The Year of the Monkey vs. Black History Month

I spent the day in Chinatown with Boogie – my Boogie, not DeMarcus Cousins – and my mom getting ready for Chinese New Year celebrations this weekend. It is the biggest and most significant celebration of the year. Time to sweep out the old and welcome in the new. I’m very very ready. Toodles, Year of the Ram. Come to me, Year of the Monkey!

My brother, Dave, posted this New York Times article on Facebook today and I can’t stop thinking about it. If you don’t read the article, it describes how the Sacramento Kings “hastily removed free “Year of the Monkey” T-shirts for fans from arena seats after complaints that the giveaway was racially insensitive on the first night of Black History Month.”

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The Sacramento Kings’ Lunar New Year t-shirts. Photo credit James Ham
This post began as a comment on Facebook, but got so long that I felt a little embarrassed, so I decided to jot down my thoughts here instead.

A few thoughts pulling at each other in my head:

1) Black history is everyone’s history here in the United States. We should all know it, value it and celebrate it. It should be incorporated as an integral part of curriculum in schools and it isn’t, thus a need to set aside a specific time of year to make sure we talk about it at all. And, incidentally, I feel the same way about Asian-American history and the histories of all the peoples’ we should but don’t learn about enough in school.

2) I feel strong empathy for the deeply derogatory import of the monkey for Black Americans. As a symbol of dehumanization and justification of slavery and oppression, it can’t be anything but incredibly offensive. Offensive is a euphemism here. I haven’t lived it so I can never fully understand it, but I empathize and I also recognize I have much to learn.

3) Chinese culture has been around for thousands of years, so I will go out on a limb and say that the Chinese zodiac has existed for nearly that long. In any case, the zodiac signs existed long before the United States and they carry much greater symbolism and significance than those paper placemats in Chinese restaurants would suggest. There are layers upon layers of meaning that have a deep impact on peoples’ choices and lives. The zodiac symbols are not a commentary on our current issues of social inequity, nor are they an attack on any particular group of people. I struggle with the idea of reducing the zodiac to its component parts, taking them all out of context, erasing their meaning and superimposing an alternative and incorrect meaning to one symbol, as happened in this situation.

4) I am acutely aware of the invisibility of Asian-Americans in our society, our textbooks, our history classes, our dialogues about race, our pop culture, our media… Everywhere. Or, in this case, no where. A blog on this subject is in the works and will be coming soon. I actually think I know more about Black history in the United States than I do about Asian-American history. And, considering how little we learn about Black history in school, that’s pretty sad. The New Year is the most important holiday of the year for many Asian cultures. And, though the Lunar New Year celebrations continued at the Kings’ game, I can’t help but read this situation as just one more time that my people and our culture is made invisible and devalued. It’s not right.

5) There are those who would simplify this situation into an issue of hyper-sensitivity. They would point their fingers at the Black people and/or the Asian people impacted by this situation and put the blame on them for being too easily offended. This is a cop-out. It is easier to deflect responsibility than it is put in the to work to understand the history and social constructs that have created the complexities of our current status quo. It is easier to say, don’t be so politically correct and sensitive than it is to ask why does this bother you so much and then do the internal work to develop a critical consciousness about society. This perspective is an excuse to continue living in a bubble of ignorance.

Overall, I see this as a statement to how poorly educated we are about each other and how complex race is in our country. How little we seem to be able to value each others’ voices, beliefs, history and cultures. It seems that we are so busy trying not to offend each other that we miss the opportunity to truly learn each others’ perspectives. I see this as the result of an education system and society that privileges a wealthy, white narrative over everyone else’s. How else could a day of celebration of two peoples’ become a battle instead? I have to believe that there is a reality in which we can kick off Black History Month and the Lunar New Year at a basketball game and genuinely celebrate both.

This is not a time to pit one group of people against another. That’s a classic dominant peoples’ maneuver to maintain the status quo. I don’t know the answer or the right moves in this particular situation, but I’m left with a stronger conviction that we are not educating ourselves or our children right. Our histories, experiences and cultures are all vital to our collective growth and empowerment.

We need and deserve to learn about each other. There is much to be understood and learned. There is much to be treasured and changed.

5 thoughts on “The Year of the Monkey vs. Black History Month

  1. I really love this post. I am mixed-race Black identifying mom who grew up in mostly Asian-American schools in L.A. The questions you are raising are the ones I engaged in with English students as a high school teacher in mostly integrated S.F. schools. It is amazing what critical conversations kids are capable of that many adults can’t seem to handle. I think is has to do with proximity. Either the adults I meet were raised in racially segregated communities (the suburbs or small towns) or they grew up in urban areas socially isolated from cultures who were different then them. I think of all my white and affluent Asian neighbors who self-segregate not only their kids in schools, but themselves in the social networks they choose. Proximity is the key to starting these important conversations…. Real proximity, means befriending folks who are different than you, not just living next to one another. It’s in those relationships that we can begin to build real understanding and a vision of shared purpose across cultures.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I completely agree. I think that proximity leads to empathy which can lead to more personal understanding. I believe that this is a path to developing more social and institutional understanding as well. I also completely agree with you about students being able to handle these conversations. As a former high school English teacher myself, I found that my students in East Palo Alto were thirsty to talk about these topics. Hopefully we can continue to create dialogue that builds greater understanding and awareness!

      Liked by 1 person

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