by Alex-Quan Pham
I am sharing the elevator with a white woman. She looks at me for several seconds before asking, “Are you a foreign exchange student?”
“No. I’m not,” I say before getting off on the third floor, heading to my PoC-only (as in free from white microaggressions) poetry workshop.
I almost laugh to myself.
After listening, all week, to white people describe Asian languages as cute, invent new pronunciations of my name, and argue that Asia is “all the same anyway,” her question was the perfect culminating moment of casual racism.
But, I’m sure she wasn’t trying to be racist (read my sarcasm). Given the sparse and fetishized media representation of Asian Americans, coupled with the hate violence and lack of access experienced, especially, by our immigrant population, it makes complete sense that she would need to find some categorical justification for my existence in this country. White supremacy doesn’t leave space for us to thoroughly discuss the plethora of Asian American experiences and identities.
And when we do, those conversations often commit the fault of turning us into one monolithic group. For example: Though East Asians and South Asians have been invited into some of the institutional advantages of white privilege, South Asians, along with West Asians, can still can get murdered by Islamophobes. And when Pacific Islanders, who have their own host of unique struggles, are grouped in with the entire continent of Asia, there is no room left for nuance.
It’s hard to have a discussion about Asian identity without falling victim to statements of homogeneity.
However, while Asian Americans surely bear the brunt of a racist society and are a marginalized minority within the ‘people of color’ designation, we often straddle the line between racial oppression and privilege and are not immune to using anti-Blackness to navigate white supremacy.
This played out a few weeks ago, in a closed Facebook group for queer and trans people of color as well as (what the administrators call) “genuine allies.” There were long threads of debate between Black members and, most notably, white-passing people of color, a white ally, and an Asian administrator. Ultimately, it led to many Black people removing themselves from the group to escape anti-Black oppression and silencing.
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Rather than centering the safety of Black members, the Asian administrator ignorantly quoted Malcolm X to tell them to stop their “divisiveness.” This is the ‘post-racial’ nightmare that comes true every time a non-Black person forgets they’re not Black while appropriating Black oppression and culture; see: Asians using the n-word freely and donning blackface.
In this instance, an Asian person decontextualized Malcolm X and used his words to silence the very people Malcolm X was fighting to liberate.
The administrator must not have realized that the oppressed are capable of being oppressors. He must have believed that the oppression of not being white canceled out the privilege of not being Black. He must not have known that when a non-Black person chooses to magnify their oppression to hide their privilege, they become an accomplice to a long legacy of white supremacy at the expense of Black people.
So what does accountability look like in these contexts? How do we, Asian Americans, move forward in creating a conversation that doesn’t just reinforce white supremacy—the exact power structure we are trying to dismantle?
Let’s start with proper attribution and contextualization. If we are going to continue using the term “people of color,” which now permeates every race conversation, we have to understand its context and history. When other minority women wanted to be included in The Black Woman’s Agenda at the National Women’s Conference of 1977, a group of Black women coined “women of color.” So using the term signifies and requires a commitment to fighting anti-Blackness. Otherwise, it’s both the theft of Black leadership and an erasure of Black people, themselves.
“People of color” is an appealing term because it implies a coalition of non-white people—which can easily become a romantic illusion. Although all visible people of color suffer under the white gaze, this does not mean that non-Black people of color can blame all our infractions against Black people on white supremacy. We’re all susceptible to internalizing anti-Blackness, but we are not holding ourselves accountable when we pretend that white supremacy is the sole reason for our faults.
While white supremacy cannot exist without anti-Blackness, anti-Blackness can and did exist without white supremacy. Asians perpetrated it long before European colonialism established whiteness as a concept of superiority in opposition to Blackness. Take the Arab slave trade of East Africans, for example.
And just as anti-Blackness needs relentless unpacking, the term “Asian” also needs constant redefining. As the largest and most populous continent, it would be a mistake to package 60 percent of the world’s population into one geopolitical category.
Within the whole universe of Asian cultures, languages, and histories are the African Asians of South and Southeast Asia, who were the original settlers of that area. This indigenous population of Black Asians is virtually invisible, because everyone has been led to believe that the face of Asia is pale-skinned with straight, jet-black hair. When we speak about Asian identity in relation to Blackness, we must stop placing ‘Black’ and ‘Asian’ in separate silos.
And the fact that Black Asians exist, in the context of a widespread condemnation of darker skin all across the Asian continent, means that anti-Blackness should not be seen as an external force but as a subject of intra-racial discussion. In other words, Asians have a stake in deconstructing anti-Blackness too.
In order to dismantle the very definition of what it means to be Black or Asian, we have to interrogate these colonial labels that compartmentalize us in flawed and limited ways. We have to challenge rigid notions of Asian identity that partition our ideas of ‘Asian’ and ‘Black’ in a way that can only serve white supremacy.
What does Asian solidarity with Black lives truly mean? It means fighting anti-Blackness unconditionally. Are we ready to hold ourselves accountable, as we are equally capable of being both oppressors and allies? Are we ready to redirect our privilege to prioritize Black voices? Are we ready to recognize the revolutionary potential in a coalition committed to centering Black lives?
There are countless reasons that Asians should be fighting anti-Blackness, but none has more importance than the fact that Black lives matter. That alone should be enough. Black lives matter—as a hashtag, as a political statement, and most importantly as a fact that grievously needs reiterating. Black Lives Matter.
Author’s Note (2/16): The article states that the incident in the Facebook group led to many Black members leaving. In reality, many Black members were banned by the administrator. There is no justification for the anti-Blackness that happened in a group that should have centered Black members. The misrepresentation also does not accurately portray the power dynamic of the situation. The author takes full responsibility for this egregious mistake.
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Alex-Quan Pham’s favorite word is river. They resist the colonialist, capitalist, white supremacist cisheteropatriarchy through writing, learning, loving, and healing.