Archives for posts with tag: equality


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.

Rudegirl _ room at home.jpg
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.



I know you’re tired of it. Race. Race in America. It’s a topic ripe enough to burst, and it dominates the headlines: racial terrorism, police brutality, Obama using the “N” word. I’m sick of it too, but it’s what people of color, like me, live and breathe every day. We talk, cry, and yell it; it’s the key in which we sing.

Lately, I have been developing a body of work that deals with the fraught and beleaguered issue of race in America. These paintings are a continuation of my recent show at Seattle’s Zeitgeist Coffee, Disconnects: The Linguistics of Race. After Ferguson, I began this series as a way of processing the rage and grief that I felt.

Using a large housepaint brush, I flung acrylic paint on more than 30 feet of raw canvas. Working in such a visceral, often violent way–and on such a large scale–was cathartic for me. Although the Action Painters of the ’50s used the same methods, they produced work that was largely apolitical (and most were Caucasian men). My work is firmly rooted in the discourse of racial disparity.

The first piece in the series is Denatured, a tribute to Michael Brown.

Denatured, nailed to the wall at Zeitgeist Coffee, March 2015

Most of the other pieces use the same splatter method to represent the squandered lives that racism takes by force. The random patterns of the paint form tumultuous narratives of struggle, evoking bodies rent apart through physical or psychological violence, the disemboweling of entire communities, and the quest for liberation.

Race 2_FergusonRace 1

Race 3

The following pieces talk about structural racism, the bias written into institutions and systems in America. From the Confederate flag flown over Southern government buildings to racial stratification in housing, vestiges of white supremacist ideology are still present in our culture.

Race 5
If this reminds you of a penitentiary, then you’re on the right track.

Race 4

What does experiencing racism feel like? I can say from firsthand experience that you feel eviscerated, stripped of agency, and blinded to everything except the incident itself. Your perspective distorted and self-worth negated, you feel like sawdust or, worse yet, nothing at all.

But as an Asian-American, I have it easy compared to the struggles of the black community. According to writer Julia Craven, “To be black, specifically in America, is to be in a constant state of fear. There is no refuge. There is no escape. There is no sanctuary.”

Even so, you still get some wildly posturing, colonialist asshat like Rachel Dolezal, who commodifies Otherness (in the words of bell hooks) in the ultimate appropriative act of white privilege. As if race can be simply performed and adopted. As if we all had the luxury of that choice.

That’s why we have to frankly and openly address race in America–and run it ragged: understand its ins and outs, all its vagaries and gray areas. And then do something about it. From rewriting the policies and laws to subverting the dominant media narrative and its outdated tropes (see the Wall Street Journal coverage of Charleston for an example) to supporting communities of color.

This all takes thinking critically, listening carefully, and acting compassionately. Not turning the other way or pretending it’s someone else’s job. It’s our job because, goddamn it, it’s our world.

On Martin Luther King Day, I joined hundreds in Seattle at a rally in front of a downtown federal courthouse. Speakers addressed the growing movement against police violence and racial inequality, and the rally concluded on a high note—but there was unfinished business. As the crowd dispersed, an independent group of protesters headed north to join #blacklivesmatter activists who had lain down in the middle of Highway 99, using the “sleeping dragon” tactic of locking their arms together in pipes. I joined the group, knowing this unsanctioned march was an act of civil disobedience that carried the risk of arrest. As the sole breadwinner of my household, I felt deeply apprehensive but compelled to see, photograph, and march in solidarity, like I had in the WTO protests a decade and a half ago.

MLK protest march to SLU
Marching through downtown behind an IWW (“Wobbly”) flag

MLK protest stop Va St
Occupying the road, on the edge of the campus  

We entered the sprawling campus of Amazon, half of it under construction (talk about a sleeping dragon). The road was lined with partially built condos and apartment buildings for the nouveau riche. Our chants echoed through the urban canyon: “Hey hey, ho ho, new Jim Crow has got to go!” and “Fight back! Fight back today! The USA killed MLK!”

MLK protest marc to SLU II
Protesters link arms, unfazed by lines of bicycle police

MLK protest march Hands Up
“Hands up, don’t shoot!” chants the crowd. Jesse Hagopian, a writer, history teacher, and Black Student Union advisor at Seattle’s Garfield High School, on the left.

MLK protest Derek phone
Some protesters, such as community organizer Derek Orbiso Dizon (pictured), had the phone number of a network of pro bono lawyers written on them, in case of arrest.

MLK protest BLM wrap
Others showed solidarity with #blacklivesmatter.

I warily noted the bike cops encroaching on both sides of the crowd and remembered the rubber bullets and tear gas from the WTO, anti-Bush/anti-war protests, and countless other demonstrations since. Then the inevitable happened: we approached a line of cops blocking the road and a few protesters who attempted to cross the line were seized, beaten, and pepper-sprayed. They were soon pinned on the ground and in handcuffs.

MLK protest skirmish
The police’s violent response causes confusion, outrage, and disappointment among protesters.

MLK protest one down
One of many arrests made on Martin Luther King Day 2015, Seattle

Some high-school-age protesters looked on, cowed and in disbelief, before vanishing from the scene. Some jeered, others moved to the sidewalk, and one intrepid black man stood in front of the police and shouted at the top of his lungs, “As a protest of one, I say: FUCK THE POLICE!” He refused to budge and was escorted into a waiting police SUV. My heart sank.

A young protester wept on the sidelines, so I gently approached her and asked if she was okay. She had marched all the way from Garfield High School and was distraught at how a peaceful protest could end in such an ugly way. I listened to her talk and then gave her a hug and told her that, as disheartening as it is, this is how the world eventually changes. I urged her to keep coming out to protests and silently reminded myself to do the same.

MLK protest lone protester
A disillusioned young protester

The crowd of protesters began to thin out; some went home and others took the back roads to join the activists blocking the state highway. Feeling unnerved and sickened, I seeked out a quiet corner and sat down to process what I’d seen. A good part of me wishes I’d gone on to show solidarity and help block an interstate on-ramp. After all, disrupting traffic on one afternoon only starts to convey what it’s like to be constantly disrupted, on a day-to-day basis, as a racial minority.

Many jaded armchair warriors can “tsk tsk” and claim that there’s a catch in protesting: you can take to the streets and yell all you want, but you will suffer consequences that include arrest. But there’s a bigger catch that the authorities who oppose civil disobedience need to realize, and it’s this: you can make arrests but you can’t halt social change. It’s larger than all of us, and it’s spreading more rapidly and prevalently than you think.

MLK protest Afro activist
Exuberant and empowered young activists block a downtown Seattle intersection, Martin Luther King Day, 2015.

Selma and Charlie
There were small, wet sounds throughout the theatre at the Selma screening. As a young black man lay dying on screen—too familiar a sight in today’s media—a gray-haired man in front of me dabbed his eyes, and somebody in a back row stated plainly, “Ferguson.” Selma is that kind of film, one that seamlessly enmeshes the past with the present and wrings out tears of recognition from its audiences. Though it has been criticized for factual inaccuracy, the movie reworks the historical narrative to better represent a truth that existed then as it does now: systemic racism.

While a new kind of activism is emerging in the aftermath of Ferguson, it is important to remember the pioneers of the civil rights movement. Selma does a good job of honoring them, particularly Martin Luther King, who projects both softness and strength. It is jarring to see an unvarnished Oprah playing civil rights activist Annie Lee Cooper and to realize that just over 50 years ago, the queen of all media would barely be allowed a drink from a segregated water fountain. It’s downright hair-raising to see unarmed, ordinary African-American citizens approaching the huddle of white, racist state troopers and police at the Edmund Pettus Bridge.

Selma opened in Seattle theatres a few days after Islamic extremists launched attacks in Paris at the Charlie Hebdo offices and a kosher supermarket. The massacre resulted in a global outpouring of grief, outrage, and solidarity, including the largest rally turnout in France on record. Meanwhile, the remaining staff at Charlie Hebdo quietly prepared its next issue, unsurprisingly featuring Mohammed on the cover.

Initially, I felt like some of the Charlie Hebdo comics were cheap shots with unremarkable technique, but I came to understand that France has its own distinctively rich history of anticlerical satire. Even though the voices and images can be obstreperous and vulgar, they can be particularly effective tools for social critique. I fervently believe in freedom of expression and, like those working at the magazine, tend to be distrustful of all religions and authority figures.

Selma and the Charlie Hebdo killings have reminded me, in the most wrenching way, that ordinary citizens can and will make a difference in driving social movements forward. Whether marching or sketching, acts of resistance are necessary to combat the psychological and physical violence of racism and religious extremism.

Selma and Charlie: the names evoke a quaint couple of yesteryear. I envision a blood-spattered pair who have been brought to their knees but have risen up to plod forward, doggedly and painfully, on the long road ahead.

A small drawing I made using Sharpie, Dec. 2014

From a racial perspective, 2014 has been a watershed year. In light of Ferguson and Eric Garner, it feels as if we are on the cusp of a new, reinvigorated and more media-savvy civil rights movement—one that is manifesting in intellectual and visceral ways. All of the sudden, being minority, and especially being black, has an urgency to it. Take, for example, the website of #BlackLivesMatter; its main text is telegraphic and immediate: Get Active, Get Organized, Fight Back.

The events of the past few months have forced race into the national discussion to an almost overwhelming degree. We’re no longer avoiding the topic; we’re glutted with it. There have been innumerable articles, from both mainstream and underground publications, that offer incisive social critique and cultural analysis. Ironically, the more the country talks about race, the less I feel compelled to write about it. I’m more inclined now to simply witness, and gradually process, the societal change this dialogue is fostering. There’s too much to take in; I’m speechless.

As a side note: For those who still believe that the police were justified in killing these black guys because they were criminals, you’re ignoring the national subtext—an entire cultural narrative—underlying these events. Wake up and smell the prejudicial coffee!

Even though this blog was originally designed to talk about race (it’s even built into the name, for better or worse), I’ve delved less into general musings around it and more into the specific experiences of being an Asian American. Life is politicized when you’re a minority, and as an Asian-American female, I’m reminded of that fact every single day. Even the minutiae of everyday life, such as habits, personal appearance and conversations, are charged with identity and difference.

My hope is that in the new year, the discussion around race continues and we learn to understand one another better. Increasing awareness and recognition engenders compassion and empathy—at least, ideally. With the President of the United States candidly admitting he’s been mistaken for the valet, and even multinational conglomerate Starbucks taking a stand on racism, this kind of bipartisan social change could very well happen, maybe even quicker than we imagined.

Unfinished business

Unite and fight, rinse and repeat.

Best words of the 2013 March on Washington, from John Lewis:

You cannot stand by. You cannot sit down.

You got to stand up. Speak up. Speak out, and get in the way.

Make some noise!