On Han, Soul, the Collective Psyche and Microaggressions

David Sedaris asks: are we being overly sensitive?

Posted Jul 23, 2018

The Footprint of Psyche
Source: Pixabay

David Sedaris is a funny man indeed. But with this PBS NewsHour “In My Humble Opinion” segment, he seems to not understand what some women want. Welcome to the club, David, welcome to the club. After all, Freud was also confused. "What do women want?" he famously asked. (And before I get accused of misogyny, let me point out that it's not always easy to understand men - or even ourselves - either.) Watch, and then read on:

David Sedaris says don’t confuse mistakes for microaggressions

Judy Woodruff does a good set up here, 

“Finally tonight, the term micro-aggression can be a hot button. It describes indirect or subtle discrimination.

And if you’re on the receiving end, it can be as hurtful as anything overt.

If you have been accused of delivering a micro-aggression, you might wonder why, having no idea what is was you said that was so offensive.

Well, tonight, noted satirist David Sedaris shares his Humble Opinion on what he sees as an overly-sensitive world.”

Micro-aggressions are small but noticeable acts that might reveal an underlying bias or hostility. The term was invented by noted (I would argue, even more noted than David Sedaris) Harvard psychiatrist Chester Pierce in 1970 to describe the routine insults and dismissals that non-Blacks inflicted on Blacks. By their nature, they touch deep wounds - of racism, sexism, homophobia and other forms of discrimination. 

The challenge is that these are very subjective and often subtle experiences. I will admit that my own personal sensitivity can vary substantially. For example, I wrote this article about getting the sometimes annoying question “where are you from?” which often connotes that one’s ethnic origin or skin color is the most salient feature of your identity, and that you are not truly an American. But I do often roll with this question, depending on who’s asking. If it’s another person of color, or an immigrant, I’m pretty chill. I just chalk it up to family talk/curiosity. Even when it’s a white person (a slightly more distant cousin), I usually just take it in stride and move the conversation towards connection, or really emphasize that nearly my whole life has been spent living in the four corners of the United States (see this article about my mom's home town of Rome, Georgia, the "small town capital of Nice") – and that wealth of experience has been eye-opening, to say the least. (See the memoir chapters in my book Facebuddha if you are interested in a condensed narrative of my own Asian American Immigrant journey, still in progress.) But this question is one that really gets under the skin sometimes, especially when it’s clear that the person has stereotypes or misconceptions about me, my group(s), or people of color more generally. 

What Sedaris calls “mistakes” can come either out of ignorance, subconscious bias, malice or misunderstandings – and it can be difficult to sort out which of the above it is. And then what to do about it. I suppose the gold standard to a Buddhist practitioner is to “not take offense, even when it is offered,” but let’s be real. Sometimes it just hurts. Especially in the age of social media, it’s become de rigueur to call people out. And then tweet about it. The “revolutionary consciousness” demands an immediate, self-righteous rebuke and assertion of identity. The personal, subjective experience has become collectivized, commodified and conformed to an “ideal level of reactivity." Also, in the Age of Trump, identity has become even more threatened, and our collective skin is understandably thin. (See my 4 minute video on the American Identity Crisis, linked below. Also my 5 minute video on anger and compassion.)

Many Asian American activists were outraged with Calvin Trillin’s 2016 New Yorker poem that mixed food and culture in what I and others saw as satire of provincial, bourgeois attitudes. (Trillin v. Twitter: Have They Run Out Of Ordnance Yet.) There’s a mosaic of perspectives on this matter, still. I’m sure that all we have to do is decide who’s right, and then we’ll all get along just fine, right? <#satire>

This is the dilemma though. Anger is unavoidable, and perhaps necessary, in human relationships. And it only deepens the points of the two women (both seemingly Asian American) that Sedaris is talking about that he has such power that he can call them out on national television. People of color really haven’t had control of the supra-narrative. We are only now, individually and collectively, finding our voices. People like Sedaris are having a hard time dealing with it. He seems to be defending his “obviously fragile” friend – but does this really help anyone? Hard to know.

But as much as I empathize with our communities’ coming out shouts – they can also seem incredibly narcissistic and short-sighted at times too (See my recent blog “Social Media and IRL: Narcissistic Attachment to Opinion".) If we get worked up all the time over perceived micro-aggressions, I don’t know that we can get to the big stuff. And we might actually create more resistance to the big stuff by making ourselves unrelatable.

I’ve had to nurse my own anger and sense of personal and shared oppression with other people of color for decades, in fits and starts. I’ve had to learn how to ask for help when my own personal chips were down, and I found that there were just enough compassionate and kind people in my world – because I’d worked hard at building those relationships, and these were genuinely caring people who had – wait for it – EMPATHY. It still wasn’t easy, and I still didn’t win every battle – in fact I’ve lost as many as I won. But I gained the respect of the people who understood that I was a human being worthy of respect and care just as much as anyone else going through a tough time. And to top it off, I am reasonably sure I managed in most cases to win the respect of the people who were on the opposite side of the fence as me, because I was able to understand their points of view, most of the time. It’s all been a deep growing experience – such that looking back on most of it, I can even be grateful that I was forced by personal circumstance and even the misunderstanding and racism of others – to deepen. (And being an imperfect human being myself, I've made my own mistakes in relating. At some point in our lives, perhaps we should all have our 'failures of interbeing' confessions and forgiveness sessions.)

Koreans have a word for this deep feeling – han. As I understand it, it’s a feeling of oppression and perseverance against overwhelming, crushing-at-times odds. Among Koreans, it’s helped forge a cultural identity, part of what still moves Koreans on both sides of the 38th parallel to wish for unification. At the end of the day, they share more than the division of the last 68 years. (For bonus points, listen to "Han" by poet Denizen Kane of the Asian American spoken word group I Was Born With Two Tongues on Soundcloud, and read my 2014 article on Susan Cain's Quiet: Is Asian American Silence "Golden"?) The Japanese word gaman also connotes perseverance despite suffering. Both very soulful words.

It’s the same with Sedaris’ encounters with these women. He only seems to have seen the moment – but not the history. Not the han. How many times had these women been devalued by – say, their relatives or even parents? How many times had they put up with and let pass any number of injustices by peers and authority figures? Hard to say. But it’s also hard for these women to know David’s history, or the history of the woman he was with. 

It’s not that we are oversensitive to mistakes. It’s that our identities are burning right now, burning with the early fires of han. Our American han, our Asian American han, is still in the oven. It has not fully deepened to the awareness of our common, human, collective struggle against suffering. It hasn’t yet progressed from “I’m mad at thems that did me wrong” to “we’re all in this together – how can we help each other?”

Sometimes this early-stage han produces quite a show, like this story of Cornell senior, Letitia Chai, who removed her clothes during her class thesis presentation in protest of what she claimed were controlling and body-shaming comments earlier in the week during a practice run by her female professor. Other students present reportedly disagreed with Chai’s account. Chai pretty much seized her day, though, and I applaud her for that. In the context of all that’s going on in the world today, I can only pray we join all conflicts with nude-ins and bed-ins like John and Yoko and all the other revolutionary thinkers. This is me, a human being, naked. Deal. And after all, David Bowie sang (“Changes”)

“And these children that you spit on
As they try to change their worlds
Are immune to your consultations
They're quite aware of what they're goin' through”

They’re not the only ones these days who are aware, though. I’m all for hearing youth out, but middle-aged and older folks got some skin in the game too, pun intended. But we have to agree that what we’re looking for is not pat dismissal of our concerns, and maybe agree on getting past knee-jerk reactions to perceived slights. Here’s to creative expression that calls us all to think, beyond political party or persuasion, to the deeper questions of what it means to be a human being on Planet Earth in the 21st Century.

As I write in my book on Asian American anger, available for free download, we have to look at what’s underneath our anger. At the surface it is always a call for attention, and sometimes a shout for power and even vengeance. Underneath that, there’s often the pain of disconnection, the sadness of not belonging, of not being loved, of not seeing a just, fair and safe world for everyone. It is often, at heart, a plea to be one. 

A couple of people told me they were with Colin Kaepernick until he revealed he didn’t vote. Yet I think Kaepernick and people like him are calling us to those deeper human questions and struggles. Not which political party we’d choose, but how do we wish to treat each other as human beings. Who are we, to ourselves and others?

If we can keep that in mind, we can work on our collective Asian American, person-of-color, American and Global han.

Some might call it “soul.”

Love Dojo Ep 1: The American Identity Crisis

Love Dojo Ep 3: Understanding Anger, Generating Compassion

(c) 2018 Ravi Chandra, M.D., D.F.A.P.A.