On the self-damaging way Asian Americans are talking about Anti-Blackness

In 1955, the Bandung Conference was the first large-scale Afro-Asian Conference, in which 29 nations from Asia and Africa met to discuss, among other things, their opposition to Western colonialism. This stamp commemorates the 10th anniversary of the conference.

Note: Thanks to several activist friends who have shared articles and thoughts—including those cited within this essay—that have helped me articulate my own feelings around the popular Asian American response to anti-blackness in the current uprising

In the wake of George Floyd’s murder, we are witnessing a radical abolitionist movement. Community members and activists across the US are calling for a total rehaul of the racist, capitalist, patriarchal systems that have shaped our world today. The stakes are incredibly high, and everyone has a part to play. Which is why it has both worried and angered me to see a particular trend—which is not new but which I have never seen so feverishly, hand-wringingly expressed—overtake so much of “woke” Asian America (“Asian America”). It’s not that we’ve been anti-black in our response, oh no. It’s that in an effort to combat anti-blackness, many of us are overcompensating in ways that are ultimately harmful to ourselves and others.

If you’re reading this, you’ve seen it: post after post saying more or less the same thing: “As Asian Americans, we benefit from white supremacy, and Tou Thao is a prime example of our complicity. DO BETTER”; “We need to talk about anti-blackness in the Asian community. We can no longer just stand by!”; “Asian Americans, check your privilege. If you’re not calling out anti-blackness in our community, then you are part of the problem!!”; “Asian Americans, flagellate yourselves to no end, on account of what shitty conditional privileges you’ve been afforded as a result of the model minority myth, and when you’re done with that, well shit, flagellate yourselves some more!!!”

Of course, with the police killings of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and too many other Black people, it is critical that we talk about dismantling anti-black racism. However, the kind of prostration that seems so widespread among “woke” Asian Americans right now feels more performative than anything else. In many cases, it really only serves to either a) signal wokeness and thereby accrue social capital for the speaker, and/or b) distance the speaker from those other bad, racist Asians, who they are most assuredly not like. This, as Asian American scholar Juliana Hu Pegues says, is another way in which the perennial “good Asian”/“bad Asian” dichotomy has played out among Asians in America. Brief historical detour for context: in the late 19th century, Chinese were seen as “bad Asians”—dirty, uncivilized rats who were out to steal American jobs that no one else wanted to do anyway; by contrast, the Japanese were fewer in number and seen as less of a threat and so were “good.” During WWII, that flipped, and the Japanese were being swept up into internment camps, and suddenly the Chinese were the “good” Asians. Some Chinese even explicitly labelled themselves and their businesses as not Japanese to signal that they were the “good” ones. In the social media age, we see a lot of “woke” Asian Americans positioning themselves as the “good Asians” in contrast to the racist, sheeple-y, “bad Asians.” Unfortunately, this is more self-serving than it is movement-serving. 

To be clear, I don’t doubt that many Asian Americans who are making these kinds of posts also genuinely want to see anti-blackness eradicated and want to see George Floyd get justice. But I also think they often come from a place of guilt and shame—maybe even self-hate—for perceived proximity to whiteness and the privileges it purportedly affords. However, moving from a place of shame is not only unsustainable but is also damaging to ourselves, to the legacy of those who came and fought before us, and thus to the greater fight for justice. Ironically, these posts haranguing Asians for what is apparently our unfettered anti-blackness and privilege, in themselves come from a place of privilege and assume a certain degree of privilege of the reader. This is something Jay Caspian Kang echoes on the Time to Say Goodbye podcast, in a piece that also highlights the inadequacy of the “Asian American” label as it is being used in these kinds of posts. To make such sweeping assumptions and accusations of “our community” (as if such a unified group even existed–not to discount the work of Pan-Asian movements) does a huge disservice to millions of Asians in this country whose lived realities are far from those being assumed. It in fact furthers the model minority myth and its very real ramifications, and replicates white supremacist patterns of erasure. 

I fear that this kind of self-erasure has contributed to a widespread cultural amnesia. And I fear that it will further exacerbate inequities in our communities, because the public simply does not see us as being in need of support. It pains me to see the ways in which so many AsAms gloss over our own people’s histories with respect to American (& British & French &c) imperialism, militarization, and criminalization, supposedly in service to Black people’s experiences at the hands of those same forces. I do recognize that the amnesia isn’t entirely our fault, since our manifold histories don’t get taught in schools, and our elders often have traumas that make it difficult to get those stories through them. But there are also so many Asian communities in the US for whom those memories are immediate and tangible, for whom it would be impossible to forget that they are living in the projects, or being racially profiled, or getting swept up in the crimmigration system, or dealing with PTSD from a war America started. 

I think there is something fundamentally off about the idea that in order to support Black struggle, we as Asians must suppress or downplay our own. I think that actually misses the mark of how white supremacy works, because it implies that one form of white supremacy does not impact another form of white supremacy. In reality, as Claire Jean Kim says, our struggles are mutually constitutive. We would never expect Black folks to “sacrifice” their own histories in order to support Asian struggle, and we shouldn’t expect that of ourselves for other groups either. Besides contributing to the erosion of our own self-knowledge and thus to our ability to coalition-build within our own communities, doing so is also just antithetical to the cause itself. We need to allow our struggles to inform the way that we support Black liberation, rather than framing them as tertiary to or detracting from Black liberation. In other words, even if we aren’t specifically centering ourselves in a given moment or issue, we must still be centered in ourselves.

In a piece on Afro-Asian solidarity for Unmargin, Professor of African-American and Asian-American studies Yuichiro Onishi argues:

To recast an optic on Asian American identification with the Black struggle against the police state, we need to recall our own experiences and memories of living through wars, aggressive militarism, invasion, and occupation in Asia and Southeast Asia, U.S.-led or otherwise; exclusion, detention, and interrogation at the borders, here and elsewhere around the world; and forced mass removal and displacement, deportation, surveillance, and incarceration, then and now.

As an example of the direct line between American policing abroad and at home, Onishi gives the example of the War on Terror:

The ongoing War on Terror has also emboldened the exercise of police power globally…Myriad domestic counterterrorism programs took root in the United States and across the Global North to institutionalize profiling and surveillance. An outcome has been that the clouds of suspicion around Muslims, Sikhs, Arabs, and South Asians have normalized the mainstream perception that “Islam is a threat” and “Muslims are terrorists.”

This also illustrates the ways in which US state policy deeply impacts Asian Muslims and Black & African Muslims alike.

So what we need now, as Choimorrow articulates for Colorlines, is solidarity, not allyship. That so many AsAms have been grounding themselves in the latter rather than the former reminds me of something a friend recalled from a talk that poet Ocean Vuong gave in 2019: that the condition of Asians in this country is always one of “after you”—that we are expected to be deferential, to always put ourselves “after” and in subordination to others. We can, and must, push back against that. In order to shift from allyship to solidarity, we must shift from an “after you” mentality to a “with you” mentality. Rather than saying, “I come after you,” it would behoove all of us—Asians and non-Asians alike—to say, “I come with you.”

In order to say that and mean it though, we have to also believe and understand that we matter—as a matter of fact, but also as a matter of collective liberation. As Asians in America, we are constantly told in various forms, ranging from media to movement work, that our issues “aren’t that bad,” especially in comparison to others’. We internalize that minimization of our pain, to the point that we end up doing the work of white supremacy without even knowing it; we gaslight ourselves. It is critical that we interrupt this cycle by taking the time to investigate and validate our own pain, our own joy, our own humanity. Until then, no one is going to believe we matter–not other POCI and not other activists. And until then, other POCI also won’t truly be able to get free, because their freedom is contingent upon ours, just like ours is contingent upon theirs.

We must also recall our own activism and contributions to society. Asian activists and movements in the US have helped open doors for other immigrants, refugees, and POC, just as others have opened doors for us. I think about Fred Korematsu and the fight against Japanese internment and mass incarceration; Wong Kim Ark and birthright citizenship; Kinney Kinmon Lau and state-sanctioned language barriers in schools; the anti-war/anti-imperialist movement during the Vietnam War. It is a gross injustice to dismiss these struggles under the false notion that Asians have sat idly by as Black people and other POCI have fought. 

We need to start seeing ourselves. We need to see the Southeast Asian families being torn apart by ICE. We need to see the Karen kid on the brink of dropping out because they don’t get any support at school and their parents are poor refugees with limited English proficiency. We need to see the undocumented nail salon worker spending all her days bent over other people’s feet inhaling toxic fumes for shit pay. We need to see our elders who still have trauma from the Cultural Revolution, the Korean War, the Vietnam War, Indian Partition, and on, and on. If we hope to support other people of color and Indigenous people in a way that is true, we must first understand and love and honor ourselves and our own struggles. And we cannot do that until we see ourselves first.

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