Is there space for the middle-aged white man in our movements for justice?
On January 20, Donald J. Trump became the 45th President of the United States of America. And on that same day, thousands across the country marched and demonstrated to show that they will not tolerate his hateful agenda.
As I marched with my community through the streets of San Francisco Chinatown, a white, middle-aged man yelled at us. He told us that we were wrong and that he supported Trump. We continued to chant “No to Trump, no to hate!” and he continued to incoherently argue with us, finally resulting in me shouting “Fuck you!” to him.
Less than 24 hours into the Trump presidency and America was splintering.
In that moment, I thought about President Barack Obama’s farewell words. He urged for compassion and understanding. He said:
“For blacks and other minority groups, that means tying our own very real struggles for justice to the challenges that a lot of people in this country face. Not only the refugee or the immigrant or the rural poor or the transgender American, but also the middle-aged white guy….”
I am still reflecting on his words and what they mean for our movements for justice. I wholeheartedly agree with President Obama’s words. To paraphrase aboriginal elder, activist and educator Lilla Watson, my liberation is bound with the liberation of all peoples.
If I truly want justice, if I truly want humanity and dignity for all, then the “middle-aged white guy” has to be part of our movements. There has to be space for him and his humanity. Because if I am unable to see his humanity, then how can he see mine?
And yet—I can’t. I can’t make space for him. My relationship to whiteness is messy. It is deeply painful. And until I heal some of that pain, I can’t make space for the middle-aged white man.
White men have caused me a lot of grief and pain. This pain started before I even came to exist. It started with war.
I come from a legacy of war. My parents came to this country as refugees from Vietnam. It was the decisions of white men that sparked civil war and genocide in Southeast Asia. The Vietnam War was a proxy war in the larger Cold War between the U.S. and the Soviet Union, and is a part of a history of Western colonialism and imperialism in the Third World.
I carry the trauma of my parents and ancestors with me. Along with historical trauma, I also experience my own pain as a woman of color and Asian American. The pain that I feel is real and manifests itself in many ways. Microaggressions, sexism, and racism have wounded me to the point of depression in periods of my life. I experience anxiety when I walk into a room full of white men. And I have panic attacks that come and go, reminding me of what I carry.
My trauma makes it difficult for me to tie my struggles to those of the middle-aged white man, as President Obama urged. How can I when the face of my oppressor—the face of my people’s oppressor—is white? White, cisgender, straight, able-bodied, wealthy men hold the power in this country and they are using their power to wage war on Black and Brown communities, immigrants, Muslim Americans—anyone who does not look like them.
So when a white man yelled at me and my community as we marched through San Francisco Chinatown, I couldn’t stop my reaction. I was incredibly angry and I still am. A middle-aged white man was telling us—a group of Asian Americans—how to be in our very own community.
I can’t say that my reaction was justified. And I can’t say that I regret it either. It was spiteful and it maybe contradicted the reason we marched that day—to call for radical love instead of hate.
But perhaps it was and is the only response I can offer at this time. I am not ready to make space for the middle-aged white man and if I am honest, I don’t want to. I am tired of making space for him. Instead, he should make space for me.
White men need to do work. They need to understand why I (and many others) am hurting, acknowledge their role (or complicity) in that pain, and authentically work to balance the power in this country. Maybe then the healing can begin.
Maybe then there can be space for both of us in movements for justice.
But if the middle-aged white man cannot make space for me—if we cannot see each other’s humanity—then America will continue to splinter beyond repair.