Examining interethnic prejudice in a racist society

Recently, a spate of attacks against Asian Americans by African Americans* made me think about the ways interethnic prejudice and tension are fueled by racism.  Often when I am discussing racism (as defined by power+prejudice), white people are quick to tell me how racist Asians are against African Americans.  This is a classic derailing technique.  Additionally, it focuses on prejudice rather than the systemic nature of racism.  It ignores how people of color internalize racism, how a white supremacist society affects us and how our stories and our struggles are framed through a white lens.

*Philadelphia.  Lower East Side.  Oakland.  San Francisco.

The oft-repeated trope about how racist Asians are against African Americans attempts to support the argument that it isn’t only white people who are racist.  Again, that’s ignoring power+prejudice. This prejudice ventriloquy seems also to serve a need for white people–to foster divisions among people of color, to maintain white supremacy and to deny culpability for a racist society.  It also supports and develops existing prejudices because of the weight given to the white word.  (I also often feel that white people want me to be racist against African Americans.)

Some of the most racist people are Black people.

Black people are racist towards white people. (Classic example here.)

Asian people are some of the most prejudiced people around.

Black people hate Korean people because the Koreans are taking over everything.

Chinese hate the Japanese

Japanese hate the Chinese.

(I realize in writing this that white people usually say “blacks” or “Asians” or “Koreans,” rather than “Black people” or “Asian people” or “Korean people.”)

I’ve heard other versions of people of color vs. other people of color. I’ve only heard these from white people, and I’ve heard them any of a number of times.  When touring Nanjing with a bunch of white people, three separate individuals made the point of approaching me to ask if I knew about the Rape of Nanjing.  I’d learned about it when I was in middle school.  I remember specifically because a group of us went to the university library where we had privileges to find out exactly why the Chinese hate the Japanese.

And there I was again, being told by white people that the Chinese hate the Japanese.

When I moved to a neighborhood with a significant single group of color, several white people asked me about my experience there.  Because those people hate your people. I have heard that repeatedly throughout my life.  And I am embarrassed and ashamed to admit that sometimes made me feel fearful.  Undoubtedly that fear made it more difficult to interact in positive ways with my neighbors of color.  I thought about it for some time, and I realized that I have had few (if any) experiences of prejudice by other people of color.

On the other hand, the number of times I’ve been assaulted by racism (sometimes literally) at the hands of white people (again, sometimes literally) are too many to count.  In fact, some incidents I have blocked completely out of my consciousness.

Why then the fear of people of color?

In one of my jobs, I worked primarily with African Americans and Latinos.  All the bosses were black.  And yet I still found I had skin privilege, most notably when people assumed that I was the boss and that the older African American bosses were my subordinates.

I also worked in the African American community at another job.  I did find that I faced anger and resentment from people who didn’t even know me.  In some ways I felt it was because I was a “safe” person upon whom to vent.  The white woman who worked under me was often treated very deferentially, even though she was extremely annoying.  (She had a black boyfriend.)  And she was only too happy to allow people to assume that she was the boss.

People were careful with her because she was white.

It was very hard sometimes.  I try to remember what it was like and I feel some empathy for white people who struggle in their interracial encounters.  (Please note I said “some.”  Just some.)  I tried really hard just to listen.  Because I realized that to defend, defend, defend, would just cause me to be written off as one of those people.  And I was reminded that my anti-racist beliefs didn’t count for shit.  It was my action that counted.

But I remember too the people who went out of their way to support me and to help me.  Even when I was being ignorant and clueless.

I feel often that I have internalized the racist society in which I live.  And the damage runs deep.  Sometimes incidents with people of color, even fairly “minor” ones, cut the deepest.  I remember thinking once, “Oh sister!  How could you!”

I hold people of color to a higher standard.  I expect them to be able to understand racism and how it functions.  And yet I realize they (and I) were steeped in a racist society.  It is work to find our way out.

It is hard sometimes to feel commonality, to feel kinship, especially with people who are not feeling that kinship with you.  Yet I am reminded that communities of color share many similarities of experience.  I remember that I identify as a person of color and not solely a person of an ethnicity.  I see the ways in which prejudice and racism harm all of our communities by supporting a racist hierarchy in which whites are acknowledged to be superior.

As the “model minority,” Asian Americans are held up as proof that anybody can make it in the United States.  But what does that say about our communities that are suffering?  Are they rendered invisible?  And what does that say about documented ways in which racism affects us?

We are promoted as the Asian Horatio Alger story.  And our successes are not credited as our own, but attributed to white benevolence.  Because white people let us into their country.  White people gave us the level playing field.  White people afforded us opportunities.  Which they freely give to all–so what’s up with the rest of you minnoriteeees?

And these are the ways in which the Asian and African American communities are encouraged to hate each other.  Instead of talking about systemic racism, we think about our own superiority and receive our pats on the back.  Instead of talking about systemic racism, we resent other groups for the ways in which they are favored.  Close your eyes and you’d swear white voices were coming out of Asian and black mouths.  And those voices are supported and promoted by whites. (Michelle M@lkin, anyone?)

I understand the suspicion and resentment from other groups.   Because my knee-jerk brain often reverts to racism.

Au napptural commented as follows about the case in which two 18-year-old African American men were charged with an attack on two Asian Americans:

Strange thing, I went to read the comments, and instead of the usual “it wasn’t a hate crime, just a crime” diatribe, nearly all 1000 of the commenters were roundly wishing death on the assailants, complete with racist rhetoric. I guess if the assailant is black and the vic isn’t, it’s an outrage after all, even if the vic isn’t white. Not trying to derail, but a big difference from the case of the Asian men being pushed into river or the Mexican teenager beaten by the white teenagers, don’t you think?

Brandon Piekarsky and Derrick Donchak, white men who killed a Latino immigrant, set upon their victim as members of a pack.  But nobody talked about “wilding.”  Nobody talked about how those white people are.  (Because we don’t have any kind of slur for white people that compares to the n-word.)  They talked about the altar boy and the honor student.

I am not excusing the African American 18-year-old who killed Tiansheng Yu, but I don’t think that attack was nearly as violent or as prolonged as the one instigated by Piekarsky and Donchak.  Yu apparently fell and hit his head on the pavement.  Luis Ramirez was beaten, kicked and punched, including vicious kicks to the head while he was lying helpless on the ground.  Piekarsky and Donchak were convicted of simple assault.  The mitigating factor?  The victim was an undocumented immigrant.  That, and the fact that Piekarsky and Donchak are not hampered by fears of criminality that are explicitly tied to their race and deeply ingrained in our collective psyche.

Latasha Harlins, a young girl killed by an Asian shopkeeper, was one victim of that racial stereotype.

So when you hear the majority outcry about Tiansheng Yu, remember that they are not expressing caring for our communities but rather their own fear and hatred of African Americans.

I read one story about Tiansheng Yu’s widow, which briefly mentioned that members of the African American community had gathered to support her.  But it is not the major story out there.  And despite multiple attacks on Asian Americans, very few news stories have connected the dots. Many insist that it’s not about race.

Here’s a recent article by SF Examiner writer Erin Sherbert.  It is surprising in that it talks about the tension between communities.  But it does not talk about the work the communities are doing together.

One of the recent Muni attacks was on a 57-year-old Asian woman.  You can watch the raw surveillance video here.

The attacker grabbed the woman from behind, dragged her all the way around the shelter and then threw her off the platform.  He followed her down and continued to beat her.  A suspect has been arrested in the case.  Police are trying to determine if he was also involved in an attack that killed an 83-year-old man.

But what you don’t hear about are the people who came to her aid.  Watch the video:  it looks as though the people who assist her are African Americans.  To my knowledge, this has not been mentioned on the news.

Because it does not serve a white agenda to tell the complex stories of people of color.   Easier to write black people=criminals, Asian people=passive, submissive victims.  (White people=not any more racist than anybody else.)  But we need to tell these stories rather than having our history written for us.  And shaping our communities by our own hands rather than letting others create us in their racist imagination.  That means also fighting the racist imagination when it is impressed upon other groups.

Our history has been defined and reinforced through the repeated telling through the white lens.  Recently a white person told me that the first time Asian Americans had joined together for a cause across ethnicity was the Vincent Chin case.  And although that was an important moment in our history, it is by no means the first.  Read history, especially and including that of labor unions.  And know that not only did Asian Americans unite across Asian ethnicity, but they formed coalitions with other groups of color.

I went to a rally for an Asian American issue, and the news reported the “outrage” felt by Asian Americans. What was not reported was the number of non-Asians present. (Mostly Latinos and African Americans, since I know you all are going to ask.)

A white person told me that Asian Americans “never” speak up against injustice, and talked about the difficulties people of Arab descent have had since 9/11. Yet Japanese Americans were some of the first to speak.  Similarly I’ve been told (me!  imagine!) that Asian Americans are not interested in social justice and are not politically active.  (I’ve also been told that Asian Americans aren’t gay, don’t adopt children, are all lactose-intolerant, have poor language skills, are not creative, ad nauseum.)

In March, a national immigration rally was held in Washington D.C.  I watched extensive news footage; I did not see any of the Asian American groups that attended.  Asian Pacific Americans for Progress, the National Korean American Service & Education Consortium and the Japanese American Citizens League are three groups that have been working towards immigration reform.  You’d be hard pressed to see any mention of them in the news.  Other non-Latino groups attended as well.  (I can’t remember their names off the top of my head and I’m too lazy to go look it up.)

But casting immigration as a Latino issue narrows the connection with non-Latino populations.  It additionally causes people to believe these issues are only the concern of Latinos.

I remember on a personal level that only black people have ever stopped to help me when I have had car trouble.  And I wonder why the racist stereotypes of my society replace my personal reality and create a new one, formed in the white imagination.

19 thoughts on “Examining interethnic prejudice in a racist society

  1. Wow… I always feel like shying away from conversations about “interethnic prejudice”… I’m black, and when such incidents are thrown at me I’m often at a loss. I don’t want to be the person who is always like, as you said, “defend defend defend”, yet at the same time, when the accusations are coming from white people and not members of the ethnic groups in question in the news stories/incidents that come up, I can’t help but feel defensive. . It’s complicated, and layered, and this post captures that so well. Thank you. I’ll be thinking on this and passing it around.

  2. I absolutely love what you had to write/say. Race is too often simplified for easy digestion, which leads nowhere, especially when people’s lives are at stake. Thanks to the white power structure, it’s almost like people of color are being pitted against each other in a kind of battle royale. All the while white people are the amused spectators, sometimes even picking and choosing who wins or loses.
    And to add to the list of past political activism, how about the Asian-Americans who stood in solidarity with Huey P. Newton and the Black Panthers during his alleged murder trial in the 60’s.

  3. Thank you–a really helpful perspective. I read an article in the Phila City Paper on the violence at South Philly high, and the thoughts I had about the situation then are amplified and clarified by this post.

    There was so much there, I’m still absorbing it. Thanks for bringing this one up, I often think about it but, like you said, I’ve internalized so much that it’s hard to see beyond it. Thank you.

  5. I had been black for 32 years before I “discovered” blacks and Latino’s didn’t get along. The source of my “discovery” was mainstream media coverage during the last Presidential Election. So this post speaks volumes to me. Thanks a lot!

  6. Amazing, Resistance.

    I know you have a policy against cross-posting, but would you make a one-time exception for Racialicious? This post would be amazing with two others I have lined up for this week, for the Things We Do To Each Other Series.

  7. Thanks so much for this! I think it is also because I’ve been culturally conditioned to feel the way I do in terms of the Asians vs. Blacks issue. So I, too, have internalized so much that it’s hard for me to see outside this bubble I’ve lived in…

  8. Been thinking about this lately too, although I agree that often the media promotes negative racial stereotypes internalized by other minorities I believe there are other causes (although these too are often just as wrong as the media.) Unfortunately in the minds of many it only takes one rotten apple to ruin the bunch, especially in the case when that apple is from a community from which you know or understand little about and misunderstandings are common. It’s easy to say something like, “well, I don’t know much about this race or culture but one time … and it made be uncomfortable/angry etc” and when also fueled by stereotypes people start to create across-the-board labels for people of different races/cultures.

    I sometimes find it difficult to identify solely as a person of color because I do not always feel welcome among other minority groups who are viewing things on a per race basis. Although it would be true to also say I don’t always feel comfortable or accepted within groups of my own race. just thinking out loud here.

  9. I’m a silent reader, but I’m coming out of the wood works to say thank you for this post. You’ve articulated well so much of my own thoughts, especially
    “I hold people of color to a higher standard. I expect them to be able to understand racism and how it functions. And yet I realize they (and I) were steeped in a racist society. It is work to find our way out.” So true, and I have to keep reminding myself not to be disappointed by other POC, that deprogramming something that is updated 24/7/365 is VERY HARD and a never-ending battle.

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  12. (I realize in writing this that white people usually say “blacks” or “Asians” or “Koreans,” rather than “Black people” or “Asian people” or “Korean people.”)

    I definitely do not say/write “blacks,” though I’m sure I’ve said “Koreans.” I find the two terms distinct in category, i.e. “black” is racial, Korean is ethnic. One says “an Italian” and not “an Italian person,” as far as common parlance goes, I think.

    I know, it’s a whole other kettle of fish, but I find the color categorizations as part of racial constructions, not culture or provenance.

  13. Great essay. Discussions about Black vs Asian vs Latino racism usually ignores the white supremacy elephant in the room that makes the lives of all communities miserable. Not to diminish the impact of violent crime, but in the grand scheme of things a Black criminal mugging an Asian, or an Asian thug committing a drive-by on a Black teenager, amounts to petty infighting when both communities are being gerrymandered by a white politician.

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