This piece was written at the time of—and in direct response to—the “Unite the Right” rally and ensuing violence that took place in Charlottesville, Virginia on Saturday, August 12th. Before you read this article, I suggest that you watch this video from Vice News first. It is an eyewitness account of what happened in Charlottesville. While watching this is not easy, I think it is absolutely essential: https://news.vice.com/story/vice-news-tonight-full-episode-charlottesville-race-and-terror
What happened last Saturday was appalling.
I had been told that we live in a post-racial society, but events like this show that we are clearly not. White supremacists and neo-Nazis chanted racially charged slogans (“Jews won’t replace us,” “White lives matter,” etc.) and justified the murder of peaceful protester Heather Hayes.
These events conjure images of Jim Crow-era brutality and “The Birth of a Nation” sort of ideology. When our own president will not condemn hate groups by name, one thing remains crystal clear: racism still exists.
As the events of this past weekend unfolded, my Facebook Timeline was flooded by content centered on Charlottesville. Many people posted emotional statuses, others criticized our president, others wrote lengthy blog posts. Yet amongst all of these discussions, I noticed that most of my Asian American friends either remained silent or were found awkwardly asking a question: What is the Asian American response to Charlottesville?
I’ve personally noticed that a lot of my Asian American friends tend to avoid these type of conversations, but my experience is not just anecdotal. In a survey done of 271 Asian Americans, only 15 of them thought that racism was among the top three pressing issues in our nation today. To begin to understand why Asian Americans tend to keep silent about these issues, an idea called racial triangulation needs to be addressed. Claire Jean Kim, a sociologist, discusses the concept in a paper about Asian Americans’ position in society.
In Kim’s social theory, Asian Americans are generally considered superior to blacks and inferior to whites. However, Asian Americans are also viewed as foreigners or the “other.” Therefore, they perpetually strive to become more “white.” Because Asian Americans are considered more superior, white Americans use the example of Asian success to downplay the black struggle (e.g. “If Asians can do it, why can’t you?”). This leads to a strange position for Asian Americans when controversial events like Charlottesville occur because whether you agree with Kim’s theory, it is still true that the Asian American racial identity is a peculiar one. Not white and certainly not having the same privilege of white people, we still benefit more from the system than black people. For example, when the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 was passed, it gave preference to educated and skilled Asian immigrants which led to a huge influx in the Asian American upper middle class which was not widely seen in other immigrants in America.
It is not always easy to make a stance that could be seen as hypocritical due to the complicated standing Asian Americans have in this country. However, supporting white supremacy, racism, hate, or bigotry of any kind should not and cannot be tolerated by anyone. The horrific actions that took place last weekend are not only devastating to the black community—they affect all of us who call ourselves American.
I know that my experience as an Asian American will never amount to the suffering and the continual racism that still exist as a reality to black Americans. I cannot pretend to understand as deeply as they do. But I know that this system is broken. I know that Charlottesville was wrong and that it will only happen again if nothing is done. I know I need to be vocal and I need to speak out against racism.
I believe that Asian Americans face their own racial issues that are distinct from the issues that Black, Latinx, and other marginalized people face, but despite our varying levels of oppression, we are all still oppressed. When Black, LGBTQ+, and other communities are attacked, we are also indirectly attacked. Taking down an entire societal structure isn’t easy. It will require all of us not to allow the status quo to persist, to realize that the Charlottesville tragedy could have targeted any of us, and to understand that as Asian Americans, we need to care and we need to fight.
For More On Racial Triangulation:
Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans
The Real Reason the US has become Less Racist Towards Asian Americans