Many in social and mainstream media have noticed the silence of Asian Americans in response to the killings of black people by the police. There are a few prominent voices but most are silent or they offer platitudes of regret at the loss of yet another black man to a brutal and racist institution known as the police force.
Many Asian Americans have pondered the reasons for this, but the most eloquent by far is Liz Lin, in a blog post titled ‘Why Asian Americans Might Not Talk About Ferguson’. Liz Lin, specifically, is Chinese American, so she represents the Chinese immigrant narrative and being a child of a Chinese immigrant, her analysis is pretty much right on the money. I could have taken these same words out of the mouth of my relatives but with less tact and elegance:
[…] there are all the other cultural and social factors that influence how we respond to events like Ferguson.
For one, Asian cultures strongly value harmony and not creating conflict. The American proverb says that the squeaky wheel gets the grease; the Japanese proverb says that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Thus, even in the face of controversial events, even when we ourselves are the victims of wrongdoing, many Asian Americans tend to remain silent.
This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that more than 90% of Asian Americans are immigrants or children of immigrants1 — people shaped by an immigrant mindset of keeping your head down and your mouth shut, even if the circumstances are terrible. Because you want to be welcomed and accepted here, and complaining usually creates the opposite response, even if those complaints are warranted.
Along with that immigrant mentality can come a need to survive at all costs — at least in my family. My parents desperately wanted my brother and me to succeed in this country, and the only way to ensure that was for us to beat everyone else. So they instilled in us a deep competitiveness, a need to be the best. I grew up with a sense that I had to fight for my own success and not let other people or their problems drag me down, an attitude that haunts me still.
And then you have the anti-black sentiment that pervades Asian and Asian American communities. There are plenty of better-researched, better-written explanations for these attitudes, but in my experience, the human predisposition to stereotype and the fairly universal attitudes about light skin being superior to dark skin are exacerbated in cultures that are racially homogenous.
Her last point of ‘anti-black sentiment’ which ‘pervades Asian and Asian American communities’ is putting this ugly stain in Asian and Asian American communities very diplomatically. I am going to go out on a limb here and violate one of my own cardinal rules, which is to never generalize, even to make a point about the larger issue.
Based on my experiences with Chinese immigrants and Asian Americans at large, including people in my family, they can be some of the most racist motherfuckers ever, especially towards black people. And if other non-Chinese people could understand Chinese, most would be appalled at what’s being said.
As children, we are told to stay away from the black kids, not just because they are black, but because they are usually the ‘bad kids’ at school who don’t get good grades and if we associate with the ‘bad kids’ at school, the teachers won’t like us and think we are bad too. This is what Liz Lin means by ‘not let other people or their problems drag me down’.
To Chinese, black people are an unfortunate race blighted by poverty, low education and criminality, everything the media (controlled by white supremacists) wants everyone to believe, and the Chinese have bought it lock, stock and barrel. On top of that, Chinese people are big believers of politics of respectability and so the situation is ripe for racism against blacks. Because black people get in trouble with the police a lot, so we are to stay away from them so that we don’t get dragged down with them. While this may be true in some respects, most Chinese failed to investigate why black people are at the bottom of the social and economic heap and who and what has kept them there. They were more concerned with their own survival.
My aunt told me Confucius said we should make friends with people who are ‘better than us’ and to her that didn’t include black or brown people. First of all, Confucius didn’t say that, he said this:
If the Superior Man is not serious, then he will not inspire awe in others. If he is not learned, then he will not be on firm ground. He takes loyalty and good faith to be of primary importance, and has no friends who are not of equal (moral) caliber. When he makes a mistake, he doesn’t hesitate to correct it.
What Confucius means by ‘better’ is someone who is morally superior, more virtuous and all around a better person than oneself, he was not referring to someone’s race or ethnicity. The ‘Superior Man’ Confucius refers to means people who strive to be morally superior, people who strive to be better people everyday, not superior by social status.
Chinese culture inherently values education above everything else, it’s their tried and true method of upward mobility, not just in America but in their countries of origin as well. I was told from a young age, in order to get ahead, I needed to study, get good grades, get into college and get a good job. That’s it. And while we are in school nothing else matters but our studies. Not our friends, no boyfriends, no weekend trips with friends, no going to movies, no sleepovers at friends homes, we don’t even need to do chores, our sole existence is to study and get good grades. Like Liz Lin says, we are responsible for our own successes, no one is going to give us anything and anything which gets in the way of that is to be ignored, even at our own peril.
With my mother as the exception, since she was married to a white person her social circle was wider and she got to see what white people were really like up close and personal and she wasn’t too impressed most times. She thought white people and white culture was rather philistine, after all, she came from a culture which was almost 4000 years old. But her parents and siblings were racists of the Chinese variety. They were insular, paranoid and convinced the world (white world) was out to get them because of their unfamiliarity with American culture. This was especially true of my aunt and uncles. My grandparents came to the United States to retire and they were happy doing what retirees did and didn’t care too much about their surrounding demographics and the wider American culture.
They were well aware the system that is white supremacy. They also knew they will never be fully accepted by white people so they settle for second best, which is career and financial success, one of the few things white people can’t deny them. One of my uncles got his master’s degree at a prestigious California institution was working on his PhD before he decided to quit and get a job as an electrical engineer. This was the early 80s, he had a good job but all the white people were promoted over him and he was even made to train someone for a position that should have been his. This made him disillusioned and bitter and he took that bitterness out on me (as a white-presenting biracial woman, he knows I can get ahead with half of his talent). My other two uncles which didn’t achieve half the success of my uncle with the master’s degree and they toiled in lower income positions until their retirement. My aunt became a virtual social recluse (she’s been in this country for over 30 years and she’s got not one non-Chinese friend) as she was a school teacher in Taiwan and she wasn’t able to convert her teaching degree and continue teaching in the US. All of my uncles and aunt had something in common, unfamiliarity with the culture that is white supremacy and not having to social tools to successfully navigate it.
They also lacked the confidence that is required to be successful in white corporate America. They were brought up in a system which was totally different to how American children are brought up. They were brought up in typical Chinese-Confucian tradition, to respect authority, obey teachers, follow orders and to not speak your mind until you’ve earned your right or position to do so, basically when they become adults. Creativity and originality was not encouraged in primary and secondary education, their education system was geared towards them taking standardized test regulated by the government to determine if they can reach the next level of education. American children, especially Gen X, Y and Millennials, we are taught to be confident, to speak our mind and our opinion matters (even if that opinion is crap). As a child growing up, I distinctly recall my aunt and uncles being very annoyed with my opinionated nature and confidence in expressing my opinions, they were even more annoyed with my mom for not putting me in my place.
In my childhood, I heard so many disgusting racists things said about blacks and latinos by my family and it wasn’t just my immediate family. It was our extended families of in-laws, relatives and acquaintances. The racists comments were ubiquitous, they came up at the most random moments during the most routine things. I recall once seeing the singer Alicia Keys on TV, one of my favorite singers, my aunt said, very casually, ‘she’s not 100% black is she?’ I said, ‘no, she isn’t. She’s like me, she’s biracial, her mother is white and her father is black’. My aunt replied, ‘no wonder she’s prettier than the average black girl’ and for good measure, she said ‘and no, she isn’t like you, you are Chinese and white’.
My uncle’s mother-in-law once regaled us with a story of how an unfortunate friend of hers, because of her need for a green card, married a black person to get the green card and fell pregnant and gave birth to the most unfortunate looking baby, and openly lamented why the baby looked so ‘black’ with the kinky hair and all. It never occurred to her that this may be a love match since the said friend got pregnant, it clearly wasn’t just a green card ‘arrangement’.
The prejudice isn’t just against people of the black race, it’s against people with darker skin as some Chinese (and Asians) have darker skin than others. Once I was accompanying a friend to visit with her former in-laws and they were watching those Chinese variety shows where celebrities come on to make an ass of themselves and promote whatever album, movie or TV series they are doing at the time and one of her former sister-in-laws said ‘who is that piece of coal standing next to the show host?’ The ‘piece of coal’ was a Chinese actress with darker skin color, and it is consider very very rude to say about someone even amongst Asians. My friend and I were in shock, not just at the obvious racism or in this case colorism, but the person saying was is no looker herself. The irony was not lost on us.
I disagree with Lin’s assertion which, “There are plenty of better-researched, better-written explanations for these attitudes, but in my experience, the human predisposition to stereotype and the fairly universal attitudes about light skin being superior to dark skin are exacerbated in cultures that are racially homogenous.” The Chinese at least, always revered people with whiter skin long before they’ve ever seen a Westerner. This is no secret. People with fair skin are always perceived as being prettier than they really are. There’s a saying in Chinese which roughly translates to ‘having fair skin will conceal 30% of one’s ugliness’. Many people (mostly westerners) attribute this to post-colonialism, because of French, Portuguese, English and Dutch colonization of parts of Asia, people with whiter skin are seen as prettier. This may be partially true, but long before colonization by the West in China, you have Tang Dynasty poets praising women with milky white skin and how being fair is a mark of beauty and virtue. Almost all the heroines in Chinese novels (old and new) is always a woman described as having jet black long hair paired with milky white skin. Most of the famous actresses in China, Hong Kong, Taiwan, Singapore and any other countries where Chinese people feature strongly, they are all fair skinned women. This is not a coincidence.
As awkward as this is to admit, my mother and I are recipients of undue adulation due to our natural whiteness. My mother is considered very fair for a Chinese woman, she is often thought to be biracial by other Chinese (she’s not, she’s just unusually fair for a Chinese), and I am ghostly white because of my Anglo-Irish heritage. My mother is a lovely woman, one of the loveliest women I know but it’s to do with her whole being, not just her whiteness. In Asian countries, the markets are flooded with skin whitening ungents and creams. I don’t even want to know what’s in them, anything that can bleach your skin from yellow undertone to white can’t be good for you in the long run.
I am no longer in contact with my uncles. Since the death of my grandparents, the glue which held my mother’s side of the family together, I felt I’ve nothing in common with them anymore. Their racist views disgusted me growing up. When I was old enough to articulate my disgust, they turned on me even more. I attributed to their lack of success in America more to their bad attitudes towards other people rather than racism (looking back this is quite unfair). Because they were unwilling to learn American ways they blamed their failures on racism, it was a cop out so they don’t have to take responsibility for their actions. I realize this is a terrifically snobbish thing to say and one one tinged with white privilege which I enjoy but their causal and blatant racism in the open, spoken in a language that most people don’t understand was too disgusting for me to have real sympathy for them.
So far, the racism which exists in Asian communities have been unchecked and overlooked by society at large because we are all obsessed with white privilege, white supremacy and racism and bias executed by white people. White supremacy and racism from white people is perceived as more serious and at times deadlier than racism and bias from other groups. But racism, bias and prejudice is not acceptable from any group against any group, even if the groups involved are minorities. While I disagree that academic and financial achievement by some Asian Americans have contributed to the racism, discrimination and degradation faced by blacks and latinos for their own lack of success; after all, in order to find academic and financial success in a white supremacist society, one has to partake and contribute to that system, whether they are Asians or not, so it’s not fair to level this charge only to Asians. But it is totally unacceptable some Asians are getting away with racism. Just because Asians are the victims of racism, ugly sterotyping, fettishization of women and mockery of traditional Asian facial features and accents, it’s not acceptable to mete out the same treatment to other minorities. Just because Asians aren’t the dominant power in American society, it does not make racism against others acceptable.
It is understandable to want to preserve what little privilege one has in the amoral and immoral morass that is white supremacy, but no one really got ahead by stepping on the head of another. We are better in solidarity than being divided.
I needed to learn that my only-out-for-myself attitude was ultimately not helpful for me or for anyone around me. I needed to learn that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, as Martin Luther King said; that if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers (1 Corinthians 12.26); that ending injustice — all injustice — is a central part of what God wants to see in the world (Isaiah 58.6, Luke 4.18).
I needed to learn that some things are worth rocking the boat for — and that if I wasn’t proactive about fighting injustice, I was quietly perpetuating it.