During the 1992 LA Riots, I made two compromises. I didn’t report racist comments of a black journalist about Asian Americans and I didn’t pursue translations of South Korean headlines because my contact at a Los Angeles-based Korean news agency told me it would only make things worse. While events related to George Floyd overshadowed the last week of May as Asian Pacific Islander American Heritage Month, Floyd’s tragic death gave the world another example of why we need to go beyond a binary and often black-centric view of racism.
George Floyd’s Death
In the George Floyd incident on 25 May 2020, two of the officers were white. The one whose knee was on the 46-year-old Floyd’s neck, 44-year-old Derek Chauvin, and the officer, Thomas K. Lane, 37, who held down Floyd’s legs are white. Keung, whose race/ethnicity is not clear, held down Floyd’s torso. Both Kueng and Lane were relatively new to the force. They both got licensed in August 2019. The incident happened during their first week on the force. Tou Thao had returned to the police force in 2012 after being laid off for two years. Thao held back the crowd.
Lane and Keung made the initial arrest. Chauvin and Thao were in the third police car that arrived. Chauvin joined the police force in 2001 and was the senior officer of the four involved.
As the NPR article, “For One Immigrant Community, George Floyd’s Death Isn’t Just About Black And White,” notes, because of Thao, this isn’t just a binary black-white issue. The article identified Thao was being Hmong and notes that about 64,000 Hmong live in the Twin Cities (Minneapolis and St. Paul). The article explains that the Hmong aren’t part of the Model Minority Myth because according to a study by Asian Americans Advancing Justice, Hmong Americans rank lowest among Southeast Asian American ethnic groups with 60% of them low income and more than 1 of 4 living in poverty. Hmong Americans are not white; they do not have privilege. The Hmong, like many Asian American, are fearful of COVID-19 related anti-Asian incidents. The Hmong community is described as divided on their support of the officer Thao and Black Lives Matter. The question raised is: Can one be pro-Hmong and pro-black?
Poet and activist Ed Bok Lee told NPR the tensions “harks back to the discussions that took place during the Rodney King riots in the early 1990s.” Lee explained, “If you are Asian American and you are anti-black, it’s probably because you see black people through a white hegemonic lens of racism, colonial-style racism.” There’s a need to reflect on “a lot of personal and historical trauma of racism and colonialism.”
Yet the article doesn’t acknowledge something else. The prejudice of African Americans toward Asian Americans. There is most certainly anti-blackness in the Asian American community, but there is also anti-yellowness in the African American community. Further, Los Angeles isn’t Minneapolis. The rich and complex history of ethnic and racial turmoil in Los Angeles is often interpreted through an East Coast and often Anglo-centric lens.
Los Angeles County is 49 percent white, 11 percent African American and 10 percent Asian. With the numbers between African Americans and Asian Americans that close we should be getting close to the same attention. After watching the reactions of Hulu, Amazon Prime Video and Netflix to Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, I can tell you it isn’t even close. Coverage of Black Heritage Month versus Asian Pacific American Month is markedly different. Black Americans have more clout and while nationally, African Americans account for about 13 percent of the US population (and Asian Americans about 6 percent). Compare how much representation and effort is put into Black Heritage Month compared to National Hispanic Heritage Month even though Latinos/Hispanics make up 18 percent of the national population. Look how fast Netflix, Amazon Prime and Hulu reacted to the renewed attention to Black Lives Matter compared to the anti-Asian sentiment directed to Asian Americans, even with Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.
Hulu is based in Santa Monica, CA. Netflix is based in Los Gatos, California. Amazon Prime Video is based in Seattle, Washington. All three are not based on the East Coast.
Discussions about race aren’t helped by a distortion of history. Public schools tend to teach an Anglo-centric view of US history. The beginning of slavery in America is marked by the arrival of African slaves in Jamestown in 1619. As one professor, Michael Guasco of Davidson College, points out, “People of African descent have been ‘here’ longer than the English colonies.” As Mark Summer, a public historian at Jamestown Rediscovery.notes, “There is both an Anglo-centrism and East Coast bias to much of traditional American history.” The enslavement of Native Americans began before 1619.
Slavery in California is tied to colonial Mexico, which means not only slavery of Africans brought over to this continent, but also the slavery of Native Americans. According to the author of “The Other Slavery: The Uncovered Story of Indian Enslavement in America,” UC Davis professor Andres Resendez, even after slavery of Native Americans was outlawed, mechanisms and institutions were put in place to essentially enslave Native Americans in other ways (e.g. the Hacienda System and vagrancy laws). When the of Native Americans slavery ended, it was not tied to the Emancipation Proclamation or Juneteenth.
Black-ish Version of History
Programs like “Black-ish” are supposedly based in Los Angeles, but still favor an East Coast bias and Anglo-centric version of history. The 1829 Guerrero decree made slavery illegal in Mexico (Vincente Guerrero Saldaña was Afromestizo and only president of Mexico from 1 April 1829 to 17 December 1829). Juneteenth commemorates a Union general, Gordon Granger, reading federal orders in Galveston, Texas on 19 June 1865 and proclaiming all slaves in Texas were freed. When talking about slavery and Juneteenth on “Black-ish,” there’s no mention of how California and Texas differed. Both states were originally part of Mexico, but after the Mexican-American war when they became states, California did not re-legalize black slavery (but slavery of Native Americans continued), but Texas reinstated it.
California’s brush with black slavery pre-Civil War has some whimsy to it. In 1849, a black man won his freedom because slavery was illegal in a Mexican California while in 1851 a fugitive slave named Frank was freed and his own truthful testimony that he was a slave was thrown out because just a year before a law had been passed making the testimony of non-whites inadmissible. A lapsed fugitive slave law resulted in the freedom for another slave.
In “Mixed-ish,” the action can’t take place in California because in the first episode the narrator, Rainbow Johnson, states that during the 1980s, there were few mixed marriages because the Supreme Court decision of Loving v. Virginia only came in 1967. In California, Perez v. Sharp was decided in 1948 and was the first judgment of a court in the 20th Century in any state to strike down an anti-miscegenation law in the United States based on the 14th Amendment. Andrea D. Perez, a Latina woman who was classified as white, wanted to marry the African American Sylvester S. Davis, Jr. Both were based in Los Angeles (working for the defense industry). In the Loving decision, Chief Justice Warren cited Perez.
That doesn’t mean there weren’t mixed marriages before Perez v. Sharp because we know that Asians, African Americans and Native Americans mixed. There is a reason for the term mestizo. And we know the Asian Indians sometimes chose to identify as black (Watch the PBS series “Asian Americans,” Episode 1, “Breaking Ground“).
As Lee suggests, I’m going to get personal. While that makes this essay purely anecdotal, but I don’t believe my experiences are unique and African Americans need to recognized and take ownership of their own problems with racism.
Asian Americans know they aren’t considered US residents or citizens first because, they get asked, “Where are you from?” The questioner isn’t likely going to be satisfied with the name of your hometown or home state. I get this question from white people AND black people. I have patiently listened to white people and black people tell me how it is a good thing that I decided to learn English.
I have been refused service by white people or been asked to wait to that some white person can be helped first, but I have also been refused service by black people. A middle-aged white woman once came to my aid by quietly standing at the counter and, when asked politely by the two black men, how they could help her, she told them to sell me a ticket and waited until I got it. There are white saviors and they should be thanked.
Watching Spike Lee’s “Da 5 Bloods,” reminded me that Asian Americans as well as Asians were subjected to anti-Asian hate and prejudice. The US has been involved in the Pacific war against Japan (World War II), Korean War and the Vietnam War as well as a war against Communism (and now a war against COVID-19). I’m cautious around vets of all colors and Navy people in general. I grew up in a Navy town and people who weren’t even born before or during World War II, still “remember Pearl Harbor” in a very anti-Asian way. So I’ve been called names and faced hostility.
One never knows where one will meet anti-Asian hate. Once in Orange County, I was accosted by a bitterly angry Vietnam vet while waiting for a bus. Orange County has a sizable Vietnamese population, the largest and oldest Little Saigon is located in Westchester and Garden Grove. Remember, some of the Vietnamese were American allies during the war which would seem to make that hate even less rational.
Now I’ll get even more personal and this gets PG-13. As a single woman dating, men like to diss Asian American men–particularly East Asian American men, in terms of penis size. That’s right. Some white men are assured that their penis will be bigger and that makes them more virile than South and East Asian American men. Some black men also buy into this stereotype that they have the biggest and thus the best penises in the world. It’s like the Goldilocks conundrum–too hot, too cold and just right. In terms of intelligence and penis size, the stereotype is East Asian men are too small and yet their are too cerebral; black men are too big and more beastly and yet white men are the moderate road in between the two. Thus, white men aren’t the only men who neuter or emasculate Asian and Asian American men. Black men do as well. Black men and white men eagerly sent me penis pictures insisting they could be my sexual savior.
If a black man or woman espouses the sexual superiority or hyper sexualized image of the African American, then they are also adopting the racist stereotype of more animal than human. Of course, most people don’t talk about penises in polite company.
That’s not to say, sexual stereotyping hasn’t been studied. “Sexual stereotyping of black males in interracial sex” is a study in black and white (May 1979) and “The Myth of Black Sexual Superiority Re-Examination (1978). J. Philippe Rushton made quite a media splash in the late 1980s (with his 1989 paper “Evolutionary Biology and Heritable Traits (With Reference to Oriental-White-Black Difference)” and 1990s (with the publication of the 1995 book “Race, Evolution, and Behavior: A Life History Perspective”). In 2016, the New York Times wanted to explain, “Why Pop Culture Just Can’t Deal with Black Male Sexuality.” Yet the question really should be: Why can’t US pop culture deal with East Asian American male sexuality? Black males are portrayed as virile. East Asian males are more often desexualized and white men aren’t the only people to blame.
On the other side of the battle of the sexes, there are black men looking for their geisha and I’m sure there were black service men who used the objectifying acronym LBFM. Some of the people who responded to my personal ad were definitely looking for that and when turned down, told me that they probably sodomized my mother for a dollar.
If you feel that covert racism in white people evidences itself in micro aggressions and subjective and supposedly objective decisions, then covert racism in black people toward East Asian Americans must as well.
One recent and very high profile emasculation was in “Black Panther.” Aside from the animated feature, “Big Hero 6,” the Marvel-verse hasn’t been kind of Asian Americans. “Iron Fist” was basically white man does everything better. “Doctor Strange” was a better version of that and provided an Asian sidekick. In “Black Panther,” for no logical reason, the hero goes to South Korea where a non-super hero white guy fights against the bad guys in a high-class high-rolling secret South Korean casino but all the Korean men run. Even if one forgives that illogical lack of high security, the script wants one to believe that despite the mandatory military service under the very real threat of a communist mad man, not a single Korean man was willing to fight. One of the other lessons of the Los Angeles Riots of 1992 was that South Korean men have guns and know how to use them. Rooftop Korean men with guns is a meme for a reason. If the filmmakers knew they were going to South Korea, why not include a kick-ass South Korean character? Think of the cool hip-hop connection and martial arts possibilities.
“Big Hero Six” includes a white guy and a black guy although the focus is on an East Asian American boy and his robot. “Into the Spider-verse” also has an ethnic East Asian with a robot, but she is both infantilized and marginalized. She not as powerful or interesting as the white girl, white guy or even the pig. Is this really a triumph in diversity? And I am that petite East Asian woman why knows how to project strength and courage. In these cells, she looks like she need to pee.
When we think of Chris Rock responding to #OscarsSoWhite with a joke at the expense of East Asians, shouldn’t we ask if what they really mean is Oscars aren’t black enough? Or another way of looking at it is, East Asians are expendable, something that seems to also be a problem with Spike Lee’s movie.
While white people do provide cringe-worthy moments in regards to cultural appropriation and black people sometimes apply questionable judgment on that, African Americans are a more powerful group than Asian Americans and African Americans have been misappropriating from East Asia as well. White people have white samurai and black people have black samurai. There’s no denying that there was a white samurai and a black samurai, but let’s look at representation. Is there balance? East Asian American actors will tell you the answer is no.
The dialogue about race needs to be open and honest and go beyond the binary to address racism on all sides. If you want justice for your group, then you’ve got to want justice for mine as well. If you believe that white silence means white consent, then you’ve also got to believe that black silence means black consent. And, under the current COVID-19 rise of anti-Asian incidents, you’d be hard pressed to tell me that I or any East Asian ethnic person is an honorary white person.
Edit (27 June 2020) In this ABC News article, Keung is identified as African American.