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.”
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.
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.