“What’re you sightseeing, camel-jockey?”
I was playing with my infant outside of our rental home. We’d been living there for about two weeks. The house backs right up to the train tracks, and my silent shock was violated by a series of three drawn out train whistles. I looked over and saw a disgusting slop of a human, tits out to here, breathing hard in my direction. “We’re the new neighbors. You met my husband a little while ago.”
“Oh, that’s the r—-d?”
“My kid had motor delays. Probably my husband had mentioned it. You need to watch your mouth.”
He was shouting now. “Don’t come into my neighborhood and tell me what I say. I look out for this place.”
We were both renting manufactured homes that shook and dropped dust six times a day when the train drove by. Am I really about to fight someone over this? Then he stepped onto our lawn, where my kid was playing on a quilt. He was pathetic and crumpled looking, so I took a chance, walked right at him and kept walking, making him step back. “Your piece of shit door isn’t gonna stop me from killing you in your sleep. Get the fuck inside your house.” And he did. But the threat was empty, and I wasn’t about to kill anyone.
Then Trump won the election, and I cried all night while staring at the baby monitor, just in case. I didn’t sleep for several weeks, always staring at the baby monitor. Every day my neighbor started sitting on a chair outside his front door.
I carried my kid to the car. “Sand n—-r.” “Dune C–n.”
Heading back inside. “Mustard bitch.”
One day, I caught a bit of, “Lucky I don’t accidentally drop a cigarette and light your house on fire.”
We need a gun.
Yeah, I know guns don’t prevent fires, but I was spent and powerless. I would have loved for a different means for feeling safe in my home, but it’s not like my landlord or the police were about to protect us. It’s not like any other neighbors were looking me in the eye. It’s not like I had any reason to believe that anyone but us had our safety in mind. What shocked me most of all was the defense people mounted for this guy. “He’s just a crazy old man.” I had to keep adding, and also “he’s a bigot who has threatened to burn down my house.”
It turns out, the more White a neighborhood is overall, the more confident everybody feels about the police in that neighborhood. So in my very White town, all my neighbors and friends — even the Asian one — assumed the police would have it under control if it were really serious.
I was getting help for anxiety even though anxiety was the exact appropriate response to this situation. And it occurred to me, when it comes to background checks and the law, both of us have an equal right to gun ownership. So I needed to feel like I had done everything in my ability to level the playing field for us by getting my permit and buying that gun.
I started sleeping a bit. I was able to work again without constantly being afraid for my kid and home. And even though it cost us our savings and a little extra on credit, we got out of there. I don’t think I’d have had the fortitude to sleep, work, eat, and shower without my gun and trips to the gun range.
I was raised in a Sikh home, and Sikhs, who have been the target of hate crimes in the U.S. since the early 1900s, are not pacifists. One of their articles of faith is a Kirpan, a sword worn on the body. The purpose of their weapon is not violence, but for self-defense and the defense of others. When you’ve tried and failed every other attempt at peace, Sikhs say, you have an obligation to yourself and the most vulnerable around you to draw your weapon. I myself was taught to shoot and to use a bow and arrow in my pre-teens, though it was never suggested that I’d need those skills per se.
After a white supremacist killed 6 people in a Sikh Gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, many Sikhs who had similar skills chose to carry their weapons at all times, and the visibility of Asians with a prior interest in weapons has increased as a result. Gursant Singh Khalsa, who brought a lawsuit against the state of California for infringing on his first, second, and fourteenth amendment rights, testified:
“I feel, as far as my religion goes, it dictates that we should have all weapons of all kinds to defend ourselves. By not being able to carry an assault rifle or weapon that has a high-capacity magazine, I don’t feel that I can defend myself or my family.”
Similarly, the Asian American Gun Ownership Facebook page reads, “We are here to debunk the narrative that asians are all left wing commies who are defenseless and do not own, or take interest in firearms.” There are many narratives that got us here, but Asian-American gun ownership is on the rise, and Asian gun owners are becoming more diverse, a trend which has recently caught the attention of the members of The Calguns Foundation. Their message boards have been chattering lately about winning the Asian gun vote for the Republican party.
They are, possibly, reaching the wrong conclusions, but the folks at Calgun may not be the only ones with some confusion. Changes in consumer patterns in a traditionally Democratic constituency might throw off Republicans as they draw new districts in 2020 using RedMap.
But there are still deeper cultural anxieties for Asians. Alice Chen, executive director for Doctors for America, has called for increased gun violence research. Her husband Vivek Murthy, the former Surgeon General of the United States, took a hard position against gun violence as well, but he never commented publicly on the matter while in office. (It’s important to remember that gun control doesn’t mean ending the sale of guns, and gun violence has a broad and complex definition. The 2016 Democratic, Green, and Libertarian Party candidates all supported some restrictions and increased background checks, but nothing as severe as a ban).
American media feeds us this narrative that says minorities who have guns must be criminals or sex objects, and as far as we’re told, model minorities aren’t supposed to fight back in threatening situations in real life.
Some Asian activists are responding to the most recent spike in hate crimes by conducting community training against “hijab-grabbers,” and Muslim women, like Zainab Abdullah who teaches a self-defense course for the deaf and hard of hearing, are doing amazing work. Check out her website Deaf Planet Soul, where she posts videos with prevention and safety tips.
Many hijabis choose not to carry a weapon because their religious beliefs are in conflict with the idea. For those who practice their faith in a way that is open to guns, I can hardly fault them for not carrying, given the danger they bring upon themselves if their weapons are seen. For this reason, I think it’s even more incumbent upon the rest of us to develop our skills, comfort, and safety with firearms.
Not every hijabi is a fit 20-year-old on a mission, though, and there’s a lot of PR risks involved. But, if an elderly auntie, for example, with three hours of community-center self-defense training gets grabbed and doesn’t really know what she’s doing, any ambiguous attempt at self-defense can actually increase her risk of injury. We can’t only promote defense tactics that work for young or able-bodied individuals. Self-defense for people over the age of 50 is often preventative and weapons based. Attackers are younger, faster, and more agile in most cases.
I asked my 64-year-old Sikh mother how she’d feel about taking a self-defense course and using combat techniques in case somebody came up on her. She said, “Sure, as long as I’m being attacked by another senior citizen!” She did say she would rather have a gun and get good training, but she would try not to kill someone. Given her response, which feels logical to me, I’m in support of her learning to use and carry a firearm.
We’ve all been attending to other stereotypes and myths about Asian American success because we know those images wreck us. But when it comes to the utility of armed resistance and self-defense, Asian American Millennials have been lagging in their thought process by buying into the belief that the U.S. should end the sale of guns. This is a gift to White people who are twice as likely as we are to own a gun and half as likely to be killed by one.
But White people sometimes remember their crimes better than we do, and I wonder if that’s why we hesitate but they embrace this stuff. It’s good to stay hopeful that peaceful efforts toward systemic change will free us all, but it’s also good to hope that you will be on the surviving end of a violent encounter. To be fair, I’m all for getting rid of all the guns in the world, but only if we start with the White people.
Nami Thompson is a New York born artist and writer. She has a background in neurobiology and public policy and is currently a civic leadership cohort fellow in Colorado. Her capstone civic engagement project focuses on intergenerational mentorship and increased access to social capital.
Feature Image via U.S. Air Force, Senior Airman Dennis Sloan