Why antiracism cannot be fully complete without Black and Asian-American solidarity.
The rise of Anti-Asian hate crimes in my country fueled the writing of this piece. But, I could not decide which aspect of Asian oppression on which to focus. Should I shine a light on the historical Asian-American abuse in this country? Should this focus solely on the data related to crimes against Asian-Americans? What about the Asian population at large? Should I focus this on the protests in Hong Kong, the Myanmar coup, Uighur oppression, the farmer’s protest in India? In short, I had to narrow my focus, and I decided to wrap my desire to elevate the story of Asian-American oppression in personal accounts.
In elementary school, for a time, I was the only Black person in my entire grade-level. But, I was not the only other person of color. One of my first crushes was on a Vietnamese-American girl in my class. She and I often competed to be the “smart kid” in class. We both tended to finish our work quickly. We were also prized partners because most of our classmates knew we would take up as much of the group’s burden as possible to ensure our grades didn’t slip due to our classmates’ ineptitude. I was, admittedly, probably influenced by the Nickelodeon cartoon Hey Arnold and Gerald and Phoebe’s pairing. They were meant for each other. It’s obvious. And if Nickelodeon ever makes an “all-grown-up” version of Hey Arnold, they had better be a couple.
Growing up Black in middle America meant I never honestly thought much about the racial issues of my Asian friends. I was mostly looking out for myself. Trying to survive being the only Black kid was quite enough to handle. But, when my Asian friends brought up injustices or microaggressions, I would shoot back with how much harder it was for me. And while that may have been true in many instances, not seeing their struggle was a problem. I did not hear them. And for that, I am embarrassed and very sorry. I am not under the impression that one piece of writing can do the work of fixing that. But, the rise in Asian-American hate crimes cannot go ignored. The invisibility many of my Asian-American friends feel is real. And while the relationship between Black and Asian communities is complicated, we are fighting the same fight.
The Problem with Black and Asian Animosity
I have experienced very upsetting prejudice from a few in the Asian community, and I know that, in part, those injustices were due to a system that at best sees Black Americans as inferior but tolerable and at worst sees us as dangerous and worthy of scorn. Those individuals were victims to hate they feel due to a centuries-long propaganda campaign. That fact does not excuse their behavior or that level of intolerance. But, I refuse to let it consume me or define an entire group of people. It is why I feel an overwhelming amount of sorrow when I see news reports like these and notice that Black people are involved in some of the attacks against Asian-Americans. Mainly because, and I reiterate, we are fighting the same fight. As Dr. King once wrote, “We are caught in an inescapable network of mutuality, tied in a single garment of destiny. Whatever affects one directly, affects all indirectly.”
I never focused on the “Asian-ness” of my Asian friends. I simply knew they weren’t White, and that was about as far as my thoughts went. So, when in High School, I began to pursue a relationship with Kyla, name changed to protect the innocent, a half-Korean girl; it didn’t occur to me that our relationship may become complicated because of our separate ethnicities.
At the time, Kyla and I were very involved in our churches, and thus, the major impediment to our relationship was asking our youth pastors if they were ok with us dating. They could care less. So, we moved forward and went to prom together! Kyla’s dad was a military veteran who felt the need to tell me not to get into fights over race. At 5'9" and 125 pounds, I wasn’t about to fight anyone for any reason, but I humored him, and we went on our way. Prom night was a blast, and Kyla and I decided that we would date over the summer. Kyla would have been my first girlfriend, but our relationship was stopped dead in its tracks by Kyla’s mother.
Kyla’s mother and father were divorced. So, she lived with her dad most of the time. Her Korean half came from her mother, who was rarely around. Her dad handled most of Kyla’s big life moments. He was the first to meet me. He was openly supportive of our relationship and seemed to like me and the fact that my father, too, was a veteran. And so, I thought we would be able to date without any issue. But we weren’t.
I remember receiving a series of texts and emails from Kyla’s phone and email address asking me to leave her alone. I was baffled. I asked Kyla what this was about, and she told me her mother did not want her to date. I heard several excuses ranging from Kyla needing to focus on her schoolwork to Kyla just not being old enough to date. The longer this went on, the more negative I felt about dating her. I came up with some half-hearted excuses and eventually ended the relationship.
Kyla truly cared about me and didn’t care what her mother thought. She hated her mother for acting this way. I wanted so badly to ask point-blank if it was because I was Black, but I never gathered the courage. But, when Kyla began dating a White boy during the school year, I considered my suspicions confirmed.
After our relationship ended, I asked my father if he ever experienced anything like that. I knew my father grew up worldwide and that he had dated outside of his race. My father explained to me that Asians and Black people were not always friendly with one another. He explained that even my grandmother expressed prejudice toward the Asian immigrants with whom she worked.
My dad was not supportive of discrimination of any kind but accepted that there was, for some reason, mutual distrust between some Black and Asian people. I remember being very interested in his answer when I asked him, “Do you trust Asian people?” He explained that he tends only to judge people based on their actions. He reminded me that he used to bring me over as an infant to an ailing gay friend during the height of the AIDS epidemic in the 90s as a sign of compassion and trust. If his friend were to pass, he wanted him to go, knowing that people loved him and did not see him as a monster just because of his sexual orientation or health. I now understand what he was trying to say, but I find the equivalency comical now. In any event, I believe that story kept me from becoming bitter. My father saved my heart. I, to this day, fear judgment from older Asian people. But, I never developed anger or hatred toward the community. Thank you, dad.
Later in life, I learned that Black-American and Asian-American conflict was not new. A well-sourced article goes into more detail. But, the point I felt was the most salient was this, “At the core of Black-Asian conflict stories is the idea that each group is willing to sacrifice the other in order to overcome white subjugation.”
I, a Black man, am writing this in part to make it clear that if we are to overcome subjugation, Asian and Black people must stop fighting and move forward together. The Pew Research center bears this out. With a rise in crime and racist views toward both Black and Asian-Americans during the pandemic, we must work together for us ALL to move forward; we are fighting the same fight.
Asian-American injustice is Black-American injustice.
Some of the loudest voices in my circle of friends fighting for racial justice reform are my Asian-American friends. They support Black Lives Matter initiatives, they fight for progressive policies, and they understand much like Dr. King did, that if the goal of America is freedom, then “abused and scorned tho’ we may be, our destiny is tied up with America’s destiny.”
In that fight, I see a willingness to diminish their own stories; but, I believe we can fight for justice in tandem. I think a way to do that is by drawing parallels between the Asian-American experience and the Black-American experience.
Positive and negative stereotypes alike hurt both communities. I was reasonably ignorant growing up and bought into racial myths. I noticed that Asian-Americans were often in my honors classes, while other Black kids like me were not. I noticed that my Asian classmates were mostly absent in sports but were present in chess and math clubs. I saw these discrepancies and accepted them. I even noticed that my White friends defied stereotypes as a group. They had stereotypes based on their hobbies or interests, but rarely due to their race.
These blinders kept me from fully seeing my friends, and I am devastated by that. It never occurred to me that Asian-American stereotypes like intelligence, subservience, and weakness could be destructive to their psyches. It was not wildly different from me continually trying to reconcile that even though I felt I was supposed to be tough and intimidating as a Black man, I was not.
Recently, I almost travelled entirely out of my way as not to walk swiftly behind an older woman in my apartment complex. I have to remind myself that if people feel scared around me, that’s on them and that their comfort is not more valuable than my own. I now wonder what seemingly benign, but ever-present thoughts occupy the minds of my other brothers and sisters of color. Deprogramming the mind is not easy.
As I study and learn, I have come to see just how much actual policy has worked against both Black and Asian people in America. Whether you’re a Black kid having to deal with the reality that your ancestors, or people who looked like you, were enslaved, segregated, and denied fundamental human rights, or an Asian kid grappling with the realities of internment camps, racist anti-immigration policies, and denial of property. You understand that there are people in this country who have gone out of their way to reject you and only accept you as far as they can get labor or money from you. Black people. Asian people. We are fighting the same fight!
The model minority myth is partly to blame for the unnecessary animosity between some Black and Asian people. The problem is that the term Asian-American is so broad that it is laughable to compare data sets without disaggregation in many cases. For instance, many Asian-American communities suffer from the same educational and attainment gaps that Black and Brown communities do.
The myth hurts Black and Brown communities because it puts the onus of our struggles on something that is internally or culturally wrong with us. But, the truth is, Asian-Americans were and are treated as pariahs just as much as any other non-white racial and ethnic group. And recently, that myth is now being extended to Black immigrants.
Also, impoverished, working-class, and everyday middle-class White-Americans endure many of the same problems plaguing communities of color. The same policy decisions that hurt us hurt them! However, they are more often collateral damage, not the target. All ethnic groups suffer from the model minority myth. That lie makes it much more challenging to liberate people and get them out of poverty, whether Black, Latino, Asian, Indigenous, White, or otherwise. It fuels another myth that “hard work” is all that is needed to succeed. It fuels interactions like these in which an Asian-American realtor openly declares himself a racist and calls the area in which two Black men were filming a “No N-word Zone.”
I’m reminded of these words by Lyndon B. Johnson. The quote on its own may make people get the wrong impression about his values. He said the following as an understood truth and not as a way someone should behave. He said, “If you can convince the lowest white man he’s better than the best colored man, he won’t notice you’re picking his pocket. Hell, give him somebody to look down on, and he’ll empty his pockets for you.” No group should feel superior to Black people because that superiority leads to division, and although someone seems to benefit from it; it is not us. Black people, Asian people, it’s crucial that we stay united. We are fighting the same fight!
So, now what?
The fight for justice will need to continue for all non-privileged groups. But, right now, our Asian brothers and sisters require timely and targeted attention. But, I fear that the Asian-American struggle’s relative invisibility will continue once the media attention goes away. If you’re reading this, remember that this fight is ongoing, and these resources are only a few ways we can help.
If you would like a big list, New York Magazine has a good resource.
Below are a few direct links:
- If you see a hate crime, https://stopaapihate.org/ is a website where you can report it.
- You can apply to be a chaperone to ensure the safety of elderly Asian-Americans through https://compassioninoakland.org.
- There are several organizations that you could donate to like https://hateisavirus.org, https://advancingjustice-aajc.org, https://caasf.org.
- Asian Americans Advancing Justice | Chicago even has bystander training you can take part in over Zoom.
These last two organizations are not necessarily directly focused on the rise in hate crimes but are still doing significant work.
- The National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance helps strengthen and empower local LGBTQIA+ and AAPI organizations to develop leadership that fights to eliminate homophobia, racism, and anti-immigration oppression and bias.
- There is also The National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum, whose mission is to mobilize and empower AAPI women and girls socially, politically, and economically among other things.
Whatever you do, whoever you are, and however you identify, please remember this: we are fighting the same fight.