Silence will not redeem us: East Asian art, being, and betrayal

(Over the last few days and 30 years, I’ve lived, and sublimated, a state of despair and self-hatred — at works of art produced by people like me, but really at my cowardice, my treachery, my repeated selling out; at how easy it’s been to hide behind my East Asianness, my femininity, and pretend I’m not wounding others. This is an attempt to bear scrutiny.)

The world is not as we would like it.

Men with full stomachs living in one of multiple well-decorated houses are making decisions to kill the elderly for larger bank balances; to refuse food aid while feeding corporations; to reject health coverage for the 20% unemployed while building tax shelters to transfer wealth to the unborn. Later this year (if we’re lucky) we’ll be selecting between two rapists to lead the country.

For those of us still alive we can see, now, that no one is going to reclaim the future for us. What bars us from acting? What are the forces we’ve taken into ourselves that neutralize us, that stop us from coming together?

Transformation is not an event — it’s being always vigilant for the smallest opportunity to make real change in entrenched, outmoded structures; to inch us ever closer to a world that is habitable, a future of justice, liberation, and sustained human flourishing.

And I and my people are not doing our part.

Why art matters

Film, writing, and other art — when done right, when not white-willed into sterile entertainment or hollowed prettiness — can be transformative. The light in which we see our lives alters how we live, and how and whether we believe we can make change through our lives.

Art is the way we give name and truth to the ideas we can feel within us but can’t explain or trust. It creates light in which we can glimpse and crystallize our hopes and dreams for survival and change. As we learn to bear the scrutiny of daylight, then to thrive in it, then to use the fruit of that light to increase our capacity to live, the fears that control us and dictate our silence start to lose their power over us.

Art has the rare power to truly and viscerally shift our ideas, our dreams, our consciousness; not just our reasoned responses to concepts and words (one can think and talk about ideas without changing at all), but our deep and dark sources of power, the fundamental frequencies with which our bodies vibrate; our true knowledge. It has the power to turn us toward enduring possibilities, not just momentary reaction.

East Asian silence

But art can do so only if it does speak truth: if we patiently and painfully congeal it from the bloody experiences of our daily lives. We can’t create anything of substance without examining and accepting who we are. We must teach ourselves to cultivate our feelings and to transpose them into a medium through which they can be shared, through which we can build a path for our community to a future.

As East Asian women especially, so often we don’t do art; we do quiet. Often we’ve been raised to believe it’s better to stay silent, to let others speak and be blamed. As East Asians we believe the stereotypes this yields are benign: we’re polite, we’re demure, we are neatly-dressed and modest. They’re not. They weaken us. They eat us away from the inside. And they are a rank betrayal of those whose survival is precarious as ours is not, whom we force to speak to stay alive, whom we watch be punished for speaking for our shared dignity.

We think we muzzle ourselves for survival — and yes, survival is key, and yes, I speak from a position of privilege. But as East Asians we do have this privilege, and it is rank cowardice and treachery not to use it. Refusing to let others onto our perch, drawing up the rope ladder after we’ve used it, rejecting the possibility of creating a world we all can survive and believe in — these are cycles of oppression the white-supremacist world has imposed on us, but ones we have the responsibility to see and break, if we want our people to ever be free. Silence will not redeem us — it only strengthens our oppressors. Hoarding privilege will not protect us — it only diminishes our selves. It’s 2020 and the world is ending, there’s nothing to fear; we are going to die whether or not we speak up.

In art we tell ourselves that we should be grateful for mere representation. In business we tell ourselves we should be grateful to even be paid for our labor. In respectable white spaces we tell ourselves we should be grateful to be accorded reflected dignity, to be even a token. But this is the evasion of responsibility that holds our community (and all those we force to speak on our behalf) down, that pushes our heads just below the waterline where we can just about breathe, if we ask our companions nicely. We hold the bar so low that only the narrowest parameters of change are possible and allowable.

No — we can be better; we can expect better; we can stop ourselves from putting a ceiling on how good we’re allowed to be. We must hold ourselves accountable to be better — in solidarity, in this violent world. Inaction is an act of violence in and of itself. Ceding our power and our dignity and priding ourselves on it, believing that is the only pride we can have, instead of using our power to hold oppression to account, is an act of oppression, an act we repeat daily, a ritual sacrifice of our sisters.

What am I even talking about

Over the last few days, with great anticipation, I consumed both The Half of It by Alice Wu and Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong. Whatever whatever. Witting and unwitting existence in a white-supremacist patriarchal lens, perpetuation of rape culture, clear avoidance of self-scrutiny and turning light upon ourselves in a context where light is all we have and audiences are begging for us to shine it.

Art means nothing if it merely ornaments the halls of the palaces of tyranny.

The nature of the betrayal

The response to oppression should be anger, determination, and struggle against, until we defeat it or die. Our response is too often complacence and complicity. We try to sneak through, to pass, to point to darker people and deflect our shame while doing so.

We refuse to recognize, because it is comfortable, that we can’t live without our lives; that when we sacrifice other people’s lives for our own we waste them both.

Judith Malina wrote that “Ultimately the law is enforced by the unfeeling guard punching his fellow man hard in the belly.” As East Asians, we cast ourselves as the silent observer wistfully watching this unfold, or perhaps judging it; but obviously and always we are the unfeeling guard.

But we can change; we can speak. Within each of us there is a voice that knows we are not being served by our keepers, by the machine which invents shock after shock and is grinding all our futures into dust.

If we want to stop the enormity of the forces aligned against us from devising a false hierarchy of oppression, we must train ourselves to recognize that any attack against Black or brown people, any attack against queer and trans folks, any attack against non-men, is an attack against all of us who recognize that our interests are not being served by the systems we service.

And by “us” I mean me. How often have I demanded from another Asian woman what I haven’t been brave enough to present myself — acceptance, conviction, the space to contemplate change?


We are at a rare juncture of choice now. To avoid participating in shaping our future is to relinquish it. Each of us must find our role and our work, and do it.

Revolution is not amassing an arsenal and training with it. It’s doing the unromantic and tedious work of change, usually in the absence of any certainty that change is coming. It’s naming and fighting despair for ourselves and for our community. It’s recognizing and remembering who we truly are, recognizing and remembering where our real interests lie. It’s seeing that tokenism is a false sense of security fed by a myth that individual solutions are possible, that East Asians can be white. It’s fighting the self-loathing and self-destruction that the oppressor has injected into us that lives and flourishes within us until it makes us turn on ourselves and each other, makes us do our enemies' work cheap by destroying each other.

Each of us, as writers, thinkers, beings, must live and speak those truths we know deep inside us, even when we’re afraid, for our fear is how they intend to entrap us. It will not be easy, but we have the light; we have the power to see where we are standing and move beyond it, and show our children how to move further still. We must fight for our own liberation; no one will do it for us.

To remain private with change is to self-destruct.
To go public with change is to begin
to challenge the forces of white supremacy.

To truly create is to struggle.
To truly struggle is to present
our selves our process of living learning
and unlearning the garbage of self-contempt of self-defeat
heaped at our own doorsteps. Sometimes we rein in
the blinders sometimes we see no farther
than our own skins sometimes we prick
ourselves savor the cactus of our own pains.
No despair no struggle no joy is personal.
If you begin I begin.
If you sing I sing.

The silences break
                                          the silences swell
                                                      the silences weep
and the skies once mute about our lives
thunder at our insolence our daring our strong yellow legs.

In death our bodies regress to the innocence of bones.
In love we work to live in America under our own wings.

—Nellie Wong, Under Our Own Wings