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How To Give A Good Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How

This write-up is in two parts:

How to Give a Good Apology Part 1: The Four Parts of Accountability

How to Give a Good Apology Part 2: The Apology – The What and The How

Please read Part 1 before you proceed.

 

This write-up is based on the curriculum I developed for the BATJC’s Apology Lab that I facilitated in the summer of 2019. 

 

[photo of a jar lid filled with white large beans with black writing and designs on them. each bean has a different word on it: practice, courage, grow, trust, hope, faith, commit, love.]

[photo of a jar lid filled with white large beans with black writing and designs on them. each bean has a different word on it: practice, courage, grow, trust, hope, faith, commit, love.]

 

APOLOGY: THE WHAT

In my time doing transformative justice work, I have found that these are the components of a good apology. Depending on the relationship and your track record of accountability with the person or people you are apologizing to, you may not need to do all of these steps every single time. However, I would encourage you not to skimp, especially if you haven’t done the work to build up a strong track record or culture of accountability, reliability or trust in your relationships.

The goal of these steps is not to be over-accountable, but to be thorough and to tend to those who were harmed, hurt or impacted by your actions. Again, here we are focusing on people you love or care about and with whom you want to be in relationship. We are focusing on conflict, hurt, misunderstandings, small breaks in trust, and low-level harm.

 

1. “I’M SORRY.” It may seem silly to begin with this, but I cannot tell you how many apologies I have heard that do not include “I’m sorry” or “I apologize.” It is important to apologize in your apology.

 

2. NAME THE HURT/HARM. This is an opportunity to name what you did and demonstrate that you understand what happened. If your behavior was racist, say it was racist instead of “confused” or “hurtful.” If you made an assumption, own that you made an assumption. If you bullied or gossiped about someone, name it. Every single one of us knows what it is like to have someone skip this part of their apology or skirt around actually naming their behavior. This step in particular can go a long way to help build back trust and is a moment to practice humility and clarity.

 

3. NAME THE IMPACT. A quality apology acknowledges the impact, no matter your intention. It is not to say that intentions don’t matter at all—the difference between someone purposefully setting out to harm you vs. someone who harmed you unintentionally is important. However, this is not the place to explain or wallow in your intent. This is a time to tend to the impact your actions (or inactions) had on someone else. This is a chance to practice care, empathy, and compassion. “I can only imagine how painful that was for you.” “I would be very hurt and angry too.” “I can see why you wouldn’t trust me again.”

 

4. TAKE RESPONSIBILITY BY NAMING YOUR ACTIONS. This step is probably the most important part of an apology. You need to name your actions and what you did. This is a chance to put yourself in the apology and the hurt/harm. This is a chance to truly take responsibility. “I can only imagine how painful that was for you because you told me that you don’t like to be teased about that and I teased you about it anyway.” “I would be very hurt and angry too. I promised you I would be there and then I didn’t show up and I didn’t call.” “I can see why you wouldn’t trust me with something confidential again because I shared something that you had confided in me and I explicitly swore to not tell anyone.” “I made a mistake.” “It was my fault.” “I did/I do ______.” “I didn’t/I don’t _____.”

This is a place to practice true remorse, show vulnerability and to again, focus on the impact, instead of the intent. This is a great opportunity to practice integrity.

 

5. COMMIT TO NOT DOING THE HURT/HARM AGAIN. The final step of an apology is to commit to not doing the hurt/harm again. This step is key because it doesn’t matter how great your apology was if you continue the hurt or harm. “I promise not to tease you about that ever again.” “I don’t want to be the kind of person you can’t trust because I care about you and I will work to earn back your trust, knowing that will take time.” “I will do my chores from now on.” “I will ask you what you need next time instead of making assumptions.”

The hardest part of this step is that you actually have to do the thing you say you will. This is where our own daily work to be accountable to ourselves and others plays a key role. Hopefully you are building the skills to change your behaviors already, so that you can make good on your commitment.

 

 

APOLOGIZING: THE HOW

Here are some things that I have found extremely helpful when it comes to apologizing. All of them require different skill sets within themselves that we can practice in our day-to-day lives.

 

– Address it as soon as possible. This is one of the most important things I have learned, especially for low-level harm and/or hurt. The sooner you can address it, the better. This is also why we practice, so that we can shorten our response time. Like firefighters who practice being able to get to a fire as quickly as possible, knowing that a quick response will lessen the damage, we can practice getting better and more comfortable with apologizing and taking accountability, so that we don’t run, freeze or hide from it.

When we put off apologizing, we run the risk of several things happening:

  • The hurt/harm and impact worsens and thus will be harder to repair (e.g. hurt grows into resentment, resentment into bitterness, bitterness into contempt);
  • The person begins to create their own story (e.g. “they don’t care about me because if they did, they would apologize” or worse, “maybe it was my fault”);
  • We begin to create our own convenient story (e.g. “well, it’s been so long now, I can’t apologize,” “it will just make things awkward, “it wasn’t really that bad”);
  • They move on and your window to apologize or stay in relationship closes.

There have been times when I have pulled over to the side of the road to apologize. I want people to know that they are a priority in my life. I have found that addressing things as soon as possible can also work to deescalate a situation, especially because we expect people to hide and avoid taking responsibility when they know they have done something wrong. Addressing it right away, openly and earnestly can go a long way because the longer you wait, the bigger and more overwhelming it will seem. We want to practice enough so that we can face what we’ve done head-on immediately and with intention, instead of running away and hoping it will blow over.

This is not to say that there aren’t times when you may need to take some time to respond. Preparation is important, but all too often people use preparation as an excuse and a shield. Like a fire drill, practice your preparation now. Practice with small apologies and practice the many mini skill sets needed: desiring the discomfort of growth, accountable sharing and active listening, humility, building relationships in your everyday life where you can have nuanced conversations about accountability and that can support you in your accountability.

There is a window of apology. It is the amount of time that the person who was hurt or harmed is open to receiving an apology and/or staying in real relationship. There is no set amount of time for this window and it varies from person to person and relationship to relationship. It is also impacted by factors such as timing, healing or life circumstances. However, the more that window closes, the harder it is to apologize and stay in any kind of meaningful relationship. Once the window completely closes, it can often mean that though they may be open to receiving your apology, they have no desire to have you in their life. There are, of course, apologies that come many years or decades later, but the cost is the relationship and not having that person in your life.

 

– Be genuine. Philly Stands Up talks about the concept of “the spirit of accountability.” They say that someone can write a letter of accountability and say all the right things, but if it doesn’t have the spirit of accountability, it will fall flat. The same is true for apologizing. Your apology should have the spirit of accountability in it. Most of us can sniff out a disingenuous apology and it feels terrible to receive. If you are not genuine in your apology, you can cause more hurt/harm. I cannot emphasize this enough: if you don’t want to apologize, don’t apologize. This is a great chance to practice self-assessment. Apologizing is something that many of us feel forced to do and therefore, we often receive apologies that consist of someone carelessly going through the motions. Again, if your apology is not genuine, it can cause more hurt/harm. Your apology and accountability should come from you, no one else. You must take responsibility for your apology.

 

– Give your full attention. When you are apologizing to someone you care about, give them your full attention. This is not a time to rush, this is a time to go slow. This is a time to be thorough, not distracted. This is a moment to figure out what you and the other person need in order to be present. Put away your phone and agree to meet at a place and time where you can communicate well.

 

– Treat it as sacred. Apologizing is part of accountability and accountability is a sacred practice of love. If you’ve hurt someone you care about, it is sacred work to tend to that hurt. You are caring for this person, the relationship you share, as well as your self. You are engaging in the sacred work of accountability, healing, and being in right relationship. This work is part of the broader legacy of transformative justice, love, and interdependence. Do not take it lightly and give it the respect it deserves.

Give yourself the time to get into the right head, heart, spirit, and soul space. Get clear on why you want to apologize and what values you want to ground in. Bring a meaningful object to hold or wear, if you need. Honor the process.

 

– Be proactive. Whenever possible, work to be proactive in your apology. You do not have to wait for someone to tell you to apologize. You can apologize on your own. You can build a strong moral compass and solid values so that you know when you’ve done something that you regret or that is not in alignment with how you want to treat people. These can be powerful moments for others to witness, as they help to shift the punitive mentality by literally demonstrating the opposite. These can also be some of the most tender moments. For example, apologizing to someone who is used to being treated poorly in a relationship and who would never have told you to apologize.

 

– Build a culture of accountability. Every time you are apologizing, use it as an opportunity to build a culture of accountability in your relationship whether with your friends, family, co-workers, neighbors, dates or partners. Use it as an opportunity to build accountability as the norm in your relationships. Start small and build from there. Do not start with the hardest apology you need to give. Start small.

Even if your apology is about something small, understand that it is connected to a broader collective cultural shift we are trying to create, one where we all proactively apologize and take accountability for our behavior, big or small.

 

– Let go of outcome and control. This is one of the hardest things to do. Apologizing is a chance to practice risk, embracing the unknown, and faith. Apologizing to someone so that they will apologize to you is not apologizing—it is manipulation. Do what you need to do to get to the place where you can apologize without expecting anything in return. You cannot control anyone else, only yourself. Your apology may not be received well or the person may not want to be in relationship with you anymore. Choose growth and being uncomfortable over your fear. This is an opportunity to practice when the stakes are low (e.g. apologizing for hurt, misunderstanding, conflict), so that we can build our skills to be able to do it when the stakes are much higher (e.g. apologizing for harm, violence, abuse). This is an excellent place to practice courage because we can only truly practice courage when we are afraid.

 

– Practice, practice, practice. There is no way to get better at apologizing if you don’t practice apologizing. You have to put in the work; you have to put in the hours. Each apology is different and will give you the chance to practice different things. You will learn how to navigate apologizing well in one relationship in your life, which may be completely different than another relationship. Start with low-level things and build your skills up to high level things. Identify all the many qualities and skills sets you need to develop in your self: active listening; accountable sharing; self awareness and self reflection; asking for help, especially with more challenging apologies; rebuilding trust; making amends; healing your own trauma; learning how to not spiral into a puddle of shame when you make even the smallest of mistakes; knowing what your values are and how you practice them every day, week, and month.

 

[How to Give a Good Apology Part 1: The Four Parts of Accountability]

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Dreaming Accountability

 

photo of a hill of long golden and brown wind-swept grass surrounded by hills covered with green trees and in the distance, lush green pine trees that silhouette the hills in the distance under a cloudy sky at dusk.

[photo of a hill of long golden and brown wind-swept grass surrounded by hills covered with green trees and in the distance, lush green pine trees that silhouette the hills in the distance under a cloudy sky at dusk.]

What if accountability wasn’t scary? Take a breath and let that sink in for a second.

What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, held as sacred? What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love? To practice the kinds of people, elders-to-be, and souls we want to be? To practice that which we can only practice in real time? After all, we can only practice courage when we are afraid. We can only practice taking accountability when we have wronged or harmed or hurt. Practice yields the sharpest analysis.

 

Accountability is not a destination, it is a skill we can build and practice. It is an art, a craft, an alchemy we can learn how to wield, just as we have learned how to wield hurt and shame and fear. If accountability is a skill we value, then we must make room and make commitments to practice it ourselves each day, each week, each year. We can start small and build up our skills from there. We can start with our everyday relationships and those closest to us: our families, our friends, our partners, our coworkers, the earth.

 

We can start with our self-accountability and the ways that we don’t show up for ourselves. We can acknowledge how most of us are in an abusive relationship with ourselves. We blow past our own boundaries, we punish and beat ourselves up in terrible ways. We can start with the ways we treat and talk to ourselves—ways that we would clearly recognize as abuse if it were being done to another person. After all, our abusive relationship with ourselves lays the groundwork for an abusive world.

 

What if we embraced accountability as a reflection of our undeniable, incredible, tender humanity? As a magnificent example of what it means to be human and flawed and in relationship with one another? What if we welcomed the quickening of our pulse and the beating of our heart as signals of being alive and caring and what is most important to us: our relationships with each other? What if we listened to that fear—the fear of losing someone important to us or of losing ourselves?

 

What if we rushed towards our own accountability and understood it as a gift we can give to ourselves and those hurting from our harm? What if we understood our accountability, not as some small insignificant act, but as an intentional drop in an ever-growing river of healing, care, and repair that had the potential to nourish, comfort and build back trust on a large scale, carving new paths of hope and faith through mountains of fear and unacknowledged pain for generations?

 

What if we understood the harms we’ve caused and have been part of allowing, not as things that don’t need to be tended to or things that will blow over or be forgotten about in time? But instead as one small part of a collective gaping wound that we have been taught to pretend away that sits in the middle of our hearts, our relationships, our families, our movements, our country, our world? What if we all understood our parts—individually and collectively—in that collective gaping wound?

 

What if we could understand that in a violent and oppressive world, the work of love is never done?

 

What if accountability wasn’t rooted in punishment, revenge or superficiality, but rooted in our values, growth, transformation, healing, freedom, and liberation? What if the work of accountability was held as so supremely sacred, that people who got to practice it—truly practice it—were considered lucky and those who had the honor of supporting it and witnessing it were also changed for the better from its power? What if we understand that no amount of “tough love” or punishment could ever hold a candle to the long and hard labor, fear, and pain of facing our demons and our traumas? What if we learned to desire the challenging and the transformative, instead of the easy and the comfortable? After all, comfort and transformation do not live on the same block.

 

What if we stopped romanticizing transformation and genuinely understood that true transformation requires a death and birth, a letting go and a starting anew?

 

What if we spent more time practicing accountability, not just talking about it? So often, we want other people to be accountable, but what if we practiced our own accountability more? What if we started with the small things and built up our skills for the big things? What if we remembered that addressing the small things between us helps to prevent the big things?

 

What if we talked with each other about the things we’re trying to be more accountable for? What if we built relationships where we could have nuanced conversations about accountability, shame, fear, guilt, embarrassment, insecurity, trauma, and healing?

 

What if we took more time to dream accountability? What it could be and the kind of magic it could grow? What we need in order to practice it more and better, both individually and collectively? What if accountability was so normalized, so everyday, so run-of-the-mill, that it was second nature? That it was our default? That it was something that everyone knew about and you could easily pass a group of children and youth of any age casually talking about it?

 

What if accountability wasn’t scary? It will never be easy or comfortable, but what if it wasn’t scary? What if our own accountability wasn’t something we ran from, but something we ran towards and desired, appreciated, held as sacred?

 

What if we cherished opportunities to take accountability as precious opportunities to practice liberation? To practice love?

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Finding Each Other: Building Legacies of Belonging

*Opening keynote speech at KQTcon 2018, the first national LGBTQ Korean conference in the United States, in New York City on 4/7/18.

 

To listen to the live recording from the conference, click here: KQTcon 2018 Keynote. (Thank you to Asia Pacific Forum for the recording!)

 

[photo of the words “queer korean” and a heart below them written in light in the air at night next to a fire.]

Thank you so much for having me here today.

 

I want to extend gratitude to the folks on the planning team who put this conference together. Anyone here who has ever put on a big event knows that it takes a lot of work. And specifically, I want to acknowledge, not only the logistical and grunt work put into this conference, but the work it takes to go from having an idea to actually deciding to make it a reality. It takes a lot of initiative and courage to put yourself out there like that and step into leadership. So, I want to appreciate all of the different types of labor that you all have put into this.

 

Thank you, because I grew up in and spent most of my life in places where I never had access to any kind of spaces like this. So, I don’t take it for granted and I know how much this kind of gathering would have meant to me when I was younger. I hope none of us take this space for granted because there are so many queer and trans Koreans who would give anything to have and be in this type of space; would give anything to be here.

 

I want to send gratitude to the people who built and care for this building every day and all the unseen and forgotten labor that goes into that. The people who clean the toilets, dispose of the trash, mop and vacuum the floors, care for the grounds. The people whose land this originally was as well as all of those who have been displaced since then.

 

 

I’m honored to be speaking at the first national gathering of queer and trans Koreans in the US. Thank you for inviting me to be here. Thank you all for being here and for being part of this space.

 

I want to acknowledge what it means to have someone like me speak at this conference. What it means to have a queer physically disabled Korean transracial and transnational adoptee woman survivor raised in the Caribbean speak in this space. I never thought that anything like that would happen. I am queer Korean and yet, often times I’ve learned that “queer Korean” or “Korean” doesn’t always mean or include me. And I am sure that many of you have also felt this.

 

I want to acknowledge what it means to have a visibly, physically disabled Korean speak, when most queer and korean specific events or events put on by queer Koreans rarely, if ever, mention accessibility on their event information. Queer and trans Koreans who rarely, if ever can even engage in a conversation with me about what it means to be queer and trans, korean and disabled. How can we talk about gender without talking about bodies and disability? How can we talk about what it means to be Korean without talking about the impact of violence, imperialism, colonization, war, militarization and legacies of abuse and separation on our bodyminds, psyches, hearts and relationships? And that is completey connected to ableism.

 

I want to acknowledge what it means to have an adoptee speak when so many queer Korean spaces haven’t done the best job at making space for us. When so many of us are queer and share the experience of finding “queer and trans family” and searching for our people, our history, our place within the korean diaspora. When we represent the pain of separation, unthinkable survival and resilience in the face of life-altering violence, returning, reunification and the unbreakable longing of Korea and the Korean diaspora.

 

I say all of these things because it is not lost on me that many of the reasons I was invited to speak, are the very things that have made it so hard for me to be part of queer and trans Korean, and Korean american community. I say this because whenever we come together it is our differences that get emphasized and the contradictions they represent become more acute. And we have a lot of differences. We may all be queer Koreans, but we are also many more things. When I think about what it means to be queer and Korean, I cannot separate it from all of who I am.

 

I can’t separate it from being an adoptee or being disabled or growing up in the Caribbean or being a survivor. I can’t separate it from growing up in a small, rural feminist community, surrounded by lesbian and straight women who worked side-by-side to respond to violence against women and children. I can’t separate it from the reason I was even on that island in the first place. Can’t separate it from the surgeries I had once I got to the US that I can’t even remember because I was so young. Can’t separate it from growing up as a visibly, physically disabled child. Can’t separate it from coming into my queerness in the South, in a vibrant and loving queer community that was predominantly Black. Can’t separate it from navigating QTPOC spaces with a visible, physical disability. Can’t separate it from my Korean mother asking if the reason I don’t have a husband is because of my disability.

 

How do you divide-up and measure longing? My longing for queer people and queer love. My longing for Korea and a family to which I will both always belong and never belong. The longing to be able to have at least one conversation with my Korean mother without a translator before she dies. The longing for queer Koreans who want to hold all of who I am, not only when it’s convenient or for political gain. The longing for both queerness and Koreaness, which led me to the most magnificent love I have ever known (or known of) with a queer Korean from the South.

 

I say all of this to say, what is Koreaness? What does it mean if it means something so very different to all of us? What does it mean to be Korean specifically in the US, in this historical moment as the fears of nuclear war rumble through the country? What does it mean to be part of the Korean diaspora in the US, given the role of US imperialism, war and occupation in Korea? In this historical moment of US racial and immigrant justice movements as the legacy of state sanctioned violence against Black people continues to roar forward, against a backdrop of ICE raids, deportations and seething anti-immigrant contempt.

 

I say this to ask, where does my story fit into the legacy of queer and trans Korean people and community? Where does your story fit? And how can we commit to sharing our stories with each other—our whole stories—without fear of losing each other? Because the one thing I know about queers and Koreans is that we know how to find and hold on to each other—sometimes to a fault. We know how to take care of our own, even if we are strangers to each other, because we know we are never truly strangers to each other. And we know we are all we have.

 

For example, I think about the ways that queer APIs in the South would stretch for each other and take care of each other. I think about the times when I opened my home to strangers, without hesitation, who needed a place to stay or a meal to eat or a safe person to be with. I think about the times when that same loving care was extended to me and how these were the ways we learned how to survive. These were the ways we knew we would survive because we did not have the luxury that queer APIs did and do in other parts of the country. This was one of the ways we built small islands of belonging in the middle of a raging river.

 

 

In preparing to write this keynote, there was a part of me that thought, What do I have to say that’s even worth anything? A lifetime of isolation and not belonging anywhere doesn’t go away easily. But then I thought, if I don’t belong here, where else would I belong? How can I not belong here, when I am queer Korean? How can my story not belong here, when my story is queer Korean? As queer and trans Korean people, if we don’t belong to each other, then to whom else do we belong? If we don’t love and accept each other, then who else will?

 

Because on the one hand, it’s true, I don’t belong anywhere, like many of you also probably feel. And on good days, it can feel like a slow, dull, throbbing ache, while other days, it can feel acutely, excruciatingly unbearable. Belonging can be a hard thing to believe in. It can be a hard thing to believe you deserve. It can be a hard thing to be able to even feel.

 

Most days the canyons that loneliness and isolation have carved out inside of me feel impossible to cross. They feel insurmountable and I know most of you in this room have those moments too. But then I think about the powerful legacies I am a part of and the people who have risked their lives for me to have a shot at something more than hopelessness. I remember all the people we’ve lost to loneliness and despair and isolation and longing and pain, whether their own or someone else’s. And I muster myself up and I choose to try; I choose to leap; I choose to love and reach out—to you and to myself. I choose to share; I choose to trust.

 

In that spirit, I want to share a little bit of my story with you; my queer Korean story. It is not the full story by any means, but it is a practice of hope; a practice of trust; a practice of love for you, my kin; and a practice of risk—because hope, trust and love are always risks we take with each other and ourselves.

 

 

I am a queer disabled Korean transracial and transnational adoptee. I was adopted from Korea at 6 months old, by white parents on to the small island of St. Croix in the US Virgin Islands. I was adopted a hair before the peak of Korean transnational adoption and I am one of the few Korean adoptees that I know of who were sent to the USVI.

 

I contracted polio before I was shipped to the US and I arrived in the US needing immediate medical attention and spent most of my childhood in and out of doctors and practitioners’ offices. Most summers I had a surgery on either my ear or my leg—or sometimes both.

 

I experienced so much trauma and violence in the medical industrial complex (MIC) that even now, I still try and avoid it at any cost. On top of the regular onslaught of ableism that disabled children face, I was also sexually abused in the MIC. I know it had everything to do with being a disabled girl of color; being a tiny Korean girl whose body was handed over to a white male establishment by white parents who didn’t know how dangerous that was. I know that the violence of adoption helped to normalize the violence I experienced within the MIC, both the gross abuses of power, as well as things that are still considered standard practices. It was impossible to separate the violent erasing of my disabled self via ableism from the violent erasure of my Korean self via transracial and transnational adoption.

 

I wore a large fiberglass brace on my leg until midway through college and it was excruciatingly hot under the Caribbean sun. It would give me blisters and pain and I hated wearing it. It often made me stand out, along with my limp and being Asian, and to this day, I don’t know what it is like to not have people constantly stare at you; constantly watch you. I often think that disability and being a Korean adoptee contributed to my ability to be a public speaker: I am used to being a spectacle and having people stare at me. People ask adoptees of color just as intrusive and offensive questions as they do visibly physically disabled women of color. You are public property, a game show riddle to figure out, a problem to solve.

 

I never felt like my body was my own. It always felt like someone else’s. It was always a never-ending barrage of how it was wrong: too disabled, too ugly, too awkward, too un-feminine, too undesirable, too Asian, too Korean, too uncontrollable, too tragic. Something to be pitied; never desired, never loved.

 

I was raised in a very rural, tight-knit feminist community. The year I was adopted, my adoptive mother, along with 9 other women started the Women’s Coalition of St. Croix, a direct service organization that helped victims of domestic violence, rape and sexual assault. Before that, there were no services on the island for people to go to and because of this, they became a catch-all for families in crisis. I went to countless Take Back the Night marches and helped stuff envelopes and make purple ribbons. I learned early on that violence was everywhere. It was systemic and more than just a couple of “bad apples.” It was happening in every community.

 

In the early days of the Coalition, I would play in the hallway with kids while their mothers sought support. I remember being young and having our neighbor from up the street and her two children spend the night at our house, so they could catch a plane and escape off the island in the middle of the night to escape her abusive husband. I remember going to court cases about domestic violence with my adoptive mother and playing with the other kids while our mothers met for hours on end at meeting after meeting.

 

I am a child of the movement and I witnessed women organizing for themselves when no one else would.

 

I grew up around Audre Lorde and Gloria Joseph, meeting Angela Davis and getting to hear her speak, getting to watch Sweet Honey and the Rock perform and having conversations about oppression at the dinner table. I learned about oppression from an early age and tried to engage my classmates in conversations about their white or male privilege in grade school. But even through growing up in such a politicized community, no one ever taught me about ableism or what it meant to be Asian, East Asian or Korean. No one ever connected the violence they were fighting against with the violence I was experiencing within the MIC. We never talked about my parent’s roles as colonizers on the island or what it meant for a white straight couple to adopt Korean children and decide to raise them on an island with virtually no other Korean people.

 

I was lucky that I got to grow up around proud lesbians (women of color and white women) who had been with their partners for years, and who were as normal to me as the “you can’t beat a woman” T-shirts we wore for the annual Women’s Race fundraiser. I was lucky to be surrounded by lesbian and straight women who consistently got called “dykes who hated men” and “wanted to break up families” because of the anti-violence work they were doing. Lucky that all through my adolescence, my adoptive mother would tell me over and over, “You know, Mia, if you or any of your friends are gay, it’s O.K. You can always come and talk to me about it.” And though at the time, I thought I would die from sheer embarrassment, I look back now and know how lucky I was, as a queer youth to have that kind of support. I wouldn’t fully come into my queerness until the end of college, but I know that no matter who you are—that was rare for that time.

 

I didn’t grow up culturally Korean and had no support in figuring out how to move through the world as an East Asian woman (adoptee with a disability) in the Caribbean and later the South. I remember another queer Korean adoptee once describing it as being faced with a giant puzzle she was left to figure out on her own, with no picture to follow and no instructions to go on. I remember feeling her words in my heart when she spoke and the way her grief, frustration and resilience seemed indistinguishable from each other in that moment.

 

Even when I was asked to speak at this conference, I was surprised, because my story is not usually the queer Korean story told, but it is a queer Korean story. What do we mean when we say “queer Korean?”

 

My story is not the story most people want to hear or are used to hearing. It’s too disabled or not disabled enough; too adoptee or not adoptee enough; too survivor or not survivor enough. It’s not Korean enough, not Asian enough, not immigrant enough, not queer enough, not Caribbean enough, not American enough. It is, I’m sure, like a lot of your stories: complicated and full of contradictions; full of the hard and soft. It’s not easily categorized into neat boxes and requires people to hold multiple truths at the same time.

 

And yet, it is part of the queer and trans Korean diaspora. And so am I. As are you and your stories.

 

I belong everywhere and nowhere at once. We belong everywhere and nowhere at once.

 

 

I know it can be hard just to show up. It can take a lot of courage just to be present. Belonging must be built and grown collectively. And that is part of what we’re doing here today: the work of building and creating belonging. It is a skill we can learn and teach others, a practice we can always be engaged in and a decision we can choose to make at any given moment.

 

I want to acknowledge all of you, for the labor of showing up and being present (especially those of you who were nervous about it), as well as all of those who aren’t able to be with us.

 

There are many who will never know queer Korean community or some who have been so burned by queer Koreans and queer Korean community that they have given up on it. Or those who are afraid to be part of queer and trans Korean community. Or those who long for it so badly, at the very same time that it terrifies them.

 

We often crave, the very things that scare us: love, community, belonging, vulnerability, trust, accountability, family. It reminds me of that James Baldwin quote: “Love takes off the masks that we fear we cannot live without, and know we cannot live within.”

 

I witness this all the time in my transformative justice work. I witness people being terrified of that which they desire most. Whether it is healing, accountability, trust, transformation, vulnerability, truth, belonging or courage. So, they often find endless ways to push it away, distract themselves with something else or they continue to choose their masks again and again.

 

We will all be faced with moments when we have the opportunity to risk lowering our masks—to risk true vulnerability with each other. Those moments when we have a chance to soften and let someone else in and let ourselves out. Those moments when we risk being hurt or having our hearts broken or bruised. Those moments when we can feel just how ill-fitting our masks really are.

 

And we don’t always choose to lower our masks. Many times we choose to tighten our masks closer to us. None of us are perfect and we are all growing. As a queer Korean I talked to earlier this week said, “I’m flawed and we’re all flawed.”

 

But I think everyone who is here for this conference is, in some small way, loosening their mask, even as we cling to it. Even as we peek out a little from behind it. Everyone here, even if it’s small, is letting their desire for queer Koreans, and queer Korean desire, be seen and recognized. Even if many of us would also roll our eyes at the thought of “queer Korean community,” or at the thought of “community.” A lot of us have become jaded and rightfully so. It’s not enough to come together and talk about the good things, we also need to be in principled struggle with each other because that’s how we grow and deepen our connection with each other.

 

I told a queer Korean friend of mine about this conference and they said in a long sorrowful sigh, “I just don’t know what queer Korean community holds for me anymore.” I told another and they scoffed, as if to say, that’s a nice idea, but it’s not possible—or worse, it’s not worth it.

 

Because after all, what is “community?” What is this thing, “community,” that we talk about so much? This thing that we romanticize to no end and that has let so many of us down, even as we refuse to let it go completely? We talk about community all the time, but many of us struggle to know what that actually means and how to actually build it, especially when so many of us are so isolated.

 

I travel from coast to coast and most people I meet do not feel connected to a community. This is especially common for those of us living in the west or under capitalism. Many people don’t even know what community is or how to know if they have it. Folks want to be connected to community, but they don’t feel they are. Even those who are thought of as “in community” often feel lonely and isolated too. And across the board, most people don’t feel like they belong.

 

Maybe this is just a part of what it means to be part of a diaspora. Always feeling in-between; always feeling that familiar longing and grief for what was lost, what was taken, what never should have been. I am part of different diasporas and each one pulls at me constantly. And each one holds that constant refrain: I am, but I’m not; I am, but I’m not.

 

I am Korean, but I’m not Korean. They are my family, but they’re not my family. That is my home, but it’s not my home.

 

I was 25 when I returned to my Korean mother and family for the first time since being given up for adoption when I was a week old. I remember many days, especially in those first days as I struggled with jetlag, waking up on the floor in my parent’s room surprised to find my mother sleeping next to me with her hand in mine. This was a language for which we did not need a translator; a language that couldn’t be translated, even if we had spoken the same language. I remember silently watching her sleep, as she had probably watched me. I remember wishing that I knew her and that she knew me, and knowing that I am her daughter and yet I am not. Knowing that though we share blood, a laugh that fills a room, and an experience that fundamentally changed both of our lives forever, we were also strangers in many ways.

 

We are, but we’re not. We ‘re not, but we are.

We belong everywhere and nowhere at once.

 

 

One of the things I always think of whenever I think about queer and trans Koreans is the way that so many people I know and love stay connected to their families. Though their families often do not understand or are hostile to their queer and trans identities, they refuse to let each other go. Though they might have to hide who they are, for decades, maybe even their entire life, they continue to return to each other. To me, there is something so powerful about that kind of love.

 

I know it is not perfect and there are many painful complexities about it. I know that the silence that is expected in return for connection is dangerous, harmful and neither just nor right nor fair. I know that it can be hard to tell guilt, shame, denial and abuse from love. And—both/and—there is something so deeply magnificent about the ways that we can still love and care and show-up for each other, even through our pain. In the ways that a heart can break and still keep loving at the same time. And how in so many ways, that has everything to do with who we are as a people, both as queer and trans people and as Korean people.

 

I think about the ways that we find each other as queer and trans people, the way that we find each other as queer and trans people of color—as queer and trans Koreans. The ways that we are often raised outside of our queer and trans communities and culture and language and history, but how we find our ways to each other and teach, create and grow our culture together. And I think about how this mirrors many Korean adoptee’s journeys.

 

I think about the many queer and trans Koreans that I’ve known who did not live on the coasts or in big cities and how we were able to find each other and stay connected, even in the face of incredible isolation—we still held on to each other.

 

“Family acceptance” is not just about our biological or immediate families, it is also about “family” in the ways that queer folks have reclaimed that term and made it our own—made it into a balm for our lives. I’m talking about the way queer and trans folks make up our own kind of family. We are kin.

 

It’s not enough to only talk about the homophobia and transphobia we face inside Korean community and family, because we also do damage to each other. We also reject each other, abuse each other, push each other away and fear one another. We also gloss over our differences in favor of convenience, denial or fear. And in many ways it can be even more painful because we are each others kin—we are each other’s queer and trans Korean kin. The stakes are so high and the fall is so great when things go awry—those canyons are so deep. And we often don’t have resources to turn to, as queer and trans people of color, and many of us suffer in silence for years, sometimes for entire lifetimes.

 

We have a lot of work to do within our community, our relationships and our selves.

 

We have to prioritize healing, both individually and collectively because they cannot be separated from each other. I would bet that most of us in this room have at one point or another struggled with our mental health. I would bet that most of us have experienced some type of abuse either from our families, within our relationships or even within our organizing. All of us have trauma and we all carry generational trauma in our bones, breath and cells.

 

How can we work towards any kind of liberation, if we can’t treat each other well? If we can’t build and rebuild trust when it is broken? If we can’t build healthy relationships? If we can’t let each other be human and make mistakes? If we can’t take accountability for harm we’ve caused? If we can’t support survivors in their healing and people who have harmed in their accountability? Most of us can’t even navigate conflict well, let alone violence, harm or abuse.

 

How can we ask other people to treat queer and trans Koreans well, if we can’t even treat ourselves and each other well?

 

What I want for us is healing and transformation. I want us to fight with everything we have to invest in building the skills and commitment we need to be able to face ourselves and each other—and to do it lovingly. To be able to speak our truths and tell our stories and our secrets without fear of losing each other. I want us to be able to risk being vulnerable again and again because you cannot build trust without vulnerability, and true love cannot exist without trust. I want us to call on our queer super powers of desire.

 

As queer people, we know the power of desire and we know how political desire is. And I’m not just talking about who you sleep with, I’m talking about desire in a much more expansive way. I’m talking about desire as that which pulls us towards liberation and that which pulls us towards aliveness. I am talking about that hunger that won’t let us sleep and makes us ache for something more, something true.

 

I want us to learn to desire the true, the messy, the complicated—the human. I want us to desire each other as queer and trans Koreans. I want us to desire queer Korean family and community. I want us to desire queer Korean love.

 

I think about what it means for those of us who continue to show up for this thing that we call “queer Korean community.” Even through our heartbreak and disappointments, even through our hesitations and fear. This is the kind of love and desire that I want us to continue to practice. This is the kind of hope that I want us to live into and pass on to the next generation of queer and trans Koreans who will struggle to find their place and wonder if they belong. Let us be able to meet their longing and fears with our longing and love, so that we may be able to embrace them and all of who they are with all of who we are, whispering, “Yes. Yes, you belong.”

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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On Collaboration: Starting With Each Other

*Excerpts from the 5th Annual Queer & Asian Conference, “Collide, Connect, Create,” keynote address, delivered on April 28, 2012.

sea buble with stones and sand stuck to it, set against the sun.I would like to invite you to breathe, deeply. To remember why you do this work—this work for liberation. Think of the communities your work is in service of—hold them in your mind—feel them. What are your wishes and dreams for them? Let’s remember why we’re here, what brought us into this work of daring to create movements that value all of us; daring to assert that Queer Asian and Pacific Islanders matter; that we matter.

Let us ground in all those who have come before us and honor them. All the freedom fighters who have made this moment possible. All of the queer Asian and Pacific Islander (API) folks in particular that have gone the hard road of being the only queer person or the only person of color, or the only asian, or the only pacific islander. Let us ground in the legacy of racial justice and queer liberation organizing and community building, of immigrant justice work and radical women of color and trans liberation work. Everyone who has wanted something more than criminalization, isolation, shame, self hatred and invisibility.

Let us ground in and honor all of the people who are currently fighting for us. For all of us in this room—each and every one of us. For the first queer API person we ever met; or whose writings we read or who helped make it possible for us to be who we are. For the first time we were ever in a room full of queer APIs. For the queer APIs in the south, rural lands, small cities who don’t have access to this type of space and belonging. For the queer API folks who have families that do not support them. For everyone currently involved in and committed to building queer API community. For all of the people fighting for liberation in this country and around the globe in big and small ways whether they are working for food justice, reproductive justice, the community caretakers, child care workers, prison abolitionists, healers and radical educators.

And finally, let us ground in and honor those yet to come, the people who we do this work for. We hope we can give them intact queer API communities and organizing. We vow to be able to pass on concrete, substantial tools and learnings to them; and wish for them a deep sense of pride, belonging and dignity in who they are, in all of their complexities. Our work and our time is responsible to them and we work so that they may have a lighter burden to carry…

I do this work in service of community. I tell my story with the knowing that our stories are tools for liberation. I speak knowing that all of our voices are important. I speak to leave evidence for the people like me who are searching for reflection and recognition and a “yes, we exist.” I speak to leave evidence for folks who have been told that disability is not as important as race, or that gender justice will have to wait until after class equality is won. For folks who have been told that how you feel is less important than what you think; for those who don’t have the luxury of being able to rattle off 10, even 5, writers or books that reflect their identities or experiences. Those of us who straddle the lines between multiple oppressed communities. For those of us who are working to end violence for all of us, not just some of us. For those of us who truly believe that no one’s safety is more important than anyone else’s, even when we feel unsafe.

I want to specifically name my privilege as a disabled person, when so many of us are locked up in prisons, institutions, group homes, or in the back rooms of our families’ houses. I have a level of mobility that many disabled folks don’t have and I know it is a huge reason I am visible. As someone who is physically disabled and does not have mental or cognitive disabilities, I know how privileged it is to get to speak from the mic to a crowd full of people and be listened to…

I was asked to speak about collaboration and how we build alliances for social change. There is so much I could say about it, but really, to me, it comes down to our relationships. It’s not about the smartest analysis or the fanciest organizing campaign with sleek billboards, buttons and stickers. It’s about the quality of our relationships with each other, how well you can build community and how you treat people.

If we are truly committed to ending oppression and violence, then we must be committed to each other. Then we must live out of the simple truth that we need each other. We need each other. And this is where I would like to center my comments for today.

The best analysis in the world is useless if we don’t treat each other well. If we don’t invest our time and energy in learning how to love each other better, if we can’t build relationships that can last more than 2-5 years. If we can’t commit to practicing working out hard dynamics in our relationships or if we are recreating the very conditions we are fighting against inside of our collectives, organizations, and movements.

It doesn’t matter how much you know, if you’re not willing to work on your heart and your relationship with yourself. If you don’t know how to say, “I’m sorry,” “that really hurt my feelings,” or “I messed up.” None of this matters if you are interested in staying “right” all the time or always wanting to only talk about the places you’re oppressed and never talk about the places you are privileged.

All of us here know that oppression needs to be ended. All of us have been moved to come out here today. But then what? Our movements don’t lack people being inspired and motivated, it lacks what comes next: the day-in and day-out work to end oppression and violence that is not glamorous or easy.

Take the day-to-day work of being an ally to queer disabled API folks, for example. The work of learning about your able bodied privilege, valuing the voices of disabled queer APIs, making sure your events are accessible, fighting ableism in public and private, educating your fellow able bodied queer API comrades about their able-bodied privilege. As a queer disabled korean adoptee woman, I ask you, how are you connecting your identity as an able bodied person to your identity as a queer API? How are you connecting your fight for queer APIs to fighting ableism? How are you making sure that queer API community and family building is accessible for all queer APIs? How are you actively listening, valuing and learning about queer disabled APIs?

Because you can know about something and it doesn’t mean that your behavior is going to change. It’s the white middle class way of activism, isn’t it? If I know different, then I will do different, but we all know that it takes much more work to change. Good intentions are not enough. We need to practice. We have to be in it for the long haul.

Because hopefully what that sharp analysis should tell us, is that systems of oppression and violence are deeply embedded in our lives and world, intertwined with each other; and white supremacy and transphobia are not going to be ended in a campaign or in 5, 20 or 50 years. It is going to take a long time. And we have to be committed to each other through it. We have to think of our relationships as long-term relationships with each other, as people we will be working with and plan to know for the next 30, 40 years.

Any kind of systematic change we want to make will require us to work together to do it. And we have to have relationships strong enough to hold us as we go up against something as powerful as the state, the medical industrial complex, the prison system, the gender binary system, the church, immigration system, the war machine, global capitalism.

Because we’re going to mess up. Of that I am sure. We cannot, on the one hand have sharp analysis about how pervasive systems of oppression and violence are and then on the other hand, expect people to act like that’s not the world we exist in. Of course there are times we are going to do and say oppressive things, of course we are going to hurt each other, of course we are going to be violent, collude in violence or accept violence as normal.

We must roll up our sleeves and start doing the hard work of learning how to work through conflict, pain and hurt as if our lives depended on it—because they do. We have to learn how to have hard conversations and get skilled at talking about and dealing with shame, guilt, trauma, hurt, and anger. That’s the kind of skills building and workshops that I want to see at conferences! And not some new-aged privileged imperialist, “let’s go to India and get healed and work on our relationship disconnected from the rest of the world and injustice.” But rather, we are doing this in service of liberation because our movements, organizations, groups and communities are imploding from the inside. People get into fights and then we never see them in the same room again; most of our non-profits feel more like corporations with CEOs and dictatorships; break-ups divide entire queer communities or people are exiled or leave and never heard from again; activists are burning out or being traumatized by the very movements that seek to end trauma; campaigns fail because we don’t know how to listen and work together, so instead of coalitions, we have turf wars and undermine each other for next year’s grant that barley pays the bills.

We must work to transform our selves, each other and the systems we’re up against. The task in front of us is to learn how to value and practice individual, collective and systematic change together. There is no other choice. Someone once said, “ community is taking responsibility for the relationships in the group.” What if we moved from that place? What if we understood each other as our collective responsibility? What if we understood that we are all interconnected and what harms you will impact me—and THIS is why addressing power and privilege are so vital?

How can we demand accountability from the state, if we can’t even hold our selves and each other accountable?

How do we stretch for each other and learn to live past our lifetimes? How do we live in service of people 3-5 generations to come? How do we grow our skills to be able to center our vision and think long-term? That’s the kind of thinking I want us to have. Because, the truth is, most of us won’t live to see the kind of large scale change that we dream of, but we can do our best to lay the necessary ground work for the next generation to be able to take it and run.

I want to leave a legacy of useful tools and substantial work for the people coming after us. I want to be able to give them loving, intact queer API communities and API women (gender queer, trans and cis) who love themselves and each other. I want to give them a world free of sexual violence. But most of all, I want to be able to leave them with a legacy of stories of how people came through harm with each other, how they risked loving each other in the face of uncertainty, how they built family and community that centered resiliency and healing.

Because the truth is, we need each other. We need each other. I need you and each and every one of you make my life more possible. We owe our existence to each other in so many ways. I don’t know how you have survived, but I am grateful you are here.

Take some time to look around at each other. Connect with each other and realize all the brilliance in this room. Commit to each other and remember that every time we turn away from each other, we turn away from ourselves. Remember that loving each other as fellow queer API folks is loving ourselves. This is where coalition building, collaboration and building alliances across movements begins: with each other. Because movements, coalitions, communities… they’re all made up of individual, living, breathing people. What good is it if you claim solidarity and alliance with disabled people, if you don’t treat the disabled people you know well?

Commit to not letting go of each other, even when it’s hard—especially when it’s hard. Commit to finally learn that the ends do not justify the means. How many times do we have to learn that how we do the work is just as important as the work we do? Commit to thinking about after the meeting, after the protest, after the revolution. Commit to being a grounded force to end violence and oppression. Commit to being a grounded force for healing and community. Commit to learning about where each of you are different and how “our differences lie down inside of us,” as audre lorde talks about.

What I’m talking about is reinventing how we love each other and knowing that solidarity is love, collaboration is love. And really, isn’t that what queerness is about: loving? I am talking about growing and cultivating a deep love that starts with those closest to us and letting it permeate out. Starting with our own communities. Building strong foundations of love.

And I just want to be clear, I am not talking about love that isn’t accountable. I am not talking about staying in harmful and dangerous or abusive relationships. The kind of love I want us to grow is accountable and assertive. Really, I am talking about collective love, where we look out for each other…

I have been all over the country speaking for the past seven years and across the board, almost everyone I have met, has longed for community and love that will be able to be the foundation for justice and liberation. Community and love that are just and libratory. But most of us have been so hurt, experienced such harsh things, that we are afraid to try again. Each time community, political work or love fails us, it is that much harder to muster up the courage to try again. I know it’s hard. And I am not standing up here saying I am perfect at this by any means—far from it.

But what I am saying is that it is our only chance. We have to be bold. We have to be courageous. We have to be willing to risk again and again and again. In a violent and oppressive world, the work of love is never done.

Thank you.

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