Letter to Dad

Felix V. Sitthivong


In the fall of 2019, I was accused by prison administration of helping to organize a work/hunger strike at Clallam Bay Corrections Center in Washington State to protest the discrimination and unjust treatment of prisoners. 

My door kicked was in. I shackled and thrown on a bus in the middle of night, then driven across the state to sit in the Hole at another Close Custody facility. My charge: causing a disturbance.

Although I was eventually released back into General Population, it was this event that sparked a heated conversation with you about mass incarceration. I know that my incarceration has always been, and continues to be a very sensitive subject for you, mom and everyone. Anyway, I know you can’t understand why I would “get involved in such a mess.” You kept asking why I couldn’t just be “good” for once in my life? “And what the fuck do you mean ‘mass incarceration,’ stupid?”

Shit, great question. Maybe this might help you understand: 

It’s no secret that mass incarceration in this country is deeply rooted in racist ideology and is a direct manifestation of America’s obsession with controlling and disenfranchising Black men. 

If you didn’t know—well, I guess now you know. And if you disagree, I encourage you to research the origins of our country’s law enforcement as slave patrols and then google “Ronald Reagan.”

Like those of us who continue to dispute history, you view the criminal justice system as a righteous institution that may have its flaws yet is even-handed. But on any given Sunday there are more than 2.3 million people jailed in the United States. In other words, mass incarceration is a systemic issue entrenched in power and control that affects us all. 

However, there’s no denying its history and the devastating effects it disproportionately has on people of color. In particular, our Black community.

Nowhere has this taboo issue and the destruction of its people been concealed and neglected more than in our Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community and in particular our family.

Honestly, growing up, I can’t even recall if you ever even talked to me about the criminal justice system—except to promise me that if I ever went to jail you’d kill me. I guess in your eyes, that should have been enough of a deterrence.

Encounters with the criminal justice system by Asian Americans are more than often shunned and characterized as individual anomalies or familial failures, rather than a part of anything systemic. 

So when I was caught for my first case as a teenager for a burglary, I know you and mom took it tough and blamed yourselves. To them, my crime reflected negatively on you and on the way you raised me. As refugees from Laos, I couldn’t assume you would understand the issues that I faced everyday as a Southeast Asian American growing up in the inner city.

Skipping school because kids made fun of me for being in an ESL class (that I didn’t need by the way). Fighting all the time because another kid may have made a racist comment about “going back to China.” And eventually, becoming a member of the Crips when there were just too many of them to fight alone. To you, we were just lucky to be in America. I was supposed to be grateful.

Shame, embarrassment, and the desire to assimilate to American culture continues to fuel this silence, denial, and notion that somehow Asian Americans, and the immigrant community in general, are insusceptible to the ill effects of mass incarceration in America. 

It was this same shame and embarrassment that broke my heart in a King County courtroom while I was on trial for murder. I saw two things that I don’t think I’d ever seen before. First, you missed work to come support me in court—although I jokingly wondered if you were just there to keep a childhood promise. Next, I heard you sobbing behind me as the prosecutor attacked me in his opening statements. Till this day, I’m still not sure if those were tears of fear for me. Or was it the shame and embarrassment from the fact that a respectable white man in a suit was talking down to your son? Were you worried about what that meant for our family’s status in our community? 

Nearly 11 years later, and we’ve still never talked about that day. And the shame I face from that moment is still something that’s locked away in my heart.

Our silence is not unique to this family, Dad. Others who look like me and families that look like ours know what we’ve been through. They know the pain and the shame. What is it that prompts this dangerous reticence in our community?

It can’t possibly be because America has been that good to us, right? I mean, there was the murder of Tommy Le at the hands of the King County Sheriff’s Department in Washington State, continuous ICE raids throughout our community that target our most vulnerable, or how about the recent rise in anti-Asian violence that led to a shooting in Atlanta that killed eight people, including six Asian women?

Perhaps it’s something more conspiratorial?

Could it be that by acknowledging that we also have a mass incarceration problem that we would somehow be reneging on our informal contract with White America to promote and perpetuate a culture of anti-Blackness? That by doing so we would be failing to live up to the preposterous image of the docile, quiet, and submissive Model Minority? 

And by conceding this we would be admitting to having more in common with our Black community than many of us are willing to accept?

Or maybe by affirming this truth we put at risk our ability to benefit from the illusion of power and privilege afforded to us by this wicked unspoken agreement?

All this while the School-to-Prison-to-Deportation pipeline is ravaging our community and preying on our youth. And prison cells across the nation are being filled with faces that look just like mine.

To fully account for our part in perpetuating the Prison Industrial Complex, we must first begin by addressing our history of callous disregard for other marginalized groups. And why we have been so quick to separate ourselves from them while they have been demanding that we all #SayHerName and proclaiming that Black Lives Matter.

Because like most conflicts and infections alike, there will never be full reconciliation and healing until the root of the problem is identified and remedied.

And since racism and discrimination have been so engrained into the very fabric of our community, simply just demanding that there be reforms in policies and laws alone to make up for our past apathy will never truly inspire real change. Only by addressing the deeper painful issues that plague our people can we accomplish that. 

We must be able to confront our demons and loosen the hold that anti-Blackness has on our feelings of shame and subsequent inaction. Not only should we be moving towards abolishing the current system, we must also be striving to abolish the racism that is rampant in the heart of our community.

Reckoning with our indifference means admitting that through our complacency we have been duped into becoming co-conspirators to one of America’s greatest crimes, and been complicit in maintaining a system that continues to devastate our people—whether we’re willing to admit it or not. 

But just admitting our faults is not enough. Reckoning must also include action, and we must show up and be present for all parts of our community in need like our lives depend on it—and they do.

This could be a terrifying idea for those of us who have been able to live quite comfortably in the shroud of willful ignorance.

But this fragile sense of security has been garnered off the backs of those most marginalized and deemed unworthy of true justice. Both those who look like us, and many who don’t. For that, WE OWE! 

And while a fierce few in our community have already begun the arduous task of repaying our “debt” to society (some through time spent forced in cages, and others on the front lines redefining justice), the price is way too steep for anybody to pay alone.

Our people cannot afford to let our fears of losing some sort of artificial privilege justify our lack of response to our moral obligations when the future of all our people depends on collective action possible only through the love and solidarity of all our communities.

But most importantly, we can never allow our shame to silence and stop us from dreaming and fighting for a world where those dreams matter…

And that’s why I’m involved, Dad. I hope you understand.