Posted on June 4, 2020

Asian Americans Need to Talk About Anti-Blackness in Our Communities

Rachel Ramirez, Vox, June 3, 2020

As protests against police brutality continue to erupt across the nation and world, one particular conversation is taking place within the Asian American community: Tou Thao, the Hmong police officer who watched as his white colleague, Derek Chauvin, pinned down George Floyd, a Black man, by the neck with his knee for several minutes, killing him.

Thao’s presence at the grisly scene has sparked significant discourse on anti-blackness within the Asian community. Across social media, many Asian Americans are calling for solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement, while others are criticizing protesters for the unrest that’s blanketing the country. These outpourings of dissent have rekindled a discussion on the role Asian Americans play in the nation’s deep racial divide.

“I’m tired of the Asian community being quiet or missing in action when it’s time to side with our black brothers and sisters,” said Maius Bianca Bermejo, an Asian American activist and medical student who joined one of the Black Lives Matter protests in Austin, Texas. “White people use Asians as pawns while some get to enjoy the privileges of the white system. And whenever we’re attacked, we use the sympathy of being people of color. But when it’s time to defend other people of color, we are missing in action.”

This isn’t the first time an Asian American officer has contributed to police violence. In 2014, New York City police officer Peter Liang and his partner were patrolling a public housing development when Liang, a rookie, fired his gun. The bullet ricocheted off a wall and killed Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old Black man, who was walking down the stairs. Liang was later indicted on six charges, including manslaughter, and the incident sparked a divided reaction within Asian American communities, with some activists arguing that Liang was unfairly scapegoated due to his race and others maintaining that the incident fell in line with a pattern of anti-Black policing tactics.

There’s also a larger history of tensions between Asian American and Black communities. In 1992, many Korean-owned businesses were damaged when riots erupted in Los Angeles following the acquittal of an LAPD officer who was caught on camera brutally beating Rodney King, a Black man. The unrest was also ignited by the killing of a 15-year-old Black girl, Latasha Harlins, by a Korean liquor-store owner who merely received probation, community service, funeral restitution, and a $500 fine. The riots stirred interracial tensions between these communities exploited by the majority-white-run media.

There’s also the “model minority” narrative, used to drive a wedge between Asian American and Black communities by promoting the myth that non-white Americans can succeed and overcome racism by striving for success. It’s an idea exploited by power structures that put white people at the top, but some Asian Americans and immigrants have learned to ascribe to this mythology as well.

These tensions have also been exploited to dismantle legal protections for people of color. In a 2014 lawsuit against affirmative action, Asian American plaintiffs argued that Harvard admissions discriminated against Asian American students. {snip}

Then there are the more everyday examples of anti-blackness in some Asian cultures — whether it’s Asian store owners profiling Black customers, Asian customers using skin-whitening products, or members of the community even saying the N-word out loud. {snip}


Asian American communities need to show up for Black communities at this time

The relationship between Asian American communities and Black communities is a not a one-dimensional one, however. {snip}


Asian Americans also rallied in solidarity with the Black community during the civil rights movement. A significant example is the Third World Liberation Front, formed in 1968 by the Black Student Union and other ethnic student groups at San Francisco State University — including Asians — to demand a radical change in admission practices. The group led a months-long strike to force the university’s administration to respond to their demands, which resulted in several beatings and arrests of students of color and, eventually, the establishment of an ethnic studies department. And in 1978, it was Black people who called for the US to accept Indochinese refugees, paying for a full-page advertisement in the New York Times.

But there is still work to be done. {snip} To dismantle anti-blackness within the Asian community means unlearning what we know and recognizing how it manifests in our daily lives. It also means educating our loved ones and other members of the community, listening to Black voices, and showing up for Black communities in times like these.