“Anti-Blackness in the Asian America” is the second part of Lauren Yanase’s three-part series on identity, Full Half: Lessons for a Biracial Asian American. This piece was originally published to asianamericanwriting.com on 10/05/2020, and was republished in the Portland JACL Monthly Newsletter in November 2020.
In early June, during protests following the atrocious murder of George Floyd, my boomer-age, Japanese American father expressed frustration about certain happenings in the news.
He reiterated his support for the demonstrations generally then paused before saying, “You know, those people are horribly racist to us too”.
‘Those people’ were understood to be Black Americans, while ‘us’ was Asian immigrants and their Asian American children.
When pressed for his reasoning, he replied, “You know, they hate us ‘model minorities.’ They ‘ching-chonged’ me as much as any white kid growing up in the sixties.”
Therein lies the answer to my unasked question: what formative encounter had he experienced to codify such views? How could my progressive, sensitive father believe that the long history of violence of the racism inflicted by white people on Black people is comparable to conflict between BIPOC communities?
Of course, this was not my first or only experience with casual anti-Black sentiment in my Asian American family and community.
As a Japanese American, family is everything–and nothing is more important than the sacred act of being together. My father’s extended family, numbering over fifty people, has come together for each holiday, big or small, for the past half-century. The most significant loss during the Coronavirus pandemic has been the inability to celebrate together; to break bread together; to simply be together.
Like many American families, ideologies within my dad’s family range from deeply conservative to extremely liberal, and everything in between. And, like many families, there are strong opinions and emotions that vary wildly on race issues in America. It was counter-intuitive to me that anyone who had been discriminated against on the basis of race could be Anti-Black. How could those who lived through one of the worst violations of Asian American human and civil rights (the Japanese American internment camps) believe the worst of a group whose existence is a continued testament to their push for acceptance in a nation they built?
Ironically, there are deep, old roots of Anti-Black sentiment in my dad’s non-white family that lead to an attitude remarkably similar to the unforgiving racism carried by my mom’s white, old-genteel-Southern family.
Like most American families, my father and I come from a legacy of immigrants. His grandparents came from Japan, in the late 19th century. Their American Dream story was penciled in from the beginning as a testament to their tenacity, in a new home that was actively hostile against them: the early history of Asian immigrants on the West Coast is notably marked by the construction of the Transcontinental Railroad and the subsequent Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.
Because of their radical pilgrimage and establishment, my father’s late grandparents are revered legends in my family, their American legacy weighs on our shoulders decades after their passing. An underappreciated fact of my family’s patriarch and matriarch was their unswayable, documentable anti-Black ideology in a time where they too were the targets of gross racial discrimination.
My father grew up hearing his grandparents using English and Japanese slurs against Black people and their perceived offenses against our family. His father, my late grandfather, a state prosecutor, was convinced of the intellectual inferiority of Black people.
Anti-Blackness is embedded in my Japanese family’s roots, immigration story, and consequently our political identity. The racial obstacle my family faces now is acknowledging and confronting the anti-Black sentiment that has persisted for over a century in our heritage and our identity.
When mentioned to my family, I hear the uncomfortable “they were a product of their time,” explanations, and more. Their intent is clear: don’t dishonor your great-grandparents’ memory by asking about their shortcomings.
It can be hard, then, to feel empowered to confront my family members’ views, since setting aside individuality for the sake of deference to elders is doctrinal.
About a month prior to the killing of George Floyd, PBS released a fabulous five-hour film series, “Asian Americans” on the history of Asian Americans since the first migrants. Particularly galling to me was a historian’s tongue-in-cheek summation of the plight of non-European immigrants and migrants: “each immigrant group is striving to be as far from ‘Black’ as possible.” In a gross generalization of the immigrant experience, this quip reveals the fundamental foundation behind assimilation culture: the systemic, institutionalized racism Black people face in America is so pervasive around the world, non-Black immigrants and Americans must distance themself as far from Blackness as possible.
As a non-Black person, qualifying Blackness is impossible and inappropriate, so I will not attempt to try. I will say, however, that the non-Black perception of Blackness is often derived from stereotypes and pop culture. The tropes we consume from those media inform the unwritten non-Black POC handbook on achieving acceptance and admittance to white America.
And so is the paradox of Blackness for non-Black POC; we must shun and distance ourselves from the most egregiously ‘Black’ behaviors up until the point they are co-opted by white American pop culture.
With the quiet time quarantine has afforded me, I realized that there is nothing more reverential to my family’s legacy than using the voice given to me.
The lived history of Asian Americans is radical: existing, struggling, learning to thrive in a space that has tried to exclude them from the beginning. In that way, Asian America is more similar than it is different from Black America. As a 21st century Asian American, I stand on the shoulders of Black abolitionists, suffragettes, civil rights leaders, and advocates. The object now is to demonstrate these fundamental affinities in our communities and broaden a coalition of support for Black empowerment.
I am not the first nor the last of my background to opine on and decry the apparent disconnect of my community to the plight of Black people in America, and the bastardization of ‘Blackness’. From outrage over skin-lightening creams to collaboration in the Civil Rights movement there is a through-line in history, however narrow, of Asian Americans as allies to Black lives. Unfortunately, as a whole, Asian Americans have not tied our empowerment to a synchronous Black liberation.
As poor white southerners were intentionally turned against their Black peers in the Reconstruction Period and beyond, Asian Americans have tried to distinguish themselves as far from Blackness as possible. It must be my intention as a fourth-generation Asian American to promote breaking down the systemic walls that isolate minority groups from one another. We must be willing to risk the discomfort and offense of our Asian American families and be advocates because it is incumbent on the partnership of Black and Asian Americans to secure equality and dignity for both.
Lauren Yanase is a first-year student with a passion for strong coffee and environmental education. When not playing in the woods, Lauren enjoys studying the interplay between history and storytelling through a multi-medium platform. Her award-winning documentary, Shikata Ga Nai: An Inconvenient American, has been shown at cultural and historical events, awareness seminars, and in classrooms across the West Coast.