About those "letters to my Asian parents about anti-black racism"

Hello, TTSG heads: 

Andy here, trying my hand at this thing by exploring a topic of potential interest for listeners.

There’s been an endless stream of commentary on US racism and policing in the weeks since George Floyd’s murder in late May. One phenomenon that may have escaped the public’s notice, but which “very online” Asian diaspora have likely seen, is a genre of writing by younger Asian-Americans raising awareness over anti-black racism within their own families, often in the form of a “letter to my parents” about Asian anti-blackness. A friend alerted me to this exchange on ChineseAmerican.org (I had never heard of this site), in which Harvard and Yale English majors confront their parents’ generation’s racism, sparring with a first-generation Chinese-American engineer. A broader survey can be found in this Teen Vogue piece (a Korean and a South-Asian variant here; and here, in fact, is a handbook for AAPIs to talk about anti-black racism with their family). 

I opened these pieces with a bit of skepticism, but I admit feeling moved by the authors’ sincerity. Forms of anti-black racism in East Asian communities are impossible to deny. Many US-raised Chinese diaspora likely share with me the experience of traveling to Taiwan, Hong Kong, Shanghai, or Singapore as a woke young adult and seeing on the drugstore shelves or in the guest bathroom a tube of Darlie toothpaste (formerly “Darkie”), with its ode to blackface-era iconography. 

[cut to a mid-2000s Taiwanese apartment]

“My family brushes their teeth with ‘DARKIE toothpaste’? What the fuck?!” 

You confront your parents over it. They respond, exasperated from years of arguing over this shit:

“Okay, whatever, my [air quotes] liberal American child. Look, there was a good deal at Watson’s, okay? You don’t have to look at it while you’re brushing. Here, just brush your teeth without looking at it.”

(is this, er, “anecdote” revealing too much?)

It is in a spirit of empathy and solidarity with these letter writers, then, that I offer the following reservations. Really, I am not singling out any particular author but using these letters as a point of departure to write out a few thoughts about Asian-Americans and racism that I have been turning over in my mind for a few months now (especially in the second half of this post). Mostly, I’m interested in the possibility of thinking about racism more historically and internationally.

First, if we set aside the particular content of these letters, ranging from the Chinese to Filipino/a to South Asian experience, they broadly share a general formal shape, that of millennial and younger diaspora telling their elders how to act like good white US liberals (embodied most by this Hasan Minhaj bit Jay sent Tammy and me). Many offer a rewriting of history that places Asian diaspora in the role of white Americans who profited off of the suffering of enslaved Africans and segregated US society. This reflects, I think, the way many politicized Asian-Americans struggle to locate their place within a US-centric black-white paradigm, wherein they must fit themselves into either the role of the oppressed “people of color” or the role of the privileged white oppressor. Sometimes Asians choose option A, sometimes option B, but the end-result is usually something very confused. One consequence is that this does not open up a broader discussion about racism from multiple perspectives but instead encourages the assimilation of Asian diaspora (and Latino/a and Muslim, etc.) views into the norms and values of white liberals, namely, guilt and privilege-talk.

To be clear, I do not think there is any question that Asian immigrants from my parents’ generation benefited from their structural position within the contours of white-black racial segregation -- hence talk of the pernicious “model minority” myth. Yet they also came here as full adults, bringing with them their own baggage from life in third-world countries undergoing decolonization, capitalist modernization, and political repression, if not outright mass killings. 

As an academic, I would say that these disparate paths need to be connected and compared to one another, taken seriously on their own terms. It is bizarre to me that almost every letter includes some preamble declaring that “black Americans have faced more racism than Asians have,” as if this is an actual question (does anyone doubt this) or, more importantly, a productive way to frame things. For instance, when talking about exploited Chinese workers in the US, why try to “rank” their oppressions alongside black labor, as if on an ESPN talk show, dividing them rather than looking for shared interests? I suppose this is the Asian-American equivalent to the oft-heard statement that “because I am white, I can never understand what it is like to be black, etc….” The end result, though, is a paralyzing interpassivity, wherein it is signaled to Asian immigrants that they should participate but that their role is not to talk about their own life experiences but listen silently to stories of white-black racism in the US.

Speaking not as an academic but as an individual, though, I’ve come to realize that the worldview of my parents is too complicated for the morality tales of American civic education, and I've stopped picking petty fights with them (won’t brush with Darlie toothpaste, though). This isn’t to pose as an apologist or radical cultural relativist. It is to recognize that their own ideas about racial difference were shaped by experiences wholly distinct from my own or those of my white American friends, the intended audience of most anti-racism literature. That chasm is something whose consequences I would like to think through, instead of moralizing away.

Again, to clarify: it can be true both that Asian-Americans are complicit in black racism, compelling action, but also that this genre of writing is adopting an assimilationist frame. 

To give a counter-example: last week, I played out a scenario in my head wherein a Chinese-American Ivy League student sends their older relatives the letters from ChineseAmerican.org. Her uncle eagerly opens this email from his favorite niece: the one at Yale, of course. Reading the letters, he experiences a revelation. Feeling guilty over Asian anti-blackness and outraged by the murder of George Floyd, he participates in his first ever BLM rally. He even makes a sign in large Arial font and brings it to the protest:

杀人偿命 斩立决

A LIFE FOR A LIFE

IMMEDIATE DECAPITATION

His niece is horrified. Of course, calling for “immediate decapitation” might make sense within the uncle’s blunt, old-world code of morality (the PRC is the world leader in capital punishment, after all). But it is certainly not the type of response from a liberal, wealthy, human rights-enforcing society that the “letters to my family” are designed to address and produce. I mean, it's so uncouth. So it is worth asking again, what exactly is the response these letters are aiming for? and who exactly is the intended audience? I can’t be the only one who finds it ironic that these letters about anti-racism appear wrapped up in a kind of America-first ethnocentrism, can I?

My second reservation is less about what these letters actually say than about what they leave unsaid.

I’ve read a handful of these pieces now. Each time, I try to discern how the authors themselves would, if asked directly, explain and account for anti-black racism by Asian-Americans. Most do not try at all -- which is curious. The tenor of these pieces is that Asians must acknowledge their complicity in anti-black racism, even if they are not white. Wouldn’t the next logical step be explaining, “well, why are Asians racist, even if they are not white?”

I think there is a general fear that by actually probing into the content and logic of racism, one is giving an evil ideology too much oxygen; our job is to reject and condemn it. More broadly, I think many assume that racism is just some toxic substance in the air that we have to manage and live with, like pollution. Some writers will link racism in the US with anecdotal observations that in, say, the Philippines or Colombia or South Korea or India, dark skin is demonized and light skin is prized, even marketed. Once in a while, an author will say that racism today is an expression of age-old prejudice, as documented in the writings of the ancients. The implication is that racism is an all-encompassing force that transcends geography and period. It is basically natural. It’s in “our DNA.” That is the message, at least for many authors, embodied in newly-ascendant phrases such as “white supremacy” and “anti-blackness,” presumed to be continuous for centuries if not millennia. 

This leads me to a brief digression into an older academic debate over the history of racism that, from my view, boils down to the question of whether racism is foundational to the creation of the modern world, or vice versa. Emblematic of one position is Cedric Robinson’s Black Marxism (1983), which gave us the now-popular phrase “racial capitalism.” In short, Robinson argued that racism dated back to the ancient Greeks and Romans, and it both preceded and helped to create the modern world of capitalism. The conclusion you often hear is that capitalism, therefore, is inherently racist. This is the default mode, I think, that informs much activist writing today (and, for instance, the NYT’s “1619” project last year).

Now, it is undeniable that there has always been something in human society that could be described as a reflexive xenophobia or tribalism, something found in all ancient societies, not just Greeks and Romans but also the Han. But is that the same thing as modern-day racism? 

Personally, I am more persuaded by the converse view, that modern racial ideology was generated under specific historical circumstances. One of the best examples in this tradition is Barbara Field’s essay on slavery and racial ideology (1990). In brief, Fields took the basic formula we are taught in school -- that “because white settlers in the 17th century were evil racists, therefore they enslaved Africans” -- and turned it upside down. Instead, it was “because white settlers enslaved Africans that they then eventually came up with racial ideology in the 19th century.” The process had a lot to do with capitalism’s peculiar way of combining formal equality (the marketplace) with the practical inequality of labor and capital. In resolving the contradictions of American liberal ideals, the subordination of an enslaved African labor force had to be represented as natural, rooted in biology (the passive voice is intentional). That is: in pre-capitalist societies, people were unequal, but that inequality was overtly given in the form of family, church, master-serf relations, and so on; but in capitalist society, our inequality is covert, and this has given rise to all sorts of mystifications. Among them, the biological idea of race.

Fields took pains to strip away abstractions she found anachronistic and unhelpful, such as “white supremacy.” Such phenomena do exist, of course, but they are not the starting premise of history; they are the result of practical everyday activities and relations between people. The goal of slavery was “not to produce white supremacy,” she wrote, but “to produce cotton or sugar or rice or tobacco.” In this line of thought, racism is certainly real, not a mental illusion. But to understand and account for it requires probing into the underlying social conditions of its possibility, namely, the paradox of slave labor in a free labor world. From there, it has been repeatedly recreated with each new generation.

The hypothesis that racism emerges out of specific social tensions should make a great deal of sense to Asian-Americans. One of the clearest demonstrations was this past spring, when the sudden panic over Covid-19 produced an upsurge of racist behavior towards people of East Asian appearance around the world. Many processed this as another instance of white supremacy pre-programmed to hate Asians for simply being “the other.” I thought something more specific was taking place. It confirmed to me that Asians have been racialized in modern history during moments of tremendous tension between capital and labor, an argument made forcefully by Iyko Day, among others.

For instance, if you examine materials from the period, the US Congress justified the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act by explicitly endorsing the concerns of white labor against Chinese workers as co-conspirators with white capitalists. Similarly, the Covid-19 response was about more than a fear of disease or otherness (though it was certainly that, too) but also a hysteria over “Chi-na” and Chinese capitalism eating the west alive (an April GOP memo made the link crystal clear). In this sense, anti-Asian and anti-black racism share in common the quality of emerging from contradictions in modern society, even if they are also animated by different racial stereotypes, owing to distinct structural positions within capitalism (the closest analogy for anti-Asian racism might be modern anti-Semitism). 

Of course, this is just a short gloss on a huge body of literature. But I hope it is apparent why I find the historically-minded approach to understanding racism more useful than one that sees it as natural, continuous, and autonomous.

First is the question of political possibility. If we take for granted the ubiquity and natural-ness of racism, “white supremacy,” and “anti-blackness,” then it becomes very difficult to visualize their historical origins and, by extension, their future limits. It can be paralyzing. Even basic, pedantic changes in how we describe racial ideology can help us imagine the possibility, however theoretical, of overcoming it. Rather than naming “racism” and “white supremacy” as the protagonist of our stories and the subjects of our sentences (“white supremacy has caused billions of deaths”), what about specifying concrete groups who carry out acts of white supremacy? Rather than framing racism as a free-floating explanation for human behavior, why not name it as the thing to be explained? Otherwise, when commentators take racism for granted as an autonomous force divorced from economics and society, they attribute to it a kind of scientific certainty and life of its own that mirror the ideology of race itself (n.b.: my friend Merlin recently wrote about the dangers of reifying race in discussions over Covid-19).

Secondly, this historicized view addresses my initial fear above, viz., that assimilating Asian perspectives into a black-white framework is too narrow. By situating racism within a broader constellation of social and economic tensions, we give ourselves some internationalist concepts (for, political economy is universal) to bridge the experiences of black and Asian-Americans -- and also of Latino/a, Muslim, Jewish, indigenous people, etc. Emphasizing the modernity of racial ideology, for instance, makes a great deal of sense when you learn about the hardening of racial categories in fin-de-siècle Asia. Rather than diluting the significance of the black experience, it could strengthen it by connecting it to patterns of violence and exploitation faced by others around the world. 

There is, in fact, a long history of Asian writers over the past few centuries who made direct links between themselves and the racism faced by enslaved and violently segregated black Americans. Afro-Asian solidarity was much stronger in the 1960s, for instance, than today. In recent years, these connections seem to have dissipated with the rise of right-wing nationalist groups, including Asian-American ones, whose m.o. is to pit the struggles of different peoples and groups against one another. It would be a shame if “liberal” [air quotes] Asian-Americans, in performing the norms of US political discourse, follow them down the same path.


LINKS:

PLEASE SUBSCRIBE TO TTSG! It’s free and the best way to support us. Click here.

JAY talks Asian allyship in the age of BLM protests on NPR’s “Weekend Edition.”

A Korean adoptee wins a paternity lawsuit in Korea, by CHOE SANG-HUN

ROSEMARIE HO, a member of Lausan (see TTSG episode 4), writes about loving and leaving a nation of “affect” in The Point.

North Korea uses the BLM movement to shame the Americans.

BRIAN HIOE on BLM protests in Taipei (check out New Bloom for the best English-language coverage of Taiwan politics).

Better late than never: TOBITA CHOW, writing in The Nation on the anniversary of the Tiananmen Square Incident (6.4), describes the forgotten labor dimensions of the 1989 protests and the consequences for both Chinese and, by extension, the international working class.

Finally, another quick reminder: on Thursday June 18, a group of scholars of China will be running a web seminar on how to carve out leftist positions at a time of heightened US-China tensions.

RSVP here if interested:

https://www.eventbrite.com/e/left-perspectives-on-the-world-and-china-part-one-tickets-109214433310