Asian American Anti-Blackness Is Real—And So Is Our Responsibility to End It

We’re holding a lot of grief and anger over the Black lives stolen by white supremacy in recent weeks. For George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Nina Pop, Ahmaud Arbery, and so many others whose names never made national headlines, we demand justice and mourn their loss. But we also recognize that this is not enough. In this moment—especially with the knowledge that it was an Asian American cop who stood by and did nothing as his partner literally crushed the life out of George Floyd—it is urgent that we as Nikkei and Asian Americans recommit to the hard and messy work of uprooting the anti-Blackness from within our communities.

The anti-Asian violence being directed at our communities during this pandemic is inextricably linked to the anti-Black violence that allows the police to murder unarmed civilians like George Floyd and Breonna Taylor, that teaches the Amy Coopers of the world to weaponize their white tears to summon those same police, that teaches us to stay silent while those same police commit those same murders as if that will somehow protect us. If we hope to end this violence—all of it—we must reckon with our complicity in this tangled web of white supremacy, and our responsibility to dismantle it. 

Our historical inheritance is Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs building Asian solidarity for Black liberation, but it is also Mike Masaoka and S.I. Hayakawa peddling a model minority myth that encourages us to step on others to ascend into whiteness. It is Vincent Chin beaten to death by angry white men and James Hatsuaki Wakasa shot by a camp guard, but it is also Peter Liang and Tou Thau.

We are both victims and accomplices of state violence, and we must engage with that complexity and leverage the privileges we have even as we name the systems that harm us.

We must learn from our history—not simply because our elders also faced incarceration and state violence, but because there are hard-won lessons that we urgently and desperately need to carry forward today: Crises can quickly become cover for the increased criminalization, surveillance, and policing of communities of color. Our acceptance in this country is conditional and revocable. We cannot rely on racist systems designed to plunder our labor and our culture for protection.

What kind of ancestors do we want to be? That’s a question we return to again and again, especially over the past few days, and it’s a question we pose to our community from a place of love and accountability. We don’t have all the answers, and we, like everyone else, are constantly learning and striving to do and be better. But what we do know is this: Silence is compliance, and we want to be the kind of ancestors who were loud and disobedient and stood on the side of justice.

Black Lives Matter.

[Header photo: Asian Americans at a rally to support Black Panther co-founder Huey P. Newton in Oakland, 1969.]

Additional resources:

Minnesota Freedom Fund

Black Visions Collective

Black and Asian American Feminist Solidarities: A Reading List

Letters for Black Lives

20+ Allyship Actions for Asians to Show Up for the Black Community Right Now

    • 30/05/2020 at 8:25

    Thank you, your piece of writing allowed me to understand why and how model minority existed.

    • 30/05/2020 at 15:21

    I find it interesting how all these articles can barely hide their gendered racism. It’s clearly written by an Asian woman who is catering to white (liberal, but still white) men’s stereotypes of “Asian women assimilate-able, Asian men bad”. She conveniently mentions only Asian women as civil rights leaders but ignores ppl like Franklin chin. She conveniently mentions all the bad Asian men acting as house slaves to the white patriarch structure but leaves out Maxime Hong Kinston, Amy Tan, and the plethora of Asian female authors and prominent figures at the time that spurred the wedge of gendered racism, uplifting Asian women as acceptable women of color in white society while throwing their make counterparts under the bus as “backwards idiots who just don’t get progressive values” – these ideologies are the foundation of white saviorism tropes that everyone sees in movies that involve any Asian people. If this article truly wished to discuss these issues, perhaps an insightful reflection on gendered racism and how Asian women are actually uplifted in white society and granted more proximity to whiteness compared to Asian males is in order (the fact that they overwhelming dictate the narrative of the API experience in online media while shooting down dissenting opinion is very telling).

  1. Densho
    • 30/05/2020 at 18:03

    Hi Joe,
    Yes, this statement was written by an Asian woman, and we stand behind it as an organization. If you don’t like reading articles written by Asian women, then our blog may not be for you. This is not meant to be a discussion about “gendered racism” — which, by the way, does not mean what you think it means — but about the horrifying escalation of violence against Black people in recent weeks, and our responsibility as Asian Americans of all genders to do everything we can to end that violence. You are absolutely free to opt out of this discussion if your concern for Asian masculinity is deeper than your desire for Black and Asian solidarity, but please know that your misogyny is showing and we won’t be joining you.

    • 30/05/2020 at 22:38

    Best response ever.

    • 31/05/2020 at 6:18

    Nice reply to ol Joe Densho….love all your articles.

    • 31/05/2020 at 14:52

    My family hails from the Hawaiian islands. My grandmother, who was of Okinawan descent, was an accountant fro Pearl Harbor Naval Base. She was working on December 7, 1941. My great uncle was removed from his job as a merchant marine and incarcerated under Order 9066, My family was subjected to the hate crime perpetuated by the racist federal governement. Growing up mixed on the mainland meant I’ve always had to stand up for myself. I’ve been mistaken for Hispanic, and even, Black. I’ve been spit on, physically attacked, detained by police, and followed around grocery stores because of the color of my skin. I for one, am tired of it. I’m very happy to see the Asian community standing up for some much needed change.

    • 31/05/2020 at 16:40

    Thank you Densho for making this beautiful statement. Thank you Densho for that response to Joe.

    • 03/04/2021 at 21:40

    Sorry to come into this conversation so late. I agree with the main sentiments, and I appreciate how important, vital, and essential this message is for our community. The ugly fact: Asian American anti-blackness has been a dirty little secret for sometime within parts of our Asian communities. Yes, the current climate of anti-Asian violence brings it home to us in visceral reality, “inextricably linked to the anti-Black violence,” as the writer points out. We need to look deep within ourselves, know it for what it is, and change.

    But regarding two sentences– “Mike Masaoka and S.I. Hayakawa peddling a model minority myth that encourages us to step on others to ascend into whiteness. It is Vincent Chin beaten to death by angry white men and James Hatsuaki Wakasa shot by a camp guard, but it is also Peter Liang and Thou Thau.” – what first bothers me is the phrase, “encouraging us to step on others.” The logic of the sentence might appear that Masaoka was knowingly, “encouraging us to step on others.” But it wasn’t Masaoka, per se. We did it ourselves. As Mike was my uncle, I would like to add a few thoughts.

    As I understand, the model minority myth was engendered by the Peterson article in the NYT,1966. Masaoka did not coin the phrase, as some seem to believe, but yes, he fully supported it. Mike was a firm believer in American democracy and all the lip service that accompanied it back in the day, circa 1941 and later. He believed in the Melting Pot and assimilation as sincere goals of the American experiment. He was idealistic (we can now say naive) and ferociously committed to bettering the lives of our community–which to him meant full integration into American culture and protected from future events like 9066. Back then, he believed it possible to be fully accepted on our merits as human beings and considered equals with anybody (yes, we are still waiting). When he spoke of “The American Dream,” he meant it, capital letters and all. That’s where Mike was coming from. He was a young twenty-six-year-old when he stepped into a JACL leadership position, and was convinced, rightly or wrongly, that his path made the most sense at the time. He had been terrified, he told me, at what might happen if we did not comply with government orders. He imagined that in the hysteria of those times–he was of course well aware of U.S. history and anti-Asian discrimination, the genocide of Native Americans–with the military involved he thought people might be shot. His desperate decision was to obey the government and survive to fight another day. What might happen otherwise was an unknown and Mike didn’t want to risk it. I am sure that to his dying day he regretted saying things like, “suicide squad.” But he and his brothers were among the first to sign up, resulting in my father’s lifetime disabilities and my Uncle Ben’s death. Mike believed it would prove our loyalty, and once proven, would move our community closer to acceptance and assimilation, The American Dream. As for his embrace of the model minority myth: after Japanese Americans were declared “traitorous rats,” thrown into concentration camps, faced heavy discrimination upon returning from the war even after the heroics of the 100th and 442nd, of course he supported the myth, many Japanese Americans did. It made us look good and provided us a modicum of safety. But that Mike would have wanted to oppress others is completely misleading. If it was used to do so, it was not encouraged by Mike, but by racist whites seeking ‘proof’ to discredit others, and us, ourselves, who chose to agree. The writer wants our community to accept responsibility for our own anti-Black biases, and we should and need to do this. But foisting the blame upon one individual, as if he had that much power, allows the collective “us” to escape our own responsibility in promoting a myth that in many ways served us well.

    How we judge Mike depends on how much or little we believe a man should be judged outside the context of his time. Mike was no Martin Luther King. When 9066 happened there was no American Civil Rights Movement as we know of it today. Mike did not have our current models of social justice to consult. He was young, faced with unprecedented challenges, didn’t know what was happening, and it was all happening very fast, and did what he thought best in terms of two immediate goals: keep his people safe and create a road to future acceptance. When Michi Weglyn wrote, in 1976, “it triggered a searching self-examination….. Are we America’s ‘good n*****s’?” it was, and is, a good question, but one that makes most sense in context of lessons learned from civil rights movements that came before. There are nearly 80 years that separate Mike’s decisions from today’s progressive standards of social justice. Eighty years of lessons, real time observations, and continued evolution of social justice philosophy that Mike did not have access to. To see, in Densho, Mike placed in the same company as Peter Liang and Tou Thau, two individuals whose stupidity and non-thinking reactions resulted in murder, and an almost direct line drawn from Masaoka, the individual, to the murder of Vincent Chin, is hard to understand.

    Ben Masaoka

  2. Densho
    • 09/04/2021 at 18:42

    Hi Ben, thanks for taking the time to respond. We fully agree it’s not accurate or fair to blame one individual for anti-Blackness (or any other issue) in our community. Certainly, embracing the model minority myth out of survival is not equivalent to the actions of people like Peter Liang and Tou Thau, and that’s not a line we want to draw. But we do believe that both of those things exist on the same spectrum and help reinforce white supremacy, albeit in very different ways. Our position is not to vilify any one individual, but to point out that it’s possible for all of us to act in ways that contribute to the oppression of other communities without a conscious intention to oppress others — which is why it’s so important to learn from our history, good and bad. In revisiting this piece, we can see how the reference to Masaoka might read as singling him out, so thank you for this very thoughtful feedback and reminder for us to be mindful of our own impact.

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