Uprooting anti-Blackness in Asian communities

Three weeks ago, I was sheltering in the silence and safety of my family’s home in the Bronx. Whenever the sound of sirens broke that silence, as they did several times a day, I imagined an ambulance—one more victim of the pandemic, one more reason to retreat into the protection of four walls. Now when I hear sirens, police cars and protests come to mind. I no longer want to be quiet.

When the video of George Floyd’s murder surfaced, the image of a Hmong-American man turning his back to the murder awakened in me a deep sense of shame. I felt ashamed of the Asian culture I grew up in that taught me to remain defensive, silent and complicit; I felt ashamed of the rampant anti-Blackness I grew accustomed to during family conversations. As a daughter of immigrants, I appreciate the sacrifices my family made so that I could write this very article, but the Asian American community, especially those who were born here, needs to do better. It is time for us to accept our necessary role in fighting anti-Blackness in America.

Uprooting the complex and often hostile relationship between Black people and Asian Americans requires mutual listening and self-reflection, regardless of how uncomfortable that might be. Asian Americans have a long history of perpetuating systemic racism against Black people, but I decided to look to the present—I interviewed my Black and Asian friends. Their personal experiences reveal how anti-Blackness from Asian Americans often manifests itself in microaggressions and other forms of covert racism. 

Alliyah Logan, Smith College ’24, recalled disempowering educational experiences while growing up Black in New York City. When Logan lined up to take the Specialized High School Admissions Test (SHSAT) at Bronx Science, she noticed that the line was dominated by Asian American students, even though neighboring schools like Dewitt Clinton High School were mostly attended by Black and Brown people. “When I started education equity work to remove the SHSAT test and make it more equitable, Asian moms protested against this. I asked myself, ‘Why would you not want to make this process more inclusive for students and expand resources so that every high school has the same amount of resources and access to test prep and programs?’” she reflected. Nathaniel Swanson, DePauw University ’23, offered some insight into the specialized high school culture. “I have Black friends who recounted countless times that Asian students used racial slurs, made culturally insensitive comments and stereotyped them on many occasions. As someone who wanted to attend one of these high schools, I could have been on the receiving end of these racist remarks,” he said.

Remarks like those often follow Black students into higher education. Helen Zhao, New York University ’21, shared her anger over NYU Lambda Phi Epsilon, an Asian fraternity whose anti-Black group chat messages were leaked on Twitter following Floyd’s death. Messages showed members encouraging police brutality and complaining that “99% of the black people did not give a f* about changing their relationship with any race.” “I was furious at first because I could not understand how people would think this way,” said Zhao, “but by speaking to my other Asian friends about this, I realized that many of them agree with the chat messages to some degree.” 

During our interview, Logan turned my attention to the lack of Asian support for the Black Lives Matter movement. “I saw so many Black people—especially Black women—advocating for Asian people when they were attacked with racist comments during the start of COVID…But the way we were advocating for them is not the same way that Asian Americans are advocating for Black people now. We don’t get the same energy back.” Both she and Swanson shared memories of being watched and followed around in local Asian-owned beauty supply stores, illuminating the culture of mistrust toward Black skin. 

This culture extends beyond Asians in the United States. Swanson told me that he feared for the Black people living in China and felt powerless to offer aid. “Recently, when COVID-19 was still growing and spreading at an alarming rate, Black folks living in China were treated unjustly,” he pointed out. “Some were evicted, others were restricted from going outside. They were profiled as disease ridden and a risk to their communities.” Lingyi Wang, Vassar College ’23, explained how anti-Blackness in China is fueled by nationalism, xenophobia and an information gap between us and our Asian counterparts across the globe. “As the popular Chinese phrase goes, ‘枪打出头鸟’ (The nail that sticks up first gets hammered down), [students in China] weren’t encouraged to speak up from a young age.” She continued, “As the friction between China and the States gets more intense, mainstream media tries to raise extreme nationalistic sentiment in mainland China through false propaganda. A lot of the reports I saw online in China discredited [Black Lives Matter] protests and characterized them as violent terrorism. Therefore, since a lot of people got misled by the information fed to them, they would post extreme comments online.” 

Some Asian American homes share this ignorance of Black oppression. Janet Song, Vassar College ’23 [Editor’s Note: Janet Song is the Features Editor at the Miscellany News], described how she was “taught to dehumanize Black people” from a young age by her parents. When Song was applying to college, her parents saw it as unfair for Black people to “use their privilege,” referring to affirmative action. Aryaana Khan, City College of New York ’22, also recognized anti-Blackness within her South Asian family. “In the case of younger generations who grow up alongside the Black community, there is overt racism in the guise of mixing with Black culture; young South Asians are quick to use the N-word and identify with hip hop, but still support their community’s anti-Black rhetorics and perceptions,” she said. In Khan’s community, racism also serves as a form of social mobility. “While South Asians are considered ‘Brown’—neither Black nor white—many still strive for whiteness in order to climb the class structures,” she said.

This, seemingly, is nothing new. Khan acknowledged the “not-so-simple legacy of colonization” stretching back years. “We hate Blackness while identifying with it because for centuries, we’ve had to cater to the White gaze to survive; however, these survival instincts hurt both Black and Asian Americans now because it prevents us from uniting against the root causes of the oppression of all those without power—and all those left out of the narrative,” she said. Iris Thaoxaochay, Vassar College ’23, spoke on the origins of racial triangulation of Asians in the United States, pinpointing its start as the 1850s gold rush and accompanying immigration wave. “By characterizing the Blacks as lazy, rebellious and disrespectful…[and] Asians as foreign and apolitical…it’s important to realize that the status quo really only served the White population by keeping Asians docile and Blacks hated,” explained Thaoxaochay. Out of this came the model minority myth and its divisive implications. Tamika Whitenack, Vassar College ’21, argued, “The model minority myth paints Asians as hardworking and successful—and creates further disparities between minority groups by promoting assimilation into American culture as a goal for Asians/racial minorities.” Sofia Baah, Vassar College ’21, argued a similar point. ““We have largely struggled individually—existing parallel yet opposite to each other. Ideas meant to keep us separate—e.g. ‘model minorities’ versus ‘criminal Black people’ narratives—may have prevented us from working together in the past,” said Baah. 

Logan agreed that unity is in the best interest of all. “When it comes to oppression, it is so important to build solidarity between different groups of people,” she said. Still, she made a point to emphasize the unique experiences of Black people. “Acknowledge Black suffering instead of making it a competition because it affects both groups. People don’t take a step back and recognize their privileges, even if they’re a POC,” she said. Anya Martinez, American University ’23, concurred. “There are many forms of racism today that primarily affect the Black population but don’t affect other minorities as strongly, such as Asian Americans, thus these issues often go unnoticed or deemed as unimportant,” explained Martinez.

I ended each of my interviews by asking my friends what effective allyship looks like. Swanson answered that allyship starts with deconstructing racist notions that Asians/Asian Americans have against Black communities, educating and promoting dialogue toward generations both young and old, and understanding the cultural values of each group to communicate from a place of mutual understanding and respect for one another. “We must not let our pride affect whether or not we stand up to injustice. Xenophobia is wrong. Anti-Blackness is wrong,” he said. 

To Baah, allyship means “constant recognition of a common, yet varying, experience in the midst of white supremacy.” 

Logan broke down allyship into four stages of dismantling racism: 1) social media solidarity, 2) protest, 3) legislative action and 4) having difficult conversations. She elaborated, “I want to see more people standing up and advocating for education equity, showing up to protests supporting Black and Brown people and putting your body on the line. Even after these protests stop, we need people to continue to advocate for us and expand conversations to every part of your life. It really is about giving up power.” 

Martinez told allies to look locally. “What we need is for allies from all different communities breaking the silence on racism in their households, schools and communities to make social change,” she said. 

Zhao challenged her Asian peers to have the courage to call out racism, even if it means losing friends along the way. Although not all of her peers support her, she remains steadfast in her beliefs. “The more time I spend fighting against racism, the more time my Black friends can spend relaxing rather than protesting on the street,” said Zhao. 

Whitenack shared that she is working on holding herself and others accountable for potential internalized anti-Blackness through self-reflection and engaging in difficult conversations that consider how to adopt anti-racism practices in daily life.

Thaoxaochay believes in making change through the power of education. “We need to encourage intellectual curiosity and a healthy sense of questioning among our population. People should be willing to question the norm, because without questioning and thought, change will never come,” she said.

Khan has been combating anti-Blackness by talking to family members about the history of this country and the country they come from. “While American and Bangladeshi history take place in two different sides of the world, both have yet to fully resolve the detrimental effects of whiteness … Conversations not only make our understanding of the world greater, but they also reveal to us more about who we are—and more importantly—who we could be.”

Although I began interviewing for this article to help readers build intercommunal solidarity, I was amazed at the power of these conversations to initiate interpersonal empathy. Creating space for these difficult conversations can thread together perspectives that would otherwise divide one another. Having listened to my peers, there is one last question to ask myself: How will I choose to be better?

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