to ann arbor
from new york city
CAROLINA ĐỖ by gina liu
Q& WITH ABOL ITION
CAROLINA ĐỖ New York City-based abolitionist and actress Carolina Đỗ, who is the co-founder of the Sống Collective, a theatrical community focused on the Vietnamese diaspora and providing creative spaces for artists of color, discusses her involvement in the creation of Asians 4 Abolition, a coalition of abolitionist organizers in NYC, her Vietnamese American identity in her liberation work, and how she incorporates transformative justice in her everyday life.
GL: How do you see your specific ethnic identity in relation to abolition and the work you do? CĐ: My history informs the work that I do and informs who I am today: I am the daughter of a man who was a South Republic Vietnamese soldier. My mom on the other hand, grew up the daughter of peasants. She saw both the South Republican Army and the Vietcong murder people for both sides. And so after ‘75, she formed an underground network to make sure people were safe, and [for that] she was incarcerated in a reeducation camp and tortured for nine years. That's where she and my father met, because he was also arrested and tortured in the reeducation camp for different reasons. In the context of Black liberation, the Vietnamese people should have a closer relationship and closer knowledge of that because we have been colonized by so many foreign powers. The fight for Black liberation is a fight that Vietnamese people should not just be allies of, but also fellow fighters in, because we've seen time and time again the repeating of history. There is no such thing as liberation for any other group of people if we do not put the fight for Black liberation at the forefront.
GL: How are you involved with Asians 4 Abolition? CĐ: As Asians for Abolition, we officially came together under that banner August to September, 2020, but the work that we all do as individual organizers has spanned decades before that official title. We officially came together as a connection to plan the Labor Day event in New York City’s Chinatown. In parts, it was a reaction against a lot of the toxic masculinity of Asian protestors. We were not okay with their pro-cop associations, we were not okay with the anti-LGBTQ, anti-Black stuff they were doing. It was problematic because it singled out Asian people as a monolith and was not putting into context the liberation struggle that we’ve had here in America, but also in a global context against capitalism and imperialism. We wanted to include Black, trans, queer voices at the front and center of that work. The work that we're doing now is figuring out how we create spaces for abolitionists or people who have abolitionist curiosities. How do we make abolition accessible to people in our community or our elders who have a language barrier but also have suffered from the police violence, incarceration as well as racial profiling?
GL: What are values that you try to ground you in doing solidarity work? CD: My mom told me this a few months ago and it totally gave me a trip. She was like, “make yourself obsolete.” Do the work so that if something happens to you, there will be hundreds of people to take up the mantle to do the work themselves in their own community. It was because she was taken out of commission for 10 years. And the world still moved on without her. We don't need a hero. We need someone who is in communication with us. Once we recognize that we're all intertwined, then there is no need for prisons. There is no need for policing because we're taking care of one another.
MAHNOOR IMRAN Mahnoor Imran, a second-year student at the University of Michigan and a member of the Prison Creative Arts Project Executive Board and the South Asian Awareness Network, discusses her experiences with abolition and transformative justice within a carceral state.
GL: What do you think was one of your first experiences with the concepts of abolition or transformative and restorative justice? MI: During my fall semester of freshman year, I took a course called “The Atonement Project” with Becca Pickus and Cozine Welch. Through that course, they introduced us to the concept of restorative justice, as well as prison abolition. I had the opportunity to cofacilitate a creative writing workshop at the Gus Harrison Correctional Facility in Adrian, Mich., and that is the inception of my interest in this education and in this work. Being inside of the prison, you get a very small taste of what it's like for incarcerated people. You get to hear all the stories that they have about the really poor and inhumane conditions of prison and the forces of abuse, neglect, violence and poverty that have shaped their lives -that have created the conditions for them to end up being arrested, charged, incarcerated. We read a lot of class material about restorative justice, both in theory and practice. And we wrote a couple of books related to the criminal legal system and the tangible impact that it has on people's livelihoods. We also read Angela Davis' “Are Prisons Obsolete?” which was very formative in shaping a lot of my opinions on the carceral state. GL: Where does your personal identity intersect with the work you do in abolition or the carceral state? MI: When you think about the War on Crime, the War on Drugs and the War on Terror, I think all of these campaigns are interconnected. They are functions of criminalization, punishment and the carceral state. As a Pakistani American Muslim, I am subjected to a certain apparatus of surveillance and criminalization by Islamophobic policies, many of which still exist today and are only going to get worse. That has fueled my desire to dismantle the carceral state, and all of its mechanisms, because it's not just prisons and police. It's also surveillance and the War on Terror, abroad and domestically. GL: How do you resist those huge systems in your work? MI: I really try to harness the power of political education. I think it’s really important to build collective power. And I think building collective power starts with collaborative educational initiatives where people can gather, grow together and draw from each other's insight. I also think it starts in the community and thinking about how we can handle certain situations without relying on incarceration and policing to respond to social, political, economic, and behavioral problems that exist in our society. GL: What is your vision? What are ways that you are reimagining our society? MI: I envision a society where we build life-sustaining structures that are centered around the ideas of love, compassion and collectivism. And that actually promotes public safety and public health instead of blighting them. I think a lot of people tend to think that abolitionists are very cynical. But I disagree with that. I do say sometimes that I am cynical, but I think more so that [abolitionists] are courageous, in the sense that we have the courage to imagine that a better world is possible. And so that is optimism, in my opinion.
Never Rarely Sometimes Always By Nellie Shih CW: Sexual Assault
One of the quieter films in this year’s awards season is drama film Never Rarely Sometimes Always. The premise is straightforward: 17-year-old Autumn Callahan discovers she is pregnant, and it is quickly established that abortion is her only option moving forward. The film is very much a survivor’s story; it emphasizes that while Autumn has the right and power to choose, she is forced to push past obstacle after obstacle. The father of Autumn’s unborn child is never revealed because the film is not about him. It’s about Autumn. The film feels like a documentary, showing that there are resources for reproductive health – but they are not always accessible. In chronicling Autumn’s journey, the film explores how often women find themselves in unwarranted, uncomfortable, and unsafe situations while highlighting the importance of women supporting each other. The film has two central relationships between its female characters which become more meaningful when it is revealed that these are the only two women that Autumn can rely on. Though her mother is kind, Autumn’s stepfather has turned their home environment into one that she cannot rely on. Her stepfather is only in two scenes of the film, but he is relentlessly cruel and rude. The audience can only assume what might happen if he finds out Autumn is pregnant. As the law in Pennsylvania is that a minor cannot receive an abortion without parental consent, Autumn goes so far as to attempt to self-induce a miscarriage to hide her pregnancy. After this fails, she finally confides in her cousin Skylar about her pregnancy. One of the most important relationships in the film is between Autumn and Skylar. Neither girl speaks much, but their actions are enough to show how much they care for each other and also how comfortable they are with each other. The first time Skylar shows up in the film is when she watches Autumn sing at the high school talent show and goes out of her way to compliment her performance when her stepfather refuses to say anything positive about her. Autumn takes a risk in trusting Skylar, but Skylar wordlessly shows her support by stealing money from the cash register at their grocery store job. The two take a bus to New York together, and Skylar, without fail, accompanies Autumn to each Planned Parenthood appointment. When the girls run out of money on Autumn’s procedure, Skylar reaches out to the college kid from the bus who refused to take a hint when Skylar kept politely declining his advances. When he shows up again, the boy convinces Skylar to go off with him, leaving Autumn, and Skylar only agrees because he promises to lend them money for their bus tickets home. When Autumn is finally able to find them, she offers Skylar a gentle squeeze of the hand, which
is enough to thank Skylar for coming with her. It is enough to show that Autumn is just as willing to be there for Skylar. At the end of the film, after Autumn’s abortion, the two sit in a restaurant. And when Autumn responds vaguely to Skylar’s question about the procedure, Skylar simply changes the topic to food. There is a stark contrast between the workers at the crisis pregnancy center in Autumn’s hometown and the ones at the Planned Parenthoods in New York. The worker at home repeatedly tries to convince Autumn to go through with her pregnancy, suggesting that she can always give her child up for adoption. The workers in New York set Autumn up with a financial advisor, who promises to help her figure out how to pay for her abortion from private funds when she realizes her parents would receive a bill if she let their insurance cover the procedure. The workers also offer to connect Autumn with someone who will provide her with a place to stay for the night when they explain her procedure will take two days. Most importantly, a counselor asks Autumn about her past sexual partners, stating that the questions she will ask can be extremely personal, therefore Autumn need only respond with one of four words: never, rarely, sometimes, or always. As this exchange progresses and Autumn is unable to answer certain questions, it is revealed that her past partners have been sexually and physically abusive. The worker later accompanies Autumn throughout her entire procedure. Along with these small touching moments is the glaring message that there is still so much work to be done in terms of reproductive rights. The film addresses limited access to abortions and the lack of general sexual and reproductive health resources nationwide and illustrates how inaccessible these resources are financially. Being near a state that has laws allowing individuals to receive an abortion at all is one thing, but other factors include the procedure’s expenses and just having a place to stay. As disheartening as this can be, these resources are ultimately available and there is still ongoing support for reproductive rights. Never Rarely Sometimes Always is just an example of what can happen under given circumstances, but above all, it is a film about survivors for survivors.
The Color of Fear By Jason Du
The Color of Fear. Directed and produced by Lee Mun Wah. Berkeley, CA: Stir Fry Seminars & Consulting, 1995, 90 min. Directed in 1995, The Color of Fear centers 9 American men participating in a weekend-long dialogue about race and edited down to a 90-minute film. Aside from Lee Mun Wah, the Asian American group facilitator and director, the participants consist of two Asian Americans, two African-Americans, two Hispanic-Americans, and two white. Lee Mun Wah says little of the participants’ identity, as many of them are therapists, but states they were chosen because of their willingness to be “open, honest, direct, and sincere.” While the dialogue’s original intent is a round-table discussion, it quickly turns into an intervention when one of the White men, David Christensen, is unable to see racism as a “real problem” in America. What follows is an emotionally charged and brutally honest dissection of David’s logic, as well as firsthand accounts of the real trauma that racism causes. “I grew up with friends of all races. And we would read on the news, see on the television of racial struggles in other areas and could not comprehend how that could be, why they had to cause struggle and strife for each other. Why couldn’t they just be at home… there’s no struggle or strife, if we don’t cause it.” I’m sure many people are familiar with this opinion along with the fact that since it’s not explicitly racist, it’s not seen as racist. The rest of the men, clearly disturbed, try to use their lived experiences to explain to David why this stance is flawed. David minimizes and deflects all of them. A majority of the film is dedicated to exhibiting this intense tension and the resulting emotions from the group. There’s nothing I would like more than to be able to convey the emotions I get from watching this in words, however, I think it is best if you just watch the film for yourself. Thankfully, the rest of the group eventually does get through to David and it becomes clear that real, productive healing starts to occur.
Not only does this film showcase the flaws within the “why do we have to bring race into this” sentiment, but it also presents a case study on defensiveness and accountability. One of the best lessons this film shows is how a common symptom of privilege is not even knowing it exists in the first place. However, when an attempt is made to make it known, defensiveness ruins any productive interaction between the perpetrator and victim. One of my favorite points in this film is when one of the men makes the distinction between attacking white racism and attacking white people, a distinction that I often have trouble making as well. Why does this line feel so blurred? How does our current framework of punitive justice play a role in this? When we’re taught to punish the individuals who cause harm rather than the systems that allow it to happen, it is only natural to perceive privilege as a personal attack rather than a systemic issue. I want to acknowledge the fact that this film is severely limited in its inclusion of only cis-gendered males, as well as the fact that I also identify as a cis-gendered male. The harms of race are only compounded with gender and it is important to note the underlying male privilege that exists within the entirety of the film. Another film that could be of interest is the 2012 film: The Way Home: Women Talk About Race in America directed by Shakti Butler. In this film, “sixty-four women representing a cross-section of cultures (Indigenous, African-American, Arab/Middle Eastern, Asian, European-American, Jewish, Latina, and Multiracial) came together to share their experience of racism in America” (watch at world-trust.org/the-way-home). The Color of Fear shows how impactful the values of transformative justice are through the lens of racism in America. The film does not attack David, but rather the centuries-long system of oppression that allows his thought processes to exist. While the ending leaves viewers optimistic, there is a recognition that it was incredibly hard to get to a resolution. However, just because something is hard doesn’t mean we shouldn’t do it.
Policing in Brooklyn Nine-Nine By Nellie Shih
Brooklyn Nine-Nine is a TV series that takes place in Brooklyn’s fictional 99th precinct. Although it may seem unreasonable to evaluate whether an NBC sitcom accurately depicts pressing everyday issues and situations, the show has dedicated episodes to the #MeToo movement, coming out and LGBT+ stories, and racial profiling. Furthermore, the show’s more serious episodes have been praised for being realistic, particularly the episode on racial profiling. With a diverse main cast, the show is able to explore the racial discrimination within the police system and highlight a perspective that is less often represented on screen. However, it should not be ignored that despite the progressive storylines always skirt around the violence BIPOC communities face at the hands of the police. Season 4, Episode 16: “Moo Moo,” follows a situation in which Sergeant Terry Jeffords, played by Terry Crews, is stopped on the street in his neighborhood as he searches for his daughter’s lost toy at night. The white officer nearly arrests Sergeant Jeffords as Jeffords does not have his badge on him, and ultimately lets him go only after verifying Jeffords is a cop by searching the NYPD database. The main cast of detectives are all on Jeffords’ side when he comes into work the next day. However, Captain Raymond Holt, a Black man, surprises them all when he does not want to file Jeffords’ complaint. It is later revealed that Holt, an older member of the NYPD, is hesitant to file the report as he is worried that the complaint might backfire on the city council liaison position Jeffords has just applied for, and he advises Jeffords to slowly work his way up the ranks of the NYPD if he wants to enact actual change within the system. The conversation concludes with Jeffords explaining that he believes waiting to be promoted means precious time spent not doing anything. Holt takes his side and files the complaint, and Jeffords is denied the liaison position. Phil Augusta Jackson is credited with writing the episode and it is somewhat reassuring that the creators of the show who are both white – Dan Goor and Michael Schur – valued the input of their Black writers and cast members in the creation of the episode. In an interview with The Washington Post, Goor points out that actor Andre Braugher, who plays Captain Holt, was the one who came up with the idea that Holt would not initially want to file the complaint. Braugher understood that Holt takes the discrimination he faces “with the understanding that he’s going to be the best cop possible, and rise through the ranks, and exact his revenge by changing the culture of the force.” In the interview, Goor also notes that the writing process for the episode involved input from actor Terry Crews as well, most notably his own experiences with racial profiling. In consulting the Black members of the show’s cast and crew, Crews was able to incorporate his performance with his own sentiment towards his experiences as a Black man.
Ultimately, this episode of Brooklyn Nine-Nine has received critical acclaim for its writing, performances, and subject matter, however it cannot be ignored that the show paints the police as heroes and the system as inherently good. LaToya Ferguson of The AV Club praises the show for examining Jeffords’ role as both a cop and a Black man, but also points out “Brooklyn Nine-Nine has regular reminders that the Nine-Nine is something of an idealistic utopia compared to the rest of the precincts (and let’s be honest, to the real world), and this is just another instance of that.” For a show to be praised for its ability to handle real and pressing issues while maintaining a light tone, it simultaneously glorifies the police by failing to address the blatant racism by the police towards the public, the very individuals the show is created for. The continuation of the show in this manner is misleading, and only blurs the line between reality and mythology during a time when the distinction is becoming clearer and clearer.
review By Summer Nguyen Graphics from TextureFabrik
For years I’d only been exposed to mainstream Asian American narratives. You know the ones - the lunchbox stories, JKFilms’ Shit Asian Parents Say series, rhymes about our eye shapes, a penchant for boba. These stories were enough to get by as a young adolescent. I only needed the comfort of community, to know that there were others like me out there, and that culture alone was enough to bring hoards of people together. In reality, there were harder truths that existed but didn’t come into my consciousness until much later. The boundlessness of the term ‘Asian American’ and what its real purpose is. The anti-Blackness and appropriation of Black culture among Asians. The reality is that “Asian American”is not a label or a tool, but a complex identity that presents itself in varying ways that cannot be simply captured in two words, and to do so would render it meaningless. My awakening began when I came across Cathy Park Hong’s Minor Feelings this past summer. Upon reading the first line of the book, I was struck by the fact that an Asian American writer was taking space to talk not about the generalized immigrant experience, nor her feelings about being picking between Asian or American culture, but instead a topic so taboo it practically doesn’t exist in Asian or Asian American culture -- her mental health. And to do it so unabashedly, so openly, so sharply, to a point where her words felt like they were piercing my core? This couldn’t be. I read on, feasting my eyes on every single word on the page. This book, I thought, is the book I’ve been waiting for my entire life. Hong does not shy away from anything, freely writing about her ‘Karen’ moment at the Vietnamese nail salon, a brief history of Asian exclusionism in America, mistaking her father’s Korean herbal medicine for opioids, the David Dao airplane incident, and so on. She writes with conviction; it’s clear she’s not looking for pity, nor is she trying to prove herself worthy of being read. The topics she writes of, though, are indeed worthy. Beginning with her description of “minor feelings,” which is an amalgamation of discordant quips that serve to question one’s racial existence and perceptions of themselves, she goes on to explore the 1992 L.A. Riots and its impact on Koreatown, through the relationship between Blacks, Koreans and Latinx, and activism
within the Korean immigrant community. Most importantly, she zeroes in on the frustration around policing and the realization that “‘there is a hole in this country’” among Asian immigrants. She shines light on how Asian Americans have yet to “confront the white capital infrastructure that has erased [them],” and this confrontation may serve as a means of connecting Asian Americans to other racial groups who also experience minor feelings. Hong writes that anyone who experiences minor feelings are drawn together by that very experience. Racial oppression is not as separating as society wants us to believe. I have come back to this book many times. However, there is one sole quote that I bookmarked. Immediately after I read it, I felt compelled to read it aloud to my brother, who was sitting next to me at the time and also smiled in disbelief as he heard her words. It reads:
“If the indebted Asian immigrant thinks they owe their life to America, then the child thinks they owe their livelihood to their parents for their suffering. The indebted Asian American is therefore the ideal neoliberal subject. I accept that the burden of history is solely on my shoulders; that it’s up to me to earn back reparations for the losses my parents incurred, and to do so, I must, without complaint, prove myself in the workforce.” I felt like Hong was staring right through me as I read this line. So much of how I perceive the world and my goals is on an individual scale - I have no right to complain for the blessed life I’ve been given. This logic, while understandable, poses the question - why? Why should I deny myself the right to finally acknowledge the damage of years of racism and oppression that has been quietly placed on our backs, one by one, until all I see now are hunches - both of the old grannies and grandpas and of the fresh Asian American grads placed at their new cubicles, hacking away at their computers for the job their parents always wished them to have? This quote, nearing the end of the novel, served as the deepest cut of all. Hong was not only presenting a hard truth, but a choice; I can choose whether or not I want to carry the indebtedness of my parents. Or I can choose to reclaim the space I’d never felt like I had, much like how Hong decided to make space for herself in the very first sentence of her book and in every line that followed. The choice is not an easy one. Prior to reading Minor Feelings, I hadn’t even realized there was a choice. I still find myself oscillating between the two choices, perpetually stuck between the past and progress. But if I have the option to choose - something that my parents nor other Asian immigrants had - I would be ashamed not to take the chance to create a new narrative. And that is, quite honestly, what I achieved by writing this piece, in the hopes that you, the reader, would take a leap of faith to read this wildly honest and eye-opening book about what it means to be Asian American. I’ll be here when you do.
A World of Wonders: Shifting Perspectives by Chelsea Padilla When the pandemic sent students off-campus last spring, I came home to a stubborn patch of grass that refused to grow green in my family’s backyard. Naturally, as the eldest daughter, I was tasked with the job of watering it for half an hour until it eventually became a part of my routine. Every day, I would wake up, scroll through my phone, eat lunch, and drag myself to the backyard to uncoil the hose. I’ll be honest: I’d never been the biggest fan of the outdoors. Bugs and animals have scared me since I was little, and I hated the way the heat clung to my clothes and the way the cold bit at my skin. Sure, I appreciated nature — but always from afar. So, it’s really not a big surprise that I disliked my grass-watering-ritual back then. Months later, though, I picked up World of Wonders by Aimee Nezhukumatathil at a bookstore.I’m not about to claim that the book completely revolutionized the way I interact with nature. But, I will say that it pushed me to reflect and change my perspective. World of Wonders is a collection of personal essays centered around various aspects of Nezhukumatathil’s life. Bound together by detailed descriptions and illustrations of animals, plants, and insects that she has felt connected to, the book covers an extensive amount of ground. Nezhukumatathil somehow manages to fit so many of her experiences — from her memories of growing up in Arizona as an Indian Filipino American to her current life as a writer, professor, and mother — into 160 pages of beautiful poetic prose. As a Filipino American, a lot of Nezhukumatathil’s essays spoke to me. I related to Nezhukumatathil as she recounted kids in her class mishandling her ethnicity and feeling grateful “to see kids of all shades in the room” when she moved to a different school. Stories like these aren’t unfamiliar; I’ve seen people write about them before. But given that the stories of South and Southeast Asian American individuals can be hard to come by in literature, it felt especially validating to read them from a woman who shared my own identity. For that reason, I am extremely thankful to have come across World of Wonders.
But aside from that, Nezhukumatathil’s clear love for nature is what drew me in most. At first I’d assumed that the pretty animal pictures and scientific animal names printed at the top of each essay were a gimmick, but the descriptions of wildlife are intrinsically woven into Nezhukumatathil’s personal narrative, so much so that her writing would not feel complete without them. Peacocks turn into a story about reckoning with culture in an American environment. Corpse flowers become a central theme in an essay on romance. Nezhukumatathil manages to make trees, fireflies, and sharks so incredibly personal that it makes the reader see them that way too. Between the wonderful descriptions of plants and animals, Nezhukumatathil makes sure to remind us of the issues our world’s creatures face. Sometimes, these reminders are subtle. In others, they are not, but for good reason. After constantly pointing out how closely she — and the reader, by extension — is linked to certain parts of nature in her essays, it seems somewhat natural for Nezhukumatathil to use World of Wonders as a call for environmental justice. One section in particular struck me. It reads:
“Where does one start to take care of these living things amid the dire and daily news of climate change, and reports of another animal or plant vanishing from the planet? How can one even imagine us getting back to a place where we know the names of the trees we walk by every single day? A place where ‘a bird’ navigating a dewy meadow is transformed into something more specific, something we can hold onto by feeling its name on our tongues: brown thrasher. Or ‘that big tree’: catalpa. Maybe what we can do when we feel overwhelmed is to start small. Start with what we have loved as kids and see where that leads us.”
What Nezhukumatathil says here is simple, but important. Every time I go to check my phone, my feed is oversaturated with news of more pollution and rising sea levels. More climate disasters. More irreparable damage to our planet. After a certain point, it all seems like too much to handle, and it’s hard to feel the urge to care at all. But through World of Wonders, Nezhukumatathil reminds us of our intricate ties to nature. She encourages us to care. I finished reading World of Wonders in the dead of winter. When I reached the last page, I remember thinking back to all the moments I’d spent watering that patch of grass in my family’s backyard in the summer. I thought of the warmth of the sun and the rustling of tree leaves and the shine of water droplets sitting on green blades. And, yes — perhaps some of this is a case of romanticization. But this Earth, I think, deserves that change in perspective.