Breaking Free From Semantics: Saving Face & Saving Our Souls

The function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing

Toni Morrison

Of the numerous profound wisdoms Mic Crenshaw shared with us at our last meeting, one thing he said early in the night stuck with me as a survivor of student activism and Lake Oswego’s racial gaslighting. “My best friends and I were doing the work when we were teenagers not because adults told us to, not because somebody invited us to an event or a meeting,” he says frankly, “but because we had to face the immediate threat to our existence that was in our community.” I think of the students today and how isolated they must feel after witnessing literally incomprehensible amounts of death genocide on their phones, only to be met with silence in the “real world.” What kind of future are we envisioning for our kids if we’re unwilling to even take accountability for creating both the silence and the genocide in the first place?

Censorship of student voice and student power is one of the most frequent examples of harm towards students today. As it goes, it’s easy to tell young people “I know more than you, so I won’t even promote your voice.” Considering “politics” as an isolated incident rather than a dialogue with which we are constantly using is immensely dangerous. It makes one believe there is a “before” and “after” to history, to violence. There is only now and then. And until then we still have time. As long as we’re still breathing, we always have a chance, if not a responsibility to do better.

After publishing a student magazine COLOR on our experience as people of color, Serena Lum, Barbara Chen and I experienced an outpour of support from peers, but ambivalence from administrators. We wrote the paper in the summer before our senior year as our attempt at verbalizing our racist encounters as Asian students in Lake Oswego and at showing solidarity for the Black Lives Matter Movement following its resurgence in mid-2020 due to public outcry over police-sanctioned murders. As Chen remembers in her recent Life After The Bubble interview, our then-Principal Rollin Dickinson likened us to “gangsters in pubs” for using specific radical rhetoric such as “ACAB” (spelling “All Cops Are Bastards”). He considered it so inappropriate that he was unwilling to mention our paper in his weekly newsletter, let alone amplify our voices and denounce racism in our schools by sharing any of our sentiments or mesages. He explained at one point that he was uncomfortable with the language since white supremacist skinheads in the UK in the ‘90s also adopted that language, but he failed to address the concerns of actual people of color using “ACAB” for their outcries against police brutality. 

One problem activists find themselves facing too often is semantics distracting from accomplishing anything–whether that means helping those who are most vulnerable, or criticizing those responsible for their subjugation. It’s hard enough when your peers barely even believe you about the racism, ableism, homophobia, etc. you experience, but to have administrators and leaders who you look up to dismiss you for something as superficial (and classist!) as rhetoric, it’s another layer of disbelief and loss. 

What Cathy Park Hong describes as “Minor Feelings” is the constant bombardment of racial microaggressions and following disbelief: “Did you just say that to me?” “Is this really happening?” “Are you not who I thought you were?”. Park Hong refers to them as “emotions that are negative, dysphoric, and therefore untelegenic, built from the sediments of everyday racial experience and the irritant of having one’s perception of reality constantly questioned or dismissed.” Park Hong addresses the frequent demand of people of color to put aside their minor feelings in favor of white comfort, white privilege, and “white living,” as Claudia Rankine describes. Minor Feelings happen all the time. It’s how I felt when Rollin Dickinson made those comments about our magazine. When the Lake Oswego Library has carceral policies that allow them to remove unhoused people (who are disproportionately BIPOC), or whoever is not deemed respectable enough to be in a public space. It’s what I experienced while watching the Lakeridge HS performance of Little Shop of Horrors this past fall. Sitting there in all my senseless liberal reboot disbelief, asking why a deeply racialized story of poor Jewish and Black people on Skid Row was suddenly so whitewashed. Even small situational moments of racism in the dialogue were erased, and all the previously BIPOC characters were ultimately played by white kids—yet they elected to keep the misogyny and abuse present in the original show? 

Though now I have language to describe these feelings, to see these intertextual connections, and I’m older, I can’t help but be angry. Nobody among friends, teachers, admin, or even my family protected me from the gaslighting capabilities of white supremacy! Nobody told me that it’s okay to be angry, spiteful, and even downright rageful at these oversights and injustices, big and small. Racism is inhumane. All oppression is. It’s okay to want to say “fuck you” to Rollin Dickinson, to all the people who either directly or indirectly failed me. It’s okay to be disappointed in their passivity, just as it’s okay to forgive them even if they don’t deserve it. We are not powerless to these not-so-minor feelings, and harnessing them just may be the key to restoring our truth, inner wisdom, and humanity.

There’s a beautiful thing happening on my Instagram feed right now. Though we are facing over 130 days of aggression in the genocide against Palestinians, over 20 days of state-wide blackout in Sudan, among many other global atrocities from Congo to Rwanda to Yemen, there is so much hope. Activists have addressed these current manifestations of colonization and the massive loss of humanity from those perpetuating harm by using the term “soul loss.” A translation of a spiritual phenomena believed in by Indigenous circles around the world, soul loss is meant to encapsulate the harm inflicted upon an individual after carrying out dehumanizing acts such as settler colonialism, racism, and oppression in all forms. This includes passivity or silence, such as seeking individualist relief from the discomfort that awakening and awareness brings. The account @breadxbutta on Instagram shared a post about the presence of Susto

In latinx cultures we use this term to describe a traumatic experience that ‘changed’ someone. This traumatic event does not even have to be one that was personally experienced by you. You could have Susto from being told about a happening, you could have been close enough in proximity to it, or in a lot of our situations, have seen images or videos of them. When we have susto, we are somatically trapping the experience in our bodies and losing a piece of our soul in that moment. In curanderismo and shamanism, this is called soul loss. We go through a traumatic experience or recount and can lose a piece of ourselves in that moment. This susto/ soul loss causes us to have weak energetic boundaries and even leaky boundaries. This leaves us more vulnerable to losing even more energy and being attacked on spiritual, mental, emotional and physical levels. Sickness can also begin to occur over time if we leave our soul scattered and in its place, hold grief/pain/trauma.

By inflicting violence, consciously or unconsciously, we lose empathy, intelligence, reasoning, hope, and even our souls. There is a misconception that there’s only power in oppressing others, but there is nothing human, nothing natural, about colonization, white supremacy, and even capitalism. Through recognizing soul loss, we can begin to repair the damage already done on us as global citizens. By bearing witness, we can heal ourselves and others. It is through community that we begin to process the trauma we’ve witnessed (and/or experienced) and can take accountability to prevent (and/or atone) for harming others. 

No one is going to apologize for not protecting me or my peers. No adult has, and I don’t expect them to. As we continue to talk about ending genocide in Gaza, Aaron Bushnell, Nex Benedict, dreams of liberation, and the billions of other stories out there who need our eyes, our hearts, and our souls, may we have the strength to listen. And the compassion to apologize when we are called upon.