No more model minorities: It's time for Asian Americans to confront anti-Blackness

Photo: Rajul Punjabi
Originally Published: 

As I scrolled through Twitter in the wake of George Floyd’s death on May 25, one post in particular tugged at me. “This is why there was one Asian man in ‘Get Out,’” tweeted E.J.R. David, a professor of psychology at the University of Alaska Anchorage. Below the text was a photo of now former Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao beside a screenshot of Hiroki Tanaka, the sole Asian in a sea of white cocktail party guests in Jordan Peele’s dark film. Thao, who is of Hmong descent, stood by as Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, embodying the very Asian American complicity in white supremacy that Tanaka is thought to symbolize.

I felt a pang of recognition. Like many Asian immigrants, my parents instilled in me the importance of going along to get along — working hard and respecting authority, without complaint — as a path to the “American Dream.” Anti-Blackness also runs deep in my community, a product of colonialism and the pressure to assimilate to white American culture. I saw this in Thao, just doing his job as he was supposed to, even if it meant allowing Chauvin to take Floyd's life.

Floyd’s death, and Thao’s involvement in it, have pushed me to more critically scrutinize how my community’s anti-Blackness and tendency to stay silent has harmed the Black community. We should, and can, mobilize to show up for Black Americans. Otherwise, we’re only upholding white supremacy and preventing all of us BIPOC from being truly free.

Floyd’s death, and Thao’s involvement in it, have pushed me to more critically scrutinize how my community’s anti-Blackness and tendency to stay silent has harmed the Black community.

Anti-Blackness in my community has deep roots in the colonial history of many Asian countries, including my parents’ native countries of the Philippines and Indonesia. In the Philippines, where my mom grew up, American colonizers wielded anti-Blackness during the Philippine-American War “to dehumanize and essentially legitimize the colonization of the Philippines by painting us as less than, as inferior, as in need of civilization,” explains Kalaya’an Mendoza, a Filipino American activist and co-founder of Across Frontlines, and as illustrated, literally, by messed-up political cartoons like this one and this one.

And it persists to this day. I’ve seen it in my mom poking fun at my baby niece’s flat nose (her father is Black), even if it's good-natured. I’ve seen it in the colorism that once spurred me to scrub off my brownness with skin whitener, and that assembles us Asians on our own hierarchy, with lighter-skinned East Asians on top, and darker-skinned South and Southeast Asians on the bottom.

Immigrating to the U.S. only reinforces anti-Blackness, largely through the model minority myth, which posits that Asian Americans are more successful than other BIPOC because of our strong work ethic, intelligence, and obedience. In other words, our adjacency to whiteness makes us more likely to succeed, Mendoza says. Many Asian immigrants internalize this as a means of survival. It’s probably why my parents discouraged me from rocking the boat, raised me in a mostly-white suburb, and didn’t teach me either of their native languages.

But the model minority myth is total BS. It glosses over how the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 favored highly-educated, highly-skilled Asian immigrants. As this Instagram post brilliantly explains, this predestined Asian Americans for success, allowing white America to use them to deny systemic oppression of Black Americans. They could simply point to Asian Americans and say, “See, they made it. Why can’t you?” The Immigration Act of 1990, which, along with the tech boom, led to another influx of highly-skilled Asian immigrants, according to the Pew Research Center, further fueled this argument.

This allows white people to use us as a wedge to pit BIPOC against each other, making it harder for us to work together to dismantle white supremacy — and meanwhile, they expect us to be satisfied with the crumbs. Here’s the thing: The model minority myth obscures the inequalities we still face. Asian Americans have the fastest-growing income gap of any racial group in the U.S., per Pew. “They’re kind of a barbell,” says Renee Tajima-Peña, a professor of Asian American Studies at UCLA, with those who immigrated based on their skill on one end, and those who didn’t — like refugees, and my parents — on the other.

And we’re still largely seen as perpetual foreigners, as evidenced by the anti-Asian coronavirus-related racism in recent months, which, if anything, should be a wake-up call that proximity to whiteness will not protect us. We can do everything "right" — shut up, work hard, follow the law — and racist white people, including our President, will turn on us in no time.

This allows white people to use us as a wedge to pit BIPOC against each other, making it harder for us to work together to dismantle white supremacy — and meanwhile, they expect us to be satisfied with the crumbs.

This resurgence in anti-Asian racism further underscores why we should show up for the Black community. As civil rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer declared, “nobody’s free until everybody’s free.” Winning freedom and justice for those most harmed by white supremacy means freedom for everyone, including those, like us Asian Americans, who have more privilege, explains Simmy Makhijani, a lecturer in the College of Ethnic Studies at San Francisco State University and an activist who’s been involved in Asians4BlackLives since its start in 2014.

We’ve already seen this in how the Black-led Civil Rights Movement paved the way for the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, Mendoza notes, which replaced a racist country-of-origin quota system that systematically excluded Asians. “We owe a debt, really,” Tajima-Peña says, pointing out that the Civil Rights movement allowed us other freedoms, as well — to attend schools and buy homes where we want, and to marry outside of our race, to name a few.

The history of the Black community fighting for our freedom stretches even further back. During the Philippine-American War, for instance, David Fagen and other Black soldiers defected from the U.S. army to join Filipinos in their battle for independence from American colonial rule, having also endured white oppression. At first, I couldn’t believe I learned this only yesterday — but then realized that of course, white America would bury reminders of our communities struggling together for liberation.

We need to show up for Black Americans not only because we owe them for our civil liberties, or because our freedom relies on theirs, but most importantly, because demanding that they be treated as fully human is the right thing to do.

We need to unlearn the silence and deference that ultimately only serves to further oppress all of us BIPOC. Thankfully, we can look to members of our community who’ve worked alongside Black activists as guides, such as Kartar Dhillon, Grace Lee Boggs, and Raymond Okamura. There’s also Rahul Dubey — who housed dozens of protesters in his Washington, D.C. home earlier this month — to exemplify the spirit of offering protection and support to other communities of color when possible.

Those new to the movement can start by learning about how oppression of Black Americans works, for instance, by reading up on Audre Lorde or Angela Davis, Mendoza says. (I recommend Davis’s Freedom is a Constant Struggle.) Makhijani also suggests Bianca Mabute-Louie's zines, which focus on anti-Blackness in Asian communities, and the history of Black-Asian solidarity in struggle. And take an ethnic studies class, if possible, she adds, which will provide the critical analysis we can’t get from social media posts alone.

We can also join Asian American groups that work in solidarity with the Black community, like Asians4BlackLives, Tajima-Peña says. Makhijani also suggests exploring the demands coming from the Movement for Black Lives, Black Visions Collective, the Black New Deal in Oakland, and Reclaim the Block in Minneapolis. She stresses that in this solidarity work, to remember that this isn’t about us. "It’s about deep listening — to struggle, to what the most impacted communities are saying, what strategies and solutions they are proposing," which in this case requires listening to Black-led organizations.

Finally, we need to have tough conversations with our loved ones. Letters for Black Lives has published a crowdsourced letter, translated in various languages, that can offer an entryway, as well as a guide for follow-up conversations. The letter acknowledges that while our families might’ve indeed faced racism and hardship, they arrived in the U.S. of their own free will; they weren't kidnapped and sold as slaves. They also don’t face the same centuries-long systemic racism that makes Black Americans fear for their lives.

I'm done being the wedge. Honestly, I've been done. I want us Asian Americans to stop fooling ourselves. I want us to stop biting our tongues, and bite the hand instead. I want us to grasp this opportunity at our fingertips and finally tear down the white supremacy that's kept us comfortable, yet still oppressed, for far too long. Our freedom, and that of all BIPOC, depends on it.