Racism can exist without white people. As an Asian American, I know that all too well

My experiences growing up in a small town in Maine then attending a well-regarded university taught me that racism is more complicated than how we sometimes assume it to be

Jean Lee
New York
Wednesday 05 August 2020 13:18 BST
(AFP via Getty)

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Louise Thomas

Louise Thomas


I spent adolescence in a sleepy Maine town where my Korean parents worked blue-collar jobs and experienced everything from microaggressions to assault. White classmates and teachers regularly commented on my race, asides which became as customary as the forest thick with evergreens and the fresh pine air. Teenage girls wagged their fingers in my face at the mere mention of race, and teenage boys parked in my parents’ driveway, sending me unwanted texts. It was a challenge to find friendship without judgment, and it took me until adulthood to learn that attraction could exist without the other person’s shame.

For a while, racism in my day-to-day life directly centered on white people and their gaze. Even though my mother and I talked about anti-Blackness in Korean communities, it wasn’t something that came into daily conversation until I moved to New York City as an adult, often spending time in groups without white people. As the child of immigrants, it was vital groundwork to understand that my parents, even when they experienced hardship, made a home in a country built on the lasting injustice of slavery and the genocide of Indigenous people. While only 13 percent of the US population is Black, Mapping Police Violence reports that 24 percent of people killed by police are Black. This kind of violence is not something my family or I fear.

Now, discussion of anti-racism has become more widespread. Protesters have taken to the streets in the wake of the killings of George Floyd, Tony McDade, Atatiana Jefferson, Ahmaud Arbery, and Breonna Taylor, among many Black lives taken by police throughout history. White people seem to have flooded Instagram and twitter feeds with suggestions for allyship training and books on white fragility. While these steps toward self-education are worthwhile, they tend to publicly center the white gaze. Even in anti-racism training, white perception, bias, and experience is the focal point.

But racism, like most things, exists without white people.

In late June, Wing on Wo & Co., a 95-year-old porcelain ware store and community space in Chinatown, hosted an online workshop. The Facebook invitation stated that it was "for self-identified Asian Americans (who don't identify as Black) to work through and confront anti-Blackness in self and community." The organizers, Huiying B. Chan and Vivian Mac, partnered to combine their expertise, storytelling and herbalism, and to offer ways to facilitate the internal work and discussion necessary for political solidarity. The organizers said that between 150 and 200 people attended the event.

"My core values of community care were woven throughout my whole journey studying herbs," said Mac. "So even though it may seem like a weird stretch — like what does it have to do with anti-Blackness? — I wanted to present it this way, so people are not only exposed to the difficulties and discomfort of looking at one's own anti-Blackness, but so they also have a nourishing and wholesome way to support that process."

Mac talked about her process of learning about racial oppression as an east Asian person. She remembered being six or seven years old and looking in a mirror, wanting blonde hair and blue eyes.

"Years later, I had the language to recognize this as internalized oppression," she said of her childhood experience. "And also how Asian Americans are encouraged to align with whiteness."

Jane Kim, a Korean American educator who was born and raised in Queens, wrote a guide for Asian Americans on dismantling anti-Blackness. She said that re-learning history to focus on marginalized people exposes the problematic nature of assimilation and how "the model minority myth" is used to pit people in the Asian diaspora against Black, Indigenous, and Latinx communities.

"Often when our communities are being pitted against each other, we really need to be conscious of the whole history because what we were taught is very whitewashed and sanitized," said Kim. "We have to dig a lot deeper."

Kim explained that while a lot of the attention now is on reading about white fragility, an important subject, that learning about Black history, reading Black authors, and consuming art by Black creators is necessary to do the lifelong work of dismantling anti-Blackness. She said many people don't discuss or learn solidarity in their day-to-day lives.

"I think, just geographically and physically speaking, there have been a lot of things set up so that we don't even have opportunities to meet people in other communities of color," said Kim, referring to structural factors and Asian American enclaves in New York City.

As someone who has been a part of predominantly white institutions for most of my adult life — higher education, publishing houses, and literary spaces — many of my friends are Black and Indigenous people of color who found each other among a cacophony of white voices. Understanding my own privilege in these relationships has been a crucial journey I am slowly working through alone or with friends of shared heritage.

A couple of days ago, I messaged Nache, my closest friend from college, about the only room our alma mater dedicated to students of color: an area above the dining hall called "Common Ground." Despite the limited community space for BIPOC students, the room attracted negative attention from white classmates who expressed their discomfort with its existence. Nache is Black, and I am Asian American, we are both from the working class, and neither of us frequented the space.

As a self-described “well-adjusted person”, I have few regrets, but one is neglecting to find communities of color during college. A predominantly white liberal arts school, with its massive Tudor houses and roundtable classes, enchanted me. My immigrant parents and I were thrilled when I opened my acceptance letter, the now-anachronistic fat envelope, and saw that my tuition was almost fully covered. But I spent four years in a state of emotional malaise, unable to pinpoint why I always felt out of place and misunderstood. Unlike the blatant bigotry of my small town, the racism in college was subtle. In my own time I read Audre Lorde, Malcolm X, and Grace Lee Boggs, but publicly tried and failed to assimilate for four years.

"For many of us, we all felt like we had just been dealing with disguising ourselves in a white world," Nache said about a postgraduate friend group. "And most only felt truly at home and accepted and comfortable when they were suddenly thrust into a space surrounded by others having the same experience. It’s crazy because I think going to Common Ground would have been amazing, but I might not have been on the same path that I’m on now so it’s bittersweet.”

Malvika, another former student, talked to me about her relationship with her partner. She is the child of Indian immigrants, and he is the child of Ghanian immigrants.

"We talk a lot about how relieved we are," she said. "How comforting it is to not have to explain yourself to whiteness."

She said that when something happens — a microaggression or an unfortunate comment — she doesn't have to reframe the event so a white person without similar experiences can understand. Similarly, moments of joy or references to family and personal experience don't have to be reframed.

“Two people of color tend to have the shared experience of noticing how the world responds to them,” said Jewel Love, a psychotherapist in Oakland, California, who focuses on interracial partnerships.

While there are moments of learning and discomfort in Malvika’s partnership, like in any relationship, the pressure to rework narratives is not a part of the process. "I like having the groundwork to not have to explain or convince," she said. "No community is going to be of pure comfort or discomfort. You get to comfort by having uncomfortable situations. But I don't have to sign up for every discomfort."

Being in community with other people of color, and confronting one's own racism as a person of color, complicates the discussion of race. So often, the experience of racism is simplified so that someone without the experience can understand. But this takes away from the full truth and history of many experiences.

The term "Asian American" is a political one, coined by Berkeley students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, who, influenced by the Black Power Movement and the protests against the Vietnam War, created the Asian American Political Alliance to connect students of the Asian diaspora. But the “Asian American” experience is not monolithic. Neither is a Black person’s experience, or an Indigenous person’s experience, or a Latinx person’s experience.

Movement toward lasting change cannot happen until we complicate discussions on race and privilege. And this often excludes white perception and experience.

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