Reflections on Oak Creek: Solidarity from Within

This week we com­mem­o­rate the one year anniver­sary of the hate vio­lence that gripped the com­mu­ni­ty of Oak Creek, Wis­con­sin, when a gun­man stormed into the Sikh Tem­ple of Wis­con­sin on the morn­ing of August 5, 2012. Our hearts are with the fam­i­lies and loved ones of Paramjit Kaur, Prakash Singh, Ran­jit Singh, Sat­want Singh Kale­ka, Sita Singh and Suveg Singh who lost their lives in the mas­sacre. As we reflect on this day one year lat­er, it is impor­tant to place the Oak Creek tragedy in a broad­er his­to­ry and con­text of racial and reli­gious injus­tice in our coun­try. To help us under­stand, reflect and move for­ward, SAALT is fea­tur­ing a blog series fea­tur­ing a range of diverse voices.

The views and opin­ions expressed in this blog post do not reflect the posi­tions or opin­ions of SAALT. They should be under­stood sole­ly as the per­son­al opin­ion of the author.

(Orig­i­nal­ly post­ed in Opine Sea­son on August 2, 2013)

“Sim­ply say­ing we need to move beyond the black/white bina­ry (or per­haps, the “black­/non-black” bina­ry) in US racism obfus­cates the racial­iz­ing log­ic of slav­ery, and pre­vents us from see­ing that this bina­ry con­sti­tutes Black­ness as the bot­tom of a col­or hier­ar­chy. How­ev­er, this is not the only bina­ry that fun­da­men­tal­ly con­sti­tutes white suprema­cy. There is also an indigenous/settler bina­ry, where Native geno­cide is cen­tral to the log­ic of white suprema­cy and oth­er non-indige­nous peo­ple of col­or also con­firm a sub­sidiary role. We also face anoth­er Ori­en­tal­ist log­ic that fun­da­men­tal­ly con­sti­tutes Asians, Arabs, and Latino/as as for­eign threats, requir­ing the Unit­ed States be at per­ma­nent war with these peo­ples. In this con­struc­tion, Black and Native peo­ples play sub­sidiary roles. Clear­ly the black/white bina­ry is cen­tral to racial and polit­i­cal thought and prac­tice in the Unit­ed States, and any under­stand­ing of white suprema­cy must take it into con­sid­er­a­tion. How­ev­er, if we look at only this bina­ry, we may mis­read race dynam­ics of white suprema­cy in dif­fer­ent contexts.” 

-Andrea Smith


Bao Phi

Recent­ly, I’ve been see­ing a lot of blog posts and com­ments in dis­cus­sion that work off an assump­tion that Asian Amer­i­cans don’t get crim­i­nal­ized, or that our community’s strug­gles are some­how less­er com­pared to oth­er peo­ple of col­or. In Min­neso­ta, South­east Asians, as well as oth­er peo­ple of col­or and indige­nous peo­ple, are often crim­i­nal­ized — espe­cial­ly Hmong and Cam­bo­di­an peo­ple. The cor­rupt and abu­sive Metro Gang Task Force was full of offi­cers that have a his­to­ry racial­ly pro­fil­ing peo­ple of col­or, includ­ing South­east Asians, and many of those offi­cers have records show­ing exten­sive com­plaints about their anti-Black and anti-Hmong behav­ior, specif­i­cal­ly. South­east Asians across the coun­try strug­gle with pover­ty, are vic­tims of police bru­tal­i­ty, and face unjust depor­ta­tion poli­cies that tear apart their fam­i­lies. We live in an envi­ron­ment of ram­pant Islam­o­pho­bia and state crim­i­nal­iza­tion, impris­on­ment and mur­der of Muslims.

In nam­ing South­east Asians, Arabs, and South Asians, I don’t mean to ren­der invis­i­ble the very real race and class based dis­crim­i­na­tion or invis­i­bil­i­ty that East Asians also endure, nor do I seek to flat­ten or sim­pli­fy the inter­sec­tion­al­i­ty of those of us who are mixed race, queer, and women.

I’m respond­ing to an alarm­ing pat­tern that I see emerg­ing, where some Asian Amer­i­can activists choose to point fin­gers at oth­er mem­bers of the Asian Amer­i­can com­mu­ni­ty and demand that we check our priv­i­lege in a way that is uni­lat­er­al and myopic. Unfor­tu­nate­ly this is a re-emer­gence of an atti­tude I’ve encoun­tered fair­ly often over the years as a com­mu­ni­ty orga­niz­er — that some Asian Amer­i­can activists believe that there is a lin­ear con­tin­u­um of cross-racial hos­til­i­ty and oppres­sion with Asians on one end (assum­ing we have the most priv­i­lege out of all non-white peo­ple) and African Amer­i­cans, Lati­nos, and Native Amer­i­cans on the oth­er, and that your sup­port of com­mu­ni­ties deemed less priv­i­leged becomes a sort of lit­mus test to how right­eous an activist you are.

While Asian Amer­i­cans can and have par­tic­i­pat­ed in white suprema­cy against oth­er peo­ple of col­or and indige­nous peo­ples, it does­n’t mean that they’re suc­cess­ful.  Just because some Arab and South Asians put Amer­i­can flags out­side their homes after 9/11 as a mea­sure to show alliance with Amer­i­ca to pro­tect them­selves *doesn’t mean that it worked.* Just because Asians are taught to strive for an upper mid­dle class Amer­i­can Dream that dis­tances them­selves from their own com­mu­ni­ties as well as oth­er com­mu­ni­ties of col­or over land stolen from indige­nous peo­ple – it doesn’t mean that they’re con­scious­ly par­tic­i­pat­ing in these sys­tems of oppres­sion as much as they are going along with what all of us have been taught how to pur­sue and mea­sure suc­cess, by media and our cul­ture – and it doesn’t mean that the vast major­i­ty of them actu­al­ly suc­ceed. In 2010, Jason Yang had just got­ten a job and was ready to turn his life around – that didn’t save him from being racial­ly pro­filed at the club and get­ting chased off a bridge, to his death, by police.  In 2006, Fong Lee was racial­ly pro­filed while rid­ing his bike with friends and was shot and killed by a white offi­cer who won a Medal of Val­or for the act, in one of the most bru­tal police bru­tal­i­ty cas­es in Twin Cities history.

Assum­ing Asian Amer­i­cans don’t get racial­ly pro­filed isn’t just bad pol­i­tics, it’s inac­cu­rate. While it is nec­es­sary to exam­ine our per­son­al priv­i­lege, we also have to be care­ful that we don’t assume our own per­son­al priv­i­leges and social loca­tions are the same for all Asian Amer­i­cans across the board. It’s been a long time since I, per­son­al­ly, have been crim­i­nal­ized. But that doesn’t mean it doesn’t hap­pen to oth­er Viet­namese peo­ple. In 2003, Cau Thi Bich Tran was shot and killed in her own home by police, with her kids in the adja­cent room, because the cops (who were nev­er charged) thought her veg­etable peel­er was a cleaver.

Strate­gi­cal­ly, if we acknowl­edge that Asian Amer­i­cans often don’t have access to anti-racist frame­works that are rel­e­vant to their own com­mu­ni­ties, it’s more effec­tive to show them exam­ples of peo­ple who look like them who have been racial­ly pro­filed and whose fam­i­lies suf­fered fur­ther dev­as­ta­tion by the fail­ure of the crim­i­nal jus­tice sys­tem – and unfor­tu­nate­ly that list is quite long. Vin­cent Chin, Fong Lee, Daniel Pham, Yoshi Hat­tori, Chon­buri Xiong, Michael Cho, Bal­bir Singh Sod­hi, Waqar Has­san, Kuang Chung Kao, the tragedy at Oak Creek, and the many  oth­er South Asians and Arabs who have suf­fered abuse espe­cial­ly after 9/11.  And his­tor­i­cal­ly, we can look at cas­es where Asians have worked, across eth­nic­i­ty and cross-racial­ly, for our­selves and in sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­er com­mu­ni­ties in var­i­ous his­toric and con­tem­po­rary social jus­tice movements.

I believe work­ing in sol­i­dar­i­ty with oth­er com­mu­ni­ties of col­or requires us to think about how our expe­ri­ences are dif­fer­ent but relat­ed, and ulti­mate­ly inter­twined. Yes, that means that we – all of us, Asian or oth­er­wise – need to exam­ine our priv­i­lege, learn from each other’s his­to­ries and expe­ri­ences, and real­ize that ulti­mate­ly white suprema­cy dehu­man­izes and dis­tances us all, from our own com­mu­ni­ties and from each oth­er. Sol­i­dar­i­ty does­n’t mean we erase our com­mu­ni­ty’s strug­gle, it doesn’t mean we roman­ti­cize oth­er com­mu­ni­ties of color’s oppres­sion because we believe it car­ries more weight than our own.

We all want to be good allies. We all want, so des­per­ate­ly, to do the right thing — above all, to be use­ful. I just want to put forth that being an effec­tive com­mu­ni­ty work­er and a good ally is most effec­tive when we work from with­in our own com­mu­ni­ties – with nuance, with inten­tion, and with love. If we instead give in to our ego, if we instead insist on being the ‘excep­tion­al’ Asian activist and par­tic­i­pate in divide-and-con­quer, where we point fin­gers at our own com­mu­ni­ties from out­side of it and say we wish Asians were more rad­i­cal, why can’t Asians be more down for the cause like us — if we indulge our self-right­eous­ness rather than work from a place of love and nuance — we are not effec­tive, to our own peo­ple or any­one else. Com­mu­ni­ty activism isn’t a com­pe­ti­tion – it is above all an act of love. Peace.

Bao Phi

I would like to thank Parag Khand­har, Giles Li, Sahra Vang Nguyen, Jas­mine Kar Tang, Ter­ry Park, and Leah Lak­sh­mi Piepz­na-Sama­ras­in­ha for their feed­back, advice, edits, and con­ver­sa­tion which led to the revi­sion and pub­lic post­ing of this piece.

Bao Phi is a Viet­namese Amer­i­can Min­nesotan spo­ken word artist, pub­lished poet, com­mu­ni­ty work­er, non­prof­it arts admin­is­tra­tor, part­ner, son, broth­er, and father.