“When will Asian lives matter?”

By Francesca Humi

Possible allies, solidarity, and joining together to fight white supremacy

“When will Asian lives matter?” asked my aunt as we watched the 2016 Oscars hosted by black male comedian Chris Rock, who was addressing the absence of Black nominees that year at the Oscars. I was visiting her for reading week in the suburban town of Dumfries, V.A. I answered, “I know, Tita[1]” because I didn’t want to open a can of worms, especially with her white Republican husband nearby. But throughout the ceremony I thought to myself, “How can I address this kind of issue with my mother’s side of the family, which is mainly comprised of first and second generation Filipinx[2] immigrants living in white Western countries (specifically, France and the US)?” I tried formulating an answer in my mind, which would have gone something like: “But you know, Tita, the African-American experience is so different from the Asian-American experience. Black folks have gone through so much in this country, the consequences of which are still being felt today.” But I felt this would have been insufficient.

When my aunt left the Philippines for the US on her own in her mid-twenties (leaving behind her two young daughters in my mother’s care), she faced incredible amounts of racism and discrimination. She lived illegally on people’s couches and living rooms for her first years in New York, then moved to the Washington, D.C. area where she met her future husband. They then lived in South Carolina together, but my Tita was unable to find a job there. People simply wouldn’t hire her: They didn’t trust her accent, her skin colour, and black hair. So, racism and the absence of economic opportunities pushed them back up north to D.C.

Here lies the crux of the challenge facing me today, and which I will seek to address in this paper, how can we reconcile Asian and Black communities to fight together against white supremacy? How Asian communities acknowledge that the harms that have been inflicted on Black folks in North America are different from the ones they have faced, while the consequences may be similar, but the perpetrator always the same. How can we move beyond the “model minority” myth, which holds up Asian Americans at the expense of African Americans? 

This paper will first give an overview of Asian Americans: histories of immigration and racism, their position vis-à-vis African Americans and dominant Whites, and the “model minority” myth. The negative implications of the “model minority” myth will then feed into a discussion of anti-Blackness in Asian communities. Then, I will explore past allyships between Black and Asian communities, ending with possibilities for present and future solidarity to combat white supremacy, which has so ruthlessly pitted racialized folks against each other in North America.

  1. The Asian-American experience

Asians have a very particular place in America. Some common tropes relating to Asian identity are the model minority stereotype – “you must do really well in school, you’re [Asian identity];” the perpetual foreigner – the immigrant with a broken accent, who will never understand the local culture, the Kung Fu fighter, the fetishized female sex worker, popularised in the 1960s because of American involvement in Southeast Asia (Chou & Feagin, 2008, p. 9; CMHC, 2015; Nittle, 2016). The systemic oppression and racism faced by Asians in North America has been continually ignored by social scientists and is frequently invisibilized in popular culture – the stereotypes described previously are rarely acknowledged as violent or actually harmful (Chou & Feagin, 2008, ix).

Asian folks living in America

Since the 1800s, Asian Americans have lived in the U.S. under two dominant narratives. The first one spanned from the mid 19th century to World War II. This period can be dubbed as the “Yellow Peril” era based on Orientalist notions of weakness and immorality, which is when Asians started to be portrayed as undesirable immigrants incapable to assimilate. This Yellow Peril was framed as a threat to white racial dominance. The second discourse shaping Asian American lives took over during the Cold War, when the U.S. presented itself as the liberator of the Third World in contrast to the Soviets. The model minority myth was born: If Asian immigrants worked hard enough, they would be assimilated into the American neoliberal capitalist regime. The model minority construct was a false promise of being accepted into whiteness (Maeda, 2009, p. 12, 20). Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Indians, and Filipinx folks were the five main Asian immigrant groups in the U.S. before World War II. They were classified as “Orientals” by U.S. immigration policy, with terrible implications for access to citizenship and rights (Maeda, 2009, p. 23).

Maeda argues that Asians in the U.S. were racialized across these time spans through three core processes (2009, p. 20). The first placed Asians as subjects of capitalism and imperialism: Asian immigrants met the demand for cheap labour in the U.S. in the 19th century, they worked under exploitative conditions, while also being excluded from citizenship (Maeda, 2009, p. 22). The second was the legal alienation of Asians by court rulings and legislation, which denied naturalisation from ethnic groups who had petitioned for it. The Naturalization Act of 1870 only afforded Whites and people of “African nativity” or “descent” American citizenship (Maeda, 2009, p. 23). By 1925, the five main immigrant groups were deemed “aliens ineligible to naturalization,” which condensed these diverse groups into one monolithic Asian alien bloc (Maeda, 2009, p. 25).  Finally, the third process was social discrimination, which constructed Orientals as inassimilable. This racist discrimination included violence, employment and housing discrimination, unequal pay, and anti-miscegenation laws (Maeda, 2009, p. 26). In short, “[they] all found themselves caught in cycles of migration, exploitation, and exclusion that left similarly positioned vis-à-vis the state and dominant society” (Maeda, 2009, p. 20). 

Racial Triangulation: Implications for Asian and Black communities’ competing positions in America

The process of racialisation of Asians in the United States has been described as “racial triangulation” by sociologist Claire Jean Kim (1999, p. 106). This concept states that Asian American identity formation occurs “in dialogue and dispute with both blackness and whiteness” (Maeda, 2009, p. 10). It allows for a multidimensional understanding of race, where Asian American identity is continually negotiated and compared. Racial hierarchy in white supremacist societies often resemble “divide and conquer” policies, pitting Asian Americans against African Americans, while maintaining Whites on top (Tawa, Suyemoto, & Tauriac, 2013, p. 231). According to Kim, Asians and Blacks experience relative privilege and oppression differently. Asians have more “merit-based power,” relative to Black folks, because of the model minority myth construed within the U.S.’ supposed meritocracy, the American Dream of hard work. Blacks – relative to Asians – have more “nativity-based power” due to perceived longer histories and ties to the U.S. African Americans are more likely to be associated to being American than Asians (Tawa et al., 2013, p. 234-235).  Hence, Asian Americans are constructed as perpetual foreigners, unsuitable for American citizenship, but industrious and hardworking. Black folks’ Americanness is never questioned, but they are perceived as indolent. Meanwhile, white people are ideal citizens and hardworking (Maeda, 2009, p. 11).

  1. The Model Minority Myth unpacked: Racial hierarchies and anti-Blackness in Asian communities 

Asian Americans’ position in American society is incredibly complicated and nuanced. Many systems and tropes affect the lives of Asian Americans today, which shape (and are shaped by) their interaction with other racial groups. However, one trope is particularly harmful and pervasive: the model minority myth. While I have already touched on what it entails, this section will define the myth, unpack its many implications for Asian American realities, and use it as an example of how anti-Blackness has seeped into Asian communities.

Problematizing the model minority myth

The model minority myth was born in the 1960s in response to African American demands for more rights and empowerment. It was developed by white scholars, journalists, and political leaders to prove that the American Dream could be obtained by racialized Americans (Chou & Feagin, 2008, p. 13). This is a falsely positive stereotype portraying Asian Americans as high achieving, who have obtained increased wealth and upward social mobility (Tawa et al., 2013, p. 234). On the individual level, this means stereotyping Asians as socially awkward geeks and nerds. The Counseling and Mental Health Center (CMHC) of the University of Texas at Austin even has a specific webpage dedicated to combatting the myth. It helps Asian American students identify if they have experienced the effects of the myth by asking, for example, if they have experienced resentment from other students because they are perceived to do well academically, or if they feel they are not living up to others’ expectations of academic excellence (CMHC, 2015).  The model minority myth additionally presents an ideal way of blaming Asian Americans in America for their own exploitation (Maeda, 2009, p. 12).

Mainstream media and popular culture representations of Asian American success is problematic. It paints all Asians as successful, erasing socio-economic disparities within the group, silencing experiences of racism they face, and ignoring the psycho-social implications of the myth (Chou & Feagin, 2008, p. 12). Some Asian Americans have in deed achieved rates of income and education equal to Whites but others experience poverty rates similar to those of Black and Latinx folks (Tawa et al., 2013, p. 234). It ignores instances of pay disparity and real limitations of upward social mobility for Asians (Chou & Feagin, 2008, p. 12).

Finally, it has terrible psycho-social repercussions on Asian American individuals, which could be exemplified by the 2007 Virginia Tech University – a historically white institution – shooting by Cho Seung-Hui. He was a Korean American student, who shot students and staff across campus. Cho was described as unusually quiet and displayed multiple warning signs of mental health problems. He lived as a socially isolated outcast. As a child, he was teased in school by white children who made fun of his accent as he struggled to learn English. He represents the pain of Asian American youth in a white world: “being both very invisible and excruciatingly tormented,” which is something I can unfortunately identify with (Chou & Feagin, 2008, p. 2). The model minority myth puts substantial pressure on young Asian Americans to comply with this expectation crafted by white culture. This chronic pressure is illustrated by some disturbing facts: Asian American students are more likely to seek medical leave, and are “more likely than White students to report difficulties with stress, sleep, and feelings of hopelessness, yet [are] less likely to seek counseling” (CMCH, 2015).  However, this type of systemic oppression is made invisible by academics who claim Asians are “lucky” because they do not have to face the kind negative, violent imagery associated to Blackness (Chou & Feagin, 2008, p. 3). The unexplored Asian American experiences of racial hostility and discrimination are a very harmful form of silencing, that I am trying to remedy here. But the point is not to engage in “Oppression Olympics” but to acknowledge the varied ways in which white supremacy pervasively operates. This is why solidarity and allyships need to happen.

The model minority myth as a vehicle for anti-Blackness

This myth was born in opposition to Blackness, implied to be the antithesis of supposed Asian Americans virtues: successful, hardworking, diligent, quiet. This has negative impacts on Asian-Black relations, as it continually poses the question: if Asians can make it on their own, why can’t other minorities? – putting the onus on individual groups rather than addressing systemic racism entrenched in American society and institutions (Takaki, 2007, p. 326). Additionally, it has become widely acknowledged that the success of Asian Americans has been exaggerated to better oppress other racial minorities (Takaki, 2007, p. 325).  Research indicates that Asians have accepted negative stereotypes of African Americans as “unintelligent and lazy” (Tawa et al., 2013, p. 239). According to the 1993-1994 Los Angeles Study of Urban Equality, Chinese, Korean, and Japanese (who were used to represent the “Asian” category) were more likely than whites to hold anti-Black beliefs. These beliefs were that Blacks were more likely to be unintelligent and prefer welfare. Asians in this study also had the most positive views of whites, compared to what African Americans or Latinx folks’ opinions of whites (Bonilla-Silva, 2010, p. 190). This can be interpreted as an illustration of Asian Americans’ aspirations to whiteness.

These negatives beliefs about Blackness and positive views of whiteness are an integral part of Asian Americans’ assimilation into whiteness, which was promised to them as a reward for their hard work (Chou & Feagin, 2008, p. 15). Let’s use the case of Jian Li as an example of these attitudes. He was a second generation Chinese American student who sued Princeton University in 2006 (Tawa et al., 2013, p. 229). He sued on the basis of “race-based favoritism,” claiming that despite his excellent academic results he was rejected from Princeton, in favour of “less qualified Black and Latino minority applicants.” He argued that if it hadn’t been for affirmative action, he would have been admitted into the university (Tawa et al., 2013, p. 230). This case proves to what extent the model minority myth, and all of its false meritocratic assumptions, have been internalised by Asian Americans. Li’s case is particularly symbolic as it places Asian Americans as more deserving than Black or Latinx applicants in a competition to access a prestigious white-dominated academic institution.

I found this kind of sentiment in my own family. My uncle’s wife moved from the Philippines to suburban Maryland about a year ago, to be finally reunited with my uncle, who had been illegalised in the U.S. for over a decade. She found work in the food service industry soon after. When my mum spoke to her and asked about how she was adapting to American life and her new job, my aunt said: “I work really hard, I’m really lucky to have a job, but the Black people at work are so lazy. They sit around all day. They just don’t want to work. I even told one of them he had to work hard if he wanted to do well.” I was amazed that someone who had just immigrated to the U.S. had so readily accepted and reproduced these racist beliefs. This could also be tied to the fact that as a newcomer to a white supremacist society, my aunt had experienced her racialised identity, and that of others, very differently in the Philippines. Her statement included the problematic elements of the model minority myth: belief in American meritocracy through hard work, and the belief that Black folks are lazy and aren’t doing enough to uplift themselves. It was even more disturbing coming from a relative, who is a woman of colour.

Changing racial hierarchies in America

Some Asian Americans benefit more from racial hierarchies where Whites are up on top and Black folks at the bottom, which is just one reason why the umbrella label of “Asian” is so problematic. Some Asian ethnic groups have aspired or obtained whiteness more, while others have been “blackened.” Bonilla-Silva makes a case for a new racial hierarchy in the U.S. that would go beyond the Black/White paradigm by adopting a “triracial order” (2010, p. 180) As the name implies, this order would have three tiers, which would be: “Whites,” “Honorary Whites,” and “Collective Black.” “Whites” include for example, whites, new whites (e.g. Russians), assimilated white Latinx, some assimilated mixed-race folks, urban assimilate Native Americans. Among others, “Honorary Whites” would be light-skinned Latinx, most East Asians (Japanese, Korean, Chinese), most mixed-race folks, and South Asians. Finally, the “Collective Black” includes Vietnamese, Filipinx, Hmong, and Laotian Americans, as well as dark-skinned Latinx, new African or Caribbean immigrants, reservation-bound Native Americans, and of course, Black folks. His stratification is built on classist (socio-economic status, education level) and colourist, or “pigmentocracy” as Bonilla-Silva calls it, assumptions of white America. He sees mobility as a possibility if certain levels of education and income are obtained, and/or if the white middle class habitus is adopted by the non-whites. However, if there is one thing these strata have in common, it is their purpose. This purpose is to uphold white supremacy, as whites are consistently maintained on top, in a revolting race-based competition for whiteness as the ultimate grand-prize, and maintaining blackness as the loser (Bonilla-Silva, 2010, p. 197).

His analysis is accurate and useful in its division of Asians. It makes sense for Filipinx or Vietnamese Americans to be lower on this racial hierarchy than Koreans or Japanese, because of the U.S.’ particular imperialist legacy. The Philippines was an American colony and Vietnam became a proxy-war against the Soviets during the Cold War. The way the “collective Black” Asians are perceived are very much linked to Orientalist discourses, where their place of origin is associated to the Third World, implying poverty and colonialism. This is somewhat different for East Asian countries like Korea, Japan, or China. While the U.S. has maintained imperialist relations to all three countries, these countries – especially Japan and Korea – are not viewed as “developing” or poor in the world stage, which affects how Americans of that heritage are perceived.

  1. Asian-Black allyships and confronting anti-Blackness

Looking to the past

From the 1960s up until the the present, there have been many instances of Asian-Black solidarity. One very important example is the influence of the civil rights movement and the Black Panthers on the Asian American movement. The movement, which was born in the 1960s, sought to secure Asian Americans equal formal rights, but also to end racism and economic exploitation through radical social transformation – tackling racism, capitalism, and imperialism in one fell swoop (Maeda, 2012, p. 5). The movement comprised many distinct groups and factions, but it was premised on an understanding that Asian Americans of all ethnicities shared common racial oppression in the U.S., and that this multi-ethnic, race-based coalition would be the solution to fight said racism (Maeda, 2009, p. 75). Maeda (2009) further expands on how Blackness was appropriated by Asian American movement leaders as a tool for liberation and self determination:

“Performances of blackness catalyzed the formation of Asian American identity. Far from being mimics, however, Asian Americans who began to consider their own racial positioning through contemplations of blackness went on to forge a distinct identity of their own. […] The construction of Asian American identity through the performance of blackness demonstrates the interdependence of racial formations strictly among people of color.” (p. 75-6)

The Red Guard was one of such Asian American movement groups who adopted the Black Panthers’ way of dressing and talking, but this was also a way of securing back Asian masculinity (Maeda, 2009, p. 75). Another group, the I Wor Kuen, released a twelve-point program and platform, strikingly similar to the Panthers’ program.

Vice versa, Mao and Chinese communist discourse also seeped its way into Black culture, influencing those understandings of liberation and self determination (Kelley & Esch, 1999, p. 6-7). Most notably is The Coup’s song “Dig It!” from their 1993 album Kill My Landlord. The lyrics mention Mao, among other other radical thinkers, in a rap discussing institutionalised and systemic racism in America. However, around the same time, Ice Cube released the racially charged “Black Korea” to express the frustrations of the Black community in Los Angeles where a lot of Koreans owned local liquor stores and markets. In 1991, a Korean shop owner shot a fifteen-year old black girl, whom he suspected of stealing orange juice. This was barely a year before the L.A. riots, during which many Korean-owned shops were looted or destroyed (Choe, 1992). This incident, and Ice Cube’s rap that it inspired, are representative of the tensions that exist between the Asian and Black communities.

While mutually beneficial partnerships have existed and are possible, many conflicts still exist. These examples from the past inform current Asian-Black relations and demonstrate the complicated and nuanced positions of these two communities have been forced in by racial hierarchies designed to keep whites on top. These histories tell us that Blackness has at times be co-opted by Asian communities to white supremacy, and has at times been rejected in an effort to adhere to white supremacist values. These histories also tell us Black liberation movements have been inspired and informed by Asian discourses, and that Black folks in the U.S. have reproduced the “eternal foreigner” stereotype that has plagued Asians in North America. However, these histories illustrate the power of white society in issuing stereotypes and tropes about different racialized groups, and in forcing these groups to readily accept them and reproduce them.

Questions in the present: what Officer Peter Liang means for Asian and Black folks in America

In November 2014, Akai Gurley, a black man, was shot in Brooklyn, New York by NY Police Department officer Peter Liang. Although the shooting was declared an accidental discharge, Liang was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter and official misconduct in February 2016. This case proved extremely divisive in Asian American communities, with some calling for Liang’s freedom by using hashtags like #FreePeterLiang or #Justice4Liang. Chinese Americans have even labelled it as “selective justice:” Liang’s conviction was supposedly a compromise between Black Lives Matter movement and police unions (Fang, 2016). Some argued that Liang should have been treated like white police officers such as Darren Wilson or Timothy Loehmann, and therefore, under this twisted logic, Liang should have walked free. This case represents the realisation by some Asian Americans that white privilege never actually extended to them in the first place, and that it would not help a Chinese American police officer get away with murder. It symbolises the fragile and nuanced position of Asian Americans within the Black/White paradigm of white American society. As Fang phrases it in their article (2016):

“Liang is the sole police officer in recent memory to be convicted for killing an unarmed, innocent black person. Asian Americans, regardless of our politics on Liang’s conviction, share outrage over this fact. Given this perspective, we can either fight for special treatment for Asian Americans along the margins of a racially unjust system, or we can work with other communities of color to dismantle this systemic injustice outright.”

It is also important to note that the judge who will be deciding Liang’s sentence this month is Justice Danny K. Chun, born in Seoul, South Korea, and New York City’s first Korean American prosecutor. Justice Chun has had court experience with homicides and Asian gangs (Feuer, 2016). Judge Chun has also been facing pressure from New York’s Asian-American community to show leniency towards Officer Liang (Feuer, 2016).

The trial is an interesting representation of American race relations. Akai Gurley, a black unarmed man, was murdered by an Asian police officer, whose sentence is being decided by a non-American born Asian judge. Both institutions heavily associated to white dominance and that act as enablers of white supremacy – the police and the criminal justice system – are being impersonated here in the bodies of two Asian-American males. These men would be the embodiment of the model minority myth: two Asian-Americans who have successfully joined key institutions that uphold white supremacy. The victim of the situation, Akai, a father and a fiancé, is added to the list of countless other Black unarmed young men who were killed for now reason at the hands of the police.

This case articulates the uncomfortable position of Asian Americans within white supremacy. Some – Liang and Chun – have obtained privileged positions as actors of a racially unjust system. Some – Asian-Americans portraying Liang as a victim – are realising the limits of white privilege they thought they had obtained by subscribing to this same unjust system. Still, others are campaigning for Asian solidarity with the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement. These organisations include #Asians4BlackLives, Third World Resistance, and the Southeast Asian Freedom network who frequently send calls to action to Asian Americans to support the BLM movement and unite under the banner of anti-racism (Solomon, 2014; #Asians4BlackLives, 2015). This last group of Asian activists is incredibly important: they represent the Asian communities that understand the complex racial triangulation of Asians in a white supremacist society. Privileged in their less explicitly violent interactions (in the context of police brutality) with the white state, but nonetheless oppressed and excluded by this state. Fighting these powers, according to them, and according to myself, starts with solidarity in the face of police brutality and a skewed justice system that can never truly work for racialized communities.  

The road ahead: challenging anti-Blackness to become allies in the fight against white supremacy

This is what future solidarity and allyship should resemble: acknowledging similar but unique struggles against racism, standing by Black folks in the face of police brutality, amplifying their voices and supporting them. Asian Americans must continue in this vein of solidarity. BLM should be viewed as an opportunity for Asian folks in the U.S. to stand on the “right side” of history. Asian Americans need to acknowledge they have benefitted from certain privileges, afforded to them by a particular place in American racial hierarchies, built on the false assumptions of the model minority. Anti-Blackness within Asian communities needs to be addressed and confronted, starting with the people we are closest to. These are people are our relatives and friends, who perpetuate harmful beliefs. We need to engage in these difficult conversations and act where we may have the most influence, even if the audience is not always willing to listen. Racism towards Asian folks also needs to be addressed.

Asian Americans and African Americans need to acknowledge differences in how each group exists and survives in white supremacy, value these experiences, and learn as much as possible from these experiences in experiencing and fighting racial oppression. Interracial dialogue needs to take place to appreciate what the other has to bring to the table – conversations may focus on “culture, storytelling, historical accounts of experience, [or on] conflict” (Orbe & Harris, 2001, p. 157). All socially engrained “instincts” to reject each other must be surmounted. No standards of respectability or behaviour should be imposed on the other, especially when white or European behaviours and attitudes have been socialised as the norm for racialized folks (Orbe & Harris, 1991, p. 162).

The construction of race in North America has attempted to prevent the development meaningful and mutually beneficial allyships between Asian and Black folks, and this is true on an interpersonal level too. Orbe & Harris suggest that as a result, “the effectiveness of relationships in improving race relations on a micro level is minimized” (2001, p. 159). Interracial friendships, for example, have the potential to race-relations in an interpersonal context, and represent the small first steps to building intra-community alliances. All stereotypes and tropes created by white society and culture need be unlearned. Identities have to be reclaimed to be a source of empowerment and allyship. These alliances have always been perceived as threats by white society because they truly have the potential to disrupt a system devoted to dividing and exploiting racialized groups. These are bold goals but they have to be our guiding principles if we want any kind of systemic change. 

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[1] Tita is the Tagalog word for aunt.
[2] Filipinx is a gender neutral term, as an alternative to Filipino and Filipina, for anyone identifying to the Philippines, Filipino culture and/or Filipino diaspora. Similar to the term Latinx.