Asian Americans Must Address Our Complicity in Anti-Blackness

By Guest Contrubitor: Chihiro Isozaki

Those of us in the Asian American community often discuss what it means to be “yellow” in a country that looks at race as either white or black. Countless articles, personal essays and books discuss what it meant to feel invisible in the fabric of American society, forgotten and excluded.1See, e.g., Jia Tolentino, “Minor Feelings” and the Possibilities of Asian-American Identity, New Yorker (Mar. 6, 2020), It’s great that we’re starting to make noise about this exclusion and claim our rightful space in society.2E.g., Asian American actors have fought against the practice of whitewashing in Hollywood. Amanda Hess, Asian-American Actors are Fighting for Visibility. They Will Not be Ignored., N.Y. Times (Mar. 25, 2016). See also Jenn Fang, The Decade in Asian America, NBC News (Dec. 31, 2019). Yet that same erasure means that sometimes, the nefarious acts of those in our community slip away unnoticed and unaddressed — and it is equally our responsibility to address that.

I’m talking about Tou Thao, the Hmong American police officer that stood by with his back turned as then-officer Derek Chauvin dug his knee into the neck of George Floyd, killing him. I am not the first person to address this need — yesterday, Kimmy Yam published an article on NBC Asian America calling out this very issue. But it’s a problem that, sifting through the first three pages of articles that came up on the topic via a Google search produced only one that properly addressed Tou Thao’s complicity in Floyd’s death as a systemic issue that needs deeper discussion and reflection.

I am incensed, frustrated, and ashamed that one of our own is complicit in an anti-blackness that lies at the root of white supremacy—a white supremacy that hurts our own communities as well.

White political institutions have long weaponized Asian Americans and the “model minority myth” to propagate anti-blackness. Ellen D. Wu, author of The Color of Success (2013) explains that while all racial minority groups in the United States have attempted to portray themselves as “upstanding citizens capable of assimilating into mainstream culture,” white politicians were the driving force behind the model minority myth, seeing the narrative as a useful tool to win allies during the Cold War.3Jeff Guo, The Real Reasons the U.S. Became Less Racist Toward Asian Americans, Wash. Post (Nov. 29, 2016) In the 1940’s and 50’s, Chinatown leaders leveraged larger social anxieties prevalent in the United States about rising crime rates and the breakdown of the nuclear family to put forward public relations campaigns characterizing the Chinese as hard workers with strong family ties and well-behaved children. These narratives were no different than repeated attempts by black communities to engage in “respectability politics,”4Leah Donnella, Where Does The “Pull Up Your Pants” School of Black Politics Come From?, NPR (Oct. 22, 2015) but in the post-war moment, Asian voices were the most politically useful against the backdrop of Cold War containment internationally, and the rising Civil Rights movement domestically.

The backdrop of the growing Civil Rights movement in the 1960’s caused white Americans to double down on the model minority myth, as “proof that the right kind of minority group could achieve the American dream,”5Audrea Lim, The Alt-Right’s Asian Fetish, N.Y. Times (Jan. 6, 2018) on their own and without support. “The insinuation was that hard work along with unwavering faith in the government and liberal democracy as opposed to political protest were the keys to overcoming racial barriers as well as achieving full citizenship.”

This narrative repeatedly made its point by pitting Asian Americans directly against blacks.  “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent to uplift the N—s6Note: edited out original word. and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese-Americans are moving ahead on their own,”7Jeff Guo, The Real Secret to Asian American Success Was Not Education, Wash. Post (Nov. 19, 2016) a 1966 article in the U.S. News and World Report wrote. Such narratives functioned to reinforce the inferiority of blacks and other racial minorities in the United States by holding them personally responsible for their failure to “access the American Dream,” and further served to encourage “infighting” among racial minorities, fostering indignation and embitterment on the side of the slighted non-Asian minorities and thus discouraging solidarity.8Id.

Of course, these racial differences were merely creations, achieved through a selective picking-and-choosing of traits that were deemed politically convenient—and the newfound “success” of Asian Americans was also created as part of that circular logic. For instance, Asian Americans did themselves engage in political organizing efforts rather than just toil away quietly, but these efforts were largely unrecognized.9See Guo, supra note 5. And family-orientation and hard-work are traits shared by many immigrant communities and are not especially unique to Asians.10Id. A study by Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger further demonstrates that, while upward mobility of Asian Americans between the 1940’s and 1970’s has often been attributed to Asian cultural values and emphasis on education, Asian schooling rates did not change significantly during that period. Instead, Asian Americans started to earn more in large part due to positive shifts in white attitudes towards Asians during the same period.11Nathaniel Hilger, Upward Mobility and Discrimination: The Case of Asian Americans (Mar. 2017) In other words, it was only after white individuals and institutions had made the active decision to stop engaging in racism towards Asian Americans that Asian Americans were able to succeed—not vice versa.

All this to say that: this myth about Asian Americans being better than other minorities? It doesn’t win you any favors with the White Man, it ends up hurting our own community, and most importantly, it ends up hurting ourselves.

This myth about Asian Americans being better than other minorities? It doesn’t win you any favors with the White Man, it ends up hurting our own community, and most importantly, it ends up hurting ourselves.

No matter how much members of our community buy into anti-blackness, it’s never going to make us white. (Most of you, I am sure, know this, but some of y’all act like you don’t—and it must be said, repeatedly, like a kind of mantra.) Remember the Yellow Peril narrative? The essentialist rhetoric that was used, at the turn of the century, to police Chinatowns, zone away Asian living quarters, and legally ban all immigration of Asians into the United States?12Tanvi Misra, How Asian Americans Remade Suburbia, City Lab (Jun. 14, 2017); Roots, Race & Place, Othering & Belonging Institute (Last Accessed Jun. 2, 2020) The Yellow Peril narrative uses the exact same tropes as the model minority myth to paint Asian-Americans as an unassimilable “Other” and a threat that must be cast out. “Confucianism” is cited as a key marker of the model minority and used to explain why Asian Americans are “so successful.” (See, for instance, this 2015 New York Times piece by Nicholas Kristof13Nicholas Kristof, The Asian Advantage, N.Y. Times (Oct. 10, 2015), noting that Asian American academic achievement can be explained by “East Asia’s long Confucian emphasis on education . . . hard work, strong families and passion for education.” Yet that same trait was historically seen as a threat to American values and exclude the entry of Asian into the United States. “Asian immigrants from the mid-1800s were despised as laborers who toiled for low wages in the harshest conditions. Confucian values were not seen as the key to success, but as a marker of racial and religious differences.”14Janelle S. Wong, Editorial: The Source of the ‘Asian Advantage’ Isn’t Asian Values, NBC News (Oct. 13, 2015).

That duality is used to control how much Asian Americans are “allowed” to succeed in this country — enough to keep the model minority myth and the illusion of American meritocracy alive, but not so much that we surpass the white man. The same “success” that Kristof celebrated in his 2015 New York Times article above, for instance, has led to phenomenon such as the “New White Flight,” where white parents flock from primarily Asian neighborhoods for fear that competition from these successful Asian students will undermine their children’s success, demonstrating how quickly the pendulum can swing between model minority and yellow peril stereotypes. Here, the same qualities that are hailed and praised as reasons for Asian success by Kristof are villainized as a source of threat:

Asian American success is often presented as something of a horror — robotic, unfeeling machines psychotically hell-bent on excelling, products of abusive tiger parenting who care only about test scores and perfection, driven to succeed without even knowing why.” Indeed, Asian ambition is cast as an inherent evil. Blame, not praise, abounds. Though predominantly white school administrators, such as district superintendents and principals, design a school’s curricula, white fury is directed at Asian students for taking full advantage of it.15Anjali Enjeti, Ghost of White People Past: Witnessing White Flight from an Asian Ethnosuburb, Pacific Standard (Jun. 14, 2017), quoting Jenny Zhang, They Pretend to be Us While Pretending We Don’t Exist, Buzzfeed (Sep. 12, 2015).

An article describing white public reception to Japanese organizing consultant, author and television star, Marie Kondo echoes this dichotomy:

Once Kondo was no longer an exoticism’s site of pleasure and exploitation for white people to experience their Orientalist fantasies, she became the other Orientalist trope—the yellow peril threat to white people’s insecurity over their destructive capitalist consumption.16Muqing Zhang, The Not-So-Subtle Racism Behind the Marie Kondo Criticism, Paper Magazine (18 Jan. 2019).

Such narratives hurt those in our own communities. It is well-documented, for instance, that Asian Americans are less likely to seek mental health services and are more likely to present with greater severity of symptoms when they do seek services, compared to white Americans.17Dahyeon Kim, Too Well-Off to Seek Help?: The Model Minority Myth of Asian Americans, Anxiety & Depression Assoc. America (Last Accessed Jun. 2, 2020). Southeast Asian groups such as Cambodians, Laotians, and Hmong have higher high school drop-out rates than African Americans and Latinos,18Karthick Ramakrishnan & Farah Z. Ahmad, State of Asian American and Pacific Islanders Series, Ctr. American Progress, at 5, 46-47 (2014). but are often overlooked as target groups for whom support is needed.19See also Margaret Simms, “Model Minority” Myth Hides the Economic Realities of Many Asian Americans, Urban Institute (May 2, 2017). And even those of us who perhaps socioeconomically and racially fit the bill for the stereotype are restricted in the ways that society sees us and expect us to behave. While Asians and Asian Americans are over-represented in “elite” or white-collar industries at junior and entry levels, they are the least likely racial group to be promoted to management and executive levels in high-tech, law and other fields.20Buck Gee & Denise Peck, Asian Americans Are the Least Likely Group in the U.S. to be Promoted to Management, Harv. Bus. Rev. (May 2018). See also Eric Chung, Samuel Dong, Xiaonan A. Hu, Christine Kwon & Goodwin Liu, A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law 2-3 (2017) (finding that Asians amount to 10% of graduates from the top 30 law schools but have the highest attrition rates and lowest ratio of partners to associates among all racial groups). The same studies have attributed perceived lack of leadership of social skills as large contributors to Asian Americans’ failure to rise up the leadership ranks. 

Point being — it’s not worth it. Even if you are a truly selfish creature with no compassion or love for other human beings, internalizing and proselytizing the model minority myth doesn’t serve your interests like you think it does. Take it from someone who had the privilege, for the majority of my life, to grow up in Singapore, where I myself occupied the privileged space of being the “default” race. I’ve since been in and out of the United States, working for several years in Tokyo before returning to New York. Each time I come back state-side, it’s always a rather jarring experience to remember what it feels like to not be seen as an individual, but as part of some nebulous group that is expected to adhere to some prescribed narrative or code of behaviors. In Asia, I always feel as if I am free to make any decision I like, and that such a decision will be seen as my own. In the United States, any decision I make is made against a backdrop of a set of preconceived notions about who I am, and the choices I might make. With every decision I am making, I am in some way either confirming or defying one stereotype or another.

In this weird racial space we occupy as White Man’s servile henchman, Asian Americans have the privilege and burden of being protected and weaponized by whites as a kind of buffer against black success. Of course, it is important to realize that this in itself is a kind of oppression — to be used as a literal human weapon against fellow citizens, neighbors, friends, co-workers, and romantic partners. It is personally a position that angers me, that I feel no privilege or gratitude in holding. But at the same time, we need to understand that, like it or not, this unwanted favoritism has also provided us with privileges that other marginalized communities have not enjoyed, albeit in limited ways. And that we can either re-appropriate this privilege to stand in solidarity with other communities of color to destroy these oppressive structures of racism, or we can continue to be complicit in its creation. Otherwise, we will continue to serve as a weapon of anti-blackness and scapegoat for the effects of white supremacy. We need to understand that, like it or not, this weaponization is a default state of our existence. By doing nothing, we become complicit in this state of affairs — and even feel the effects of it ourselves.

We can either re-appropriate this privilege to stand in solidarity with other communities of color to destroy these oppressive structures of racism, or we can continue to be complicit in its creation.

During this pandemic, for instance, black and Latino communities have suffered a disproportionate number of deaths, continuing a long tradition of state failure to address the structural discrimination that has limited access to health and wealth for communities of color. Nationally, black American deaths from COVID-19 are nearly two times greater than would be expected based on their share of the population; and in 42 states plus Washington D.C., Hispanics/Latinos make up a greater share of confirmed cases than their share of the population.21Maria Godoy, What Do Coronavirus Racial Disparities Look Like State By State?, NPR (May 30, 2020). Given that such disproportionate deaths are a direct result of a national-administration-wide failure to adequately address the structural discrimination that has limited access to health and wealth for communities of color, the Trump administration’s xenophobic rhetoric that labelled the COVID-19 the “Chinese virus” and laid baseless allegations against China for its responsibility for the virus was a perfect example of such scapegoating. Such scapegoating had direct impacts on Asian American communities as well, in the form of targeted attacks on individuals of Asian descent have ranged from verbal to physical, with physical violence comprising all levels of severity from spitting22Sabrina Tavernise & Richard A. Oppel Jr., Spit On, Yelled At, Attacked: Chinese-Americans Fear For Their Safety, N.Y. Times (Mar. 23, 2020). to stabbing23Meaghan Wray, Stabbing Attack on Asian Family Deemed Coronavirus Hate Crime, FBI Says, Global News (Apr. 2, 2020). to mob beatings24Michael Tanenbaum, Video Allegedly Shows Group Assaulting Couple on Philly Subway Platform, Philly Voice (Mar. 4, 2020).

Some Asian Americans felt that the indictment of Peter Liang, a first-generation Chinese American police officer, for the killing of unarmed black father Akai Gurley back in 2014, was an act of scapegoating that sought to distract from the true source of anti-blackness at play in police brutality, especially when many white police officers before Liang had gone unscathed from their acts of violence against black bodies.25Julia Carrie Wong, ‘Scapegoated?’ The Police Killing That Left Asian Americans Angry—and Divided, Guardian (Apr. 18, 2016). Yet the solution here should not be to oppose the indictment, but rather to call out the act for what it was: a complicity in a long tradition of anti-blackness propagated by white supremacists, and unfortunately, internalized by some members of our own community. From here, we can begin to ensure that Liang’s indictment does not end as a scapegoat and a distraction from larger issues at hand, but rather leads to an ongoing reform that addresses the structural violence against black communities. First and foremost, we must speak up in solidarity and acknowledge that we can be both victims and perpetrators of a particular system of structural oppression.

We don’t win by trying to curry favors in this system and get ahead at the expense of other marginalized communities and communities of color. We need to call out those of our own who stand in the way of this solidarity, teach those who have internalized these myths that serve only to hurt us that, until this system that holds racial identity as a marker of value and meaning is destroyed, none of us can win.

Chihiro Isozaki graduated from NYU School of Law in 2020. She is a student fellow at the Center for Diversity, Inclusion & Belonging.

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