I ride a motorcycle, I have a bright yellow motorcycle. It has a custompaintjob. I've got a yellow riding suit, kids see me and I tell them I'm the yellow power ranger and it's something that doesn't conform to any stereotype of how Asian Americans ought to behave, right? I ride because I enjoy riding, but I also enjoy making people pause for a moment.
I grew up in Detroit, Michigan, in the 1970s. I was always a little angry withmy parents because I thought it was their fault that I face the childhood cruelty of the playground. You know, the Chink, Jap, Gook. So when I was a kid growing up, the last thing I ever would have wanted to do, was talk about or think about race; ethnicity. That all changed though, because I grew up in Detroit, the motor city. That was the hardest place in America to have an Asian face during that recession. My dad was an engineer for his entire career at Ford Motor Company. Indeed, if you'd gotten rid of all of the Asians from the motor city, research, development, product design would have come to a halt because all of the big three domestic automakers depended on Asian immigrants.
Times were tough all over the United States but they were even tougher inDetroit. So that's why this was the place for the Vincent Chin case. In 1982, a man named Vincent Chin, 27 year old of Chinese descent. He went out to celebrate his upcoming wedding, for a bachelor's party, he went to a strip club, ran into two other gentlemen who were autoworkers. And they looked over at Chin and started to use racial epithets, obscenities, and one of them ended up saying "you little motherfucker, it's cuz of you motherfuckers we're out of work". So before the evening was over they had taken a baseball bat and with repeated swings at Chin's body and his head, cracked his skull open and a few days later, he died of these mortal wounds.
Though I didn't know Chin, I didn't know his family; I knew that could have beenme, that could have been my older cousin. That there was somebody whose experiences in the most brutal way demonstrated the power of words. Chink, Jap, Gook, that it wasn't enough to say as my teachers told me, just reply that sticks and stones will break my bones but words will never hurt me. I became convinced that words could do damage, words were powerful. But that meant that words could be the means by which we change the world.
The dominant image of Asian Americans is the model minority myth, we all knowthis myth, it's the idea that I graduated from high school when I was 12, right? To be a model minority is to be submissive, passive, deferential, quiet. It's not to be a radical or rabble rouser or protestor, a civil rights activist, right? To be a model minority is to be different than a problem minority. That's actually how the term was first used, to contrast Asian Americans with African Americans and other people of color. Asian American communities, they have not seen, in general, the importance of vigorous participation and the hurly burly, the give and take of democracy; the value of making a fuss.
For most of my career I taught at Howard University, the nation's leading,historically black institution. I was the first Asian American law professor there. It changed my life profoundly, made me realize the importance of saying, "your cause is my cause, it is a common cause." Because if I stand up and just talk about the Vincent Chin case or other instances where, in my gut, I feel that could have been me, that's not civil rights at all. That's just self-interest, that's my own hurt feelings, my own sense that my life is on the line, what's crucial is that we see there are principles involved that affect others.
I'm Frank Wu. I'm a civil rights lawyer, author, professor and a motorcyclist.