Posted on 1 August 2015
Exceptional Choices – J.A. O’Connor
When approached to write a guest post for this blog, my immediate question was,
“What should I write about?” I wanted to be relevant.
“Write about race and sexuality or something related to the topics on my blog.”
I felt bewildered. Sexuality? Sure. I used to write a “sex blog”. Race? Uh…
If any of us choose to live a remotely examined life, then race or racism should not be a light topic thrown about for the sake of interesting deipnosophy. I have always shied away from or, at the very least, tried to speak very carefully about the subjects of race in general and racism in specific.
Why? I grew up in East Texas around strongly racist attitudes. More important, my father was very racist as was his wife. I grew up five miles away from a very small town known for its involvement with the Ku Klux Klan. I have seen burning crosses lighting up suburban lawns in the middle of the night. The n-word was used freely and daily in my middle and high schools. There was a large billboard just outside my father’s small Texas town that read,
“If you’re black, be gone by sundown.”
Was this the 1950s? Sadly, no. This was the late 1980s and early 90s. My father once declared that Jesse Jackson should be assassinated and given his own holiday, too, preferably after Martin Luther King, Jr. Day:
“That way everyone gets a fourday weekend! And to celebrate we’ll all eat watermelon and fried chicken!”
I felt utterly ashamed of him and my Southern roots so much so that I left it all behind two days after I matriculated and never looked back.
I never understood it. I never viewed people through this lens, but I also came to understand fairly early in life that other people vehemently defended their racist beliefs. Violence and racism went together where I grew up. It was rare to see a white person hanging out with a nonwhite social group in my suburban high school. It was very rare to see a Vietnamese boy or girl, for example, hanging out with a group of white kids. Truthfully, there would have been an ass-kicking administered very quickly, and it would not have been the white kids to go home beaten and bloody. Until Andrew Chung arrived.
Andrew’s parents were from China. Andrew liked New Order. Andrew had awesome hair. The kind you want to run your fingers through. Andrew had the Cool Factor.Andrew was extremely sweet. And every girl around liked Andrew. Including me.
Guess who sat next to Andrew in AP Geometry? This girl.
Guess who studied with Andrew? Yours truly.
Guess whose hand brushed up against Andrew’s “accidentally” from time to time?
Ahem… You get the picture.
Andrew seemed not to be afraid of anyone nor did he seem to care about Southern social rules of engagement when it came to dating and race. He flirted with whomever he wanted whenhe wanted. If the rednecks in my school tried to threaten him, then he would look menacing right back! This only solidified his cool attractiveness, and Andrew became a god among teenagers in one semester!
The proof? Andrew asked out Jennifer, The Homecoming Queen, and, while scandalous, no one kicked Andrew’s ass for it or cast Jennifer to the bottom of the social caste system for saying yes. It just happened one day, and then it was reluctantly accepted. Andrew was dating a white girl. A white girl was dating Andrew.
I have often wondered what it cost Andrew privately to be the first person in my high school to cross racial lines. After Andrew started dating Jennifer, biracial couples started popping up. Not many, but a few. That was no small thing what with the KKK roaming the neighborhoods at night. Why does this matter? Why does Andrew matter?
Andrew exemplifies what it looks like to pursue what you want without waiting for permission while also knowing that there will be consequences.
He was a smart guy. He would have known the tacit rule that nonwhite boys don’t date white girls and vice versa. It seems that he simply chose to do what he wanted because he sshould be allowed! He metaphorically sat at the front of the bus, and he took Jennifer with him. Were there consequences? Yes, he endured threats of violence and most likely had to fight for what he wanted in ways none of us ever witnessed simply because he was not white.
When going against established social mores, however intrinsically wrong or unjust they might be, we have to be willing to fight for what we want even if the traditions that we’re fighting are perhaps within our own family system. I can’t define what that struggle will look like, but everyone meets resistance of some kind when introducing change into any community, culture, or family. The greater the resistance, the greater the effort required to overcome that resistance, and the greater the consequences for disturbing the status quo.
Racism is its own resistance as can be issues related to sexuality. The two topics are laden with personal, cultural, national, and even religious meaning. Deciding with intention to be the first one to defy a well established convention, ingrained attitudes, or cultural belief systems can be very costly, but self advocacy asks us to take that risk. It’s not possible to be an effective advocate for ourselves or others if we aren’t willing to pay a price.
Why take a risk or pay a price at all? For the rewards. There is no predicting what those rewards might be. Some are profoundly personal while others are easily observed. Andrew’s willingness to blaze his own trail in my high school made it that much easier for his peers to do the same. His courage gave others permission to try as well. The rewards were most likely reaped by more than one generation of people simply because one guy decided to self advocate in the face of great resistance.
I like to think about Andrew from time to time. Not just because he was that fine boy who sat next to me in AP Geometry. I remember him because he made a series of choices – exceptional choices – in a very unfriendly and dangerous environment, and others benefited. He did it with confidence and grace, and he did not let outwardly imposed limitations and cultural opinions of what he was allowed to do or have prevent him from achieving his goals. He simply did what he wanted anyway racism, sexual expectations, and social mores be damned. In my high school, the handsome Asian guy got the girl, and the girl got the handsome guy! That was how that ended, but before Andrew arrived, that story was an impossibility.
How might some our own stories begin and develop if we stopped letting cultural opinion, outwardly and inwardly imposed limitations, sexual expectations and stereotyping, past and present familial expectations, and various resistances so profoundly influence us and learned instead to effectively self advocate within our circumstances? Could we more quickly move towards achieving our goals? Could we rediscover or refine our purpose? Could we become better advocates for others? Could we contribute to bettering our own communities and blaze a trail of our own that might, in time, encourage others to take the same or even greater risks?
It’s exciting to think about rewriting or even reimagining our own stories. Not all of us are an Andrew, but all of us can make small choices that add up to big differences over time. All of us can move up a little closer to the front of the bus and take someone else with us when we do.
And when that someone else takes our hand, they might take someone else’s. Suddenly, your story gets a whole lot bigger as does theirs. And before you know it, people are sharing the journey with you. All because you made a choice. You took a risk. Yeah, the price might be high.
But, the rewards are greater.