A Teachable Moment for Kat Zhang

This is a response to the blog post, “A response to Mr. Sampson”, by Kat Zhang on Sunday, September 21st, 2014.

In summary, my wife and daughter attended a book signing by HarperTeen author Kat Zhang at the Little Shop of Stories in downtown Decatur on Saturday, September 20th, 2014. While I was not at the event, I am greatly concerned and responsible for both my wife and my daughter who are both credible sources about the events in their own lives.

Ultimately, this is not about Kat Zhang, the bookstore, the book, the other authors present, or her fans or twitter trolls. In this specific case, it’s about the wellbeing of our daughter. Our daughter’s growth and emotional balance is important to society as we make an effort to raise a well-balanced and well-rounded young lady. It’s also about the millions of black youth that are “jokingly” but seriously targeted and robbed of their innocence like this everyday by irresponsible adults, often to their detriment.

During the exchange, my daughter, who is unapologetically African (Black) American, was asked by Kat Zhang (an Asian American) at least three times to promise her that she would purchase the book after she signed it. In that moment, my teenage daughter said she “felt isolated” and was “shocked” at the suggestion that she wouldn’t pay for the book. My daughter stood in silence. My wife (also African American), appalled by this exchange, asked, “Do you ask all of your readers at a book signing to promise to buy your book [after you personalize it]?” My wife went on to state, “My daughter’s life is too important to throw away over stealing your book.”

At that point, Kat did not take the opportunity to apologize for any misgivings or making a “joke” in poor taste. (In fact, Kat admits in her response, that she was confused about my wife’s comment.)

My wife intentionally sent our daughter to the cashier so she – and the other patrons – wouldn’t have to hear the conversation about to be held with Kat. She took the time again to talk to Kat and ask her if she was aware of the affect that her comments had on our daughter, as well as the meaning of her comments in a larger historical/societal context, especially where race and culture in America are involved.

My wife reminded Kat that we attended the signing of her first book at a local Barnes and Noble, where her father was positioned behind a bookshelf as he made an effort to discreetly snap pictures. And there, we paid for the book after it was signed, as is our experience at the many book signings we attend and host as authors and publishers ourselves.

Then my wife asked Kat to look around at the room of all white, adult patrons and asked Kat for the second time, “Do you mean to tell me that you would ask her about paying for a book here—in the face of stereotypes and crime statistics regarding race; although when you do the research, black crime is less than 5% but people irrationally perpetuate and pretend that it’s 99% of all crime?”

Upon realizing that she had asked the only black child in a room full of white people to promise to pay for the book (in other words, not steal the book) is stereotypical and implies criminalization, Kat responded, “I see what you mean.”

After she finally realized the impact of her words, Kat asked my wife if she wanted her to apologize to our daughter. Upon our daughter’s return from the cashier, my wife asked our daughter if she wanted Kat to apologize. When Kat finally stood up to come over, she quickly apologized but continued to insist that she was just joking when she made the original comment to our daughter. Our daughter stood there silently, seeing through the pretense of Kat’s apology while continuing to insult her with the idea of her “lighthearted joke” about our daughter (and/or her mother) promising to pay for a book that costs less than twenty dollars. Per my wife, all of this was after Kat’s supposed “Aha!” moment.

Kat still insisted that she was joking and would have said the same thing to anybody. But the fact is, she asked our daughter. My wife continued, “If she were white, you would have assumed she had the money. If she was Asian, you would know that to save face, she would not even come without the money. What indication did my daughter give you that she would steal?”

Kat blurted out, “I wasn’t trying to be racist.”

My wife laughed and said, “It’s interesting that you would say racist, because racism implies money and power, both of which are present here. It is the suggestion that you cannot hire a group, fire a group, redline an area and tell the people that they can only live here, give a deal, or deny distribution. So clearly, racism does involve money and my daughter was using her own money to come see you and buy your book. She did not expect to be treated in such a manner.”

Upon observing our daughter’s silence, my wife tried for the third time to reach Kat and explain that our daughter was excited and had come to see her and pay for the book with her own money; paralleling it to the Montgomery Bus Boycott where Rosa Parks, Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and the black citizens of Montgomery, Alabama decided to “keep their dimes” in the face of being continuously criminalized and being treated as second class citizens in the face of paying with their hard earned money. Candidly, after my daughter’s experience, I wish my daughter had declined to purchase Kat’s book – thereby exercising the power that is connected with her economic power. From what I am told, one of the other authors was much kinder. Note: I’m not referring to the author that took it upon her self to pejoratively step into the conversation and dictate how we should think and act.

As adults who know American history and the reality that blacks in America and around the world have fought and died for centuries to obtain human dignity for all minorities as well as women, it is our hope and desire that our children would not have to be subject to the racist individual and institutionalized practices of older generations, nor the transference of these old ideals to millennials like Kat Zhang, an immigrant American who stands on the backs of blacks and their blood, sweat and tears—past and present.

At this point, there was nothing else to say and my daughter and wife turned to leave. As I tweeted, my daughter, an early fan of Kat Zhang and her writings, was deeply disappointed at the entire experience and Kat’s inability to see her own racism.

In her response, Kat suggests that my wife and daughter “were smiling when they left,” thereby implying that the matter had been resolved. In reality, my daughter said she was smiling because she “felt safe with her mother present.” My wife said she was smiling because she was “happy to be able to walk our daughter through the encounter knowing that all too often, our black sons and daughters are overly criminalized and targeted by adults who are playing out their own insecurities and self hatred.”

Since we’re talking stereotypes, Kat actually played out the role of the stereotypical “Chinese grocer” that follows black people around a store assuming that they are stealing. The presumption is that someone in a store is always stealing and that the assailant is usually black, whereby statistically, this is false.

So, while Kat tweeted about how wonderful the event was, my wife and I spent the remainder of the evening and early part of this morning managing how our young daughter was impacted by being “criminalized” and “presumed” guilty for nothing more than the color of her skin. Our daughter should have been able to “skip in,” get her book signed, look around for other books that she might want, pay for her books and leave. Remember, in the marketplace, customer service is the precedence, not racism and discrimination. Keep that in your home.

In the face of her apology for simply “making a lighthearted joke,” we’d rather that Kat Zhang be forthright, publicly apologize to our daughter for her emotionally abusive “joke,” seek a definitive change in her character and leverage her influence to create a definitive difference in society towards the disruption of stereotypes against black and brown youth and young adults. HarperTeen (Harper Collins) should hire a diversity and inclusion consultant immediately. The bookstore should work to ensure that all its customers, regardless of race, creed and sexual orientation, have a great experience.

If open, my wife, daughter and I believe this is a great opportunity for a teachable moment for Kat Zhang, her readers and bystanders, particularly as it relates to properly understanding and successfully navigating racial and cultural sensitivities in America and beyond. We encourage her as a New Adult with a platform to fight racism and injustice everywhere.

In a world where women, particularly women of color, are disproportionately subject to all forms of abuse and become criminals in their own victimization, it is important that we collectively work to end bias, discrimination, racism and misogyny while insisting upon the empowerment of all women – black, white or other. Only then can the same young adults that embrace the alternative realities of Kat Zhang’s writings experience a full life of equity, parity and access to opportunity in this universe.

Unlike with the second souls of the characters in The Hybrid Chronicles, young black girls aren’t going to fade away.

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