Anti-blackness in Chinese-American Culture

A version was originally published in Antifragile Zine here, on August 1st, 2020.

DISCLAIMER: I speak for myself, from anecdotal evidence. I do not mean to generalize Chinese-Americans or Asian-Americans as a whole, nor do I mean to erase activists that do stand up in multiracial solidarity; these are just observations I’ve noticed of the community around me, as of this heated summer.

In light of the recent eruption of the #BlackLivesMatter movement, I’ve taken a real look at myself as a non-Black person. In solidarity, I’ve protested in the streets, devoured stories of racial injustice from many “Antiracism Reading Lists,” committed to having difficult conversations with friends and family, worked on the #NoCopMoneyCA campaign to take power away from the police state upholding capital and white supremacy, vowed to step back and try not to center myself or my community when this is the Movement for Black Lives… however, ironically, here I am: centering myself and my community for the sake of some much-needed reflection.

I’ve realized that by continuing to ignore the implications of my Asian American identity in this journey of education and advocacy under the guise of “not centering myself,” there’s yet another danger: without a personal stake, “social awareness” veers too close to becoming a clinical pursuit of knowledge and virtue signaling. Not leaning into the uncomfortable realizations of how my own community has perpetuated anti-Blackness would be distancing myself from working on fixing a festering wound of unresolved conflict. While I identify as Chinese-American, and that’s the only experience I can speak to (as Asian Americans are not a monolith), one relatively uniform aspect of all this has been a vocal part of our community’s backlash to the #BlackLivesMatter movement.

Early on, I knew talking about the #BlackLivesMatter movement was a difficult conversation with my family that needed to happen in the midst of this indubitably racially charged moment. I also knew my parents leaned socially conservative about issues such as LGBT+ rights and affirmative action, harboring the same unspoken anti-Black stances as so many of the Chinese-American social circles in their generation of immigrants. But because anti-Black racism had never really come up before, I’d never broached this subject with my family — much less at the dinner table. I’d never experienced such virulent anti-Blackness up close. But in a time where the only front-page headlines for weeks were images of looting and fires, the subject became impossible to avoid, even if I had not already made my support for BLM and opposition to the police state clear.

And when the inevitable conflict over our views on racism occurred, the result was nothing short of heartbreaking. When I tried to communicate that Black people deserve equal treatment and dignity, my mom turned to classic conservative talking points: retorts of “All Lives Matter,” later even pulling up a video of notorious conservative commentator Candace Owens speculating about George Floyd’s criminal record. I was shocked — I’d never imagined that my mother, the woman who raised me, the former schoolteacher preaching love and kindness, would act like this. Our values stemmed from the same household, so how could such hurtful things come out of her mouth? Rounds and rounds of exhausting dinner table conversations escalated into arguments, with my little brother pleading with us to stay civil. It astonished me over and over how much my mom’s defensive arguments dehumanized the Black community. When I pleaded with her to empathize with fellow human beings, she made it clear that she did not think our communities were comparable. She held up Asian Americans as “safe, rule-abiding citizens,” while reducing Black people down to racial stereotypes of “thugs” and “lazy,” generalizing a whole race as inferior.

Instilled by white supremacy and bolstered by the model minority myth, this casual racism was jarring: an indicator of rampant anti-Blackness normalized within our community. A large portion of the Asian American community followed the same train of thought as my mom, playing right into the myth’s insidious goal of pitting communities of color against one another. These anti-Black views are reinforced by articles and videos spread through the Internet on Wechat, the form of social media that many Chinese families use. Worryingly effective and vocal online, the Chinese Right Wing has emerged and influenced many first generation Chinese American immigrants through online propaganda, turning many recipients, including my parents, against progressive ideas and promoting right wing talking points. Still, I find it hard to blame anyone in particular — not my parents, not their peers, not even the online right wing — when it’s white supremacy enforcing this mindset upon Asian Americans that turn us against other communities of color due to prejudice and stereotypes; white supremacy tries to prevent us from banding together and forming the interracial solidarity that could be the answer to it all.

However, despite facing jarring conservatism from the older generation around me, I found a community to learn and share with. Over the past months, I’ve had the incredible opportunity of spending time in an AAPI (Asian-American Pacific Islander) affinity space for Black lives, a weekly Zoom meeting organized by a friend. In this space, I’ve gained an intersectional understanding of social justice through fellowship and cultural connection. We are an eclectic biweekly gathering of AAPI-identifying folks from all walks of life–activists, writers, engineers, PhD students, and me, the only high schooler–forming this space to commit to multiracial solidarity and anti-racism.

In this group, I found catharsis. Finally, I had a space where I could confide my experiences as a person of color that I’d never said out loud. Our biweekly meetings discussed assigned readings about topics that enriched my understanding of racialized social structures. Developing nuanced understandings of discrimination and white supremacy, this space was where I first found words to reflect upon and articulate the anti-Blackness prevalent in our “model minority” communities. Together, we navigated difficult conversations of unpacking layers of privilege–able-bodied, middle class, educated–and even touched upon shared cultural trauma. Our camaraderie was filled with affirmations and implicit understanding, and it has shown me that I am not alone; we are all on journeys of allyship and learning.

Back to the issue, this affinity group also introduced me to political scientist Claire Jean Kim’s essay “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” in which she explains how “Asian Americans have been racially triangulated vis-a-vis Blacks and Whites.” Over periods spanning the mid-1800s to post-Civil Rights era to now, the effect of reproducing patterns of white power and privilege has remained constant. Cozying up to the white ruling class in a society that is indeed entrenched in white supremacy has been the Asian American community’s strategy — when white people hold all the institutional power, aligning with white supremacy means relative safety and protection and proximity to prestige. 

My most striking takeaway from Kim’s essay confirmed our AAPI affinity space’s lesson as well: multiracial solidarity is everything. It is not enough to personally educate ourselves to be more accepting than our communities; it is also crucial to make sure that we push to move our communities towards anti-racism and mutual support, especially when society has conditioned so many of us to be anti-Black and perpetuate white supremacist rhetoric. Communities of color must not allow white supremacy to divide us. Historically, we are so much stronger together, and that is why multiracial solidarity is crucial to dismantle systems of oppression like white supremacy. From the affinity space and history, I’ve realized anti-Blackness must be unlearned in Asian American communities for us to do our part in building a multiracial movement for Black liberation and ultimately, our collective liberation.

“If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.”

— Lila Watson, Aboriginal Activist