I hate babies—especially my own.
When I was still very young, I forgot everything scary about being an infant. Part of growing up is distinguishing yourself from those other little bundles of rage as soon as possible: “I’m not a baby, I’m a big kid.” The big kid version of me got embarrassed when he cried and slightly ashamed over how much of a mama’s boy he still was, but he distinguished himself from babies accordingly: babies are selfish, whining creatures who cry to get their way. Unlike me—the big kid.
I still get anxious around babies, and now, with a four-month-old of my own, my childhood feeling-habits can make it hard to be a father. When my son wakes up in the middle of the night, I don’t immediately think of him being hungry or confused; I mentally accuse him of wanting to ruin my sleep. When his mother needs to pass him to me for a spell, I dismiss her lost patience and her need to recover. In my sleep-deprived brain, mother and child simply don’t care whether I get any work done. What I’m doing, of course, is projecting my selfishness onto an infant who doesn’t even know what selfishness means yet, and onto a woman I’m supposed to treat as my partner.
When we at unRival talk about oppositional identities, this is what we’re trying to capture. When unconscious fear or unresolved tension in our heart rears its head, it comes out sideways. It makes itself known by latching on to little nothings and making assumptions about other people. That guy going slow in the fast lane? He’s actively trying to keep you from getting to where you need to be. Passed over for a promotion at work? Your boss doesn’t like you and is holding you back.
And that family member who voted for the guy you don’t like? They did it because they hate you and want to see you flushed away, along with the economy and all you hold dear.
Notice, too, how our projections onto others stem from deep-rooted desires in ourselves: you really have places to be, and you really want to be recognized at your job. You want to live a happy life in the world and want to see political systems facilitating that dream.
So too, when my baby cries, it’s usually when I’m wanting to recover my strength in sleep or to pursue goals and ambitions beyond my work. At those times, I am still that little boy with the upturned nose, wanting to believe he’s the big kid, even though he wants attention all the time and still has trouble regulating his feelings.
These small, spontaneous rivalries plague us every day. We enter these private conflicts with total strangers. We find it natural to imagine other people making their decisions just so they can get in our way.
We can only think this for so long before it bubbles over. Just ask the woman I encountered at the grocery store last week who, when a greeter complimented her on her custom-made face mask, responded: “Well I hate it! I’m not a Chinese! I’m an American! I’m supposed to be free!”
In one outburst, this person contrasted Americans as “free” and Chinese as “not-free”, identified masks as the key differentiating sign between liberty and oppression, and expressed hatred of her mask for making her appear as something other than a free American: namely “a Chinese.” And, because thinking follows behavior, this person’s words cemented a few key assumptions in her heart: there is an opposition between American and Chinese identity; masks are an external sign of that opposition; by wearing a mask, she was erasing the difference between herself as a free American and those rightfully mask-wearing Chinese communists. All this, she decided, was worth being angry about. She only needed a provocation—in this case, a greeting from a teenager working her part-time job.
In a February article for Time exploring reasons for rising hate crimes against Asian Americans, Cady Lang points to the Trump administration’s tendency to blame China for the COVID-19 pandemic. Lang cites Russell Jeung, professor of Asian American Studies at San Francisco State University: “There’s a clear correlation between former president Trump’s incendiary comments, his insistence on using the term ‘Chinese virus’ and the subsequent hate speech spread on social media and the hate violence directed towards us.” By blaming the pandemic on China, Lang says that Trump “followed in a long American history of using diseases to justify anti-Asian xenophobia.”
But China is ground zero for COVID-19, we might say. Isn’t it simply true that China is responsible? Such a question confronts us with the difference between “responsibility” and “blame”. To be responsible means to accept one’s duty or control. China may indeed bear a special responsibility, but it is every nation’s duty to control the pandemic in whatever ways it is able. Blame, meanwhile, offloads all duty and control onto a perceived wrong-doer. Coming from the same linguistic roots as “blasphemy”, to blame someone means to place them under a curse, with no path to redemption.
Blaming is an act of hopelessness and helplessness. When we blame China for the pandemic, we give shape to that helplessness by implying that China did this on purpose, that China inflicted COVID-19 on America. And, as with every other kind of rivalry, it begins by thinking of ourselves as the center of the universe.
Assigning blame for the pandemic indexes several other volatile problems in American society. According to Lang, the myth of Asian immigrants as a “model minority” that successfully acclimated to American society in the 19th and 20th centuries paradoxically coexists with a perception of Asian Americans as “perpetual foreigners” with divided loyalties. Pop-culture presentations of “Asians” as smart, disciplined, highly skilled individuals tacitly place them in competition with the rest of their communities. It seems we have long been sitting on all the ingredients for an explosion of violence against Asian Americans, driven by the fuzzy notion that they are deliberately engineering the embarrassment of America. Blaming China for the pandemic merely provided an out for this irrationality.
There is more to the “model minority” myth: it casts Asian Americans as converts, of a sort, from an Asian identity to a superior American identity. On the one hand, this myth becomes one more expression of American exceptionalism; on the other, the perceived “imperfection” of Asian American “conversions” speaks to how unconvincing this narrative finally is. This lack of closure in the exceptionalism story leads us to project jealousy onto other nations and peoples, expecting that they want to get in America’s way. To reject this—to admit that we have fallen victim to a common disaster, and that nobody targeted us—is itself a kind of existential crisis that we must face if we are to see ourselves rightly and stop accusing the other.
Despite the power of the previous administration’s “America First” platform, there is ample evidence that America is undergoing such a crisis of identity. Over the next couple weeks, we will be posting several pieces from our partners exploring the U.S. Capitol riots in this light. These articles show that new policies from a new administration are not enough to heal us. Rather, each of us must examine our own hearts and minds. In his post, Sunday Agang reiterates that America cannot be truly responsible for itself as long as it holds onto its exceptionalist self-identity. Julia Robinson-Moore explores two-faced Christianity as a symptom of division and charts a path towards healing. Ahead of them, Paul Dumouchel offers the bold reminder that inflammatory rhetoric and extreme approaches often emerge where voices go unheard, “dismissed as unimportant and irrelevant”. The path to peace demands we change the ways we see one another—even those we view as extreme, naïve, or dangerous.
How might we undertake such drastic changes of heart? America’s minority populations provide us with insight. Increasingly suspicious of American police, and of the retributive justice they represent, America’s Asian and Black populations are pursuing renewed bonds of solidarity that they hope will model a fresh way forward. Lang cites educator Bianca Mabute-Louie: “If the bigger problem is [racist] sentiment, putting someone in jail doesn’t solve that problem… All of us really need to do work into our communities to unlearn these harmful narratives about each other.” Russell Jeung, too, doesn’t want to stop at increased accountability or holding others responsible; he wants to facilitate the change that will generate genuinely collaborative solutions: “We’re calling not necessarily for more punitive measures but restorative justice models that break the cycle of violence.”
The stakes of our oppositional identities are not always this high. But they are never lower than an emptier, less free life. This alone should compel us towards searching our own hearts and rectifying our cognitive distortions about the people we fear are out to get us. This requires being vulnerable, humble, and even humorous with ourselves, admitting that many of our rivalries make about as much sense as attributing malice to a hungry baby. It requires giving others the opportunity to say that we are wrong. It means believing others when they say they will leave punishment and blame aside—and then taking up our own responsibilities for loving others well. Only by transforming our relationships will we become capable of recognizing that no one person or group is to blame for our present crises, and that everyone must have a hand in finding solutions.