(Saengmany Ratsabout has a Master of Arts in Southeast Asian Studies from the University of Wisconsin-Madison as an Advanced Opportunity Fellow.)
Every April, we Laotians prepare to celebrate the auspicious Lao New Year. We commemorate and cleanse the past, and celebrate our success and accomplishments. This year, I received an invitation to the Minnesota Lao New Year 2007 Celebration from the Lao Buddhist Association of Minneapolis. I was appalled and saddened to learn that I, as a Lao-American, would have to pay an entrance fee while this same fee was being waived for Caucasian Americans. The invitation letter indicated that all attendees must pay a fee of $15; “however, the admission fee for the afternoon cultural program is waived for our American guests.”
What does this mean for me? Am I not an American? Surely, this is not the first time the Lao New Year Organizing Committee implemented this policy. The first thing I did was to reply to the Committee by email and drafted a letter of grievance to the Lao Buddhist Association of Minneapolis, stating my concern and deep disappointment. Have we, as a community, come all this way to reduce ourselves as second-class citizens? Why do we allow discrimination against each other in our own community?
To my outrage, I received this response from a Lao community member: “Your well-stood position of equal rights ought to be compromised with an issue of courtesy.”
Compromise my equal rights? I would never agree to have my equal rights compromised (or anyone else’s) for monetary gains. Most community members of the internet forum, to which I belong, were sympathetic to my anger and agreed that this unfair policy sends a conflicting message, yet felt they were not in a position to say anything.
A representative from the Lao Buddhist Association of Minneapolis responded to me by saying, “…this is a wrong message, but the point is to share our heritage and to increase our visibility in the larger community.” My response to this is that, there is a better way to achieve visibility in the larger community and this one event is not the only thing the Lao community has to offer. In addition to my inquiry, I was told that, “…the fee is waived for children under 15 and Caucasian-Americans.”
With the understanding that this event is a fundraiser, I propose either we all pay the same amount or nothing at all. Who is going to stand at the door and question our nationality as Americans? Where is the line drawn? Will they simply allow any Caucasian person to walk in there, yet stop my wife, who is neither Lao nor Caucasian, to question her nationality? Furthermore, assuming an African American or a Latino was to attend the event, would they have to pay the entrance fee as well because they are not “Caucasian American”?
My intention in bringing this issue up is that we should not be discriminating against each other. My point has been misconstrued by some; this isn’t an issue about money--this is about being fair and doing what is right. It is not my intent to cause schism to the Lao community or any community, but we should be able to speak about issues that affect us through dialog. There has to be change and change can only come through dialog and understanding.