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Tou Thao and the Myths of Asian American Solidarity
This is Jay, here. We’re going to try something new today and use the flexibility we have with the newsletter. Think of it as a 2008-era morning blog roundup, where there’s a take at the top and a few curated links that we think you, the reader, will find interesting.
Spent much of last night thinking about Tou Thao, the Hmong cop who stood by and watched as Derrick Chauvin crushed George Floyd’s neck with his knee.
Thao is technically “Asian American” and as screenshots of his very Asian face started circulating through social media, there was an outpouring of condemnation from professional “Asian Americans.” It’s mostly stuff like this…
This sentiment has a long history. The typical move would be to trace it back to the Third World Liberation Front in the late sixties and early seventies, when Asian American activists allied themselves with Black and Chicano student organizations at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley. But that’s not exactly right — if you read Gidra (entire archive available! Please read it!) or the early founding documents of TWLF, the sentiment isn’t quite “we must examine how we benefit from White Supremacy and denounce it within our own communities,” but rather a call to understand that Asian-Americans are oppressed “Third World” people and should ally themselves with the other people who suffer under imperialism.
That’s actually quite different from the sort of sentiments expressed above, which have almost become rote at this point. (Their actual start date probably came some time during the summits after the LA Riots, when Asian-American scholars, many of whom had participated in the TWLF actions, began to put a hopeful spin on the question of Black-Korean relations.) The updated, social media version assumes a position of privilege and performatively demands an “examination” or a “calling out” of anti-blackness in “our community” without much explanation of what any of those phrases mean. And while there’s an affirmative command to go out and do something, the tone has always felt defensive, at least to me. The concern isn’t so much to come out and confront anti-blackness “in our community,” but rather to disassociate oneself from the racist in the video. He may look like me, but I am not him. ‘Real Asian-Americans’ reject him. Don’t let any of his racism splash on me.
It shouldn’t surprise anyone that these declarations almost always come from elite-educated, upwardly mobile East Asians and they’re almost always directed at poorer, or, at the very least, less genteel immigrants, whether nail salon workers, beauty shop owners, or, in this case, a Hmong-American policeman. There is almost no overlap between these groups. They might each have representatives at a summit or panel discussion in an academic setting, but Hmongs and other poorer Asian groups really only become “Asian American” when they fuck up and do something racist, or when they unexpectedly do something that falls in line with the sort of elite multiculturalism promoted by the professional “Asian-Americans.” And because these moments only really exist online, the plebes get further reduced down to video stills and images, where any of the context of their lives gets stripped away. They are just a face that kinda looks like my face, which makes them a threat.
You don’t need to be a Hmong scholar to understand the differences between the lives in a refugee community who have spent much of the past fifty years in poverty and the life of an upwardly mobile East Asian whose family came over on a skilled worker or student visa and quickly found a foothold in a town with a good school system. Hmongs and wealthy East Asians do not share a history, except at some point, one of them was oppressing the other. They also do not “benefit from White Supremacy” in the same way. Any category that includes both of them fails, mostly because wealthy East Asians define “Asian American” through their own personalized politics. So, why would the Hmong community have to carry the guilt burdens of wealthy Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants? And why, for God’s sake, do upwardly mobile Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants feel the need to launder their own class guilt through the Hmongs? It’s all nonsense.
None of this excuses Tou Thao. The point, rather, is this: Professional Asian Americans almost never reach out to populations like the Hmongs, except in the most cursory, box-checking ways. There is no “examination of our communities” because we — the wealthy East Asians — never really considered them part of our communities anyway.
Tou Thao should be condemned for being a killer cop who stood by and watched Derrick Chauvin murder George Floyd. But “Asian Americans” should ask themselves this question: When you say, “our” and “we,” who, exactly, are you talking to? And if you put it in a tweet (it’s always in a tweet), who, exactly, are you hoping faves that tweet?
Some Self-Promotion and some stuff we liked reading around the Internet.
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ed note - we expanded this post after publication.