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Mar 8, 2022

Exclusive Excerpt: The Wake Up by Michelle MiJung Kim

Not only is today International Women’s Day—it’s also the release of Arlan Hamilton’s final selection for our Keys to Success: Perseverance book club!

A must-read for anyone invested in real, lasting social justice, The Wake Up: Closing the Gap Between Good Intentions and Real Change by Michelle MiJung Kim dives into the nuanced work of pursuing equity and justice with criticality and compassion. It’s packed with actionable strategies for transforming ourselves and, ultimately, the world around us.

Michelle’s book ties beautifully into this year’s theme for Women’s Day: #BreaktheBias, i.e. “calling out bias, smashing stereotypes, breaking inequality, and rejecting discrimination” in communities, workplaces, schools, and the like.

We’re lucky enough to have excerpts from chapter 10 of The Wake Up that address how to #BreaktheBias in your own life. You’ll learn practical tips for intervening when you notice biased behavior, along with the importance of “second courageous.” (By following the oft-dismissed “first courageous” person who speaks out against injustice, we can keep the momentum going—and tip the scale of power.)

We hope you enjoy these selections from Michelle MiJung Kim’s powerful book. Be sure to check out her interview with Arlan Hamilton as the two discuss the importance of healing racial trauma, moving beyond “performative” allyship, and sacrificing personal comforts for the greater good.

And, if you'd like more book recommendations for Women's History Month, check out our top 10 book list featuring more BookClub authors.

The Wake Up by Michelle MiJung Kim

Chapter 10: Disrupt the Pattern

TIPS ON HOW TO INTERVENE

"What we needed to raise in others was this instinct. The ability to recognize, in an instant, right from wrong. The clarity of mind to face it rather than ignore it." -Chanel Miller

When you observe or experience a microaggression, it is helpful to remember to breathe and to engage in what is called microresistance, or “small- scale individual and/or collaborative efforts that empower targeted people and allies to cope with, respond to, and/or challenge microaggressions to ultimately dismantle systems of oppression.” This can take various forms, and here are some practical tips and strategies to keep in your toolbox for the next time someone says or does something problematic. Note that the following strategies are intended for commonplace microaggressions and insensitive jokes, rather than for more egregious levels of harm, harassment, abuse, or violence, and will work best in situations where you are engaging with people you have a vested interest in maintaining relationships with (as opposed to a stranger on Twitter!):

  • Wake up your gut. Practice noticing harm in the moment, and trust your instinct. When something feels a little off, or you feel a bit of discomfort in your body, learn to hang on to that feeling and name it in real time, rather than dismissing or trivializing it.
  • Create a moment of pause. Pick a go-to reaction or what my team and I call a pause-word (e.g., “Huh?” “Wait,” etc.) so you can pause the situation and buy yourself time to think about your next move. Practice it until it becomes habitual and instinctive.
  • Ask clarifying questions. Ask the person to elaborate (e.g., “I’m just curious, what made you say that?” “What did you mean by that?”). This can buy you more time to think through your approach and attain more information about where they are coming from. It may also help them to become aware of what they said or did.
  • Describe the impact. “I felt (feelings) when you said or did (harmful comment or behavior), and it (describe the impact).” Focus on communicating the impact of the other person’s action on you, rather than blaming or labeling them (e.g., describe your feelings instead of retorting, “You’re so racist for saying that”). This way, you are able to communicate the impact in a clear yet less-accusatory way without triggering their defensiveness and stonewalling.
  • Model your own learning. Sharing your own learning journey is a great way to disarm the other person. I learned this popular education technique early on in my facilitation journey and have used it many times to diffuse tension and invite reflection: “I used to think ________, then I learned   ________, so now I think ________."      (e.g., “I used to think Thanksgiving is a holiday meant for expressing gratitude, then I learned about its terrible history of white supremacy and genocide of Indigenous peoples, so now I think we need to educate our family about the real history of Thanksgiving to raise awareness”).
  • Request behavior change. If you are able to, provide an alternative behavior to replace the problematic one. “Instead of (behavior to be changed), can you do (desired behavior)?” “I’d love for you to say (desired language) instead.” It’s OK to simply request the behavior to stop, too. “I need you to stop saying (language to be changed).”
  • Suggest additional education or resources. If you have the capacity to support their learning, offer time to check in again (e.g., “I’d be happy to chat with you more about it later. Would that be helpful?”). You also have the option to share resources that may further support their awareness building (e.g., books, articles, etc.).
  • Check in with others who may have been harmed, if appropriate. If there were other people present who may have been harmed, check in with them and offer support (e.g., “I’m so sorry you had to go through that, is there anything I can do to support you?” “Do you want to talk about how you feel?” “I’m here to hold space for you if that might be helpful”).

Depending on the situation, you may use a mix of these strategies. Some situations will feel trickier and require extra care and discernment in your approach to minimize further harm. For example, in the past when I’ve been mistakenly called by the wrong name (of another Asian woman or by my last name, Kim), I’ve appreciated someone else intervening to correct the mistake but without launching into a lecture about how it is a common microaggression to “not be able to tell Asians apart,” which perpetuates many racist tropes against Asian people, or a full-blown history lesson on xenophobia in the United States since the 1800s, yada yada. Sure, the person who caused harm should learn about the impact and reflect on what happened but not necessarily in my presence where I am suddenly under an unwanted spotlight as the subject of their education. In situations like this, it is usually best to quickly correct the mistake and move on, and then continue the conversation with the person who made the mistake at a later time to unpack the impact fully. Sometimes indirect interventions, such as changing the subject or creating a distraction to change the course of the conversation (a personal favorite tactic for when non-Asian men start talking about their Asian wives as they try to relate to me), may prove more effective and, in some cases, safer for the person who is being targeted. Remember, the aim in these interpersonal conflict scenarios shouldn’t be to escalate the situation or to shame the person who caused harm for the sake of punishment. Rather, it is to meet the needs of the most impacted person or community* with utmost respect and dignity by clearly naming the harm and helping practice collective accountability toward positive change.

*Harm can occur even in the physical absence of a targeted community. For example, just because there isn’t a queer person present in the room doesn’t mean it isn’t harmful when a homophobic joke is made.

THERE IS NO SINGLE-HERO MOVEMENT

"We can only truly practice courage when we are afraid." -Mia Mingus

CONTENT NOTE: sexual assault

In 2007, I quit my director-level job at a fast-growing tech company not long after this headline appeared in the news: “CEO sued by ex-employee for alleged sexually suggestive assault.” The said ex-employee was my coworker and dear friend Bea, whose immediate shock and trauma I witnessed that summer evening at a company offsite. I remember knocking on her cabin door, my heart pounding after having run across the compound when I heard she was “in trouble.” Upon seeing the devastation on her face, my survivor’s gut preempted her words. I had seen her cry before but not like this. Memories of my own trauma flooded my body—I knew all too well that she was going to be forced to relive this moment for the rest of her life.

The CEO refused to take accountability for what  happened, and the company attempted to cover up the incident. I remember Bea’s trembles and disbelief when the HR department portrayed the incident as her own made-up nightmare. After contemplating a mountain of risks—endangering her professional reputation and ability to get hired in the future, losing thousands of dollars and months of time on the lawsuit, and compromising her and her family’s privacy, which included her two-year-old son—Bea decided to sue. As expected, the legal battle was arduous and harrowing, as the company did not hesitate to use their resources and powerful connections to intimidate and silence Bea every step of the way.

Anytime someone decides to speak out against injustice, no matter how small of an act, it is courageous.

When someone who has limited power decides to take direct action against those in positions of power by punching upward, it requires daring levels of audacity and conviction beyond momentary courage. In our battle for justice, those in favor of maintaining the status quo will not hesitate to throw their full weight to asphyxiate anything that threatens their power. And it is the righteous duty of those in proximity to the audacious to stand with them in solidarity, if not to push for change then to soothe the pain from the inevitable blowback—because there is always blowback. The first courageous will almost always be cast away as an “anomaly,” “the difficult one,” “the troublemaker,” “the squeaky wheel.” Without the second domino toppling with the first courageous, the trail of change is extremely difficult to accomplish.

And the second domino is not necessarily safe from the blowbacks, either. After I provided evidence backing Bea’s claims, the company delayed my promised promotion. And when I quit without signing a nondisclosure agreement, I received threats from the CEO’s attorney. I walked away from the job without a plan. For the first time in thirteen years, I had no source of income, and the thought of not being able to pay my bills or support my mom haunted me. It was a scary move, but the possibility of looking back at this moment and regretting my complicity scared me even more. Being a second courageous was a jarring experience, albeit a freeing one and one that came with material consequences. Make no mistake, being committed to the lifelong work of social justice is not cost-free, even as the second courageous.

The vast majority of my ex-coworkers chose to stay at the company despite their knowledge of the incident. Out of eighty-something people, only three people quit, including me, Bea, and Marissa, the company’s only Black woman, whose lived experiences had given her the knowledge and understanding of the power of solidarity. The rest decided it wasn’t the right time or the right reason for them to leave. Instead, they said:

“I understand why you’re quitting. I’m so sorry about what happened to her; I hope she feels better soon.”

“I’m trying to buy a house, so I really can’t change jobs right now.”

“I’m not sure where I want to go next.”

“I think I’m just going to stick it out.”

“I’d rather not get involved.”

“My lawyer advised me to stay quiet for now.”

My coworkers had too much to lose. And I get it. It is hard to give up something we’ve worked so hard for or risk our well-being and that of our loved ones. It might even feel unfair that we would have to give up something when we believe we weren’t responsible for the harm. But the truth is my coworkers’ inaction served as tacit approval of the CEO who had perpetuated harm with impunity while diminishing the gravity of the harm, which apparently was awful but not awful enough to warrant a bigger uproar. When we are part of the same system that continues to cause harm and violence, at some point, our inaction and unwillingness to give up our position of relative privilege will blur the line of complicity. Given everyone’s different contexts and the contradictions we all live with, I do not have the moral authority to say that the people who decided to stay were in the wrong. But I want those who stayed to know that while their actions may not have been wrong, they were also not harmless.

I often wonder what would have happened if half the company had threatened to quit. Or what would have happened if some of them, short of quitting, had raised hell inside the company and organized to hold its leaders accountable while advocating for policy and culture change. The real power of the second courageous is being the link that carries the ripple toward sustainable change and away from the intoxicating status quo. Three brave women of color made a statement, but we did not create a movement at the company. We needed five, ten, fifteen, twenty more “second courageous” people to do that. With the domino ending after the third, the ripple toward change halted and the water swung back into equilibrium of inertia. Only now, there were three fewer wheels that squeaked.

The real power of the #MeToo movement was not in the “Me” but in the many “Toos” that followed. It was in the ripple effect of thousands of second courageous coming forward, inspiring others to believe in their power to drown out the noise of toxic naysayers. Let me clarify: the second courageous is not a singular person. It is not an identity given based on a sequence of events. Rather, the second courageous is a role we all get to play to create the domino effect, each of us claiming our power to inspire the next domino. A real movement is never about the bravest voice; a movement happens when a critical mass takes on the responsibility to carry on the momentum of the wave. It’s jumping into the arena so the person already in the fight doesn’t hurt alone. It’s signaling to the rest of the world that they, too, can muster up the courage to act because we have their back. The second courageous is a role for everyone, anytime we witness the brave going against the giant.

You may not always be in the position to be the first courageous—maybe you didn’t spot the harm as quickly as someone else did or maybe your fear made you hesitate—but you have a second chance to realign yourself to your values when someone else decides to take the first step. If you’re not the first courageous, be the second courageous in full knowing that you, too, will be risking something. Be the second courageous because your solidarity matters and because you can tip the scale of power in moments that truly count. Be the link between the first and the rest of us waiting to jump in when the tide turns.

"There is no silver bullet, no one person, no one way. It is literally going to take us all doing all that we can at capacity to move the needle just a little bit. Let's work together. Let's heal together. And if you all are ready to do that work along with me, I can only leave you with these two words. Me, too." -Tarana Burke

About the Author

Michelle MiJung Kim (she/her) is a queer immigrant Korean American woman writer, speaker, activist, and entrepreneur. She is the author of The Wake Up (Hachette, Fall 2021). She is CEO and co-founder of Awaken, a leading provider of interactive equity and inclusion education programs facilitated by majority BIPOC educators, where she has consulted hundreds of organizations and top executives from Fortune 500, tech giants, nonprofits, and government agencies to spark meaningful change.

Michelle has been a lifelong social justice activist and has served on a variety of organizations such as the San Francisco LGBTQ Speakers Bureau, San Francisco Human Rights Commission’s Advisory Committee, LYRIC nonprofit’s Board of Directors, and Build Tech We Trust Coalition. Michelle currently serves on the board of Asian Americans for Civil Rights and Equality (AACRE). Her work has appeared on world-renowned platforms such as Harvard Business Review, Forbes, The New York Times, and NPR, and she has been named Medium’s Top Writer in Diversity three years in a row. She lives in Oakland, California.