Critical Feeling

By: Mimi Khuc
December 17, 2014

I can’t breathe.

Protesters chant: We can’t breathe.

The police officer who strangled Eric Garner was not indicted for any crime. This on the heels of the non-indictment of Darren Wilson, the officer who shot and killed Michael Brown.

The weight, of horror, of despair, of heartbreak, of rage.

But I can breathe. I’m breathing right now. I always find my breath, after those breathless moments. Eric Garner did not. Many of us do not.

...we all need to work together to create a world in which breathing is possible for everyone, in which no community has to bear the weight of unlivable conditions, of brutally truncated life chances, of loss woven so deeply into the fabric of daily life.

This semester, I am teaching a course on second-generation Asian Americans, to a class in which three out of four students identify as Asian American. I walked into class two weeks ago, after hearing the news about Eric Garner’s killer, my breath caught somewhere deep in my chest. I took a ragged breath. And then I taught. Not the original lesson plan. Instead, I talked about the killings, the non-indictments, the protests, the uprisings—and how Asian American life intersects with these. Because we all need to know the weight of unspeakability, of horror, of collective heartbreak. Because we all need to reflect on our differential relationships to those things. Because we all need to work together to create a world in which breathing is possible for everyone, in which no community has to bear the weight of unlivable conditions, of brutally truncated life chances, of loss woven so deeply into the fabric of daily life.

How do I teach about the precarity of black life, its systematic destruction, in a class on Asian Americans, to a classroom of Asian Americans? I teach them this terrible fact that also takes my breath away: “To be Vietnamese in America–to be Asian in America–is to benefit from the racism directed against blacks.”

Teaching and writing are my calling. An ethical practice that pushes both me and my audiences to cultivate deeper thought and deeper feeling.

We cannot flinch.

Teaching and writing are my calling. An ethical practice that pushes both me and my audiences to cultivate deeper thought and deeper feeling. The analytical but also the affective. We think and we feel because people are dying, whole communities left choking on the shrapnel of their lives, on their own grief and rage. Life, as deeply striated by vectors of violence. The social and cultural forces we discuss matter because they reveal the conditions of life and death in this world: diminished life chances, foreclosures of possibility, the compromises we make for ourselves and on the backs of others. These are the stakes.

In class, I push my students to feel harder, to feel differently, to short-circuit scripted ways of feeling in order to discover new, sometimes very hard, truths. What is our relationship—the communities we are part of, historically and present-day—to systems that not only destroy black life but build up better life chances for some directly upon that destruction? In higher ed, we like to talk about “critical thinking,” but I think answering that kind of question also requires critical feeling. A cultivation of compassion, of mourning, of anger, of horror. To not numb ourselves to these things, to not inoculate ourselves with privilege, to not reflexively turn away from that which is hard to look at. To not flinch. Asian Americans must not flinch. And then we must begin the work of imagining ourselves, each other, everyone, out of these deathly conditions.

I ask my students and readers to expand their ways of understanding the world, their ways of feeling in the world, and ultimately their ways of being in the world.

I hope my students left class that day breathless.

Mimi Khúc is a queer Vietnamese American scholar, teacher, and writer. She writes and teaches on race and religion, queer of color politics, mental health, and Asian American motherhood. She is currently adjunct faculty in Asian American Studies at the University of Maryland.

Photo by Blink Ofanaye.

Tags: Thinking Out Loud, Shaping the Future


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