One Korean American's Reckoning

Updated: 2020-07-30 23:45:30
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As protests continue in cities across the U.S., people have hit the streets to protest systemic racism and police brutality. Many Asian Americans have joined in that action, but are also trying to figure out how they fit into the larger national conversation about racism. Some are protesting for the first time ever. Others are confronting their own anti-Blackness and that within their communities. (On this episode, we spoke to a young Korean American man who falls into that category.) Then, of course, there are the people who have been organizing and demonstrating for years.

A recent Gallup poll found that Asian Americans are more likely to say they support and feel connected to the recent protests than any other ethnic groups apart from Black people. And after Black folks, Asian Americans were also the most likely to say that the protests have changed their views on racial justice.

And though there's an energized push of Asian Americans being involved in and vocally supporting Black Lives Matter protests, the history of this group's organizing for racial justice isn't new. Kim Tran, an anti-racist consultant who is writing a book about interracial coalitions, spoke to us about that long history. Below is an excerpt of what she told us, which has been condensed and edited for clarity.


On the origins of Asian American organizing:
"Arguably, the roots of what we know today as Asian-American activism begins around the same time as the Black American civil rights movement in the '60s. That's when we see it gain a lot of traction.

I also think you could say that Asians have been organizing since their arrival in this country in the 1800s. You definitely saw Chinese Americans and Punjabi folks and Sikh folks really push back against racism in the United States since arriving here. There were also these big Supreme Court cases about race, like United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, which really helped us understand the way that whiteness is policed in America.

Asian Americans have always thought of ourselves as a community that is also oppressed by white supremacy. So if you look at famous activists like Grace Lee Boggs or Yuri Kochiyama, what you see is there are long histories of them experiencing white supremacy in their own lives: of internment, of anti-Chinese racism. These experiences are often, for a lot of communities, the bedrock of anti-racist organizing. It's because we know what it feels like. It's because we know what it looks like."

On coalition-building:
"Asian American organizing is differentiated from other racial groups like indigenous or Native organizing, or Chicanx organizing and Black American civil rights struggles by the fact that it's always been really coalitionary based. Asian American organizing has always been really multiracial. And that's something that I think is really serving us at this moment.

For example, the Delano Grape Strike was organized by Filipino farm workers in the Coachella Valley in the mid '60s. And what we were seeing in that fight was for a 40 cents-per-hour raise, and that it was really looking at the working conditions for Latinx folks.

And that's kind of one of my favorite moments, because it does show that Asian America has roots as a movement that works to build bridges across racial divides."

On erasure from historical memory:
"One thing that often differentiates Asian American organizing from other activism is that we don't actually know the histories, even though they're tied in with broader movements. One of the things that I think about often is that Yuri Kochiyama, a Japanese American, was the person who was holding Malcolm X after he had been shot numerous times and as he lay dying.

But we don't actually see that in a lot of, you know, the visual imagery of this moment in films. It's not memorialized anywhere. And that's kind of also what we saw with the Delano Grape Strike, Cesar Chavez and farm workers. There's a whole part of Asian American organizing here, of participation in these boycotts and these marches and this nonviolent resistance—but we don't talk about Asian American involvement.

So the thing that we're left with is that Asian Americans aren't politicized, that Asian Americans don't fight and that Asian Americans are apathetic. But the reality is there's so much of Asian American political organizing that has taken place that we just haven't been able to see, in part because of white supremacy."

On the emergence of the Asians for Black Lives movement:
"The footprint of Asians for Black Lives is the byproduct of years and years of organizing by a lot of these long time activists. And this particular umbrella group formed in response to the police brutality in the summer of August 2014, and the killing of Michael Brown in Ferguson.

There's something really special that's happening now. These Asian American activists, since 2014 and 2015, are really, really invested in the project of Black liberation. And it's not about a shared struggle. It's not about being the same. It's not about us experiencing the same things. It's actually about us experiencing uniquely different things. It's putting a stake in the ground and saying this matters. And it's about liberation for Black folks."

On anti-Blackness among Asian Americans

"Anti blackness is actually a part of Asian-American racial formation in a ton of ways. The model minority myth is a way that we [are defined] and define ourselves as definitively not black. And that is anti-Blackness within our community. On an individual level, you'll see things like Asian parents who say don't bring home a Black person. And structurally, you'll see things like in the education system, Asian-Americans are expected to know the answers to questions and black students aren't.

There are some realities to being Asian-American, and that is that we are perpetual foreigners in this country and that aspirational whiteness is granted to a lot of East and Northeast Asians. So it seems like that's available to us — at least it did before the coronavirus really took place. It seems like whiteness was accessible and possible for a lot of us. Some folks are really comforted by that, because it's this white supremacist idea that you could claim the racial ladder and climb the racial hierarchy."

On what's next for Asian Americans

"Asian Americans are a deeply political group of folks in this country. We participated in the fight for civil rights in the 60s. Asian Americans were a part of what Cesar Chavez did. And this moment, as hard as it may seem, and as new as it may seem for some, is actually connected to a much longer legacy. So, you know, we're doing this with history at our backs, and that's really exciting. I encourage folks to keep that in mind, especially when it gets hard."


To hear more, listen to this week's Code Switch episode wherever you get your podcasts, including NPR One, Apple Podcasts, Spotify, Pocket Casts, Stitcher, Google Podcasts and RSS.

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