by Krista Corbello, Rehumanize International Board President
When I was in middle school, I learned about the horrors of the Holocaust. I remember being so shocked that I raised my hand to ask my teacher, “Was this really real?” Fast forward to 2016, when I visited Auschwitz-Birkenau Memorial Museum in Poland. When I was told by our group leaders we were going to a “museum,” I figured it would look a lot like the several Holocaust museums I’d seen in the States. Indoor. Air-conditioned. In my exhaustion, I was frustrated to discover I would be walking six to seven miles to get through the entire tour. It was hot. I was jetlagged. And I couldn’t wait to get back to the bus.
I was heavy-hearted throughout the tour. Our guide pointed out “Here is where the hangings happened. That’s the shooting wall. This is the largest gas chamber.” As I walked around the final part of the trek back to our bus, I found myself dehydrated and cranky. I looked around at the barracks and the train tracks, and I realized how privileged I was to be in that place and merely have to walk there.
Think of all the people who were tortured and died here, Krista, I thought to myself. They had to live through these terrible conditions, and all you have to do is walk around a track. I was brought to tears for the millions of people who took their last steps in the same place I stood. At that moment, I was hungry, but I wasn’t starved like the prisoners here. I was tired, but I wasn’t forced to carry large boulders back and forth to die from overwork. I was ready to leave, but at least I was able to, unlike the millions of people whose death was their departure.
Like many people, I am horrified by the recent rise in violence against the Asian American and Pacific Islander community. It may be redundant to say this, but I hold in my heart those who were killed in recent shootings. The victims and their families are deserving of dignity and compassion at this time, and anything less than that is completely unacceptable and inappropriate.
I have heard it said that some people are simply “tired” of talking and hearing about race. I understand. I was tired, too, when I walked several miles around the Auschwitz museum. But please realize, as I did, that your exhaustion (like mine) is a mere “walk in the park” compared to those who suffered oppression, discrimination, and in some cases, violent deaths. I don’t hate you if your exhaustion over hearing about race makes you groan in discomfort. Rather, I hope that you would open your heart to realize that we, your brothers and sisters in the same human race, are fatigued with constant exclusion, discrimination, systematic oppression, neglect, and violence we’ve recieved for our whole lives.
At best, the response to these horrific acts has been indifferent. In America, this is the response to be expected. The conversation about race is usually very (pun intended) black and white, and in this conversation, it’s easy to feel excluded as an Asian American. Because I live on the west coast, a friend (a fellow Asian American woman) of mine reached out to me to check in. This small yet powerful act of charity was a pleasant surprise and filled me with a feeling of both strength and solidarity. With the rise in hate crimes, Asian American women are filled with fear as a result of an increase in violence among our population. This is to be expected! (Personally, I’ve been fearful of going for a run in the neighborhood, instead opting to workout in the safety of my own home.)
The dehumanization and exclusion of the AAPI community is a tale as old as American time. There are many points in American history that Asians were oppressed and excluded — the Page Act of 1875, Japanese internment camps in 1941, the caging of Filipino children in a human zoo in Coney Island. With this as a historical foundation, how could we be surprised when Trump wanted to denaturalize second-generation immigrants who were born prior to their parent(s)’ naturalization?
These and many other points in American history make me very proud to be a Filipino American woman and property owner with the right to vote — a right not granted to Asian American women until 1952. While my family’s history in the U.S. didn’t start until my mom moved here, the first record of Filipinos in the U.S. was in 1587 in California (where I was born, and where I currently reside). Most of my life was spent in Louisiana, where a permanent settlement of Filipinos nicknamed the “Manilamen” lived beginning in 1763. They fought in the War of 1812, but I didn’t learn that in school. If I did, I believe I would have felt more like I had a place in American history. In America.
You may know the First they came...poem/confessional prose by German Lutheran pastor Martin Niemöller, famously placed in Holocaust museums worldwide, which addresses the disregard of those who turned a blind eye to the violence during WWII. Adopting the same format, please allow me the opportunity to make a modern-day American version.
First they came for the unborn, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not unborn.
Then they came for the immigrants, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not an immigrant.
Then they came for the unhoused, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not unhoused.
Then they came for the death row inmates, and I did not speak out—
Because I was not an inmate.
Then they came for me—and there was no one left to speak for me.
As fear increases when hate and violence does, so can compassion increase with a rise in love and peace. I don’t have the right answers on how to respond perfectly to the horrors of racism and violence in these trying times, but I do know how much it meant to me when a college friend and former roommate asked me, “How are you? And is there anything I can do to help?” It meant the world to me to have someone really ask to hear my experience and give a loving, listening ear. In this friend, the aforementioned Asian American friend, and those I see acknowledging the tragic deaths on social media, I feel the unity that gives me hope to believe I could be safe to take a jog on my own, that my sisters or family members won’t fall victim to another hate crime. I long to believe that we live in a world of loving people who are willing to care for their fellow members of the human race. These acts of charity, empathy, and understanding lead to a more loving world. Where there is love for humankind, there can be no discrimination. Where there is empathy for those with different experiences, there can be no exclusion. Where there is understanding for the oppressed, there can be no violence.