The story behind the picture

Photograph by Roz Payne

In 140 characters or less, #blackpoweryellowperil cannot be a coalition if Asian Americans see ourselves as allies.

#blackpoweryellowperil became a trending hashtag over the holidays on twitter.  It sounded like a call for unity.  It sounded like new-found recognition of power.  It sounded like an acknowledgement of a shared history.

And it sounded like Asian Americans were declaring themselves allies to Black America.  Because we face racism too.  Because we know what it’s like.  Because we share the struggle.

But I feel uneasy at being an ally.  For many years, I have struggled with this term.  I cringed when somebody thanked me for being “a good ally” when I thought I was just keeping order.  Because I view being an ally as picking and choosing a cause but not living a life.

Because I look at so many of our so-called “white allies” and I see the replication of the power structure.  The desire for the reflection of goodness in our eyes.  The desire not to be held accountable, but to be beyond reproach.  Where “anti-racist” is a claimed special label rather than one continually worked towards.

It’s like standing in the middle of a room and shouting I’m not one of those people.

Except I think I’m one of those people.  Because I thought (and sometimes still do think) that I’m not.

Mary Adams Trujillo, who has worked extensively within diverse communities, likens living in a racist society to living in a house with a cat.  You can’t help but have cat hair on you since it’s everywhere.  You can try to remove the cat hair from your clothing and furniture, but it’s a never-ending process.

So it is with racism.  (Although the actual cat hair seems to be more limiting than the metaphorical.)

Once upon a time, I used to think that other people of color were automatically my allies, because I was theirs.  And then I was shocked to find this wasn’t the case.  So I’ve thought Sister!  How could you?! on more than one occasion.  And I’ve thought it recently as well, albeit with less surprise and a little more sadness.

The #blackpoweryellowperil conversation netted some negative tweets.  Some were obviously trolls, working to divide and conquer.  But some were individuals who questioned the idea of coalition.

The tweet that resonated most with me was written by Karis B:

BlackPowerYellowPeril can’t say I ever felt that Asians fought my fight, especially with the stares I get in their stores

Because I remember Latasha Harlins.  Latasha Harlins was a 15-year-old African American girl who was shot and killed by Soon Ja Du, a Korean American store owner, after a dispute about a bottle of orange juice.  Du thought Harlins was stealing.  Harlins became angry and struck Du multiple times.  She abandoned the bottle on the counter and was walking away when Du shot her.

Du was sentenced to community service and probation.

Were we standing outside the grocery store chanting “No justice, no peace”?

I remember Sa-I-Gu (April 29):

We hear so often about how poorly Asian store owners treat African Americans, as if it is a given across our country.  We don’t hear about the treatment of African American customers by white store owners in the same racialized way.  Nor do we hear a more nuanced version of what “those people” think.  (Watch the damn video.)

I thought about Latasha Harlins and Soon Ja Du for a long time afterwards.  I wondered what they saw when they looked at each other.  I remembered a lone onion that I had neglected to put on the conveyor belt when shopping, and how the bagger accusingly pulled it out of the cart and yelled to the cashier that I hadn’t paid for it.

In Sa-I-Gu, one woman comments:

I wish Koreans would treat black people as their own children.

Another says the following:

Korean people are brainwashed by white people.

This reminds me of an old joke:  What is the first word an immigrant learns upon moving to the United States?  Answer:  [racial slur redacted]

When I was working with an ESL (English as a Second Language) program, I met a Korean woman who wanted to improve her English.  She felt that her customers often responded to her poorly and she wanted to know how she could better greet them and speak with them.

But when asked to role-play her interactions, the problem became immediately clear.  She said, “What for you come into my store?” whenever anybody entered. Her intended meaning? How can I help you?

But the story we get through the majority media is best told fast and simple.  It’s the soundbite.

But we can’t ignore that there are undoubtedly people in our community who treat black people poorly in their stores.  We can’t deny anti-blackness in our community, even though we refuse the obfuscation of systemic racism through the oft-repeated Asians are some of the most racist people around.

So although I know that we face racism too, I can’t possibly imagine what it is truly like for African Americans.  I cannot say I share their struggle because it is not my lived experience.  I can’t be quick to disclaim anti-black racism when I know only too well that maybe I’m one of those people too.

And sometimes I think I’ve been getting my life lessons in difficult-to-digest doses, because I am regularly in two communities that aren’t mine to claim.  And if I’ve spent so much time telling white people (white adoptive parents!) to shut up and listen, I guess I should do the same.

Sometimes it makes me miserable.  Sometimes it makes me want to stand and shout I’m not one of those people!

Because I’m the good one.  Because I deserve the cookie.

So I can’t claim #blackpoweryellowperil.  I can’t claim black power for my own, because its history does not belong to me.  I feel ambivalent about claiming (or re-claiming) yellow peril.  Although I once thought yellow peril was a label I wanted to assume, I think it came from being afraid that nobody really feared me.  Then me used to say that I wished to be a large black man, because then maybe I wouldn’t suffer the sucker punch.  Without ever thinking that there are things that are way worse.

Both sides of the coin are equally tainted.  Strong and brutal vs. weak and timid.  (Lazy slackers vs. unimaginative worker bees.  The list goes on and on.)

So, yeah.  I don’t know what it’s like.

So, yeah, I can’t say I want other folks in on my movement without being willing to truly hear.  Because I can’t solely control the direction of any kind of coalition of equals.  Because we’re going to have to go past a history of hate and mistrust and fear on all our parts.  Because we’re going to have to unpack all that crap that’s been shoved inside our heads.

I’d like to be able to extend a little bit of grace, even though I just can’t understand how an old black guy can be racist just like old white guys.   I’d like to receive a little bit of that grace for myself.

3 thoughts on “The story behind the picture

  1. Thank you for your honesty. I am still trying to check myself, because I know that I have enough privilege to not always read as black, and I don’t know always know what it is like, either. Allyship and recognizing privilege and “walking the walk” are sometimes easier said than done.

  2. thank you for this. it’s so important for me to read and hear. i also struggle as an asian american with wanting to be one of the “good ones.”

  3. I still think about that store owner saying “What for you come into my store?” and how it probably played into beliefs by her customers that they were unwelcome.

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