Yeah, we’re not talking about the election. Instead, I’m just doubling down on my activism.

Like doing a lot of this.
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Black Lives Matter Not Black Friday protest, downtown Seattle, Nov. 25, 2016 (photo by me)

But also making art about racial politics and helping center people of color. For this reason, I’m happy to be included in this group show in Tacoma, Washington:

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Organized by the CultureShock Collective, High Blood features all artists of color (I’m just waiting for a Trump supporter to start bawling about anti-white discrimination—they can cry me a motherfucking river).

Already there have been favorable reviews in Tacoma’s News Tribune and the International Examiner, and I’m honored to have my work mentioned in both. The show is pioneering and will hopefully kick off a more serious discussion about inclusivity in the Northwest art scene.

In addition, I have a multimedia piece (which had been at the Wing Luke Museum of the Asian Pacific American Experience) in this group show at North Seattle College Art Gallery, which opens tomorrow.

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If you find yourself north or south of Seattle, I encourage you to check out either show!

The last few weeks have been a whirlwind. Two pieces from my show Rebirth sold: portraits of two of the youngest subjects, Trayvon Martin and Aiyana Stanley-Jones. In addition, a commissioned painting of mine became the hero image on the site of Lumicor, an architectural panel company. (See below) And finally, I’ve been in talks about two group shows next month.

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Above left: the original piece. Above right: the painting in the print catalog

So I’m late in posting this great interview I had with Xavier Lopez, Jr., who writes an arts and culture blog for the Seattle Post-Intelligencer. Please check it out here.

The interview with Laura Castellanos that we mention in the last part can be found here.

 

wp_20160905_002Above: a chalk portrait of Sandra Bland

Tonight I have my fifth solo show, this time at Vermillion, a gallery voted #1 in Seattle in a recent Seattle Weekly poll. I wanted to honor the police murder victims of Black Lives Matter, so I decided to return to figurative portraiture, a departure from the largely abstract work of the past decade.

The name of the show is “Rebirth.” To counterbalance the hatred and racial violence in today’s world, I decided to create a meditative, healing space to honor the Black victims of police murders. Using classroom chalk, I drew portraits of 14 of them from a composite of photos sourced online. They are: Tamir Rice, Rekia Boyd, Eric Garner, Meagan Hockaday, Alton Sterling, Korryn Gaines, Philando Castile, Aiyana Stanley-Jones, Oscar Grant, Nizah Morris, Michael Brown, Sandra Bland, and Yvette Smith. I also included Trayvon Martin because his murder created Black Lives Matter. In the back of the gallery, I posted these individuals’ stories, along with information on Black liberation organizations, which included Black Lives MatterEnding the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) Seattle, and Black Community Impact Alliance, as a call to action.

Drawing someone in chalk is a delicate and tender process. You observe every minute contour of their face. You understand that this person was vital, multifaceted, funny—so much more than a name in the news. This person left behind a void that is still felt among their loved ones and their communities. You realize, in drawing them, that you deeply care. And it becomes evident that remembrance, particularly in a portrait, is a kind of rebirth.

What brought me to tears was working on the eyes of 7-year-old Aiyana, the youngest police victim in the group. I thought, “We failed you.” She and the countless people gunned down by police officers should be here today. We need to do better. We need to address police accountability, open-carry laws, overpolicing in Black communities, and all the racism, sexism, homophobia, and transphobia attendant in American society.

An important element in many Black religious communities, water is collected in a bowl at the end of the gallery as a symbol of purification and rebirth. In acting as an inherent threat to the chalk drawings, it carries a reminder of the fragility of life and memory.

I want to thank Davida Ingram, Blu the Baqi, Sooja Kelsey, Eva Abrams, Inye Wokoma, and Erwin Thomas for all their insights and guidance on this project.

Vermillion is donating 10% of its profits to Black Lives Matter; I’m donating all my profits to Ending the Prison Industrial Complex (EPIC) Seattle.

Show info:
Rebirth, a show honoring Black Lives Matter
Vermillion
1508 11th Ave, Seattle, WA
Opens Sept. 8, 6 to 9PM
Closes Oct. 8

 

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My review of Alain de Botton’s The Course of Love is now published in the Los Angeles Review of Books! You can read it here.

The crazy thing is, the deadline for this long-form piece nearly coincided with the opening to my solo show last month. But the opportunity to write for this esteemed literary and arts journal was too good to resist.

It turns out Alain de Botton will be visiting Seattle this week to promote this book. Having consumed a vast amount of his work for the review, I’ll be very interested to see him speak in person.

Here’s the information:

Alain de Botton Reads from The Course of Love
Wednesday, June 22, 2016, 7–8:30 p.m.
Seattle Public Central Library, Microsoft Auditorium
1000 4th Ave
FREE

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My piece, Slippage, in The Stranger‘s Art & Performance Spring 2016 magazine (above, right)

Some days you think you’re going to go wrangle with the electricity company over a billing issue, and then something entirely unexpected and magical happens. In my case, I received a text notifying me that my art was in the latest issue of The Stranger, a popular weekly paper in Seattle. I thought, “Well, fuck the double charge on that bill—they can triple-charge me, for all I care. Right now I’m off to get a paper!”

Then I sprinted down to the coffeehouse in the lobby of my office building, grabbed a paper, and retreated to a quiet place to look through it. The artwork in question was in the periodical’s quarterly Art & Performance magazine. The guide provides a comprehensive list of all arts events going on that season; the Visual Arts section alone contained more than 200 exhibitions and shows.

Right there, on page 23, was my piece, Slippage. I felt almost numb with disbelief. There were only five image slots available in that section; three of them promoted museum shows, including that of international art star Kehinde Wiley, and another showed the work of local legend Norman Lundin. Then there’s this unknown artist, Yoona Lee. The one squarely outside the Seattle arts community, the one who toiled in relative obscurity for 16 long years to get the show of her dreams.

That was my painting right there, and the caption made me gasp. “Why you should see it: Because [Yoona] can transform everyday materials into smart meditations on racial politics.” They understood me. They got to the heart of what I was doing.

Slippage itself was created by cutting a slit in the cellophane covering a store-bought stretched canvas and pouring Sumi ink into it. The piece is about the infiltration of the Other’s, or minority’s, perspective into a previously white and sacrosanct canon—a phenomenon as unstoppable as ink across a blank canvas. I last showed it at the 2015 Arts & Social Change Showcase.

My upcoming show at Ghost Gallery will include this work and others. Titled Run Race Ragged: Three Takes on Racial Politics in America, the show will feature a wide breadth of work: big, visceral abstract paintings, smaller conceptual mixed-media collage, and at least one figurative drawing. It will open May 12, the night of Seattle’s Capitol Hill Art Walk. If you’re in the area, I hope you’ll drop by. Details below.

Run Race Ragged: Three Takes on Racial Politics in America
Ghost Gallery
Opening May 12, 5 to 9PM
On view through June 6
504 E. Denny Way
(corner of E. Denny Way and Summit/Olive, entryway to right of Hillcrest Market)

My website: http://www.rhymeswithrace.com/

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Me in London, 1995: I crouched next to this random scooter and jokingly said my ’67 Lambretta went tits-up, so I get around on this Spree.
(photo credit: Silvia Manzanero)

Once upon a time, I was a self-loathing Asian who hung out with the skinheads. Now, they weren’t neo-Nazis; they were traditional skinheads, or “trads” (I’ll get more into that in a minute). And ironically enough, they were more antiracist than I was!

Before you say, “But wait, aren’t all skinheads racists?” it’s important to note that when skinheads emerged as a youth culture in late ’60s England, they embraced Jamaican ska music, ultimately helping disseminate it—often called skinhead reggae—all over the country. However, neo-Nazis co-opted the movement in the 1970s and recruited violent white supremacist skinheads. This subgroup, with its right-wing extremism, has unfortunately exemplified skinhead culture to the mainstream ever since.

Found on nearly every continent today, skinhead culture comprises an array of political beliefs. The most recognizable antiracist faction is the  Skinheads Against Racial Prejudice (SHARPs); other skinheads consider themselves to be trads, a term referencing their apolitical origins. And there are plenty of nationalist wingnuts, like the culturally confused Malaysian neo-Nazis. (More on skinhead subculture and identity can be found here.)

My introduction to the skinheads, or “skins,” came through ska. Although this upbeat music is ubiquitous enough now to be heard on any used-car dealership commercial, it was underground and hard to come by for a long time. When I was 11, my older sister brought home a record that changed my life; it was the debut album by The Specials. The track that made me jump to my feet and take notice was Do the Dog. With its explosive drum intro and the lead singer’s bawled, profane vocals, this song would foretell, and maybe even determine, my later interest in radical politics and punk.

“All you punks and all you teds
National Front and natty dreads
Mods, rockers, hippies and skinheads
Keep on fighting ’til you’re dead”
—The Specials, “Do the Dog”

As a gothic punk in high school, I never stopped listening to ska and eventually became a full-fledged “rudegirl” (a female member of the ska subculture). Most of my favorite bands were on the 2 Tone record label, but I listened to old-school Jamaican ska, rocksteady, and nonracist Oi!. I wore all black-and-white clothes under a bomber decorated with ska buttons and patches (part of the skinhead aesthetic), and frequented ska shows, where I’d “skank” all night with other rudies and skins, who were some of the most avid fans.

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Rudegirl selfie, Philly, 1994: I’m in a ’60s dress with ska paraphernalia (most of which I drew myself) all over my walls.

It was easy enough to take on a subcultural persona; it was much harder to deal with my racial identity. In spite of being staunchly antiracist, I was at odds with my Asianness. As a kid, I was bullied because of my ethnic features, and as a young adult, felt entirely detached from Korean culture. I didn’t have Korean friends, barely knew the language or who my grandparents were, and was usually at odds with my immediate family. Being Asian, for me, meant only experiencing racial slurs and fetishism; it was a deficit and a liability and, at best, a major inconvenience. I didn’t want to have anything to do with it.

As an alienated 19-year-old, I met and got to know the Philly United Skinheads (PUSH). The first encounter was uncomfortable: on a lonely West Philly street one night, a drunken skinhead began talking shit to me and ripped a patch off my bomber. I screamed at him and got the patch back; then two of his friends came up to apologize to me for his behavior while he reeled away and puked in a vacant lot. From then on, I was accepted by the group.

PUSH was led by an intensely charismatic 27-year-old skinhead named Spud. He could have been mistaken for a neo-Nazi because of his Aryan features and German blackletter tattoos. His girlfriend, an African-American skinhead, was a former mod/goth hybrid (she’d worn a lot of black suits, apparently) and daughter of a southern Holy Roller. We busted out Madness moves on the dancefloor and drank heavily while watching early-’90s ska bands like The Toasters and Bim Skala Bim play. (The stalwarts of 2 Tone ska, such as The Selecter and The English Beat, hadn’t reunited yet, but I would later see these bands in London and Seattle.)

I quickly learned that PUSH had its heroes, antiheroes, and an intricate, occasionally self-contradictory, system of values. These skins were almost religiously antiracist without identifying as SHARPs. They always partied on the anniversary of Hitler’s death and, conversely, abstained from alcohol on his birthday. They also villainized a newly dead neo-Nazi named Joe Rowan, the 22-year-old singer of a Delaware white-power band. PUSH celebrated on the anniversary of his death, too, and didn’t drink on his birthday. Like all antiracist skins, they shunned the neo-Nazis’ favorite numbers, 88 and 14 (representing, respectively, “Heil Hitler” and the 14-word white supremacist creed).

When the neo-Nazis, or “boneheads,” would visit town, members of PUSH would go fight them, but I would stay out of it. Even though I was violent, rambunctious, and ready to use my fists at the drop of a hat (and did, more often than not), I wasn’t ready to take on race. My racial identity had not crystallized enough for me to confront these rabid white supremacists.

It seemed strange to me that PUSH, who were primarily white, felt more strongly about racism than I did. I appreciated their activism, but felt almost a little suspicious, wondering if there was a white, self-heroicizing, hetero-paternalistic element to it, or at least a perverse kind of privilege.

In 1995 I moved to London and got to know some of the skinheads there, mainly at the ska shows. England had its own virulent brand of fascist boneheads, mainly from the National Front and the British Movement, but it also had more diversity in its skinhead culture than I’d seen before. I met Caribbeans, East Indians, and even an Israeli skin one night.

Rude London roomMy room in London, 1996: checkered skirt and a car coat, along with dozens of fliers from ’60s mod and ska events around town

In both England and America, there were aspects of nonracist skinhead culture that I disliked. The men were usually looking for a fight and often homophobic. Many were blatantly sexist and would get sloppy drunk, relying on their girlfriends to help them get home. (But let it be known: skinhead girls are not to be messed with—they are feisty and can hold their own.) Plus, there were many “fence-sitters,” who would hit on me but still confess to having racist friends. In one particularly chilling encounter, a good-looking but semiliterate skin flirted with me at a party and then, sidling up, admitted he’d been best friends with Joe Rowen, the infamous neo-Nazi.

As I spent more time with the skinheads, I realized that my own personal rage—which had helped me relate to them—came from my own cultural ambivalence. I couldn’t identify with my Korean heritage and didn’t care to understand it. I felt alienated from other people of my race and avoided them. Yet I also hated those who hated my race. In other words, I was a convoluted mess.

It would take decades for me to fully accept and embrace my Korean-American identity, and begin work as an antiracist activist, making art around it, leading workshops on race at University of Washington and Seattle University, and eventually drumming up the courage to confront the white-supremacist Hammerskins.

These vicious skinheads were rumored to be marching in Seattle, but never showed up. I joined about 400 other antifascists to meet them with a counter-protest on a cold, blustery night. After waiting for a half hour, we marched through the Seattle streets; I led several chants, screaming, “Say it loud! Say it clear!” The crowd responded, “Nazis are not welcome here!” We sent out a strong message: we will fight to protect Muslims, refugees, and racial minorities against fascists.

That night felt like less of a closure to my skinhead past and more of an entry into something new and dangerous, but filled with an irresistible and fortifying sense of promise.

 

On November 27, the Black Lives Matter, Not Black Friday protest shook up the retail core of Seattle. I stayed for as long as I could and documented it.

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1 PM: Signs in Century Square, the de facto heart of the retail district.

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Protesters strain to hear the speaker’s bullhorns over the blare of Christmas carols, Century Square.

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Holiday shoppers watch the protest from the safety of Westlake Center, a popular downtown mall.

Blocking intersection_mic checkSeveral hundred demonstrators occupied intersections while POC (people of color) speakers used an Occupy-style “human microphone” to spread their message.

Blocking intersectionDisrupting traffic in Seattle: some motorists were frustrated, while others were empathetic and waited patiently.

WP_20151127_096Occupying a popular intersection beside corporate retailer Nordstrom–fuck the holiday season, start a revolution!

Signs outside Westlake Ctr
3 PM: First attempt to get into Westlake Center, at the north entrance …

Altercation_Westlake Ctr… which doesn’t end well (cops 1, POC 0)–the first arrest of four arrests made that day.

White allies at protest
The crowd of protesters was diverse, with many white allies.

Cops and WTFAn attempt by protesters to enter Pacific Place, an upscale shopping center, brings cops–and a few incongruous self-designated “superheroes” (costumed vigilantes).

Forever 21 protestProtesters occupied all four floors of Forever 21, a corporate retailer guilty of unethical practices.

The organizers of protest4:15 PM: A quick conversation, as police block off streets, before heading to Westlake Center for the tree lighting–and the latter half of the protest.

BLM protest_Black Friday
The Slog, the daily blog run by The Stranger (one of Seattle’s weekly papers), covered the protest and captured, among many other people, me (in dark glasses, foreground). I lost most of my voice shouting and leading chants.

I need to figure out how to upload some video footage here. It features protesters infiltrating Macy’s, even as a security guard tried to shut its doors, and occupying Forever 21. At the latter store, I was right behind one of the march’s organizers when she simply and miraculously opened one of its doors and said, “Come on in.” I patted her on the shoulder and said it was a good idea, and then we all swept in–an unstoppable tide of people that took about 15 minutes to all get through the door. We rode the escalators to the top of the store, shouting chants like “Black lives matter, not this shit.” Shoppers were flummoxed or pretended to ignore us while scurrying to the dressing rooms, but a few pumped their fists in solidarity.

The Black Lives Matter march went on to effectively disrupt the tree lighting ceremony and finally infiltrate the two downtown malls. Some great photos and coverage can be found here. Four arrests were made, but there were no blast balls, tear gas, or major violence like I’d experienced during the WTO. And unlike the Martin Luther King Day Black Lives Matter march earlier this year, it didn’t end in the cops going crazy with the pepper spray. So in that respect, the protest was a relative success. However, many white shoppers became irate, completely overlooking the point of the protest: black lives matter more than consumerism.

Michael Brown. Trayvon Martin. Tamir Rice. Sandra Bland. Eric Garner. Freddie Gray. Tanisha Anderson. LaQuan McDonald. The countless unnamed by the media.

So many. Too many. Black lives matter. Say it with me–not all lives matter”that’s also true but missing the goddamn point here.

Black lives. Their black lives. Our black lives everywhere. All of them. Protected and respected. That may sound like a liberational fantasy, but that’s what protests like these are working toward.

Affecting corporate retailersAmerica’s moneylike Chicago’s protesters did on North Michigan Avenue, is the best way of getting attention and pointing to where the real value lies. Not in 40% off the Kindle Unlimited, but in the black lives lost and those that need to be fiercely and lovingly cherished and preserved.

The progressive pyro
Book burning
So my paternal great-grandfather had his share of bad days, dragging his son around by the hair and trying to set fire to his own home. But believe it or not, he was a successful and well-educated landowner. In fact, the Korean government (who were actually Japanese, since it was during the occupation*) was so impressed with him that they sent him to Tokyo to study economic systems and policies. His task was to come back with suggestions for the betterment of Korea—because obviously Japan was a very enlightened country with progressive ideas, like the best ways to brutally occupy lesser nations.

My great-grandfather came to Japan, saw, and was conquered (already), and he returned to Korea with one major recommendation: abolish slavery for good. (Yes, Japan supposedly disavowed slavery as an institution, even as it was busily establishing systems of forced labor for comfort women, POWs, and Korean civilians. Go figure.) Large landowners in Korea, including my great-grandfather, still owned slaves—mainly impoverished Korean peasants and farmers—in spite of earlier reforms.

Great-Grandfather Cho decided to set an example by liberating his own slaves, to much rejoicing and confusion in his household. Then he marched over to the town hall, where he collected all the official slave registry books. Carrying these heavy ledgers to the center of town, he dumped them on the ground and set them on fire.

Many Koreans were emancipated that day, but it took 35 years—and larger fires—to ultimately free Korea from Japanese rule.

*The language of the colonizers still lives on in the home of my parents, who were barred from speaking Korean in their childhood. They still unthinkingly use the Japanese words for common household objects like toothpicks, onions, and underpants … and as their child, so do I!

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Shoes by lake

In his later years, my great-grandfather took exceptional delight in his shiny Western shoes. When he walked, they gleamed from underneath the traditional white robe that he wore on a daily basis. He enjoyed hearing the enunciated clopping noise they made, which the traditional Korean rubber shoes (gomushin) could not rival.

Great-Grandfather Cho enjoyed a life of luxury as a wealthy landowner until 1950. When the North Korean Communist army invaded South Korea and began to burn farms and kill the owners, my great-grandfather knew his days were numbered.

So he drove to a nearby lake, took off his beloved brogues and set them neatly, side by side, on the bank. Then, hitching up his robe, my great-grandfather sauntered into the lake and never came out again.

My great-grandfather In-Suk Cho was a walking paradox. He was a man who loved Korea enough to bring back methods from Japan to improve it, a slaveowner turned abolitionist, and a man who favored fire as a means of terminating things—slavery and even his own family line—but who ultimately chose water to end his own life.

My dad always described his father’s side of the family as a bunch of sociopaths and his mother’s side as just plain psychotic. I thought he was exaggerating until I heard this story, which has been proven by various witnesses to be true (that is, you can’t make this shit up).

My great-grandfather Cho—my paternal grandmother’s father—was a hulking man with a stringy beard, perennial dark circles under his eyes, and a stare that could be described as visionary or simply unhinged. He was the chieftain of a small southern village in Korea called Young-Yang. One day, in 1932, he received a visit from his new son-in-law—my paternal grandfather—who had come to pay his respects after the wedding.

My grandfather was only 20 years old, and was intimidated by this large man. However, he got a warm reception and was shown to a guest room in the large Cho family homestead. The next morning my grandfather woke up to a wild commotion. He cautiously slid the rice screen door aside and looked out across the courtyard to his father-in-law’s private quarters.

A small crowd from the village had gathered in front of the door to peer in, so my grandfather joined them to see what all the hubbub was about. Inside the elegantly furnished room, Great-Grandfather Cho was screaming and kicking his son, a handsome young man clad in a fashionable Western suit. To my grandfather’s horror, he grabbed his son by the hair and proceeded to drag him all around the room. “This guy is completely insane,” my grandfather whispered under his breath. But the fun had only just begun.

GGF dragging son

The abused young man was the college-educated eldest son of the proud Cho clan. He had incurred his father’s wrath by abandoning the plain-faced wife that had been arranged for him and instead eloping with a beauty from a remote village up north. On top of that, instead of delivering a large dowry to my newly married grandparents as asked, he had used all the money for his own expenses. When Great-Grandfather Cho found all of this out, he went berserk.

After mopping the floor a few times with his son, my great-grandfather dashed outside to gather a bundle of pine boughs. Returning to the room, he dropped the branches on the floor and set fire to them, exclaiming that his family’s honor had been destroyed, so the homestead had to be burned down as repentance. Flames leaped up, abrupt and glorious, and my grandfather watched from outside, wondering whether to flee or to help.

As the room filled with smoke, the villagers snapped into action, retrieving buckets of water and dumping them on the fire. They were all close relatives who had grown accustomed to the Cho family’s theatrics.

News quickly traveled to the Chos’ youngest son. Distraught and racked with shame, he made his way to the house and rushed into his father’s room, hauling a burning pot of charcoal that he promptly dumped on the floor. As flames rose once again, he begged my great-grandfather, “Father, will you die with me to repent for such familial disgrace?” Fortunately, the ad hoc rescue squad was on hand to extinguish the blaze again.

GGF son with brazier

After witnessing the melodrama of his new in-laws, my grandfather was appalled and became very worried about his own future with his new wife. (He had very good reason to be concerned.) He also fretted about his future progeny, since they would carry some of the crazy (another legitimate reason and one that my own father would lament, when raising me).

My grandfather gave an excuse to leave shortly after the event, and made the long journey back home, shuddering the entire way. For years afterward, whenever he was drunk in the evening and in a good mood, he would always begin, as if speaking to himself, “My wife’s father is a real madman …” My grandmother would immediately jump up and storm out of the room, even if it was the middle of dinner. My grandfather would just smile and brace himself for another battle.

Grandparents' wedding mkupAnd to think that it had all started out so nicely. Back row (from left): the deranged great-uncle who tried to set fire to the house; the handsome great-uncle who got dragged around by his hair; and my pyro great-grandfather. (My paternal grandparents, as bride and groom, in front row.)

Sea Race Conference room
Whew, the projector works! (my self-portrait on screen)

I’d dreaded giving this workshop. I literally lost sleep over it, turning over in my head a central question that I’d tried to resolve through innumerable conversations. The problem was built into the title I’d given the workshop, “Here I Am: The Self-Portrait as Act of Cultural Resistance.” And now I had to hash it out at the 2015 Seattle Race Conference.

My workshop was originally intended for people of color (POC)—both visual artists and writers. In a society where racial minorities are still marginalized, creating a self-portrait is an empowering exercise for POC to assert their autonomy and agency. It’s a way of actively resisting racial typecasting while also rooting out implicit racism in themselves. Sometimes self-judgment, like “My eyes are too small” (something I used to think as an Asian American), emerges during the process, and these indictments often carry internalized racism.

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Quarter Life, a self-portrait I did at 25 

Knowing the conference would be well attended by non-POC, I didn’t want to restrict the workshop to minorities and be accused of being, well, racist. So my big dilemma was figuring out how to position this workshop to non-POC. If whiteness is normative in our culture, then for a white person, creating a self-portrait is not necessarily an act of racial-cultural resistance. So the big question was: how can non-POC create a self-portrait and still gain an empathetic understanding of the racial minority’s positionality? It felt like trying to sell a car to someone and have them think of broccoli at the same time. Most of the non-POC I asked usually didn’t think about race at all.

So I asked the question to a diverse assortment of people I knew, from data analysts to artists to academics to executives. Their answers ranged from “Does this workshop have to include white people?” to “Have the white folks draw themselves as racial minorities.” The latter idea made me flinch, since it could easily lapse into stereotyping. I wanted this workshop to be a validating experience for POC, not another opportunity for hurt feelings and rage.

After weighing out the feedback, I finally settled on asking the non-POC to do self-portraits and hoped that the small-group discussion afterward could help them better understand the minority experience.

My next concern was: Is anyone going to be interested in my workshop anyhow? There were so many fascinating-sounding sessions, including ones run by representatives of the ACLU, Washington Bar Association, and Seattle Office for Civil Rights, going on at the same time as mine.

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An excerpt of the 2015 Seattle Race Conference guide (my session bracketed)

To my relief, 16 people showed up. They were visual artists and writers, varying in age and race but skewing POC and female. I shared some of my art and writing, including an excerpt of my piece at the Wing Luke Museum, talked about the politics of self-portraiture and the social/activistic aspects of art making, and described the parameters of the project. I asked the writers to produce a paragraph or several about their physical appearance, which is the manifestation of ethno-racial features and perceived difference. I recommended the artists stick to a realistic style but not worry about using a mirror, to avoid getting hung up on technicalities.

Then I asked the workshop participants how they would address the self-portrait challenge for non-POC. One mixed-race woman raised her hand and suggested that whites can experience oppression, similar to what POC feel, when they feel insecurity at their own features. It was an excellent point: oppression can come from oneself—we do it all the time.

Using the paper, pens and pencils I’d brought, the workshop participants got to work. They approached their self-portraits with courage and honesty; there was often pain and questioning on the page. One white woman drew her body as an outline and her head with only eyes, nose, and hair; in a caption, she berated her blankness and yearned for color. A young black man tried drawing himself several times; each time, a male relative’s face unexpectedly emerged. The mixed-race woman who had responded to my question earlier almost wept while drawing her self-portrait. On the paper, her dark eyes stared piercingly out but inward, as most self-portrait eyes do. She later told me the workshop changed her life.

When I divided the class into small groups afterward to talk about their self-portraits, the discussions were rich and deep, even spilling into the lunch hour. As I visited with the groups, I found it challenging to adroitly respond to some of the issues that came up. What to say to the young white woman who drew herself in long sleeves and wrote that she was seen by her high school as a threat to the community (due to self-harm) but “still doesn’t know oppression”? Or to the half-Hispanic woman who called herself “an invalid” because she doesn’t fit into either culture and it makes her feel sick and useless.

Or to the white senior citizen who had remained resolutely silent until she finally opened up about escaping her bigoted small town when she realized she was gay.

Many writers tried their hand at sketching. A biracial woman who had never drawn before brightly observed that she could pass as either Mexican or white. She drew her eyes looking down in a shocked but amused manner, the whites showing above the dark pupils, and a half-smile on her thin face.

I was inspired and moved by everyone’s braveness at confronting their issues and speaking frankly about them with strangers. A few participants told me afterward that they’d had a profound experience. I ended up making two friends: a talented young poet, who has since expanded her self-portrait into a long-term creative project, and a woman from the social justice organization Coming to the Table. The latter led an afternoon workshop that used art interpretation to reveal implicit bias, which fit the conference theme: Perceptions Kill! The Impacts of Implicit Racial Bias.

The conference itself was sold out, and the majority of the attendees were non-POC, which shows that Seattle is progressing, even if it has a long way to go. I met likeminded folks who offered me opportunities to lead workshops at University of Washington, North Seattle College, and Western Washington University. I was also invited to show my art at a gallery in Kingston, WA.

Sea Race Conference friends
New friends at 2015 Seattle Race Conference (me in center)

Talking about race in America is arduous, but it’s amazing how engaged people can become once they get started. I was struck by how coworkers at my office, even between meetings, spoke about it with earnestness and alacrity. Race is an issue that is alive and vital, percolating below the surface, and when siphoned out carefully—in moderated small-group discussions, even in large-scale events like this conference—it can become a potent and transformative force. So let’s keep talking. Let’s keep meeting. Let’s keep looking into ourselves, for our faults, our beauty, our future potential. Because that is where social change begins.

This post is dedicated to freedom fighter Grace Lee Boggs.

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My tribute to Grace Lee Boggs on the chalkboard at my workplace