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ASIAN ALLIES: The Activism We Need Today

Waist up portrait of successful Asian businesswoman posing confidently standing with arms crossed by glass wall in office, empowered woman with reflection, copy space

6 MINUTE READ

Why the Asian American battle against racism cannot be compartmentalized.

“It looked like a sieve,” he says. Over Vietnamese sandwiches and chilled yellow boxes of Chrysanthemum tea, my mentor describes what he witnessed in the late 60s about a shootout that killed a vehicle-full of Black Panthers across the street. It was a stark reminder that the Civil Rights movement was still recent, as one of my own Asian American mentors, in flesh and blood, tells the story as if it just happened the day before.

In between briefing sessions of my early community organizing days in Los Angeles, preparing to be a public speaker and volunteer coordinator, I realized that the Asian American battle against racism cannot be compartmentalized from the fight to end racism against African Americans. Even though I had not identified as a Third Culture Kid (TCK) yet, my understanding of racism was from global experiences:

  • As a child, when not in an international school, I was picked last in physical education by classmates in Marion, Ind., U.S.A. because I was “imported.”
  • As a teen, I felt conscious of my body, as post-colonial Filipino culture assigns more value and beauty to lighter gradients of skin color.
  • Before I graduated from high school, my family experienced housing discrimination from a property owner in Germany.

Aside from my student involvement in a nationally covered peaceful demonstration in support of GLBT professors of color denied for a tenure track, my experience as a community organizer in the Los Angeles Asian American community was what flung open the gates of my social consciousness to include racism in the United States (U.S.).

Asian/Pacific Americans share a history of race-based discrimination, including the abuse of Chinese labor during the building of the transcontinental railroad, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other Asian exclusion policies, the Japanese American internment camps that held 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent.

Asian/Pacific Americans share a history of race-based discrimination, including the abuse of Chinese labor during the building of the transcontinental railroad, the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 and other Asian exclusion policies, the Japanese American internment camps that held 120,000 individuals of Japanese descent, two-thirds of whom were U.S. citizens. Asians were also included in anti-miscegenation laws in various states outlawed on the federal level only in 1967 and due to the legal case of a mixed-race black and white couple.

There is also a history of Asian Americans being lynched. In the 1871 Chinese Massacre in Los Angeles, Calif., U.S.A., 17 Chinese men were lynched and hung by a mob of 500 within a span of 18 hours. The late Dawn Mabalon, historian, scholar and community leader, shed ground-breaking light into the lynchings of Filipinos Jim Crow style in “Little Manila is in the Heart.,” including one in 1930, north of Stockton, Calif. The 1930 Watsonville Riots, involved almost a week-long hunt of Filipino farmworkers by a Caucasian mob numbering in the hundreds.

While Asian American history involves horrendous acts of violent racism, it only demonstrates the need for more unity and solidarity with the very people groups who have experienced worse racism on a historical and macro level, as well as micro, individual level.

While Asian American history involves horrendous acts of violent racism, it only demonstrates the need for more unity and solidarity with the very people groups who have experienced worse racism on a historical and macro level, as well as micro, individual level.

The long-term discrimination against Black people in the U.S., as well as atrocities against Native Americans, created the acceptable behavior for how to treat other non-white groups that came later: various population groups of Asian Pacific Americans, Middle Eastern Americans and other ethnic groups seen as a threat to supporters of white supremacy.

To combat racism against just one racial or ethnic group without confronting the earlier history of racism against African Americans and — though smaller in population and less mentioned in publicized incidences –Native Americans, would be akin to wiping some frosting off the corner of one’s mouth, while an entire cake is covering the rest of the face.

The bad Asian American would be the critic who’s allying with the African Americans

“This idea that Asian Americans could become so successful without any government intervention or government help is used to delegitimize the real claims of discrimination by African Americans, but also to create a wedge between these two groups,” historian Erika Lee explains in the Public Broadcasting Service (PBS) special “Asian Americans” (part two). “The bad Asian American would be the critic who’s allying with the African Americans.”

Earlier activists and community organizers seemed to understand the need for solidarity and unity much more than we do now. When the elderly Asian American residents of the International-Hotel (I-Hotel), the last remaining vestige of Manilatown, were being evicted with an armed violent confrontation in 1977 so San Francisco could make way for what is now the Financial District, members of the Black Panther Party reportedly stood alongside the residents to confront the armed evictions.

Two asian women with grey hair smiling at the camera
Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs at the Serve the People: Asian American Community Activism Conference at UCLA, May 15-16, 1998. This was the day after they spoke on a panel organized by Scott Kurashige, their only joint public appearance in their 70 years of activism. Photo © by Emily P. Lawsin. left to right, Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs, Photo credit: Emily P. Lawsin

Yuri Kochiyama (1921-2014), who was pictured cradling Malcolm X’s head after his assassination, spent her entire adulthood as an activist for social justice and human rights and was known for building alliances with black leaders and movements. A survivor of a Japanese American incarceration camp with her family, Kochiyama later lived in Harlem, where she became immersed in the words of Black speakers, writers and activists and in black history.

After she became friends with Malcolm X in 1963, Kochiyama’s politics shifted towards Black liberation and joined Black nationalist organization, the Republic of New Africa.

According to Brown University, Kochiyama’s work is extensive, incorporating labor and human rights causes outside the U.S. and exhibited a constant stance of solidarity in ending racism. NPR cites the bond between Kochiyama and X inspired a one-act play called Yuri and Malcolm X, by playwright Tim Toyama. Another lifelong activist for social justice who worked in solidarity with Black movements was Grace Lee Boggs (1915-2015).

While born to Chinese immigrant parents, Boggs became a noted figure in Detroit’s Black Power movement alongside the rights of workers, women and people of color. An author and philosopher, part of Boggs’ legacy was a mindfulness among activists. She co-authored “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century (2012),” along with Scott Kurashige and actor Danny Glover.

She definitely recognized that the rebellions breaking out across the U.S. today — and really around the world — just as they were in the 60s, were driven by a righteous outrage at the failures of the system to provide for the needs of the people.

She also understood that revolutions don’t come from anger, they come from love. And they just don’t replace the people in power, they create a whole new system.

We have such a rich history of solidarity work that can provide lessons for the current times of race relations. I have come to understand what it means to be brown or black in the United States. One thing I have learned the most is this: The solidarities we need to create and sustain, they all start with that first handshake or hello and a sharing of our stories that we sometimes discount as unnecessary.

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