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. The case, which was filed with assistance from right-wing activist Edward Blum, a white man who is known for getting cases involving race to the Supreme Court, is a great example of how white power perpetuates anti-blackness within Asian communities at the expense of Black people.
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. Some Asian Americans encounter these attitudes within their own families and communities, too. Bermejo recalls one of her relatives warning her about a friend’s Black boyfriend at a family party for no apparent reason other than the color of his skin.
It’s something I have personal experience with as well. As a darker-skinned Filipina, my dad would usually call me negra, which means black in Spanish. He used the masculine version of the word again recently when we discussed the murder of George Floyd. As an immigrant from the Philippines, my dad was accustomed to saying this word, which had been deeply ingrained in his upbringing due to US imperialism and Spanish colonization.
The coexistence of Asian and Black communities in the United States has a long and intricate history. According to Scott Kurashige, a scholar, professor, and author of books on political revolutions, race, and ethnicity, including one co-authored with Grace Lee Boggs, it’s important to examine the history of how this country and the rest of the world have been influenced by Western colonialism and white supremacy.
Western influence, he said, was built on genocide rooted in the “dehumanization and the devaluing of the lives of black and indigenous people.” The idea of anti-blackness and colorism means Black people or anyone with a darker skin color, like Indians or Filipinos, would be considered inferior to their white or lighter-skinned counterparts.
As half Filipino and half African American, Angelica Dampier, 21, who lives in Seattle, knows all too well the struggle of being caught between these two identities that often comes down to the color of her skin. Growing up, Dampier endured a running joke from her Filipino side of the family that when she was born, they were surprised to see that she came out lighter-skinned than they expected, considering her dad was African American.
“It’s something I’ve always thought about until today, like I’m only considered as valuable and seen in that side of my family because I have a lighter complexion,” said Dampier, who has been speaking out on social media regarding anti-blackness in Asian communities. “I wonder what my relationship with them would be like if I had come out a darker skin tone.”
There’s also the “model minority” myth, which perpetuates stereotypes of “successful” Asians who attend elite colleges and become doctors or engineers. But the “Asian American” monolith — which was “created as an identity that was meant to be in solidarity with other communities,” Kurashige said — flattens the experiences of many different cultures into one. It’s true that Asian Americans are the wealthiest minority group in the country, but they also have the widest income gap of any ethnic group. Burmese Americans, for example, have a far higher poverty rate than other Asian groups, especially Japanese Americans. Part of this divide is due to the disparity between Asian immigrants who arrived in the US with skill-based visas and those who arrived as refugees.
Moreover, the model minority myth is weaponized to further dehumanize Black and Latino communities. As enclaves of Black communities grew, they were faced with constant discrimination, oppression, and police violence, sparking a wave of civil rights demonstrations. It was in this context that the idea of Asians as the polite, hardworking, “ideological antidote” to Black communities spread, Kurashige told Vox.
“It’s like we wouldn’t need any of these great society New Deal or anti-racism measures if people just behave like this fictitious stereotype agent who faces discrimination but just pulls up their bootstraps, works harder, and obeys the law,” he said.
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. What’s also often forgotten is how activists from both communities have stood alongside one another in different historic instances.
Asian Americans have also suffered their share of oppression and violence at the hands of white men. In 1982, Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit by white men who thought he was Japanese and later received minimal punishment. In 2007, 18-year-old Chonburi Xiong, a Hmong teenager who lived in Detroit, was fatally shot 27 times in his home by white policemen. And the community has organized to fight back: In 1975, 27-year-old Peter Yew suffered a major beating from New York City police officers in Chinatown. The incident later led to one of the largest Asian American demonstrations in the country.
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. In the wake of Floyd’s death and the ensuing nationwide protests for social justice, Kurashige said we need to challenge and expand the way we think about Asian American history and consciousness to raise awareness of various issues, including anti-blackness and the trope of the model minority. 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.
It’s a continuous process that requires breaking cultural barriers. It feels like no matter how much I explain to my dad the racist connotations behind the language he uses, he has yet to get past the unlearning stage. Dampier said she’s lucky enough to be fluent in Tagalog to tackle anti-blackness with her family members — some Asian Americans do not speak their family’s native language and aren’t able to have these difficult conversations.
Still, she said, it’s a challenge. “Growing up, I feel like I had two sides of me,” she said. “My dad would always tell me, ‘Speak up, make sure you’re being heard,’ or, ‘Whatever you believe in, make sure you’re fighting for that.’ But in my Asian American side, it’s the complete opposite, like keeping to yourself and staying quiet. This moment has kind of forced me to look at my upbringing and reflect that I’m not just Asian American, I’m not just African American, I’m both. And I have a duty to speak out and make a change.”
Rachel Ramirez is a reporter covering environmental justice, race, and business. She was born and raised in the Northern Mariana Islands, a US territory in the Pacific Ocean. Her work has appeared in Grist, the Financial Times, Rolling Stone, HuffPost, and other publications. Find her on Twitter @rachjuramirez.