Dear Asian American Friend
or formerly dearest friend, practically family member, who sent me a long letter explaining to me that Asian Americans also experience racism in America, as if I didn’t know, hadn’t many times before discussed your experiences with racism in small town white America,
October 2017: This essay has been edited to reflect a few requests made of me, which I readily agreed to. The salient points remain the same. I also want to make clear that this one thing doesn’t define a whole person and that we are not our mistakes. We are how we respond to them. The person who inspired the piece is working through it with me. My hope is that people will learn from us.
Over the summer, you broke my heart in ways a spouse never could. And this week, as I was cleaning my house and finding loving tokens of our friendship everywhere, I put away our childish things.
I know, while reading this, some of my fellow Black folk are going to pull out a tiny violin and turn up Timberlake sobbing “Cry me a river” because if all I lost this summer was one friendship with someone who was maybe not up to the task of being friends with a Black American, then relatively speaking I had an okay summer. The truth is, I also lost cousins and play-fam to cancer and guns this summer, so I lost more than your friendship. And the truth is Black America has been having bad summers every year since Black America became a thing. But I didn’t lose anyone to a state-sanctioned lynching, and none of my cousins ended up in jail over the summer — not this year.
I wasn’t pepper sprayed, I went on vacation in S. Korea where I attended a protest on my birthday and where the police didn’t attack the protestors, I didn’t get hit by a white supremacist driving a car, I didn’t get threatened by a white supremacist with a gun, the police didn’t stand by while white supremacists beat the shit out of me, and I didn’t have to physically bear witness while pinche white men walked down the street with torches shouting about the very end of my existence.
Those are all things that happened in Charlottesville during the same 24 hour period where you sent me and a couple of white friends a series of text messages about how scared you were while never asking me how I was doing. Where you discussed realizing after the election that the state you come from — a state that was going to go red no matter who won the electoral college — was too racist to live the life you planned to lead.
Honey, I been knowin that, I wanted to say, but this social circle isn’t the one where I talk like that. They have always hated Black people there, I wanted to say, but I’m too well trained in how to be white polite.
Instead I tried to say something supportive, like I get it, I wouldn’t want to move there either. It’s true. I don’t want to, although if there was a faculty position there, I’d apply, I’d go, and I would fight.
I was really tired that day. I’m a Black Jew and these assholes had been in the streets talking about the need for me to not be.
I was also at home in east Los Angeles trying to celebrate my mom’s 69th birthday and to be loving and hopeful and celebratory even as she and I both compulsively scrolled through the news and discussed the various internal problems Black social justice organizing faces. I was aware that being at home meant being in the barrio, being in a place where ICE might be kidnapping people just up the street or down the corner. Being someplace where it’s dangerous for people to go move their car to avoid a parking ticket because ICE might jump you while you’re out. I was aware also that gentrification has made it so that people are crammed more families to one household because they can’t afford anything better, and they can’t afford the long commute from another county.
So then I said a thing, having been raised in this place by a low-income single mom: at least we have flexibility to live in any state we want.
I thought among Harvard College grads this statement was essentially a given.. In the most likely scenarios, our worst possible outcomes are that we are the lower middle class people at our 15th reunion next year, or that we can’t afford to attend the reunion, which can be quite costly if you buy tickets for every event. We will almost certainly not be living without easy access to clean water, like the families I used to stay with on various reservations when I was growing up. Our prospective children would not be WIC babies like I was because we can buy whatever milk we want, whenever we want. Like, we both have strong opinions on whole vs. skim (WHOLE, GOTDAMNIT), and we can afford for that to be our biggest milk access problem in life. We will always be able to meet our most basic nutritional needs, pregnant or not.
I was stunned by your response — that you are actually not a financially privileged person — since the average income for someone in your profession is about 10x what my mom raised me on and more than my husband and I can ever expect to make as a household. I explained I was talking about people who actually literally can’t afford to move, but I think it didn’t matter what I meant.
We all lived through our own versions of the next week, where Donald Trump talked about good people on both sides, despite one side very clearly being in the wrong. His own version of “both sides are hurting,” which is what you said to me a week after Charlottesville, just days before my birthday, while explaining to me, twice married to Asian North Americans, publicly outspoken about the racism faced by Asian Americans among others, that Asian Americans do in fact experience racism, as if the problem had ever been me denying this, rather than your total disregard for the socioeconomic realities I grew up facing and the fact that at base, Charlottesville was not about Asians: it was about Black people.
Let me say that again: as fucked up as anti-Asian bias in this country is, this country has zero monuments to people who were willing to kill a lot of WHITE people over the right to abuse Asian descent people. That’s never happened. Those monuments which serve as regular reminders of our place in society are reserved especially for Black people. For the kids who grew up being called niggers; being told that our hair is gross, our melanin is wrong, that our culture represents the very scrapings of humanity; being harassed by police; being told that our clothing and music were a problem, that we are so evolutionarily despicable that for a few hundred years enslaving us and treating us worse than animals seemed reasonable to the majority of non-Black Americans. That day in Charlottesville, white nationalists were marching against a lot of things including my white, Asian, and Latinx Jewish family members, but the idol they centered their worship on were the statues that stood as a permanent threat to Black folks: get in line or risk a lynching by gun, rope, car, or whatever other materials are available.
So it’s a little strange, honestly, that on that Saturday morning, we were discussing how it made you feel, and you didn’t ask me how I was. For that alone, you should have apologized. But you didn’t. After a week of thinking about that day, you talked to me about “both sides” and the struggles of Asians as if Blackness isn’t the fulcrum. As if I thought Black grief erases other racialized realities. As if I don’t know that Latinx of all shades were shot in East Los by cops and others with some frequency while I was growing up. As if cops didn’t chase cholos through my backyard on the night before I had an exam that would help determine whether I got to go to Harvard with you, the child of a doctor, who was at the time growing up in a small, quiet and yes very white town. As if I’m not aware that I’m the only girl from the block who went to college — that I’m not constantly conscious of the fact that I was also the only one bussed out of the community for K-12.
Of course, I’m not Asian, and sometimes I do fuck up. My husband corrected me the other day when I asked him what I immediately realized was a ridiculous question about his experience as an Asian American man, and I apologized. But the power dynamics don’t swing such that the onus is on me to remember what America is, how America was built, and who the white nationalists want to lynch first and most especially. It was on you — whether we were strangers or the sister-friends I thought we were — to remember the difference between being Black and not being Black in this country, to remember that my Harvard degree won’t protect me, that my lighter skin won’t always, that my light skin certainly won’t protect my many cousins, my mother, my aunts and uncles, and it’s certainly not an elixir that suddenly makes me not terrified of the police.
You’ll probably feel I’m adding insult to the injury of writing this letter when I point out that your job that day, as my friend and a conscientious American, was to remember all of that, if you were going to be talking to me or any Black person. We were the closest of friends, but that’s not a pass to forget that in a fundamental way, America means we will always lead different lives.
I wish you had apologized. I wish you had not been petty and wished me a Happy Birthday anyway. I wish you had listened to our two white (Jewish) friends who both saw the problems with your behavior and tried to talk some sense into you. I wish you saw the irony of creating a situation where white people needed to explain racism to you. I wish you had listened to my Asian American husband, who apparently told you not to say most of the things you wrote in your letter. I wish I thought we were going to look back on this time later and be relieved that it didn’t end up at a Dead End.
But some stories have sad endings. Some friendships run into walls. Sometimes that wall is the colonial enterprise we call America. Sometimes the friendship is impaled on a multicultural spike: a shared understanding that we are both people of color becomes an excuse not to recognize the dynamics between differently racialized groups. We are indeed Generation Multiculturalism, raised on an insidious Kool-Aid which taught us that if we all just loved each other, it would totally be fine.
This is totally not fine. It is the opposite of fine. Every day my heart has ached because people want to kill me, but that’s always been true. What makes my heart heavy is you. What deflated my optimism about a future of solidarity was that you didn’t love me enough to engage in any that day. Rather than offer me solidarity, you admonished me for not showing up enough for you while people marched down the street chanting death threats to every single member of my family.
I’m certain this letter will make you angry and will not change your mind because you’ve made clear that indulging your defensiveness comes first in this conversation. But I hope it will give others pause, an opportunity to think about the power dynamics between them and their friends and family. To be conscious of the responsibility that comes with having Black friends, Native friends, Black and Native friends, and yes, Black and Asian friends. That to be allowed into our inner circle is an expression of trust, a benefit of the doubt that you will not only be here for us but also that if you fuck up, you’ll want to fix it.
I’m sad that I wasn’t worth it to put your ego aside long enough. I’m sad that my friendship wasn’t worth it to you. Perhaps I didn’t do the things you needed for me to be that valued. But even if I had been a shit friend, this wasn’t the way to tell me, by running over Black realities because you didn’t feel up to the task of confronting them. White supremacist multiculturalism’s greatest ruse was asking Black people to have infinite forgiveness and teaching everyone else that this was a reasonable request.
If you apologized now — I understand you won’t — I would forgive you. But without realizing it, you asked me to forgive you without an apology or reckoning with what you had done, and I can’t accept that as a Black person — a Black woman especially — it is somehow my responsibility to have infinite patience, to be in a perpetual state of emotional servitude to the rest of the population. I can’t.
Sadly, I feel sorry about that. I shouldn’t. Yet daily I have wracked my brain for solutions, pushed myself to accept that you had a right to make me feel that way on that day of all days and all of the days following. I have remembered the many times you taught me things, encouraged me, and wished that I had understood as I relaxed into that offering of love that there were political limits. I have also wished we lived in a world where friendship wasn’t political. But I’m a Black American. That I exist at all is political.
Postscript: For any Asian/Asian American folks (and others) wondering about engaging in solidarity with their Black friends and fam, in addition to reading Scot Nakagawa’s seminal Blackness is the Fulcrum article, I highly recommend An Apology to Black Folks by Asian American Jew Kai-Ming Ko. I also recommend following the Twitter account of Mark Tseng-Putterman, an Asian American Jewish scholar who regularly writes about the dynamics of anti-Blackness.