By: Jessica Lao
Let’s get things straight. This isn’t a story of getting personally stomped on by the police, or being forced to leave school because of my (as it happens, conveniently not) natural hair. For the most part, I can’t even say this is a story of daily reminders of my ancestors’ pain in this nation.
This is a story of apathy.
And while I can’t say what qualifies as important in the Oxford’s dictionary of Asian parents’ minds (college? That chemistry olympiad they were supposed to remind their kid to look up?), I can tell you what bothers me enough to think it ought to. And it looks a little like…
…this: Nicole Zhao’s article on Asian-American silence in the face of Black social issues; the fact that eight years ago, thousands of my neighbors turned up outside the CNN center to protest some vaguely anti-Chinese phrasing but condemn BLM protesters today as goons who “should’ve just done what the officer told them to”; lingering resentment from my elders against affirmative action policies that do not benefit my race in particular; a post my very white Latin teacher shared on Facebook promoting the success story of today’s “model minority”; videos of Asian-American students at college participating in blackface, actively embracing anti-blackness even as their white classmates perpetuate similar mockery against them at Asian-themed frat parties. The list goes on, but it’s a conundrum that is at once both too obvious, too widespread to fully describe and yet too subtly interwoven into the entire Asian-American experience, with its web of anxieties and ambitions, to decry.
Ironically, the nature of this puzzle that my mother semi-facetiously summarized as “how to get your deadbeat kid into college” lies in that very sarcastic comment—a group of immigrants’ desire to assimilate at all costs into the successful veneer of a landscape ravaged by racial baggage that they may or may not choose to see. In the fiery crossfire of today’s Black rage and amid stories of young Black males getting shot by white (and sometimes Asian) cops, Asians are caught somewhere in the middle of the spectrum, forced to pick a side since the 1800s. And it looks like consciously or unconsciously, they have made their choice.
There is, of course, that golden rebuttal transcending kingdoms and generations that every Asian parent knows: “We haven’t done anything to the Black people!” Which is true to an extent—but everything is a choice. By refusing to choose, the Asian-American community has made the choice to be silent, passive, complicit. The story of quiet assimilation isn’t confined to the 1940s of post-internment camp acceptance, the 50s of anti-communist propaganda, or the 60s of Confucian values. It’s 2017, and it’s very much alive.
Most importantly, though, the position of Asian-Americans today is not an excuse to avoid the conversation on race.
To be sure, I am well aware that this tricky position in the middle is not confined to the macro level of the American conscience. It pervades every facet of our lives, from the halls of my predominantly-white school to the online Chinese-language forums my mother reads religiously. A perspective caught in the middle has no more potential to be awkward than it does to be uniquely informative, nor is it ostracizing unless one construes it so. I cannot lay claim to the discrimination some of my fellow Americans may face daily, nor do I hope to; however, painful as it might be, we can recognize our status as both the oppressor and the oppressed, the white man’s accomplice but the Black woman’s ally. Harmful as it is, there’s a certain privilege (in both the information and traditional sense) to being a “model minority” that manifests itself in the form of an Asian grandma’s gripe about Barack Obama or pregnant Black teens at CVS. These are the experiences, along with insight into their logic and solutions, that we can contribute to discussions on issues facing Black people in a no longer all-white community. In a world colliding more and more both culturally and physically, not only is pretending to be disconnected from a struggle that has benefited oneself so much as helpful as outright allying with the oppressors, but hiding behind a black and white dichotomy of race also does more harm than good to all of us. The College Board can throw a bone to Frederick Douglass on the PSAT and my white classmate can prep Wilderson for his debate rounds all they want, but in an America of voices changing as much as the cast of SNL, they risk excluding the insight of those in the middle of Black and white to their own detriment. What do the politics of race today have in common with an old Hollywood film? They’re black, white, and outdated (they also have almost exclusively white leads, but that’s another discussion).
By engaging in this conversation with the perspective of not a bystander but an active participant, we would do more than contribute a unique perspective; we’d play a small part, each of us, in setting decades of near-sighted image manipulation perpetrated by everyone from 1960s Chinatown leaders to my aunt right. More than just adding retrospective nuance to obvious hot-seat topics like affirmative action or Akai Gurley’s death, I hope more than anything that these contributions may help craft a message of justice that fits the evolving diversity of America. I may not be able to speak for every Asian, but my vision, at least, is that by adding the voices of minorities often absent from racial discourse, we can work toward strategies for equality that unite rather than pit victims of the same system against each other.
Like the cringe-worthily obedient model of filial piety I can be, I could rattle off a dozen Chinese idioms about this situation, but one in particular comes to mind: “When the lips are gone, the teeth will be cold next.” Not very poetic; then again, perhaps it takes the typical bluntness of a Chinese aphorism for Asians to realize that Black, Latinx, indigenous, or whatever people they may discount are the lips, and they are the teeth. It’s time for Asian-Americans to realize that the “American Dream” they seek—that pipe-dream of their children blending seamlessly into the echelons of their lily-white peers’ society—was never real, nor will it ever be in an America intent on inequality.