Anti-blackness in Asian and Asian-American Communities

In an increasingly divided America, there is a greater need for solidarity and coalition building between communities of color. Yet, I am increasingly frustrated. I was frustrated in high school when I had to explain, more than once, why my Asian friends couldn’t use anti-black slurs—no, ending it with an “a” doesn’t change the fact that this slur will never, in any context, be yours to reclaim. I was frustrated again when the largest wave of Asian-American activism in recent history was inspired by completely misplaced outrage, outrage that Peter Liang, a Chinese-American police officer, would be held accountable for killing Akai Gurley, an unarmed African-American man.[1] I’m frustrated now, seeing Asians and Asian Americans continue to appropriate and profit off of black culture without receiving nearly as much reproach as their white counterparts.[2] I’m frustrated with the Asian-American community, my community, for doing too little too slowly to address its deeply ingrained anti-blackness.

To understand the anti-blackness in Asian-American communities, we need to begin by looking at the historical role played by white supremacy in its creation. One of the earliest cases of pitting Asian Americans against African Americans was during the post Civil War era, when Southern plantation owners replaced former slaves with Chinese laborers in an attempt to create competition. Plantation owners argued that the Chinese laborers were “docile, submissive and hard-working, unlike African Americans.”[3] Moon-Ho Jung, associate professor of history at the University of Washington, explains that this hardly reflected the reality of what was happening, but nevertheless, the rhetoric was pushed—at the expense of two minority groups, and for the benefit of exploitative white plantation owners.  

The next major tool of division was crafted in the post-WWII era: the “model minority” myth, which persists today. Asian Americans have been designated to be the example for other racial groups of how not only to overcome discrimination, but also to achieve success, through their “solid two-parent family structures,” strong and supportive social networks, and complete dedication to education.[4] This kind of generalizing rhetoric inevitably pits Asian Americans against other racial minorities by “making a flawed comparison between Asian Americans and other groups, particularly Black Americans, to argue that racism, including more than two centuries of black enslavement, can be overcome by hard work and strong family values.”[5]

The Asian-American community is by no means the homogenous, seamless group it is often portrayed as, so it’s crucial to note who exactly this minority myth applies to and who is excluded. The myth is mainly applicable to newly immigrated Indian and East Asians, the predominant groups associated with high household incomes and academic success, and also the groups that dominate popular perceptions of Asian Americans.[6] Filipino, Vietnamese, and other South and Southeast Asians on the other hand, although making up an equal proportion of the Asian population in America, often face exclusion and discrimination from and within the community. They have expressed sentiments that they don’t feel “welcomed and included” by the community dominated by light-skinned East Asian Americans.[7] E.J.R. David, a Filipino American and professor of psychology at the University of Alaska-Anchorage, explains that “Filipinos and other non-East Asians get pulled into the Asian American umbrella when [they are] needed.”[8]

David argues that the divide is in part due to the differences in wealth between the countries themselves. Many South and Southeast Asian countries are relatively poorer than China, Korea, and Japan, and as a result, immigrants and their children are stereotyped negatively, “often perceived as mail-order brides or domestic workers.”[9]

The internal divide is also due to the colorism that’s present in the Asian-American community, which has roots tracing back to Asia. In The Significance of Skin Color in Asian and Asian American Communities: Initial Reflections, Trina Jones writes that the preference for ivory skin “has historical roots dating at least to the mid-nineteenth century when upper-class Japanese men and women donned white-lead powder makeup to indicate their elite status.”[10] The belief that pale skin is a symbol of beauty and indication of socioeconomic status is still deeply ingrained into the psyche of many Asians and Asian Americans. The demand for skin lightening creams for both men and women has been increasing in India, Japan, and China, and the global market for skin lightening creams is estimated to reach $19.8 billion this year.[11]

Jones, a professor at Duke University School of Law, also draws upon the work of Joanne Rondilla and Paul Spickard, who interestingly point out that “Asians are not necessarily seeking to become White. Rather, [Rondilla and Spickard] report ‘[t]he yearning to be light is a desire to look like rich Asians, not like Whites.’”[12] Regardless of whether the goal is to achieve whiteness or to be perceived as a rich Asian, the way of getting there is the same: a rejection of dark skin.  

The model minority myth is a complex myth indeed, one that was initially created to maintain white supremacist structures and undoubtedly compounds the pre-existing colorism in Asian communities. However, the idea that the myth continues to be entirely imposed upon passive (Indian and East) Asian Americans is not only wrong, but also dangerous. To assume that those Asian Americans do not benefit or in some instances perpetrate the myth and the “honorary whiteness” that it entails would exonerate them of any blame, and imply that the myth is sustained wholly by white power structures.

As a result of being the model minority, Asian Americans have access to wealth-building means that other racial minority groups do not. They are less likely to face housing discrimination.[13] They are significantly less likely to go to jail or be targeted by police.[14][15] This should serve as a clear indication that the success experienced by Asian Americans isn’t entirely due to the cultural values mentioned previously. Yes, a supportive family and commitment to academics will increase your chances of success, but it’s going to be difficult to utilize those things if you’re contending with immense institutionalized barriers on a daily basis.[16] In short, Asian Americans did not suddenly start succeeding because they studied for eight hours every day—they succeeded because they were allowed to succeed, post 1945, when it was politically and economically beneficial for white Americans. The structural barriers were lifted, honorary whiteness was granted, and the “image of the hard-working Asian became an extremely convenient way to deny the demands of African Americans,” especially in the 1960s.[17]

I’ve been focusing a lot on the success of Asian Americans and how they do not face the same structural barriers as other racial minorities. I want to make very clear that I am not claiming that Asian Americans do not experience racism. As a mixed East Asian woman who attends a private university in Boston, I am aware of my privilege and try my best to check it often. Yet, it isn’t white privilege, and it will never fully protect me against the fetishization I’ve been subjected to since middle school, or near daily microaggressions reminding me that I belong to the “other.” The model minority myth leaves little room for mistakes and as a result, Asian Americans “are less than half as likely than our non-Asian counterparts to report mental illness to their friends and/or to seek treatment.”[18] In entertainment, Asian Americans continue to be both under- and misrepresented.

It is important to recognize that Asian Americans, like all racial minority groups, experience racism in some form. However, it is equally important to recognize that the racism experienced by each group varies greatly, depending on historical, institutional, and societal factors. As Claire Jean Kim, a professor at UC Irvine points out, “Asians have been barred from entering the U.S. and gaining citizenship and have been sent to incarceration camps…but all that is different than the segregation, police brutality and discrimination that African-Americans have endured.”[19] That’s why phrases such as “we’re all people of color” while technically true, are problematic in that they erase important differences and try to equate experiences of all communities of color. As a result, interethnic racism can be written off.

Recognizing these differences in experiences won’t lead to further division. Rather, it’s an important early step to effective coalition building. Chang Lee, a Korean American who was in LA during the Rodney King riots of 1992 and witnessed firsthand what tensions between communities of color could result in, argues that “[n]ow it’s time for minority ethnic groups to talk to each other, stay bound together, understand and support each other.”[20] Some activists have been about this coalition building, and we can look to them as brilliant examples. A personal favorite of mine is a photograph from Oakland, CA, 1969. At a rally in support of Black Panther Party co-founder Huey Newton, an Asian man is holding a sign that reads: YELLOW PERIL SUPPORTS BLACK POWER. This is the sign that protesters should have been holding up after the murder of Akai Gurley, rather than the signs demanding justice for Liang.

#Asians4BlackLives is another good example of how Asian Americans can stop being complicit in the systematic and institutionalized killing of black Americans. They’re a Bay Area based group that have established principles and protocols for how best to stand in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter. Bolded on their “Who We Are” page: “We understand that our liberation depends on the liberation of Black people.”[21] And they’re right—liberation from white supremacy is a collective struggle shared between every community of color.  

So I call upon my community, a community I am proud to be a part of and want to see do better, to recognize the anti-blackness it perpetuates both internally and externally. We are not perfect; we have been influenced by dominant racist institutions, but there’s also no excuse for complicity. It’s time to build mutual understanding through discussion, and to help each other unlearn beliefs that were instilled without our consent but nevertheless held by our complicity. We have an important role as the racial middle on the black/white binary paradigm of race that dominates mainstream understandings of race in America. As Mari Matsuda said in her speech to the Asian Law Caucus in 1990, “The middle can dismantle white supremacy if it refuses to be the middle, if it refuses to buy into racial hierarchy, and if it refuses to abandon communities of black and brown people, choosing instead to forge alliances with them.”[22] We must be vigilant not to become the “racial bourgeoise” and exploit our position at the expense of fellow people of color.[23] Rather, we must commit to using our unique position as the racial middle to contribute to the work black people have been doing for years on behalf of all people of color.

[1] Shyong, Frank. “Why this cop’s conviction brought thousands of Asian Americans into New York’s streets.” Los Angeles Times. April 13, 2016. Accessed March 14, 2018.

[2] Lee, Chris. “Why We Need to Take Responsibility for Anti-Black Racism in K-Pop.” BDG. February 19, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2018. need-to-take-responsibility-for-anti-black-racism-in-k-pop/

[3] Huang, Christine. “The Toll of Historically Pitting Asians Against Blacks.” HuffPost. March 29, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2018. pitting-asians-against-blacks_us_58d2b56ae4b062043ad4af1b

[4] Chow, Kat. “‘Model Minority’ Myth Again Used as a Racial Wedge Between Asians and Blacks.” NPR. April 19, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2018. /codeswitch/2017/04/19/524571669/model-minority-myth-again-used-as-a-racial-wedge-between-asians-and-blacks

[5] Ibid.

[6] Edlagan, Christian and Kavya Vaghul. “How data disaggregation matters for Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.” Washington Center for Equitable Growth. December 14, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2018. disaggregation- matters-for-asian-americans-and-pacific-islanders/

[7] Schiavenza, Matt. “Why Some ‘Brown Asians’ Feel Left Out of the Asian American Conversation.” Asia Society. October 19th, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2018.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Jones, Trina. “The Significance of Skin Color in Asian and Asian American Communities: Initial Reflections.” UC Irvine Law Review Vol. 3:1105. December 2013. Pg 1115.

[11] Pe, Roger. “Yes, Asia is obsessed with white skin.” Inquirer Net. October 1, 2016. Accessed March 14, 2018.

[12] Jones, Trina. “The Significance of Skin Color in Asian and Asian American Communities: Initial Reflections.” Pg 1116.

[13] Hoenig, Chris. “Housing Discrimination More Subtle, But Still Absurdly High.” DiversityInc. July 1, 2013. Accessed March 20, 2018.

[14] Federal Bureau of Prisons. Inmate Race. Updated February 24, 2018. Accessed March 15, 2018.

[15] Lo Wang, Hansi. “On Police Treatment, Asian-Americans Show Ethnic, Generational Splits.” NPR. April 18, 2017. Accessed March 15, 2018. -way/2017/04/18/524556485/on-police-treatment-asian-americans-show-ethnic-generational-splits

[16] Tseng-Putterman, Mark (@tsengputterman). “My biggest peeve with the “model minority” is not that it’s false, but that it locates (conditional) Asian American access to capital and social mobility in “cultural values” rather than systems of antiblackness, selective immigration, and Cold War imperialism.” March 13, 2018. Tweet. /status/973602504402522112

[17] Guo, Jeff. “The real reasons the U.S. became less racist toward Asian Americans.” Washington Post. November 29, 2016. Accessed March 15, 2018. https://www.washingtonpost. com/news/wonk/wp/2016/11/29/the-real-reason-americans-stopped-spitting-on-asian-americans-and-started-praising-them/?utm_term=.2494db795245

[18] Reappropriate. “Mental Health Awareness Week: Top 10 Myths About Asian Americans and Mental Health.” October 11, 2013. Accessed March 15, 2018. mental-health-awareness-week-top-10-myths-about-asian-americans-and-mental-health/

[19] Chow, Kat. “‘Model Minority’ Myth Again Used as a Racial Wedge Between Asians and Blacks.”

[20] Lah, Kyung. “The LA riots were a rude awakening for Korean-Americans.” CNN. April 29, 2017. Accessed March 14, 2018. americans/index.html

[21] #Asians4BlackLives. “Who We Are.” Accessed March 15, 2018. /who-we-are/

[22] Matsuda, Mari. “Where is Your Body? And Other Essays on Race, Gender, and the Law.” Beacon Press: Boston, MA. 1996. Pg 150.

[23] Ibid.

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