Black Panther, Yellow Dragon: Why Asians Need to Care About Ferguson
In 1968, Asian American activists held up signs that declared: “Yellow peril supports black power.” Now, 40 years later, Asian Americans need to be allied with the cause of respecting black lives, both as human beings, and as people of color who fight the battle for racial equality together in America.
Asians Americans often think of their positions in society as antithetical to that of black Americans. Asians are the “model minority,” as opposed to targets of discrimination and distrust. They are stereotyped as math whizzes, doctors, and Tiger Moms, poster children for the American Dream that hard work will lead to social mobility.
For some members of the older generation like my parents, these differences in status are a mark of cultural superiority, a sign that among non-whites in America they came out ahead in the race to green lawns and white picket fences. As a result, there is often a sense of racial division: my mom tsks at the evening news that police brutality wouldn’t be an issue if blacks just “committed fewer crimes.” After a heated argument over Trayvon Martin, my dad lectured me about how Chinese people came to America and worked hard to attain success and social status. Asians are well-behaved, he claimed, and that’s why they aren’t victims of racial profiling and police shootings: they had gained the “trust” and “respect” of white people.
Their racial insensitivity is wrong. It is wrong not just because all human beings need to care about black lives, but because as Chinese Americans, violence towards blacks shakes the foundation upon which their welfare in this country is built.
It was 71 years ago that Congress finally ended the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; 26 years ago that the U.S. government formally apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Behind the present-day Asian American success story is a darker story of cultural assimilation. It wasn’t hard work that earned Asian Americans acceptance by American society. It was the long, dehumanizing process of blending the lines between “us” and “them.” Yellow skin can be disguised: squinty eyes opened wide, heritage disowned, bold and melodic native tongues tamed into chirpy Midwestern accents. We made our culture more tolerable to our bosses and neighbors, feeding white America an easily palatable narrative of conformity and obedience: the smiling Chinaman, the kung fu artist, the diligent student. Maybe we didn’t flinch at the caustic burn of bleach on our yellow faces. But have you ever noticed that the phrases “white-washing” and “ethnic cleansing” are based on the same metaphor? They are only different shades along the red-stained spectrum of ethnic violence: one is the extermination of a people’s culture; the other is the extermination of a people’s lives.
My dad tells me proudly about how well Chinese immigrants have fared in American society, that we as a race have somehow “earned” the respect of white people through our agreeable culture of General Tso’s chicken and perfect SAT scores. The problem is that respect for another person’s life should not have to be earned: it is something that is due to a person because they are human.
My mom wonders if she should hire more white employees at her predominantly minority-staffed dental clinic to make her white patients feel more “comfortable.” Yet what she fails to see is how problematic it is that some white Americans would find people with different-colored skin “uncomfortable.”
Assimilation is a survival tactic.
And despite all the talk of racial progress and growing acceptance, it is still true today that if you do not look, act, or talk like the majority does, you are majorly fucked. The killings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and the countless other losses of innocent black lives, along with the repeated failures of our legal system to condemn this violence, have sent a message from America to its minorities loud and clear: conform, or die.
The disturbing reality underlying both assimilation and racial violence is this:
In this country, some individuals’ survival is contingent on others’ approval.
Despite this nation being the “land of the free”, basic freedoms and rights are conditional.
And if you do not meet the conditions for a life that matters in this country, then you can be unduly deprived of it at any time, with zero consequences.
It’s easy for Asian Americans to think that their acceptance by white society means that America is a post-racial nation, a meritocracy where hard work leads to the American Dream.
Yet the fact that we have kept our heads down and diligently worked does not negate the injustice that people of color in this nation are unable to raise their heads.
The fact that we have thrown their hands up and conformed does not dissolve the reality that another person has their finger on the trigger controlling one’s life or death.
The injustice of Ferguson and Eric Garner implicates not just black Americans, but all people who have ever been the victims of racial injustice in this nation. It invokes an empathy and kinship that courses through the blood of history and heritage. Asian American activists in the 60’s stood with the black civil rights movement because they saw their causes, while differently colored, as fundamentally the same, the plights of them and their ancestors linked by common experience.
Because I am Chinese American, because, as Martin Luther King Jr. once said, “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere”, because I am a human being: I raise my fist in solidarity.
By Hannah Wang