On Asian America: Black Lives Matter [Part IV]

asian americans // black lives // people of color


It’s a statement that makes people uncomfortable. Especially for Asian Americans who are taught to align themselves more with the promises of whiteness, than to see ourselves as people of color. We are told that as long as we work hard, uphold a level of respectability, blend in, don’t speak out, don’t talk back, just act obedient, then we’ll be fine. We’ll succeed. As long as we keep our heads down, no one will give us any trouble.

Yet, we forget the history of Asian Americans in the US. Though many of us are 1st or 2nd generation, Asian Americans have been here in large groups since the 1800s. Asian Americans have faced a long history of oppression and racism. And I don’t say this so that we can say, “We’re oppressed too!” whenever its convenient for an argument. I say this so that Asian Americans will stop being apathetic, will stop perpetuating model minority.

I say this so that you wake up.

When I say oppression and racism, I don’t just mean being called a chink or gook. I’m talking about the Chinese Massacre of 1871 in Los Angeles, the Watsonville Riots in 1930 against Filipino American farmworkers, all the anti-Asian immigrant laws (see previous posts), the anti-Asian immigrant rhetoric, the colonial conquest of, and wars, in Asia and the Pacific Islands that lead to Asian immigration to the US — Vietnam, Korea, Laos, Cambodia, Philippines, Japan, China, and so many more.

I’m talking about laws that prevented Asian immigrants from owning land and gaining citizenship, the current colonial occupation of Guam, the stolen land of Hawaii, the destruction and erasure of cultures, languages, food, customs. I’m talking about segregation — which schools do you think Asian American children attended during segregation — and housing discrimination that prevented Asian Americans from buying homes in certain areas — why do you think “Chinatowns” exist and places like Sawtelle in the westside of Los Angeles are lined with Japanese American and Asian American shops?

And this doesn’t even scratch the surface. Asian American history is rich, deep, complicated. The term “Asian American” wasn’t even used until Yuji Ichioka coined the term in the late 1960s to create a political identity of struggle.

What it means to be Asian American goes beyond sipping boba and eating dim sum. It goes beyond food culture, YouTube videos, and embodying the American Dream. “Asian American” was derived as a category of political struggle, created to unite a diverse, rich, and contested Asian America, to fight for liberation.

The term itself was even created during the civil rights movements. Yes, the Civil Rights Movement is about Martin Luther King Jr., Rosa Parks, Brown vs. Board of Education. But the civil rights movements are about Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, the Chicano Movement and the Brown Berets, Yellow Power and the Yellow Brotherhood, the American Indian Movement and the occupation of Alcatraz, the Third World Liberation Front and the San Francisco State Strike, and Alvarez vs. Lemon Grove in 1931, the first successful case of school desegregation in the US. There’s so much about the civil rights movement that we do not learn, including the role of Asian Americans in the fight.

Yuri Kochiyama

Grace Lee Boggs

Richard Aoki

All three individuals made significant contributions to not just Asian American liberation, but to the liberation of many marginalized people and the Black freedom movement. They stood with Malcolm X, the Black Panther Party, Angela Davis, and countless other Black revolutionaries, fighting for liberation — literally, stood with.

Because Asian American liberation and freedom meant nothing if that same liberation and freedom wasn’t guaranteed to all oppressed people. They, along with countless others, continued to fight, think, and empower until the day they died. Some of us have carried on their traditions. We owe so much to them. But along the way, many of us forgot their names, forgot what they did for us, forgot what the fight was for, forgot that they even fought.

So when I say Black Lives Matter and you cringe, or you feel uncomfortable. Or you believe it has nothing to do with you. Think again.

The privileges Asian Americans have today are historically and inherently built on the oppression of Black people. Let me repeat.

The privileges Asian Americans have today are historically and inherently built on the oppression of Black people.

Asian Americans are the safety valve to regulate people of color. We are used as model minorities to show everyone else they’re just not working hard enough. That they’re just not good enough, that they’re making excuses. We’re exploited to reinforce the myth of the “American Dream.” We’re used to show what “good immigrants” look like, while demonizing undocumented immigrants or “Mexicans” for stealing jobs. We ignore that many Asian Americans are also undocumented, that the same anti-immigrant rhetoric used today was used against us less than a century ago. That the first “illegal immigrants” from Mexico were Chinese laborers (1882 Chinese Exclusion Act). That many people within the Asian American community suffer from high rates of poverty, lack of education, and crime. That those in our community who are vilified as “terrorists” should be enfolded into our political category and protected, not thrown under the bus to fend for themselves. Because what Muslim communities are facing now happened to Japanese Americans during World War II. And instead of standing up for them, the country watched as 120,000 Japanese Americans (60% citizens and half children) were packed into trains and sent to concentration camps.

We ignore that hard work doesn’t guarantee success. That for the small number of us who have been lucky enough to achieve the “American Dream,” there are countless others who haven’t. And it’s not because they’re not working hard enough. It’s because some of us have been provided the right amount of luck, opportunity, and privilege.

Because when I get pulled over by police, my first thought isn’t, I might die today.

Because when I walk outside wearing my hood at night I don’t worry about getting shot.

Because when I walk on a university campus, I don’t get stopped and asked, what are you doing here?

Because when I eat a burrito outside before work, people don’t call the cops on me because I look suspicious. And they sure as hell wouldn’t unload magazine clips on me.

Because my simple existence isn’t seen as a threat.

Because as a person of color, I experience racism, but being told, “Go back to Asia,” is nothing compared to hate crimes towards people who have darker skin, who wear hijabs, who “look” menacing because they are black, brown, and simply exist.

So when we say “But this is 2017!” don’t forget that people of color have faced racism since the moment we arrived. To say that ignores that the fight for civil rights didn’t start in the 1950s and it sure as hell didn’t end in the 1970s. We do not live in a post-racial society, we never have. But we sure as hell pretended that race didn’t exist. Race is so embedded in our society, in policies, in institutions, how we live and function, how we see the world and each other. Race is so embedded in our own conceptions of the world that we’ve become blind to its existence. That is the power of racism. It’s become invisible and subtle, and so we’ve managed to convince ourselves that we’re beyond racism.

If you want to continue to pretend these things don’t affect us, that racism doesn’t exist, and refuse to take initiative to start making changes, by go means, go ahead. But just remember, that’s how we got here in the first place.

To my Asian American friends. It’s time to wake up.

Chip is a PhD candidate in American Studies at the University of Minnesota. She writes about Asian American issues, race, gender, history, and ultimate frisbee.