Me and Bruce Lee would like to have a word with you.
There’s a moment in Bruce Lee’s second film, Fist of Fury AKA Chinese Connection, where Bruce (his character’s name was actually Chen Zhen, but true fans call him Bruce in all his movies) heads over to the rival martial arts school in town to kick maximum ass. He’s pissed off. The rival school had shown up earlier at Bruce’s school shortly after the head teacher’s funeral. But they didn’t show up to drop off a casserole. They showed up just to be assholes. Bruce wanted to fight then, but the other students wouldn’t let him. Bruce wasn’t just pissed about the disrespect of his school and his teacher. He was pissed about something else: the racism. See, the rival school was Japanese, and this film is set in Shanghai, China in 1910 when the Japanese occupied the city. In the film it is clear that the rival Japanese school feels absolutely free to be assholes to the Chinese. They aren’t afraid of the cops. They aren’t afraid of being overwhelmed by the one billion Chinese people just outside the door. They just walk in, shit on a bunch of people who are sad about the death of someone they love, and walk out. The Japanese clearly have power and privilege, which as we all (should) know is what is required for true racism to exist.
Bruce heads over to the rival school. He smashes everybody who wants the smoke. He even smashes some guys who aren’t sure they want the smoke but are already standing in the “Kung Fu movie fight circle” so why not? But before Bruce leaves, he returns a “gift” that the Japanese school had left at his school. It was a gift of racism — a giant framed picture with words “Sick Men of Asia” written in beautiful Chinese calligraphy. In the ultimate dick move, the Japanese school even wrapped it. Imagine the indignity of having to unwrap an insult. “Sick Men of Asia” was the Japanese school’s way of saying that of all the different groups of Asians across that side of the globe that the Chinese were the weakest. Again, this small group of Japanese students was ignoring the fact that they were occupying a country with a billion people. It makes the white government of Apartheid-era South Africa look like they weren’t ambitious enough.
Bruce doesn’t just return the gift by saying, “My good man, we have decided that we don’t have room for this. I hope you kept the receipt.” Nope. Bruce breaks the glass out of the frame, pulls out the canvas, and shoves it into the head dickhead’s mouth — forcing him to literally eat the words. (Somewhere in 1970’s Compton, a young Suge Knight saw this and took notes.) It is a brutal move, but well earned. Before Bruce struts out the door, he turns to the various piles of injured humans scattered around the dojo and spits out, “WE ARE NOT SICK MEN!” Apparently when Chinese movie audiences first saw this scene they would stand and cheer. And as a prepubescent kid in Chicago, I might have done the same thing. As a Black boy in America, I felt that line in my bones. I wasn’t Chinese, and my oppressors weren’t Japanese, but I was in my mom’s apartment on the South Side of Chcago going, “I’M NOT A SICK MAN EITHER!
The more I learned about Bruce Lee, the more I learned that his struggle against racism in the film also mirrored his struggle against racism in life. As a young man, he got in trouble with members of the Chinese American community in San Francisco because he was teaching martial arts to non-Chinese people. One of his close friends around this time was a Black man named Jesse Glover. Later when Bruce moved to LA to break into Hollywood, he taught and befriended Kareem Abdul Jabbar, way back when he was named Lew Alcindor. Can you imagine how deep those conversations must have gotten? I get woozy thinking about it.
Bruce’s connection to Black folks wasn’t just one way. There was something about Bruce Lee that resonated with the Black community. In the 1970’s many Black people adopted him as if he was one of us. Maybe it was because of the themes of racism that were often in his films. Maybe it was because he always played the underdog, which meant Black folks could watch and go, “Yup! I know that fight.” Maybe it was because he cast Black men in his films at a time when we were having a hard time getting cast in roles that weren’t just stereotypes, a struggle Bruce also knew. (Hollywood producers outright stole his idea of a “martial arts western” and cast a white man, David Carradine, as the lead.) Maybe Black folks liked Bruce because of the way he moved on screen, bouncing on his toes like his hero Muhammad Ali. Who knows why. But Bruce Lee was certainly responsible for an explosion in interest in martial arts in Black America. Whatever it was that made Bruce feel like ours, I was there for it and still am.
When I moved to San Francisco in the late 90’s, I quickly noticed that the old Chinese American women on the bus wearing the surgical masks didn’t seem to recognize me as one of theirs. Another day when I was on the bus, I heard a bunch of people behind me dropping N-bombs like it was a competition. I turned around, expecting to see my people, and instead saw a group of teenage Chinese Americans. I was so stunned I didn’t know what to say. And that was fine since, somehow, they didn’t notice the 6'4", 250lb Black dude staring at them. I went to a screening of a Bruce Lee documentary in Chinatown once, and there were many people there who knew Bruce from his time in San Francisco. In that moment, I realized that while Bruce was still mine, he was more theirs. I’m sure they felt his “We are not sick men!” much deeper than I did. And all that’s fine. I can know that those old Chinese American women don’t see me as an ally. I can be creeped out by Chinese Americans dropping N-bombs that I’m sure they learned from from Hip Hop. (They were saying it with the soft “a” at the end.) And I can recognize that my connection to Bruce isn’t the same as a person of Chinese descent, even if we both love him in our way.
I’m writing all this because recently the comments on my Instagram page have been a shit show. Instagram had been the place where I went to get away from all the trolling of Twitter. But in the sheltering-in-place era, Twitter trolls have time to become free range trolls. Or maybe they aren’t all trolls. Maybe they just have a fundamental misunderstanding of, to quote my 5 year old, who I am and how I roll. Or maybe (and most likely) they just don’t care. Somehow these people are confused. They don’t get how I can hold several ideas in my head at once. They don’t get how I could be mad that our president and his cronies for calling Covid-19 “The Chinese Virus” when scientists have rejected all geographic labels. They don’t get how I can be mad about Asian Americans being harassed and assaulted by people who are fueled by the president’s racism. The people are confused about the fact I post about both of these issues. Their repsonse amounts to “That’s what Chinese people get because one time a Chinese waiter was mean to me in a restaurant.” Or “That’s what they get for never showing up at a Black Lives Matter rally!”
Some of these same people simply don’t understand how I can be mad about attacks against Asian Americans and then also find room to be mad at cops who are arresting Black people for not wearing masks. But wait there’s more! Then I am also be mad at other people for discriminating against Black people for wearing masks. “HOW CAN YOU BE MAD BECAUSE OF THAT… AND THAT?… YOU SHOULD ONLY HAVE ROOM FOR ONE MAD! PICK A MAD! BUT MORE IMPORTANTLY, PICK THE MAD I WANT YOU TO PICK!”
No. I won’t do that.
The folks in my comments are also mad about the fact that I still have enough mad leftover to be mad about African immigrants and African nationals in China being targeted by Chinese people who are evicting Africans from their housing and forcing them into quarantine. “THIS IS TOO MUCH MAD-NESS!” they say. “HOW CAN YOU BE FOR CHINESE PEOPLE AND MAD AT CHINESE PEOPLE?” they say. “WHY WON’T YOU JUST FOCUS ON THE MAD THAT AFFECTS YOU MOST DIRECTLY? YOUR MADNESS IS MADNESS!”
If you’re confused about my hatred of racism against Black people, my hatred of racism against Asian Americans, and my hatred of racism against African immigrants in China, then you’re probably also confused about Bruce Lee, Muhammad Ali, Martin Luther King jr., Malcolm X, Nina Simone, Bob Marley, and Frederick Douglass. And I’m guessing that Sesame Street confused you as a kid and still confuses you to this day. But I’m not confused. Being against racism means being against racism. And it means being against racism when it isn’t convenient, or easy, or fun, or even when the person you are trying to help doesn’t consider you one of their people, or one of their allies, or doesn’t even see you at all. I can hold all that in my head and more. I can also wish that I had talked to those old Chinese women on the bus back in the 90’s about their surgical masks.