On a warm June evening, two weeks after the death of George Floyd, I stood with the protesters in Jackson Square and listened as Black leaders condemned the deep-seated forces of police brutality, structural racism, and white supremacy that continue to oppress and kill Black Americans. They called on white Americans to listen, acknowledge their privilege, and identify racism within their own biases.
At one point in the night, tensions escalated and protest organizers called out, “White allies to the front.” Everyone in the crowd shuffled either forward or backward. As an Asian American, I wondered, where is my place in this movement? Do I move forward as well? I could count the number of other Asian Americans around me on one hand, all of us standing still.
Asian Americans are heterogeneous. Our families come from many countries, our various religions pray to different gods, and our reactions to racial inequality in America span the spectrum. But I guarantee that, when we are called upon to identify our own racial biases, many of us will recognize recurring elements of anti-Black racism, if not within ourselves then among our families and communities.
I forced myself to watch the video of George Floyd’s last moments. Most viewers will focus on Derek Chauvin, the white police officer who knelt on Floyd’s neck. My attention was on Tou Thao, the Asian American police officer who, for 8 minutes and 46 seconds, stood passively by Chauvin’s side. My face flushed with shame as I watched Thao actively prevent bystanders from intervening, using his own body to clear the way for his white partner to kill a Black man. I forced myself to watch George Floyd’s death because I wanted to confront the ugly reality of Asian American complicity in white supremacy.
Asian Americans have stood on the sidelines and watched as Black Americans are murdered for too long. We exculpate ourselves because we only passively witness racism by others, failing to admit that we are just as responsible as the perpetrators themselves because we do nothing to stop it. Meanwhile we repeat destructive Black stereotypes around our dinner tables, often in our parents’ native languages, passing them down through generations. Even as our friends and neighbors grapple with their white guilt, we have felt no such equivalent Asian guilt.
It is time for Asian Americans to acknowledge our role in perpetuating anti-Black racism.
We not only allow ourselves to be positioned as a wedge group between white and non-white Americans.
We were responsible for the death of 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, who was shot in the head by a Korean convenience store owner over a bottle of orange juice two weeks after the beating of Rodney King. We turned out en masse in 2014 to demonstrate in support of NYPD officer Peter Liang, who fatally shot Akai Gurley in a housing development stairwell.
We continually raise up white supremacy because we benefit from our privileged status within its framework. We have worked hard to rise in a system seemingly designed for white people to succeed and Black people to fail. We will never quite climb to the top of the system, yet we buttress its structure all the same because we are grateful to not be at the bottom.
In believing the best way to assimilate is to whiten our culture, we have chosen to become ‘white-adjacent’. We align ourselves in opposition to other communities of color by contesting affirmative action and claiming reverse discrimination. White Americans point to us as a group that has succeeded because of our cultural values, justifying racist tropes of other minorities and their denial of the role of systemic factors in racial inequality. We not only allow ourselves to be positioned in this way as a wedge group between white and non-white Americans; we have adopted this narrative ourselves and we relish in it.
We have intentionally reinforced the ‘Model Minority’ myth that all Asian Americans are successful, law-abiding, and highly productive because it benefits and protects us. We hide behind faces that look like doctors, scientists, and engineers – faces that don’t appear threatening enough to get us killed.
The stereotype is actually harmful. Asian Americans have the highest income inequality of any racial group in the U.S., with poverty rates in some sub-groups more than double that of the U.S. overall. The false Model Minority label leaves Asian Americans who need additional support out from policy-making decisions and research that would provide them the help they need.
Even as Asian Americans have reinforced white supremacy, we have grown tired of fighting our own battles against discrimination. We too are the butt of racist slurs, jokes, and microaggressions. We are stereotyped as industrious but submissive, barred from leadership positions most often held by white men. Xenophobic associations of Asians and disease historically have led to exclusionary immigration policies and, most recently, to people of Asian descent being threatened, beaten, and stabbed during the COVID-19 pandemic. I wrote recently about an incident in which my colleagues were threatened by a man with a handgun who declared, “If you are Chinese or Japanese, I’m going to kill you.” Since then, I have developed a pervasive fear that I would be targeted for violence or even killed because of my race.
Do we stand in solidarity with our Black neighbors or do we continue to strengthen white supremacy?
Our own experience with racism does not excuse us from supporting justice for Black Americans. In fact, it should make us more empathic allies because the shared root cause of both narratives is the belief that certain lives matter more. Consider the fear we have experienced during COVID-19 and imagine if we carried the weight of that fear not just for a few months, but throughout our lifetimes.
Recall the grief felt by Lily Chin when her son Vincent was beaten to death in 1982 by two white supremacists who blamed Japan for losing their jobs — then imagine the same grief felt by the mothers of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, and Ahmaud Arbery. We all share a dream of equal opportunity to succeed, even as we live in a society that devalues our worth because of our race. A step towards equality for one is a step towards equality for all.
My criticisms are general and do not apply in equal measure to all members of the Asian American community, as diverse as we are. Many Asian Americans have responded in support of Black Lives Matter with editorials, webinars, and Facebook groups. Asian Americans have volunteered to translate Black Lives Matter resources into Mandarin, Vietnamese, and other Asian languages to facilitate the difficult conversations with our parents and grandparents. We have protested in the streets alongside Black, brown and white Americans, some carrying signs proclaiming “Asians 4 Black Lives” or “Yellow Peril supports Black Power.”
Asian America is at a crossroads. Tou Thao’s conduct in the death of George Floyd is emblematic of how Asian America has been harming Black America for decades. Do we stand in solidarity with our Black neighbors or do we continue to strengthen white supremacy?
So, when the protest organizer raised the call for “White allies to the front,” I chose to step forward. Asian America, I hope you will too.
Crystal Zheng, MD, is an infectious diseases physician at the Tulane University School of Medicine. Follow her on Twitter @CrystalZhengMD.
The Opinion section is a community forum. Views expressed are not necessarily those of The Lens or its staff. To propose an idea for a column, contact Engagement Editor Tom Wright at firstname.lastname@example.org.