By Juliet Fang
NORTHWEST ASIAN WEEKLY
Noriko Nasu, a Japanese language high school teacher, was knocked unconscious when an African American man hit her in the face with a rock-filled sock in Seattle’s Chinatown-International District (CID) in February. The man, Sean Holdip, pleaded not guilty to second-degree assault. Nasu’s story of racial violence is one of many against the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community that has risen to new levels during the pandemic and further, a grisly reminder of the historically tense relationship between AAPI and Black communities in America.
Five prominent leaders in the fight for AAPI-Black solidarity—Darrell Powell, treasurer of the Seattle King County NAACP; Jesse Wineberry of the Washington EQUITY NOW Alliance; Lua Pritchard, executive director of the Asia Pacific Cultural Center; Toshiko Hasegawa, executive director of Washington State Commission on Asian Pacific American Affairs; and Jonathan Sposato, chairman and co-founder of GeekWire—spoke on a panel organized by the Northwest Asian Weekly on Sept. 23. Community leader Nate Miles and KIRO 7 anchor Monique Ming Laven facilitated the panel, “Unity in Voices: Where do we go from here?” discussing necessary steps to bridge the gap between these two communities.
Official crime statistics and other studies have revealed that three-quarters of offenders of anti-Asian hate crimes and incidents, from both before and during the pandemic, have been white. But viral videos circulated recently of AAPI being attacked have overwhelmingly featured Black perpetrators—severely obscuring the power of Black-AAPI solidarity in the fight for racial justice, and reigniting distrust between the two communities.
Powell said, “[The Black community knows] those [perpetrators of AAPI hate crimes] are bullies. They’re bullies, and they’re taking advantage of someone weaker.”
Powell also noted that, although police brutality against Black Americans and AAPI stem from a similar place of hate, the two groups experience traumas that are not of racial equivalence, possibly contributing to Black-AAPI strife.
“The African American community has every expectation that, if the police found [the Black Americans responsible for AAPI hate crimes], they would be prosecuted. But when we watched a police officer put his knee on the neck of a man for nine minutes, the [African American community] waited across the world, with bated breath, wondering if the officer would be let off free.”
Hasegawa spoke of another incident that contributed to distrust and misunderstanding.
“Business owners [in the CID] suffering from the first wave of COVID didn’t have insurance when the wave of so-called Black Lives Matter protesters came vandalizing their shops and hurting their businesses [last summer],” said Hasegawa. “They did not have the information to recognize that these were anarchists, and now blame has been associated with a civil rights movement, pitting [Black and AAPI] communities against each other.”
This fundamental misunderstanding between the Black and AAPI communities is reflective of white supremacy, Powell noted.
“White supremacy is a perfected art. It impacts us differently, but until we understand we all are in the same boat, we have tensions that arise between groups that are perceived to suffer more or less.” He pointed to housing segregation through redlining, unjust policing, and the creation of the “model minority” myth to justify denial of resources to Black and AAPI communities as particular examples of white supremacy marginalizing these groups.
“We suffer from the same things,” added Pritchard. “We share the same values. Working together is the only way we can survive in America.”
And despite recent divisions between the two communities, Black-AAPI solidarity has flourished in the United States. The tragedies of the past two years—from the gruesome murder of George Floyd to the many elderly AAPI men and women assaulted on city streets—have served as a means of bringing people of color together in America. Black and AAPI marched side-by-side in the fight for Black lives, and Black activist organizations such as the NAACP were prominent voices against the rising trend in AAPI hate crimes. Younger generations, especially, stand at the forefront of advocacy through their use of social media platforms such as TikTok and Instagram.
“We need to look to the youth, who are much more organized now in activism than just two decades ago,” said Hasegawa. “They are leading thoughtful discussion about these complex race relations through translating their parents’ feelings and promoting open discussion amongst their peers.”
The past year has seen a proliferation of activism accounts such as @soyouwanttotalkabout or @dearasianyouth on Instagram, both of which regularly post short, widely circulated infographical slides about topical social issues to inform social media users. Although this has led to an increase in awareness about sociopolitical issues amongst younger generations, tech veteran Sposato has reservations about the impact of social media advocacy.
“On social media, there is so little room, so little time for complexity, for nuance, and a fuller spectrum of understanding any single issue,” he argued. “People are either canonized or villainized very quickly based on little information, and with social media so heavily used by younger generations, misinformation can be an issue.”
Using social media, though, can also serve as a starting point of conversation between Black and AAPI communities.
“Being visual about the successes we have achieved together is a great place to begin the journey in understanding,” said Wineberry.
Powell also points to larger organizations, such as the technological industry, to make inclusiveness a priority at all points possible.
“The startup industry in tech is the most racist and misogynistic industry that I know. I know what it’s like to come out [of education] and have hope and possibility, only to see mediocre white folks succeed just because their buddies bring them in,” Powell said. “The reason why there aren’t any African Americans on boards is because there were no African Americans in the seed startup, and the white firms that funded those startups didn’t care that there weren’t any Black or Asian people around, and these companies became seeded in this racist and misogynistic environment.”
“Now, these companies have grown and people are urging them to have more [diversity] on their boards. But it’s not in their DNA.”
Indeed, Black people account for approximately 12% of the United States population, but hold only 3.2% of senior leadership roles at large companies, according to an analysis by the Center for Talent Innovation, despite the millions spent on corporate diversity efforts.
Sposato agreed that larger firms have a lot of work to do. He also points to the tech industry in particular as crucial in curbing social polarization in the fight for equal rights.
“We have a responsibility to come up with solutions to address the possible misinformation and demonization of different racial groups that can happen online. It’s incredibly important.”
All the panelists agree—only from a place of understanding and common ground can Black-AAPI communities move towards working together in solidarity.
When asked what actionable steps individuals can take to better encourage understanding between not only Black and AAPI communities, but BIPOC groups in general, the panelists offered up their recommendations.
“It’s not about blaming each other,” Pritchard said. “This is something bigger than any one of us. It’s all of us, and it takes two to tango.”
“Listen louder. Be kind,” said Sposato.
“Go to waequitynow.com,” said Wineberry. “Log on, sign your name, and it will urge Governor Jay Inslee to sign an executive order to unleash economic opportunity in education, jobs, and business in Washington state.”
“Don’t get your news off of social media,” Hasegawa recommended. “There is proactive misinformation intended to steer people in the wrong direction… We all have a role to play in safeguarding the fair treatment of all people.”
“Help facilitate change,” Powell concluded. “Help other folks who may not be as blessed as you… Go out and find a place to serve.”
Juliet can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.