Black AND Asian (and Jewish?)April 28, 2010
I meant to write this post a long time ago – kept saying that I would – but it just didn’t happen, finally fell on the back-burner. Recently, however, I read another post (here) that addressed this topic, but in a manner that felt – to me – to retain the very same "Us vs. Them" theme that’s gotten us here in the first place. The angle taken, the examples given, some of the comments, etc. allow for a dangerous misunderstanding to continue (not the author’s intention, but nonetheless . . .). So I felt it’s time. Let’s do this.
A while back, I was talking to a friend of mine (a black female, which is relevant) – we’ll call her "W." She’s telling me about this guy she ran into at some store; this Vietnamese guy ("or Chinese or Korean or something") comes over and starts chatting her up, hitting on her, trying to get her number and all that. She’s not feeling it. She gets irritated on a number of levels. But her primary annoyance is that she feels like he’s just messing with her, so she ends up telling him "give me a break, you don’t date black women," and (tamely) telling him about how racist Asian guys are.
She finishes her story, looks at me, and, laughing, says "can you believe that?"
I give a one-word response. "Yes."
But my mind was reeling – because there was so much going on in this one interaction (sort of two interactions, including the re-telling) that just sum up the state of oppression-related affairs in the U.S. First, there’s a (black) woman getting hit on by some random guy, which always carries a tinge of objectification, dominance, etc. In this case, it’s an Asian guy – so we’re bringing together two notoriously "undesirable" race/gender combinations in this country. Then there’s her confusion over the exact ethnicity of this Asian dude. Then there’s her belief (based on real past experience) that he’s not really interested in dating her; that he’s more or less mocking her, because – as an Asian man – he’s probably crazy-racist against black people. And, finally, the beauty of it all – she’s casually relating this story to me, her friend – an Asian (okay, mixed-Asian) male.
And it all made perfect sense to me. Because, you see, I happen to be a sort of connoisseur of the black-Asian interracial experience, and everything that happened in that story follows the confusing, tense narrative of a relationship that has been being shaped for the last couple-hundred (maybe far more) years. It’s a long story – with a lot of loops and twists – but it’s one worth reading, so I hope y’all follow me to the end.
Prologue – "Setting it Straight" (aka "Prepare to Have Your Mind Blown")
We "all know" that there’s this big rivalry between Asian and black folks. The "opposites" of the PoC spectrum, there just is no bridging the divide. I’ve heard it a million times (from both sides).
And so the look of shock on the faces of this one particular group of Asian folks I was with shouldn’t have surprised me when I asked what should have been a stupid question: "You all realize that there are black Asian people, right?"
But, you see – that’s what this post is about. In spite of all the claimed "differences" between the two groups, there are black Asian people. There are Asian black people. There are actually quite a lot of them. When I talk about my mixed background with my students, it never fails to bring a grin to my face (and give me hope) at how many of my "black" students tell me that they have Asian blood, as well. Filipino and black mixes are the most common, but there are so many other mixed-race black/Asian people out there. Because, get this – the communities are entwined.
Problem is, we’ve been conditioned for so long to buy into the whole concept of the division between the two, that we can’t even see it. No matter what I say here, no matter the evidence out in the world, in the end you’re all still going to believe that these communities are not connected because the messaging has been so strong in the other direction. Black folks with Asian blood will just call themselves "black," and nobody ever knows otherwise, because they never think to ask (or even consider the possibility). Asian folks won’t reach out to Asian-blacks because of the same reasons. They blame each other, call each other out, and love to throw stereotypes at each other. Each group desperately clasps to racist notions to make sense of a frustrating world where they’re oppressed by racist notions.
One more situation where the epic construct of racism in this country prevails because of its genius simplicity. So huge. So obvious. We’re in the same boat. Working together would be a giant step in actually solving both of our problems. But the system’s power is in its knowledge of history, and employing the dividing tactic so brilliantly.
But I, for one, am tired of hearing (from both sides) about how different the black and Asian communities are, culturally-speaking. The stereotypes and media-based prejudices fall out differently – yes. But damnit – I lived in Tanzania (in East Africa). I currently live in China (in East Asia). I’ve lived in the SF Bay, California, Michigan, and Portland, Oregon (in central North America). I’ve run with all-Asian groups, all-black groups, all the mixes in between. I’ve mentored African refugees, Asian-American immigrants, and "at-risk" youth of both shades. There’s no epic, insurmountable divide in history and culture – it’s the opposite, actually. So often, I find myself having pieces of black (African and African-American) culture slap me in the face as being so eerily similar to Chinese (and other Asian) cultural practices. So many connections, right in front of our eyes. Yet most people are too damn lazy to see it – because accepting media-inflicted messaging is so much easier.
Because the truth is hard to dig up. It’s hard to see if you’re used to having your eyes closed and opened for you by outside teachers, mentors, newscasters, etc. It takes time. It takes some real thought.
Well – today’s your lucky day – because I’m going to give you a crash-course in history and explain to you the unbreakable ties between black and Asian folks (and others) in the United States of America. Read it, digest it – but don’t just take my word for it. When it’s all said and done, feel free to think for yourself and dig up your own truth, as well.
Part I, "Jews and the Creation of the Buffer Class"
Historically, it begins with the Jewish people and the beginnings of their persecution. A strange way to begin a story about Blacks and Asians, yeah? But stay with me – everything’s connected.
We’re in Europe, around the time of the first Crusades, early 1000s A.D. (*1) Christian scripture has been largely standardized at this point, and Jews are now – almost universally – determined to be a people rejected by God. Leaders of the European nation-states issue decrees and laws that effectively prevent Jews from being fully integrated into Christian community. However, various Christian tenets leave gaps open – jobs that "good" Christians should mostly avoid – and, out of a lack of other options, the Jewish people fill those gaps. They start handling the money – they become merchants, bankers, accountants. Would they like to hold other jobs, make their livelihoods in other ways? Sure. But they can’t – it’s not allowed. And they have families to feed.
So they get good at what they do. They make it work. And now, there are actually Jews who – in spite of oppression against them – are doing quite well for themselves. Other folks look on, and don’t like what they see. "They" shouldn’t have that kind of money. Something fishy must be going on.
Bring on the First Crusade. As the Christians invade the Holy Land, Jews shift over from "tolerated" to becoming "the enemy" (along with Muslims, of course). Suddenly, oppressive laws and decrees change to outright violence. The "huddled masses" of Christian have-nots are spurred on by the haves to take it from the Jews. Massacres. Pogroms. It has all begun.
More options are taken away, job-wise. The only "gap" left is that of "money-lender," and so the Jews take on that role. This is convenient for the ruling classes, of course, because it’s easy to deflect class-rage aimed at themselves (the true perpetrators of this inequality) by having the oppressed target the people who are seen to be directly handing out the money (and asking for it back, as well).
This method of keeping the poor and oppressed from demanding real change by encouraging them to take out frustrations on a "buffer class" works so well, European leaders more or less make it state policy. (*2) Stereotype development as public policy has begun.
Part II, "the Age of Imperialism"
Hop-skip ahead to the so-called "Age of Imperialism" (as if it’s one that ended): the UK (and other countries, but we’re focusing on Britain here) has spread its grip over the world, with colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. As they murder and subjugate the more-pigmented peoples of the world, they butt up against a little problem – the more they devastate and debase the peoples they’ve conquered (and now – enslaved), the more likely it is that those people are going to someday snap and realize that there are just too many of them, and too little British, to let this continue. How to blunt that rage and frustration?
They look to the Jews and their historic use as the Buffer Class. Of course, they’ve effectively kept the Jewish population down through this technique, so there just aren’t enough alive to spread around the world like they need. So they look abroad (to their conquered peoples) and decide to import a new Buffer Class: the East Indians. Brilliant.
Suddenly, all over the British colonies East Indian folks are running little shops, small businesses. In the day-to-day, it’s the East-Indians that subjugated peoples (never mind that the East Indian people are also subjugated) see taking their money. Living a little bit better than themselves. Dots are connected (with the subtle support of the colonizers), so that now – when violence erupts – it’s mostly aimed at the new Indian buffer class, and the colonizers hold onto the spoils for a little longer.
In Africa, especially, it falls out like this: Stereotypes are created. Enforced. Inequality is demonstrated and questioned. Mistrust goes both ways (the Indians don’t trust the Africans because they’ve been attacked by them, the Africans don’t trust the Indians because they appear to be in all snug with the colonizers and are taking African money). All the while, the British are laughing their asses off and crushing both peoples under their heels.
"Independence" is eventually attained, but it’s too late. The damage has been done. To this day, tension and mistrust continues between the Indian "buffer class" and African peoples. In fact, this exact same racial scenario (between those of Asian descent and those of African descent) remains strong on a new continent.
Part III, "A Brave New World"
Okay. So now we’re ready to move over to the Americas – the "New World." The U.S. has gained its "independence," and the British monarchy no longer holds sway. But alas – their influence is most sorely felt.
In their zeal to achieve "Manifest Destiny," the government has murdered too many indigenous Americans. They wanted to use them as their slaves to handle all the manual labor, but there just aren’t enough of them left (can you see a theme developing)? So what are these barbarians to do? Well, they look to the past as their guide and they find a solution – they import their slave labor from elsewhere (in this case, Africa). Great. Plantation life can carry on as planned and "equality and justice for all" can continue for the rich white men who coined that phrase.
Absolute tragedy and mental scarification of an entire race of people ensues. More stereotypes are developed and enforced that carry their weight into the present day.
Eventually, the Civil War erupts, and black slaves become "free."
But that creates a problem – because how is the U.S. going to continue its rapid development without all that free (the only kind of "free" that really matters in a society like ours) labor it was relying on back in the day? And, suddenly, with "freedom," these black Americans suddenly want to have equal rights? Get paid real wages? Be counted as real citizens? Hell no. But how can the top keep ravaging these "free" black folks without some heavy repercussions on down the line?
Once again, the dual-pronged solution is imported from abroad: immigrant labor. In this case, largely Chinese immigrant labor (among other Asian ethnicities as time rolls on). See – immigrants are a great solution because they aren’t citizens. They have no idea what to expect out here. Hell – they don’t even really speak the language. So you can do all sorts of evil sh– to them without them ever having the ability to do something about it – because you can always threaten to send them back, send their family back, randomly imprison them, kill them . . . the sky’s the limit. (*3)
Even better – you’ve now got that buffer class you needed to keep the "free" black folks from fully blaming those who deserve the blame. (*4) Because – don’t misunderstand – black folks are still on the bottom around here. And the best way to keep that going is to deflect their frustrations – so once again, the Buffer Class plays its role. (*5) With just a tiny bit of rhetoric, the ex-enslavers get black folks pissed at the Asian folks living in more or less the same squalid conditions as themselves, so the real oppressors can focus on more important matters – like rolling in money, for example.
Due to various lack of opportunities, Asian folks start getting pushed into certain roles (ala the Jews in Europe). The power-structure encourages Asian-black interracial tensions. Asian folks are slapped around but given a few bones to seem a step "above" black folks so, from the bottom, Asian people seem to be all cozy with "the Man;" while Asian people are encouraged to look down on black people and do all they can to exaggerate their "difference" (so as not to give light to the truth – that we’re all getting f—ed).
Stereotypes are developed. Enforced. Etc.
Part IV, "The Common Era"
And now here we are: here. Now.
Black folks are still a subjugated people in the States. Asian folks are still playing the role of the buffer class/model minority – subtly pushed into filling gaps that those at the top don’t want to be in – hence, all these Asian shopkeepers in predominantly-black neighborhoods. Young black folks are rightfully frustrated and angry about their place in this country. Yet where is that rage going to go? Not to the top, of course – because you’ve got these Asian folks directly taking their money right there in front of them. Do the math. (*6)
On the flip – Asian folks living in these neighborhoods are trained to mistrust the very black folks they are relying on for a livelihood. The messaging isn’t accidental. So you get Asian shopkeepers stereotyping black folks, to the point of murdering them in perceived "self-defense." (*7)
On a less-dramatic level, you have ridiculous tensions between various Asian and Black communities throughout the U.S. You get recent spates of violence in schools. In communities at large. And the media has a field day with it all – because misdirection is the best way to keep oppressed people from doing anything constructive about it.
Because we have this tendency to throw ourselves into this one, taking sides, getting right into the middle of it. Black folks (rightfully) reference the massive color-based racism of many traditional Asian communities. Asian folks (factually) cite instances of black folks targeting Asians. You’ve got the two "least-desirable" romantic partners – Asian males and black females – lamenting their lack of love then each explaining why they "just aren’t interested" in dating the other. It’s too personal. So frustrating. Somebody needs to bear the brunt of this frustration . . .
Oppression Olympics. "We’ve got it worse than you because . . ." "You’re just as racist as white people because . . . " "I’m not racist, just telling it like it is . . ."
Bla, bla, bla – back-and-forth, forth-and-back until both sides just prove each other right and reinforce stereotypes over and over again. So caught up in how this other group of oppressed peoples is so dangerous, so racist, so different. Meanwhile, "They" are laughing their asses off because these groups are so similar that "They" can use the same simple tactics to oppress both of them. Oppressed people are just so easy to manipulate . . .
Part V, "Open Your Eyes"
So I’ll tell you what - y’all need to just back the f— up and get some perspective for a second. Because, by being so caught up in the middle of the storm, we’re missing some huge, glaring points that are just so incredibly obvious when we look at the bigger picture (which is, of course, exactly as the top wants it).
If there’s all this tension between the two communities; if there are all these incidents where they clash – in schools, communities, corner stores, etc. . . . If that’s the case, what’s one very obvious reason that that is possible? Well, because the two communities are entwined. Asian and black folks live in the same neighborhoods. They’re going to the same schools. Which means that – well, they’re actually going to be facing a lot of the same challenges. And these similar challenges are going to create a lot of the same frustrations. These frustrations breed similar pressure, and a similar mis-directed backlash . . . etc.
Historically? Pretty much anywhere there was black slavery, there were soon to be Asian immigrants living within the black communities (and, yes, living as part of those communities). And that has continued to this day.
But that can’t be true, right? Cuz "we all know" that black and Asian people are so completely different. There’s no overlap. Asian people live in the suburbs and black people live in the "inner-city." Right?
Here’s my answer to that:
F— the stereotypes. F— what "we all know." Stop watching tv shows and movies for your understanding of race in the U.S. If Asians are really doing so well on a large level – if they’re all really the well-off "model minorities" that "They" all want us to think they are- why are the majority going to the same underfunded, over-crowded, gerrymandered public schools that all the other brown folks are relegated to? If all Asian-Americans are living the "American Dream" and getting rich at the expense of black folks, why do the majority live and work in the same societally-ignored (and avoided) neighborhoods? There are Asian-American gangs, too. Violence. Poverty. Oppression.
On the flip side – if all black people are criminals and die young, how come there are so many old black people living in real houses, far from prisons? If all black folks are uneducated, what’s with all these historically black colleges and universities I’ve heard about? If they’re all poor, how come I keep hearing about all these black politicians being called "elitists"? And isn’t that "Obama" character a perfect example of a "Model Minority"? There are tons of black folks who are doing just fine. Who have never been involved in violence or any sort of crime. Black kids raised by two parents. Going to good schools. College. Yuppies. Republicans.
You getting me? In both cases, these communities are entwined. Sharing challenges and struggles – and successes.
But, in spite of that, I still have to ask stupid questions like – how can Asian people be all pissed off about false stereotypes and depictions of Asians in the media and then completely buy into stereotypes about black people peddled by the exact same media? How can you read only the articles about black criminals or violence (in relation to Asian folks) and feel satisfied that you actually know anything about what’s really going on? Asian-American organizations completely dismiss or ignore the plight of black folks in this country – and then we get mad that black organizations don’t support us?! Flip all those statements (to regard black folks with Asians), and it’s all the same damn thing. Have we all gone mad?
It’s a crazy, frustrating situation – where there’s so much reason to work together and fight against shared problems, but all this faulty history, all this brainwashing, all this careful manipulation by the dominant classes turns us into self-defeating hypocrites.
And yet . . . and yet . . .
There’s hope. Things can change. It will take a lot of work and a lot of understanding how the system created this infighting for us. But there is hope.
Which brings us all the way back to the story that began it all: "W" and her "Vietnamese" suitor. When you first read it, you probably thought I cited it as an example of the divide between black and Asian. The misunderstandings. The unavoidable conflict. How the two can "never get along." An Asian guy hitting on a black woman, and racism is assumed . . .
But that actually wasn’t it. Because that story was one of hope. It’s an illustration of how the divide just really isn’t that big. Because, in spite of all those assumptions and defenses, etc. revealed in that story, "W" was sharing it with me, her friend – an Asian guy. At the time, her first and only Asian friend. The very same Asian friend that came over and celebrated Thanksgiving with her and her family. Needless to say, I was the first Asian guy to share a special occasion with her family like that. Of course, I was the only non-black person there. And I’ve never felt more welcome.
Because we’re friends. And with friends, you’re able to get over the B.S. weight of stereotypes and other assumptions and go with what the person is actually like. What they actually know, do, etc. You give each other a real chance, instead of letting some self-interested third-party tell you who the other person is.
So all of you – take a step back. Breathe deep. Stop buying into the nonsense and open up your minds the same way you ask others to about you. Black AND Asian. And Jewish, even. We’re all connected. More so than we’ll ever even know.
And that doesn’t mean that individuals – on both sides – aren’t going to have racist notions. It doesn’t mean that communities – acting in concert- aren’t going to further the misunderstandings. What it means is that if you really want to represent, then represent – your own community AND oppressed peoples as a whole – and give yourself and others a big-picture view. It’s going to take work – but it’s far from impossible. Stop being lazy and only touching the surface. Do something real.
Stand up. Head up. Fist up.
Use your free hand to shake hands with the causes across the way,
And then – and only then – can you honestly say:
"I want to get free."
(*1) I use the "A.D." label most intentionally here.
(*2) And be damned-sure that Hitler was taking notes on that one.
(*3) That’s another standard-play that’s been in the Inequality Rulebook for centuries.
(*4) Do I really have to point out that this continues today?
(*5) At this point, you should realize that the "Buffer Class" and "Model Minority" go hand-in-hand.
(*6) It’s an indication of how the media plays into this feedback loop that I don’t need to cite anything here for y’all to know exactly what I’m talking about.
(*7) Latasha Harlins being the most well-known example.
(*8) If you’re wondering at the lack of citations for this article – I keep asking y’all to not be lazy and do the work yourselves (not even just taking my word for it), and giving you citations wouldn’t accomplish that. Because then you’ll just stick to that. So put some work in. Find your own answers (but look on both sides and in between), and then hit me up with your comments, questions and concerns: "choptensils AT gmail DOT com".