3 Ways Asian Americans Can Fight Anti-Black Racism

Activists at a Black Lives Matter solidarity event in Chinatown in San Francisco. (Courtesy of James Q. Chan)

Over four weeks since a police officer killed George Floyd on video in Minneapolis, a nationwide reckoning with anti-Black racism is showing no signs of slowing. In the streets, protestors have participated in demonstrations of all sizes, including a student-led march of over 10,000 in San Francisco and 15,000 people marching for Black trans lives in New York. Online, people have created and shared innumerable resources on anti-racist action and how to break down anti-Blackness in non-Black communities.

This conversation has been especially prevalent in the Asian American and Pacific Islander community—for whom (now fired) police officer Tou Thao’s role in Floyd’s death exposed the deep-rooted ways Asians and Pacific Islanders have benefited from and contributed to systemic racism in America. For much of the last month, there’s been an uncharacteristic immediacy in the AAPI community to share content around dismantling the “model minority myth” and talks of returning to the Asian-Black solidarity of the 1960s. But in reality, these calls to action only scratch the surface of the long history of Asian identity in America. 

To truly create sustained, long-term change for Black, Indigenous, People of Color (BIPOC) in America, we as Asian Americans must go deeper: We must understand our own racial positioning in this country and deconstruct our desire to assimilate into whiteness. We must keep having conversations with family members who lack awareness or carry racist ideals. And, finally, we must recognize that we are all on our own unique journey to solidarity—and that we must work together to create the change we all want to see.

Do Research Beyond Social Media

Social media can be an extremely useful starting point for learning about social issues. But a lot of these one-and-done posts, like ones with the slogan “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power,” make blanket statements that ignore the nuances that make the AAPI experience so difficult to unpack. While many people—myself included—first looked to the phrase as a symbol of Black and Asian solidarity, more information came to light about the slogan’s complicated history. In the ’60s, “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” had two primary purposes: Reclaiming “yellow peril” as a derogatory phrase against Chinese laborers in the 1800s, and showing support for the Black community.

Asian American demonstrators rally for Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton's release from prison in 1969.
Asian American demonstrators rally for Black Panther Party co-founder Huey P. Newton's release from prison in 1969. (Courtesy of Roz Payne's Newsreel archive)

But using the term today becomes more complicated after learning that Richard Aoki—one of the people who popularized the phrase at a rally for Huey Newton, and the only Asian American to hold a leadership role in the Black Panther Party—was revealed to be an FBI informant in 2012. Many activists today also take issue with the term, pointing out that the term “yellow peril” reduces the Asian American experience exclusively to East Asians while mistakenly equating Black and Asian struggles.

The “model minority myth” circulated by white journalists and politicians in the ’60s—which characterizes Asian Americans as a monolithic, law-abiding group that achieved success in America because of their cultural values—is another example of a flawed narrative to unpack. At a high level, we as a community understand how the “model minority myth” hurts us: It reduces the cultural and socioeconomic diversity of Asian and Pacific Islander subgroups to one and divides us from other minorities, like Black and Latinx groups. But deeper interrogation of the myth’s history shows just how deeply its stereotypes and principles have influenced the AAPI community today. 

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In the mid-1800s, after the Western states were required to enter the Union as free “non-slave” states, white elites desired a cheap and plentiful labor source. In order to position poor Chinese immigrants as these ideal laborers, white elites overtly constructed an image of Asian identity in America from 1850-1965 that deemed Asians “superior” to Black people and “inferior” to whites. But perhaps most importantly, as Claire J. Kim describes in “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” newspapers like the San Francisco Daily Alta and sociologists like James Loewen alike stressed how great and apolitical Asians were due to their lack of ability to vote.

Throughout that century, white lawmakers oscillated between qualifying Asians as “Black” or “non-Black” in order to exert power over both groups. And all the while, white elites specifically created stereotypes around Asians as being successful because of their lack of political interest and apathy around social justice—a direct juxtaposition to Black communities fighting for civil rights.

For me, Kim’s analysis concretely shows how Asian communities have been routinely pitted against Black communities. It gives context to the behavior of Asians Americans—such as their unwillingness to speak up in terms of social justice—and helps us understand both the privilege we as AAPI folks have due to our proximity to whiteness as well as the ways we have been disenfranchised.

This kind of understanding is crucial to breaking down why we as Asian Americans have appealed to whiteness for so long. Analyzing these historical moments allows us to reject the racial position whites have defined for us and stand in a place of solidarity with other communities of color in the fight for liberation.

Engage with Your Peers, Family and Community

Sharing our knowledge of systemic racism—and its impact on Asian Americans—with those in our communities is absolutely vital to making meaningful change. While discourse on social media can be cathartic, it also often feels like an echo chamber. Taking the time to speak to those who don’t share your views can instead inspire growth in both parties.

Most young AAPI folks run into issues when speaking to our families: language barriers, sensational mainstream media, and lack of awareness around race dynamics in America often turn these conversations into moments of conflict and frustration. Numerous translations have been created to help folks overcome language barriers around the Black Lives Matter movement. Some AAPI folks have found success in framing the systemic racism Black communities face through historical, international lens. Others draw parallels between discrimination against Asians to build understanding. I worked with a friend to create a guide to help anticipate common rebuttals Asian immigrant families give in these discussions.

Older Asian generations aren’t the only ones we should be engaging in conversation around anti-Blackness, too: Benjamin Hung, a 28-year-old graduate of a high school I attended freshman year, was arrested after witnesses identified him as the person who hit a protester with his car in May. I’m not sure if speaking to Hung one time would have changed what happened, but I do think that continued conversations over the years would have helped.

Ultimately, understanding creates change. And if enough people in our community understand how white supremacy has hurt us all, the more difference we as Asian Americans will make.

Show Up In Your Actions

Dismantling structures that have been around for centuries takes time—but that doesn’t mean there aren’t small actions you can do every single day: Donate to mutual aid funds, Black individuals, and organizations dedicated to the long-term advancement of BIPOC. Buy from Black-owned businesses. Share educational resources. Attend protests. Read Angela Davis, Audre Lorde and other Black revolutionary authors. Learn about the history of feminist solidarity between Black and Asian communities. Call out microaggressions every time they happen. Push for more Black leadership in your workplace. Use your privilege and your voice to consistently advocate for Black lives.

There’s also the inner, arguably more difficult work that comes with showing up too—being open to critique. Listening. Dismantling the white supremacist in our heads. Finding ways to educate in a constructive manner, without tearing others down or making them feel guilty. Lately, I’ve been seeing a lot of discourse around performative allyship that criticizes Asian Americans for a lot of the AAPI work circulating on social media. These critiques make some valid points, such as how we should de-center Asian voices, stop virtue signaling and move past guilt to act from a place of true solidarity. But at the end of the day, we’re all at different levels of awareness.

We’re all at different points on the journey to gain the understanding we need to dismantle white supremacy. As long as we keep learning, showing support and trying to create change, that’s what matters.

Part of the work is realizing that, and understanding that this is a pivotal moment for us as Asian Americans to come together and expose this system for what it is—so that we can finally break it down for good.

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