The following was written by Nate Shinagawa, 2012 candidate for Congress from the NY-23rd, Current Vice-Chair of the Tompkins County Legislature, and hospital administrator at Guthrie Clinic in Sayre, Pa. It was posted on his Facebook page on Friday, July 19, and has been ‘shared’ over 140 times. I am posting it so that non-facebook members could read it.
The President’s remarks today inspired me to share a story about my own racism and prejudice. He’s right that we all need to do some soul-searching. I guess I’ll help start.
When I was 19 years old living in DC, a car pulled up next to me and three young men jumped out and mugged me. The robbers weren’t happy with what little money I had and told me they’d kill me. I ran for my life down several city blocks before I was saved by a reporter who heard my screaming for help and let me into his house.
The effects of the incident were traumatic and stayed with me for a very long time. Some of these effects are more easy to talk about than others. There’s one I’m particularly ashamed of. For years after that night, whenever a young black man would approach me with baggy clothes, I’d clench my fists and my heart would start racing. It’s like I wanted to fight or run, and my body didn’t know which. I didn’t notice it for years until one of my black friends came up to me one night on the street and said, “Woah, Nate, is everything alright?”
When he said that to me, I couldn’t believe it. I was not alright. I had been doing that for years and didn’t even realize it until that moment. I was so disappointed in myself. I would look at myself in the mirror and say, “You’re not a racist” as if I was trying to convince myself. But even after the realization, it kept on happening. My subconscious mind could not be changed.
Years later and after far too long, I decided I needed to confront my prejudice. I joined a Talking Circle, a small group of people from diverse backgrounds who speak openly, and I think bravely, about their own prejudice and privilege (My sister Chibo Shinagawa now helps run these in Tompkins County). I told my story with the group. There were white people who shared their stories of subtle, subconscious racism too. The black people in the room explained what it felt like to be the person on the other side, watching people like me clench their fists as they walk by. They also shared with me their own stereotypes about Asian Americans. It was an incredible experience. The new understanding liberated me. My subconscious mind finally took note and stopped what it was doing.
What’s the point of my story? I’m a progressive, Asian American who grew up in California and New York in very diverse communities. I’m the son of a professor who teaches about race relations. I grew up learning the speeches of Martin Luther King and reading the works of W.E.B. Dubois. Nevertheless, I had, and still have, prejudices that I am working to overcome.
We won’t ever live in a society free of racism and prejudice unless we have the tough, uncomfortable conversations. I’m tired of seeing people so eager to ignore, demonize or make fun of these issues. These individuals are afraid of what they’d uncover about themselves. But it’s through that understanding of our fear and its related prejudices that we will come to understanding about each other.