(Published July 16, 2016)
In light of the terrible things that happened last week — shootings of black men in Baton Rouge and St. Paul, a sniper attack on police officers in Dallas — a group of Asian American activists penned and circulated an extraordinary letter that can be read anywhere, by anyone, as an open Google document.
The letter is titled: “Dear Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie: Black Lives Matter to Us, Too.” Intended for older-generation Asian Americans and Asian immigrants, it explains in 500 words why the Black Lives Matter movement is important to all people of color, not just black people.
The Google document was created by writer Christine Xu, who had seen first-hand how the killing of an unarmed black man by NYPD cop Peter Liang pitted the Asian American community against other minority activists who protested Liang’s light sentence (community service and five years probation, but no jail time). “Asian Americans who support BLM, we need to get ahead of our community organizing another pro-Liang rally,” Xu tweeted after footage of the deaths of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile surfaced online. “Talk to your families today.”
The letter raises some uncomfortable truths for Asian Americans; I felt a weird sense of guilt reading it, as if someone were dragging things I’d never been able to admit to myself out into the light for all to see. “In fighting for their own rights, black activists have led the movement for opportunities not just for themselves, but for us as well,” it reads. “Black people have been beaten, jailed, even killed fighting for many of the rights that Asian Americans enjoy today.”
Asian Americans are in a strange position. We’re minorities, but treatment of minorities in this country is not even across the board. We’ve been called “the model minority,” and reductive and belittling and stupid as the term is, it affords us certain privileges. My parents never had to teach me to fear cops. I never had to put up with harassment and discrimination out of fear of getting tazed, beaten or shot. In New York, I’ve never been the recipient of a stop-n-frisk.
But that’s not to say we haven’t suffered discrimination. The internment camps are a reminder of that. The lynch mobs that killed 20 Chinese immigrants on the night of Oct. 24, 1871 in this very city are a reminder of that. We’ve suffered, and we continue to suffer, which is why this open letter is so important.
It’s been translated into 14 mother tongues: Chinese and Japanese, Urdu and Tamil, Farsi, Hindi and Korean, among others. The letter voices addresses some of the views I’ve heard expressed far too often in the Asian American community. “When a policeman shoots a black person,” it reads, “you might think it’s the victim’s fault because you see so many images of them in the media as thugs and criminals. After all, you might say, we managed to come to America with nothing and build good lives for ourselves despite discrimination, so why can’t they?”
At an overwhelmingly Asian and Asian American high school, this was a common refrain — especially when it came to the issue of affirmative action. There was this widely held belief that Asian students had to work harder than black students to get into the same schools. If Asians had to earn their right to attend a good university, blacks were simply handed it. This is not true.
Black students are discriminated against from the get-go — sometimes as early as kindergarten. Racism in primary school is no thing of the past, and far too often black students are held to different — lower — expectations than their peers. They’re frequently profiled as troublemakers, “problem children.” I know this because I saw it, and I still remember it.
The letter explains that Asians and Asian Americans are subjected to a different type of profiling than blacks. “It’s true that we face discrimination for being Asian in this country,” it reads. “Sometimes people are rude to us about our accents, or withhold promotions because they don’t think of us as ‘leadership material.’ Some of us are told we’re terrorists. But for the most part, nobody thinks ‘dangerous criminal’ when we are walking down the street. The police do not gun down our children and parents for simply existing.”
The truth is that different minority groups in America are subjected to different stereotypes, and while no one stereotype is necessarily worse than another, certain stereotypes are more likely to provoke violence. Certain stereotypes have deadlier baggage attached. And when I watched the footage of Castile bleeding to death with his girlfriend beside him and young daughter in the backseat, I was reminded — again — of how of how cruelly, wantonly, this country treats its people when they are not white.
Read the letter by clicking here. Show it to your family members, friends, whoever. Stand up against systematic racism; 70 years ago, JAs learned that it can take away your livelihood, your property and years of your life when no one else is willing to contest it.
Matthew Ormseth writes from New York. He can be contacted at [email protected] Opinions expressed in this column are not necessarily those of The Rafu Shimpo.