Opinion: The Catharsis of Keeping it Real

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There is never time in the future in which we will work out our salvation. The challenge is in the moment; the time is always now. - James Baldwin

I’ve always admired composure. The ability to stay cool under pressure and the power to not let your emotions get the best of you.

Last week, I lost my composure completely. In a very public forum.

Maybe my admiration for this quality of calm, cool collectedness stems from my years as a trial attorney. I read somewhere that the legal profession is the only field that is innately antagonistic, in that there is another person sitting across from you (opposing counsel) whose sole job is to counter your every argument and prove you wrong. Such an environment necessitates composure.

Pretty soon after graduating from law school, I worked as a prosecutor for the city of Dallas. I was in the courtroom every day, and most days were a nonstop exercise of maintaining composure. My job was to methodically prepare to ensure that I was saying the right thing, at the right time, in the right way because any misstep would give opposing counsel the opportunity to tear me apart.

When attorneys disparaged my clients and my arguments in their attempts to sway a jury, it was hard to get used to, but I held it together. When a male attorney referred to me as "honey" or "sweetie", as male attorneys in Texas were apt to do, I clenched my first under the table, but I held it together. When another male attorney questioned whether I was actually the prosecutor for the court in session and loudly demanded to see my bar card in a packed courtroom (because he was not happy with the deal I was offering his client and, most likely, because he felt like he could intimidate a young, female attorney of color), I RAGED inside, but on the surface, held it together. To my youthful self, it was this composure that was important, the appearance that nothing had gotten under my skin. I told myself to hold it together with steely resolve, even if after the docket was done, I had a good cry in the judge’s chamber. In retrospect, I wonder, who was this “composure” benefiting?

The other day, while at an inaugural meeting to promote equity and diversity within our community, I lost my composure. It was the opposite of everything I had trained my younger self to do. When it was my turn to speak to this audience of 25-30 people, many of whom I had never seen or met before, I unmuted myself, opened my mouth to speak and within the first few sentences I could hear it: that unmistakable crack in my voice from which I knew there was no turning back. Within minutes I was crying and trying to speak about diversity in our community through my tears.

It was a textbook out-of-body experience, and I was asking myself, “Um, what is happening right now? HOLD IT TOGETHER, SAE.” But I couldn’t. I was both flummoxed and mortified. Why couldn’t I control this? Why couldn’t I rein it in? It was as if something had unleashed my internal dam and all of my emotions suddenly needed out.

My cycle of emotions every time I hear of another fatal police shooting of an unarmed Black or Brown person has been: anger, anguish, heartbreak. My cycle of emotions every time I hear of another hate crime against the Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has been: anger, anguish, heartbreak. The past few years, it’s a cycle that has been on constant repeat. I quickly realized that I had to separate myself from it all in order to continue living as a productive citizen, community member and parent, but the pain was always there beneath the surface. These horrible acts of injustice are now happening in such rapid-fire succession that, sometimes, we are barely done processing one tragedy when we hear of another. We don’t have time to come up for air. For me, this has resulted in an inability to fully process my grief, anger and deep sadness. I have coped by collecting my emotions to be dealt with later. Stacking anger upon grief upon heartbreak behind a closed door, so that I can go on with the daily requirements of my life. But something cracked inside me in that moment I was introduced, and all the emotions I had holed up behind my wall came pouring out.

For a person of color, the emotions are amplified because each of these incidents feels personal. These incidents and tragedies further reinforce the idea of being seen as “the other,” and not truly belonging. In a small, tight-knit community like ours, how do we combat that feeling? We need to be asking how each of these incidents affect the psyche of people of color in our community. What are we feeling, individually and collectively?

Living in North Salem, I have generally felt sheltered to much of the boogeymen of city life: pollution, crime, outward displays of racism. While general anti-Asian sentiment is deeply rooted in American history, the recent uptick in the reports of hate crimes against the AAPI community in the past year have been a wake-up call for many Asian Americans. Until now, I have never felt this level of worry for my parents when they are out in public. Every time I hear of another attack against the AAPI elderly community, like 84-year-old Thai American Vicha Ratanapakdee, who was pushed to the ground and died from his injuries, my heart breaks while seething in anger at the simultaneously heinous and cowardly act. For the first time in my life, I am on full alert when I venture into the city or other parts of town, aware that some vile people would happily stomp on me, spit on me, urinate on mepunch me, or push me onto subway tracks simply because I’m Asian American.

Out of the many anti-Asian racist incidents (nearly 3,800 incidents were reported over the course of roughly a year during the pandemic, according to Stop AAPI Hate), the one that really struck a nerve with me was an incident in Fullerton, California. On March 31 of this year, a man was charged with throwing rocks at an Asian American woman and her 6-year-old son as they drove down the street. While this incident doesn’t initially seem as egregious as some of the others, I felt instantly that this could’ve easily been me, and it struck me how an attack could be both so cowardly and deeply violating at the same time. I wondered, would this woman ever feel truly safe again while doing something as mundane as driving down the street? This man stole her sense of security from her. Once someone treats you with such disdain and total disregard for your humanity, do you ever really recover? It dawned on me that the damage doesn’t end when the attack ends. Each of these incidents has a deeper ripple of repercussions, for both the victim and the outside observer. For me, simply hearing about this incident made me more hyper aware of my surroundings as I drove around town. I couldn’t believe that I would now have to worry about being attacked or targeted because of my race while driving my own car.

In other words, I felt the way Black and Brown people of color feel every day.

But please don’t mistake grief and this feeling of violation as weakness or a mantle of victimhood.

For Asian Americans, our initial reaction upon hearing of yet another vicious hate crime against our community is anger and grief, but we are not asking with naive wonder, “why do these people hate us?” We shake with rage and say, “wow, another ignorant, cowardly lunatic.” We feel incensed at the injustice of being blamed and scapegoated for Covid-19, as xenophobic rhetoric such as “Kung Flu” and "China Virus" is thrown around casually without any regard for their impact. Arthur Tam of the Washington Post nailed our collective sentiment when he wrote “In the United States, no matter our origins, Asian Americans knew [ever since Covid-19 was first identified in China] we would be demoted back to generically and homogeneously Asian and made the target for free-floating rage.

While we are undeniably angry, we are also simply perturbed by it all-the fact that some people can be that easily persuaded to hate us based on an attribute that we love about ourselves. In other words, the underlying hate is directed at the part of our identity that we fervently embrace. I am deeply proud of the “Asian” component of my Asian American identity. Being Korean (its values, cultures and traditions) is as much a part of my identity as being American. The duality of the Asian American experience has been so rich and complex, and I embrace it for all of its joys and struggles.

For people of color, the desire to not be seen as the perpetual “other” does not mean we want our unique attributes to fly under the radar or blend away in a crowd. We want what makes us uniquely “us” to be visible, and we want to belong because these differences are valued, not in spite of them. In a world as beautifully diverse as ours, the concept of” belonging” should not be synonymous with homogeneity. The goal for any community should not be to look past all of our differences, but to see them and embrace them for the richness they bring to all of our lives.

So, while the goal of the perpetrators of these hate crimes may be to make Asian Americans hide who we are in fear and shame, the result ends up being quite the opposite. These incidents are instead lighting a fire under us-inspiring us to have our voices be heard. We are, now more than ever, vocalizing our immense pride in who we are and mobilizing to fight the ignorance and hate at the root of these violent hate crimes.

The bottom line, for me, is that some days more than others, it’s hard to reconcile how the world can be both so beautiful and yet so ugly at the same time. Even harder to reconcile is the fact that people of color are often disproportionately exposed to this ugliness and find themselves the victims of frequent injustice. My frustration with this ever-omnipresent inequity, along with my collection of unprocessed grief and anguish, was triggered at this meeting the moment I started speaking.

After getting over my initial mortification at my inability to “hold it together,” I was touched by the people who reached out to me with kind and supportive words, thanking me for being honest and vulnerable. One comment in particular stayed with me: “crying is healing.” There is something cathartic about raw emotion that can’t be contained-something that is real and powerful, and quite frankly, frightening in its intensity. In spite of trying my absolute best to “hold it together," I could do absolutely nothing to stop the rush of emotions. For someone like me who has always put composure on a pedestal, there is something oddly comforting in realizing that there are forces much stronger than you and completely out of your control.

In a world that values appearances above all else, where only carefully curated snapshots of our lives are posed and packaged neatly for mass consumption, sometimes there is value to raw emotion that can’t be contained. Because, at the end of the day what is composure but a forced stifling of real emotion? Maybe, after years of too many Black deaths at the hands of law enforcement, over a year of racist attacks against the AAPI community, and a debilitating pandemic we are suffocating from the weight of our grief. Maybe we could all benefit from the healing of a primal, collective scream or a deep, spontaneous cry. And then, after that cathartic release, we can each make an effort to do our part in promoting diversity and inclusion and fighting the hate underlying the epidemics of violence and racism in this country.

There are so many ways of being despicable it quite makes one's head spin. But the way to be really despicable is to be contemptuous of other people's pain. 

–James Baldwin

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