During my recent conversation with Cathy Park Hong about her book, "Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning," she said something I continue to digest. In her book — the latest selection in the Mary Ann Key Book Club and the subject of our Tuesday panel — she reflects on the day she was leaving a mall and a white man, who was walking through the doors with his wife, yelled that he would not hold the door for Hong and her sister because "I don't open doors for [racial slurs]."
She told her father about the interaction. He was upset. But he also asked her if she'd played any role in the incident.
"I could tell that he was very angry but that anger was both suppressed and misdirected," Hong recalled. "He turned to me and said, 'Why didn't you let them go first?' … I said, 'Dad, they're the ones that called us a [racial slur]. How could you say that?' He said, 'You have to always, always be respectful and let them go first because you can't trust them. You don't know what they're going to say.' He didn't say white people or Americans. He just said 'they.' "
I could relate to that sentiment. My navigation of "Minor Feelings" has been filled with reflections on the parallels between the Asian American and the Black communities. I understand the experience of working within and around whiteness. I know what it's like to have parents who know firsthand the physical and psychological threats incited by racism and fear for our safety — a fear and sense of helplessness that sometimes morphed into questions about behaviors they worried might attract an offense that could harm us.
My exploration of this book, however, has also helped me understand the distinct, layered and unique components within the non-monolithic journey of the AAPI community. When I started the Mary Ann Key Book Club, named after my great-great-great grandmother who was enslaved in the 1840s and 1850s, I wanted to make room for other communities to tell their stories. Hong's vivid, anecdotal and poetic recollection of her own experience, however, is also a demand for a community that is often perceived as "not white enough nor Black enough" to be humanized and visible.
On Tuesday at 7 p.m., a panel of community leaders from the Twin Cities, through our partnership with Hennepin County Library, will discuss the book in a virtual gathering. Moderator Lindsay Peifer, a former St. Paul Public Schools teacher and now senior policy analyst and specialist with the National Education Association, working in AAPI outreach and engagement, will join David Mura, a poet and the author of "Turning Japanese: Memoirs of a Sansei" and "Where the Body Meets Memory: An Odyssey of Race, Sexuality and Identity"; Terri Thao, a social justice advocate and program director at Nexus Community Partners; and Anthea Yur, a community organizer and the founder of the Kokoro Project, which aims to bridge "allyship with other non-Asian communities."
You can watch the conversation by registering through the Hennepin County Library website for the Mary Ann Key Book Club. I'm also grateful to Friends of the Hennepin County Library and the Star Tribune for their support and partnership. And we've partnered with the National Education Association for this panel, too.
In a conversation with Peifer nearly six months ago, I told her about my goal to make our next book a catalyst for conversation about the AAPI community and tangible action. She recommended "Minor Feelings" as a book that aims to make AAPI history inextricable from American history, a relationship it has historically been denied.
"If there is one ask that I would have for people is that we would ask [them] to choose one person or one event [from AAPI history] and look into it," Peifer said. "Familiarize yourself with it and then share it. Drop it in conversations. … Just be willing and open to sharing what we learn because the more we talk about that and the more we normalize the fact that the AAPI community has a long history and that AAPI history is American history, I hope that we can then embed this into the collective unconscious that we are all here together and we can learn from each other."
I hope this book club discussion on Tuesday can play a role in that effort. The great concern of any book club, especially one that centers on marginalized, nonwhite communities, is that it will become a performative act for its participants. But I do believe this Minnesota book club — more than 1,500 people have registered — can grow into a vehicle that encourages the solidarity Hong discusses in the final chapter of her book, "Indebtedness."
"Our respective racial containment isolates us from each other, enforcing our thoughts that our struggles are too specialized, unrelatable to anyone else except others in our group, which is why making myself, and by proxy other Asian Americans, more human is not enough for me," she says in "Minor Feelings." "I want to destroy the universal. I want to rip it down. It is not whiteness but our contained condition that is universal, because we are the global majority."
Myron Medcalf is a local columnist for the Star Tribune and a national writer and radio host for ESPN. His column appears in print on Sundays twice a month and also online.