A few nights ago I dreamed that you were leaving home, heading out into the world on your own, and I was panicking because I hadn’t yet warned you about those who might try to harm you. Of course, we have talked many times about being a woman, an Asian woman, in this country and in the world. We have talked about the racial and gender-based violence that so many girls and women and people of color experience. These and other difficult but needful conversations have been ongoing for years, deepening over time, growing as you have; sometimes, you are the one who starts them. In my dream, though, all I felt was the unshakeable fear that, as your mother, I had not done or said enough.
What should I say to you now? What is it you need to hear from me? Should I begin without preamble? Another Asian woman was killed. Should I ease my way in—I want to talk to you; maybe you’ve seen ... ?—like I did the last time (when I felt mostly numb), and the time before (when I wept)?
Should I say that this is not the reason we should know their names? That I cannot stop thinking about them and all the people who loved and should have had many more years with them? That it feels wrong to think or read things like It could have been any of us when it wasn’t any of us, but another Asian woman we did not know? Should I explain how it is possible to feel sorrow and rage and grief on behalf of women we do not know?
Will you understand when I talk about the connection between these tragedies and the racism, misogyny, cruelty, and greed built into our institutions and systems; the fact that so many people are left without safe housing or vital forms of care, their needs ignored by those who do not consider their safety or yours a priority? Can you hear this and accept that I am still unable to tell you exactly why these women are dead? Should I hit you with numbers, reports, statistics on how many Asian women experience racial discrimination and violence, domestic violence, sexual violence, stalking, homicide? Should I share the things that have happened to me, so you will know that I’ve been “lucky”? Would it help to hear that I have been harassed, assailed by slurs, cussed out, peeped at, touched without my consent, groped on the train, followed down the street, screamed at while strangers kept walking by, but not physically harmed? Should I tell you that I know how lucky I’ve been, or is it obscene to call it luck?
Should I tell you that I don’t want you to walk through the world afraid, even though I have sometimes walked through the world afraid? Should I admit that I have learned to walk in a group, walk with a friend, walk a certain way, dress a certain way, keep my head up, keep my eyes open, hoping that I don’t look like anyone’s idea of a target, hoping that I don’t attract any unnecessary attention, knowing that nothing I do can earn or guarantee my safety? Can I say this and still make you understand that other people’s choices are never your fault—that there is nothing you or anyone should have to do or not do, be or not be, in order to go your way in peace?
Should I mention how many people are surprised when I tell them how furious and heartbroken I am now? Should I list the dizzying, sickening questions that invade my brain when I try to work, walk the dog, talk to friends, fall asleep at night? (Do they think that we’re easy prey? Do they think that we’re less than human? Do they see us as objects or sites for conquest, here to be possessed and brutalized? Do they imagine that no one will see or believe our pain? Do they assume that no one will care? Does anyone really care?) Should I share the bitter truth I have learned: that many will only see or pretend to care about us after we are targeted or attacked or murdered—because, as another Asian American writer said to me last week, we are only relevant to them when we are suffering?
Should I confess that this is one reason why I find it so hard to watch you grow up? Can I encourage you to be aware without leading you into terror? Can a warning be a warning without fear accompanying it? What good are my warnings if they cannot protect you?
You were barely 3 years old when a white woman we’d just met complimented my English, demanded to know “what” we were, and proceeded to ask me stomach-turning questions about your features and your skin color. You were 4 when your loud and clear “Stop” was ignored by a boy who pushed you down at recess, hard enough that the knees of your leggings ripped when you fell, and your preschool teacher called and told me that you needed to get better at standing up for yourself. At 6, you pulled your eyes back and said that a classmate told you that’s what Asian people look like, and when I met with your teacher he insisted that you must have misunderstood. You may not connect these moments to the hateful epithets we hear, the violence all around us. Maybe there is not much of a connection at all, except that when I look at you, I still see a child I want to protect.
I wish I knew what to say to you now. You are several years away from leaving home, and already I understand what my dream self struggled to accept: I can tell you the truth and do my best to prepare you, but I can be neither your mediator nor your lifelong shield—you will have to seek answers to your own questions, try to create and care for your own community, and learn how to reckon with this country, this world, on your own terms. If there are those who will not see or value you, if there are those who do not consider your life precious, I hope that you can always feel assured of your own immense worth and your absolute right to be safe. You deserve to be safe. We all deserve to be safe.
This is a free edition of I Have Notes. Sign up here to get it in your inbox. Past editions include Talking About Care and Craft With Bryan Washington, You Do Not Always Have to Say Yes, and A Choice in Name Only. To support my work and gain access to all my newsletters, subscribe to The Atlantic here.