Blackness is the Fulcrum continues to be, by far, the most read post on Race Files. Many of the conversations I’ve had about it begin with the assumption that Asian Americans are less likely or even unlikely to step up on issues of racial justice. The suggestion is that I’m an exception to a rule that generally applies to Asian Americans who, a few imply, get off easy where race is concerned.
I think this deserves a response.
I didn’t mean to imply that Asian Americans are opting out of fighting racism. Neither did I mean to present myself as exceptional in my concern about racism.
I’m no exception. The reality is that many Asian Americans are leaders in the movement to win racial equity in the U.S. My firm, ChangeLab (website on its way), recently conducted interviews with 80+ Asian American activists to get their takes on race and racial justice. Those interviewed are active on criminal justice reform, civil rights, environmental justice, health care, labor organizing, and humane immigration policy, among other issues.
Many of those interviewed work in communities that are made up of people of color from across the American spectrum. I am humbled by their commitment to the cause. And they are just a small sample.
The interviews generally indicate that there’s a problem with racism in Asian America. Many spoke to the prevalence of anti-Black racism in some Asian ethnic communities. But, my hunch is that interviews with any group would have revealed racist attitudes. The reality is, there is a problem with racism in America and it affects everyone.
One of the particular challenges facing Asian American racial justice advocates is the lack of educational tools and strategies designed to reflect the many specific and diverse ways in which Asian ethnic minorities understand racism in the U.S. and the world. For instance, many Asian Americans came to the U.S. as war refugees. In order to address racism among these groups, we must understand and respond to their experiences with foreign armies, including the U.S. military.
Equally important is the history of European and/or American colonialism of India, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, and other parts of Asia. Many have been subjected to white supremacy. Many have also been infiltrated by right wing evangelical television and radio ministries.
A lot of Asian immigrants watched American T.V. in their countries of origin. Those countries often include few if any African Americans or Latinos. How would any of us feel about Blacks and Latinos if our main source of information was U.S. television?
My current work involves calling Asian Americans to action not because I believe we’re less active or more determinedly racist. I’m reaching out to Asian Americans because I believe it’s my responsibility do my part where I can be most effective.
I was politicized on race as a teenager in a rural sugar plantation community. The plantation was based on a racial caste system, the legacy of which was still obvious even in the 1970s. There were neighborhoods known as Filipino Camp or Japanese Camp. I remember only one white kid in my high school class. The few white families still living near the plantation usually opted for private school, considering our public schools dead ends, leading only to low-wage labor.
Like most of my peers, I cleaved strongly, even militantly to my family and community. When I finally left Hawaii for the U.S. mainland, I was shocked by the overt racism I experienced. Outside the embrace of my community, I was exposed to harassment, intimidation, even a couple of incidents of violence during the years of the U.S.-Japan auto wars.
In my 20s I made my way into college for a year and that changed my life. In college, I met people of privilege. Some of them used that privilege to help me create a professional career in human rights. The happy accident of college, something I never planned for, led to a life I could not have imagined as a boy.
As my life in human rights progressed, I found myself working on what many perceive to be “Black” issues – countering vigilante white supremacist groups, fighting the drug war, and advocating for criminal justice reform, even teaching at a school for activists in Appalachia and the Deep South.
But I didn’t do this work because there was no basis for action on racism in the Asian American community. I did this work because I considered it strategic to ending racism for all of us. I did this work because I believed, as I wrote, that anti-Black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.