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Jenny Lee is a stay-at-home chef and former newspaper journalist.
A small Confederate flag was tacked to a wall in a relative’s garage. I was at a reunion for my husband’s side of the family in the Midwest. As an Asian American from Wisconsin, I had never seen the Confederate flag on a wall. My eyes widened.
Three years ago, I wouldn’t talk to the relative, even though the flag offended me. Now after George Floyd’s death galvanized the world to rise up, I felt I had to speak up.
But I didn’t know how.
Wanting to be a better ally, I started this odd journey of having uncomfortable conversations with white people.
My first conversation was with a white mom who liked my NNS essay about Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. She said in a text, “I’m sorry for the racism that is happening during an already difficult time.”
The comment was off, but I said, “Thank you.”
Later, I read a public Facebook post by Nyanyika Mary, who is Black. She wrote, “The same way you feel hearing ‘Thoughts and Prayers’ after a mass shooting is how we feel hearing ‘I’m sorry’ after a white person realizes racism exists and feels bad. Instead of I’m sorry, I have thought of a few other ways to show solidarity.”
“That’s how I feel!” I thought. I circled back and the mom agreed to talk to me. As gently as I could, I said I thought her apology was something someone would say at a funeral.
“I’m so sorry!” she said.
“It’s a start,” I said. I wanted to make sure she goes beyond saying sorry. She agreed. We talked about ways we could show solidarity to Black people.
“Thank you for talking with me!” the mom said.
I thanked her for taking my call. I felt buoyed from that conversation.
Later, I had to resolve a falling out with a white friend because my anger consumed me. She had committed a microaggression in January. (I’m not explaining the conflict for privacy reasons.) I wrote her an email to muffle my anger and asked to talk in a composed tone. My friend’s response? Silence for five months.
I asked another friend who knows about conflict resolution for advice. She said I focused too much on “You did something wrong” instead of seeing the white friend’s point of view. She suggested I ask, “Could we just talk?” as a way to start a conversation.
I followed the advice and the other friend agreed to talk. I still had a profanity bubble above my head right before the scheduled Zoom call. Asking “why” questions to this friend in a matter-of-fact manner actually dissolved my anger bubble. Turns out what she said was out of true ignorance.
She gave a heartfelt apology. She cried. My eyes welled up. We were friends again.
In mid-June, I saw a Facebook post by a floral business I follow. Above a photo of lawn art, the post said, “Black thumb? We’ve got your garden needs covered with some flowers even you can’t kill!”
I know what the post is trying to say. For those who say, “Don’t take it so literal,” my answer is: millions of slaves with Black thumbs picked cotton and made their white owners rich. (And Black thumbs are actually “green thumbs.”) Ahmaud Arbery, George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and many before them were killed. That’s why the post is offensive.
I messaged the white business owner directly. She quickly apologized for her employee’s post. She understood it was tone deaf. She changed the words, but she didn’t write a correction.
Changing the post without a correction meant she didn’t own up to the mistake publicly. I messaged her back. She asked for my phone number. She called me.
“I just don’t want to bring attention to something negative,” she quivered.
I stopped her.
“Are you calling me to tell me you’re not doing the correction?” I asked.
She avoided the question by repeating herself.
We went back and forth. Although it’s not my job as a Person of Color to educate her, I walked her through why a correction is needed and how she could write one. She posted a correction the next day.
My mind felt tired after talking with her. I won. Yet I was angry I had to hold her hand. I took a break.
Now back to the Confederate flag.
After the conversation with the florist, I didn’t have the mental energy to argue. I just wanted to let the relative know my stance on it. That’s all.
Since I’m Facebook friends with his wife, I messaged her in early July. I told her I remembered the flag. It deeply offended me, but I couldn’t say anything at the reunion. I said the Confederate flag is a symbol of slavery.
No response. Two weeks later on Facebook, she commented “Looking good!” on my new haircut. She could have unfriended me. But she was suddenly very positive. Taking it as a signal, I texted her. I told her I wasn’t looking for a fight. I guessed the flag was her husband’s. I acknowledged he has a First Amendment right to display the flag and I didn’t think he was going to change his mind. I just wanted to know: Is the Confederate flag still on your wall?
She confirmed it was her husband’s flag. For clarification, I asked if the flag was still there. A few days later, she summarized her husband’s words. The flag was a gift from a classmate who lived in the South. The flag matched the license plate décor on that wall. The two friends watched the “Dukes of Hazzard” as kids. Her husband said he has no problems with the flag hanging there.
I purposely didn’t get into a discussion.
The conversations made me realize I need to protect my mental health before tackling the Confederate flag.
What’s the lesson here? Know when not to argue. Know when to gently push.
Some conversations will be a success. Other conversations could be a dead end.
Protect your mental health.