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. 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.
WHEN ARE BLACK AND ASIAN AMERICAN PEOPLE GOING TO TALK TO EACH OTHER?
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.
WHEN DID ASIAN AMERICANS BECAME THE NEW HOUSE SLAVE?
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.
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.
LETS SHOW UP FOR EACH OTHER
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?