By Sara Onitsuka
AFO Guest Contributor
Sara Onitsuka is a 4th generation Japanese-American from Portland, Oregon. She is a senior neuroscience major and political science minor at The College of Wooster in Ohio, where she is co-president of the Asia Supporters in Action club, and works to combine her interests in science and social justice. Sara was a coordinator for Letters for Black Lives, a worldwide open letter project on Anti-Blackness.
Content Note: descriptions of anti-black violence and death
In the wake of the nazi and white supremacist rally in Charlottesville, I have heard much talk about the need for solidarity among people of color. However, in order to eliminate white supremacy together, it is necessary for non-black people of color to confront the pervasive anti-Blackness in their communities. Anti-Blackness is not only perpetuated by white people - speaking from the non-Black Asian-American (specifically Japanese-American) perspective, we uphold this harmful ideology as well.
Anti-Blackness permeates Asian American communities in many ways. Whether we recognize it or not, it extends through both our American communities and Asian cultures. Many Asian Americans are taught from a young age to hate dark skin - by our parents urging us to use skin-lightening or bleaching creams and family members refusing to go out in the sun for fear of tanning (both common in many Asian countries, including India, China, Korea, Japan, Malaysia, and more). Light-skinned Asian models featured in fashion and makeup advertisements also reflect this beauty standard. K-Pop groups have been known to use Blackface and to profit off of Black culture by appropriating dreadlocks, cornrows, African-American Vernacular English (AAVE), and other forms of hip-hop culture.
In the United States of America, anti-Blackness in Asian American communities is exemplified by incidents such as the shooting of unarmed black man Akai Gurley by Chinese police officer Peter Liang. In November of 2014 Liang was charged and convicted of manslaughter, leaving many Asian-Americans angry and claiming he had been used as a “scapegoat”. Their reasoning was that, if no white police officers had ever been convicted, why should he have been? Sadly, the severely misguided protests against his charges were apparently the largest public display of Asian-American activism in 20 years. The protests were anti-Black because Asian-Americans were attempting to secure a privilege (typically afforded to whites) for themselves, and callously disregarding a life that was unjustly taken to do so. What all Asian Americans really should have done was support Akai Gurley and protest his wrongful death, no matter the race of the offending police officer. Instead, these Asian American protestors failed the Black community at a time when, as the whole nation was watching, their speaking out might have helped to bridge communities and brought to light the common threat of white supremacy.
Another area ripe with anti-Blackness is the concept of the “model minority,” typically used to describe East Asians and Indians in particular. This myth that “Asian-Americans” as a monolith are economically and academically successful, naturally smart, and the ideal that other races should aspire to be is harmful to all Asian-American communities, Black folks, and other people of color as well. The model minority myth was actually purposefully crafted around the 1950’s to 1960’s, when the media began primarily featuring Asian success stories, despite many stories of struggle in our diverse community. By 1987 when Time Magazine ran the cover story “Those Asian-American Whiz Kids,” this new stereotype was solidified.
The model minority myth drove a wedge between communities of color, and is still perpetuated not only by white people, but, unfortunately, also by many Asians who are proud to be the “better minority.” It would probably pain these people to know that instead of Asians simply becoming more successful, what really happened was that American society changed its form of racism towards us in order to use us as propaganda, and to deny rights to Black folks. Jeff Guo from The Washington Post argues, “The image of the hard-working Asian became an extremely convenient way to deny the demands of African Americans. As [Ellen] Wu describes in her book [The Color of Success], both liberal and conservative politicians pumped up the image of Asian Americans as a way to shift the blame for black poverty.” The model minority myth is still used against other communities of color to suggest they are simply not working hard enough, when people say, “if Asians could make it, why can’t you?”
Asian-Americans are still systematically oppressed in America, but the model minority stereotype was created to further a narrative that could be used to separate and contain communities of color. In this narrative, Asians are “too smart,” Black folks are “too unintelligent,” and conveniently, white people get the occupy the space of “just right”. This theory, known as "The Three Bears Effect" or the “Goldilocks Effect,” holds Black people as inherently inferior and Asians get to celebrate their perceived success, not recognizing how much it actually works against us. This system also erases mixed Black and Asian folks, who are expected to place themselves in a narrative that paints Black and Asian communities as completely separate, and that doesn’t account for their existence.
The Model Minority Myth is rather cunning in its oppression. The stereotype that Asians are all “good at math, straight-A students, successful, and do not complain”, while seemingly positive, does not allow us any room to make mistakes. As a result, in part, suicide is the 8th leading cause of death among Asian-Americans, and we are also highly unlikely to mention symptoms of depression or seek treatment, for fear of being seen as weak and as failures. This myth also completely tends to erase Asian communities that are not succeeding economically, which is prevalent especially among communities of immigrants from poorer nations or with a large population of refugees. The restrictiveness of the Model Minority Myth also causes Asian-Americans to rebel against it - which is not inherently bad, except their method of doing so relies upon Black culture. A prime example of this is chef and author Eddie Huang, who once said, in response to a question about his affinity for hip-hop, “I feel like Asian men have been emasculated so much in America that we’re basically treated like Black women.” Huang then proceeded to appropriate AAVE and disrespect the Black women who called him out (a distinct form of intersectional violence called “misogynoir”). When Asian-Americans take Black culture as their own and do not respect the very people who created it, they are perpetuating anti-Blackness.
I have been talking a great deal about the shared identity of “Asian-American,” but it is important to acknowledge that as a community, we are far from a monolith. East Asians (Japanese, Chinese, Korean) have unique light-skinned privileges and are treated differently than South, Southeast, and Central Asians. One of these privileges is that East Asians are often centered in dialogue concerning Asian issues and other Asian communities’ struggles are largely ignored. It is important to note that along with anti-Blackness, we must also eliminate the privileging of lighter skin over darker skin, known as colorism/shadeism, in our communities and work to center non-East Asians. These struggles, ultimately, are all interconnected through the broader goal of solidarity and the collapse of white supremacy.
Black folks have been fighting for our collective rights, and the dismantling of white supremacy, for ages. They have extended gestures of solidarity in the past, only to largely get stepped on by Asian-Americans in our attempt to “get ahead”. Though there have been movements such as “Letters for Black Lives” and “Asians for Black Lives” recently, “Yellow Peril Supports Black Power” during the civil rights movement, and a number of individuals who have committed their lives to solidarity activism, we cannot expect Black folks to continue fighting for our rights, nor can we expect them to trust us, given our communities’ rampant anti-Blackness. Only when we eradicate anti-Blackness from our communities will solidarity be possible, and this is an imperative. As Mari Matsuda put perfectly in her speech to the Asian Law Caucus in 1990 titled “We Will Not Be Used”:
“The role of the racial middle is a critical one. It can reinforce white supremacy if the middle deludes itself into thinking it can be just like white if it tries hard enough. Conversely, the middle can dismantle white supremacy if it refuses to be the middle, if it refuses to buy into racial hierarchy, and if it refuses to abandon communities of black and brown people, choosing instead to forge alliances with them.”
And so we must decide: in the struggle against white supremacy, which side will we choose?