Why black-Asian ten­sions per­sist

Seem­ingly op­po­site stereo­types about Asian Amer­i­cans and African Amer­i­cans have some­times served to pit the groups against each other, as ev­i­denced by a re­cent so­cial me­dia ex­change about “Asian priv­i­lege”, re­ports Kelly Chung Daw­son in New York.

China Daily (Canada) - - IN DEPTH -

In pho­tos of the mo­ments af­ter Mal­colm X was fa­tally shot at Man­hat­tan’s Audubon Ball­room in 1965, a be­spec­ta­cled Asian woman cra­dles his head. That woman was Yuri Kochiyama, an ally and one of the god­par­ents of the AsianAmer­i­can ac­tivism move­ment. Like other Asian Amer­i­cans who had pre­vi­ously joined the Black Pan­thers, she drew in­spi­ra­tion and sup­port from the rise of civil rights ac­tivism among African Amer­i­cans.

That same year, a change in US im­mi­gra­tion pol­icy rad­i­cally changed the de­mog­ra­phy of Asian Amer­ica, at­tract­ing large num­bers of ed­u­cated, skilled Chi­nese work­ers that set the stage for a 1966 US News & World Re­port ar­ti­cle that her­alded the achieve­ments of a “model mi­nor­ity,” pit­ting Asian-Amer­i­can suc­cess against the con­tin­ued ag­i­tat­ing of African Amer­i­cans.

“At a time when it is be­ing pro­posed that hun­dreds of bil­lions be spent to up­lift Ne­groes and other mi­nori­ties, the na­tion’s 300,000 Chi­nese Amer­i­cans are mov­ing ahead on their own,” the ar­ti­cle charged.

In the years since, the con­cep­tion of a model mi­nor­ity has in­sid­i­ously driven a wedge be­tween the African-Amer­i­can and AsianAmer­i­can com­mu­ni­ties, as ev­i­denced most re­cently in the back­lash against Asian-Amer­i­can ac­tivist Suey Park’s ef­forts to pro­mote a Twit­ter dis­cus­sion about dis­crim­i­na­tion against Asian-Amer­i­can women in De­cem­ber.

In re­sponse to Park’s #NotYourAsianSide­kick-tagged tweets, which spurred a con­ver­sa­tion of more than 60,000 par­tic­i­pants, a counter-hash­tag la­beled #AsianPriv­i­lege gained mo­men­tum among black Twit­ter users.

“#AsianPriv­i­lege means be­ing over­rep­re­sented at uni­ver­si­ties then chang­ing the nar­ra­tive to make it like you [sic] op­pressed,” tweeted NayNayCan­tS­top. Close Gitmo wrote: “#AsianPriv­i­lege is In­di­ans in an African coun­try like Uganda con­trol­ling the en­tire na­tion’s econ­omy while ma­jor­ity blacks were in poverty.” Oth­ers ar­gued that as a large per­cent­age of the global pop­u­la­tion, Asian Amer­i­cans shouldn’t claim to un­der­stand the mi­nor­ity ex­pe­ri­ence.

Park cre­ated an off­shoot dis­cus­sion tagged #Black­Pow­erYel­lowPeril, in hopes of spot­light­ing ar­eas of ten­sion be­tween the two com­mu­ni­ties. The tag gar­nered al­most 12,000 tweets, in­spir­ing users like Zel­lie to write: “#Black­Pow­erYel­lowPeril be­cause as much as we want more black rep­re­sen­ta­tion on tele­vi­sion and film, Asian-Amer­i­can Pa­cific Is­lan­ders rep­re­sent even less.” Bessie wrote, “When Amer­ica writes off black suc­cess as a re­sult of af­fir­ma­tive ac­tion and Asian suc­cess as just be­ing model mi­nor­ity.”

For Monica Christof­fels, the thread was em­pow­er­ing. “For too long we have been told to not talk to/work with each other,” she wrote. “#Black­Pow­erYel­lowPeril be­cause white supremacy pits us against each other for its own ben­e­fit.”

The dis­cus­sion is long over­due, Park told China Daily.

“Asian Amer­i­cans and African Amer­i­cans have of­ten in­ter­nal­ized the idea of lim­ited re­sources, par­tic­u­larly among low-in­come and older gen­er­a­tions,” she said. “Fight­ing for your seat at the ta­ble can be a sur­vival tac­tic among mi­nori­ties. The ques­tion now is, how can we cre­ate a space for both Asian Amer­i­cans and black Amer­i­cans to talk with­out sham­ing each other of be­ing un­knowl­edge­able about the other’s ex­pe­ri­ences? Ev­ery­one is most knowl­edge­able about their own ex­pe­ri­ence, and a dis­cus­sion in which African Amer­i­cans raise ques­tions about whether Asian priv­i­lege ex­ists is im­por­tant too.” His­tory of con­flict

The ten­sion dis­played on Twit­ter is no sur­prise to those who re­mem­ber the 1992 Los An­ge­les ri­ots in which anger in the AfricanAmer­i­can com­mu­nity fol­low­ing a not-guilty verdict for po­lice of­fi­cers who in 1991 had beaten Rod­ney King, an African Amer­i­can, spilled over into vi­o­lence to­ward Kore­anAmer­i­can shop­keep­ers. Also con­tribut­ing to ex­ist­ing ten­sions was the death of a 15-yearold African-Amer­i­can girl named Latasha Har­lins, who was shot in the back of the head by a Korean store owner who wrongly as­sumed she was steal­ing orange juice 13 days af­ter King’s death.

In poor neigh­bor­hoods where African Amer­i­cans had of­ten been de­nied small busi­ness loans, Asian-Amer­i­can shop own­ers were col­lec­tively viewed as mis­trust­ful of African Amer­i­cans but more than will­ing to take their money.

In jour­nal­ist He­len Zia’s 2000 book Asian Amer­i­can Dreams, she al­leged that Korean Amer­i­cans “[took] the hit for all Asian Amer­i­cans,” suf­fer­ing an es­ti­mated $400 mil­lion in losses dur­ing the ri­ots.

In 2010, a string of highly pub­li­cized crimes per­pe­trated by African-Amer­i­can teenagers against el­derly Asian-Amer­i­can men and women in Berke­ley, Cal­i­for­nia, and Brook­lyn, New York, spurred fresh dis­cus­sion of the con­flict. That spring an 83-yearold Chi­nese man was beaten to death by five black teenagers; a 59-year-old Chi­nese woman sus­tained in­juries when she was pushed off a sub­way plat­form; and a 59-year-old Chi­nese man died af­ter be­ing as­saulted by two teenagers.

Al­though the wife of that man, Tian­sheng Yu, pleaded with the Chi­nese com­mu­nity to avoid view­ing the crimes as racial, a protest at San Fran­cisco’s City Hall saw ex­ec­u­tive di­rec­tor of the Asian Pa­cific Amer­i­can Com­mu­nity Center Tammy Tan pin the in­ci­dents on eth­nic­ity.

“We don’t want to es­ca­late with African Amer­i­cans, so we don’t say it,” Tan said in a speech at the rally. “But it is racial. That’s fact.”

Shortly af­ter­ward, New Amer­ica Me­dia posted an es­say by Amanze Eminike, an African Amer­i­can who had as a younger man been taught to tar­get Asians and Lati­nos for small rob­beries. He ar­gued that the ra­tio­nale was rooted in a re­luc­tance to rob other black peo­ple, for fear of reprisals. Asian vic­tims were less likely to re­tal­i­ate and more of­ten car­ried items of value, he said.

Eminike’s ac­count should be in­ter­preted as only one per­son’s ex­pe­ri­ence but is also per­haps in­dica­tive of a fo­cus on eco­nomic sta­tus rather than race, said Jenn Fang, an Asian-Amer­i­can ad­vo­cate who runs the blog Reap­pro­pri­ate.co. The two de­scrip­tors have fre­quently been viewed as in­ter­change­able in both com­mu­ni­ties, with long-stand­ing prej­u­dices fu­el­ing a stand-still in re­la­tions that have re­mained mostly un­changed since the 1992 ri­ots, she said.

For Asian-Amer­i­can ac­tivists, ac­knowl­edg­ing that deep-seated in­ter­nal­ized stereo­types about African Amer­i­cans ex­ist within the com­mu­nity may be the first step for­ward, Fang said.

“I re­mem­ber the words of my mother who was in­doc­tri­nated, from childhood, with the no­tion that dark skin equated with poverty, disease, lazi­ness and un­trust­wor­thi­ness,” she wrote in a post fol­low­ing the 2010 ten­sions in Berke­ley. “I re­mem­ber my mother who be­lieved that we, as East Asians, shouldn’t min­gle with any­body who had darker skin than us.”

Grow­ing up in Detroit in a fam­ily that had ob­served first-hand vi­o­lence against an Asian-Amer­i­can shop­keeper by an AfricanAmer­i­can man, Park was also fre­quently ex­posed to anti-black at­ti­tudes, she said.

“My par­ents in­ter­nal­ized the idea that the two com­mu­ni­ties were in­com­pat­i­ble, with­out re­al­iz­ing that we live in a sys­tem that ben­e­fits some races more than oth­ers,” she said. “On top of that, I of­ten re­ceived back-handed com­pli­ments in which white peo­ple would im­ply that even though I was a mi­nor­ity, at least I was a ‘good’ mi­nor­ity.”

The be­lief that darker skin is less valu­able is preva­lent in Asia but not uniquely Asian, said Ni­tasha Ta­mar Sharma, a pro­fes­sor in African-Amer­i­can and Asian-Amer­i­can stud­ies at North­west­ern Univer­sity, and the au­thor of Hip Hop De­sis: South Asian Amer­i­cans, Black­ness and a Global Race Con­scious­ness. Much of that be­lief is re­lated to the his­tory of Western col­o­niza­tion, and class con­no­ta­tions tied to whether or not a group of peo­ple has been forced to la­bor out­doors, she said.

“Those be­liefs are al­ready in­grained, and then for im­mi­grants who ar­rive in Amer­ica and are bom­barded with anti-black im­ages, be­ing racist against black peo­ple can sub­con­sciously feel like a way to be Amer­i­can — and un­for­tu­nately, it kind of is,” she said.

Both

Asians and blacks are ca­pa­ble, and cul­pa­ble, when it comes to per­pet­u­at­ing the ten­sion and hos­til­ity be­tween our com­mu­ni­ties.” JENN FANG AN ASIAN-AMER­I­CAN AD­VO­CATE WHO RUNS THE BLOG REAP­PRO­PRI­ATE.CO

The in­stances of overt vi­o­lence be­tween the two com­mu­ni­ties are only symp­to­matic of the ef­fect that small, ev­ery-day in­ter­ac­tions be­tween African Amer­i­cans and Asian Amer­i­cans can have on the way in which peo­ple are raised to view each other, Fang said.

“Both Asians and blacks are ca­pa­ble, and cul­pa­ble, when it comes to per­pet­u­at­ing the ten­sion and hos­til­ity be­tween our com­mu­ni­ties,” Fang said. For ev­ery sen­sa­tion­al­ized news item about vi­o­lence be­tween the two com­mu­ni­ties, “there are one, two, maybe even 10 daily ex­am­ples of mis­treat­ment and hos­til­ity that never make the press. No one talks about how a sim­ple in­sult, hurled by a black cus­tomer in frus­tra­tion or anger at be­ing treated like a crim­i­nal by an Asian shop­keeper, wi­dens the gulf be­tween both com­mu­ni­ties.”

Asian Amer­i­cans and African Amer­i­cans have been racial­ized in seem­ingly op­po­site im­ages, Sharma said. The stereo­types that pro­mote Asians as nu­mer­ous, de-in­di­vid­u­al­ized and ma­chine-like, and African Amer­i­cans as threat­en­ing in their phys­i­cal­ity, both serve to de­fine white nor­ma­tiv­ity and to de­hu­man­ize those who de­vi­ate from the stan­dard, she said. Un­for­tu­nately, both com­mu­ni­ties have more of­ten than not bought into those same stereo­types.

For Asian Amer­i­cans, the model mi­nor­ity myth has cre­ated what Imani Perry, a pro­fes­sor of African-Amer­i­can stud­ies at Prince­ton Univer­sity, calls a “gilded cage,” in which so-called priv­i­lege serves as a bar­rier to be­ing taken se­ri­ously re­gard­ing racism. His­tor­i­cally, Asian-Amer­i­can ac­tivism has of­ten been met with de­ri­sion, she said. Mi­nor­ity iden­tity

Ad­di­tion­ally, the his­tory of African-Amer­i­can slav­ery has in many ways de­fined the mode in which race is dis­cussed in Amer­ica, she said. Racial is­sues are de­fined as black and white, leav­ing lit­tle room for dis­cus­sion of other ex­pe­ri­ences of dis­crim­i­na­tion.

“Black­ness is some­times viewed as a hege­monic mi­nor­ity iden­tity in Amer­ica, with the im­pli­ca­tion be­ing that if you’re not black, you can’t face racism,” Sharma said. “Some­times there’s a fear that if Lati­nos and Asians say they’re op­pressed too, then blacks aren’t op­pressed, when the re­al­ity is that there are mul­ti­ple forms of op­pres­sion and class priv­i­lege does not erad­i­cate racism.”

For Roopika Risam, a pro­fes­sor at Salem State Univer­sity with a fo­cus on post­colo­nial stud­ies and mi­nor­ity dis­course, the big take-away from the re­cent #AsianPriv­i­lege dis­cus­sion is that Asian Amer­i­cans need to be more pre­cise about their ex­pe­ri­ence of racism, which dif­fers from that of African Amer­i­cans.

“Un­for­tu­nately, Asian Amer­i­cans are still strug­gling for ways to talk about our own ex­pe­ri­ence, so we’ve some­times leaned on the dis­courses of black op­pres­sion to have that dis­cus­sion,” Sharma said.

In fact, Asian Amer­i­cans have of­ten drawn in­spi­ra­tion from African-Amer­i­can his­tory and cul­ture, said Ryan Wong, cu­ra­tor of “Serve the Peo­ple: The Asian Amer­i­can Move­ment in New York,” an ex­hi­bi­tion cur­rently at In­ter­fer­ence Ar­chive in Brook­lyn.

In 1969, a group of young Chi­nese Amer­i­cans held a rally to present their own Red Guard Party, a Black Pan­ther-in­spired po­lit­i­cal group with de­mands in­clud­ing the “re­moval of colo­nial­ist po­lice from Chi­na­town” and the halt of a planned de­mo­li­tion of a play­ground for Chi­nese chil­dren. Their ac­tions were later de­nounced by play­wright Frank Chin as a “yel­low min­strel show” and a poor imi­ta­tion of African-Amer­i­can ac­tivism.

In 1974 and 1975, black and Latino con­struc­tion work­ers and ac­tivists par­tic­i­pated in Chi­nese protests against un­fair la­bor prac­tices and po­lice bru­tal­ity, Wong noted. But Sharma ar­gues that Asian Amer­i­cans have more fre­quently looked to African-Amer­i­can ac­tivism for in­spi­ra­tion than the other way around.

“Maybe blacks don’t need that in­spi­ra­tion from Asians,” she said. “They have their own his­tory and forms of re­sis­tance, and in some ways prob­a­bly need us less than we need them, in terms of defin­ing our iden­tity as a strong racial mi­nor­ity. But as a re­sult, Asian Amer­i­cans have some­times felt in­vis­i­ble.”

Cross-cul­tural coali­tions do ex­ist be­tween the com­mu­ni­ties, as ev­i­denced in 2012 when var­i­ous groups in­clud­ing Chi­nese for Af­fir­ma­tive Ac­tion (CAA) and the Black Al­liance for Just Im­mi­gra­tion (BAJI) worked to­gether to suc­cess­fully pre­vent the im­ple­men­ta­tion of a “stop and frisk” pol­icy in San Fran­cisco.

CAA also worked with African-Amer­i­can com­mu­nity lead­ers to tamp down ten­sions in Berke­ley fol­low­ing the 2010 in­ci­dents, or­ga­niz­ing pub­lic dis­cus­sions that re­sulted in a bilin­gual com­mu­nity am­bas­sadors pro­gram.

“It was a mo­ment for us to air out what was re­ally hap­pen­ing, and helped start a dis­cus­sion be­tween peo­ple who were essen­tially neigh­bors but had never been open to each other,” said Su­san Hsieh, pro­gram man­ager at CAA. “The cri­sis cre­ated an op­por­tu­nity to un­der­stand where peo­ple were com­ing from, and any­time folks have the chance to ac­tu­ally in­ter­act, many of th­ese stereo­types do crum­ble. That takes time and ef­fort from both sides, but we’ve def­i­nitely seen some im­prove­ment in the last few years.”

Co­op­er­a­tion be­tween mi­nor­ity groups is cru­cial in off­set­ting the nat­u­ral dis­ad­van­tage of be­ing a mi­nor­ity in num­bers, Fang said. Find­ing peo­ple not of your iden­tity with the re­sources to ad­vance your cause is more than a nice idea; it’s es­sen­tial, she said.

That the re­cent dis­cus­sion on Twit­ter seemed to only in­flame some of those ten­sions is nat­u­ral, Park said.

“It was sup­posed to be messy and com­pli­cated, be­cause there are no easy so­lu­tions here,” she said. “It’s a dif­fi­cult con­ver­sa­tion to have in per­son — let alone on Twit­ter — but a nec­es­sary one.” Con­tact the writer at kdaw­son@chi­nadai­lyusa.com

WAN LI / FOR CHINA DAILY

A mar­ket store on a street in New York City’s Chi­na­town.

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