Anti-blackness in the Asian American community is not a discreet, whispered sentiment. It’s a blatant belief that’s been engrained into many immigrant minds — something force fed to us as children of immigrants as we attempt to integrate into American culture, where anti-blackness and white supremacy ideals are also rampant. It takes awareness and willingness to unlearn the false narratives we’ve been taught and recognize them as misguided fear passed down to us from our overprotective parents.
When Asian immigrants leave their home countries to come to America, often to escape poverty or tyrannical regimes, they’re often faced with the concept of race for the first time. Growing up, I often attributed my mom’s erratic behaviors to her being naive and gullible. She treated articles she read as holy scripture, shunning anything that was forbidden by the obscure newspapers she got at the Korean market. Many times, the literature she read perpetuated problematic ideas of other minorities, especially black people. As I became older, I realized that this impressionable mindset comes from an intense desire to survive in a country that functions on rules and customs unfamiliar to the ones in their former cultures.
As Asian immigrants work toward building successes in a foreign environment, they begin taking cues from the people they see as most successful. Because America’s historical oppression of people of color, these people are usually white. To many Asian Americans, whiteness often becomes equated to success, and all the elements that have been conditioned to come with the paradigms of whiteness. One of those, historically speaking, has been anti-blackness.*
*see slavery, systemic oppression, mass incarceration, encouragement of harmful stereotypes, micro aggressions, and police brutality as just a few examples.
With most of the country speaking out against the vile events that happened in Charlottesville, many of us are having conversations surrounding race relations and how we can do better. Though the burden does not and should not lie fully on people of color to fight the injustices we’re seeing— as this is a fight that cannot be won without help from white people who stand against white supremacy and racism — Asian Americans still participate in behaviors and perspectives that are problematic to black people.
If we want to help move society forward, we must recognize our flaws and work to fix ourselves. Progress comes from within. Progress does not come from believing falsities that propel one group of people forward, while setting other groups of people back.
Here are some of the ways Asian Americans (both first and second generation alike) can stop contributing to anti-blackness.
Stop perpetuating the standard that white = ideal.
Many Asian Americans believe that whiteness is equated to success and prosperity. And we can’t fully blame them for falling for this belief — years of colonialism, systemic biases that favor whiteness, and colorism in many Asian countries have all contributed to a belief that in order to succeed, you must either be white or assimilate into whiteness. In many countries, doing business with white people is considered a symbol of status and success. Skin bleaching has been a phenomenon in South Korea and other Asian countries, where the fairer you are, the more likely people will associate you with a higher class. Meanwhile, darker skin tones are associated with working class farmers and laborers who spend their days in the sun. This stays with many immigrants as they come to America, thinking fairer skin = more likely to succeed. Throughout pop culture and our professional lives, elevating *only* white people as our ideals directly perpetuates the notion that non-white people are not capable or worthy of the same successes.
Recognize and reject negative portrayals of black people.
I have relatives who have generalized black people as every problematic stereotype they’ve seen on TV and media. What they fail to realize is that black people are represented with negative stereotypes because villainizing one ethnic group benefits another ethnic group. Though the younger generation of Asian Americans are more prone to educate themselves on the ugly history of media manipulation and government-sanctioned acts of discrimination, many Asian Americans of older generations have been more concerned with their own survival than working through their false or underdeveloped views of race. Much of this comes from living a more isolated life than younger Asian Americans, who are usually more exposed to a variety of communities and environments.
Coming to America from another country to start a life from scratch can be a shocking, grueling experience. But comparing Asian immigrant struggles to the long history of black oppression does nothing to promote empathy and everything to create unnecessary divisiveness.
Like Asian Americans, white Americans, and any other ethnic group, black Americans are nuanced. But news, movies, TV shows, and other forms of media often portray narrow, stereotyped images of black people in continued forms of discrimination. Educating ourselves and our family on the history of these injustices could stop Asians from harping on negative tropes and ideas of black people that harm them, and instead learn to see past the falsities fed to them by the limited images they consume.
Understand that the fight for social justice for black Americans is directly correlated to our own struggles for justice.
Claire Jean Kim’s racial triangulation theory maps out the ways Asian Americans have been racialized in relation to white and black people. She states that while Asian Americans are seen as the “model minority” and as being “better than” black people, Asian Americans are seen as perpetual foreigners rather than true Americans. This model minority myth has been used to create a belief that anti-blackness benefits Asian Americans, as long as Asian Americans are “accepted” by white people.
There’s a long history of Asian Americans attempting to associate with whiteness, while creating distance from other minorities. In the 1922 case Takao Ozawa v. United States, a Japanese immigrant unsuccessfully argued that he should be classified as white and therefore be eligible for citizenship, as the law at the time prohibited black and any non-white people from applying for citizenship. In many instances, laws that prevented black people from having equal rights were used as precedent for cases involving Asian Americans. In an 1854 Supreme Court case, a white man named George Hall argued that a Chinese miner’s testimony convicting Hall of a murder was not valid based on the miner’s background as a Chinese immigrant. At the time, people classified as “black, mulatto or Indian” were prohibited from testifying against a white person. In George Hall’s favor, the court said that, like black people, Asian people have certain “physical traits and characteristics” that prevent them from being able to fully assimilate into American society and therefore do not deserve the same rights as white people.
While many have heard of the Chinese Exclusion Act and FDR’s Executive Order 9066 that put 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps, there are many more moments throughout American history that are tainted with bigotry against Asian Americans. Active from the early 1900s to the 1940s, a white supremacy group called the Asiatic Exclusion League worked to push Asian immigrants out of the country and successfully lobbied to pass laws that prevented Asians from entering the country. This encouraged the lynching of many immigrants, as they vehemently believed in the idea of a “white man’s country.”
From Chinese immigrants fighting in the Civil War to activists like Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama fighting alongside black leaders in the Civil Rights movement, there is a history of Asian Americans standing up for justice on all sides.
Speaking out against white supremacy means speaking up for all people of color, including Asian Americans.
Recognizing the constructs of race beyond the limited knowledge we’re taught in school and mainstream media is a heavy task to take on. And talking to our parents and other relatives about any problematic views they may have of other people of color, especially black people, is an even heavier task to take on. But these moments are necessary to challenge the perils of white supremacy, and will ultimately help progress America forward for the sake of equal human rights and values. If we want to be seen as true Americans, this is our part to play as true Americans.
Sign this pledge created by Asian Americans Advancing Justice to take a stand against white supremacy and for the values that allow us and many others to live and thrive in this country.
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