By Kaylin Tran
Growing up, I was always aware that I lived in a sheltered environment. The majority of my classmates were Asian, Hispanic or Latinx. Only a small number were white and a mere 1% were Black. This same demographic is echoed on a much larger scale in my community. I live in the San Gabriel Valley in California, which has a larger Asian American population than 42 other states in the U.S. However, just because I live amongst neighbors who shared similar cultures does not mean that I did not experience harsh realities like racism.
I was just rarely on the receiving end of it.
As proud as I am to be a Chinese American, it is essential—especially amidst the recent murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor and Ahmaud Arbery—to acknowledge the fact that the Asian community has work to do. From the marketing of skin lightening products to perpetuating deeply-rooted stereotypes through blatant discrimination, our unfortunate track record with derogatory and racial mistreatment towards people of color makes us no better than our oppressors.
What is the problem?
The current pandemic has emphasized the concerning stigma that Asians have towards Black Americans. Even before the virus, they were constantly ostracized in East Asian countries. Now, they are being banned from entering hotels, shops and restaurants in China for fear that they will spread the infection. Wildly inaccurate misconceptions about Black people being dangerous criminals permeated throughout Asian society and continue to poison the beliefs of many in the U.S.
An infamous example of our racism is the unfortunate tragedy of Latasha Harlins, a 15-year-old Black girl who was shot in 1991 in South Los Angeles after a Korean American store owner assumed she was stealing a bottle of orange juice. Harlins’ death occurred only weeks after the video of Rodney King’s brutal attack received national attention.
The murderer, Soon Ja Du, never received any form of punishment. According to the Los Angeles Times, she was found guilty of voluntary manslaughter. However, instead of a maximum sentence of 16 years, she was given 400 hours of community service and a $500 fine.
This incident resulted in an irreversible divide between Black and Korean American residents in South Los Angeles. Korean American-owned stores were looted during the Los Angeles Riots, resulting in about half of the total billion dollar cost in damages. The war waged between the two communities represents a mere fraction of the detrimental consequences of our actions.
Here is a more comprehensive list of grievances that we have committed against the Black community.
On a larger scale, East Asian cultural beliefs about dark or colored skin run so deep that the preference for lighter skin has become a beauty standard.
“In China, Japan and Korea—long before exposure to European beauty standards—tan skin was associated with lower-class field work while having pale skin signified social prestige,” said Jin Hyun for Nextshark, a source that covers all news regarding Asians and Asian Americans.
Even in the Philippines, where most residents naturally have darker skin tones, skin whitening products fill supermarket aisles and advertisements for procedures flood the media. Not only do these products and procedures contain harmful ingredients, but they continue to implicate these deeply-rooted ideals. An advertisement released by a Chinese laundry detergent firm was heavily criticized on social media and rightly so. In it, a Black man was pushed into a washing machine and came out as a Chinese man after the product was used to “purify” him.
The fact that it was released in 2016 shows just how much progress we still need to make.
Why should we care?
This is absolutely our burden to share, not just as minorities but as moral human beings. We have no right to turn our backs on this issue of race, especially given the recent attacks against our community from unfounded fear and anger regarding COVID-19. If anything, it should make us more willing to fight.
The Black Lives Matter movement was created by three radical Black organizers in 2013 after the acquittal of Trayvon Martin’s murderer, George Zimmerman, but the need for an uprising did not begin there.
It began in 1619, when the first Africans were kidnapped and brought to Jamestown, Virginia to work as slaves; when the U.S. Constitution was ratified and guaranteed a white man’s right to repossess any “person held to service or labor;” when the U.S. Supreme Court decided that Dred Scott, an enslaved man, did not have the right to sue for his own freedom; when the Black Codes and the Klu Klux Klan were created to limit the rights of Black people even after slavery was abolished; when Jim Crow laws and Plessy v. Ferguson maintained the constitutionality of racial segregation; when 14-year-old Emmett Till was dragged from his uncle’s house in the middle of the night to be beaten and shot for allegedly flirting with a white woman; when Rosa Parks was arrested for refusing to give her seat to a white man; when peaceful Selma-to-Montgomery marchers were attacked by state troopers with whips, nightsticks and tear gas; when Malcom X and Martin Luther King, Jr. were assassinated; when Rodney was brutally beaten and tased by police officers; when Harlins was shot for wanting to buy a $2 bottle of orange juice.
This does not include the atrocities that have occurred since the movement began. The list goes on, but it does not have to.
We fought hand in hand with the Black community before. In fact, Asian Americans owe much of our success to Black activists during the civil rights movement. As the Black Panther Party became increasingly vocal about their advocacy and fight for equality, Asian Americans, among other races, were inspired to become more outspoken.
“The black power movement articulated the angst and anger of a generation created by the pervasive and insidious nature of racial subjugation in the United States,” said Jeffrey O. G. Ogbar, a professor of history at the University of Connecticut. “In no uncertain terms, it challenged the legitimacy of white supremacy—politically, culturally, and socially. The visibility of black power militants could not be ignored.”
The civil rights movement brought attention to the U.S.’s immigration policy in the early 1960s. The arduous battle for equality influenced the need to abolish the current immigration system, which allowed a quota of immigrants based on previous statistics from the U.S. census. Thus, the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was signed, which allowed skilled laborers and workers to enter.
This had a significant impact on Southeast Asian countries, whose citizens desperately needed to escape their war-torn homes. As Vietnam War refugees, my parents were two beneficiaries out of millions who sought safety within the U.S.
How can we help?
Thousands of people are already using their social media to spread awareness about these issues, which is fantastic, but we can go a step further.
First, we need to recognize our privilege. Prior to the pandemic, the stereotypes we were associated with were usually positive. The term model minority myth is most commonly used when referring to Asian Americans, who are typically perceived as more successful compared to other minorities. This inherent bias has allowed us to take immense strides when it comes to education and employment.
The fact that most Asian households have some of the highest incomes is due to the opportunities we are given. In the mid-1800s to the early 1900s, anti-Asian sentiment crescendoed throughout the nation. Chinese immigrants worked in manual labor industries with extremely low wages. Policies and bills were passed that intentionally limited our economic prosperity and even led to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law of its kind in America to restrict immigration. So how did we eventually become associated with so much success?
Research from Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger suggests that the reason is because racism towards Asian Americans lessened. After World War 2, racial prejudices were softened and Asian Americans were able to pursue lucrative jobs. In fact, they began earning so much money that the 1980 census revealed that Asian American men were making more than white men.
This is not to discredit the blood, sweat and tears that our families have dedicated since immigrating to the U.S. We have a right to celebrate the strides that those before us have made to accomplish many feats in this country, but just as how white people have inherent power as the dominant majority, we must recognize our privilege over other minority groups.
We also need to educate ourselves. Again, doing so through social media is one way, but take it a step further. People have begun posting chains where they tag a list of friends with the hashtag #BlackLivesMatter in the name of spreading awareness, but it does absolutely nothing except make a mockery out of those who have died. This is not a trend—this is a matter of life and death.
Instead of tagging people, share resources. Read books. Watch videos and films. It may be hard to digest, but keep in mind that real men, women and individuals are experiencing these circumstances in their everyday lives. Do not censor yourself to the truth. Below is a list of books you can start with, compiled by @jane_mount. Furthermore, educate your loved ones. These beliefs are deeply rooted in generations of misinformation and prejudice. Even my family often makes off-handed comments without realizing just how offensive they are being. It is our job as informed individuals to break that pattern.
Finally, take action. Donate to funds and efforts dedicated to providing resources for the families who are grieving. Text to numbers and demand that justice is delivered for the lives of those who were lost. If you are fortunate and willing to step outside to join protests, remember to still abide by safety guidelines and precautions—we are thankful for your actions, but your well-being is the ultimate priority. There is no need for more innocent lives to be taken.
What happens next?
There is no you versus me. This is a collective fight that we must endure together for the sake of our sisters and brothers who have died, in the hopes that we will not have to advocate for more in the future. We have suffered from the sudden increase of racist and xenophobic attacks during these past few months because of COVID-19. The Black community has been suffering long before this nation was born.
Do your duty as an Asian American, as a minority, as a basic human being. After all the pain we have caused and the privilege we have been afforded, this is the very least we can do.
Kaylin Tran is an editorial writer who focuses on social justice issues and communication strategies, especially within the entertainment industry. You can find her on Instagram.