By: Kelly Chia, Features Editor; Meera Eragoda, Arts Editor; Nicole Magas, Opinions Editor
2020 has been a difficult year for a number of racialized communities. The pandemic spread of COVID-19, which precipitated violent anti-Asian backlash and which disproportionately affected Black communities, and the murder of George Floyd that sparked a world-wide resurgence of Black Lives Matter protests and activism are the two most recent examples. As racialized groups fight against systemic and individual racism for the right to exist without fear of violence, a recurring conversation on the need for solidarity across race has emerged with a call to stand up for each other’s causes.
In this special Opinions in Dialogue segment, Peak editors Kelly Chia and Meera Eragoda discuss the issue of solidarity and complicity amid systemic oppression, and how the battle against racism can’t be won without supporting one other.
Meera: As an intersectional feminist who belongs to the South Asian community, the recent murders in the US are highlighting both the lack of acknowledgement of racism within Canada and the perpetuation of anti-Black racism from within the Asian community itself. I’m floored by the hypocrisy of some Asians I know who are posting their support for Black Lives Matter, but who I’ve heard perpetuating covert and casual racism, and making comments that are anti-Black and anti-Indigenous. It is a problem that many Asians seem to be depicting racism as a US-only issue while ignoring the rampant prevalence of the same attitudes in Canada — especially toward Black and Indigenous communities. If we expect solidarity from these communities, we need to give it in return. We also need to stop contributing to their oppression.
Kelly: As a Chinese person, I can speak for how my family and I trivialized racism towards Black people. We referred to Black people as 黑鬼, or black ghost. We also correlated Black communities with high criminal activity. While I have since educated myself on my racial biases, many older parents like mine are reluctant to unpack their racism. I think this comes from a place of fear; to doubt these ideas and investigate why they existed would mean we have to be vocal about our politics. This scares my parents — many East Asian households strive to embody a “model minority,” but understand that this status is fragile. The fear of disturbing the “peace” — even if the peace is one that silences other marginalized groups — has encouraged my family to only speak up politically if they feel safe.
The rise of COVID-19 has made the fragility of this mindset and the model minority myth even more apparent. Here in Vancouver, violence and racism against East Asians, including the Chinatown lion statues being defaced and instances of verbal and physical assault on public transit, have sharply increased. For the first time, I’ve felt a small portion of what it’s like to be a Black or Indigenous person in Canada every day. Being a “model minority” doesn’t protect you when systems of powers can attach fearful labels to your race just as easily as they elevate you.
Now that racialized hurt is fresh in my community’s mind, I want to encourage them to stand up for those who face this sort of abuse on a day-to-day basis. We can only understand a fraction of what Black and Indigenous people face, and they are impinged by more institutional barriers than we understand. Speaking up for other minorities against an oppressive system will not harm, but rather help, all of us.
Meera: I think it’s really important that you bring up the model minority myth. Sarah SoonLing-Blackburn explains how the model minority myth depicts Asians as hardworking individuals who have achieved their level of success by following the rules and embodying the “pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps” immigrant striving. The insidiousness of this myth is that it presents us all as a monolith and erases our intra-group experiences. However, ultimately the creation of this myth in the 1950s was meant to divide us from Black communities, and continues to divide us from other racialized communities today. The perpetuation of this myth uses us as a tool against them to point to why they aren’t successful, while permitting willful ignorance of the systemic and explicit racism that’s targeted at them.
Buying into the individualistic narrative of “well, if we can do it, they must be able to do it and if they don’t, it’s because they’re lazy or they’re criminals” erases how these communities have and continue to be violently overpoliced. It erases their history of displacement at the hands of colonial powers and minimizes their experiences both past and present. I think the danger of buying into the model minority myth is that it allows us to believe that we can achieve whitedom.
In addition, the model minority myth evolves depending on who politicians upholding white supremacist beliefs choose to demonize. Not long ago, Sikhs, Muslims, and many other South Asians started to be reclassified as terrorists. In reality, as the vile COVID-19 racism and other racist actions have shown, we will never be accepted into whitedom, and it’s not something we should even want to strive for. We betray ourselves and each other when we side with oppressive forces, and we need to start undoing our internalized white supremacist beliefs.
Kelly: I think you’ve illustrated why it is important to not ignore the institutional barriers Black and Indigenous people grapple with. I want to emphasize why East Asians should not be apathetic to these struggles. To say that speaking up for Black people is the least we can do does not measure it: my parents were able to immigrate to Boston in the ‘70s because Martin L. King helped sign the Immigration Act in 1965 in America. Our rights to build a future away from home were founded on the backs of the Black people who fought for them.
We’re also no strangers to appropriating Black culture for our benefit — I initially adored Crazy Rich Asians because I saw my Singaporean culture reflected in a sensational movie, but Awkwafina’s blaccent (the imitation of Black language or speech) left a poor taste in my mouth. In an article about Awkwafina’s history as a “culture vulture,” Alysia Stevenson notes that Awkwafina’s “blaccent” faded proportional to her fame and success — a very common trend for people adopting then dropping Black culture when it’s no longer beneficial in privileged social circles. There is so much privilege in being able to adopt, to profit from, and to drop Black culture — especially because we don’t experience the institutional barriers that Black people do.
Meera: Lilly Singh’s appropriation of Black culture also comes to mind here with her also doing blaccents. The problem with her profiting off this appropriation and using it to further her success, is that Black people still face prejudice for their accents and culture. In fact, one of the reasons George Zimmerman — the man who gunned down Trayvon Martin in cold blood — may have been acquitted is because one of the Black witnesses faced linguistic discrimination for speaking AAVE (African American Vernacular English). There’s something fundamentally wrong about using someone else’s culture while being complicit in their oppression.
And complicity really is the word. In the George Floyd case, the white cop killed him but the Asian cop looked away and did nothing to stop it. Yes, we as Asian people didn’t construct these white supremacist systems, we’re not the ones who hold power within these systems, and we still face plenty of discrimination within them. But when we call the cops on Black and Indigenous people, we are knowingly or unknowingly putting their lives in danger. As Hasan Minhaj recently said while addressing fellow Asians, “America’s story didn’t start when we got here. When you become an American citizen you don’t just get to own the country’s excellence. You have to own its failures. That is the deal.” Same with Canada. You can’t live here and not care about Indigenous rights and sovereignty, and you can’t not care about police brutality. That’s the deal. We need to be like the Rahul Dubeys, David Chois, and Ruhel Islams of this world.
Kelly: To reiterate your point about complicity, we simply can’t pretend that these aren’t our issues to fight for as non-Black people of colour. Black and Indigenous people shouldn’t have to keep explaining to us why they deserve to live too — it is on us to educate ourselves and the family members who are stubborn in their ways of thinking. I found Letters for Black Lives helpful: it is one of many resources available that explain the Black Lives Matter movement, and has been translated into many languages if you have difficulty communicating with your loved ones.
Over the last week, I’ve seen many of my peers stay silent because they think nothing they do will matter. We have to encourage them to speak out, and to educate them on why these protests have reached the heights that they have. The reaction to Floyd’s death was a catalyst to hundreds of years of violence towards Black people. It is a strong reminder to us here in Canada to be more vocal against the police-instigated murders committed against Indigenous and Black folk that continue to be swept under the rug.
In fact, we inflict the most harm when we are silent in the wake of other minorities being hurt. It allows police brutality to be normalized. We may not be the attackers, but we are still the ones who are silent while the murderers get away, and that really is the harm of complicity. We signal to oppressive systems of power that we will continue to tolerate their violence for fear of being hurt ourselves, and that we have no power to fight back.
But that powerlessness is a lie. Putting pressure on city officials through protest has resulted in the majority of the Minneapolis City Council voicing support to disband the police department in favour of a community-based safety program. Charges for Derek Chauvin and his accomplices have been upgraded. A bill that criminalizes aggravated chokeholds has been passed by the New York Assembly.
Our solidarity has sparked meaningful changes, and we need to continue speaking up and educating ourselves about injustices to our fellow marginalized communities.
For further reading on the history of Black and Asian solidarity from a feminist perspective, check out this reading list.