Battling Bias Complicity

How Yi Shun Lai advocates for marginalized voices.


Yi Shun Lai is a writer, editor, columnist for the Writer magazine, an MFA program instructor at Bay Path and Southern New Hampshire universities, and a volunteer with international disaster-relief organization ShelterBox. She’s also a fierce advocate for equality and the importance of hearing marginalized voices.  

Yi Shun writes, teaches, and speaks about communication issues, with a focus on diversity. A recent article on her website, TheGoodDirt.org, discusses an inadvertent but blatantly racist comment made to her in class. She explains how our internal biases make us complicit in perpetuating and legitimizing stereotypes and prejudices. Her “Meanifesto,” as she calls it, makes clear that we must call out inequity when we see it, even if it’s not considered “civil.”

Yi Shun explains, “In some parts of our society, ‘call-out culture’ has become very popular, but I don't believe that's the best way to help people see past their own boundaries. I will hew a lot less to these falsely imposed bounds of civility — only laughing weakly, say, when someone makes a racist comment, or letting a company off the hook when they make even a small gaffe — but I think we must keep an eye out for such things and their implications on our society and culture.

“Years ago, I argued with a family member over race and equity. Our tenuous relationship never recovered. Just before a family funeral, I told my husband I was nervous about seeing this family member. ‘You have to be civil,’ he said, and I about lost it. ‘No,’ I shot back, ‘he has to not be a bigot.’”

Yi Shun believes we must be brave enough to talk about race, even if the conversation might be uncomfortable and awkward.

“A colleague came to me sheepishly for some guidance about a diversity audit for a company I volunteer for. ‘I swear, I'm not coming to you just because you're a person of color,’ she wrote. She’d heard that I do diversity and inclusion work, and she wanted to underscore that. I wanted to tell her (and did, later), ‘It's okay! I have known for years I am Asian and you are white and that you might have questions about a thing you’re unfamiliar with.’

“Within that same company, another colleague talked about the supporters of our organization as being ‘traditional.’ I said, ‘Okay, when you say “traditional,” do you mean “white, upper middle-class, and older”?’ We need to articulate these things.

“Being white is not a shameful thing. Having carried around racist ideologies all our lives is not a shameful thing. Needing to come to your colleagues of color to ask a question is not shameful. It’s what we have to work with, so, let's get to work.”

Yi Shun notes that not everyone is okay with being asked questions about what it's like to be a person of color in our white world. And do some homework before you ask questions — and prepare to get uncomfortable.

Reads & Eats

In July, Yi Shun started a new publication called Reads & Eats to gain more experience around food writing, where she “pens an essay about an American food she’s obsessed with, from club sandwiches to Long John Silver’s crumbly bits and everything in between.” But she also shares her platform by featuring emerging marginalized writers to showcase their work.

“I have long harbored a desire to become the Dave Grohl — lead singer of the Foo Fighters — of the literary world. Grohl invites random people up on stage to perform with him, and when those people leave the stage, you can see they are changed — they seem more confident and joyful. I wanted to give that feeling to beginning writers. I will never play to a crowd of 10,000 fans, all screaming my prose along with me, but I can share this platform.

“In my Meanifesto, I note that publishing is 87 percent white at the gatekeeper level, with white CEOs at all ‘Big Four’ publishers. This means that racially marginalized writers get overlooked, and we're not the only ones. Think of the last time you heard about a book by a disabled writer, or someone who's LGBTQIA, or someone who's economically disadvantaged. It's hard to break into this world without someone rooting for you, or some sense of how editing works, or without getting paid for your work. I know. I've been there. This publication is very much defined by its writers and aims to address some of that.

“The whole point of Reads & Eats is to get people to pay attention to the fact that marginalized people belong. We should all be striving to put these ‘marginalized’ narratives front and center, befitting a country comprised of so many immigrants and people and stories that don’t center on the white experience.”

Read Those Books

So how can we, as readers and writers, explore and honor the voices of marginalized writers? Yi Shun offers some suggestions.

“Read and buy our books. An easy benchmark is the U.S. Census: If the last 100 books you read can't meet the numbers of the census, then aim for that. For instance, Americans are 17 percent immigrant and 6 percent Asian. Are 17 of the last 100 books you read by immigrants? Are six of the last 100 you read by Asian people? Are 12 of them by Black people? The CDC estimates that a quarter of the American population is disabled. Have you read any narratives by disabled people? LGBTQIA+ narratives?

“Reading is by far the cheapest, easiest, and most pleasurable way to get to know someone else's experience. Tell other people about the books by BIPOC or marginalized people you're reading. (A super easy way to do this is to add the title of whatever you're reading in your email signature line — a trick I stole from Arizona librarian Wichitaw Busby.)”

Undomesticated

Yi Shun has also started a new venture with Tiffany Hawk, a novelist and writer who worked in travel. Undomesticated publishes “stories by and about women who live beyond the domestic realm.” According to Yi Shun, Tiffany wanted to “recast travel writing, encouraging a space for stories that would treat far-away realms with the respect and grace they deserve, and that would highlight women carving out their own spaces.

“At Undomesticated, we run reviews featuring books that introduce us to cultures that may be new to us, by women who have lived experience in those cultures; and interviews with women who are living boldly in the spaces they have chosen to occupy.”

Outdoor Sports in Pin Ups

Yi Shun’s new memoir, Pin Ups, explores why she’s been obsessed with outdoor sports for most of her life, even though her culture discourages outdoor play for girls.

“Although I’ve thought about this issue for nearly two decades, it really came together when a male friend canoed the length of the Mississippi River by himself, and I experienced a terrible feeling of jealousy and resentment. This is not something I could ever do myself, even though it's a trip that's right up my alley. As a minority woman, I would not be safe doing so.

“From there, I explored leadership, tokenism, and lack of representation in the outdoors and outdoor industry. I have two goals for Pin Ups. One is to get people to recognize the lack of minorities in the outdoors — how inaccessible it can be — then ask themselves why this is. Second, I want people to understand that reading literary nonfiction is a fine way to get to know someone else's viewpoint.”

[Photo by Mimi Snow.]

K.L. Romo writes about life on the fringe: Teetering dangerously on the edge is more interesting than standing safely in the middle. She is passionate about women’s issues and loves noisy clocks and fuzzy blankets but HATES the word normal. Find her on Twitter at @klromo, and Instagram at @k.l.romo.

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