Asian American Activism for Black Rights: Do We Have a Place?

From Roz Payne’s archives; “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power”

How I’ve been feeling these days: angry. Like the kind of angry where you literally cannot fall asleep at night, and when you do fall asleep, you wake up in the middle of the night.

I was literally heartbroken last week (it’s hard to imagine that it was only last week) when I heard about the decision not to indict Darren Wilson in the shooting of unarmed black teenager Mike Brown. I had a lot of feelings. I was at home in the suburbs of upstate New York and away from Boston, so it was hard for me to be able to put my feelings into actions as protests erupted downtown. I didn’t know what exactly the feelings I was feelings were– I couldn’t decide what I was angry at: at the systems of racism that make black and Latino teens more susceptible to being stopped and frisked by police officers? At the tweets that I saw on my timeline, along with those of activists and #blacktwitter, of uninformed teens bandwagonning onto hashtags they didn’t understand and at tweets of people demeaning the #blacklivesmatter hashtag with #whitelivesmatter? At the fact that someone died, that his friends and families were now left without him, that he doesn’t have a future anymore, and that his death had become a politicized event, that supporting racial equality has become ‘democratic’ and to keep quiet to be ‘republican’? That other tweeters would say things like ‘shut up’ to tweeters who actively engaged in the hashtag activism? That uninformed tweeters spewed out fake tweets with photoshopped pictures/signage (see here). That Mike Brown’s death has become little more than a talking point, something that media machines crank out articles on just to shock or to get likes? I knew I was angry, I just didn’t know who or what exactly I was angry at, but I after mulling over the issue, I realized that I’m just angry at a lot of things (which is not a shock because I also ask a lot of questions).

But what I really spent a lot of time pondering was how I can help, and if I have a place helping as an ally to the black community when I am Asian American. I began thinking about this issue after reading Liz Lin’s article “Why Asian Americans Might Not Talk About Ferguson” (here). The relationship betwee Asian American activism and African American activism, and relations between the two races, has varied greatly over the course of American history and also amongst generations. When I heard about the lack of indictment in the death of Eric Garner today, I was on tumblr, and found it very problematic that I saw this asked to a user I follow,

Screen Shot 2014-12-03 at 10.09.13 PM

It seems that Asian Americans, as people of color, try to shug off the term and try to assimilate into white culture quite frequently (not all of the time). Some say it’s because the idea of identifying as ‘white’ or marrying into a white family in America allows for upward social mobility (I was encouraged by my grandfather in Korea growing up to marry a white boy), and I agree that growing up in South Dakota I tried to identify as white as best I could because I didn’t like being different (including dying my hair a terrible golden yellow, but that’s a story for another time).

I read this article a while back and it made some interesting points about how white elites basically offered Asian Americans a racial invitation that sounded like this:

“If you come here and assimilate into this anti-black settler state, if you behave properly, we will let you hustle for your prosperity. You won’t be white, but you might get close, and at least you won’t be black. You’ll be the poster child of the American Dream, and together we will squash the insurgency underfoot that threatens our collective fortunes.” [In smaller print:We might occasionally spy on you, round you up, and detain you; and some of you will have to stay in crappy jobs and housing. But it’s all to keep the Dream alive.] (Jung)

Basically Jung is arguing that basically by accepting our semi-uplifted status (yet not completely white and privileged status) in America, the dominating white forces has used us to help diminish black power, and we’ve been courted by the fact that if we contribute to anti-black racism, we’ll be able to rise up to near-white status. It’s bad. I know that a lot of people may not agree with this, but I can definitely understand where Jung is coming from.

For Asian Americans to achieve racial equality in America, we need to let go of this invitation that many of us have RSVP’d to long ago, because unless all racial groups are liberalized, we will not be either.

I found the picture of Asian Americans protesting for the freeing of Huey Newton carrying signs that say “Yellow Peril” (a derogatory term given to Asian Americans in the 19th century) “Supports Black Power” to be super interesting, as I haven’t seen much action by Asian Americans for African American rights recently. This thought was re-enforced when I talked to Shavon Arline-Bradley (the executive vice president of the NAACP) and she was surprised when I told her that I’m interested in studying African American studies. She told me that her grandparents’ generation would never have thought that a possibility, and I’m increasingly finding that my Asian American peers find it incredulous as well (see the Tumblr screenshot above).

Why is it that today, as Lin’s article states, so many Asian Americans remain quiet when it comes to the mistreatment of our fellow brothers and sisters either by systems of oppression or outright violence? Why is it that many Asian Americans remain silent on the issue of what’s going on in Ferguson and now with the non-indictment of the police officers who killed Eric Garner– on tape?

From tweeter @DJGreenLantern; I know that this says ‘white silence= white consent,’ but I believe the phrase applies for any other race as well. (Silence=Death, after all).


Keith Haring for Act Up

I think that as a people of color, we have a responsibility to fight for racial equality together. I am protesting the hierarchies of oppression that do not only affect African Americans, but fellow Asian Americans in places where Asians are not the ‘model minority’ (most people don’t even realize that there are disadvantaged Asian Americans out there, because their ideal of Asians are East Asians from China, South Korea, and Japan who immigrated to America in the 1960s onwards with strong educational backgrounds, and not Southeast Asians who come as political refugees). I’m taking a stand against police brutality because it is a real problem, and it affects real humans, and these humans could have been my friends.

And Asian Americans are quick to dismiss the term ‘people of color’, as they believe it’s intrinsically linked to being African American or Latino. We forget that back before integration of pools, schools, and water fountains, that we, too, had to go to the ‘colored’ fountains and couldn’t partake in swimming pool festivities lest for set-aside ‘international’ days when it would be open to nonwhites (if you don’t believe me, check out the story of Sammy Lee). We are quick to distance ourselves from this past, especially because of the third wave of Asian American immigration in the late twentieth century of middle-class urban educated adults.

I think that also, it’s important to realize that if Asian Americans remain silent– whether it be online or in actual protests or at the voting booth (we have some dismal turnout and registration rates)- we will never be given a voice and will have to deal with the bamboo ceiling for a lot longer than we need to. I realize that Asian Americans are given a lot of privilege, and that we cannot take these fights as our fights, but I think that we need to be allies. I believe that we should be using this privilege to help a movement for those who do not have it, not keeping it for ourselves in hopes of being accepted as ‘white’ one day.

I don’t remember where I saw it, but I saw someone either put a picture of a sign up or post a tweet saying something along the lines of ‘if you ever wondered what you would do if you’d been alive in the 1960s the Civil Rights Movement, this is your chance.’ It resonated with me, as I had wondered the same thing around the same time last year at the conclusion of my 60s class when my teacher asked us what we would have done during the Civil Rights Movement– we are quick to think that we would’ve gone out to the protests without a bat of an eye because we see the inequalities that African Americans were facing back then as completely outrageous. We think that we would’ve boycotted buses, that we would have partaken in Freedom Summer, and that we would have gone on those buses during the Freedom Rides. Yet I see a lot of my peers participating in hashtag activism today instead, not going out to protests. And I wonder if what’s going on right now– police brutality towards civilians and to protesters- will seem crazy a few years from now too. I’m planning on going to a protest downtown in Boston tomorrow, and if you see this post (which is not likely seeing that no one reads my blog) you should too.

RIP Tamir Rice. RIP Mike Brown. And RIP Eric Garner.

PS Just saw this piece on Color Lines that’s a letter from Southeast Asian activists urging for solidarity in this time which is awesome.


One thought on “Asian American Activism for Black Rights: Do We Have a Place?

  1. Thanks for the shoutout, Sali, and for the thoughtful post. So much of it resonates that I won’t even bother trying to address every point, but suffice to say: I’m with you.

    Also, looking at your “About” page, I think we might be the same person, though I’m probably a good 12 years older than you. It’s a real possibility, though.

    Liked by 1 person

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