by Lucy Lee
Thousands of Chinese Americans appeared in the national media spotlight last month when they protested the conviction of Chinese-American NYPD officer Peter Liang. He was charged with second-degree manslaughter of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old unarmed Black man.
When the verdict came out, Chinese Americans assembled rallies in over 30 cities. They argued that Liang was being unfairly thrown under the bus because of increasing pressure from the Black Lives Matter movement to prosecute officers for killing Black people again and again.
Rather than emphasizing Gurley’s death as another injustice to the Black community, which loses hundreds of lives to police violence each year, many Chinese Americans focused on the discrimination Liang received as an Asian officer. Liang’s conviction certainly points to a justice system that’s more willing to punish minorities than white people, but to make the wrongful murder of Akai Gurley about the oppression of Chinese Americans is to minimize the much more violent anti-Blackness at hand.
Many smart think pieces have discussed why the Liang protests were anti-Black and reflected racist views in the Chinese American community towards Black people. But most are not reaching a critical audience of older Chinese immigrants.
As the Liang protests showed, this group has a lot of collective power when they decide to show up. The problem is what they choose to show up for: First-generation Chinese immigrants attended the Liang protests by the thousands, but they have been glaringly absent from the Black Lives Matter movement. This was the result of our failure, as their children, to stay in dialogue with them about the reality of Chinese American racism against Black people in the U.S. today.
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As the daughter of Chinese immigrants, I was dismayed that my parents focused on the Asian discrimination in Liang’s conviction. Our parents need to recognize that Asian Americans play an active role in structural racism. With our educational privilege, it is our responsibility to share with our parents what we know. When we do not, we condone their anti-Blackness.
Here are five steps to shift our parents’ thinking.
1. Recognize That We Have A Responsibility
History shows that Asian Americans have benefited from the labor of Black activism. Because of the civil rights movement, Asian Americans were granted rights to vote, marry interracially, and immigrate to the U.S. after 1965. Despite this history, many Asian Americans dehumanize and distance themselves from Black people. In truth we owe a lot to Black people.
We, Chinese Americans who grew up with the opportunity to learn and think about this country’s social dynamics and racial history, are situated to have conversations with our parents that nobody else is having with them. Because we have benefited, and continue to benefit from, the subjugation of Black people, it’s our responsibility to talk to our parents about the ways in which we perpetuate anti-Blackness, such as by appropriating Black culture, criminalizing and looking down on Black people, and using our skin color and model minority status to align ourselves with white people at the expense of Black lives.
2. Use Their Platforms
Our parents aren’t reading the Asian American blogs that continually call for coalition building between Asian and Black communities. They’re not following Asian activism hashtags on Twitter. Instead they read Chinese news sites, Chinese-language newspapers, and articles on Chinese social media platforms like WeChat and Weibo. In fact, most of the organizing for the Liang protests took place on WeChat. Those of us who are bilingual need to use these platforms to name Black hatred in our community and directly link it to the loss and trivialization of Black lives.
3. Address Their Experiences
As was made clear when Liang protesters used the slogan “one tragedy, two victims” to equate Liang’s conviction with Gurley’s death, many Asian immigrants do not care about Black lives. Many actively pathologize and devalue Black people. It is not okay to let this slide. If we believe Black lives matter, we must confront ourselves and our parents about this racism.
We can use our parents’ experiences as a starting point for these conversations. When I talk to my dad, I can suggest that growing up poor in a racially homogenous country restricted his understanding of justice to solely economic terms. I can explain how coming to the U.S. on a merit-based scholarship primed him to internalize a model minority label used to blame Black people for their own oppression. I can discuss how his encounters with crime in West Philly, where he lived as a new immigrant, were the product of racist practices like redlining rather than some inherent criminal tendency in Black people. Relating our parents’ racist beliefs to their experiences gets them to confront their anti-Blackness.
4. Gently Push Back
Treated constantly as outsiders, my parents didn’t think that immigrating to the U.S. meant that this country, or its history of racial violence, would become theirs. The way they saw it, as long they minded their own business, they wouldn’t have to mind anyone else’s. The flaw in this logic, of course, is that they actually became accomplices in structural racism the minute they immigrated.
We need to make clear to our parents that we are all living in a country sustained by the exploitation and criminalization of Black people. As Asian Americans we are afforded privileges that Black people aren’t. For many reasons, including state violence, incarceration, housing discrimination, and lower access to educational resources, Black Americans aren’t given the same opportunities to succeed as us.
5. Define Racism and Anti-Blackness
The Liang protests demonstrated there are many misconceptions shielding our communities from taking accountability for their anti-Blackness. One of which is that many of our parents view racism as only public acts of hostility or violence. They don’t view their internal loathing of Black people or their complicity in maintaining the status quo as active racism too. This is what causes Liang’s supporters to think only of Chinese Americans as victims, not aggressors.
We have to show our parents that our complacency enables an epidemic of police abuse against Black people. For example, mention that Asian Americans are able to speak up against police violence without fearing for our lives. When Chinese Americans protested the Liang decision, they weren’t met with military weapons and police force. Our parents’ beliefs matter because of the power they hold as U.S. voters, participants in the economy, and authority figures in our families and communities. If we don’t talk to them, who will?
Ultimately, Chinese Americans need to address the anti-Black racism that prevails among us. If we don’t, our people will continue to see Black lives as disposable. Twice a week, a police officer kills a Black person in this country. This is what we, as Chinese Americans, should have focused on after Liang’s conviction — not on the fact that Peter Liang reminded us of ourselves.
Lucy Lee is a queer, Chinese-American journalist and educator who likes to write about science and Asian America. Her passions include busting myths about scientific objectivity and model minorities, and searching for the secret to productive intergenerational, cross-cultural conversations about oppression.
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