By Stacy Nguyen
Northwest Asian Weekly
In the past couple of months, we’ve encountered a number of first generation Asian/Pacific Islander (API) folks—mainly immigrants and refugees—who expressed feeling that they don’t know enough about the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement.
In response, we reached out to local Black activists in the Seattle area and asked them a few common questions related to BLM. The Q&A is below.
But first, a quick history on Black Lives Matter
BLM was started in 2013 by friends Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, who are also Black organizers (two of whom are queer). The three came up with and used the #BlackLivesMatter slogan (or messaging) to spark political conversation and a social movement against police brutality after Trayvon Martin’s killer, George Zimmerman, was acquitted.
Today, the BLM movement spans across many different countries and cultures worldwide. Its current prominence in the news and in our API community is in response to the killing of George Floyd by Minneapolis police officers on May 25.
Q&A with local Black activists
Tensions between Black folks and APIs have existed for decades. It is common for APIs to believe, repeat, and act on negative stereotypes that we have about Black people. This includes buying into beauty standards that whiter skin color is more attractive and superior as well as heavily stigmatizing (and sometimes forbidding and shunning) Black-Asian interracial relationships.
Just as APIs wish not to be stereotyped and discriminated against because of the coronavirus pandemic, Black folks want APIs to not perpetuate stereotypes and discriminate against them.
NWAW: Anti-Blackness is something that gets brought up in the Asian community a lot—as in “Asians benefit from and contribute to anti-Blackness.” Can you talk about what anti-Blackness means to you?
Miriam Zmiewski-Angelova: Honestly, I find anti-Blackness to be jarring and ironic but not necessarily surprising when it comes from other people of color. I find it particularly heartbreaking when it is done to mixed-race children from their non-Black communities. It is not something you have control over, nor is it something you should feel any level of shame about. And yet, the message is, due to some part of your family lineage or the way you look, you [are] undeserving of basic respect.
(Miriam [she/her] is an early learning coach with the City of Seattle – Department of Education and Early Learning, a mother, and is African American, Choctaw, Cherokee, Sauk/Fox, and Ashkenaz.
E.N. West: [Another] example of anti-Blackness that is frequently perpetuated by non-Black people of color is the desire for their children to not date or even befriend Black people. Usually at the root of this desire is not some issue specific to the individual person, but negative stereotypes and biases that have been leveled against the Black community as a whole, with little to no basis in reality.
(E [they/them] is Surge Reproductive Justice’s communications and community engagement manager. They’re originally from the Washington, D.C. metropolitan area.)
NWAW: Why do you think anti-Blackness exists as strongly as it does in the API community?
Jackie Vaughn: White supremacy has really created a strong stratification here in the U.S. that puts API folks right beneath white people as that buffer between other folks of color and Black people. White supremacy has invested heavily in the model minority stereotype and in making API folks feel as close to white as possible without the privileges of being white, so they can create that buffer between white people and Black people.
(Jackie [she/her] is Surge Reproductive Justice’s Executive Director. Surge’s work includes affecting law and policy change, education and outreach, advocacy and community organizing, and other vehicles for change around reproductive justice.)
Chris Rhodes: We have been pitted against each other (along with other POC communities) by the systems of government in place throughout the past 50 to 60 years. For a long time [before that], the Black and API community actually worked in harmony with each other. For example, the CD (Central District) started out with both groups living, working, and learning together. Then around the time, Reagan hit office—and possibly a bit before—the idea of creating division became more of the status quo. The best way to keep a group or groups of people suppressed is to divide them.
(Chris [he/him] is director of development at RVC, a capacity-building nonprofit based in the International District.)
NWAW: In regard to your own personal identity, do you feel misunderstood sometimes by API folks?
Chris: I don’t feel misunderstood, personally. I just believe sometimes the plight or end desire of our community is misunderstood. The way it is depicted most times is that we want special treatment. That could not be further from the truth. We are just in search of being able to live and navigate this life on our own merit. We want to not fear going out, or to not fear our child driving to the store, or to not have people cross the street, or not to be referred to as one of the “good ones” because we are not a criminal. We want to be seen as just like any other group of people with some good, bad, and everything in between.
NWAW: Many API folks in our community are unclear about the Black Lives Matter movement. Some have expressed they don’t understand why one racial group is “singling” themselves out when all POCs contend with racism. Can you talk a little bit about this?
Leanne Rye Brock: Black people were brought here as property … [This messaging] continued through Jim Crow and still to this day. Our babies, mothers, and men are dying at a disproportionate rate, and it needs attention. This is not about who has struggled the most. This is about eradicating the beliefs that are interwoven into the fabric of this country so that all lives matter. This does not discount the pain and injustice done to [other] POC; we need to stand in solidarity with one another.
(Leanne [she/her] is completing her PhD in educational studies with a concentration in decolonizing systems and historical trauma. She is a mother, and is African American and Choctaw.)
NWAW: How do you feel when you experience anti-Blackness from an API?
Mattie Mooney: It feels really horrible experiencing racism from non-Black people of color. Many Black people, myself included, have experienced much blatant racism from the Asian community, sometimes more than we have from the white community, which always throws me for a loop. I seriously dated an amazing Vietnamese guy who I actually planned to marry, [and] his mother refused to meet me and told him that if he brought me home, she would kill herself. I also recall going into a gas station and being blatantly refused service by an Asian clerk while a store full of white customers continued to be served (thankfully a few of them walked out with me after witnessing this ordeal.). Point is that racism hurts mind, body, and soul—to experience anti-Blackness from people who are also marginalized feels like a double blow.
(Mattie [they/them] is a healthcare access manager at Ingersoll Gender Center as well as co-founder of Philanthropy Collective Trans Women of Color Solidarity Network. They currently organize around the movement for Black lives centering the voices of the most marginalized within the Black community. Their stepparents are Asian, their partner is Asian, and their child is Hapa and part Asian.)
NWAW: Many API business owners are upset about the looting that went on in the International District during protests. We’ve heard these POC business owners say that while they understand the looting was done by opportunists and they know that lives matter more than buildings, they still feel somewhat overlooked and unheard. Can you respond to this?
Marlon Brown: Looting is never necessary when advocating for social justice. Black Lives Matter Seattle King County does not condone looting. We have learned that civil disobedience, protesting in the streets, sit-ins, traffic disruptions are tools to bring attention to our issues. … It’s also important to point out the difference between looting and surviving. Oftentimes we see Black people on the news being accused of looting, when really what they’re doing is surviving. We saw this after Katrina, and Haiti. But we also saw it after the tsunami in Japan, and the media didn’t cast Japanese people as looters. It cast them as creative and survivors. … You can’t fault people for their righteous acts when they’ve spent decades just trying to survive. That’s what you’re really seeing, is human desperation.
(Marlon [he/him] is a Black Lives Matter Seattle King County Chapter board member and also partner at Racial Equity Consultants.)
NWAW: When APIs hear the words “defund the police,” they worry that it means their families and their businesses won’t be protected from criminal activity, so that might be why they resist this call. Can you talk about what defunding the police looks like and will accomplish for all POCs—in your opinion?
Marlon: In Seattle, we are calling for a cut of 50% to the SPD budget. That might seem drastic or ill-informed, but the truth is SPD has a bloated budget in personnel because it has too many jobs that require you to have a badge and a gun. If you want to be a data analyst in SPD, you have to be a cop. That’s actually rare, and there are dozens of jobs like that in SPD. In other departments, locally and nationally, those are civilian jobs, and those are jobs that feed the families of API folks, Black folks, and other immigrants and people of color. We [often] focus on how much money it costs to educate a single child, or incarcerate a single person; [but] how much does it cost to equip a single officer, beyond their pay? It’s a waste of money that doesn’t make your community or my community any safer.
Mattie: [Currently] 82% of [SPD’s] $409 million [budget] goes to pay salaries, overtime, and benefits for officers who, in the City of Seattle, are the most overpaid cops in the country. … Right now, we know that increased community policing does not work, especially not for Black communities or communities of color who are often unfairly targeted by officers. Historically we also know that communities like the International District as well as Capitol Hill and the Central District have created their own safety patrols that were effective at controlling crime. … Studies have shown that increased access to housing, healthcare, education, and social services decrease crime. Meanwhile all of these same services have been increasingly defunded and underfunded for the past 30-plus years by our federal and local governments. By decreasing the police budget by 50% and investing in community-based organizations, healthcare, housing, and social services, we will be able to start to address issues within our communities including crime with solutions that actually work.
Miriam: We should not expect police officers to know how to respond in every situation. There is a lot of funding in city budgets for policing and only a fraction for mental health, homelessness prevention, education, substance abuse prevention, [and more]. This was the issue with the tragic, completely unnecessary, and preventable death of Charleena Lyles by officers. She needed someone who was a trained mental health professional and instead she was met with armed officers unqualified to serve her needs. We should redistribute funding to these other important social services so that the experts in these fields will have adequate pay, resources, and staffing to properly support these various community needs.
NWAW: Combating racism and anti-Blackness requires all POCs to work together and support one another. Can you talk about a way in which you’d like for APIs to show up for Black folks, besides protesting?
Leanne: First address and unpack any biases you may have. Learn about the great contributions that have been made by the community; rewrite the narrative that has been created and sit among us. Understand the toxicity of discrimination causes harm not only to me, but to the children and grandchildren that I will leave behind. Many people left their home country as a result of the same issues, let’s not tether ourselves to such toxicity.
Marlon: I ask APIs to interrogate those negative narratives and ask, “Who did and do those stories serve? Who did and do they harm? What role did and do I play in that harm? What am I willing to do beyond protesting to heal our bond and connections with Black communities?” Dismantling anti-Blackness means writing and upholding new narratives about Black people through all generations.
E: On an interpersonal level, I encourage API folks to call in/out people in your life who perpetuate anti-Blackness. This may include people who are more difficult to have these conversations with, including [those] who may not see anything wrong with their anti-Black comments and/or sentiments. But it is imperative that these folks—who are often leaders in the family and community—are challenged. If their minds shift, that can lead to shifts that may have impacts on a larger level.
Miriam: If you hear someone make a racist joke or statement, refuse to associate with someone because they are Black, talk to them. Get a better understanding of where their bias comes from. Share resources with them that you feel will help them gain more knowledge and perspective about the harm in their words and behaviors. Use your understanding of cultural norms for your community to encourage people to not hide behind notions that their views can be explained away by generational or cultural differences.
Stacy Nguyen can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.