Storytelling at the center of racial healing 

by Nissa Tzun | March 24, 2021 7:35 pm

Original artwork by the author, Nissa Tzun, via Instagram @solidaritekitchen

The way we tell stories colors how we remember our own experiences and eventually the longer history of how we fit in society. Repeating these stories leaves a mark on how we see ourselves, our families, and our larger communities. That is why, as a storyteller myself, I see the way we talk about the Atlanta spa shootings as a critical part of our practice in changing dominant ideologies and strengthening connectivity in the power of Black, brown and indigenous people, immigrants, and women of color in America.

 

In the days following the tragedy, I turned to my art to process my emotions.  This is an illustration of my beloved mother and me (based on a photo from 1983), calling for allies to “Protect Asian Women.”

I want to start off by saying I am a proud Chinese woman. My family, culture, and history are everything to me. Looking back, I remember points of my Asian American experience that made me different from some of my peers. Cantonese is my native tongue – I didn’t learn to speak English until I was in kindergarten. I was a pro at using chopsticks by age five. I sported a bowl haircut, a popular haircut for Asian children, for the first eight years of my life. I was a wiz at math thanks to my “tiger mom” teaching us a grade level ahead of our year, making us complete math activity books before we would be released to go out and play (and if we didn’t, I’d see the sun go down while sitting in silent rebellion at the dining room table). My dad is a blackbelt in Kung Fu and Bruce Lee, one of the first Asian Americans I saw on television, was my earliest hero. I was enamored by how precise and quickly he moved and defended himself. My entire family uses the “Aiya!” accentuation, a way to exclaim shock and surprise, regularly – and we are experts at Chinglish. I have always been proud of my family’s culture and rich history, proud of how it shaped me into who I am today. And despite the lack of Asian American history taught in public schools, and despite the scapegoating, gaslighting and discrimination we Asians have faced on this side of the planet, I will never ever be ashamed of being Chinese and Asian.

The slaughter of eight people, including six women of Asian descent, in Atlanta on March 15th has left my community heartbroken and furious. My Asian friends and family are afraid to go out. It breaks my heart to see elders targeted by the new wave of anti-Asian racism during the onset of the COVID-19 pandemic, which was bolstered by the repeated use of racist and xenophobic phrases like “China virus” and “Kung flu” by the former, clearly racist, president. Since the coronavirus outbreak began, Asian Americans have reported nearly four thousand incidents of hate, including being yelled at, spit at, physically assaulted, and even killed. 31 percent of Asian Americans have experienced racial slurs or jokes since the pandemic started.

This is an illustration of my late maternal grandfather, a refugee of war and immigrant, who worked so hard to provide for his family.  The children he is holding are myself (left) and my cousin (based on a photo from 1983). 

My anniversary celebration with my spouse was disrupted by the tragic news of the Atlanta spa shootings. An evening that was supposed to be joyous and relaxing, instead had me frozen in trauma – with the recent killings of at least four Asian elders in the past few months and the increasing assaults on Asian Americans across the country, hearing of a mass shooting on multiple Asian establishments was horrific.  Instead of being able to focus on my union with my partner, my mind was flooded with questions wondering who the killer was, what their motive was, and finally, what narrative would surface.

The days that followed revealed headlines and broadcasts that further erased the despair our communities are experiencing.  For-profit news media first amplified the plight of the killer, trying to persuade audiences that he was the actual victim in all of this – that he “had a bad day” and was tortured by sex addiction. This frame brushes aside the human loss, women who were stolen from their loving family and friends. Additionally, it took days for the names of the victims to be released, only to be misspelled and mispronounced. And to top it all off, a debate of whether or not this was actually a “hate crime” flooded the national dialogue. Even a witness at the scene heard the killer state, “I’m going to kill all Asians,” and shared her story with a well-known Korean media outlet, most American outlets have tiptoed around calling his actions racially motivated. Has the term ‘domestic terrorist’ even been used in relation to this killing spree?

Personally, I am not surprised by this coverage. In my experience as an independent journalist and co-founder of the Forced Trajectory Project, I have been digging for the truth in the stories of police violence in America, centering those directly impacted by it. Listening to the lived experiences straight from the survivors, sifting through the reports from police departments, studying academic research, and questioning the headlines, I have grown to mistrust what we, the public, are served in our news feeds. What we typically see in mainstream media in regards to police violence repeatedly captures only part of the picture – and sometimes is straight inaccurate. This is largely due to the fact that the culture of both the mainstream media and law enforcement (as is the case with many of our professional industries) are steeped in white supremacy. The mainstream media has a history of botching first impressions, which helps further government agendas. A few examples include the coverage of the Gulf of Tonkin incident that set off the Vietnam War, and the bombing of the MOVE houses in Philadelphia in 1985. The foundation of U.S. law enforcement comes from slave patrols and union busters. With a little digging into not so distant history, we can see how they are not protecting and serving all of us equally. That is why, with the democratized tools we have for sharing our stories, and with the support of non-profit newsrooms and organizations who can spread our words farther, we have to remind ourselves that the power is in the people.

 

This illustration, a call for Black Asian Solidarity, features my close friend Jasmine Eileen Coles and myself.  Solidarity work is founded upon deep relationships, love and unity. I encourage all of us to focus on investing in and sustaining relationships with each other. 

This brings me to where I sit today: reflecting on my feelings of fear, anger, and an unwavering call to spark action using our words, art, and organizing. Over the past year especially, we have seen a racial awakening in our country – the opportunity to have difficult, but necessary conversations about our diverse identities and experiences in America. No matter where our families come from or where they live now, our lives have value. Generations of structural racism and white supremacy have held Black, brown and immigrant communities back from prosperity. And that’s why I see this moment as an opportunity to reunite in our struggle towards an America where we all can thrive. It’s time for us to stand together and reject the zero sum game of racial exploitation and division. Black, brown and indigenous people, immigrants, and women of color, this is our repeated call to share the burdens all our communities have been shouldering in silos. Sharing our stories fully will start to repair harm across racial lines. And then, we must believe each other. By recognizing how much we share in this struggle, we will clear a road to together shape law, narratives, and culture to reflect the truth that building America took all of us – and we aren’t done yet.

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