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On Racial Identity And Equity: Reflections Of The Past And Hope For The Upcoming Journey

For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, incoming corps member Melissa Duong shares how being Asian-American shaped her childhood and school experiences, leading her towards a passion to help address racial and systemic inequity. #OneDayINdy

Melissa Duong

May 15, 2018

I am an Asian-American woman, daughter of two immigrants from Vietnam, born in Illinois. My mother is half-white and half-Vietnamese. My father was a boat person, whose journey to America was far from easy. My parents met each other here in America when they had nothing and were part of a Catholic Social Service to help transition young immigrants to the United States. They worked hard in blue-collar jobs and tried their best to do everything they could to ensure that I had an opportunity to be successful and that in my life, I wouldn’t have to go through what they did. Through all of that, I ended up being the first-generation college graduate in my immediate family. 

I didn’t grow up in a huge city, but rather a pretty diverse college town surrounded by cornfields. Throughout school, my classmates were all pretty diverse in both socio-economic status and race; however, some of the most vivid experiences that informed my identity weren’t all positive.

I remember in second grade we had a potluck where all of the students had to bring in snacks to share with the class. I decided to bring in Vietnamese coconut cookies to share. Unfortunately, instead of being a big hit, most of the students either refused to try them—they threw them away or spit them out. It really hurt my feelings because that was something that I grew up eating at home; yet, it was blatantly rejected by my peers. Not that I expected everyone to like them, but I think in my second-grade mind I didn’t think they’d be so mean about it. 

“I think my experiences have also allowed me to better relate to and understand shared oppressions—or at least, instill in me empathy and a listening ear.”

Melissa Duong

Another memory that is super vivid for me was when in eighth grade when a classmate and I had a disagreement about something I no longer remember. What I do remember is what he eventually said to me in the hallway as we were transitioning to another period: he told me that I should go back to my own country and that I didn’t belong here. I was in shock that someone would actually say that to my face and in the end, I don’t think I said anything in response. 

Yet of all the many memories, the one constant and consistent concept that kept coming up which made a huge impression on my own self-worth was the simple fact that I was never seen as thin enough in my own culture. Sadly, it was mainly other Asian-Americans that would constantly tell me that I should lose weight or that I was getting too fat. It wasn’t even subtle either, but rather they would say it to my face. Asian girls aren’t supposed to be big, they are supposed to be very petite was the rhetoric that I was constantly being bombarded with.

That last point, coupled with related experiences, made me have my own issues with internalized racial oppression. I recall thinking about how I wasn’t like those “other Asian girls.” It took a long time to finally get rid of my own negative mindset about my identity and who I was and finally embrace all of me while being okay to question opinions and reject generalizations.

I acknowledge that being an Asian-American woman provides me many privileges, some of which students that I have worked with aren’t afforded, but I think my experiences have also allowed me to better relate to and understand shared oppressions—or at least, instill in me empathy and a listening ear. 

As I begin the corps, I hope to build coalitions with both white people and other people of color to not only further the work of fighting against systems of oppression hurting so many, but also to further educate myself on the issues facing other people. As a person of color, I have varied experiences from others and see things from one particular perspective, but that’s not the only perspective that exists. It is important and vital in the work that I will do, to really engage in the intersectionality of issues facing others. The greatest way to build a powerful force for change is to have the mission be rooted in empathy and continual education. As adults, we don’t stop learning once we finish our formal education, but we continue building on our knowledge by allowing ourselves to be exposed to things we may not have a full grasp on, even if it makes us feel uncomfortable. Growth, I have found, is sometimes rooted in trial and error.

Joining TFA was a very conscious decision that I didn’t take lightly. I had been working in Boston at a charter school for nearly a year and a half, at first as a tutor with Americorps and then as a Paraprofessional, being exposed to first hand at the inequalities that my students faced. I recall memories such as a student telling me that America didn’t want him because he was a young black man or how my students came in crying the day after presidential election back in November, worrying that their parents would be deported. The issues that I knew of were my students' reality that they faced daily. I didn’t always have the right words for them or had all the answers, but I made it my mission to ensure they knew that I cared about them and that I believed in them. 

The school I was working at had a very different demographic of students than the one I was exposed to growing up because it was predominately made of students from the Dominican Republic and Haiti. Many of my kids knew and associated me as a person of color, but for them, I was pretty racially ambiguous or they if they knew I was Asian-American, they still weren’t really sure what that actually meant. I ended up having some awesome conversations with many students during our school spirit week on Culture Day. My students were proudly rocking their flags that day, but I actually didn’t have a flag. I ended up making this sign I wore around my neck, consisting of multiple flags and places that held significance to me. I explained that for me, my culture wasn’t just my ethnicity, but rather people and places that I have been exposed to. I challenged them to view it from a different perspective, just the way they challenged me to learn their perspective. That day was a celebration to be proud of who you are, whatever that meant to you.

“The issues that I knew of were my students' reality that they faced daily. I didn’t always have the right words for them or had all the answers, but I made it my mission to ensure they knew that I cared about them and that I believed in them.”

Melissa Duong

The students really touched me with their personal stories and their energy for everything. I ended up bonding with my students through my sassiness and ability to joke around with them. We built strong relationships not through just engaging with the curriculum, but also not being afraid to ask questions of each other. My students would ask me to say something in Vietnamese and I would ask them how to say something in Spanish. I even had a student who brought in Haitian food for my birthday, just so I could try it and be exposed to what a normal meal at home looked like for her. 

It was through that entire experience that I realized I wanted to work in a school longer than I had planned and continue to be part of the change that so many of my fellow co-workers had been doing for a while. I felt that through my personal and professional experience, along with TFA’s mission that I strongly believe in, I felt that joining was the right thing to do. I want to grow as an educator and be part of a strong collective whole, trying to make changes. While I am not naive enough to think that there aren’t going to be difficult times ahead, I believe that we are all capable of change, working together for a collective common goal.