When are Black and Asian American People Gonna Talk?

Today, on the drive back from being in the woods, I opened up facebook and apparently it was Jesse Williams day. Dozens and dozens of people were reposting his speech from the BET awards. The second I got home I watched it, multiple times. How did he deliver so much fire in such an understated way? (And was he chewing gum?) His speech was amazing! It deserves to be talked about and engaged with on many levels. It was awesome!

In the sea of Jesse Williams posts, the Very Smart Brothas write up, and Shaun King’s reflections on Justin Timberlake‘s tweet I saw another post. I follow this fabulously angry and militant Filipino brother on FB, his page is titled Love Life of an Asian Guy and he had a RANT about a performance at the BET awards that used Geishas and ninja swords and “Asiany” clothing. After trolling the internet for a video of the performance I watched a very out of focus video that someone filmed off their TV, they use with the best blue tooth transmitter you can find online. It was stuff like this.



I was glad to see that some black folks on twitter had commented on the misuse of Japanese cultural imagery and felt the dissonance of celebrating blackness while exploiting Asian tropes and stereotypes.  There is a lot of frustration with white artist who appropriate from black culture, so it saddens me that none of the organizers thought that this tired stereotype might be inappropriate at the BET awards. The whole incident brought me back to a questions I’ve had for a long time.



This is under a bigger question of when are people of color going to start talking to each other, but let me start with just these two communities.



We can’t start talking without doing a little housekeeping. I believe that as Asian Americans we should care about the institutionalized and systemic oppression of black people in our country. Particularly as Christians, it troubles me when Black folks show up for their community and Asian folks show up for their community, but we don’t show up for each other’s communities. When we see each other as the enemy we simply reinforce white supremacy. And what we have in Jesus is supposed to bring us together. And even though a lot of evangelical Christianity is being a racist, misogynistic, homophobic circus right now,  I still actually believe that what we have in Jesus should bring us together. When we, as Asian Americans, align ourselves with the model minority myth in any way, we are aligning with white supremacy and anti-blackness.

Here is the shortest history lesson possible. It used to be that Chinese people were seen as the yellow peril,  dangerous outsiders that needed to be expunged, and with whom we should be at war. It’s the type of imagery and language most often used toward Muslims and people from the Middle East in our contemporary culture. There were violent lynchings and massacres of Chinese people during the late 1800’s. Asian Americans were the perpetual foreigner, hence the justification for putting Japanese Americans in internment camps. Think about that people- internment camps. But at some point they flipped the script, “You’re not the yellow peril, you’re our next generation of house slaves. If you never complain about white supremacy, we will say that of all the ethnics you are the best ethnics and we will let you work in the big house.”

The problem with this is, if we are the good minority group, then who is the bad minority group? Surprise- it’s black people! And we have to think about who is creating this absurd hierarchy in the first place. Surprise- its white people! And once again we are submitted to and accepting a system where white people get to rank  everyone in reference to each other and put themselves at the top. And we have said yes to this. Many of our communities have shamefully and willingly adopted a white supremacist based anti-black worldview. It’s the price of admission to get ranked above black people.


People of color are not marginalized in the same way or to the same degree. But we need to take responsibility for the ways we are complicit in each others marginalization. The most helpful tool for understanding this came from Andrea Smith and her three pillars of white supremacy.

3 pillars 2

The first pillar affects black people. The system is slavery- slavery can take on many forms- from actual slavery to mass incarceration. Before the 13th amendment the majority of people in prison were white, but Mass Incarceration has re-enslaved black people.  Capitalism is the driving justification for this commoditization and exploitation of black bodies.

The second pillar is Genocide, its vehicle is colonialism, and it impacts Native Americans. It is the narrative that indigenous people are gone, have disappeared, and it allows non- Native people to inherit Native land, resources, culture and spirituality. It lives on the myth that Native Americans no longer exist and hence all that was theirs can now rightfully belong to white people.

The third pillar is Orientalism. It exoticizes and “others” certain peoples and nations as an ongoing threat to empire and the only solution is war. This expresses itself in immigration policies, internment camps, and anti- Muslim sentiment. We must always be at war with this “other” to survive. Currently people form the Middle East are most often put in this category, and we have been in some form of war with the Middle East for decades.

I give all credit for this framework to my  Andrea Smith, whose work on this topic is fire and your should read it! ( And I don’t yet have a good answer for how Latinos fit into this framework.)

This framework lets us step out of the oppression olympics  and lets us acknowledge that white supremacy has impacted us in different ways, and the insidious thing is that we have said yes to being complicit in each others oppression.



The thing that is hard to for me to say is that in the last ten years, many of the most ignorant and painful things that I have heard about Asian people has come from black people. And on the flip, some of the most ignorant things said about black people have come from Asian Americans.

We have bought into white supremacist narratives of each other. And I’m so tired of it. And I’m so tired of all the conversations around race still revolving around white people. I want to have a conversation where people of color get in the same room and learn each other’s stories. A space where white people and getting white people to pay attention to us is not pulling all the energy.

I do not say this to minimize the need to dismantle institutionalized racism and call white people and white systems to account. But as long as we only address white people we keep them at the center. We need to hear each other’s stories, understand the ways that we have been complicit in each others marginalization. Asian American folks need to repent of the ways we’ve said yes to anti-blackness and been willing to profit from it. Black folks need to own that they have seen Asian Americans as perpetual other.

I can’t imagine what would happen if we were really educated on each others issues. But more importantly, filled with deep love for each other, and as a result showed up for each other. I truly believe we might be able to do some real work.

My dream is to create space for people of color to gather and enter into deeper conversation with each other. It is why I am so grateful for a time to be with women of color this fall. (You should come to the WOC gathering in LA!) How can we amplify each others stories? How can we mobilize for justice together? How can we dismantle racism together?




20 thoughts on “When are Black and Asian American People Gonna Talk?

  1. At least in LA, how do you think racial divides have been impacted by various infamous incidents surrounding the LA riots? I’d love your thoughts.

    • Great question Monica. I don’t have an answer that I’m really satisfied with. Here are some thoughts. The LA riots were catalyzed by a video of Rodney King being beaten by police, so police brutality and video evidence, (which was critical to catalyzing action in the last two years). Another observation is that black, Latino, and Korean immigrant communities live in pretty close proximity in LA. There were a lot of Korean owned businesses that were in predominantly black neighborhoods. And the it caused real tension, especially when people who were such new comers to the US adopted anti-black narratives. On the flip I’m also sympathetic to the struggle of Korean immigrants, since my mom and aunt and uncle and cousins all immigrated, and I know how desperate and difficult it was. I’ve seen Korean and Latino immigrants find a way to build bridges, but not Korean immigrants and the black communities. I think that the riots reflected a frustration and tension that had been building for a long time. Frustrations around being over policed, mass incarceration, and seeing immigrants make money from a community that they were not invested in. The riots were an explosive expression of that. How did it impact things? Its hard to tell. I think it was very traumatizing and painful to the Korean community. I think they felt deeply misunderstood and caught in the middle. I can’t speak to how it impacted the black community.

      • Good piece with solid points, toward the million dollar question, when… Decades later, and I still don’t know with certainty. There were and still are a significant number Korean owned businesses in predominantly black and brown communities. Some would make an argument for capitalism, as few, if any, invested in the communities where they conduct business. Insert, Korean Grocers Assoc. Great example of unity and solidarity. But, at what expense. “Tensions” were a reality in L.A. The Rodney King incident was added fuel to smoldering. Unrest broke out, MUCH was lost, and I don’t know that anyone “won.” Many took up arms to protect their businesses, as police were scarce and unavailable to respond effectively – at least in the innermost part of the city. The shooting of Latasha Harlins certainly didn’t help matters. I lived down the street from the same market. It never opened again. Many fires were set. Much more can be said here. MUCH. Many other actors and politics at play. I’ll leave with a tall order and a big reach to suggest radical healing. Starting point, TBD…maybe.

        • Larry- thanks for sharing your thoughts. I didn’t move to LA until 1993, so soon after the riots. But I didn’t grow up there, so I didn’t experience the tensions that preceded the riots.
          I think you put it well when you say that nobody won.
          Multiple people have brought up the LA riots in response to my post- it makes me wonder what we can do to really open a way for conversation and healing between the two communities.

        • Larry, Thank you for mentioning Latasha Harlins. That was one of the core reasons for the riots that drew a line between black & asian communities at the time. Law enforcement sided with the Asian woman and she got off without a blemish while Latasha became another ancestor too soon.

  2. I’d never heard of this “3 pillar” model, and I find it quite useful. As it regards the LA riots/revolution, I recall one precipitating incident being the killing of an African American young woman by a Korean storeowner because she shoplifted some orange juice. I don’t live in LA & this was a long time ago, so I might be sketchy on the details. Jesus Christ gave us all the ministry of reconciliation and I agree that what we have in Jesus should bring us together.

    • Thanks for reading Rhonda and sharing your thoughts.
      I’ll look into that incident your referencing- google is a good friend.
      The 3 pillars has been an incredibly helpful tool in terms of expanding the conversation. I never want to say that the conversation needs to move past black and white- there is still so much work to be done there.
      But we need language that gives us more layers.

  3. Erna. Thanks for this timely blog post. It was forwarded to me by a friend.

    Since you mentioned being uncertain about how the L A riots impacted relationships between the black community and the Korean community let me tell you my experience. They left a festering wound which has not been healed.

    Your post asks the question “When Are Black And Asian American People Gonna Talk?” The time for talking alone is over. I wrote here http://wp.me/pBa5T-g4 about how biblical hospitality is desperately needed between Asian and Black christians.

    If black and asian Christians can’t get it right there’s little hope for reconciliation in the larger world.


    • Wow wow wow! Tim thank you for reading and commenting! This is one of those moments that I’m so glad for the internet. I read your blog post – and i say yes to everything you wrote. I also feel strongly that since the church is such a big part of the black and Asian American- but specifically the Korean American community, we should be leading the way into understanding and community. But it’s just not true.
      I agree that there has been no healing between the black and Korean community- it is festering.
      I have been in conversation with friends about wanting to begin to create space for conversation between black and Asian American Christians.
      I’m going to to try and find you on FB so we can keep this conversation going.

  4. Excuse me? Asian and blacks have always been talkin. My niece is half Chinese half black. It is just part of our life and we don’t make a big deal out of it. She’s part of our family like any other nieces. I don’t see a need to broadcast this type of interaction.

    • I’m glad its a normal part of your family life. But I would be hard pressed to agree that the United States has a strong history of dialogue between African American and Asian American communities.Or that the black and Asian church communities have engaged in deep dialogue and bridge building. And as you can see from the other comments, there is a lot of history and pain there that could use healing.

      Thanks for reading.

  5. I think that currently Latinos are under the first pillar. They get exploited as cheap labor and labeled as criminals.
    Also I am a little disappointed in your labeling white people as white supremacists. While I understand how this explains the racism it also adds to it. Many white people are not supremacists and would balk at being racist, but may not be aware of how much their position of privilege affects everything in life. One writer had what I felt a particularly good article about understanding privilege. https://alittlemoresauce.com/2014/08/20/what-my-bike-has-taught-me-about-white-privilege/

    • Hey Susan,
      Thanks for taking time to read and comment. The idea of white supremacy is about the way that systems and institutions function. The article you post deals with an aspect of this conversation- in the form of privilege. But it is important that white people see that those privileges form a web that penetrate into every structure in our country from banks, real estate, education, transportation, criminal justice, policing, work place- all of those privileges create a system that puts white people at the top of all those institutions. This system is white supremacy- it puts them as the beneficiaries of all three pillars. Its not hard for most white people to acknowledge that they pillars exist, its hard for them to admit that they benefit from them. And I understand that- systemic and institutionalized racism goes profoundly against the White American value of individualism.

      There is also a category of hate groups called white supremacists. This is different than the framework of white supremacy that I’m addressing. And I must respectfully disagree that naming it adds to racism. I believe we have to see problems as clearly as possibly in order to solve them.

  6. Black folks have BEEN showing up for Asians, Latinxs, Muslims and even White people! But when Black people need help, we get crickets. Hell literally THOUSANDS of Asians marched for an Asian cop (Peter Liang) to be able to kill Black people with impunity lime White cops! So quit the false equivalencies as if Black people haven’t been trying to reach out to ALL peoples of color.

    • I agree with your frustration over the fact that Asian Americans showed up when the cop was Asian, but were silent ( for the most part) for the previous two years of BLM actions. That’s wrong. I wrote a post about that within weeks of Michael Brown Jr. being shot. And I agree that black activists have organized around a variety of issues. I had reservations about writing this post because I didn’t want to diminish the urgency, importance, and depth of work needed to be done in response to mass incarceration, police brutality, violence against black bodies, and the disregard for the queer women that have been leading on the ground. I would never want to diminish the importance of that work.
      However I would disagree that the black community has always shown up for all communities of color- there has historically been quite of bit of strain between Black and Brown communities. And the black community has rarely mobilized around immigration issues that impact the Latinx community. I’m not mad about that, there are understandable reasons. I think the other comments to this post show that there are deep scars still in Los Angeles since the riots between Koreans and African American. And neither community has been doing much to build the bridge.
      I’m not sure how to navigate all the layers. How do I do all I can to be an ally to the BLM movement, while also amplifying the stories of my own community and my Native brothers and sisters? When do we press for conversation between POC and when do we push for solidarity amongst POC? I’m not sure.
      These last two years I have pushed almost exclusively for solidarity with the black community. This article was an attempt to add one more layer to the conversation. But you’re right that Asian Americans haven’t been reaching out to black community and that’s really wrong.

      • I dont think they are mutually exclusive, we can push for solidarity and keep having the necessary conversations. We have to end this binary thinking, but good read.

  7. Thank you Erna for again speaking truth to unspoken pain of silences and assumptions. You keep me grounded and yearning for the diversity of race, class, life experience, that can truly reflect His glory. And I pray that my efforts to educate my race on its assumed dominance will continue to create space for healing and growth in mixed-race America.

    Most (white) Christians from my (mostly white) upbringing are somewhat confused when I eagerly talk about asian-black or black-latino or asian-latino dialogue/ trialogues that involve no white people that have made it to mainstream news. They’re like, why do YOU care? And I say, because my siblings are talking to each other. And I care about us as a family talking to each other.

    Amen to everything you said.

    Your one-liner about the pillars of white supremacy for Latinos gives me pause to consider the nuances of the “Spanish/Latin” influence in current views of “the Latino”. What would that piece be in Andrea’s diagram? In some ways Latinos in the US are allotted to a an ethnic category rather than race (any demographic question starting with “are you Hispanic or non-hispanic?, as though my Spanish heritage were some lesser than “other whiteness” but “better than” anything else), so maybe they would be that black lined floor above the pillars that supremacists walk on?). Modern day Latinos in the US regularly face an onslaught of assumptions about recent (illegal) immigration – the unwanted alien/ willing slave of capitalism) vs. the awkward but impressive dual colonialism conversation (oh yeah, I remember that the Western US was Nueva Espana before it was the US, and before that was a mix of dominant and dominated peoples of what is now the Americas – that was dope but not quite as dope as Western European colonialism). At Oxy, I remember a conversation with my multi-cultured mix of friends where we realized maybe Joi’s family was the oldest American family in the US at our lunch table, with roots dating back to slavery from the early 1800s. That was humbling to me, and an important day as my longing for a multicultural America to come into acceptance and practice.

    I found out after college that my biological father’s family dates back 14 generations from Spain to modern day New Mexico. Does that make me any more Latino than I was before? Perhaps. But it doesn’t change my desire to move toward a mixed-race American mainstream, where Americans with Latino features or black hair are primary superheroes in Hollywood films; where our US Senate reflects the diversity of the country with a beautiful mix of facial features and skin tones; where my mixed-race kids won’t be asked where are they really from and be told they speak English very well; where I would never think twice about a black female CEO and where I would of course greet any darker skinned American neighbor warmly as a new friend instead of a potential threat.

    Please, talk to each other. Learn about each other. Heck, why not marry each other?

    Thank you Erna.

  8. I really hesitated to even respond because I appreciate what you’re trying to do here….However, there are so many problematic assumptions in this post that seem typical of the disconnect many “Asians” show when addressing civil rights struggle in the U.S. This is exemplified by you naming “Orientalism” as an equal third pillar to the centuries long struggle against White supremacy of Black and Indigenous people. Meanwhile, causally lumping ALL immigrants’ rights (presumably including Latinx who far outnumber “Asians” in population and cultural influence) as well as Islamohobia. (what??) seems tone deaf. Unfortunately, this mimics typical “Asian” racial justice dialogue that minimizes the ongoing struggle of Black, Brown & Native people by centering problems of “Asians”…btw, U.S. Genocide historically applies to Blacks & Natives, and increasingly to Latinx immigrants. You also referenced and implied “cultural appropriation” by non-whites (i.e., presumably not white supremacists) is somehow equal to Genocide, Slavery, Latinx immigrant xenophobia and islamophobia! You really can’t see that is an absurd comparison??
    Meanwhile, the continued use of the traditional “Asians” misnomer erases Pacific Islanders (and arguably Southeast Asians) whose ongoing civil rights struggle is far more similar to Blacks, Latinx and Natives than traditional U.S. “Asians”, i.e., Chinese, Koreans and Japanese. This perpetuates the (widely perceived) “Asian” entitlement without investment attitude that permeates these civil rights discussions, particularly when Blacks (and Natives and Latinx) can look back over generations of struggle and say “where the hell was your community then? ”
    Now the typical response of today’s “Angry Asian” is to get indignant and claim anti-Asian racism when your street cred regarding racial justice is challenged. But I am fortunate to personally know the difference between “Asians” (in my experience. mostly Pacific Islanders) that are about real solidarity in the ongoing civil rights struggle vs. the new “Asian” activists that just want more popular media influence & attention, rather than actually showing solidarity and love for non-Asians in the streets. If you support the collective struggle for all, then join us on the frontlines! For example, “Asians for Black Lives” is a great movement that is very much appreciated. Unfortunately, it seems more Black people know about the Asian community rallying for Asian cops that kill unarmed Black people. All of this just makes constructive dialogue more difficult….

    • Sorry for the delay in getting back to you, I’ve been away from my blog for a while. I appreciate your critiques and agree with many of them.
      I wouldn’t say that the pillars make genocide and orientalism equal. I think its purpose is to tease apart the ways that white supremacy uses different language and tools to marginalize and oppress different people’s at different times. I don’t believe I equate genocide with cultural appropriation- I was simply discussing cultural appropriation in this post. I agree that Islamaphobia is the current expression of orientalism. I also agree that the narrative of Pacific Islanders and SE Asians is unique from East Asian Americans.

      I’ve used my blog as much as possible to amplify the work of Black Lives Matter and call for engagement from the Asian Asian American community- more specifically the East Asian Christian Community. That may not have been reflected in this post, but I don’t believe every post has to reflect every value I carry.

      Thanks for reading and engaging.

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