We have a problem.
Our world tends to do this thing where we create icons out of normal human people who do or have done really great things. Martin Luther King Jr., the Dalai Lama, Mother Teresa, Mahatma Gandhi, Malala, the list goes on.
I get why we do this. Sometimes it’s a power move so the political, economic, and social elite can say “see, look at this [insert minority adjective] person who did something cool and I care about diversity and issues”. And then they can turn around the next day and do something so maligned with the very cause or people they say inspired them.
Sometimes it’s just so the oppressed can have someone to look towards, so we can feel like we are a part of something bigger. And we are given a false sense of hope in creating and recognizing a better world because how are we supposed to measure up to the likes of these great icons?
I’ve felt this to my very core. Growing up, I actively sought out Asian American actresses, political figures, and entrepreneurs. (And by “sought out”, I mean I googled these terms heavily). On the surface, it was beneficial for primary school-aged Christina to see examples of such figures. But, I was simultaneously taught that these things were pyramids–that there was only room for one Asian American icon in every industry. And this made it very difficult for me to see that I too could do things that changed lives for the “greater good”. I didn’t know that figureheads are meant to be starting, not ending points. We conveniently didn’t learn that lesson in school.
Creating inspirational figureheads boils people and the movements they’re involved in down to individual action, impulsive thoughts of good-will. We tokenize figures of morality and teach our children that it is normal and okay to do so. They become the “good Negro”, or the “empowered Muslim girl who defied odds and speaks out against radical Islam”, or the “really smart Asian who’s a doctor and isn’t living in poverty, so why can’t other minorities step it up?”. They become respectable figures in history, and we forget that that’s not all they were or are. We freeze them and their many contributions in time, like an insect in amber. We forget that they too are flawed, have histories, made mistakes.
Overlooking those things when we teach young people about role models does them no favors.
We’re now unintentionally (or maybe very intentionally) teaching people that you need to aspire to inspire–to become moral icons or you’re not living a worthwhile life.
When people ask about the mark I want to leave or what my legacy will be, I laugh. Not a hearty, full-bodied laugh by any means. More like a scoff or chuckle under my breath. Because the concept of becoming an icon or a legacy is just so laughable to me. It’s not to say that figures like the ones I mentioned in the beginning of my post have no place. It’s just that we use them as reverse scapegoats. We say that we have them already, so we don’t need more representation. We deconstruct their very identities, untether them from their contributions and surrounding histories. You cannot talk about Martin Luther King Jr. and not talk about civil disobedience and Black Power. You cannot talk about Malala and not talk about the “War on Terror” and Western imperialism. And yet, this dissociating path is one we’ve been on for quite some time.
In opposition to this, I’ve come to realize that I do not want to be an intangible icon of inspiration for Asian American womxn and young girls. I don’t want my current or future goals to be sterilized, removed from my very beliefs.
I don’t want to be an unsung hero(ine) or one whose name is written across posters and murals in inner cities & corporate buildings alike.
I don’t want children to look at me and my story, and think of how impossible it is to accomplish these things for themselves because look, there’s already one Asian womxn doing it, so I can’t do it too.
I don’t want anyone to think they have to escape their very identities and histories to be considered a value to this society–that their race or gender or sexuality will hold them back so they have to blend in, make it invisible, become palatable.
And likewise, I don’t want to become a posterchild for corporate greed on designated days when we collectively celebrate someone whose ideals went against everything that corporation actually does. The idea of US financial institutions celebrating things like MLK Day when predatory lending and housing segregation still traps many Black Americans in systems of poverty has not lost its irony on me.
It’s about time we start holding ourselves accountable and ensuring we don’t need inspiration to be good people.
Instead, when we do talk about inspirational figures, we need to also teach about their actual beliefs, the difficulties they’ve faced in combating harmful institutions, and how we can actually celebrate their contributions without tarnishing their beliefs. We do not need intangible representations of justice, peace, civil rights. We need reality, we need history, we need solidarity. We need to teach young people that figureheads have their place, but you don’t need to be a figurehead to play a role. And you don’t need to be the first womxn or first Asian or first LGBT or first [insert any other minority ever] to accomplish something. We don’t need more “first”s. We need more seconds and thirds and fourths, and on it should go. Christina from fifteen years ago needs to know that being an icon is overrated and there is no shame in not being the first.
I hope that Christina fifteen years from now is not an inspiration. I hope that she is not a role model or moral icon. I hope and wish that she will be a true partner, someone who stands (or sits when she’s tired) in solidarity and with strength. I hope she rejects the notion of being inspirational and instead helps others become their own inspiration in whatever form that may take. I hope she speaks truth to power and is never written about in history books that relegate minority group struggles to a paragraph at the end of a chapter. The inspirational figures before and after us deserve better than to be bookends, their lives whittled down to instagrammable quotes and references in well-intentioned speeches about perseverance and diversity.
But, if I do become an inspiration, I promise to try my damnedest to destroy the pedestal that keeps me so far removed from the people I’ll work alongside.