I think of James Baldwin’s words: “This is the crime of which I accuse my country and my countrymen, and for which neither I nor time nor history will ever forgive them, that they have destroyed and are destroying hundreds of thousands of lives and do not know it and do not want to know it.”
When it comes to Asian-American grief, do Americans want to know?
These past few weeks, it seems as if Americans have opened to a kind of knowing. As I saw these recent incidents of anti-Asian violence unfold in the news, I felt a profound sense of grief. But I also experienced something akin to relief. Maybe, I thought, now people will start to respond to anti-Asian violence with the same urgency they apply to other kinds of racism.
But then I started to feel a familiar queasiness in the pit of my stomach. Is this indeed what it takes? A political imagination (or, really, lack thereof) that predicates recognition on the price of visible harm?
There is something wrong with the way Americans think about who deserves social justice — as though attention to nonwhite groups, their histories and conditions, is only as pressing as the injuries that they have suffered. Racial justice is often couched in arcane, moralistic terms rather than understood as an ethical given in democratic participation.
It seems crazily naïve to suggest that we ought to learn, value and want to know about all of our countrymen out of respect rather than guilt. Yet while legitimizing racial and cultural differences exclusively in terms of injury may motivate reform in the short run, in the long term it feeds a politics of tribalism that erupts over and over again.
Two decades ago, I wrote in my book “The Melancholy of Race” that “we are a nation at ease with grievance but not with grief.” We still are. In the desire to move past racial troubles — in our eagerness to progress — we as a nation have been more focused on quantifying injury and shoring up identity categories than doing the harder work of confronting the enduring, ineffable, at times contradictory and messier wounds of American racism: how being hated and hating can look the same; how the lesson of powerlessness can teach justice or, perversely, the ugly pleasures of power; how the legacy of anger, shame and guilt is complex.
Unprocessed grief and unacknowledged racial dynamics continue to haunt our social relations. The discourse of racial identity has obscured the history of American racial entanglements. And why is entanglement important? Because the challenge of democracy is not about identifying with someone like yourself (that’s easy to do) nor about giving up your self-interest (that’s hard to ask). It’s about learning to see your self-interest as profoundly and inevitably entwined with the interests of others.