A Response to #ChineseLivesMatter
CN: Anti-Asian violence, anti-SE sentiment, anti-black violence, erasure
Part I, on erasure of Southeast Asian identity, here.
On the co-option of #BlackLivesMatter, and queer Black women’s labour: The hashtag #ChineseLivesMatter is only the latest instance of co-option and stealing of Black people’s labour for other minorities’ social justice mobilizing. Through the history of racial struggle and into the present day, a pattern has emerged where non-Black people of colour, and it seems especially East Asians, have exploited for our own causes the cultural resonance of phrases and imagery that Black activists have worked to build up, without reciprocating any meaningful solidarity or reflection. For example, Michele Selene Ang was recently widely celebrated for wearing a shirt designed by Will Choi with the slogan “Scarlett & Emma & Tilda & Matt”, ostensibly to criticize the many instances of whitewashing that have occurred in films in the past year. While the design of the shirt is one that appears to be relatively common – left justified, Helvetica text against a plain background – the shirt has widely become associated with the visuals of the #BlackLivesMatter movement. Gloss Rags, founded by Randi Gloss, a social entrepreneur, activist, writer & educator, produced a t-shirt collection called “And Counting” in 2014 which sought to “memorialize Black men and women who have been killed at the hands of police and trigger-happy citizens. […] The fallen brothers & sisters’ names are listed simply yet profoundly.” These shirts are stark in their message and their centering of Black lives lost to racist state and white supremacist violence.
While Choi may not have explicitly intended to co-opt this aesthetic, it is difficult to imagine how he could not have been aware of the use of this design by Black Lives Matter activists. This is particularly important given the difference in scale of the problem that the shirts are trying to address: while the shirt from Will Choi is an ironic take on the centering of white people in what we would expect to be Asian roles, the “And Counting” shirt raises awareness of the real and deadly consequences of police and state brutality.
This is where the ‘Chinese Lives Matter’ hashtag becomes especially egregious. Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi, founders of #BlackLivesMatter, have all written about the ways in which BLM has been co-opted by other liberation groups under the banner of supposed “unity” against oppression. Such movements and hashtags as #AllLivesMatter constitute an erasure of queer Black women’s painstaking emotional and activist labour, as well as a deflection of the reality that Black lives disproportionately suffer the brunt of white supremacy, and so must be centered in the fight for liberation.
In exactly this vein, #ChineseLivesMatter appropriates the iconography of #BlackLivesMatter, steals from the queer Black women who have devoted their lives to the upholding of Black people’s basic human rights and dignity, and deflects the racial justice conversation – the icing on the cake is that such mobilization has been done on behalf of an incorrectly-identified group of people (see Part I).
And not only do Chinese people steal from Black people’s labour, we refuse to reflect on the anti-Blackness in our own communities that makes us complicit in the sanctioning of state violence against other people of colour. We become appropriative oppressors, happy to steal from other people of colour’s labour, while adamantly refusing to confront the racism that persists among our families and our friends. We conveniently ignore that in May last year, a Chinese washing machine company advert hit international headlines for its grossly anti-Black content. We refuse to confront the difficult reality that in Black neighbourhoods across America, Korean- and Chinese-Americans have virtually monopolised the Black beauty business, frequently shutting out aspiring Black business-owners from entering the market; to assume responsibility for the fact that one month ago, a Korean store-owner in North Carolina was caught on tape violently assaulting a Black female customer, prompting a boycott of Asian-owned stores in the area. We willingly forget that in 1991, a Korean liquor store owner was convicted of voluntary manslaughter for fatally shooting 15-year-old Latasha Harlins, and was sentenced to probation, community service, and a fine, rather than the 16 years recommended by the jury.
In December 2014, Black Lives Matter activists marched in Brooklyn to protest the fatal shooting of Akai Gurley, an unarmed Black man, by NYPD officer Peter Liang; three months later, over 3000 Chinese-Americans showed up at New York City Hall to demand that charges against Liang be dropped. What they argued was that all killers should be prosecuted, not only a Chinese one – but it appeared to be less a demand for racial justice for all and more a request to grant us, too, the protection of whiteness that has shielded so many police officers from any repercussions at all. While for some East Asian people this marked a watershed moment towards anti-racist Asian organizing, this selective outrage did nothing more than demonstrate the way in which many of us have misunderstood white supremacy – the way it pits people of colour against one another in order to assert its own invisibility.
Nowhere is this clearer than in Andrew Sullivan’s article in New York Magazine, in which he uses the model minority myth to dispel the argument that Dr. Dao was targeted because of his race (and this is worth quoting at length, if only because his article doesn’t deserve more views): “Do you know the real reason Dr. Dao was so brutally tackled and thrown off that United flight? It was all about white supremacy. I mean, what isn’t these days? […] Asian-Americans, like Jews, are indeed a problem for the “social-justice” brigade. I mean, how on earth have both ethnic groups done so well in such a profoundly racist society? How have bigoted white people allowed these minorities to do so well — even to the point of earning more, on average, than whites?”.
In classic liberal fashion, Sullivan argues that because Asian Americans as a racial group have bootstrapped their way to success in spite of a long history of hardship and oppression, they should now be considered as individuals in their own right. Dr. Dao, you weren’t violently hauled off that United flight because you were Asian, it was because you were “disruptive and belligerent”.
Disruptive, that is, interruptive; belligerent, that is, hostile and aggressive. Individual traits that are wholly unrelated to Dr. Dao’s race, and yet, funnily enough, are the exact opposite of the model minority myth, one designed and used by whiteness to prove that we live in a post-racial society in which minorities can succeed (or rather, they can reach the level of success of white capitalists, and potentially even surpass it)… provided, you know, they are not Black. Provided, you know, they keep their head down and mind their own business. Provided they continue to aspire to whiteness, even though they can never realistically escape the effects of being racialized as non-white – as Other. Provided they do not interrupt the way in which white supremacy works to keep all people of colour down, albeit in different and yet simultaneously violent ways; provided they do not resist incursions on their space, their existence, in a hostile, aggressive manner. Provided they do not disobey.
The other side of Sullivan’s argument appears to be that all of the other people of colour who are not Asian American and who are not Jewish have somehow not yet earned the right to say that they live in a post-racial society, because of a problem with their ‘culture’, their ‘way of life’. The arguments seems to be that Black and brown people have not earned the right to be violently attacked on account of their individual actions rather than their race. While this may sound absurd, we are complicit in perpetuating this myth every time we invoke the model minority myth to expound Asian diasporic exceptionalism, or anytime we refuse to counter such claims with a broader commitment towards racial justice for all people of colour.
‘It’s not my problem,’ we have always said, ‘they won’t come for us.’ But what do we do now that it appears they are perfectly willing to assault us in broad daylight? Hijack the momentum of the very movement we were previously content to ignore, and equate one act of violence against ourselves with the decades-long structural, traumatising, and murderous over-policing of Black Americans. Because while many East Asian people and other people of colour have called United out for its racism online, the silence of East Asian communities in the face of other instances of racially-motivated violence has always been, and continues to be, deafening. Where were we when a Black woman was dragged off a Delta flight in December 2016? Are we similarly outraged when Black and brown people are stopped from travelling due to racial profiling or racialized Islamophobia?
We have to stop only getting angry when racism hits home. We have to realize that as much as white supremacy might trick us into thinking that we are exceptional, that we have earned our stripes as the “model minority”, we will never truly belong – in the words of Franny Choi in a poem addressed to Peter Liang, “No one wants to see us alive, either”. We have to confront the fact that insofar as the the model minority narrative creates (East) Asian-ness as a homogenous myth of success, where whiteness is always just a touch out of reach, such a myth also demands that we step on Black and brown people’s necks to try and get there.
If we are only willing to show up to ask to be let into the white man’s house, we should stop abusing the name of racial justice. If we are truly dedicated to racial justice, however, we must let go of our parochial obsession with accessing racial privilege and instead ask how this system of privileges can be destroyed. We must fight for every cause, not only for those we perceive to be our own. Only then will any of us be free.