Backseat Solidarity

Asian-Americans at UC Davis unite in solidarity to protest the events in Ferguson, MO.
Asian-Americans at UC Davis unite in solidarity to protest the events in Ferguson, MO.

…we cannot have a race-blind approach to the questions: which lives matter? Or, which lives are worth valuing? If we jump too quickly to the universal formulation, “all lives matter”, then we miss the fact that black people have not yet been included in the idea of “all lives”.

– Judith Butler, “What’s Wrong With ‘All Lives Matter’?”

During the past year, the #BlackLivesMatter movement has gained significant momentum, following a series of deaths of black individuals at the hands of police officers. Huge crowds took to the streets, protesting police brutality and the institutional racism that undergirds it. When the #AllLivesMatter counter-movement arose in order to emphasize multiculturalism, it was swiftly shot down by activists on the grounds that it was a colorblind approach to the problem and distracted people from the issue at hand.

But where does that put Asian-Americans?

Multiple Asian-American scholars[1] have criticized the black-white binary that seems to be ever-prevalent in modern race relations in the US. The Model Minority narrative, which they denounce as myth, contends that Asian-Americans came to this country in order to achieve the American Dream. They cared not for representation; they simply moved up the socioeconomic hierarchy by hard work alone. Scholars claim that such a narrative sanitizes race relations into matters of labor while ignoring the complexity of systematic oppression that many Asian-Americans faced at the time, including (but certainly not limited to) the Chinese Exclusion Act, Japanese internment camps, black-Korean tensions following the Rodney King case, and violence done upon Asian-American bodies, with the case of Vincent Chin being a notable example. The Model Minority Myth has been used to justify the denial of critical social assistance to blacks, with many rich whites claiming that if the Asians can achieve the “American Dream” through hard work, then the only reason that other minorities are stuck at the bottom of the socioeconomic hierarchy is laziness, as opposed to the institutional discrimination that pins them there.

To some, the #BlackLivesMatter movement is just another attempt to gloss over the Asian-American population, sanitized once more in the simple antagonism of white-over-black while always stuck in between without a place to be; never white enough to be white, never black enough to be black.

At this point, maybe it does seem right to renew the push for #AllLivesMatter, since the current binary masks the Asian-American population in the seemingly eternal struggle for racial equality. However, while all lives definitely matter, #BlackLivesMatter is a reminder that sometimes America does not view blackness as worthy of mattering. Racism can take on many different forms, including that which puts blacks and whites at odds with the Asian-Americans, but there is another fact that is not nearly as obvious: if white-over-black privilege exists, so does Asian-over-black privilege. Regardless of the racial barriers that Asian-Americans must face in the US, it is undeniable that they are statistically much less likely to be a victim of police brutality than their black counterparts. The stereotypes associated with Asian-Americans are certainly psychologically damaging, but they usually do not have legal implications. An Asian-American may draw suspicion from cops based on their actions, but for their black counterpart, their very existence is suspect in the eyes of the police. These differences are real, and deserve much more recognition than they are currently receiving.

Asian-Americans that self-identify as activists for equality need to understand one crucial fact that makes #BlackLivesMatter so important–it doesn’t claim that it is only black lives that should matter, but that currently black lives do not matter relative to other lives. With this realization, the answer to the above question becomes clearer. It is important for Asian-Americans to align with #BlackLivesMatter, since the recognition of black lives as valuable is essential to combat racism in America; however, it is equally important for Asian-Americans to understand the privilege that comes with simply not being black. We must open up space for black voices to speak out instead of pressing the Model Minority Myth as a justification to remind that #AllLivesMatter. Demands for the integration of specific Asian-American issues into these movements do not merely miss the point, but actively take away from the original message.

Supporting #BlackLivesMatter does not undermine the Asian-American narrative like supporting #AllLivesMatter does to the black narrative against police brutality. Activists, regardless of their race, should align themselves in solidarity with #BlackLivesMatter because no equality for some means equality for none at all.

  1. Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White by Frank Wu, Everybody Was Kung Fu Fighting: Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity by Vijay Prashad