My mother is an immigrant from the Philippines. Most of my family immigrated here when I was kid. They were escaping martial law, government corruption, state sponsored violence, and a brutal, capricious dictator. I remember when my grandfather was dying and he asked me to read from “The Conjugal Dictatorship,” a book a friend of his had written.
“You know,” he said, “they had him killed for what he wrote. They threw him out of a plane without a parachute.”
In one of his many jobs my grandfather was a contributing editor and member of the National Press Club. He was a political cartoonist in a time and place where that could get you killed.
I don’t offer these stories to suggest that their history somehow relieves them (and other Asian Americans or POC with similar tragic histories) from the responsibility of expressing solidarity with Black Americans.
And I don’t bring this up because they would be shocked or surprised by this moment. By the time I really knew them, they had long developed a resilience to the vicissitudes of governments. Though I know they would’ve been disappointed, angry, and scared.
My grandparents were amazing. They somehow survived a life that included Japanese concentration camps, witnessing their siblings shot down in a field, and political threats, to make it to America. I loved my grandparents. I named my son after my grandfather.
I bring this up because despite everything they went through, my grandparents were racist.
Their life, which included a horrific series of events where they had been brutally subjugated by forces more powerful than them, had not inoculated them against a colonial mentality and white supremacy.
I remember visiting my grandfather in LA right after the Rodney King riots. I remember him carrying a large knife and using the n-word to describe an imaginary potential assailant who might try to mug him on the way to the grocery store.
I remember riding the bus with my grandmother, and witnessing her pointing with her lips (something Filipinos do) at a group of what looked like Mexican day-laborers.
“Ay nako,” she whispered shaking her head. “Look at them standing there. Mexicans do more talking than working.”
I remember confronting them about these things when I was old enough to know it was fucked up. I remember saying to my grandmother, “Grandma why do you say that? Those are brown people like you! We aren’t better than them.” And she just laughed like we were playing a game of hide and go seek and I had just found her hiding spot. “I know, Mikey,” she said, placating me. “You’re right. It’s okay.”
I didn’t know what the “it” was in “it’s okay.”
White supremacy pits people of color against each other. It’s a kind of magic. It makes it possible for a kid in elementary school to “joke” with me, “Filipinos are the Mexicans of Asia” (I could tell this was an insult by his tone but didn’t know why). And then later watch my Filipino grandmother complete the “joke” with her own punchline, unknowingly providing the context to make me feel like shit.
Asian Americans in particular have a long history of siding against Black people. It’s a thing. Look it up. But if you’re Asian and you don’t know that already, you’re lying to yourself.
We are rewarded by our proximity to whiteness and we are reluctant to surrender whatever it gives us. Even when the “reward” divides us against each other. Even when the reward isn’t real. There’s a reason it’s called The Model Minority Myth. Still, we adopt language and attitudes and behaviors that help to other us from other minority groups, even our own.
I remember how proud my mom was that my brother and I were “mixed.” I didn’t understand until later that the cliché of the “beautiful” mixed child was just another way to align ourselves with whiteness.
I know Asian Americans have suffered in this country. My family has stories right up to…this moment. But our history of abuse, exploitation, and oppression is not the same as Black Americans.
How many Asian parents do you think, feel compelled to coach their children on how to deal with a confrontation with police?
We need to stop protecting our position in the racist stratification of this country. We need to confront our own internalized racism and understand that being a person of color isn’t a get out of racism card. It’s an obligation to fight against it.
That might mean stopping your coworker from murdering a man on the street.
It could mean kneeling in protest with strangers against police brutality.
But for those of us who’ll never be in the first situation and can’t do the second, it means recognizing and confronting the racism you see among your family and friends. And it means reflecting on your own attitudes and choices.
I ask myself:
What kind of world do you want to live in? Who are you helping? How are you helping? Where will you make your stand? When will you decide to act? Why haven’t you started?