Uprooting anti-Blackness in Asian America

Black people are protesting for the right to breathe in a society that has been slowly constricting their airways, suffocating them through racialized tactics: redlining, blockbusting, police brutality and a criminal justice system that disproportionately incarcerates people of color.

The list of Black people killed by police officers continues to grow: Eric Garner. Michael Brown. Tamir Rice. Philando Castile. Ahmaud Arbery. Breonna Taylor. George Floyd.

Yet instead of standing in solidarity with African Americans, the Asian American community has chosen to be silent. We fail to see that by being “neutral” in this war against white supremacy, we are being complicit. It takes only the basest level of human decency to recognize that all individuals have the right to live. If the Black people who were so unjustly killed were Asian American, would we not be angry? Would we not protest?

My Advanced Placement United States history teacher has reiterated over the course of this year that it is impossible to be “not racist” because racism pervades all aspects of society, seeping into our subconscious actions. One can either be “racist,” or one can actively combat racism, becoming “anti-racist.”

We’ve already begun to recognize and to publicize instances of ingrained anti-Blackness. Amy Cooper, a white woman, called the police on Christian Cooper, a Black man, after he asked her to leash her dog in Central Park May 25. An avid bird watcher, Christian Cooper explained to her that dogs were forbidden in the wooded area, which serves as a refuge for over 230 species. Amy Cooper later defended her decision to call the New York Police Department, claiming that she was “not racist,” but her statement only confirms her awareness of the racialized nature of her actions.

As Vietnamese and Chinese, I’ve tried to resist the stereotype that Asian Americans are subservient and docile, constantly reiterating that Asians are not quiet. And yet Tou Thao, a Hmong American man, stood silently beside the police officer as Derek Chauvin dug his knee into Floyd’s neck for eight minutes and 32 seconds.

We called out President Donald Trump when he referred to the coronavirus as the “kung flu virus” and the “Chinese virus,” but we refuse to speak out when African Americans are killed in public. By not advocating for our fellow people of color, we are not only proving the stereotype that Asian Americans are compliant but also that we condone violence.

Anti-Blackness within Asian American communities is not a new phenomenon. After Japanese internment during World War II, white supremacists quickly turned from labeling Asian Americans as “yellow peril”—foreigners unfit to gain citizenship—to championing them as the “model minority.” The concept of the “model minority” was then used as a justification to trivialize the suffering of Black people and perpetuate the idea that racism was not real. If Asian Americans were able to ascend the socio-economic ladder and achieve the “American Dream,” why weren’t Black people able to do the same?

New York University (NYU) student Justin Tung encapsulated this argument in a private message posted in a GroupMe chat: “Being an indentured servant and being a slave is different. But the principle is the same, we grinded significantly harder while black peoples were lazy.”

Tung’s message, along with anti-Black comments made by other members of his predominantly Asian American fraternity, ignited a firestorm on Twitter and prompted NYU to suspend the Lambda Phi Epsilon chapter, according to the school’s student newspaper Washington Square News.

Tung’s argument ignores the fact that African Americans have historically been subject to a crueler, more brutal form of systemic racism than their Asian American counterparts. While Asian Americans were barred immigration to the United States and suffered abuse and discriminatory payment practices, Black people were enslaved, lynched regularly, terrorized by the police and imprisoned for their skin color. The path was treacherous for Asian Americans, but much less so than for African Americans.

It’s easy to condemn Tung and the other NYU students in the GroupMe chat as racist while reassuring ourselves that we are not. However, we’ve seen these same roots of anti-Blackness bury themselves deeper in our own households. Be careful when you walk through Black neighborhoods. And, Asians value education and grit. Why don’t Black people?

By perpetuating these dangerous stereotypes, we feed into the “model minority” myth and the basic power structure that imprisons all people of color.

It is unrealistic to assume that we can eradicate anti-Blackness immediately, but we should take this opportunity to educate ourselves and our families. We need to read about the structural oppression that Black people face to become more aware of our own implicit biases and to be more compassionate.

In my social media feed, the words of Kareem Abdul-Jabbar have appeared again and again: “Racism in America is like dust in the air. It seems invisible — even if you’re choking on it — until you let the sun in. Then you see it’s everywhere.” Will we, as Asian Americans, continue to stifle ourselves with silence? Will we watch as our fellow people of color are killed? Or will we clear our throats and project our own voices, joining the calls for racial justice echoing across the world?

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