Asian Americans are in a moment of reckoning. In 2014 a bullet from the gun of NYPD rookie police officer Peter Liang ricocheted in a Brooklyn stairwell, killing Akai Gurley who was walking through with his girlfriend. Liang stood by as Gurly slowly died. In 2016, Liang became the first NYPD police officer convicted for killing a Black man in over a decade. His gross incompetence and recklessness ultimately earned him a slap on the wrist -- five years probation and 800 hours of community service.
Liang is of Chinese heritage. Gurly, Black American.
The trial and verdict prompted the largest Asian American protests in recent history. Asian Americans charged racism at the prospect of one of our own facing up to 15 years in prison for what seemed like a professional mistake when so many white police officers walked free for worse. On the other hand, Liang’s trial further underscored the devaluation of Black lives, adding yet another name to the list of those lost to police violence.
Liang’s conviction and minimal sentencing provoked cries of injustice from both communities.
Liang’s near exoneration has prompted questions about the relationship between anti-Asian racism and anti-black racism. Asian Americans in particular are struggling to see our place in the losses of Freddie Gray, Trayvon Martin, Eric Garner, Sandra Bland, Mya Hall, and countless others. We are asking ourselves how we can be on the side of justice for all people while simultaneously fighting the kind of anti-Asian racism that, to some observers, was perpetrated against Liang. With the national conversation on racial injustice so clearly dominated by Black experiences, many Asian Americans wonder whether we are being forgotten as victims of racism while America is busy making Black lives matter. And whether we were ever considered in the first place.
The world has taught Asian Americans that we are distinct from our Black counterparts, that we are better, deserve more, and have worked harder. Yet it has minimized us as victims of internment, refugeehood, and forced immigration. Perhaps worse, it has pitted and ranked our oppression against those who have endured slavery and murder at the hands of police.
America has been loud and clear: anti-Asian racism doesn’t matter. Anti-Black racism does.
Even for Asian Americans who have tried to work in solidarity with Black folks, that solidarity hasn’t been effortless—gaffes abound. For woefully public examples we can turn to the misogynoir of Eddie Huang and the gentrifying political decisions of Oakland mayor Jean Quan. Both have used anti-Black racism to their advantage, angling toward political and cultural success at the expense of Black people.
But racism and its effects are not finite; there is enough of both to go around. As the country finds itself littered with the literal and figural deaths of countless Black people, Asian Americans must learn to think about racism in a way that reconciles racism against Black Americans with racism that is much more familiar to us as immigrants and their children. According to the Center on Juvenile and Criminal Justice—the most reliable source of information for these statistics—Asian Americans are far less likely to be killed by law enforcement than Black Americans. That does not mean, however, that when considering our markedly different relationships with authorities, education, and everyday existence, our stories are impossible to bridge. They remain more parallel than mutually exclusive.
Our experiences with racism share common ground and common roots with other communities. For instance, the term “wetback,” which is commonly used to denigrate Latino/a migrants, is also a slur aimed toward Chinese people. In addition, Asian American Studies scholar Lisa Lowe reminds us Chinese contract laborers were “brought to the Americas to supplement, replace, and obfuscate the labor previously performed by slaves yet to be differentially distinguished from them” in the mid 1800s. Knowing these intertwined histories is a vital first step to both finding ourselves within Black Lives Matter and to shifting our understanding of racism. We need a new way to envision our joint struggles for equality, one that neither isolates them nor makes them identical.
Where might we begin?
Community organizers show us how to comprehend very different forms of oppression as related, but not synonymous. Andrea Smith, scholar and founding member of INCITE Women, Gender Non-Conforming and Trans People of Color Against Violence, argues there are three pillars comprising white supremacy—or what we frequently refer to as racism. The first is slavery/capitalism, the second genocide/colonialism, the third orientalism/war. In other words, we can all see that racism against Black, Native, Latino/a, and Asian people are experienced very differently. For example, Black Americans live with racial profiling, Native Americans with cultural and physical genocide, Latino/as with immigrant detention, and Asian Americans with employment discrimination. And while these all seem like disparate experiences with varying degrees of effects, in reality share the same root.
Racism in all of its forms is infinite, distinctive and interrelated. While we may not face identical forms of marginalization, we experience parallel conditions which bring them forth. It is commonalities amongst the motivating forces and not their consequences which enable us to connect across varying experiences of racism. South Asian feminist Chandra Talpade Mohanty puts it this way: what seems capable of uniting people such disparate experiences is “a common context of struggle rather than color or racial identifications”.
On the ground this might look like a conversation had by Los Angeles-based activist group Mothers Reclaiming Our Children. The group is comprised of the mothers of Black and brown incarcerated men. After a long argument about the specificity of anti-black racism, they made a seemingly simple conclusion, that “you do not have to be Black to be prosecuted under Black law”. Mothers Reclaiming Our Children illustrates that non-Black people generally and Asian Americans more specifically -- live within an undeniable anti-black racism that includes and affects us.
Asian Americans have been positioned as both close to whiteness and aspiring to it.
Our country was built upon slavery and Chinese and Filipino community was brought in to serve as a “barrier between us [white people] and the Negroes with whom they do not associate; and consequently to whom they will always offer formidable opposition” (Lisa Lowe, The Intimacies of Four Continents). Today, we’re still seeing the persistent myth of the model minority despite its roots in selective immigration laws that favor highly educated educational migrants and it dubious legal and cultural origins.
Moreover, there are privileges conferred from that model status. Asian Americans must make peace with the imposed advantages we have that are a result of anti-black racism, while not denying our own histories of oppression.
For instance, my Southeast Asian and Pacific Islander community has a much more recent experience with American war that has left us with lower levels of educational achievement and higher levels of poverty than many east Asian Americans. At the same time, we are not executed by the police at the same rate as Black Americans. And many Asians still believe a primary part of our identity is being “better” than Black people. We must therefore reckon with those dynamics. We must acknowledge anti-blackness as the cultural and structural connective tissue of our institutions and our identities.
To use my own history as an example, as a Vietnamese American, I need a new starting point for talking about Black Lives Matter, one that recognizes the advantages and disadvantages of my identity.
I begin with the fundamental difference between being the child of a war and the product of slavery. I begin with the admission that Vietnamese refugeehood -- while precarious in its own right—also relies upon an American desire to assuage its own guilt by granting me and my family legal citizenship. I begin by understanding allegiances between Black and Asian people in the Bay Area and beyond as more than a simple sign of multiracial utopia, but as coalitions that contain the racial tensions between our communities. I begin with knowing that my sense of being perpetually foreign exists alongside the long term effects of slavery. I begin by identifying the dark underbelly of anti-black racism as the counterpart to Asian America.
We have an imperative as a community to understand racism as more than that which we need to fight by and only for ourselves.
Seeing race relationally means understanding the police brutality against Black America and the deportation of countless undocumented Asian Americans are related struggles. To forgo or sublimate one under the other is not only unethical, it is ineffective. So what do we do in this moment? We take a historically aware leap of imagination informed by the weight of history and the urgency of the present. We remember that racism is infinite and act knowing solidarity is as well.
Kim Tran is doctoral candidate in the departments of Ethnic Studies and Gender, Women's and Sexuality Studies at UC Berkeley where she researches cross-racial coalition. She is a collective member of Third Woman Press: Queer and Feminist of Color Publishing and a contributing writer for Everyday Feminism. Find more of her writing and workshops at www.kimthientran.com.