This piece originally appeared on The Salt Collective, a now-defunct online magazine about culture, faith, and politics.
Two years ago, I found myself trying to break into my friends’ apartment.
I had coordinated their wedding a few days earlier, and they had since departed for their honeymoon. A box from the wedding was supposed to go to one of the guests, only to end up in their apartment. Now the guest wanted the box, and I, having a key to their home, needed to retrieve it.
My friends had warned me that the key had a tendency to stick, though that proved to be an understatement. After ten minutes of wrestling with it, my hands sore from twisting and straining, I gave up. The box would have to wait. But I thought about the maintenance man I had seen across the courtyard as I struggled with the door; surely he would have a functional key.
The request was ridiculous, I knew: I had never seen this person before. He had absolutely no reason to believe my reasons for needing to enter the apartment. But I figured I had nothing to lose, so I waved him over and asked if he would let me in.
Much to my surprise, he did — no questions asked. Even more shocking was the fact that he unlocked the door and immediately left, not bothering to wait around and make sure that I didn’t ransack the place. He let a complete stranger into an apartment that wasn’t his and walked away.
As I entered the apartment and started looking for the box, I was incredulous — and I was never more aware of the privileges I have as an Asian American woman.
Would this person have ever let me into the apartment if I were a black man? I’m not a betting person, but even I would put serious money on the answer being no. I probably would’ve been asked to leave the premises, too.
Yes, I experience a host of disadvantages as an Asian American woman, but I can’t deny that I also have a number of privileges — one of which is that no one ever suspects me of wrongdoing. Thus I found myself on my hands and knees in my friends’ living room, opening and closing boxes, let in by a stranger who was now nowhere to be seen.
Race is complicated, especially for those who don’t fit into the black and white binary that usually frames conversations about race in this country. This, I suspect, is one of the reasons why I’ve seen such varied responses to Ferguson in my Asian American circles. I’ve seen Asian Americans lamenting and protesting; I’ve seen Asian Americans declaring that no injustice was done; but more often than not, I’ve seen Asian Americans completely silent.
Race is complicated for us. On one hand, we’re disadvantaged in many ways. We’re perpetually seen as foreigners, as people who don’t belong here. Our successes are often attributed our race instead of our own talent or hard work. We’re overlooked for promotions, walked over in social and professional situations, openly mocked. We’re reduced to stereotypes, our women hypersexualized and fetishized, our men emasculated. Multiple laws have been passed to exclude us from immigration and citizenship. Tens of thousands of us, in a stunning violation of constitutional rights, were forcibly removed from their homes, communities, jobs, and possessions and relocated to internment camps during World War II — and released back into society, years later, with nothing. We’ve been the victims of hate crimes from vandalism to murder. Like all people of color in the US, Asian Americans have been consistent targets of individual and systemic racism.
But as Asian Americans, we do have some privileges. People generally assume that we’re smart and hardworking, which is reductive but infinitely preferable to people assuming the opposite. We’re assumed to be good tenants, reliable employees, responsible citizens — not troublemakers. Teachers and police officers — and maintenance workers — tend to believe the best about us and not to suspect or fear us. The impact of these beliefs on how we experience the world cannot be overstated. It’s not surprising that at 17, when I first heard in a freshman seminar that I was oppressed because I was Asian American, my first response was skepticism.
So when a conversation about race is framed in black and white terms — which, in this country, is the case more often than not — it’s not always clear who we should be identifying with. We don’t have quite the same disadvantages or quite the same history of oppression as black people, but we aren’t fully accepted like white people, either. Our experiences don’t always clearly dictate which side we belong on.
And then there are all the other cultural and social factors that influence how we respond to events like Ferguson.
For one, Asian cultures strongly value harmony and not creating conflict. The American proverb says that the squeaky wheel gets the grease; the Japanese proverb says that the nail that sticks out gets hammered down. Thus, even in the face of controversial events, even when we ourselves are the victims of wrongdoing, many Asian Americans tend to remain silent.
This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that more than 90% of Asian Americans are immigrants or children of immigrants1 — people shaped by an immigrant mindset of keeping your head down and your mouth shut, even if the circumstances are terrible. Because you want to be welcomed and accepted here, and complaining usually creates the opposite response, even if those complaints are warranted.
Along with that immigrant mentality can come a need to survive at all costs — at least in my family. My parents desperately wanted my brother and me to succeed in this country, and the only way to ensure that was for us to beat everyone else. So they instilled in us a deep competitiveness, a need to be the best. I grew up with a sense that I had to fight for my own success and not let other people or their problems drag me down, an attitude that haunts me still.
And then you have the anti-black sentiment that pervades Asian and Asian American communities. There are plenty of better-researched, better-written explanations for these attitudes, but in my experience, the human predisposition to stereotype and the fairly universal attitudes about light skin being superior to dark skin are exacerbated in cultures that are racially homogenous. We see this in the US: Communities that have very little diversity, where there is little contact with people of different races, tend to have the strongest stereotypes. In Asian countries, where the overwhelming majority of people have black hair and brown eyes, it’s especially easy to generalize about those with different phenotypes, either positively or negatively. And immigrants bring those attitudes with them to the States.
Once they’re here, they encounter the model minority myth, the erroneous belief that Asians have been more successful in America than other races because of inherent positive qualities. Asians didn’t create this myth; it was created by a white sociologist who stereotyped Asians and other races without any sense of history. But many Asian Americans have bought into it, and some propagate it themselves. Because after all, it’s a story that serves us, at least on the surface. It also aligns us with white people, the people with power, the people we want to accept us — and it can bring us comfort to think that we’re not at the bottom of the food chain. And sometimes we keep our distance from those at the bottom, consciously or otherwise, out of fear that others will lump us together.
So when you have all of these factors at play and something like Ferguson happens, it isn’t terribly surprising that many Asian Americans stay quiet. People’s responses vary considerably, of course, but when you consider all of these factors — the cultural value of not causing a stir, the immigrant attitudes of looking out for ourselves and wanting to be accepted, not wanting to be associated with people lower than us on the social food chain — it’s almost remarkable that Asian Americans have spoken up at all.
Make no mistake: I don’t think that any of these factors let us off the hook when it comes to speaking and acting against injustice. I feel very strongly about what happened in Ferguson, the wider systemic injustices it reflects, and the need for people of all races to act. But the events of the last few weeks, and the consequent responses (and lack thereof), have made me reflect on the many things that had to happen in order for me to become vocal about issues like these.
I needed to learn about the systemic racism that pervades our society, that manifests in things like the targeting of black men. I needed to learn the ugly history that led to these realities, much of which I had not learned in school.
I needed to acknowledge my own biases and those of my family and community, to understand their origins, and to learn how to challenge them whenever they appear in my head, in conversations with others, in public forums.
I needed to learn that my only-out-for-myself attitude was ultimately not helpful for me or for anyone around me. I needed to learn that injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere, as Martin Luther King said; that if one part of the body suffers, every part suffers (1 Corinthians 12.26); that ending injustice — all injustice — is a central part of what God wants to see in the world (Isaiah 58.6, Luke 4.18).
I needed to learn that some things are worth rocking the boat for — and that if I wasn’t proactive about fighting injustice, I was quietly perpetuating it.
So many things needed to happen in order for me to feel comfortable being vocal and active about issues of race; there were cultural and social barriers to overcome, things to learn, attitudes to examine. And I still have a lot of work to do. Again, I’m not excusing anyone for failing to speak up — but I acknowledge that being active about issues of race, for Asian Americans, often means swimming against a strong current.
So let me ask you:
What do you need to do?
1 Zhou, M., & Yang, X. (2005). The multifaceted American experiences of the children of Asian immigrants: Lessons for segmented assimilation. Ethnic and Racial Studies, 28, 1119-1152. (Article available here.)