Min Jin Lee’s remarks at the Break the Silence Rally, March 16, 2022
Witnessed, heard, felt, and posted by Ravi Chandra
March 19, 2022
The following is a transcription of Min Jin Lee’s remarks at the Break the Silence rally at Times Square in New York City on Wednesday, March 16, 2022, the anniversary of the Atlanta Spa Massacres. Min Jin Lee is the author of “Free Food for Millionaires” and “Pachinko,” a National Book Award finalist, and is the Writer-In-Residence at Amherst College, serving on the boards of PEN America and the Authors Guild. As Eugena Oh, president and CEO of the I Have A Dream Foundation said at the rally, “I think more than anything, I feel like I could speak for us when I say that she’s really shown up for us as a community over the past couple of years. And for that we thank her for being so visible and so vocal about what we are experiencing.”
Good evening. I would have preferred to have been with you under much happier circumstances. However, I want you to know that I do feel some joy in this trial that we are undergoing because you and I are together tonight. You may have been feeling alone in your distress. We now know that we are not alone! We have each other. Before anything, I want to thank the organizers. This requires so much work. And we’re here because they have given forward hundreds of hours to create meaningful change. We see you and we appreciate you. Tonight, we’ve heard important testimonies of what we have endured as Asians, Asian Americans, New Yorkers, and as Americans. We have heard the words of an important ally who is the governor and I have been thinking very, very hard about why we are here tonight. You have read the articles, you have reviewed the data, and you are paying attention. However, I am interested in how you are doing in light of such a dismal and terrifying hate. What are you doing? And how are you living differently?
Earlier this month on March 3rd, I took an informal survey on Twitter and asked Asians and Asian Americans the following question in light of the rise of insults, assaults, and killings of members of our community:
“Have you changed any of your daily behaviors relating to transportation, school, walking, exercise, or food, or work?”
Almost 500 of you wrote back to me and I want to thank you for your trust in sharing your lives. You told me that you are afraid. That you take an inconvenient route if it better ensures your safety. You wear hats and sunglasses to hide your Asian face. You have a contingency plan in case you get attacked. Sort of like a “fire drill of life.” You avoid public transportation. You take photos of cars which may be following you. You’re taking self-defense classes. You travel with a personal safety alarm. You walk accompanied rather than alone. You avoid wearing headphones. You take taxis even though they’re out of your budget. And after dark, you no longer exercise. You no longer walk your dog. You keep your phone with you 24/7 because you are frightened. You look over your shoulder. You ride your bike or car rather than walk. You change neighborhoods. You disguise your names. You refuse to speak an Asian language in public and you wear masks and hoods. And you give your location to your friend so you can be tracked. You carry flashlights and mace and whistles and pepper spray and tasers and you shop only in Asian stores. You carry hiking poles and … (breaking into tears) you worry incessantly about your parents and your spouses and your friends and your partners and your family members and children of all ages.
Over and over again, I read the word hypervigilant, hypervigilant as if you were not already a thoughtful and cautious person. So where am I in the pandemic? Here I want to show you something that my friend Dionne brought me from Los Angeles. It is a very pretty pink canister of pepper spray. It’s called Lipstick Design. I received it and I have been carrying it. It’s in its package unsealed because I read the instructions and just the way to use it has overwhelmed me. At protests before that I have attended, I have experienced tear gas and I know how painful it is. And it is difficult for me to imagine hurting someone else. In my mind, I wish to reason with my assailant. Though, of course, it is absurd and grandiose to think that I could reason with my assailant if he were to sucker punch me or push me off a subway platform.
That said, I don’t want to hurt my assailant. I just want him not to hurt me.
You see, I’m a novelist and it is my job to have empathy for everyone. And I imagine that things must be pretty awful for a person to carry a hammer, to shout racial slurs, sleep on the streets, be off their medication, and wish to take another person’s life. My assailant is likely a person without much reason, and I’m sure he’s desperate. And yet, when I think of my brothers and sisters almost imprisoning themselves in their homes, modifying their own faces in the hopes of not getting hurt, I get angry. Why are we tying ourselves in knots trying to solve a problem that we did not create?
And as a writer, I hesitate to ever speak on behalf of anyone besides myself without evidence or without permission. However, I think I can say with some conviction that the refrain of the average Asian or Asian American in light of the recent attacks is that she wishes to be let alone. She just wants it to stop. She does not believe that the world cares. She fears that not enough attention will be brought to the issue. She believes that in the eyes of the world the problems of the assailant are more important than the fight for her own safety. How did this come to pass?
So I think to myself, “what can I do? How can I help you? How can I help myself?” I don’t want to be hypervigilant forever. So I thought about it.
I’m a writer. And I write very long books. Which to my own dismay, takes a very long time and I imagine that many of you in this audience have at least written term papers. I’m also a college professor so I know that some of you write your term papers overnight. I’ve read them. The terrible thing about books and writing books is that they cannot be written overnight. Long books require regular, sustained effort. They require faith and vigilance in a desperate wish to write them. They require small, steady actions. And this is where I hope to be of use to you. I want to encourage you to be a 10-minute shepherd. A shepherd. We’re city people so it’s hard to imagine what a shepherd does. We can look it up on YouTube. I did. But I think that you and I can imagine that a shepherd has exactly one primary job, it is to protect the sheep from predators and from their own foolishness.
And the most famous shepherd in popular culture is probably David from the Bible, and he stars in the story of David and Goliath. We know that David is young and a brave shepherd, and he’s a boy and he decides that he will battle a terrible giant named Goliath. When all the others are afraid to take him on, the king offers David his armor, but David declines because it is uncomfortable.
So what is David’s tool to defeat this terrible giant? Is it a sword? Is it a bazooka? Or even pepper spray?
No, it is a slingshot. A simple thing that nearly everyone can have.
Each of you carries a slingshot in your pocket.
You can use the slingshot to find those who can help us find structural, comprehensive, permanent answers. Go to your browser and type in usa.gov/elected-officials or MyReps. At those sites if you type in your home address, you will find your local, state and national representatives. Pick one, whichever one you want. Tell them what you’re going through. Call them. Write them, @ them on Twitter. Write to them on their Facebook page. Find them on the Instagram. Do a TikTok. If someone is running for office, find out their position on this issue. Support your candidate, register to vote, and vote and show up. Are there private companies which do not care about our community? Speak out. Tell them that they should pay attention because you are paying attention. And I promise, I promise you will feel better. And even if you don’t see changes right away, you are writing your story. And by telling your story, you will be helping to solve our problems – which will take time.
And if your friends ask, “What can I do?” Ask your friends to spend 10 minutes being shepherds too. Ask everyone to put their heads together to find a humane solution for our collective problems. Let’s not do this alone. Can you imagine how much would change if every person here, and each of you who are on livestream decided to spend 10 minutes a week on creating positive change? Every single time you are scared or frustrated, take a deep breath and pull out your phone. Find the contact information and try again. Tell them your story. Because your story is important. I am suggesting 10 minutes of regular activism, because I want you to know that civic engagement to protect our most vulnerable among us requires our faithful participation.
I started out by telling you what I have been asking you, what I’ve been asking those who are following me on Twitter, but I have been asked some questions too. Again and again, Asians and Asian Americans have asked me “why do they hate us? Why do they hate us? Why?”
It’s as if we knew the answer, then we can try to fix ourselves, solve our way out of this pernicious thing called racism and sexism. And each person who asks me this question is wondering, “Why do you hate me? What have I done to you? And what can I do to change myself or my situation?”
Which leaves the questioner to once again blame herself for being hated. It’s like a terrible, terrible loop of hate and shame. It is very hard for me to hear such questions from my brothers and sisters. Yet it takes courage to ask these questions. Everyone is ashamed of being hated. So I tell them my truth.
I will never be ashamed for being hated for my race.
This shame belongs to the racist. It is not my shame.
I say these things because I want them to feel stronger. Because as a person who studies human motivation for a living, what I really hear in these questions is the following. I hear, “I want to be loved, I want to be accepted, I want you to know me.”
So I ask you, please tell us who you are. Tell us your name. Tell us your story. Speak and be remembered.
Thank you. Good evening.
Eugena Oh: Wow, that was really beautiful. And, you know, if Min Jin Lee is telling me to take 10 minutes to be a shepherd. I’m going to start tonight. So I hope that you all will consider that as well. And I just, you know, really appreciate your message, Min Jin. Really I think what I heard, what I felt was that, you know, I actually matter, that you all matter. We all matter. We don’t need anyone to tell us that. We just have to start believing that and acting like we do matter.