Recently Dr. McCoy took some time to address the class regarding the potential harm our words can have, even unintentionally, and wrote the following quote by Susan Lori Parks on the board: “Words are spells in our mouths.” This made me think in several different directions, but my mind first went to something I’ve been thinkING about for the majority of the semester. In fact, I was originally going to use the following anecdote in my first blog post, but I hadn’t really fully developed my thoughts as the situation had just occurred at the time of my first post. To quote myself from that first blog post, “Disenfranchised peoples are, to this day, at war with one another to be the most downtrodden.” I definitely still believe this to be the case, and I have still not come to any real conclusion as to why this is besides chalking it up to human error. That is, human beings, in my experience, have an innate tendency to compare one another and often assume that they have it worse than anyone else.
While I’m putting forth my best effort to describe the following situation with care, I recognize that my phrasing, or elements of what I am about to describe, have the potential to come off as harmful. Though important to acknowledge potential ignorance, my intentions stem from great respect and exposure. A couple of months ago I was speaking to my friend and she was telling me about an experience she had earlier that day. As a quick, relevant side note, my friend is a huge advocate for underrepresented voices on this campus and frequently promotes student interests in matters of diversity and inclusion. My friend also happens to come from an East Asian background and that particular day she had the opportunity to speak to a couple individuals whom (for the sake of anonymity) I will simply refer to as identifying as black. They were all speaking about a couple issues relating to race when my friend made a comment sympathizing with facing “everyday racism.” Immediately, one of the individuals my friend was speaking with said “How would you know, Asians aren’t even minorities.” Understandably, my friend was very offended by this statement and left the conversation soon after.
When my friend described this incident to me, I was taken aback and struggled to understand what this individual was thinking when they said that. I believe that part of the reason the individual felt comfortable making the claim they did is at least partially due to the fact that “Asian Americans are not considered an underrepresented minority, [and] they are given little priority or attention in diversity programs.” Despite the United States’ government having a less than stellar reputation in its dealings with Asian Americans, the majority of efforts in diversity inclusion are aimed at Hispanics, African Americans, and Native Americans leading to the reality that “Asian Americans are the forgotten minority [in the United States].” For example, Asian Americans are the largest group to experience pervasive, active discrimination in the workplace (at 30%, blacks are at 26%) yet, for the most part, American society consistently ignores the vast history of discrimination against those of Asian descent. Just because the United States’ policies have been aimed at integrating Asian Americans into the larger majority population doesn’t make them any less of a minority group in this country (or less discriminated against). In fact, this attempted integration meant that parts of their individual, unique cultures have been erased or stereotyped by “the melting pot.” Believe it or not, not all Asians know karate or like sushi or are uber smart or want to be doctors.
In fact, most people know these stereotypes to not be true, yet they persist in our minds, in media, and in the language and culture of the United States. The same applies to the usage of the word “minority” to describe underrepresented groups in our culture. Black-identifying people are not minorities in Africa or in many Caribbean countries. Additionally, in terms of global population, Asians make up the greatest majority. No matter where one’s ancestors settled, there are so many different and distinct cultures that it is incredibly problematic to group a person into one group based on their appearance. Another problem with this language lies in categorizing these human beings into an out-group, because at the end of the day, we are all people. However, I wish to acknowledge that separating “minority” groups out from the general United States public does allow for recognition of the difficult pasts those of underrepresented groups experienced and the aftereffects of which their descendants still face. Yet, that recognition is not how that separation serves, so it is more of a divider excusing present violence than an acknowledgement of past violence.
Before I start my connection to Prince’s art, I want to acknowledge that of course the main focus of Prince’s art has been on the African American experience as that is his own personal background, and in no way am I suggesting that his work is any less impactful or meaningful for that focus. Additionally, I acknowledge that the experiences of black Americans have been full of immeasurable inequality and pain. That being said, they aren’t the only group who have had harmful experiences of this sort. For example, the mass eradication of countless indigenous American cultures is something that can never be recovered from. As such, I really enjoyed learning about Prince’s work in collaboration with the Native American community to create “Old Lady in the Upper Room.” That piece, which was created through cooperation with Mark Charles, a self-identifying Navajo man, showed Prince’s versatility and his ability to deeply connect with another culture outside of his own. Thinking on how inspirational “Old Lady in the Upper Room” is to both his fans and those outside his usual audience allowed me to imagine the great potential of other cultural collaborations that could be possible in the future. As I told my friend, “it shouldn’t be a competition to see who has the most underrepresented voice or whose life has been the hardest.” That seems senseless when there is so much significance and power to be had when people acknowledge each other, our cultures, and our histories in a mutually respectful manner. After all, there are so many good spells our words can make by praising our differences, as well as our similarities.