questions on (the limits & effects of) (asian american) allyship

Mural of Yu Gwan Sun, anti-colonial Korean revolutionary, by Dave Kim in Oakland, CA.

I read 2 pieces last week, written by Asian Americans, about how Asian Americans need to realize they’re not white. I’m not linking them because while this note began as a response to them, this is actually a product of many conversations I’ve been having with friends and co-organizers for over the last 7 years. As discourse on Asian American collusion in anti-blackness & American racism has grown in visibility, I’ve felt glad that more people are talking about Asian American antiblackness & racism, thankful that it’s pushing some more holistic organizing, and also, confused by how it seems that many Asian Americans are shaping their racial justice work through the model of white allyship (which I think many of us agree is ineffective and often more about white people’s feelings than about any substantive challenge to racism).

What I mean about Asian Americans replicating a model of “white allyship” is that:

  1. Asians are telling other Asians that they’re (lite-)white people, which often looks like the more “conscious” Asians admitting their racism while distancing themselves from embarrassing, bad racists who just won’t admit their racism;
  2. This positioning feels very concerned with image and having the right talking points to show we’re the right kind of political Asian;
  3. The position of “just shut up and listen” is propped up as the best and most principled mode of engagement, when that may actually have the effect of letting people be passive and not do the hard work of taking risks & forming their own analysis & politic (it can also function as a power play in organizing spaces to shut down disagreement/questioning, cement “one true voice” for a community, and produce homogeneity & unquestioning obedience as forms of “solidarity”);
  4. People are encouraged to see themselves as allies and not as comrades or co-strugglers (and I think there is a difference);
  5. This politic seeks out the “right” Black people to take the lead from, often to the effect of homogenizing & tokenizing Black people;
  6. After “acknowledging privilege” there is often little to no discussion of power, wealth, or material resources, and there is also no discussion of how Asian Americans can, do or should organize themselves aside from “realize you’re racist and part of the problem,” and “you’re responsible for your embarrassing family members and elders,” and maybe “go to a protest”.

I have some questions. To be clear, none of these questions are about disputing the reality of Asian Americans often colluding in racism and antiblackness both structurally and interpersonally. And, obviously, we don’t actually need to think we’re white in order to enact different forms of racism and exploitation. I believe that we belong in the struggle to end white supremacy and all forms of genocidal violence, including anti-Black racism, war and settler colonialism. So, that said: the following questions are about how we understand ourselves, our power, the kinds of stories we tell, how we organize or don’t organize, and why, and to what effect.

[note: I use “second generation” to describe the American-born children of immigrants.]

  • Who gets to speak on behalf of Asian Americans, and whose stories “stick”?
  • Why is Asian American experience essentialized by the most privileged experiences and narratives of wealth and proximity to white people? What political purpose does this serve, on all sides of the political spectrum?
  • Who of us ever thought we were white? And why? Do Asians who don’t speak English think they’re white? Asian immigrants? Mixed Asians? Undocumented Asians? Working class and poor Asians?
  • Who of us ever thought we were white, and what impact did that have? Is that solely an unambiguous marker of privilege? (Thinking of the experiences of transracial adoptees here.) What gets lost in framing everything in terms of either “privilege” or “oppression”?
  • Why are immigrants (elders & non-English speaking especially) framed as more racist than English-speaking Americanized & American-born children, who are arguably more susceptible to internalizing & continuing American racism? Why is this the case when monolingual immigrants & elders are generally more likely to experience much more frequent and acute forms of racism?
  • Do we agree with the model minority myth? Do we debunk the model minority myth? Why do we spend so much time agreeing with it or debunking it and where are we after that?
  • Why are we even in this country? What brought us here? Was it war? Upward mobility? Was it US-driven economic policies that made living in our home countries untenable? Or perhaps US-supported military regimes that exploited, disappeared and killed many while importing a certain type of capitalist development? Do we even know the contexts from which we came for “a better life”?
  • If organizing is about targeting those with political and economic power, how often do second-generation Asian Americans (who are largely shaping this discourse) focus on targeting and/or organizing other second-gens that generally have more wealth and power than immigrants and elders?
  • What is the impact of understanding ourselves as “allies” in a struggle for racial justice? Is that just an issue of semantics or does it speak to the adoption of a political framework that says, “If you’re an ally you must do these things to prove you are a worthy ally, and here is the script to follow, for better or for worse”?
  • Do we know our histories? Do we know each other’s histories? Do we want to? Do our stories of ourselves only begin after landing in the US? Why? And what does that mean for us?
  • What political factions exist within our respective ethnic communities? Are we even aware of them? Do we allow ourselves the complexity of having diverse communities that, like most communities, have blocs of ultraconservative fascists, religious fundamentalists, the super rich that are likely sitting on blood money, anti-queer/trans misogynists, boujee liberals, wannabe whiteys, leftist wingnuts & radicals like us, and more? How does this impact our organizing?
  • Are we responsible for the most far-right people in our communities? For example: Am I held responsible for the Koreans who red-bait me and my comrades, support military dictatorships that are responsible for massacring thousands of people, prop up authoritarian regimes, threaten and harass us and sometimes physically assault us for being “communists” “traitors” “North Korean sympathizers”? How do I understand & relate to those who are framed as my “elders” & “wayward kin” here, who feel like my enemies here, who would certainly be my enemies back home? Are these simply ignorant people who unfortunately become racists, or are they people whose politics have been wedded to authoritarianism, ultranationalism, capitalism and militarism even before they ever interacted with a non-Korean person? The ways we understand these differences also produce differences in both strategy and action. So if I/we are to be responsible for them, then how do we act accordingly, and in what way and to what extent?
  • As someone familiar with how many Asian Americans struggle with feelings of guilt, inadequacy, confusion and obligation, I wonder: are racial justice politics another place where people are working that out? In a moment where it’s held as true that “the personal is political,” what kind of political acts & strategies (or lack thereof) do the emotions of guilt and shame shape? Why do so many of these conversations stay in the realm of good/bad Asian, talking to families, convincing parents that we’re right, while not continuing into the realm of more tangible and material goals? What does this expose about people’s relationships to class (which, for Asian Americans, is one way that *does* create proximity to whiteness?)
  • If, as many would say, the condition of being Asian in the US is one of being silent and invisible, what does it say that our most popular narratives of ourselves right now — as radicals — is one that again homogenizes us into one of the exact caricatures that white people make of us? Ignorant, apolitical, submissive, homogenous, pliable, easily whitened, easily agreeable, wealthy, no real experiences of racism to speak of, no real struggles to speak of, political or otherwise? Why does this discourse get framed as “acknowledging our privilege” and after we “acknowledge our privilege,” what happens next?
  • In one of the pieces I read, the Asian writer said that Asians aren’t showing up to protests, aren’t organizing, aren’t doing anything and certainly aren’t doing enough. What is the purpose & effect of erasing Asian American prison abolitionists, anti-war activists, racial justice organizers, disability justice freedom fighters, queer/trans feminists & anti fascists, immigrant rights organizers, housing justice organizers, rape and domestic violence survivor advocates, labor organizers, artists and cultural workers, movement lawyers, and so many more, from both the past & present? Is this erasure purely ignorance? Or is it because it fits better into a political narrative that benefits from homogenizing us, and to some extent, may be invested in continuing to frame “the rest of us” as passive?
  • What are the legacies we’ve inherited, which ones will we choose to protect, and which will we dismantle?

What will we do with who we are and the power we have?

(Thank you Stacy Suh, Joanne Tien, Rola M., & Nick for having these conversations with me and encouraging me to write. Initially posted on Facebook, sharing here for wider accessibility.)

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