I'm An Expert In Fear

An inspiring speech.


October 20, 2014

Editor’s note: Diana Hwang was the convocation speaker last month at Salem State University. Our first year reading was I Am Malala and although Diana touched on Malala's life in her talk, she mainly drew on her own experiences. Diana's speech was inspiring in so many ways and I wanted to take this opportunity to share it with our readers as a reminder of why we do what we do! Enjoy. Mary Churchill.

I just want to join in the chorus of congratulations. Congratulations on everything you’ve achieved to get to this day.  It’s exciting -- It’s a new beginning.  But I know that for some of you, that excitement is mixed in with total fear.  So, I’m an expert in that. In that context, I want to tell you my story.

My first job after college was as a legislative aide at the Massachusetts State House.  I remember being so excited when I found out I got it.  I flew back home to Texas for a few days before I started, and I remember excitedly going on and on about it to my dad as he was driving me home from the airport.  My dad is your typical Asian dad - he doesn't show emotion. We didn't hug; we didn't say "I love you" growing up.  When I was gushing about my new State House job in the car, he started tearing up and he said, "You'll never be one of them."  What I realized is that that reflected his immigrant experience in America.

I remember as a five-year old child, being at the grocery store with my dad.  The clerk had overcharged us for something and my dad was arguing with the clerk, trying to defend us.  My dad is one of the smartest people I know -- but at math and science.  His English is very broken, and to overcompensate, his voice gets louder.  I remember watching this interaction, and watching as the clerk talked down to my dad like he was stupid.  And, I remember being so embarrassed and running away because I didn't want to see it.

After working at the State House, I also worked as the chief of staff for a Boston City Councillor, and in both those spaces - the State House and City Hall - I remember being one of the only Asian-Americans in either of those buildings, these buildings of such influence and power.  And, I realized that my dad wasn't wrong.  The message to me seemed to be that: "You don't belong."  I wanted to do something about it, and so I started the Asian-American Women's Political Initiative (AAWPI), the only political leadership organization for Asian-American women locally and nationally.

It’s how I found power in pain.

But here’s the thing that no one tells you when you try to do something like this: You’re freaked out all the time.  And, you constantly have to fight the urge to scream or hide or run away.  So, that’s what you have to look forward to.  Good luck with that!

No, just kidding, so, the other thing no one tells you is that feeling of being scared a lot, that’s actually totally ok -- and, that it usually means that you’re doing something right; that you’re doing something bold, like going to college and starting over. Because no one’s scared of sitting on the couch and watching Netflix, ya know what I’m saying?

The danger for me has been when I give in to that fear and literally run the other way.

A few months into starting the Asian-American Women’s Political Initiative (AAWPI), I got asked to be on a local tv show to talk about AAWPI.  I totally panicked. I didn’t feel like I was ready. So, I lied, I made up a reason I couldn’t be there, and I didn’t do it.  And I really regret passing up on that opportunity.

A year or so later, I got asked to be part of a roundtable discussion on another local tv show to talk about the state of women in America.  So, again, I have a great track record with this, and so I’m freaked out.  I spend all day preparing.  I go and the format of the show is this rapid-fire question and answer discussion.  And, I’m sitting there and I literally can’t keep up with what’s going on.  And, the moderator calls me out with a question and I totally freeze.  I end up saying something, but I don’t really remember what it was, because it didn’t make any sense.  And, this show has the time slot after Meet the Press on Sunday morning so it’s got serious primetime viewing.  So, I’m getting text messages from friends who saw it being like: so, you seemed a little nervous.  Which is really not how I wanted this whole thing to go down.

Except here’s the thing: I showed up. I didn’t cancel, even though I really wanted to. I did it. I bombed it.  I get to relive the whole thing in front of all of you, but I did it.  And there’s something really big about that.  

A young girl once asked Malala who was shot in the head by the Taliban for standing up for girls’ education: How are you so brave?

She said: “I think that bravery is when you overcome your fears and when you think that yes, you can stand up for your rights and you can speak… You are struggling your best. …you all are brave.”

I think that the world is so inspired by Malala because at the end of the day, she is a girl who just wanted to go to school.  And, she believed in it so much that she almost died for it.  

But, for the most part, I don’t think that a person is brave or not brave.  I think that bravery is an endless series of moments, moments when you decide to show up even when think you’re too scared to.

None of you are supposed to know what you want to be when you grow up.  Some of you who think you know are supposed to change your mind.  None of you are even supposed to know everything you believe in.  But you are supposed to take this opportunity at Salem State to begin to try and figure that out, and to know that it’s going to be messy and non-linear.  But to own that and to own your experience here.  That means taking a class that’s kind of interesting to you that doesn’t fill any graduation requirements.  It means applying for the internship you want but you don’t think you’re going to get.  It means introducing yourself to new people over and over again over your four years here and being open to where those lead. Don’t opt out. Show up even though you’re scared.

I just want to say one last thing.  There is a young man who was supposed to be starting college this year too.  Michael Brown, from Ferguson, Missouri.   You’ve all heard about him.  There are still differing stories about what happened, but what we know is that he was this young black man who was shot six times to his death by a white police officer, and he wasn’t armed.  A lot of frustration, a lot of anger and a lot of pain from people everywhere has coalesced around Michael Brown’s death. Particularly, for black men and women who see in Michael Brown that that could have been them or their brother or their son.

As awkward and uncomfortable as having race conversations is, this is where they start, in college.  As you’re starting to explore who you are and trying to understand this world we live in, grappling with race, class, sexual orientation, gender issues – that’s such a core part of it.  Because it’s really personal for all of us, but it’s particularly personal in that I know that the way I experience the world as an Asian-American woman is not the same way as my little brother who’s gay or the woman who sits across from me in class who is black experiences the world. And that if I care at all about these people who will go through my life, I’ll show up for those discussions now, even though it feels uncomfortable and a little scary.

I struggled a lot in college.  I legit did not have a great experience. But the one thing I am forever grateful for are the race and gender classes and discussions that helped me understand what I was seeing as a five-year old girl watching that really painful interaction between the grocery clerk and my immigrant father.  They helped me understand the structures in place that perpetuate the inequalities we see all around us.  And it helped me see the ingrained messages that come to us from everywhere: from the media, from stereotypes, from these things we normally don’t question that make us feel like we’re less than, that we’re not enough.  Those discussions in college are what helped me understand myself better and helped me find my purpose – I never would have started AAWPI without them.

So, over the next years, as you’re pushing through your fears and trying to be brave enough to own your own path, push into the fear a little more – try things you wouldn’t have thought you’d try; (I don’t know if you got this, but that means I want you to take a race and gender class or go to one of the many amazing symposiums SSU hosts: like the Black Symposium or the Darwin Festival.)  Try and change your perspective just a little.    

And, congratulations again.  It’s scary and a little painful but it’s worth it.  I know you’re going to rock it.

Diana Hwang is the Founder and Executive Director of the Asian-American Women's Political Initiative (AAWPI), the only political leadership organization for Asian-American women in the country.  She was recently featured in Boston Magazine for her work and has spoken at the Center for American Progress in Washington, D.C. and a number of colleges including Salem State University, Wellesley College and Dartmouth College about her experiences founding AAWPI.


Back to Top