The Courage to Speak Our Most Difficult Truths

Photo by Kristina Flour on Unsplash

Sometimes it’s hard to talk about the truth, and even harder to speak about our own truths.

This week, the courage to teach the truth about slavery struck me as I read an article in The Atlantic by Melinda D. Anderson on “What Kids Are Really Learning About Slavery”. In the article, Anderson discusses the findings of a 2017 report by Teaching Tolerance, from a study conducted by the Southern Poverty Law Center, that showed the cursory nature of teaching about slavery in American schools.  She notes that:

“Slavery is taught without context, prioritizing ‘feel good’ stories over harsh realities; slavery is taught as an exclusively southern institution, masking the complicity of northern institutions and citizens in America’s slave-based economy; slavery is rarely connected to white supremacy—the ideology that justified its perpetuation; and slavery is seldom connected to the present, drawing the arc from enslavement to Jim Crow, the civil-rights movement, and the persistence of structural racism.”

I read this article after listening to Ta-Nehisi Coates’ We Were Eight Years in Power for the last week on my drive to work, and hearing about the legacy of slavery and Jim Crow on Black Americans in the US, as manifested through structurally racist hiring practices, predatory lending practices, media representations and racial profiling.  Both Coates’ & Anderson’s work argue that America must do better in confronting its history of white supremacy and how it underlies not just our historical founding as a country, but many current institutional policies that reify racial hierarchies. But, instead, we focus on the “happy endings” of America — the end of slavery; the achievements of the Civil Rights movement; the election of a Black president and we convince ourselves that the horrors of racism were a thing of the past, and perhaps not so horrible after all.

It is not by accident that I am thinking about the difficult truths in our history that have led us to a difficult present time. I think about this all the time. And I try to integrate it into my work as a teacher educator.

Yesterday, in class, we were discussing how various aspects of students’ identities might come under attack and impact them in the classroom.  We talked about immigration status, religious identity, gender identity, sexuality, affiliation with the military and racial identity among other possible identity considerations.  I tried to help them negotiate the importance of who they are, their position and their beliefs, with the responsibilities and real micro-political environments they’ll face in public schools.  One of my teacher candidates, in thinking about the scenario she was given, turned to me and said, “Dr. Hsieh, this is really hard.”

Yes, it’s so hard.

And it’s reality.

It’s even (and especially) my own reality and identity.  I think about the parts of my identity that I am willing to share with others and those truths that I am much more reticent to share.  Many people know that I am a trans-racial adoptive mother of teenagers who are now adults.  They like the “feel-good” nature of that story and admire my family.  But, they don’t know the toll of inter-generational trauma on my older daughters and the ways in which our family struggles to figure out the complexity of that trauma as it plays out in our lives.  Most people don’t know that things haven’t turned out well for one of my girls and that things are getting much worse for my other daughter as she progresses in adulthood, despite everything she’s worked so hard for and that we continue to work together towards as a family.  Most people don’t know how much guilt I feel and how I wonder if I’ve done enough or done anything. They don’t see my worry. They don’t hear my prayers. They instead like the happy ending of a forever family.

Many people also know I lost my mother as a teenager.  They even know about the difficult realities of that on certain days of the year (like tomorrow, which will be the 23rd anniversary of her passing), but they don’t actually know the truth of what it was like going through my young adulthood without her guidance and support. They don’t know the ways in which losing her impacted the choices I made, many that I regret, during the 10-15 years after her death.  They don’t know how survival, fear and people pleasing drove everything that I did for years after she died, not self-actualization and empowerment, as one might think.  They don’t know how hard it is to mother every single day without her here.  They see where I’ve succeeded and the joys of my family, and they want to believe in the simple story of redemption.  We like happy endings.

But masking the hard truth is exhausting. I find myself constantly striving to be enough although I understand (intellectually) that I’m fine.  I find myself constantly silencing myself, although I want to find more courage to speak these hard truths, still haunted by the desire to make others happy and to not make waves.  I know my struggles are, to a degree, historically and socio-politically grounded in the ways Asian-Americans are positioned in society, but this doesn’t actually help.  The only thing that helps is finding the courage to speak my truth and speak the truth in community.  It helps to be heard, to have a hand extended to me, reaching out to pull me from the darkness where I’ve been hiding.

It is hard. And it is reality. But if we cannot find the courage to speak our most difficult truths, if we cannot look them in the eye and begin a process of self-reckoning, we are condemned to live in the shadows and behind masks that keep us from ourselves and from our communities.

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