The Silence of Asian Americans

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.

The Analects

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.

Liz Lin

8 thoughts on “The Silence of Asian Americans

  1. It seems to me that Asian and white racism against black people, at least as far as police brutality goes, seems to come from a very different place.

    The Asian racism you describe seems to come from an elitist attitude towards the working-class. The recent and partly media driven surge of white racists “standing with the police” by contrasts seems to be a form of right-wing populism verging on fascism, the kind I describe here.

    ” The police become, in effect, a distributed Gestapo, a rallying point behind which conservative whites, already heavily armed, can reaffirm their loyalty to the capitalist state, even while denying it. They hate the federal government. They support their local sheriff.”

    My guess is that the Asian prejudice towards milky white skin is part and parcel of the fetishization of education, the idea that it’s good never to get your hands dirt never to spend too much time out in the sun working the land. Oddly enough, Benjamin Franklin either advocates, or perhaps even satirizes this attitude when he talks about “stupid swarthy Germans.”

    “And in Europe, the Spaniards, Italians, French, Russians and Swedes, are generally of what we call a swarthy Complexion; as are the Germans also, the Saxons only excepted, who with the English, make the principal Body of White People on the Face of the Earth.”

    Germans, of course, are no more swarthy than the English, but the German immigrants in Franklin’s time were working-class farmers, not Philadelphia merchant princes. They spent a lot of time out in the sun and probably were, in general, a bit darker than the older immigrants.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. The racism against black people which exists in Chinese-American communities, the only Asian community which I am familiar with and can sort of speak about, is complicated and multi-layered. Skin color is really just the cherry on top of all the other ‘issues’, such as poverty, criminality (perceived or real), lack of academic success (a serious concern amongst Chinese) which to some translates to laziness or unwilling to work hard. Black families are often headed by a single mother, which is not so much the case in Chinese communities, and most Chinese women don’t have children with multiple men – I am not saying Chinese women are more chaste, I am just saying it’s still a bit of a taboo for a Chinese woman to have children with multiple men even if she was married to all those men at some point. All of these things taken together creates the pervasive racism against black people.
      And about the ‘model’ minority stereotype, Chinese people never thought we were inherently better at math and science just because we are Chinese, but it’s that Chinese parents recognize the path to career success is usually in STEM fields and so they force their kids to be good in these subjects. If there’s no natural aptitude, you send them to after school cram sessions, practice makes perfect.
      You are right, the ‘reasons’ for racism against black people when you compare Chinese-American (Asians) to whites are totally different. For white people, it’s the sad legacy of our history, for Asians it’s not wanting to be associated with people whom the white people (white supremacist system) see as being at the bottom of the heap – socially and economically. Most Chinese do not know enough about American history (besides the fact that black people were once slaves and then freed by Lincoln) to think introspectively about the plight of black people in America and why they are at the bottom of the heap, especially the first generation immigrants. They’ve neither the time nor inclination, survival is more important. Also, some dumb white sociologist Liz Lin refers to in her piece invented the notion of ‘model minority’, and it sounded good to Asians, so they ran with it. It’s better to be recognized for something ‘good’ rather than being recognized for something negative, like black and latinos are.
      In the section I quoted from Liz Lin about why Chinese likely stay silent when there’s a social uproar, she’s far more eloquent and far more polite, I feel the same as she, but I am not so polite about it.
      For example, my family, we are a family of educated people, my mom and all her siblings have a bachelor’s degree and above, which in Taiwan in the 1960s and 1970s is very difficult due to standardized testing to get into next level of education (college admission rate was only 10-15% for example), they should know better than to talk racist shit but they don’t. My mom and her brother got post-bachelor education in America. They should get out more and meet different people to expand their worldview and social circle, but they don’t, they stay in their tight knit, insular at times bitter immigrant circles. I suppose I judge them harshly because they are my family and I expect better from them.
      Chinese tradition/history/culture always revered the milky white skin paired with jet black hair (kind of scary if you ask me), it’s also the coloring combination which is fettished (is this a word? LOL) by European culture, so I am not sure this exacerbates the whole white skin thing but my point is, it’s not new as far as Chinese culture is concerned.


  2. Really really interesting piece. As the daughter of two Asians, I definitely see a lot of what you say to be true in the Pakistani culture as well (lighter = better, and don’t ruffle feathers because you’re also an immigrant).

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Oh Tara – you have no idea. My Facebook friends who are Chinese and reside in Asia, I don’t know if it’s clever instagram filtering or what, but they are getting whiter all the time. I don’t want to point it out because it’s not polite, but from when I knew them in school (over 20 years ago – yikes I am old), they were not this ‘white’ and I shall leave it at that. The girls (always girls) who were white got WHITER, some look whiter than me and I am IRISH white especially in winter, the girls who are perfectly beautiful as the were with Asian yellow tone skin slowly got whiter over the years…
      And it’s very easy to blame colonization and Western influence for Asian women to aspire to whiteness, but we need to examine ourselves on why we aspire to what the west likes. And by the way, white people are burning themselves to a crisp to appear tan. People are messed up.


  3. This was very interesting! Particularly through an anthropological lens. I am unfamiliar with Asian culture, particularly Asian culture outside of Asia but I really enjoy reading about people’s cultural understandings of society so it was great to get a perspective of it from a first hand experience. You reminded me of a book I read a very long time ago called Chinese Cinderella. It was one of the few times I have ever read about Chinese family practices and I was only about 14, but reading this post and thinking back, I feel a new curiosity toward it! So thank you for re-awakening that curiosity! Do you know of any novels that give insight to these forms of Chinese or other Asian traditional upbringings?


    1. Thank you for your comment, I really appreciate it. Specifically in America, like all non-white people, their relationship with America and what it means to be ‘American’ is very complicated. Especially for the Chinese immigrants, from the 1860s until the 1940s there were active acts from United States congress which deliberately excluded the Chinese from properly immigrating with their families. Not to go into great detail, but the Chinese were first asked to come to US as laborers, they built the railroads which connected the East & West coasts of the US. But as Chinese got more successful outside of railroad building, and Chinese businesses became successful, it drew the the attention of the white establishment so a series of anti-immigration laws were passed only specifically targeting the Chinese. They were the ‘yellow scourge’.
      As for Chinese or other Asian writers who wrote about their interpretation on their upbringing, this is another ‘controversy’ within the literary world. Of course right off the top of my head is Amy Tan (The Joy Luck Club) and Maxine Hong Kingston, however these ladies are over 60 years old and the Chinese culture they wrote about where the culture of their and their mother’s generation which look nothing like today. I liked the Joy Luck Club because, believe it or not, it was accurate, the sentiments portrayed was accurate. My other Chinese friends who were born in America hated it and I can understand why, it was not a flattering portrayal of Chinese culture, especially Chinese women (they all seem kind of bat-shit cra cra at times), but it’s pretty accurate. Especially the intergenerational dynamic between American born daughters and their China-born mothers and the conflict that ensue. I say this is accurate because how those women felt about their mothers, is how I felt about my grandmother, who was born in pre-WWII China and sometimes it’s not pretty. And my grandmother at times was equally baffled with me and my attitudes, sometimes she wonders if I am even related to her (and vice versa 🙂 )
      But Chinese-Americans of my generation today (I was born in 1979) are totally different than the people described in Tan and Hong Kingston’s books. Because our parents have come so far, our experiences are far different. Liz Lin, the blog I quoted from I would say is very typical of middle-class Chinese in America today.
      Whatever you do, DO NOT read any book written about Chinese or Asians by a Westerner, specifically a white person. They are well meaning, but they view Asian culture from the lens of a Westerner, they dissect our culture from a Western point of view which is totally inadequate. Their point of view is from a hubristic western conqueror of the world point of view. Most Westerners do not realize the Chinese already invented paper LONG before the Gutenberg Press, gunpowder was invented long before the west. China has doubled its landmass thousands of years before the west went out and colonized the world, so the Chinese and other Asians do not need a schooling from the West on ‘how its done’. And for advances in medicine, the ancient Chinese have already laid out many cures to the most common diseases which took the west centuries to figure out – such as, dirty drinking water leads to diseases. DUH.


      1. Thanks for the insight! I can understand why it would make more sense to read directly from authors who have a personal or familiar insight in to the culture rather than foreign authors. As a Mexican… you can imagine I get a lot of Mexican jokes and a very different understanding of what Mexican culture and food is from those living and having been brought up outside it (I am sometimes a little insulted by what is considered Mexican food outside of Mexico!). So perhaps I can relate a little. Anyways, I will check those books out! And I will try and find some more recent books. I think I would enjoy reading on different eras of Chinese culture. Thank you!


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