Last month, I had the honor and privilege of being the keynote speaker for Portland State University’s 2016 Multicultural Graduation. The video of the speech can be found above. Here’s the original text:
It’s a great honor to be speaking with you – not only because I’m addressing a graduating class that has the potential to shape the future, but because I am specifically talking to THE group whose achievements all others will be measured against in terms of justice.
You see, your class is unique in that as you approach the upper echelons of your career, our country will be approaching the year when we will be expected to be a minority-majority country. As we approach that marker, we will see if, for the first time in the history of the United States, our leadership will be representative of its population. Can you imagine a day when the idea of having a government made up of half women of color wouldn’t be considered novel or strange, but rather expectation? You have the ability to help shape that as you progress in your careers, artistic pursuits, how you vote, and how you leave your impact on the world on a daily basis.
I know, those of us who are a little further ahead in this journey are expecting a lot. Unlike your peers who are in the dominant group, you’ll have to face the effects of tokenization as you move up. Your resumes might be judged by your family name before you walk in the door to have your skin color, shape of your eyes, or hair evaluated by others who do not understand that experience themselves. And as you move up, you might find yourself more alone than ever- you might be the only person of color on your staff. Justified or not, you will be expected to represent many identities on their behalf. Your very presence might be considered a threat.
Whether you choose to or not, this might be your experience. However, it isn’t one that is new to you. We don’t get to choose what happens to us, but we can choose how we respond. We can choose to ignore them, to let microaggressions and marginalization roll off our shoulders as if they weren’t intrinsically tied to your identity. We can pretend like intentions matter more than impact, and fool ourselves into thinking that the collective experience of billions of marginalized humans is a delusion, that it doesn’t matter anyway.
Or we can choose to rise up, to embrace those challenges with a mindset of compassion, as difficult as they are. When we do so, we bend that moral arc of the universe towards justice a bit more from previous generations and we deliver hope for future ones.
But either way, it is a choice. It is a choice because apathy is not compatible with love.
I had to learn this the hard way myself.
From as far back as I could remember, I wanted to create music. My parents have these home videos of me when I was just a kid: I’d grab my dad’s acoustic guitar, jump on the coffee table, and pretend to play a show for the family in the middle of the living room. Instead of playing cops and robbers as children, I’d round up my sister and my cousins to create a fake band. I remember spreading out newspapers and magazines all over the ground to create our “stage,” then using whatever noise making devices we had at our disposal to create our “music”: the piano, using buckets for drums, our voices screaming at the top of our lungs. I’m sure my parents loved it.
At 10, things got serious: I got an electric bass and started taking lessons. I loved it and dedicated endless hours to learning the instrument. Sometimes, I’d fall asleep with it in my hands while laying in bed. I wanted to change the world, I wanted to rock out.
During those same years, I wanted to do something for those hurting. I used to beg my parents for change so that I could give it the homeless waiting at intersections. I’d use all of my school breaks to volunteer with organizations that would help underserved communities. In other words, when I wasn’t working towards a world where I was on stage sharing my music, I was working towards a one with less suffering.
But I didn’t see the connection between the two ideas until much later in life. At that young age, I didn’t realize that the idea of justice transcends our individual pursuits or career paths, that it should permeate every fiber of our being.
When I first moved to Portland, Oregon as a musician in February of 2004, I left nearly everything and everyone behind, including the family and culture that I grew up with. So, I started buying VHS tapes of movies from Hong Kong on Ebay because I so missed hearing my language and seeing my culture.
Two months after I moved, the movie Kill Bill was released on DVD. I bought it on the day it was released since I missed it in the theaters. As I was watching, there was a very distinct and iconic scene: a woman named Oren Ishii has this incredible entrance when she walks in with her gang of Crazy 88’s, the yakuza gang that she led.
Now, for most people, this was just another trademark walking scene from Quentin Tarantino. They might remember the distinct music (which ended up being used over and over again in other works), some might have even saw a parallel to a similar scene in Reservoir Dogs. But for me, it was something much different. In fact, I remember pausing the disc because it was such a powerful epiphany. For me, it was the first time that I had ever seen an American produced major film that depicted Asians as cool, confident, and sexy. Imagine growing up your entire life and never having anything in mainstream culture that reflects your identity in that kind of light.
Then, I started thinking about my own art, and how the void existed there as well. The music industry, the gatekeepers for art that I had lived and breathed since my very first memories, did not allow people that looked like me in. Despite having over 17 million Asian Americans in the country, we had almost no representation in the billboard charts, in music magazines, and on MTV. And in that moment, I believed things would have to change. That night, in the middle of the film, was when an idea for an Asian American band was born.
We were called The Slants, a name that was based on our perspective, or slant, on life as people of color, geeks, and musicians. It was also reappropriating a false stereotype that people often hold about Asians, that we all have slanted eyes.
When I first started, the idea wasn’t to be a socio-political project. It was more about inclusion and sharing some of our culture. However, almost immediately after the band became public (on Myspace, no less), I started getting messages from Asian American youth, thanking us for existing and for giving them a reason to be proud of their heritage. I started realizing that we had more of a responsibility – and that whether we liked it or not, our band soon would be judged simply because of our race.
Slowly, we began integrating more of our social justice ideas into our work. We couldn’t sit on the sidelines while seeing all of these injustices, so we got deeply involved with Asian American advocacy organizations, raised money for important causes, and helped lead discussions on race and identity across North America.
News articles were written talking about how we were turning stereotypes upside-down. But not everyone agreed: the music editor of a local paper wrote a review slamming us for our ethnicity, writing “OMG. I get it. The Slants are Asian…what’s so impressive about a bunch of Asian kids who play keyboards?”
Once, we received an offer from a major record label that was interested in signing us but wanted us to replace our singer with someone who was white because they said “Asian doesn’t sell.”
When booking tours, several venues have said: “Your music is great, but who would want to see an Asian band?”
And of course, some of you know that because of our work, we’re now locked into a legal battle against the US Department of Justice that is pending before the Supreme Court. It’s a struggle that has put my life under a microscope, having everything I everything say or publish under scrutiny to be possibly used against me in court. It’s led to federal judges repeating false stories about me and that I’ve been opportunistic about my anti-racism work.
Let’s be clear: nobody starts a band thinking that they would like to spend over half a decade in court. I wouldn’t wish that upon anyone. But we made the decision to integrate our values into everything that we did in the band and this was a big part of it. For me, taking the stage in a more equitable world was the ultimate dream.
So as we gather here today, let me ask you, what is your dream? When you think about the kind of world that you want to live in, the kind of legacy that you want to give your children and grandchildren, what does that look like?
For most people, following your dreams means hard work and sacrifice. But for those of us who dream of equity, it’s a little different. I believe the true cost of following this kind of dream isn’t what you have to sacrifice in the pursuit of obtaining justice, it’s what you lose when you don’t.
Finally, because I’ve been obsessed with intellectual property law since I’ve been dragged into my legal struggles, I want to close with a simple story about copyright law. It’s about an outdated concept called Paper Towns. You might have heard of this term, it was the title of a John Green book.
A paper town is what people used to call a copyright trap. Back in the day, when cartographers created maps, they would often put a fake town somewhere on it. They had to do so because due to the shapes of states and the world around us, maps would look remarkably similar. So they used these paper towns. That way, if another map was published with their fake place, the original mapmaker could prove that their work was stolen from them. It’s kind of brilliant, really.
In 1937, the General Drafting company published a map of upstate New York. In the foothills of the Caskill Mountains, at the intersection of two dirt roads, they placed a paper town, a place they called Agloe (which was just an amalgamation of the two mapmakers names). Decades later, Rand McNally also publishes a map of New York, and on it at the same intersection, was the town of Agloe.
Of course, General Drafting was excited. They called Rand McNally and explained that Agloe was a paper town and that they would sue them. Rand McNally says no, it’s a real place, it’s on our map. So to solve this, they drove out to the site and found…Agloe, NY. People kept driving out to this intersection of two dirt roads expecting to find the town that one day, some guy decided to build it. At its height, it had a general store, a gas station, and a couple of houses.
What’s interesting to me is how this happened to begin with. Because we can say that our maps are shaped by the world around us. We know where Portland is, we know the shapes of the continents that are spread throughout the earth. But a much more fascinating idea is to think about how our world can be shaped, and fundamentally changed, by how we map it. Because our world would truly be different if North was any other direction or our maps didn’t show The United States and Asia to be on opposite sides. Our maps – and all that we expect them to reflect are simply based on the collected assumptions we have of mapmakers.
But unlike our maps that reflect the world around us, the leadership of our country, of our companies, or our university systems don’t reflect the actual communities which they serve…for now.
So let me ask you again: what is your dream?
Beginning right now, let’s put a pin on that map. And let’s watch the world take shape as you fundamentally change how we approach a new, just world.