The Toll Of Historically Pitting Asians Against Blacks

How the model minority myth has, in part, led Asians into “honorary whiteness.”
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Honest discussions about anti-black racism are gradually gaining traction in Asian-American communities. The move among Asian Americans, whether on college campuses or beyond, to begin taking ownership of anti-blackness reflects a desire to recognize, understand and transform deep-seated prejudices.

At a recent University of Chicago discussion on anti-blackness hosted by PanAsia, a student organization focused on Asian American identity, culture and politics, participants shared reflections on their own experiences with anti-blackness in individual, social and structural contexts. One student said she had struggled with her parents’ refusal to accept her black boyfriend, and acknowledged she had never realized how racist her parents were.

As the child of immigrants, Kristina Tendilla, the discussion moderator and a community organizer at Asian Americans Advancing Justice, said she witnessed firsthand the way her family and community derived a “false sense of safety” by distancing themselves from blacks. The reigning narrative was, “the more white that you act, the more safe your community is,” she said.

In fact, the difference in power between Asian Americans and black Americans has long been recognized as reality. Growing up in Maryland, Elaine Kim, professor of Asian American Studies at the University of California, Berkeley, was frequently told by whites to be “grateful” that she wasn’t black.

In her 1998 piece, “At Least You’re Not Black, Kim pinpointed the space Asian Americans occupy in the nonwhite world: “on the cusp, at the interstice, in the buffer zone...between black and white, between old-timer and newcomer, between mainstreamed and marginalized.”

Fortunately, in recent years, frank conversations around anti-black racism have begun translating to action among progressive Asian Americans, notably with the launch of the #Asian4BlackLives movement in 2014, around the time of Akai Gurley’s death at the hands of NYPD officer Peter Liang.

Real solidarity must be grounded in historical truth, said Claire Jean Kim, professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine.

“There’s a tendency when Asian Americans talk about these issues to search their own soul of any evidence of anti-blackness,” Kim said in an interview. “It’s important to recognize anti-blackness as a set of emotions and aspective investments and practices that go beyond individual attitudes. It’s important to [realize] that we live in an anti-black social order. Anti-blackness is foundational to the United States,” Kim said. “Individual prejudices are symptoms of the larger structure.”

In fact, the pitting of Asian Americans against African Americans began as far back as the Civil War and Reconstruction Era, said Moon-Ho Jung, associate professor of history at the University of Washington. In the aftermath of the Civil War, Southern plantation owners imported around 4,000 Chinese laborers as replacement for, and competition to, former slaves who escaped, he said.

“The argument that they kept on making was that the Chinese are docile, submissive and hard-working, unlike African Americans,” Jung said, adding that Chinese workers were considered more productive and “apolitical” compared to blacks. “But what happened on the ground was completely contrary to that image.”

After World War II, Chinese Americans in the Mississippi Delta sought to distance themselves from black communities in order to gain White acceptance, Kim explained. The period after World War II gave rise to the model minority myth, which appeared to “invite Asians into honorary whiteness,” she said.

In the mid-to-late twentieth century, many Asian Americans on the West Coast were concentrated in mostly black and Latino neighborhoods. Deindustrialization in areas like central Los Angeles created “deep and expanding pockets of poverty,” where cheap rent allowed many Korean merchants set up mom-and-pop shops, Jung said. Tensions between Koreans and blacks came to a head in the 1992 Los Angeles riots following the acquittal of predominantly white police officers who brutally beat black motorist Rodney King.

But Asian Americans and blacks have historically also shared many of the same struggles, Jung noted. The two minority groups often lived in similar neighborhoods and “contended together with the same forces of white supremacy,” he said.

Instances of mutual support are too many to name, but Jung pointed out a few crucial examples: In the 1960s, Japanese Americans Richard Aoki and Mike Tagawa joined the Black Panther Party. Activist Yuri Kochiyama famously held Malcolm X as he died of gunshot wounds. More recently, in the wake of Hurricane Katrina, Vietnamese Americans and blacks gathered to address the devastating effects of environmental racism.

“People pursued interracial solidarity, not because they were somehow naive, but because that was their lived experience,” Jung said.

Examining the way present-day manifestations of anti-blackness are inextricably bound to history serves the crucial function of helping Americans –– Asian or otherwise –– begin to understand, and perhaps overcome, colorblindness.

Tendilla said that as an activist and educator, she frequently encounters parents who preach to their children the adage of treating everyone the same. But teaching equality based on a refusal to acknowledge the complex racial realities of our nation is ignorant at best, and detrimental at worst.

After all, as Jared Sexton, associate professor of African American Studies at UC Irvine, writes, a “postblack” approach to the study of blackness erases the “true scale and nature of black suffering and of the struggles—political, aesthetic, intellectual, and so on—that have sought to transform and undo it.”