Today, in a BIPOC antiracism group I co-facilitate, we talked about Atlanta, and one of the women in the group brought up the belief that Black people and Asian people don’t get along. She talked about some of the responses to the Atlanta attack that were coming up in her friend circles and in her family. And that conversation reminded me of this:
After my first knee surgery in 2016 (not my first knee surgery, but the first one I had that year … it’s a long and un-pretty story), I left the hospital and did the first couple of weeks of my recuperation in a really nice rehab facility in Manhattan’s Chinatown. Most of the nursing assistants in that place were Asian women. Many of the patients were Asian, too, but not all.
I had brought a lot of pass-the-time stuff with me, imagining that I’d need the distractions, that I wouldn’t just be doing physical therapy or sleeping, which is generally what one does after knee surgery. One of the things I brought with me was the baby blanket I was knitting for a friend’s newly-arrived first child.
Everyone was interested in my knitting. They would all ask what I was working on, and I’d tell them, and they’d say it was a nice gift. One morning, I’d gotten some super adorable pics of my friend and her baby, so when the first person asked me about the blanket, I decided to also show her the picture of the gift recipient. I pulled up the photo on my phone and handed it to the nursing assistant. She looked shocked, which wasn’t the response I was expecting. She turned the phone to face me.
“Your friend is Chinese!”
And that was true, but so? I acknowledged the yes, my friend was Chinese. She nodded and handed back my phone. “Wow,” she said quietly. I’m not sure she actually looked at the baby at all. I was puzzled, but let it go. I showed the picture to some of the other Asian women who took care of me and got almost the same response each time.
Months later, after my second knee surgery that year (as I said, a long and un-pretty story), I was back in the same rehab place. A friend had come to visit me, and then another friend arrived. Both are women I knew from my old job. The first woman who’d come by is white. The second woman who came by is Chinese — not the mother of the baby, whole different friend group. For the purposes of this story, I’ll call the white woman Anne and the Chinese woman Miao. While we were hanging out, one of the nursing assistants came in to check on me. She looked stunned to see Miao and immediately excused herself. Thirty seconds later, another assistant came to the room, got a look at Miao and dashed away. This continued. Maybe five or six more times.
Anne remarked on the incredible attentiveness of the CNA staff. It seemed pretty clear, however, that the staff were coming to see Miao with their own eyes, some in-the-flesh proof of my having Chinese friends. When I said this and told Miao and Anne about the baby photo, Miao nodded. “Yes,” she said. “It’s surprising that you have Asian people for friends. I was taught to think Black people don’t like us. Maybe they were, too.”
Which made me feel sad and naive at the same time. The idea that Black and Asian people don’t get along wasn’t new. I just hadn’t thought about it or seen it play out in such a glaring way in my own life.
my friends wondered if seeing Miao would mean I’d get better treatment. I waved that off as ridiculous, and am happy to say that I was proven right. I was already getting fabulous care. The only way they could have improved on their treatment of me would have been for one of them to morph into my mom and come sing me lullabies to put me to sleep each night.
The idea that Black and Asian people don’t like one another is absurd … or it should be. In the BIPOC group today, we talked about the ways anti-Black racism builds walls between groups, keeping everyone under its thumb, keeping everyone busy laying blame on one another rather than looking at White Supremacy. The careful and intricate constructions of racism keep doing their work, keep humming along under everything.
One of the tools used to support recuperation after knee surgery is a CPM machine: Continuous Passive Motion. You put your leg in this device and it moves your knee through its full range of motion until you turn it off. I both loved and hated that machine. And in our BIPOC group today, thinking about the shocked women in the rehab center, I made the connection that one of White Supremacy’s powerful tools is that it functions like the CPM machine. You don’t have to move a muscle. You are strapped into the apparatus, and it cycles you through the various ranges of hateful motion. It functions in the background with no need for your awareness and will continue to do so until you take deliberate action to shut it down.
When will we be ready to turn off that switch?
It’s the 14th annual Slice of Life Story Challenge!
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