Through the Looking Glass: Activism as a radical form of self-acceptance

by Kevin Bui | 2/12/16 1:03am

I am a foreigner. Yes, I may be a citizen and may have been born in the United States, but I am still foreign all the same. I don’t fit the cultural norms of an American society that has constantly tried to shape the person I am, to shape me into a passively obedient, productive member of American capitalism. Yet, for most of my life I have tried. I have tried being quiet, being obedient. I have tried dating women. I have tried maintaining a low profile. And I have tried presenting in a masculine way. None of it helped. I was still a fish out of water, a person floundering in a society not made for them.

No matter what I tried, I could never reconcile the person I was with the person society wanted me to be. Even when I first came out as queer, I still tried desperately to hide it. To still fit in to heteronormative society. If I didn’t stand out, if I didn’t push back I thought I could still be accepted. I thought I could still be normal. But nothing I did, nothing I tried could change the sense of isolation I felt or my status as not just an outsider in society, but also a foreigner in my own body.

My first year at Dartmouth, I never felt like more of an outsider. On my First-Year Trip, as soon as I said I was from Taipei, Taiwan, I knew I was always going to be on the outside. Nobody understood my background, nobody understood my culture. I was clearly different, as illustrated by my trip leader’s comment that he didn’t know what to expect from me when he saw our information, I was the “wildcard.” When I heard that, I tried to laugh it off. I didn’t want to admit to him or to myself that I felt alienated. The experience that made everyone feel like Dartmouth was home made me feel more out of place than I ever had in my life.

Throughout my whole freshman year, I tried desperately to hide my queerness and Asian-ness. I thought that if I distanced myself from my race and sexuality, I could restore some sense of normalcy to my life. Maybe I could fit in, maybe I could be normal. Instead I was miserable. I dreaded each day — every time someone told me I should major in economics so I could be successful, dress a certain way because that’s how the preppy boys dressed, or dance with girls at frat parties because that’s “what men do.” It was exhausting, and in the end I couldn’t keep it up. It affected my mental health and the negativity it created in my mentality started to ruin the person I wanted to be.

My lack of self-confidence and my negativity made me a difficult person to be around. I struggled with the dichotomy between presenting my identity and being accepted as “normal” in our community. It became a burden on my closest friends, as tending to my mental health became a chore because it was seemingly impossible for me to love myself. All of this was happening over a long period of time, but I was so consumed in myself and in my worries that I couldn’t notice what was happening right in front of me. My best friends tried their best to push me to find my own self-love, but no matter how hard I tried, I couldn’t reconcile loving the person I wanted to be with the fear of being alienated from society. The weight of my self-hatred took a huge toll on me, and affected my relationship with my best friends. I couldn’t figure out how to wholly, genuinely love someone else because I couldn’t find the strength to love myself.

No matter where I was or who I surrounded myself with I would always feel like a foreigner. My lived persona and the idea of who I want myself to be have been in a constant conflict, a constant push back and forth between conformity and individuality. But lately, individuality has been winning out. The strain created in my close friendships has pushed me to think about the importance of self-love in my own perceptions. I am a Southeast Asian American, queer, gender non-conforming person of color. Society has constantly engaged in the erasure of my narratives, and the narratives of my community. White, heteropatriarchal supremacy normalizes self-hatred in people like me, people who don’t fit into societal norms. To love my own identity in itself becomes a radical act of resistance.

For me, that is what activism is about. It is about radically loving yourself and understanding your identity, and fighting for your right and the right of other marginalized communities to exist in society. People of color, queer people, differently-abled people, lower-income people and non-men have been disregarded in American society and pushed aside to maintain a status quo of supremacy. Social norms are a product of systematic oppression, and when we uphold the status quo we contribute to this cycle. Activism is about radically challenging the normative structures of society, and loving ourselves and our fellow marginalized communities enough to fight for our place in society.

We are not the norm, we are always going to be foreigners in our society and we will never be fully accepted by mainstream society. The more we fight for our rightful place in society, the more people will push back against our very existence. But to exist in society is in itself a radical challenge to norms of society and to profoundly love ourselves is to actively push back against marginalization we are subjected to in an oppressive kyriarchy. To be proud of our identities is to reject societal norms.

I am an Asian American, ethnically Vietnamese, queer, gender non-conforming person of color at Dartmouth. I don’t fit the mold of a Dartmouth student; I don’t fit the mold of what society has expected me to be since I was born. My presence and my existence are radical, active challenges to white, heteropatriarchal supremacy, a challenge to social norms that have been created to oppress us. But now, I embrace it. I no longer run away from my identity, no longer try to fit in to a society that wasn’t made for me. Because one of the important lessons I have learned about activism is the capacity for radical love of oneself. Love of those who are willing to fight for their right to thrive in an oppressive society, and love of all the beautiful queer people, non-men and people of color who everyday struggle to survive in a messed up world.

Activism is not just a protest — it is a constant state of revolution that builds up over time, a revolution to push back against the status quo. It is a state of perpetual growth and challenge, an active push to love ourselves enough to know our worth, to know our beauty. And ultimately, the knowledge that we deserve the same rights to thrive and flourish in American society as anyone else. People of color, queer people, non-men and all other marginalized people — remember you are brilliant, you are beautiful and you are worthy of loving yourself. I know it is hard, I know it is a struggle to love yourself when society tells you not to. But loving yourself is sometimes the most radical, revolutionary act you can commit.