so much less exhaustion when you don’t have to constantly hide, repress, get pissed about or explain your mixed experiences/choices to a non-mixed family member (whether white or a person of color). On the other hand, doing research on multiracial Asians and systemic racism at the same time has been saddening because it repeatedly drives home over and over how little understanding was given or available to me when I was growing up. And frankly, how little is given or available still. It continues to feel like a constant uphill battle convincing others that mixedness is something belonging within larger conversations about race and racism. I still see multiracial issues relegated, pushed, invisibilized into the margins as silly, superfluous and secondary. That is going to have to change as young people increasingly claim mixed identities.

MS: Are there lessons we as multiracial Asians (and our allies) can learn from other civil rights movements? What can we do to encourage an intersectional, “collaborative resistance,” as you call it?

SHC: To the first part of this question: yes, yes and YES. Of course. There is always so much to be learned from any and all civil rights movements. One of my goals with Raising Mixed Race was not only to affirm the experiences of mixed race Asian peoples but also to get those same people excited about learning others’ work and about doing solidarity work.

To the second part of this question: I think the most important things we can do for that solidarity work are to (a) really know how to practice receptive (versus predatory) listening, and (b) constantly look inward, self-challenge and ask big questions. No one—repeat no one—will be able to do solidarity work if they do not know how to receive the experiences of others in a non-judgmental way and if they have not examined their own power, privileges, oppressions and position within the larger framework. It just won’t work. As a friend once smartly said, “Do you first.”

MS: I understand your next project is about gendered racism. I’d love to hear how it connects or extends the work you did for this first book.

SHC: Great question. I didn’t get into gender much in the first book. Yet I interviewed a lot of Asian women and couldn’t help observing that while a notable number of these women were politicized—an equally notable number often went into intense denial during our conversations about race. I would hear things like: “I’m fine,” “race hasn’t impacted me,” “my life is good” at the beginning of an hour. Then that denial would quickly unfold. At the end of the hour I would hear things like “oh wait I remember …,” “you know actually one time …,” or “now that you say that I’m thinking about…,” followed by pretty stark stories of discrimination and revelations about internalized oppression.

I had to ask myself the question, what is going on for Asian American women that makes it so difficult to acknowledge their experiences within a racist society? At the same time I was noticing in my research that many resources on the racial experiences of Asian Americans (funneled through stereotypes crafted by the majority) too often collapsed those experiences into a monolith and failed to nuance by gender, class, etc. For instance, the way Asian men first arrived and were treated in the United States is entirely different than the way Asian women arrived and were treated. But we don’t often hear about that. In a connected example, Asian Americans don’t experience sexual stereotypes in the same way at all. Asian men are typically emasculated while Asian women are hypersexualized. Why? And what about queer, LGBTQ, non-binary? Now while this all needs much deeper thought from every angle and Asian men certainly face real obstacles—an inarguable truth is that the histories, stories, and realities of Asian women and queers are often subsumed by the histories, stories and realities of Asian men. It was clear more light needed to be shone on the differences of lived lives within Asian America. Which is what lead me to my next project examining Asian American women, sexism, and gendered racism (which will be co-authored with sociologist Joe R. Feagin). Just finished interviewing over 70 women!

MS: Near the end of the book you state that “knowing accurate history is a form of resistance.” This struck me as such an important, powerful line. What are ways we can encourage our schools to teach a more accurate history in the classrooms?

SHC: This is tough because there are so many structural and institutional barriers to bringing accurate histories into our classrooms. Without breaking down those systemic barriers (e.g. racism in publishing, school funding, high-stakes testing, hiring, student resegregation, etc.) it will always be enormously difficult to teach transformative history to our children. Still I see certain fierce teachers and parents in particular make great strides in this arena by being strategic, subversive, determinedly asking for more, offering critique, protesting and pushing back. And not giving up! I think it must begin at this grassroots level with individuals, with us, with our communities, with caregivers, parents, educators saying hey! Enough is enough. I don’t see my child, our children, reflected in curriculum and I want better now. Squeaky wheel, right?  

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