A Crash Course on Holding Difficult Conversations

Having a conversation with someone who doesn't see eye-to-eye with you can be daunting, but we have several tips that may help in navigating discussion surrounding the Black Lives Matter movement as Asian Americans.

It’s been just under three weeks since the lynching of George Floyd, and the cries of anguish from people around the world have not stopped since.

In 2014 I remember going to the Black Lives Matter – Los Angeles general meeting a few weeks after the murder of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, with the intent to listen to Black communities and see what role I could play in supporting them. This meeting turned into an impromptu protest that would end up being the catalyst for my desire to be a bigger part of a movement towards equity in our country.

2016 saw the election of Trump and the subsequent Muslim travel ban, and as a result, I was invited to join a group of community leaders and organizers to form a group called Nikkei Progressives. As a volunteer organization, we’ve focused our efforts on immigrant rights, support against surveillance and xenophobia in the Muslim community, and Little Tokyo issues. Through my time with them, I’ve been able to gain an incredible spectrum of opportunities to share spaces with unique individuals, listen to their stories, and connect with their moments of joy and pain.

It’s been inspiring to see the surge in folks jumping on to the movement lately. As many Asian folks are stepping into this realm for the first time, I know some people are feeling overwhelmed in identifying how they can best support this movement. Even I’m finding myself adjusting the way I’m participating in this movement as I think about health precautions during a pandemic, and it has been challenging to say the least. While there are many different ways to get involved, it’s important that we connect in a way that we are passionate and (somewhat) comfortable with.

As many Asian folks are stepping into this realm for the first time, I know some people are feeling overwhelmed in identifying how they can best support this movement.

I’m reminded of an opportunity I had to sit in a room with about 30-40 Little Tokyo community leaders and speak with Reverend Jesse Jackson. I was lucky enough to be able to ask him a question, and I asked him what we could do to bridge the gap between our communities. His response was something along the lines of “the best thing you can do to help us is to go back to your own communities and get them straight.” While not trying to get deep into concepts about the model minority myth or how the Asian population overall benefits from their proximity to whiteness, he was absolutely right in that Asian American communities still have a lot of anti-Black and racist attitudes that we tend to uphold and support via silence.

Over the past two weeks I’ve been taking time and space to call people in (as opposed to calling them out), and have conversations when I disagree with the things that they’re saying or posting. I think this is tangibly one of the best things that I, and many of my non-Black brothers and sisters, can do to help during this time. As you all continue to step up into your roles facilitating anti-racists attitudes and mentalities, I want to leave you with some tips and guiding principles I try to follow to have productive conversations.

Think about impact versus intent

Back when I started to get deeper into my studies, I had this fire in me that would lead me to look for people saying stupid things on Facebook (yes, I’m old) so I could argue research/facts/theory to prove them wrong. Then, the unpredictable (at least, unpredictable to me) happened. People were being proven wrong, but they were still sticking to their beliefs. And then people started getting nasty, throwing insults instead of refuting my arguments. This was a turning point in realizing that my message is only as good as its delivery, and that I need to think about how my words impact someone. It didn’t matter if I felt I had the knowledge to change the world if I couldn’t share it in a way that will be truly heard by others.

It also made me realize that there are definitely some people not worth trying to have a conversation with, so pick your battles.

Make observations, not judgments

It can be easy to feel like we’re making a statement of facts, but we’re actually attaching a judgment to that statement of fact. For instance: I’ve heard many people excuse their apathy towards social justice by saying that they have to focus on themselves and they don’t have time to worry about others. A judgment on them might be that they’re a selfish person for not caring about others. However, if I were to try and turn that into an observation, it would be that this person has so much privilege that most mainstream social injustice does not affect them on a daily level. I might then point out this observation and remind them that it’s not a judgment on their character, but I’m essentially reflecting their statement back to them to see if they still feel okay with what they’ve said. This definitely requires practice in emotional intelligence, but it is a great skill to keep your cool when trying to understand people you disagree with.

It didn’t matter if I felt I had the knowledge to change the world if I couldn’t share it in a way that will be truly heard by others.

There is a time and place for expressing your opinions

This is probably one of the ones that I continue to struggle with the most, particularly around debates on police reform versus defund and people having their opinions on how that process should take place. As I have looked to the influence of role models in my life, something I've learned is that my opinion on the solution is partially based in my privilege. I have privilege in that I do not live with the fear of dying at the hands of the police everyday of my life, so whatever solution I may be thinking about most likely does not account for that immediacy among many others. I will never understand what the urgency feels like and for this reason, this is not my movement to have opinions in. If I value Black lives, then I need to listen to the movement's leaders and amplify their voices. My opinion only dilutes and drowns out their current demands, and that it isn't my place to interject my opinions at this time.

Be passionate about compassion

I feel that American society has created a strong divisiveness between people and different ideas, and we need to start being able to come together despite disagreeing with them. The biggest thing that Black communities have been asking for is that their pain be heard, and that something be done about it. If we devalue emotions and the paths that people walk, we disconnect ourselves from the intelligence that makes us uniquely human. We need to train ourselves to counter anger with love, to fight animosity with acceptance.

If I value Black lives, then I need to listen to the movement's leaders and amplify their voices. My opinion only dilutes and drowns out their current demands, and that it isn't my place to interject my opinions at this time.

There is an energy that is incredibly captivating from being on the forefront of this battle for equity, and I’m hopeful that we’ll soon be able to start looking at the next steps as we continue to mobilize our community. I also hope that we acknowledge that we still need to get some of our friends and families on board with the movement before we can achieve the critical mass needed to make a significant difference in this fight. Let’s take care of our community so that we can emerge as the Golden Glimmer our Black brothers and sisters need during this crucial time. Most importantly, I hope we no longer desensitize ourselves to the cry for justice and always remind each other that Black lives matter.

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June 2020

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