Voices on the Side: Love, Light, & Liberation

Ruby Sheng Nichols

The conversations that I ask my guests to have with me on the Voices on the Side podcast are not always easy. In the current climate of deepening divisiveness and what has seemed to be a startling lack of basic humanity, I am uniting with my sisters and brothers of the global majority in doing our part to keep shining light onto that which has long been denied and repressed into darkness.

All systems of oppression follow the same tactics of invalidating, silencing, stealing, and gaslighting. The oppressed — or to use lighter language: the marginalized, the discriminated, the minority — are left to question ourselves: Am I being too sensitive? Am I taking things too personally? Am I being too self-centered?

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My guest Ruby is an intuitive guide. She is Chinese American. Like many Asian Americans, for most of her life she tried to align with whiteness. Immigrant parents often instruct their children, whether explicitly or by example, to keep your head down and your mouth shut, to not cause trouble, to assimilate. This is how we are told we will stay safe and survive, and perhaps be allowed to collect some successes along the way… but we must never take up too much space. 

Until the rise in Asian hate crimes during the pandemic, the discrimination against Asians at large was typically not life-threatening. Many of us gritted our teeth and laughed through our humiliation as our eyes, names, and foods were ridiculed. But we understood that bearing racist nicknames like “Ching chong” was nothing compared to police brutality against black people. Even the term “microaggressions” is reductive in and of itself, suggesting that it’s “not that bad.” 

I think there has been somewhat of a Stockholm syndrome effect with Asians identifying with the oppressor of white supremacy. And let’s be honest, if the options are being a model minority versus being incarcerated at an exponentially higher rate within a system that will never deem you equal, which are you going to choose?

There is a long genealogy of anti-Asian violence in this country. The Chinese massacre of 1871. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. The Japanese American internment during WWII. The absence of police response during the 1992 LA riots which primarily involved Koreans and African Americans, neither identity viewed by the system as being worthy of support or protection.

We have seen what happens to us when we are perceived as taking up too much space or when it serves the system to scapegoat us such as when we were blamed for Covid: our most vulnerable are attacked in broad daylight while the world closes its doors on us, deeming us inconvenient interruptions to their privileged existence. 

So when I hear accusations against our Asian community for not standing up in solidarity for social justice issues, I feel torn. It is a reminder that we are not seen as full human beings. How quick you are to criticize us after all you’ve done to shut us up and keep us in our place. It’s yet another perpetuation of racism against us, this scolding and gaslighting while keeping us down.

And I also believe we can and must all do better. There are incredible, inspiring Asian voices in the movement for the liberation of all. I learn so much from my Asian community including YK Hong, Kim Saira, Michelle Kim, and Yumi Sakugawa, whose stories are or will soon be part of the podcast. I derive my own courage from watching theirs. But it does take courage — for any person of color to speak up and against systems of oppression. This needs to be understood. Not everyone is ready or feels safe and supported. Those that do are warriors — they are our teachers. But many Asian Americans, especially those with immigrant backgrounds — some living in the trauma from their own occupied homelands — are still and always have been in survival mode. 

In some ways, Asian Americans can’t win. We will never be seen as white, yet we aren’t really seen as an oppressed group because we are perceived to be privileged. What’s so bad about people thinking we are good at math and live in affluent neighborhoods, anyway? How about the fact that that is not the story of every Asian in America. According to the 2019 NYC Government Poverty Measure, 23.8% of Asians here in New York City are in poverty. This is the highest rate of all racial/ethnic groupings. When I shared this statistic with someone recently, they responded, “But I heard that’s by choice. Asians want to get free handouts.” That this was said by a fellow Asian person (whom, by the way, I absolutely adore) floored me. How brainwashed do we have to be to think that people choose poverty simply to receive charity? And how does choosing poverty fit in with the narrative that we are all successful and affluent? Such extreme stereotypes keep us as caricatures rather than the complex humans that we — that all humans — are, and this enables continued oppression which ultimately upholds systemic racism.

While working in the wellness / spiritual world, Ruby kept finding herself in familiar situations where she was being disrespected and demeaned. It wasn’t difficult to note that she was being treated this way primarily by white women. What instantly stood out to me was the power with which they spoke down to her, the assumption that she would not dare challenge them, or tell anyone else about the way they had treated her. There was one particular instance, which we didn’t get time to cover in the episode, in which the white woman posted a reel that was undoubtedly directed at Ruby, her eyes full of anger and disgust, her tone condescending, all because Ruby had questioned needing to continue purchasing sessions to work with her. 

While our intuition tends to instantly recognize the dehumanization of discrimination, our internalized gaslighting — as well as opinions from our well-meaning white loved ones — gives us pause: maybe it’s not about race, maybe I legitimately spoke out of line, maybe I should just give them a pass.

There is a spiritual saying that the Universe, or God/God-energy, will keep sending you the same lesson to learn until you learn it. Like when it takes several bad romantic relationships for you to finally learn that you deserve to be treated better. 

You get to a point where the patterns are clear. The abuse is familiar. And then you see the similarities in what’s happening in much larger, horrific ways. The micro and the macro are mirror images. You see that all the injustice throughout the world is also your fight, but how can you really help? 

Oppression, racism, hate, colonization, occupation — these forces all spring from the same roots which have been flourishing in the darkness of our denial, our ignorance, our shut eyes. These roots have been thriving, expanding, embedding themselves more deeply — unbeknownst to us — much like a potted plant does as it outgrows its container. Eyes are open now; light is shining on the truth now. We all have to decide: what are we going to feed, what are we going to allow to grow, through our individual choices? Because we are always in co-creation with existence, with Mother Earth, with our ancestors or life force or collective energy — whatever verbiage speaks to you. 

Being a bearer of light doesn’t mean “positive vibes only.” It often actually means the opposite: the ability to stand in darkness and to BE THE LIGHT… to be willing to dig through and to unearth anything that does not serve the collective good. 

All human beings deserve to feel safe and to be free. I don’t have the answer to how we get there, but I know that honest, open-hearted conversations are part of the solution.

If you enjoyed this, I encourage you to listen to my 2-part conversation with Ruby!

I am a mama, writer, yoga teacher, and mental health advocate.
More posts by Leah Kim.

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