I recently read Everything I Never Told You by Pittsburgher/Ohioan, Celeste Ng, who grew up here and in Shaker Heights, OH. The story is set in a small, all-white town in Ohio and revolves around the death of teenager, Lydia Lee, the bi-ethnic child of Chinese American, James Lee, and White American, Marilyn Lee.
Despite the rave reviews, and my love for the title, I was pretty much “meh” about the story: it dragged in too many parts, I wanted the characters to take on racism in more dynamic ways and while Ms. Ng (pronounced “ing”) lets us see how the Asian characters struggle with their own racial image, we don’t get that opportunity with the White characters. In this way, the story suffers from unexamined whiteness in kind of the same way the Asian characters in Everything I Never Told You suffer from the unexamined whiteness of the all white people in the all white town.
Still, it is not without interesting moments. It was intriguing to hear the voices of the Chinese American father and his bi-ethnic children (while the town calls the children “Oriental” we do not learn how they make sense of their ethnic identity) as they struggle with INTRA-racism, how they internalize racism, and INTER-racism, how racial ideas are imposed upon them in their interactions with white people. Interesting to me was the way the intelligence of the characters was never at issue, almost always a part of the racial oppression of people of African descent. Rather, the characters struggle with both standing out and yet being ignored in their community – what the Peoples Institute for Survival and Beyond call the hyper-visibility and invisibility that people of color experience. In keeping with this motif, the Asian-nesss of the story’s fulcrum character, Lydia, goes unseen by her White American mother. Even as Marilyn reflects on Lydia’s death, we don’t hear her comment or even think about what her daughter might have faced as a girl of Asian descent. In the Chinese father we see the hope that class privilege and a quality education will overcome the child’s “otherness” among all-white groups of children and allow Lydia to experience a full childhood outside the box of race. Sadly, that’s a time-tested formula that never works and, ultimately, contributes to Lydia’s death. This is not to say that Ms. Ng is not writing about race and racism, she is, but she just doesn’t sufficiently take on whiteness IMO. Critical in the story is the fact that Lydia is the rare person of Chinese descent to have blue eyes, and not coincidentally, she is the clear favorite of her parents (a shout out to Toni Morrison’s The Bluest Eye?). All of this is then wrapped up in how we grow to understand Lydia’s death. Btw no spoiler here, Lydia’s death is noted in the book jacket cover.
Sadly, sickening, frustratingly, too, death regularly visits teenagers and our families in the Hill District. While white supremacy plays out differently than we see in Everything I Never Told You, hyper visibility and invisibility are in full effect. As happened with Lydia Lee, and with middle class white youth as the norm, in death the media seizes on our teenagers’ otherness, their exoticness, on the racial stereotypes that will somehow justify the tragedy as their fault and the fault of the family with no implications for the surrounding (read white, middle class) society. This is the hyper visibility. The shootings that we hear blamming out multiple times a week in the Hill deserve a wide-ranging, community wide, public health response, not just a police response. But we do not see it. Year after year, the deaths mount. The invisibility.
About two 1/2 months ago, my nephew, Eric Young was killed on his way to school. Through sadness, anger and frustration, I have watched this cycle of visibility and invisibility “Now I see you. Now I don’t.”
First, there was the initial hyper visibility of certain elements of the story i.e. “teenage student shot to death on his way to school” , a picture of Eric with a gun, another with money. At the same time there is the almost complete invisibility of his death and hundreds/thousands of others in the public narrative, including public officials and philanthropy. Despite, or maybe because of this reality, young people keep his name in public spaces as they do so many others they’ve lost. They’ve changed their twitter names, held public gatherings and are still tweeting with dedicated hashtags. These expressions of love & pain are part of the ongoing memorializing that makes visible the loved ones who have been taken. Those who couldn’t be saved. I see this community pain and trauma in the Rest in Peace/Rest With God t-shirts, hashtags, twitter names & “gone but not forgotten” tattoos. These are ways that so many keep their missing friends and family alive and present, while the public narrative draws our attention to the event, the spectacle and turns its eye from a coordinated response.
While many such as Richard Garland,continue to work in this space and advocate for even greater attention to this public health epidemic, that work is being supported with micro responses that help us understand and respond to white supremacy (shout out to my friend Heath Bailey who yesterday had an fb post asking friends to call out white supremacy as the psychological health problem that it is). Of course by “us” I don’t mean African Americans alone. One of the encouraging and distinguishing things to see in the #BlackLivesMatter movement is the way white people are bringing attention to their own whiteness in these murders. Locally, there is the work of WHAT’S UP Pittsburgh an anti-racist organization with an acronym that stands for “Working & Healing to Abolish Total Supremacy Undermining Privilege.” One question might be what does focus on whiteness from white people look like as a movement to educate white children? This too is already taking shape and a number of ideas can be found on twitter at #FergusonSyllabus.
But I think the white community has so many models to take from the International African and African diasporic community in this area as we have dealing with the pain of internalized racism for going on five centuries. One example of this movement is a project with which I am directly affiliated called the Omega Dr. Carter G. Woodson Academy. Beginning February 7th at the Kingsley Association, Iota Phi, the local chapter of my
fraternity, Omega Psi Phi Fraternity, Inc., will begin our 4th year running this ten week, Saturday school teaching arts, history and science in an African American cultural context. Dr. Woodson, often called the “Father of Black History” and the founder of The Association for the Study of Afro American Life and History, the organization responsible for Black History Month, was a member of our fraternity. This program is designed as a programmatic response to his most famous work The Miseducation of the Negro. Among many themes, “Miseducation” deals with how intra-racism is developed in African American students through the educational process and how this then shows up in all kinds of ways in the lives of African American people and communities. Iota Phi developed the program as one response to a rash of murders four years ago and it continues in that vein. If we want Black young people to live by the creed #BlackLivesMatter, we need an educational process that lives that creed as well. For more information or to register your children, please call 412.200.7829 or email us at email@example.com.
If you have gotten this far, thank you. Love and light to the spirit of Eric Young, the Young and Potter families, and the families and friends missing young people this holiday season due to what so many see, but some do not, Pittsburgh’s ongoing homicide epidemic.