This isn’t new (or maybe it is for some of y’all) but I’ve been cycling between being surprised, frustrated, tired, contemplative, and frustrated of East Asians reiterating white narratives.
“I’m not a person of color”
“I can’t be a person of color, look at my skin”
“Racism doesn’t exist, look at how far we’ve come!”
“They just need to work hard and things will work out.”
“The American Dream is possible if you try hard enough.”
Stop. No. Pause. Breathe. No. Take another scoop of rice. Breathe again. Stop.
And let’s explore the root of these statements elicit and how it can be dangerous for East Asians to perpetuate these narratives.
Stop Buying and Selling Whiteness
East Asians commonly mistake either their economic positions as the marker for making the “American Dream” or their lack of racialization in their life as the equivalent of becoming “white”. This means, it equates to someone saying “I’ve never experienced racism so it doesn’t exist for Asian people.”
That’s interesting, understandable, and wrong. Class privilege is one thing but to equate it to whiteness is a lie.
The root of this mistake is the participation in and/or maintenance of assimilation – the process of adapting and adjusting to the culture of a group or nation. Assimilation was/is used as a survival tactic to live in this country and to obtain the American Dream. This meant East Asian communities (amongst others) adopted English as their primary and (sometimes) only language, “taking pride in the American identity” (whatever that means) and embrace the “hardworking, self-reliant, and morally upright” ethic.
“Keep your head down, don’t stir any trouble, keep quiet, get an education, keep quiet, get a job, be grateful for what you have, speak English with no accent, be grateful for your privilege, just work hard, and keep quiet”.
Our silence and participation in assimilation is toxic. As East Asians, we’ve assumed our economic privilege to be easily obtainable and thus, we impose and reinforce this narrative on other communities of color. AND this is the important part especially when it comes to our interactions with other people of color.
We police black and brown people in the same way as white people:
- We police them on their professionalism by saying they’re too loud or too aggressive.
- We gaslight them by labeling them as an irrationally angry black person.
- We tokenize them in our fundraisers.
- We tell them they’re “too sensitive” about racism, equity, and their experiences around race, gender, sexual orientation, or anything “political”.
- We dismiss their narratives of institutionalized racism, microaggressions, and systemic oppression.
- We affirm or believe stereotypes about them in social services.
- We engage in microaggressions such as touching their hair without permission or clutching our belongings when they’re in proximity or question their expertise.
The belief that our conformity to whiteness diminishes the likelihood of discrimination, racialization, and/or oppression to our lives or our communities is silly. Even if you have a personal narrative that discounts this, to impose this narrative upon black and brown people is violent. To tell black and brown communities they need to ascribe to whiteness or pretend to be more white or to act more professional or be less sensitive, you ignore institutionalized racism. You ignore systemic oppression.You ignore the realities of the disproportional deaths and traumatization of black lives by police and the American prison system. And unfortunately, you distance yourself from other communities of color as if it isn’t your problem or not your fault.
Unlearn Your Roots of Anti-Blackness
East Asians, as well as many other cultures, are socialized to be anti-black. Whether that’s in our language or our traditions or through propaganda. We grew up with specific messages to view black as a color that represents evil, darkness, dirtiness, and something to be rid of. It’s a common narrative; BUT when it translates to human beings, that is problematic.
Now, how did this message of the color black translate to black people for East Asians? We were conditioned (especially in the U.S.) to fit black people in particular images – criminals, lazy, athletic, dumb, loud, aggressive. When you couple stereotypes, biased media stories, and experiences that support these ideas then you get division.
East Asian communities and Black communities were purposely positioned to fight with one another. Due to redlining, communities of color were restricted from renting and purchasing homes in specific neighborhoods to segregate communities of color from white communities. East Asians, mostly Korean & Chinese people, were able to start businesses (beauty and convenience stores) primarily in black neighborhoods. This caused resentment and clashes between the communities which resulted in racism from both communities which reinforced anti-immigrant, yellow peril, and anti-black narratives. This continues today.
As East Asians, we can and have done so much more. Just like our elders before us, we can unlearn our anti-blackness by standing up for each other’s communities: Asian solidarity with the Black Panthers, Japanese Incarceration, Labor Rights movement, or Anti-War movement We don’t see these stories because our history is silenced or never mentioned. By showing up as a force in today’s current movements for our own communities, AND for South East Asians, for Pacific Islanders, for Black people, for Muslims, and for refugees; we can move the needle even further towards broader social change. When other communities of color are chained and restricted, we can never truly be equal.
Stop Using the Model Minority Myth as a Tool
Positive stereotypes are not a good thing.
The Model Minority Myth is a stereotype that generalizes Asian Americans by depicting us as the perfect example of the “pull yourself by the bootstraps” & “if you assimilate to American culture, you can succeed” story to create division amongst communities of color particularly the black community. This myth is a political strategy that highlights the success of East Asian immigrants with a specific professional and educational background. It is a historical and presently used tool designed to protect institutionalized white supremacy and validate anti-black racism. Policies often use the model minority myth and the associated Asian, Asian Americans, Pacific Islander people as an example for other communities of color to follow and measure up to despite institutions’ roots in racism, sexism, classism, transphobia, islamophobia, imperialism and more.
Why is this important?
The Model Minority Myth can repel and prevent true solidarity work across communities and organizations. We become invisibilized as Asian Americans and labeled as apathetic and we internalize that our voices don’t matter and/or won’t matter if we want to change anything. Which can result in low engagement in advocacy, isolated movements, buying whiteness, and selling whiteness to other black and brown communities.
When we apply the Model Minority Myth to “Asians”, we aggregate over 40 subgroups into one identity, which makes it difficult to identify the needs of different subgroups such as Vietnamese, Cambodians, Samoans, Laos, and Native Hawaiians. Thus, it makes it incredibly difficult to distinguish between different national-origin and ethnic groups, with distinct histories, experiences, and social needs. When we lump all Asians together, we do not recognize the unique challenges among different ethnic groups in the Asian American population. Consequently, educational institutions, healthcare providers, and social service providers often misunderstood and overlooked these growing communities’ needs (See AAPI Leaders Open Letter About Disaggregation).
What Can You Do
1. Get #woke and accept it’s going to be a messy journey.
It’s okay to reflect, mess up, reflect some more, be held accountable, reflect, and make changes. It is a process. Below are some readings by other East Asians that you can start reading:
- Asian Americans: 10 Warning Signs That Show You’re Siding With Whiteness by Ayesha Sharma
- The real reasons the U.S. became less racist toward Asian Americans by Jeff Guo
- 8 Ways People of Color are Tokenized in Nonprofits by Helen Kim Ho
- America’s Forever War and the Cost of Assimilation by Ju-Hyun Park
- I Tried to Fight Racism by Being a “Model Minority” — and Then It Backfired by Yassmin Abdel-Magied
- questions on (the limits & effects of) (asian american) allyship by Hyejin ShimAnd trust me, there’s more! Once you start searching, you should start an entire folder in your bookmarks bar.
2. Find support groups / affinity groups / friends / family members / colleagues who are willing to engage in these conversations with you. Below are a couple organizations to follow that I know of:
- PARISOL // Pacific Rim Solidarity Network
- Anakbayan Seattle
- FIGHT // Formerly Incarcerated Group Healing Together
- Sahngnoksoo // Korean Activists
- Viets who give a Shiet // Vietnamese Solidarity Network
3. Find organizations to support with your time and your money because it takes us all to challenge white supremacy within ourselves, within our communities, and across communities.
If you have any suggestions for more resources, please leave them in the comments below!
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