“You only consider yourselves people of color when it benefits you.”
In a recent episode of the HBO series “Insecure,” Molly (comedian Yvonne Orji) utters this line to an Asian man during a heated argument about racism.
This statement is the crux of the conflict between how Asian and Black Americans interact. While both are often shoved under that umbrella term “people of color,” their differing relationships to whiteness mean that there is no automatic solidarity. In fact, it’s often quite the opposite.
My fellow Asian Americans, you know this well, even if we’re loath to admit it. Despite some of the heartening displays of support all around at the recent Black Lives Matter protests, many in our community have internalized the racism of white supremacy, viewing Black people with a combination of condescension, fear, and distrust. Even if you believe you aren’t racist, you certainly know friends or family members who are.
Tragically, this anti-Blackness can be just as deadly to Black lives as the white racism with which it aligns itself. This was seen in the police killing of George Floyd (in which a Hmong American officer stood by and didn’t intervene) and the shooting death of Latasha Harlins by a Korean-born store owner just before the 1992 Los Angeles riots.
WHY YOU SHOULD SUPPORT THE BLACK COMMUNITY
Recently, a private chat by an Asian American fraternity at NYU was leaked that exposed their racist sentiments (many of them parroting white supremacist thoughts), but also their ignorance. In defending his position of not publicly supporting Black lives, one of the Lambdas wrote, “black people never did s**t for us when we were down,” which simply isn’t true.
First of all, our very identity as Asian Americans was influenced by and built upon the struggles that Black Americans had gone through with the Civil Rights Movement. They helped bolster Asian American causes – from immigration to ethnic studies to justice for hate crimes — and continue to do so, even through the recent racist coronavirus attacks. Black women in particular have been fierce about fighting for many marginalized groups, not just their own.
But common decency and achieving racial equality shouldn’t be transactional. This is about using our privilege to help those whom the system works against. If you’ve never had to worry about using your cell phone, jogging, driving to the store, or wearing a hoodie for fear that the police will shoot or choke you, then you’ve enjoyed privilege. If you’ve never had “the talk” with your parents or kids about staying alive through a police interaction, then you’ve enjoyed privilege.
Many of us are reluctant to stick our necks out. Is it because we fear retaliation from our Asian and white friends? Is it because we really do understand that even though we’ve enjoyed some immunity, we are not truly protected from the inequity of this racial hierarchy?
If we decry the racism that we’ve been subject to, then we can’t compartmentalize and decide it’s OK for other people also to be denigrated, mistreated, and attacked. How can we expect to see justice in our country when we turn away from injustice?
Understanding starts with learning about the Black community and how they’ve been and are currently subject to a racial injustice that is worse than anything we’ve experienced. Salon Senior Culture Critic Melanie McFarland compiled this excellent list of movies, TV shows and documentaries about racism and the Black experience in America.
I rewatched Ava DuVernay’s “13th” on Netflix and PBS’ “Reconstruction” docuseries again recently, and it’s been a grim reminder of just how stacked the system is against Black people, especially where the police and prison are involved.
If you want a better idea of the fraught relationship of Black and Asian Americans in history and today, here are some resources for allyship and additional viewing suggestions:
“Asian Americans” (PBS.org and PBS app)
Not everyone has access to Asian American studies in college (I didn’t), but PBS’ recent docuseries, narrated by Daniel Dae Kim and “Joy Luck Club” actress Tamlyn Tomita, is a pretty good overview. Part 2 (titled “Good Americans” and “Generation Rising”) details how the rise of the model minority myth pits Black and Asian Americans against each other, and the direct benefits that we received from the Civil Rights Movement. In Part 3, “Breaking Through,” we see how the Black community stood by Asians when it came to the murder of Vincent Chin, but how tensions between the two groups led to the 1992 Los Angeles riots. Watch the “Salon Talks” interview with Hari Kondabolu, who is featured in the series and discusses the tension, below:
“The Chinese Exclusion Act” (PBS.org and Amazon Prime)
This “American Experience” episode exposes the very first law implemented to prevent all members of a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating. Digging deep into our nation’s history, it all sheds light on how the Chinese were discriminated against by those who saw them as competition, but also how Southerners viewed them as a possible solution to labor after the abolishment of slavery. Even as early as far back as the Civil War, Asians and Black people had been put at odds with each other by the white majority.
“Burn, Motherf**ker, Burn!” (For free at Sho.com)
This was also on the aforementioned list above, but I still find it essential viewing in regards to the Asian relationship to the Black community. There are a number of documentaries trying to make sense of the LA riots, but this provocatively titled one by Sacha Jenkins examines the civil unrest that set the stage: from the systemic racism experienced by Black people by the LAPD to the murder of Latasha Harlins, which followed only 13 days after the videotaped beating of Rodney King.
Energetic and angry, with a soundtrack to match, the film speaks to community members, jurors, former LA police chief police chief Charlie Beck, residents of South LA, civil rights attorneys, journalists, and famous Los Angeles residents like musicians from Jane’s Addiction and B Real and Chef Roy Choi.
“Insecure” Season 4, Episode 7 “Lowkey Trippin'”
Molly and her “Asian bae” boyfriend Andrew (Alexander Hodge) go on vacation to Puerto Vallarta, where they join Andrew’s brother Victor and sister-in-law Lydia. But when a racist incident occurs, Molly butts heads with Victor, who is blind to how the disparity in their experiences informs their realities.
“Patriot Act” Volume 6, Episode 4 “We Cannot Stay Silent About George Floyd”
Hasan Minhaj also makes a good case for Asians to support Black Lives Matter in a recent episode, acknowledging the colorism and anti-Black racism in the South Asian community, and pointing out how the Civil Rights Movement benefited Asians. You can stream on Netflix or watch below:
REJECT THE MODEL MINORITY MYTH
The perception of Asians as the “good minority” is an image that began in the 1950s and ’60s and holds our group up as an exemplar of what oppressed people can achieve if only they work hard and not cause trouble. This was pure propaganda and doesn’t tell the full story. Not all Asian Americans are successful and rich; in fact, we have the greatest income disparity of any other group. This false image is also harmful to our mental health and is a device to keep us “in our lane” in society.
But even worse, it’s been weaponized against the Black community, to delegitimize their resistance and falsely demonstrate that the system is fair since we, the so-called “model minority,” are able to succeed. Of course the comparison neglects to acknowledge the vastly different experiences, treatment and levels of access given to each group. It’s a distraction that has constantly been utilized to draw the focus away from the systemic racism perpetrated upon Black Americans for centuries.
We’ve been used to keep Black Americans down. If we are not trying to fix this, then we are part of the problem.
Below, check out an episode of “Adam Ruins Everything” that debunks the myth. The show takes a comedic approach but makes good points and includes data:
FIND THE WORDS TO SPEAK UP
Melanie McFarland had also written two very helpful guides breaking down the do’s and don’ts of being a good ally, so I won’t retread that well-traveled ground. But I do want to emphasize that she does start with the most important one: Say something. Anything.
It could be words of support to your Black brothers and sisters, but even more necessary are the words to defend them from the anti-Blackness that we witness in our own communities and homes. Just starting by having a conversation about what’s going on in the world, speaking to a parent about their own history of oppression to draw a parallel to the injustice in America, or voicing disapproval of racial slurs – it all makes a difference and gets easier to articulate over time.
We’ve seen on social media that many companies and organizations have been speaking up to show their solidarity. Sometimes it sounds hollow and performative, but those who draw from their direct expertise and experience bring the most nuance and meaning to their messages.
Groups such as #Asians4BlackLives specialize in actions specifically aimed at supporting and centering Black people. Equity Labs is a “South Asian technology organization dedicated to ending caste apartheid, gender-based violence, Islamophobia, White Supremacy and religious intolerance.” And Wear Your Voice is a digital feminist magazine for and by LGBTQIA+ Black, Indigenous, and people of color (BIPOC). Become familiar with the work that these groups do to learn how to speak up in an informed way.
Individuals can also have just as much impact. In a recent social media post, actor Ryan Alexander Holmes — a half-Black, half-Asian man — spoke up to reveal that the first experiences of racism in his life had been from his own people, Asians, not white people.
Just like white people need to be called out, y’all need to be called out. Because you haven’t done enough. Because you abandoned one of your own. Because of your inherent anti-blackness.
Remember: The officer who stood by as white officer (Derek Chauvin) murdered a black man (George Floyd) in broad daylight, was an Asian man (Tou Thao) – this is a microcosm for the world we live in today. Don’t be defined by your inaction.
So let’s just call it what it is and stop dancing around the issue. You are racist. You are complicit. And you need to do something about it. You can stand with us and we will stand with you in solidarity but you have much internal work to do. Fight alongside us by all means but also work on yourselves. And if I don’t see you after the dust settles after these protests, I will know exactly where you truly stand. The fight never ends for my black brothers and sisters, we’re in this fight for life, so it shouldn’t even end for you.
Because as a Black man I am tired of being a nice model minority Asian man to you.
TOOLS FOR DISCUSSION WITH NON-ENGLISH SPEAKERS
I was lucky since I grew up with both of my parents speaking English fluently, and therefore we could discuss current events. But for many immigrant families, there is a language barrier between generations. In the various Asian American groups I’m a part of, we’ve sought help with each other to have certain terminology, “scripts,” letters (such as this one from a Yale student), or videos (like this Trevor Noah with subtitles) translated for us.
Letters for Black Lives is an open letter project on anti-Blackness that began with a 2016 letter but has been updated for 2020. On the website, one can find translations — some published, some recorded — in various languages to express to your family members your support of Black lives. The Vietnamese one isn’t on the site yet but has been translated separately.
And finally, the Black Lives Matter “carrd” that has been circulating has been translated into many languages, but not all. Nevertheless, it’s still a handy resource as a hub for donations, petitions, etc.
Don’t be afraid to speak up even if you don’t know the exact right words yet, whether it’s in English or another language. Accept that you will make mistakes, listen and learn.
Discussion is essential, even if it’s uncomfortable. Take a cue from Matthew McConaughey, who appeared on “Uncomfortable Conversations With a Black Man.”