By: Bro. Al Vu, SDB
Province Delegate for Youth Ministry / Province Coordinator for Schools
These past few weeks immersed in the current events of our country have left me struggling to understand and come to terms with why I feel so heartbroken and sometimes angry at what is happening in the world today. I have had many personal conversations with friends, family, and colleagues about what is going on. I have brought these thoughts and feelings to my prayer, asking the Lord to help me make sense of it all. In these moments of reflection, I have come to realize that I still have a lot to learn. At this moment I am being invited to listen, reflect, and begin to understand my responsibility to be a better ally to my Black brothers and sisters.
I am still a work in progress. Recently a colleague reminded me that the fact that I am trying to become more aware and learn to become a more effective ally is part of the process. I will have moments in which I will fail and there will be moments when my voice will help amplify the many other voices within the Black community struggling to be heard.
In these days of learning, reflecting, and absorbing, I have come to understand even more clearly that our country was founded upon and continues to perpetuate structures, systems, and ideologies of deep seeded racism. This has formed who we are as a society and culture. The events that sparked the growing protests is a response to a long history of violence suffered by African Americans and the ongoing struggle for justice. As the young people would say, we are becoming “woke” to the realities of our world, and many, especially the young, are saying “Enough!” Perhaps this is the conversion that the Spirit is unleashing in the world today.
My own “woke-ness” has challenged me to take a deep and honest look at how I have been formed. In doing so, I am discovering the need for personal conversion and a re-formation of mentalities and perceptions that have been engrained in me. I am ashamed to admit that my own Asian and Asian American community have been historically prejudiced and anti-Black. Amongst our own families and Asian community, we were brought up to fear and be suspicious of Black people. We were encouraged not to associate ourselves with Black people. Heaven forbid, if any of the kids brought home a Black boyfriend or girlfriend. Personally, I remember family members praying that I would not end up having a Black roommate when I went off to college. As dutiful Asian kids we dared not argue and blindly accepted many of these racist ideologies. These past few weeks have shed a light on this reality and the relationship we have with the African American community. Some within the Asian and Asian American community have been having honest conversations and are trying to find ways that will bring about healing to our two communities.
Like many other Asians that came to the United States for a piece of the “American dream” and in order to succeed, be accepted, and assimilate in this country, we began to white-wash our identities as Asians and Asian Americans and gave into the narrative that we needed to exemplify what it meant to be a “model minority.”
Growing up in South Orange County suburbia, while it was never explicitly said to us, but in order to fit in, it was much easier to disregard our Asian roots and cultivate a life that was more acceptable to my surroundings. My family took on names that would be easier to pronounce. In order to not offend our neighbors, we snuck outside in the middle of the night to cook our strange, pungent and aromatic foods. When we played our “ethnic music” it was always indoors with all of the windows closed. We were taught that we needed to stay silent, keep our heads down, and perform the expected stereotype that was placed on by the dominant culture. We were programmed to believe that if we succumbed to this stereotype of the “model minority,” we would be spared the ridicule that Black, indigenous, and other people of color endured and continue to endure.
In looking back I must admit that by living up to the standards of the “model minority” has afforded me to access racial privilege, but there also have been key moments in my life in which I have encountered people who have challenged me to see and understand life in more profound ways. I was privileged enough to receive a scholarship and enough grants to spend the first two years of my college experience at Loyola Marymount University. It was there that I was introduced to a diverse population of people. My interactions for the first time with many types of people from so many different ethnic and cultural groups challenged my way of thinking. The Jesuits instilled in us the passion for justice and to become “men and women with and for others.”
Later when I had become a professed Salesian and was doing my post-novitiate in the East, I had the privilege as my apostolate to go to Harlem every weekend and hang out with the young people at the youth center. The opportunity to listen and hear the dreams of these kids who were predominantly Black captured my heart. There was an awareness of the discrimination that society had placed upon them and knowing that they had to work harder to prove their worth did not stop them from believing in dreams of a different kind of world made me realize that these young people had more faith and determination. This relentless hope and passion for a new world order was imbedded in the Harlem community and what helped me deepened my commitment to our Salesian mission.
When I returned to California to finish my Bachelor’s degree at Holy Names University, the Holy Names sisters through my coursework exposed me to the theologies of Black theologians James Cone, Katie Cannon, and Delores Williams. Reading and studying their works expanded my own theology of the oppressed.
My first assignment at Salesian College Preparatory in Richmond has become one of the most profound experiences of my Salesian religious life. The students, their families, and my colleagues helped me see beyond my own myopic perspective. This ethnically and culturally diverse community invited me to move beyond words and 2 into action. My mentor teacher, Janet Stickmon, nurtured my understanding that our Salesian style of education is our way of fostering human rights. In sharing her own story of being a Black-Filipina, Janet helped me to begin to break down the years of microaggression in my life and how I no longer needed to perpetuate the “model minority” myth. At the same time, she also challenged me to recognize the privilege I had in being a religious brother. Through our conversations and collaboration in preparing the Social Justice curriculum, I realized that I had a responsibility as an educator and was being called upon to be an ally for my students.
In these days of self-reflection, I have been keenly aware that I must learn from my privilege and commit myself to being part of this movement of confronting racism and transforming the unjust structures, ideologies, and mentalities that have pervaded our culture and society for hundreds of years. As a province community, we published a statement last weekend that articulated where we stood in light of the current events in our country and the commitment we have made in being agents of change when it comes to racial injustice. Each one of us must do our part in incarnating each one of those promises. Statements are good and beneficial, but as the old adage goes: “Actions speak louder than words.” We are called at this moment in history to choose to put into action the Gospel message.
We can only bring about healing and systemic change when we choose to acknowledge the covert racism and prejudice in our lives and in our communities. We practice change by learning how to be anti-racist in our daily interactions with one another. We become open and have honest and sometimes uncomfortable conversations with our parents, family, friends, and co-workers. We can no longer be afraid to challenge and call people out on their racism and prejudice.
We must work together to oppose oppressive structures and institutions that have perpetuated systemic racism. In these weeks we are reminded that racism results in prejudice and unjust structures, but more importantly, racism leads to acts of violence—from individual comments to and about others, as we have seen on videos, to the scourge of slavery, all the way to lynchings and murder. Our work as religious and lay, men and women, people of all facets of life are called to find ways to creatively dismantle oppressive systems. We must familiarize ourselves with our own Catholic Social Teaching, which will not only guide us, but also ground us in the Gospel perspective of doing justice. One way that we practice justice is by exercising our civic duty to vote. We have a privileged responsibility to choose local, state, and federal lawmakers who will enact laws that we vote for that shape a different kind of world we want to live in—one that values the dignity of every human life over politics. This is what it really means to be pro-life.
As Salesian educators and evangelizers, we empower our young people to take their place in this worldwide movement as protagonists and become societal change-makers. We must take time to listen, reflect, acknowledge our privilege, and commit 3 to the conversion that we need in order to be effective missionary-disciples of the Gospel.
I would like to conclude by echoing our province statement published last week: “We believe racism is a life issue. Guided by the Gospel and our Catholic Social Teaching, we renew our commitment to work tirelessly together in uplifting the voices and the lives of those on the margins; seeking ways to better amplify the stories, experiences, and perspectives of all of our brothers and sisters. Advocacy on behalf of the disenfranchised, especially the young, is integral to our way of ministry, education, and spirituality. United hand in hand, regardless of our walk of life or faith, we stand together against oppression, especially during these times of difficulty.” There is no arguing that we are all created in the image of a loving God and that all lives matter. However, at this moment in our history, as privileged allies, we are called to illuminate the struggle of our Black sisters and brothers. As a province we must affirm without a doubt that Black lives do matter!