In A Black-and-White America, Asians Struggle to Fit In

Asian-Americans are outsiders when it comes to race.

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Complex Original

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Early on in the ‘80s teen movie Sixteen Candles, Long Duk Dong, an awkward exchange student, eats quiche for the first time with his all-American host family.

“Very clever dinner,” he says. “Appetizing food fit neatly into interesting round pies.”

In response, the family stares at Long like he’s an alien. It’s a scene that gets at larger perceptions of Asians in the United States: We’re seen as out-of-touch foreigners who’ll never really be true Americans.

But during last month’s rally against the conviction of Peter Liang, a Chinese-American NYPD officer who fatally shot unarmed black man Akai Gurley, Asian-Americans demanded to be included. We showed the country that our community can be a part of national conversations about race—though it’s clear Asian-Americans don’t fully understand what to do with this newfound visibility just yet.

The messages that emerged from the Liang protests were confused and fragmented. Demonstrators—who repeatedly claimed to speak for all Chinese-Americans—said they want to fight structural racism, but didn’t acknowledge the role that Asian-Americans play in perpetuating it. After some community members criticized them for detracting from a much larger fight against police brutality, protesters responded by calling these critics “enemies” and “race traitors.”

In the aftermath of Liang’s conviction, Asian-Americans must decide where we fit in America’s racial landscape. We must acknowledge how our community is both privileged and oppressed, relate our experiences to those of other communities of color, and recognize that the “Asian-American” identity itself is fluid and ever-changing.

“We really need to need to develop a better awareness of ourselves,” said Jenn Fang, who writes about Asian-American activism, identity, and feminism on her blog Reappropriate. “[We need] better access to our own history and our own knowledge, all of which is out there.”

But it's difficult to determine where Asian-Americans fit in, when our understanding of race is built around blackness and whiteness.

“We’re not black, and we’re not white, but we have no language for articulating where we are,” Fang said. “There’s anti-blackness, there’s white supremacy, and there’s no room for anything else.”

There’s anti-blackness, there’s white supremacy, and there’s no room for anything else.

This black-white binary frames how American society understands Asian-Americans. In an article entitled, “Beyond the Model Minority Myth,” writer Jennifer Pan describes how middle- and upper-class Asian-Americans might be defined by our non-blackness and non-whiteness. On one hand, our non-blackness and status as “model minorities” keeps us from being seen as targets of police violence or incarceration. On the other hand, our non-whiteness prevents us from accessing the same salaries and employment opportunities as our white counterparts.

Given how the black-white binary constrains us, it might be tempting for Asian-Americans to carve out a space outside of it—but that’s not possible, according to Scot Nakagawa, senior partner at Changelab, an Oakland-based think tank that explores racial justice with a focus on Asian-American identity. The United States is built on the exploitation and criminalization of black people relative to white people, he said, and “there’s no way to get around that.”

This binary is the reality of how Americans think about race, Fang said, but as Asian-Americans, we can add nuance to the conversation by defining our own experiences and relating them to existing power structures. In terms of race, this means acknowledging the ways we experience oppression—because we’re not white—but also privilege, because we’re not black. 

Asian-Americans can also do this for experiences beyond race, Fang added, including class, gender, sexuality, ability, and more: “It’s really about seeing oneself as multifaceted.”

This process helps Asian-Americans recognize the diversity of experiences within the pan-Asian community, Fang said. One downfall of a monolithic national identity is that it erases the experiences of those who don’t fall into Asian-American stereotypes (e.g. Southeast Asian refugees, who experience some of the country’s highest poverty rates). If Asian-Americans start to break down these divisions of privilege and oppression, we can better unite on common causes, and support each other despite differences.

Acknowledging all the ways we’re privileged and oppressed also allows Asian-Americans to build alliances with other communities of color through shared issues. One example is the alliance between APIs4BlackLives, a national group of Asian and Pacific Islander activists, and Black Lives Matter. By connecting the experiences of racial profiling and police brutality within black communities to those within Southeast Asian communities, APIs4BlackLives challenges anti-blackness among Asian-Americans, and attracts them to the Black Lives Matter movement. “They have been able to present their racial politics and experiences in a way that doesn’t shift the conversation, so the focus is still on black lives,” Fang said.

Defining ourselves also means owning our history. After the Liang protests, for instance, multiplemediaoutletsattributedthem to Asian-Americans as a group, rather than explaining that the protests caused sharp divides within our community. This erased Asian-Americans’ history of resistance and the ongoing work of activist groups such as CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities and #Asians4BlackLives, according to Ellen Wu, an Indiana University Bloomington professor and author of The Color of Success: Asian Americans and the Origins of the Model Minority. In fact, the Asian-American identity was largely constructed out of the Civil Rights Movement by Asians who wanted to critique anti-black racism, and stand in solidarity with other communities of color, Wu said.

At the heart of Asian-America today is a deep frustration with invisibility. Often, our invisibility is attributed to a black-versus-white framework that makes no space for us. We can demand for more inclusivity and to broaden the conversation, but this binary is America’s reality—and we can’t ignore that.

This doesn’t mean we should let it paralyze us, though.

By developing a deeper, more nuanced awareness of who we are as Asian-Americans, and using that awareness to build solidarity with other marginalized groups, we can grapple with the binary on our own terms. Doing so makes a difference not only for us, but for all people of color.   

“We're living in a time when white dominance can only be maintained by dividing and conquering non-whites,” Nakagawa said. “This is a time for us to stand firm on the side of the color line that leans toward justice.”

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