Asian American Anti-Blackness

This month’s post comes from a student of Dr. Castro-Gill’s American Ethnic Studies course at the University of Washington. It is written by a student who requested anonymity to protect them from hateful retaliation from white supremacists.

When the “Stop Asian Hate” movement began to gain traction in 2021 in response to an uptick in anti-Asian racism during the COVID-19 pandemic, something about it all disturbed me. Why were we so readily co-opting the Black Lives Matter movement? Why were we conflating Sinophobia with “Asian hate”? What was this supposed to achieve, what statement was it supposed to make? The slogan sounded meaningless to me.

Sinophobia is the fear and hatred of people of Chinese nationality or descent.

Stop Asian Hate is ironic in the way it encapsulates the positionality of (especially East) Asians in the United States while perpetuating an idea that contributes to anti-Asian racism. The Asian American experience is not monolithic, nor unique. If Asian Americans can be considered unique at anything, they are uniquely, and infamously, bad at recognizing and discussing privilege and oppression: in regards to themselves, in regards to others, in regards to their community and their nation at large.

Their identity in education and the system is the product of the historical campaign to develop a racial hierarchy in America that still functions today. In high school, I made a short documentary for class about the model minority myth and affirmative action. I cited numerous pieces of evidence as to why it’s harmful to depict Asian Americans as hardworking, diligent powerhouses in the academic world, including that it assumes all Asian ethnic groups are about equal in factors such as class and average income. Of course I had gripes with the idea that I was assumed to be more academically inclined than my peers for my race; I had a developmental disorder. It wasn’t fair that I was to be denied opportunities based on the perception that I was naturally better and smarter, when I actually struggled in an academic setting. But intersectionality is a part of a different conversation here.

source: National Center for Education Statistics, 2019

Throughout the process of researching and putting that video together, I was sending one central message: the model minority myth is bad because it is unfair to me and people that are like me or that are grouped with me. In no segment, however, did I mention how the model minority myth affects BIPOC. It was clear in the contents of my video that I had a very narrow view of the myth, which is no simple mistake or coincidence. It’s no secret that anti-Blackness is prevalent in every nonBlack community and influences all nonBlack people- Asian Americans especially.

Sohyun An’s article on anti-Asian racism in education Disrupting a curriculum of violence on Asian Americans, although centered on the experiences that weren’t unfamiliar to me, was just as eye opening to me as anything else I read in this course. Most importantly, she did not fail to comment on the most dangerous part of the myth, being that it is weaponized against Black and Indigenous Americans and, “used to negate charges of racial injustice, blame communities of color for their struggle, and promote the myth of colorblindness and meritocracy, which ultimately serves the interests of Whites” (An 2020).

Indeed, although the myth is not a policy in itself, it is one that is successful in pitting Asians against other racial minorities and reinforcing systemic racism that the latter faces. Historically, Chinese immigrants and Black Americans, specifically, were socially positioned very deliberately from the start. Political scientist Claire Jean Kim writes in The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans about how Chinese Americans raised the specter of a new stand-in slave race after the freeing of Black slaves in Union states. However, although both Chinese and Black people were regarded as inferior and therefore sometimes equated to one another, the Mongoloid race, not fitting in the “unalien” categories of Black or White, was placed in the middle. This manifested a, “highly conditional acceptance” as the more docile, imitative, and intellectual nonwhite race.

“Chinese Americans in Mississippi moved from a near-Black status in the late 1800s to a near-White status (still triangulated) by the 1920s and 1930s … As Loewen recounts, incremental White gestures of acceptance prompted Chinese Americans in Mississippi to dissociate from Blacks over time” (Kim 1999). Evidence of this triangulation can be seen in the ever-developing opportunity for Asians to pursue the American Dream- as my own parents, both immigrated from Taiwan in the 80s, were able to: presently upper middle class despite coming from poorer families. It is not shocking, then, that my parents bought into anti-BIPOC rhetoric especially in terms of education and work. They, like other Asian Americans, were less likely to vote. Their values sought to maintain the status quo. They had a complete unwillingness to side with the oppressed, that being Black and Indigenous Americans, despite the fact that Asian Americans find ways to position themselves as oppressed all the while aligning with the oppressor. Their- and in turn, my- proximity to whiteness serve as protection from violence that we are trained to impose on other people of color.

It was through my parents that I suppressed and assimilated into American culture. This pattern would continue as I went to school. Kirsten Robbins’ Resisting a Curriculum of Control resonated with me despite her study involving Black and Mexican children only. The intersection between my autism and my race often singled me out in a school with an approximate 80% white student body at the time. I was the talkative type, I moved and got up from my seat when I wished. This would quickly and repeatedly be shut down, and before I knew it, I had changed as a child completely. “The curriculum of social control in schools produces docile mind/bodies. Morris (2005) maintains that this hidden curriculum fosters ’embodiments of compliance’ (p. 27). Such compliance leads students to not only have their mind/body controlled but to believe in the need for that control, which makes them more accepting of the place school tells them they have in the social order” (Robbins 2018).

Robbins argued that rules about how students are expected to comport their bodies teaches children to be submissive, and data show that students of color are more heavily policed by these rules.

I didn’t want to keep feeling the shame I felt when my 4th grade teacher, whom I respected, would point to me and ridicule me for getting up to throw a piece of paper in the recycling while she was speaking. I no longer had the courage to correct them about their wrong pronunciation of a Chinese word in History for it was met with sarcastic dismissal. Mom and Dad were right, I needed to keep my head down in order to succeed.

When I talk or complain about white people, it’s generally about my personal experiences with them rather than anything systemic that I face- and that’s an important distinction to draw. The invisibility and triangulation of Asian Americans were all things I had at least an amount of understanding of prior to AES 340, though I didn’t quite fully understand how it all fit together. Asian Americans are sorely antiBlack, this I knew, and actively sought to work against, however I had never so closely examined the history and present day inner-workings of how post-colonial America perpetuates it.

In my week 2 Tezcatlipoca, I detailed the first and few times I ever had educators of color in primary and secondary school. My American History teacher was Korean and the first teacher I’d ever had who taught us with CRT in mind. I wrote that, “I was grateful that my History teacher was very transparent about such concepts, but it still kind of sucked to think that only an East Asian person could be deemed credible enough of a person of color to teach about these thing.”

Tezcatlipoca, or personal reflection, is one of the most important actions students are asked to engage in during AES 340.

In a way, I wish my way of thinking was challenged more. I want CRT and ethnic studies to be taught to younger children. If kids are old enough to experience racism, they’re old enough to learn about it. It’s unfortunate but a stark reality that you can’t grow up in a country like the United States and not be racist as a result. No American, however anti-racist or marginalized, can deny that living in a country built on colonialism doesn’t heavily influence the way their brain is wired when it comes to race. Being colorblind is not being anti-racist. In order to check your antiBlackness and other forms of racism you must see color and you must see race, question what immediate thoughts and feelings they bring up, and act/speak accordingly. I need to do the challenging of ideas that I didn’t have the words for as a kid talking to my parents. I wish to seek out the words and stories of those rendered invisible and those oppositely under fire.

AES 340 has been an amazing introduction to CRT concepts thus far, but if I am going to really bolster my de-colonial and anti-racist education, I need to read more BIPOC writing and more readily take on uncomfortable conversations. My (and others’) proximity to Whiteness as East Asian American is something I’ve only realized in recent years, but being aware of it now, I can see how it affects my every interaction with other people. It’s not comfortable to notice these things, but to shy away in discomfort is to be complicit, and it’s important now more than ever to listen, to learn, check your privilege, and to speak out when appropriate.

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