The Complexity of #Asians4BlackLives

Posted February 18, 2016 by Nicholas Chan

It is officially Lunar New Year, and I again find myself sitting around the dinner table with my first-generation Chinese family. My grandmother and dad are making traditional dishes that they used to enjoy back in Hong Kong during the Spring Festival. We enjoy one another’s company, updating each other on our lives and discussing the latest current events. However, despite immigrating to this country over two decades ago, there is always a conversation missing from the dinner table chatter–race. These conversations are inevitably hard. Myself, and many of my cousins have grown up in the United States and have seen how the generational divide impacts perceptions of race in our households.

I have been so surrounded by social justice and activist spaces that I can forget the strange feeling of returning home and not constantly having those discussion.. As much as I want to take in being surrounded by family again and celebrating the new fortunes of the new year, my thoughts and mind are often elsewhere. Sometimes, I truly lack the words in my native tongue to effectively articulate my ideas and thoughts. I would never want to be anything but intentional with the words I use when discussing race in the United States. I don’t know what the translation is for white supremacy or cis-heteropatriarchy, but maybe these are just excuses.

This gray space that Asian Americans often fall into is difficult to navigate. The Asian American community has its own laundry list of struggles and oppression that they face with complex and unique narratives. We are often faced with the pressure of the model minority myth, a belief that Asian/Asian Americans set an example for other racial minorities because of their assimilation and positionality towards whiteness. It creates divides where we are not “POC-enough” and leads to rampant internalized racism within our community. However, the long history of Asian American’s have sometimes been at the expense of Black people. With trendy hashtag campaigns like #Asians4BlackLives and #BlackLivesYellowPeril, there needs to be a better understanding of the long history of the Asian American and Black community relations.

First and foremost, there has been a long history of anti-blackness in the Asian American community. The most recent example would be Peter Liang, a Chinese American New York Police officer, who has been convicted of manslaughter for racially profiling a neighborhood resulting in the killing of Akai Gurley. Liang has received support from certain Chinese communities arguing that his trial is embarrassing to Chinese people and demanding that the charges be dropped. These kind of comments about the violent police state make attempts at true solidarity seen as disingenuous.

Anti-blackness in the Asian American community is not a new concept. In 1927, Lum v. Rice was an important case where Martha Lum, who was Chinese, sued to be allowed to attend white schools and to not be classified as “colored” anymore. Asian American’s history of distancing itself from black communities and moving towards assimilating to whiteness is deeply ingrained and institutionalized. This is evidenced by recent and historical events, and anti-blackness has impacted transnational views on black people. The most obvious example is black appropriation in the K-pop industry. In an attempt to appeal to Western, specifically American markets, many K-pop music videos and artists appropriate many parts of black culture to profit off of. This violent representation of black people is exported and imported globally to East Asian countries and essentially the mass K-pop audience. Yet again, Asian/Asian Americans are profiting at the expense of black folks.

So, where could we go from here? Yes, there is undoubtedly a long violent history of Asian American’s anti-blackness, but there have been important pivotal instances of solidarity work. The most well documented is the #BlackLivesYellowPeril movement during the civil rights era. Yellow Peril, which refers to the demonization of specifically East Asians, is rooted in Red Scare sentiment and complex post-war relations with Japan. East Asians in America faced violent racist backlash and were racialized as crooks and criminals. The racialized state violence occurring in both the Asian and Black communities allowed for opportunities to work towards solidarity. Many Asian political groups showed up in solidarity for Huey Newtown, a founder of the Black Panther Party when he was arrested in 1967. Black folks also showed up during the death of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American who was brutally murdered by white factory workers believing that Chin was Japanese and at fault for the problems in the auto industry in Japan. There has also been a history of Asian American activists like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs working with Black civil rights groups. Asian American liberation will never come without black liberation. Anti-blackness is always going to be the fulcrum of white supremacy and Asian Americans have a huge stake in race relations in America.

Although East Asians have a contextualized complex history in relation to solidarity with black communities, many other groups, as part of the larger Asian American umbrella, are making strides to work together. Many Muslim organizations made donations and fundraised for black churches during the aftermath of the Charleston massacre. Blacks make up 23% of the Muslim population and these intersections are crucial to solidarity work. The queer/trans South Asian poetry duo, Dark Matter, has shared space with CeCe McDonald and Joshua Allen on trans(*) and gender nonconforming issues related to racialized state violence. Oftentimes, these collaborations within our communities are the best starting points in finding common ground between our different struggles and realizing that our liberation is interwoven.

Solidarity is cautiously optimistic. It requires a deep trust and an understanding of our history in order to work towards a liberated tomorrow. As immigrants to this country, my family and relatives have yet to realize that their position in this country and opportunities that they have, can all be credited to Black people. The racism that they have learned and their assimilation to white supremacy is evident from our dinner table conversations. However, it is never too late, and it is our responsibility to work within our own communities. Our family members are our community too, and their humanity and livelihood will only be affirmed in a world where #BlackLivesMatter.