Many years ago, I was informed that I was to get an award by the military for my work as a diversity consultant. The award was to be presented by the Deputy Secretary of the Department of Defense. Of course, I was flattered and a bit dubious of displaying this award living in Berkeley, California! However, the week in which I was to be given the award, several incidents occurred that would impact me very deeply.
On the day of the award ceremony, I was having tea in their cafeteria preparing my speech. As I was sitting there, a young private came up to my table and shared that his superiors were concerned that my speech not have any racial ‘overtones’. I was aghast- of course my work had racial overtones. I was a diversity trainer! As I took a few moments to fully absorb what was being asked of me and becoming less defensive, I realized that this young private had no idea of what he was asking of me, much less did he care. He was simply a messenger. And so, after some deep thought, I replied, “Please inform your superiors that my speech will only have racial undertones.” “Yes sir,” he quickly replied, “I am sure they will be pleased.” “I’m sure they will be, too,” I replied.
When the time came to accept the award, I walked into the room and was quickly surrounded by all these Asian folks who worked at the Pentagon. “PLEASE tell them that we’re not Chinese spies. We would never do that,” they said. What they were referring to was the arrest of Wen Ho Lee, a Pentagon employee, for taking home classified papers without permission. Many speculated, including the press and much of the media at the time, that he was a spying for China. As is true of most instances like these for people of color, we are often seen as a ‘group’, and seldom as individuals. It is rare that whites in this country are grouped as ‘all whites’ in this same way.
After I was handed my award, I stepped forward to the microphone and tore up my speech. Everyone was shocked, including the Deputy Secretary of Defense! “I’m tearing up my speech because something happened today that I’d like to illustrate to you and explain why. I then asked a Filipino man who was dressed in a suit and tie, to come up and stand next to me. I asked the audience to tell us how we were different and how we were the same. The answers were quite varied: We’re both Asian. I was more handsome. He was older. He looked more professional, while I looked less professional since I was not wearing a suit, but rather a kimono.
After about twenty or so comments, I shared that they had all left one important observation out – we were both Americans. The audience was stunned, with many of the Asian folks nodding and crying. I then asked for those who had ever been questioned if they were American or were not seen as being American enough because they had an accent or because of the way the dressed or because of the color of their skin or their religion, to please stand up. Almost all the people of color stood. I then had each of them share their story and how this ‘stereotyping and labelling’ affected them being here at the Pentagon, in this community and in this country.
Luckily, it was all filmed and it became the talk of the Pentagon for months, if not years. The result for me, however, was that I was never invited back to speak again. In looking back, I have no regrets about what I did. As Angela Davis so eloquently wrote: I no longer can accept what I cannot change. Now I know I must change what I can no longer accept.
There is no right time for standing up and speaking out against injustice and inequality. The right time, throughout history, has always been now.