A mother and son screamed at in the grocery store. Business owners harassed and shunned. A child shamed by his teacher for bringing Korean food for lunch. Identities questioned — faces repeatedly confused and forgotten. Racist epithets erupting in teenagers’ feeds.
These are just some of the experiences recounted by Asian American parents in the Montclair Mommies and Daddies Facebook group in the past week, after grief over the massacre in Atlanta led me to post about my own children’s brushes with anti-Asian racism in Montclair — another boy asking my son if he carried the coronavirus, for example, or classmates refusing to sit next to my kindergartener when she had toasted seaweed in her lunchbox.
I wasn’t sure to what extent our experiences were shared: After all, when you ask people why they live in Montclair, isn’t “diversity” the reflexive answer, with “The Pie Store” and “low property taxes” thrown in for polite laughs? A scant 11% of Montclair voters cast their ballots for the president who whipped up racial hatred with such puerile slurs as “China virus” and “Kung flu.” One could find more people who don’t like pie.
As it happens, my family’s experience has been atypical only to the extent that it hasn’t been worse. Slowly, then all at once, other people (mostly women) began to share what they, their partners and their children have been grappling with in private. As in the rest of the country, slights and microaggressions framing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders as eternal outsiders (“Where do you come from?” “Do you speak English?”), so common many of us have learned to cope by brushing them off, have over the past year taken a sharp and sinister turn, with some Asian Americans reporting public acts of racialized hate that have made them afraid to leave their homes.
AAPI families in Montclair are not alone in knowing there is a particular sting that comes from experiencing racism in a town that prides itself on being a bastion of diversity (Sesame Street, but with real coffee). But just as a slur can both be witless and result in real harm, so the dream we share of our town can be betrayed over and over and yet remain largely true. When outrage and grief over the continuous, structural racism that killed Breonna Taylor and George Floyd came to a head last summer, thousands of Montclairians took to the streets and, perhaps as crucially, talked with their children to make sure they knew. Knew about the legacy and evils of racism in this country, and knew how they, specifically, were needed to fight it.
There was, in that moment, a recognition that diversity is not a fixed feature of geography, factored into a one-time decision and subsequently taken for granted, like the trains or public parks; it bears its own weight and obligations, which may reach beyond demonstrations, political engagement, and public allyship to acts that are private and painful. Sometimes it requires us to examine our own biases, or to speak up when it feels safer to be silent. And sometimes we must sit down with the small people we love, reveal another sad thing we’d have given anything to spare them, and ask for their help. The dream, of course, was always for them. Let’s keep it going.
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