A few months ago, a friend and I grabbed a quick late-night meal with a new acquaintance we had made earlier that night. Everything seemed to be going smoothly—for nearly an hour, we chatted animatedly about television shows, our shared experience of Asianness, and our favorite outer boroughs—until, mid-fry, he dropped an anti-black slur. Shocked, my friend and I immediately stopped eating. After a few uncomfortable seconds, he held his palms up and half-rolled his eyes. “I’m not racist or anything,” he assured us. “People back home say these things all the time—and we’re all people of color.”
People in my community do, in fact, say these things all the time. Whether we realize it or not, anti-blackness is deeply ingrained in many East and South Asian communities. Aside from the more glaringly racist comments made in private, this fact is evident in our growing media representation: Why, for example, did Brian Imanuel think Rich Chigga was a good stage name? Why did South-Asian rapper Heems justify his use of the N-word? And why did Eddie Huang state that Asian men face just as much racism as black women? In the comments we make and the communities we exclude, we seem to recognize our own marginalization but perpetuate stereotypes about other communities of color.
For me, realizing such exclusion began with the gradual exposure to Asian-American activism—at home, a relatively rare phenomenon, even if we were all at least semi-conscious of our otherness. Nearly every waking moment of the day, I am hyperaware of the space I take up in this world. To be an Asian-American woman is to know that others will look at you, realize you exist somewhere between there and here, and immediately decide how they will make sense of you. People do not need to ask me what I am—Chinese? Korean? Something in between?—to assume that I will behave a certain way in this world, just like every other Asian woman before me. Maybe I have internalized some of this—I associate Asianness with delicious spices, bright silk dresses, and my first lantern festival; in a culture that canonizes conformity and silence, however, I do not associate it with speaking up—especially about social inequities.
Nothing was more surprising than New York, where people express their beliefs boldly and unapologetically. At Columbia, I met Asian student-activists who championed intersectional feminism and recognition of people of color, posting lengthy Facebook statuses about institutional oppression and white privilege. They touched upon more race-specific issues as well—the fetishization of Asian women, for example, and the model minority myth. Although witnessing activism was not entirely new to me—at home, my peers would occasionally speak up about socioeconomic disparities and call out microaggressions—I had never encountered so many Asian peers who so easily broke the cultural confines of silence and conformity.
This is not to say that Asian Americans don’t boast a rich history of activism. During the 20th century, the Asian-American movement promoted engagement in New Left movements such as the movement against the Vietnam War, the Berkeley Free Speech Movement, and protests against Japanese internment camps. More recently, Asian activists have mobilized against the president’s move to end immigration policies like DACA and the RAISE Act, as well as Massachusetts’s Disaggregation Bill. More Asians are gaining representation in entertainment and media—and they’ve spoken up about the injustices they’ve encountered along the way.
But what does it mean that an Asian-American police officer killing an unarmed black man produced the largest wave of Asian-American activism in recent history? For the first time, my Asian friends from back home—many of whom rarely speak up about social issues—lambasted Peter Liang’s manslaughter conviction. “He did nothing wrong,” they reasoned. “The world is against us.” But deep down, there seemed to be a different question on the table for my peers: If white officers get away with this all the time, why can’t Asians, too?
It’s true that Asian Americans benefit from white institutions—and more so than any other community of color. Although Asians still face discrimination in the workplace, they make more money than any other ethnic group—white people included—in the United States. The model minority myth, although incredibly harmful, has long been used to extol whiteness, divide Asians and other people of color, and justify the disproportionate amount of poverty and profiling experienced by black and brown people.
So how can Asian Americans practice a more inclusive activism? It’s a long process, but we’ve made some notable strides. Letters for Black Lives and Asians4BlackLives are projects that address anti-blackness in Asian communities, and more activists are calling upon Asians to support Black Lives Matter. On campus, the Asian American Alliance denounced the Peter Liang protests, standing in solidarity with Akai Gurley. And still, we can—and must—do more. We need to address the ways in which we are complicit in perpetuating institutional racism, despite being disenfranchised ourselves. We must re-examine the microaggressions we make against other people of color, stop using African-American Vernacular English, and show up for other marginalized communities when they need us. While activism in Asian-American communities should be celebrated, it is more important than ever that we stand with our fellow people of color. In the face of violent white supremacy, solidarity—which begins with breaking a culture of silence and prejudice—might just mean everything.
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