- As anti-Asian violence surges amid the pandemic, some have compared it to the Black Lives Matter movement.
- Katie Li, a second-generation Chinese American, writes that this ‘rivalry’ only reinforces the divide among people of color.
- Activists should stand in solidarity without comparing Asian hate crimes to anti-Black oppression, Li says.
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This article contains racial slurs.
As a second-generation Chinese American, I’ve always felt disconnected from Chinese culture – I struggle with the language, am unfamiliar with its customs and traditions, and feel like an impostor in a Chinese body when interacting with first-generation immigrants.
But I also constantly feel alienated in America. Despite having lived in the US my entire life, I can’t help but feel like a foreigner in my own hometown, where people look at my face and immediately see me as something otherly. My whole life, I’ve identified with the label of “American” as much as I’ve identified with “chink,” “gook,” and “virus.”
The rapid rise in anti-Asian violence and the fear it’s instilled in recent months has been a brutal reminder to millions of us of what it means to exist as an Asian in America, and it’s left us in a state of overwhelming grief and anger.
In light of these hate crimes, Asians ranging from celebrities to politicians to ordinary people have spoken out against the increasingly rampant discrimination we face. This is exactly what we should be doing. Given the widespread reluctance to acknowledge anti-Asian racism, even among Asians ourselves, we need to make our voices heard.
But at the same time, however, Asian American advocacy is far too often predicated on rhetoric that’s implicitly anti-Black.
Instead of uplifting us, this harms all people of color and pits us against one another, thereby upholding the white supremacy that oppresses and dehumanizes us.
Growing up in the US, I’ve been constantly surrounded by the stereotypes associated with being Asian.
We’re purportedly all smart, hardworking, quiet, and obedient. I took pride in hearing friends, teachers, and family members, Asian and non-Asian alike, apply these characteristics to my own race. It felt like a compliment; Asians were all high-achieving, so I automatically was too.
When I was told that stereotypes were harmful at a young age, I wondered how this could be possible. After all, what harm could come out of someone believing I was intelligent and hardworking?
The narrative that hard work and intelligence – and, by extension, success and prosperity – is an inherent part of the Asian identity not only veils the discrimination we face, but also perpetuates racism against other groups. The assumption is that Asians – the “model minority” – can achieve high levels of success in academia and the workforce despite being people of color, so if Black people fail to do the same, it’s because of their own inherent shortcomings rather than systemic barriers.
Because being perceived as hardworking doesn’t seem offensive or harmful at face value, many Asians buy straight into this narrative, resulting in a subtle sense of anti-Blackness that often manifests itself in Asian American advocacy.
We shouldn’t treat racism like a competition
When I first heard about the targeted shootings of Asian women in Atlanta several weeks ago, I instantly thought of the tragic murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Beyond that, however, I was also reminded of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and countless other Black Americans who were unjustly murdered.
Considering the racial unrest in the US this past year, it can be easy to make this connection between anti-Asian and anti-Black violence; it’s a reminder that the oppression of one race is tied to that of other races and reaffirms the need to stand in solidarity with other people of color.
However, we need to be careful that these connections don’t turn into comparisons.
In response to skyrocketing anti-Asian violence, some people have adopted “Asian Lives Matter” as a catch-all phrase to condemn racism against Asians. Of course, our lives do matter, but using this phrase is fallacious in a way similar to “All Lives Matter” – it’s not untrue, but it’s a direct response to “Black Lives Matter” that attempts to derail our focus on anti-Black oppression and shift it to a different group. The history of racism in the US is far too nuanced for one marginalized group to simply replace another, even if it’s just in a saying or hashtag.
Our goal should not be to replace or diminish the Black Lives Matter movement but to simultaneously advocate for Black and Asian Americans. Alternative hashtags like #StopAsianHate and #StopAAPIHate accomplish this by condemning anti-Asian racism without co-opting a movement that isn’t ours.
That being said, this underlying sense of competition – or, as activist Elizabeth Martínez once called it, “Oppression Olympics” – spans far greater than the use of a hashtag. Some Asians have been quick to criticize Black Lives Matter activists for not explicitly acknowledging anti-Asian violence. If activists can advocate for Black people, they reason, then why can’t they advocate for Asians?
Instead of uplifting ourselves and shedding light on our struggles, this reasoning insinuates that we are only owed support because Black people also received it. It forces us to spend our energy competing with one another rather than truly addressing white supremacy. It unravels the solidarity between Asian and Black activists and downplays the significant work Black civil rights activists have done to benefit people of color throughout history.
Activism is not a zero-sum game; fighting anti-Black racism benefits Asians and vice versa.
To truly contribute to Asian activism, here’s what we do.
Let’s focus on uplifting the voices of Asian Americans. Rather than place blame on the Black Lives Matter movement for occupying so much attention, let’s take inspiration from the decades of hard work activists have done to bring such attention to racial issues.
Let’s put our energy into supporting groups like Asian Americans Advancing Justice, who are bringing visibility to our struggles. Let’s donate to Asian activist groups and support Asian-owned businesses.
Let’s work with fellow people of color, not against them.