In the wake of the deaths of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery, Asian American activists and social justice organizations have made renewed calls for solidarity and allyship with Black communities.
A deeper and often more difficult step for Asian Americans has been acknowledging and frankly discussing the anti-Blackness engrained in their own communities. But some are trying to begin that work.
Anti-Black racism in Asian communities is tied to the “model minority” myth, which white political leaders, particularly in response to the civil rights movement in the 1960s, wielded in order to drive a wedge between Asian Americans and other people of color. Many Asian immigrants internalized that mentality, operating under the false impression that being a “good” immigrant could help them assimilate into whiteness and align themselves with white people.
“If we hope to end this violence — all of it — we must reckon with our complicity in this tangled web of white supremacy, and our responsibility to dismantle it.””
At its absolute worst, this dynamic has resulted in high-profile incidents of violence. Following the Los Angeles police brutally beating Rodney King, Korean shop owner Soon Ja Du shot and killed Black teenager Latasha Harlins, the two catalysts for the 1992 LA riots.
One of the former Minneapolis police officers involved in Floyd’s death was a Hmong American named Tou Thao — who, as seen in the widely viewed video footage, did nothing to stop white then-officer Derek Chauvin from killing Floyd. (On Wednesday, Thao and two other former officers were charged with aiding and abetting murder.)
It takes a lot of work to untangle and eradicate this, acknowledging that Asian Americans have faced their own racism throughout history — including during the current COVID-19 crisis — but have also sometimes instigated anti-Black racism, as many activists and social justice organizations have pointed out in recent weeks.
“The anti-Asian violence being directed at our communities during this pandemic is inextricably linked to the anti-Black violence that allows the police to murder unarmed civilians like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that teaches the Amy Coopers of the world to weaponize their white tears to summon those same police, that teaches us to stay silent while those same police commit those same murders as if that will somehow protect us,” said Densho, an organization that works to preserve the history of Japanese American incarceration during World War II, in a statement. “If we hope to end this violence — all of it — we must reckon with our complicity in this tangled web of white supremacy, and our responsibility to dismantle it.”
HuffPost spoke to a number of Asian Americans grappling with how to start these often painful and messy conversations with their family members. Many were younger Asian Americans who were born in the U.S. or immigrated here as children, trying to engage their older immigrant parents — with varying results.
While some said Floyd’s death catalyzed the conversation, many said they’ve been having these tough conversations for years, as they themselves have gotten older and started to interrogate this internalized anti-Blackness.
“It’s important to know that I personally was very racist as well. Like, I don’t think any of us ever want to say the words in that format. But the truth is, if you harbor racism, you are racist in that moment,” said Angeli Patel, who is Indian American. By college, she started to grapple with it, and “after sort of confronting it myself, I didn’t wait. I kind of just immediately started to confront my parents.”
For Asian Americans, anti-Black racism routinely comes up in coded terms during everyday conversations. Several people recounted that some of their early memories of what they now know to be anti-Blackness came when their parents would associate Black people with criminality, such as warning against going to “a rough neighborhood” because it was “unsafe.”
“At the time, I really only interpreted that as parental concern for my well-being,” Cara Harbstreet, who is Korean American, said of her mother. “And now in hindsight, I have seen that statements like that [were] really her own internalization of this anti-Blackness that I think she absorbed not only from assimilating into white culture, but also those biases that stem from being Asian as well.”
Vaidehi Gajjar recalled that one of the first moments she remembers questioning her Indian immigrant parents’ anti-Black racism came as a child, when their home was burglarized. Her parents automatically assumed it was one of their Black neighbors.
“I remember asking like, ‘How do you know it was them?’ And they were never able to give me a real answer to that,” she said. “It was just: ‘We know it’s them.’”
In trying to start conversations about anti-Blackness with their parents, several people said they’ve had a hard time getting at the issue specifically. Instead, they’ve found other entry points, such as talking about the model minority trope; colorism in East and South Asian cultures, where lighter skin is valorized; or systemic racism more broadly.
“When I take it on a systems level, then he is more likely to engage with me,” Diana Lieu, whose family immigrated from Taiwan, said of her father. “Other times, I’ll point out something that feels more personal to him. And in those conversations, he definitely shuts down, and we fight about it, and it’s not as productive.”
Patel said placing history in a personal context has helped her talk to her mother about the centuries of racism against Black people.
“I explained to her, like, ‘Imagine like coming to this country, and people tell you that you can’t own land, or you can’t have money. Would you even immigrate here?’” Patel said. “And she’s like, ‘Absolutely not.’ And it really hit her.”
Many people said they have tried to open the doors to a conversation by sharing articles, books and other resources. For instance, diversity and inclusion advocate Michelle Kim’s widely shared Medium post provides a list of tips, and she has also written another post specifically about the ways Asians have perpetuated anti-Black racism.
In 2016, a group of activists created Letters for Black Lives, an introductory statement explaining the Black Lives Matter movement. It has been translated into many different languages to help people engage family members who might have limited English skills on these complex topics. There are also lists of simple analogies to help explain why “all lives matter” is not the correct response.
“It’s hard to see what kind of impact you can make within your own sphere of influence. But having these conversations with family can help in the long run, and is doing the work of fighting anti-Black racism.””
These conversations can take many forms, but almost everyone suggested approaching the issue of Asian anti-Blackness with their families gradually and in casual, more informal settings. Some people said they have been waiting for when it’s possible to see their relatives in person, while others have found it more effective to talk over email or text message — like Lieu, who said she has been texting her parents in Chinese.
“It gives me space to really think about things, and also, they can go back and reread it and dwell on it,” she said.
But it can be difficult to talk about these issues on a conceptual level because many Asian Americans don’t have “an understanding of shared trauma, of shared oppression” across communities of color, said Luann Algoso, who has been trying to bring up these issues with her Filipina mother and Cambodian in-laws.
“Even having the discussion of why things are the way they are with family members can be distressing,” she said. “My family has played into the model minority mentality. It’s like, ‘Well, that’s them, not us, so why do we have to get involved with other people’s issues?’”
Dismantling anti-Blackness in Asian communities also involves trying to dismantle other deep-seated prejudices, such as colorism. Skin-whitening treatments are popular in many Asian cultures. As Gajjar noted, lighter-skinned South Asians are considered to be more valuable and tend to be in a higher social class than darker-skinned South Asians.
“Just the fact that South Asians are willing to go against their own people … that just kind of shows you that inherent sort of anti-Blackness that we have built into our culture and our communities,” she said. “The problem starts there.”
For some Asian Americans, another challenge in these conversations is puncturing family members’ positive associations with law enforcement and explaining why feeling comfortable contacting the police is itself a form of privilege.
“That’s been one of the more challenging aspects of bringing up these topics with her,” Harbstreet said of her mother. “To recognize the fact that there are positive experiences and stories involving the police, that doesn’t negate the fact that these systematic and institutional policies are still unfairly benefiting certain groups and really harming others.”
Some people whose family members have had negative interactions with police said they have been able to use those as jumping-off points — while acknowledging their experiences are nowhere near as grave as what Black and Latinx people face in encounters with law enforcement.
Rachel Yi recounted a conversation she had last week with her Korean immigrant mother, who brought up an incident involving Yi’s older sister getting injured in an encounter with police.
“It’s actually a privilege that we have as Asian people because if she was Black, then she actually could have been shot and killed in that incident,” Yi recalled telling her mother. “My mom was silent for a few moments. And then she was like, ‘Yeah, I think you’re right.’”
In navigating these emotionally draining personal conversations, several Asian Americans with backgrounds in social justice advocacy and community organizing said they’ve been able to take lessons from their professional experience. Algoso, who has a master’s degree in conflict resolution, said that she has learned how “to have a really intense conversation, being able to sit in the conflict and be uncomfortable, and commit to continuing the conversation at a later time.”
“It’s going to take a long time. I am sure that it will happen, slowly. It’s growth, right? We have to have a growth mindset.””
Patel, a lawyer, and her boyfriend, Tarun Galagali, who has worked in civic engagement and on the congressional campaign of Rep. Ro Khanna (D-Calif.), put out a call on social media over the weekend to fellow South Asian Americans about starting these conversations. According to Galagali, nearly 150 people responded, and the two plan to hold Zoom trainings to provide some tools and strategies, drawing from their own experiences trying to educate their parents over the years.
“There are different ways of reaching them where they’re at,” Galagali said of his experience reaching out to voters. “If you do your best to communicate to that person where they’re at, they can evolve.”
For Asian immigrant parents, it can take years of deep reflection and patience to reach a greater understanding. Galagali’s mom, Kalpana, said her evolution on racial issues came from conversations with her son as well as from her experience as a public school teacher.
“We are all immigrants coming from a different place, and we carry certain baggage,” she said. “I’m not blaming anybody else … I was ignorant. I didn’t know many things about this country. And I started to learn a lot from my son.”
Galagali — who wrote a Medium post this week urging her fellow Indian immigrants to reflect on their own anti-Black biases — said it’s important for Asian immigrants, who “tend to stay within our groups for the comfort level,” to leave that comfort zone.
“It’s going to take a long time. I am sure that it will happen, slowly,” she said. “It’s growth, right? We have to have a growth mindset.”
As slow as progress can often feel, nearly everyone said they believe it’s vital to keep trying to have these conversations, even if they seem frustrating and futile at first.
“It’s hard to see what kind of impact you can make within your own sphere of influence,” Algoso said. “But having these conversations with family can help in the long run, and is doing the work of fighting anti-Black racism.”