“Where were the black people when the Asians were being harassed during COVID-19?”
I heard this comment from an acquaintance recently and it brought me back to a different statement I grew up with similar intent.
“Don’t make friends with black people.”
My parents often told me this throughout my childhood in the late-80s. My brother and I grew up in Brooklyn, the children of first generation immigrants from China, and one of the only Asians in our primarily black and Hispanic neighborhood around the corner of Knickerbocker Ave Station. This was before Brooklyn became the wet dream of every hipster from here to Tokyo. We shared an apartment with two other families, the four of us cramped into one of the two bedrooms. My mom ironed shirts for 8 hours a day in 90+ degree conditions in a factory that was a sweatshop in everything but name, while my dad delivered Chinese take-out every day until midnight and then woke up at 6AM to bike to his NYU lab assistant job in the morning because he couldn’t afford the train fare.
We grew up poor, but my parents always led us to believe we were better off than the other minorities in our neighborhood — that despite the half-rotten $1 discount produce my mother always picked through at the deli and our hole-covered underwear that somehow we were just in transition, not in some “forever poor” like everyone else.
Black people were not our enemy, but my parents taught us to fear them. They cited all the news we’d see on tv, in newspapers, the stories they’d hear from their friends at work, even the action movies my dad loved to watch, everything pointed at how blacks were robbers, murderers, and conmen. If you encountered one in the middle of the street at night, you’d regret it. It was just how they were. “You see that closed store over there? The owner got shot the other day by some black guy,” my dad would point out as we walked to McDonalds, our once-a-week splurge. The more I heard these stories, the more black people started to seem less like people and more like monsters under my bed or in the closet — an exaggerated threat that had become something far beyond reality.
And I believed them for a while. In elementary school, I avoided becoming overly friendly with the black children and spent most of my time with the only other Asian girl in my class who also seemed desperate for similar company. We both brought flavorless ham sandwiches for lunch instead of leftovers from home to avoid drawing attention. Even as far along as high school and college, I remember discussions with Asians classmates over how unfair affirmative action was, how “Asians shouldn’t be punished for working harder,” how “black people and other minorities shouldn’t be given a handicap.”
I’m grateful to all the teachers, friends, and increasingly diverse media (largely driven by original contents from streaming services) over the years that slowly rewired my early brainwashing. But racism isn’t something you outgrow. It’s something that sticks to you like an old tattoo that discolors and deforms with age, but is always there. I still feared walking past groups of black kids at night. A few years back, I took a hike around Bear Mountain and ended up getting stranded after I missed the last bus. It was late-fall and dusk was falling on the lake around the visitor’s center. Everything was closed. Four Uber drivers had already cancelled on me, claiming it was too far and not worth the trouble. Only one person, a black man who only went by PT on his Uber account profile, finally accepted the job. I remember being anxious the entire time in the car. The highway was so dark you could barely see more than a few yards ahead, and he didn’t speak at all. Were we going the right way? How would I know? The trees were getting thicker. A lifetime of teachings from relatives and friends that I should never get into a black man’s car alone were throwing me into a panic. When we finally arrived at my destination, PT thanked me for accepting his ride because so many people had cancelled their ride after seeing his photo. Only then did I feel guilty. This man was the only driver willing to come out to middle of nowhere to pick me up and instead of being thankful, I assumed he might be dangerous. No matter how much I told myself that I was different than the blatantly racist people I often saw hurling slurs in restaurants at black staff, I was still a “latent racist” — one of those people who say they have black friends, but still harbor deeply ingrained prejudices.
As Asians we’re taught not to question the status quo — we just learn how to work our way around it. My mom called it “being clever.” You pretend you don’t see that person getting harassed on the train, the person getting beaten up on the street, the person passed out on the stairs — you don’t help other people because it could cause you trouble later. I was taught from a young age that if I avoided sticking out, if I worked and studied hard, I would be successful. Apathy was a type of shield. It worked both ways. I pretended not to see that stranger spitting near my feet or calling me a chink, or classmates doing the pointy slit eyes or reciting some monster-fied version of what they thought was “Chinese” (“chingchongchong fried rice”). You wait until you’re successful enough for it not to matter anymore. Nothing ever speaks louder than money, my mom would say as I watched her roll my dad’s cash salary for the week into old t-shirts in our closet. My parents would watch the protests from women or blacks or the LGBTQ community on the news as if they were no different than crazy people arguing on a faraway island.
The problem with apathy is that it is a way to deflect or defer responsibility, not a solution. You don’t fix problems by pretending they don’t matter.
These days I see a lot of Asians joining the #AllLivesMatter bandwagon, which is disappointing. I would be less inclined to judge if they’d been more honest and simply stuck to what many of us were raised to think which is #NobodyElseMatters. The #AllLivesMatter rhetoric implies that you care about the other races too, but what it means is that only you and those you care about matter. It gives you the moral high ground to devalue the suffering of others. What exactly does shouting #AllLivesMatter achieve other than a misplaced sense of self-satisfaction? You’re not helping upend anything that is making life difficult for you or anyone else. Saying #AllLivesMatter is just another way to deflect blame or responsibility. You might as well be typing “I’m having a shitty day too” on a Reddit thread for cancer patients.
We as Asians aren’t free of fear when it comes to police. Growing up, my father told me to only call the police if I was absolutely sure they wouldn’t find me guilty. I didn’t understand what he meant until they told me the story of how in middle school my brother had once been sent to the school counselor after he started writing suicidal notes on his homework. The bullying had reached a tipping point. But instead of calling my parents, the counselor called the police because my brother had become belligerent. He’d started using Shanghainese since he still had trouble with his English, and the counselor was worried about what he might be saying. The police picked him up and immediately sent him to a psychiatric facility a few miles away. This escalated over the course of a few hours where only the hospital finally called my father because they needed his signature to commit. Mental illness can be a crime if you’re not the right skin color. Even after growing older, I avoided eye contact with police officers. Whenever I saw an officer standing near the turnstiles at a train station or some of them gathered outside of a Starbucks, I would automatically start double-checking if I was committing a phantom crime that even I wasn't conscious of. As an Asian person, this is mostly paranoia. For a black person this is a legitimate, everyday fear. Shouldn't we be working together to fix why any of us have to feel more afraid when there are police around than when there aren't?
My husband, who is Japanese, thinks non-black protesters are being disingenuous. “Aren’t they just enjoying the anarchy after being trapped at home for so long?” Watching the videos of the looting and the white protestors who blatantly avoid listening to the black organizers and cause trouble, it’s hard to tell him he’s wrong. But I also tell him that it doesn’t matter. It’s the same with the opportunistic influencers and hypocritical brands. They may not mean it, but all of the exposure is raising awareness to a tipping point. As Dave Chappelle pointed out, apartheid ended in South Africa after the amount of people who cared reached critical mass. That’s what we need now, that’s the only way we’re going to change anything. Critical mass — this includes the self-serving influencers, the bored anarchists wannabes, and the this-doesn’t-effect-me minorities. After just two weeks of protests, all four police officers who were involved in the murder of George Floyd have been charged as opposed to the initial one. The Minneapolis City Council voted unanimously to disband their police department and invest in community-based public safety programs (which has been effective in dramatically decreasing crime in other cities like Camden, NJ). Kentucky voted unanimously to ban no-knock warrants which had led to Breonna Taylor’s wrongful death (though the officers have yet to be charged). New York has repealed a law that kept police officers’ disciplinary records secret creating greater transparency and disbanded their plain clothes unit (responsible for 31% of fatal police shootings). Politicians across all states are reconsidering police budgets and accountability procedures. We’re still a far ways off from fixing the system, but this is the closest we’ve come to real change in a long time. Furthermore, this is closest we’ve come to real-time responses usually mired in bureaucracy. This isn’t the time to be holding grudges or pretending like you have better things to do. The one gift of this lockdown is that it’s given a lot of us time and made us restless. This movement is the best thing to redirect your frustration and anger, not clustering outside bars like it’s the end of days or breaking into closed playgrounds.
I don’t pretend that black people are perfect victims. My family was robbed twice (once at gunpoint, the other at knifepoint) by black people. My brother was mercilessly bullied by his black classmates for being the “stupid chink” in his class. I have a laundry list of reasons to hate, but I don’t. It’s pointless to justify the suffering of others because of the horrible actions of a few. Chinese people rob. White people bully. There will always be monstrous individuals in any group.
But this isn’t a contest. No one’s keeping a tally. More people will die and that’s it. There is an inherent problem with our police and our judicial system, not with the people who are victimized by them. Peaceful protesters demanding that people aren’t murdered by cops for something like a traffic stop or a counterfeit $20 bill are getting teargassed, beaten, and arrested while white protesters armed with AK-15s complaining about having to wear a mask or stay at home during a global pandemic are praised by the President as being “very responsible people.” Police officers are ignoring legal mandates and jeopardizing public health by not wearing masks while on duty and claiming they’ve “got more important things to deal with” when asked. Police officers are getting away with murder over and over again. I hear friends and acquaintances say they hate the cops but that's "just how it is," that as long as we don't do anything illegal we'll be fine. But the problem is that we won't be fine. Being a criminal is not a precursor to becoming a target. The Chinese Exclusion Act, the internment camps for Japanese-Americans during WWII, the CBP Detention Centers where children are dying. History repeats itself in different shades.
There was a small black lives matter protest in my neighborhood a few days after George Floyd’s murder, one of dozens taking place across the city. When I showed a video of the protest to my friends, they thought it was a police parade. There were more than three dozen officers with police cars lined down two blocks. I’d never seen so many cops gathered in a single place. They had the peaceful protesters enclosed pincer-style. Was this necessary for such a small gathering that largely consisted of women and families (including children)? I imagined the level of violence that could happen if just one person made a wrong move, a wrong comment. If one cop was in a bad mood and instigated something. I’ve spent the past two weeks reading up on the history of racism, lynching, and all the cases of blatant police profiling that have happened in the US. Even if you have no interest in the suffering of black people here, there are lessons to be learned in police brutality and abuse of power, about the small actions of the privileged that snowball down to the disadvantaged. The Tulsa Race Massacre, Emmett Till, Tamir Rice, it goes on and on and on.
Even if you don’t think black people deserve our help, if you are against police being able to come into your house without knocking and shoot you to death “by accident” and still keep their jobs, if you are against women getting raped in the back of police cars, if you are against emotionally unfit officers shooting children, if you are against being tasered to death or body slammed to the ground during a regular traffic stop you should support black lives matter now. If you are afraid of increasingly emboldened white supremacists that think it’s ok to drive through protesters, you should support black lives matter now. If you are tired of police departments getting money for grenade launchers and extra tanks while funding for public health is cut every year (including the disbandment of the U.S. Pandemic Health Response Team in 2018), you should support black lives matter now. This isn’t about whether or not you like black people. This isn’t about whether or not black people protested hate crimes against Asians. We’re not six years old, holding a grudge against the kid who didn’t come to your birthday party. There’s a clear, common enemy and longterm goals that benefit everyone. Nobody should be shot in their own house while trying to sleep. No public school should have grossly outdated learning materials while a murderer may be getting $50,000/year in pension from your tax dollars. Nobody should have to go bankrupt to pay for their COVID treatment while police pay has surged over the past decade (largely through unnecessary, often unlawful overtime pay). We Asians lose nothing by supporting black lives matter other than some misplaced sense of pride. If we don’t stick together now, we all lose in the long run.
Supporting black lives matter doesn’t mean you need to march in sweltering heat or dodge rubber bullets or know everything about the racial history of this country before you feel like you can even tweet a single comment in support. One of the problems of being raised by Asian immigrant parents (aka tiger parenting) is that we don’t know how to do things without overdoing them. It’s the overachiever syndrome. Everything needs to be done perfectly and with 200% confidence. This makes the hurdle to get involved needlessly high. Supporting can be as simple as not posting #AllLivesMatter nonsense now when it just becomes needless noise; educating yourself or someone you know on the greater context of the BLM protests (including the countless cases of police brutality that have gone without punishment) and why black people (and non-blacks) need to keep protesting; donating to bail out protesters who have been unlawfully arrested (or to the families of the victims who are battling on the frontlines to get justice); signing a petition to defund the police in your city; or writing to your local city/state officials to ask for greater accountability/transparency. You can do all of these things from the social distancing comfort of your own home.
I’m proud to be Chinese-American, but there are better ways to exercise my pride than hiding behind it. When I got older, I sometimes asked my parents if they really hated black people or all the plethora of races they’d often told me to avoid being friends with when I was younger. My dad, who’d survived the last few years of China’s Cultural Revolution by pretending to know English and working as a quasi-“translator” for Mao’s teachings, would laugh at this and reply, “What? I don’t care enough to hate any of them. The people I really can’t stand are other Chinese people.” Their brand of racism, as with many first generation immigrants who came to the country with nothing, has always been less about discriminating and more about surviving. If this is the same brand of racism so many of us Asians grew up with, why are we not joining black lives matter? Hasn’t this always been about survival?