Black-Asian solidarity is essential to dismantling white supremacy—but the road to achieving true unity has been complex and muddled by white-created tropes that help maintain the status quo.
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This spring has been marked by the sharpest escalation of both anti-Asian and anti-Black violence we have seen in our lifetimes. For the Asian American community, waves of attacks, particularly targeting women and the elderly, were finally acknowledged on a national scale with the mass shooting of six Asian women in Atlanta. For the Black community, the murder trial of Derek Chauvin was doubtlessly retraumatizing, and even as the country continues to reckon with George Floyd’s death, since the start of the trial, more than three people a day have died at the hands of law enforcement, 20-year-old Daunte Wright, 13-year-old Adam Toledo, and 16-year-old Ma’Khia Bryant among them. Rather than justice, the Chauvin guilty verdict represents only a single moment of accountability, which would not have been possible without the sustained pressure of protests on an unprecedented scale.
As friends, allies, writers, educators, and activists, we—Wendy Chin-Tanner and Ebony Murphy-Root—stay in each other’s inboxes, checking in on each other on a regular basis. For us, it’s abundantly clear that Black-Asian solidarity is more desperately needed than ever, but we also realize that this need isn’t self-evident, neither to some members of the Black and Asian communities nor to our allies. As a result, we’ve decided to open one of our conversations on this issue to the public.
But first, here’s a little bit about us.
Ebony Murphy-Root is a middle school humanities teacher at Crossroads School for Arts & Sciences and reproductive and gender justice advocate in Long Beach, California. Her current board service includes NARAL Pro Choice California Privacy PAC, Bitch Media, and Being Alive Los Angeles. Ebony was born and raised in a union household and is an alumna of the University of Connecticut and the 2012 Campaign School at Yale University.
Wendy Chin-Tanner is a poet, novelist, sociologist, and co-publisher at A Wave Blue World, an independent publishing company for socially and politically conscious graphic novels. A Cambridge University-trained sociologist specializing in race, identity, discourse analysis, and cultural studies, she continues to write on these topics for various publications, in addition to teaching writing workshops, curating literary activist events, and guest lecturing at a variety of institutions. Wendy was born and raised in New York City and lives in Rhinebeck, New York, with her husband, two daughters, and, for the duration of the pandemic, her parents.
In this conversation, we attempt to unpack the complexities of the centuries-old struggle to achieve the Black-Asian solidarity that’s essential to dismantling white supremacy.
Ebony Murphy-Root: I’ve been doing a lot of thinking about why people are so unable to understand that violence directed primarily at Asian American women is both racialized and gendered. Why do people think right now is the time to bring up how they reject the term POC or don’t think Asian beauty business owners are polite enough to the Black women who browse for hair and nail products? Why can’t folks seem to understand that the lack of compassion many folks have for Ma’Khia Bryant is related to the unique misogynoir that Black girls face? What language are we lacking, what empathy are we lacking, that makes conversations around racial, gendered violence so jarring and difficult?
Wendy Chin-Tanner: As Dr. Anthony Ocampo said on Twitter, “A 21-year-old white guy targeted, shot, and killed multiple Asian women in Atlanta. Never forget that lots of 21-year-old white guys did the same thing across the Pacific.” And they got medals for it, too.
The bottom line is, we don’t know the story of Asians in America beyond the fact that Chinese laborers built the Pacific Railroad. We’re not taught it in schools. I didn’t really start to learn about it until I was in college and graduate school, and I am Asian American!
The story of Asian America is a story of violence, and it’s a story that’s inextricably bound with the story of Black America. After all, Chinese laborers were first brought to the United States in the mid-19th century to replace African American slaves.
EMR: You are right about school. Toward the end of Black History Month, I took about a week to have my eighth graders examine how the media was covering the violent attacks we were seeing in Los Angeles and San Francisco. I asked my students what they’d learned about Asian Americans in elementary school. They mentioned, “the people who built the railroads” and “the people who were interned”. And then I said, “Yes, but what names? Who were these folks?” and they all got very quiet as they understood what I meant. This is not to slam elementary school teachers, who are under a lot of pressure from all sides, all day long. It’s about the way we frame history itself, about how history books and children’s books and college history classes are set up. Many students from a young age feel called to speak for their entire group at school and their own identities become a source of shame and stress. The study of history becomes burdensome instead of fascinating. My family’s history in this country is the opposite of shameful and stressful to me; the fact that my great-grandparents were sharecroppers in North and South Carolina is central to the way I view America.
WCT: Absolutely. The gender piece is an old story, too. Before the Exclusion Act of 1882, which more people seem to know about, there was the Page Act of 1875, prohibiting the entry of Chinese women specifically. The vast majority of the first Chinese women to come to the United States were victims of sex trafficking. So that was America’s introduction to Asian women. Of course, most of them died in those horrific conditions, and as a result of being sexual servants, they became associated with sexually transmitted diseases. Thus was born the familiar stereotype that Chinese women were sexually available to white men, impure, and diseased.
That’s precisely the kind of rhetoric that we’re seeing again now with Covid-19, where Chinese Americans are not only being blamed for the disease and its origins, but the association between Chinese people and Covid-19 is so powerful and consuming that, for example, Jeremy Lin was called “coronavirus” on the basketball court. We have to understand that the American people have been groomed for over a century now by racist rhetoric against Asians; all Trump had to do was tap into a linguistic tradition and set of anxieties that were already there. The dog whistle doesn’t work if the dog hasn’t been trained to respond to it.
And it’s not just Trump. As Viet Thanh Nguyen was highlighting on Democracy Now, it scares the hell out of me and every other Asian American I know to hear so much bipartisan rhetoric, from both Republicans and Democrats, against China. Which is not to say that I don’t have a problem with a great many of the actions and policies of the Chinese government. Far from it. But I think it’s important for our new administration to take extra care around this language, because it taps into such a deep wellspring of Yellow Peril, of seeing Asia and, by extension, Asians and Asian Americans, as threats.
What’s resonant, too, of course, is the way in which women have been sexually exploited in the various wars the United States has waged across Asia. And from that history, we have countless narratives in the media—film, television, books, etc—portraying younger Asian women as sex workers or as being otherwise sexually available to American men.
Even if you try to educate people, you’re met with the moving goalposts of minimization, denial, sealioning, etc—they pull out all the tricks to wriggle away from accountability. That’s racial gaslighting, right? It’s classic abuser behavior—DARVO: Deny, Attack, and Reverse Victim and Offender. It’s easier to point the finger at Asian business owners not being “polite” enough, as if politeness is going to stop anyone from threatening to burn down their store. They don’t see it because they don’t want to see it. Maybe if did, they’d have to face the difficulty of dismantling white supremacist captialist patriarchy. Not only the difficulty of it, but the discomfort, plus the loss of privilege. When you’re accustomed to privilege, equality feels like oppression.
EMR: Why don’t people know more about this history of Black-Asian solidarity in the U.S. and about the many Asian American activists and academics who make noise about the model minority stereotype as a racial wedge and about anti-Blackness?
WCT: With the intersectional broadness of our identity, we as Asian Americans don’t even know who we are, let alone who other POC are, so it makes sense that this lack of awareness goes both ways. But the erasure of Black-Asian solidarity hurts us all.
Asian American activism has been erased. Our contributions to this country beyond the building of the railroad have been erased. There’s also a real lack of awareness of our long-standing fight for citizenship and immigration justice, which has resulted in a pervasive toxic belief that we are somehow not American, no matter how long we’ve been here. If some racist tells me to “go home,” where am I supposed to go, Brooklyn? I’ve never even been to China. The discriminatory laws against us began in 1875 and weren’t lifted until 1965. On my dad’s side, my family has been in the United States since the Gold Rush and every single generation until mine has been marked by racist legislation that separated husbands from wives and parents from children for decades at a time. My grandfather served in the U.S. Army in World War II and even he spent decades apart from my grandmother and their children, working himself into an early grave in a Chinese laundry in the Bronx. My family still carries the intergenerational trauma of this legacy, and we are absolutely not unique. Many Asian American families bear this pain, and many of us bear it silently. It’s time to break that silence, but that requires breaking the “agreement” implicit in model minority status.
It isn’t lost on me that the term “model minority” was coined by a white man, William Petersen, during his time as a sociology professor at Berkeley in the 1960s. He used the term to praise Japanese Americans as “successful” in contrast to Black Americans who were, non-coincidentally, growing a highly successful movement for social justice and civil rights that included unified Black-Asian activism. So the idea was formulated explicitly to combat the rising threat of Black-Asian unity by pitting us against one another, thereby maintaining white power and upholding white supremacy.
The meta message of the model minority myth is: “Good subalterns who don’t complain will get a few crumbs from the master’s table.” This message is a throwback to the post-Civil War era when white plantation owners created a narrative that Chinese laborers were more “docile, submissive, and hard-working” than African American slaves. So this piece of propaganda had already been successfully deployed for a century in both form and content. And it worked to disrupt the rising solidarity between the Black and Asian communities once again, because with the 1965 Immigration Act, we saw a sudden influx of new immigrants from Asia who didn’t know the history, prioritized assimilation, and fell for it. This is why corrective education is so important. We have got to decolonize our minds before we can decolonize our lives.
We must remember and honor our history of solidarity. We can’t let them erase it. We can’t let them keep taking it away from us. Frederick Douglas denounced the Chinese Exclusion Act in his “Composite Nation” speech in 1869. Yuri Kochiyama was a friend and ally of Malcolm X—she was cradling his head when he was shot at the Audubon Ballroom. Richard Aoki was an early member of the Black Panther Party. Grace Lee Boggs devoted her life to civil rights and the Black Power Movement, and was married for 40 years to the Black activist James Boggs. Martin Luther King Jr. spoke out against American imperialism in Asia in his “Beyond Vietnam” speech. In 1982, Jesse Jackson spoke out against the murder of Vincent Chin, whose death was the resut of racist rhetoric against Japan’s threat to the US motor industry. This is a partial and incomplete list. When we say, “we have receipts,” it usually refers to something negative that’s been kept hidden, but in this case, we also have receipts for good things that have been kept hidden!
WCT: Since the Black Lives Matter protests of last summer, I’ve been thinking a lot about accessible ways to explain the racial triangulation of Black and Asian people to Asian American elders and new immigrants. How can I explain why they should support BLM using familiar terms and scenarios they can easily identify with?
One thing I came up with was this familial analogy: Let’s say there’s a man with two daughters. This man is sexist and insecure, and from their childhood on, he fomented a rivalry between his daughters, favoring one while scapegoating the other. The daughters spend their lives competing against each other, fighting over the emotional scraps from their abusive father’s table, never questioning why he’s the one sitting at the head of it. Both sisters are in pain, but they resent each other, and they can’t imagine that there can be space for more than one victim. Neither can see the validity of the other’s experience because the wedge their father placed between them created a chasm that over time grew so wide that the sisters couldn’t reach each other anymore. Meanwhile, their father remains the head of the family, maintaining his absolute hold on power.
I haven’t field-tested this little parable yet, but I’m going to try. How do you think we can get through to people who are resistant to Black-Asian solidarity? Do you have experience of getting through to members of the Black community, and if so, what methods have worked for you?
EMR: Here’s the thing: Black-Asian solidarity is already part of our shared history. I found a really cool link on Twitter of Chinese Americans in San Francisco at a Huey Newton rally in 1968. I see Black-Asian friendships between my students as they move from middle to high school grow and deepen as they navigate emerging adulthood.
WCT: It’s easy to see that the BLM movement, like the civil rights movement before it, has done so much to create a platform and a language in the struggle for equality for POC and all marginalized groups. But I think, on the whole, the Asian American community struggles with how to agitate for our rights without taking away from the vital focus on anti-Blackness.
When I speak to people in the Asian American community, even young people, I’m sometimes confronted with questions like: “Why should we allow our movement to be absorbed by the BLM movement when our experiences with racism are not just the result of white supremacy but by racism perpetrated by people of all races, including Black people?” Or: “Why should fighting anti-blackness be a priority for us when my parents’ store was robbed by a Black person and at school, I was bullied mostly by Black students?”
How do we accommodate the validity of everyone’s suffering without succumbing to the trap of competing in the Oppression Olympics? From your perspective, what do you think would be a good way to engage with this type of pushback?
EMR: I hear these same kinds of statements. “Why should we show solidarity with Asian Americans when they have rarely showed up for us? Why do they want to join hands now, when finally Black folks are getting some power in America? They set up stores in our neighborhoods then follow us around. They use their proximity to white folks.” The truth is there is a lot of hurt and suspicion and mistrust on both sides. There is also a lot of shared history, and shared triumphs and shared goals, even if they aren’t always obvious or front of mind.
EMR: What does it really mean to engage in solidarity and show up for one another right now?
WCT: I dream of a pan-BIPOC educational activist movement to share our histories and lived experiences with one another. Our stories and histories have been mediated by whiteness—by white canonical literature, white institutions, white historians, white anthropologists, white media, and even white anti-racist activists (but we’re going to need a cocktail or two before we get into that mess). Why is it that we all know in intricate detail the story of white people in America-—the names of the three ships that first bumbled their way from Europe in search of, irony of ironies, Asia, the founding fathers, the successive waves of different European settlers, white culture, white literature—but we don’t know each other’s stories? How do we change this?
We need to hear from one another. We need to practice active listening with one another. We need to say, “Your struggle is my struggle, and my struggle is yours. How do we fight together?” Dismantling white supremacist capitalist patriarchy is a win-win, and I’m using bell hooks’ phrasing in its entirety because capitalism and patriarchy are vital components in the intersectional complexity of our national predicament that are often elided in favor of simplicity. The Atlanta shooting is rooted in capitalism (cheap labor that nobody else wants to do) and misogyny as much as it’s an example of racism, and the history of the racial triangulations of various ethnic minorities in this country are also rooted in the exploitation of labor in a racialized and gendered way.
I also think it’s so important to understand how inextricably our struggles are entwined. It’s a fact, for example, that the vast majority of anti-Asian hate crimes are perpetrated by white people. So why are we seeing so many images of Black people attacking Asian people? Why did the media make viral, on the very first day of Derek Chauvin’s trial for the murder of George Floyd, two videos of Black men perpetrating anti-Asian hate crimes?
This comes straight out of the racial triangulation playbook, and we simply have to stop falling for it. So many Black people have been attending the #StopAAPIHate rallies; It makes me emotional to see it. Asian folks need to keep showing up for #BlackLivesMatter rallies, too, in far greater numbers. We have to take a stand against police brutality. Daunte Wright’s murder and Adam Toledo’s murder are the latest in a long, awful line of what I consider to be terrorist acts by a white supremacist police state against young POC.
I think a lot of people might think the guilty verdict in the Chauvin trial means justice prevailed and everything is fine now. But that wasn’t justice; that was accountability on a single case. What about Breonna Taylor’s murderers? What about justice for Sandra Bland and Philando Castile and Michael Brown and the countless others? The road to justice in America remains long and hard.
And for us, as Asian and Black activists working together, I think we need to do what we do in any healthy relationship: listen, hold space, and show up for one another consistently, unwaveringly. That means, on a practical level, recommending each other for senior-level jobs and opportunities, donating to organizations that benefit each other’s communities, and voting for politicians and policies that do the same. Those are just three examples of simple practices that push back on systemic racism.
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