With no recognition of differences in ethnicity or history, we live in a black-and-white dichotomy | By Shinyung Oh (Summer 2020 issue)
In the midst of the Black Lives Matter (BLM) protests, Asian American writers and activists have flocked to urge fellow Asian Americans to speak up in support of the movement. Many argue that Tou Thao, an Asian American officer who stood guard while Derek Chauvin suffocated and killed George Floyd, symbolizes Asian Americans’ silence on racial strife in America.
They cast silence as adjacency to whiteness, a miscalculated strategy of social mobility and position of privilege that only foments further harm against Blacks by playing to the myth of the model minority. Arguing against silence, these writers fill Thao’s silence with blame. Jeff Yang on CNN interpreted Thao’s silence as indifference, avoidance, and a sign of apathy. Sara Li in InStyle cast Thao’s inaction as complicity. Reshmi Dutt-Ballerstadt in Truthout characterized it as “bystander syndrome.”
For Jeff Yang, the mirror image seen in Thao is one Asian Americans must deflect: “His inaction was painful to witness —- and a stark symbol of why, now more than ever, Asian Americans cannot afford to be voiceless watchers of this moment.” Thao is our other, the one we cannot be.
Similarly, for journalist Larry Lin, Thao’s moment of inaction is his moment of awakening: “I confess that I, like the Asian American officer at the scene of George Floyd’s death, have been a part of the problem.” Where Thao failed, we will compensate.
They claim him as one of their own in order to disclaim him. Thao is a strawman, the one we need to knock down in order to build the case for our own consciousness, our superior, enlightened understanding. The irony of setting up Thao as a foil to argue against marginalization is lost on these writers. We cannot afford another inscrutable Asian in our mix, so in response, writers with fancy advanced degrees, with connections to American corporate media, scramble to speak on behalf of a man who reportedly did not complete community college, because after all, he is one of us.
Our designation as Asian Americans is a handle of expedience. The identity allows us a united front for the sake of political power, even as we remain acutely aware of the differences in our sub-group histories and cultures. For those on the outside, the designation has a secondary function as an accommodation; the generalizing saves others the bother of having to tell us apart. They need not know our individual histories. The designation of Asian Americans is a convenience, a lumping of many people of disparate backgrounds for the sake of politics and for the sake of simplifying the story of race in America.
When Asian American writers outside the Hmong community stake a claim to Thao, there is a confusion in perspective. They forget that they are insiders only for the sake of political unity. When it comes to explaining the motivations, frameworks, and the conditions of our individual lives, generalities do not suffice. The history of the Chinese in America does not provide an understanding of the Hmong American experience. The Asian American designation does not negate the disparate sub-groups within; yet, these writers argue as if Asian Americans are monolithic, even as they claim to refute the model minority myth.
Our practice of convenience does not bestow one sub-group owner-ship over another. Just because others cannot tell us apart does not make our stories interchangeable. No Korean American, Chinese American, or any other hyphen-American has the right to speak for Thao. He does not belong to us.
As we scramble to distance ourselves from Thao, we miss yet another opportunity to humanize ourselves. He becomes another soulless scoundrel, a degenerate, a viper. Yet another paper cut-out in line behind the masked doctors, emotionless engineers, voiceless grocery store owners, and Chris Rock’s accountants.
The presence of a Black officer at the scene complicates the story. Unlike Thao, Alex Keung has been given a complex narrative, a Black man out to change the system, even as he is caught in a horrible scene of injustice. His family and friends have different reactions to him, even after he helped to restrain Floyd physically.
Others come to his defense and implore us to consider how much power he could have wielded against the system as a lone officer. He expressed ambivalence about his supervisor. He cries. He is loved.
No such story is told for Thao, just as there was none for Bong Jae Jang in the Red Apple boycott or Soon Ja Du in the L.A. Riots. As we have been throughout American history, we are rendered voiceless, devoid of inner conflict, complicated thoughts, shifting perspectives. What was Thao thinking as all this went down? No one bothers to ask. What was his intent, his goal, his expectation? What did he understand his role to be? What would he have done had he taken the role of physically interacting with Mr. Floyd instead of standing guard and managing the crowd? Would the outcome have differed? What do we know of his character, his general demeanor?
We do not know. All we need to know of him is the record of complaints against him and his appearance in the nine-minute video of the killing where he stood by, weaving in and out of frame, speaking into the radio in his vest. The story is clear cut, the guilt obvious, the evil undeniable.
In this story, Thao is reduced to a symbol: Of white oppression; of police brutality; of white adjacency; of Asian American silence. We have been reduced to symbols many times in this country. During World War II, the U.S. government made Japanese internees the symbol of Japan’s military threat. Vincent Chin, a Detroit hate-crime victim, became the symbol of Japanese automotive industry’s dominance. Balbir Singh Sodhi, a Sihk, killed in a hate crime shortly after the September 11 attacks, was touted as the symbol of Al-Qaeda. An Asian family attacked in Midland, Texas, somehow became a symbol of the threat of coronavirus.
We have been interchangeable. All Korean small business owners are stand-ins for Soon Ja Du, a Los Angeles convenience store owner who in 1991 killed Black customer Latasha Harlins, after a struggle in the store over a suspected shoplifting. Other Hmong Americans are now blamed for Thao’s inaction. To be reduced to symbols is to be rendered faceless, nameless, and interchangeable in our ubiquity. This is the running theme and predicament of Asians in America.
Humanizing one in our mix who does a grave wrong requires us to speak, even when it is inconvenient. What would be his story if he could speak? Would he tell the story of a people paid in rice to fight America’s secret war against enemies who looked more or less like themselves? What does the Black-white divide in America mean for a people whose history includes persecution by the Chinese, mistreatment by the French, scorn by fellow Southeast Asians, betrayal by the U.S. government, and rejection by West Philadelphia?
Is his story not a counterpoint to the model minority myth, one we have been gasping to tell? Hmong Americans suffer from a 30 percent dropout rate for high school. A mere 39 percent of Hmong Americans can afford health insurance. Around 28 percent live in poverty. These statistics stem from America’s broken promise, and the Hmong people’s invisibility in U.S. history, despite their service to the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Hmong refugees were resettled in some of the most neglected neighborhoods, and many of them are among the poorest Asian Americans. They are not ones who benefit from white adjacency.
We need to tell Thao’s story not to vindicate him, but because the same system that killed George Floyd also created Tou Thao. If a system creates its victims, does it not also create its villains?
Yet, like others who have been caught in political flashpoints, the cumulative weight of historic injustice falls on Thao, and he is suddenly cast as the oppressor, the privileged. In this reconstruction, his failure to act unleashes an avalanche of wrath and judgment. This loaded story was written long before Thao even showed up at the scene. It was written through the merciless killings of Eric Garner, Michael Brown, Walter Scott, Alton Sterling, and countless others. It was written by a culture of fear, the ideology of police departments, the acceptance of gun proliferation in America, and a system that presupposes a clear divide between the good and the bad.
As Asian Americans, we are caught in a fishing net. We are grouped together, creating a facade of unity, not because of any inherent commonality, but situationally, as a result of being in the same space and time. This grouping deprives us of the original background that may explain some of our motives and understandings. The deep ocean from which we have been gathered is rendered irrelevant when discussing how best to survive in our new, common displacement.
Perhaps it is this limitation that allows writers like Jeff Yang to ask on CNN, “Do we seek adjacency to whiteness, or coalitions of color?” or for an op-ed in Truthout to claim that Asian Americans have been complicit in “white supremacy.”
Reducing the survival strategy of more than 20 million Asian Americans as “white adjacency” ignores the centuries of history of diverse groups of people who immigrated with their own value systems as well as social and economic strategies acquired over generations. It deprives us of our own cultural frameworks and perspectives. How did any of us manage to survive before there were white people to suck up to?
This framing renders Asian Americans as parasites, creatures who cannot exist on their own. It also centers whiteness as omnipotent. What do we say of our own agency, our participation in our own histories? How easy to simply blame the white people. Have we only played supporting roles, always aligning ourselves to forces larger than ourselves?
Setting up the country as a binary system serves to silence Asian Americans. We are reminded once again that, in America, we live in a black-and-white world. Our only choice is to be subsumed into one of the two groups and become either complicit in white racism or enlightened supporters of Blacks. In this binary framework, we negate ourselves as people with different, unique perspectives, with the ability to pave new paths. We are given the illusion of choice, but it is clear that the cost of membership is to align with one of the two identified groups. Implicit in this argument is a concession that alone, we are powerless. When we speak up, we are nothing but a reverberation. We are forever sidekicks.
In this black-white framework, we are judged not against a full spectrum of values relevant to our personal lives, but what is deemed to be relevant at this point in time in America. In this situation, the actions of all Asian Americans of the present and past are filtered and judged through the lens of Black-white racism in America; other possible interpretations are not even considered.
What remains is a thin narrative of us. We are not afforded any subplots that may cut against the larger narrative on race. When we are left with only one or two possible storylines for Asian Americans and we are limited to singular attitudes (“many of us have internalized a racist, reductionist history”) and motives (“their (sub)conscious preferences for lighter complexions is a result of deep-seated anti-Blackness”), we are once again reduced to stereotypes.
This binary framing also negates the complicated history of Asians in America. Among ourselves, we have often wondered where we stand. We have fought against white majorities as well as other ethnic minorities. We have also stood alone when alliance was not available. We have wondered if we are a distinct group onto ourselves, and how we fit into the larger story around race in America.
This uncertainty and complexity is also a part of the story of Asian Americans. There are important reasons to support Black Lives Matter. We must not tolerate a state of terror against our Black friends. We should be outraged at a justice system that condones extrajudicial killings. We must condemn a culture that promotes a sense of safety for some at the cost of others. We must not perpetuate a state that inflicts needless trauma on its own people. We must reject a caste system that creates a perpetual cycle of disenfranchisement and oppression.
The rapidly growing list of innocent Black people murdered for no justifiable reason raises the urgency to support BLM and to speak out. We should speak up —- loudly and with indignation.
It is possible to speak up without shaming each other or effacing ourselves. We can speak up because we care. Because we are citizens. Because we have a voice. Because we too are fed up with the injustice of it all.
Those who purport to speak for us all should attune to the silence among us. If some of us are silent, perhaps it is because there are painful truths in our corner. Racism comes in many forms. We have been called Chinks and told to go home, and not just by white Americans. When white Americans speak to each other, Black Americans recede. When Black Americans speak to white Americans, we recede.
As a college student in April 1992, I watched, glued to the TV to news footage of the Los Angeles Riots, as Korean American shopkeepers standing on the roofs of their stores were portrayed as menacing vigilantes. At that time, I wondered, who will speak for us? Who will humanize us and our parents? It is painful now to read Asian Americans typecast as racist perpetrators of a white system, as its beneficiaries, when Korean Americans have been burned by the very fire started by the system.
Sara Li’s one-line description of the LA Riots as simply a consequence of “anti-Blackness” of the Korean American community pits all the blame on one side, with no understanding of the systemic dynamics involved. The ongoing failure of America to redress its 400-year history of enslavement and oppression came crashing down that day in 1992 on one immigrant community.
Let us not confuse casting stones with speaking up. Historically, Asian Americans have not been shy about breaking the silence to distance themselves. Filipinos argued they were not Mongolians to fight for rights not afforded to other Asians. During World War II, Korean Americans and Chinese Americans wore buttons that said “I’m no Jap” and “I am Chinese” when Japanese Americans were rounded up like cattle and thrown into pens in the middle of forlorn deserts. The rest of the Asian American community let others know they were not Koreans during the LA Riots. And what better way to distance ourselves from the likes of Tou Thao than by condemning him? By casting our stones at him, we publicly differentiate ourselves and position ourselves as the good ones.
The imperative for Asian Americans to find safety is understandable, especially against the bursts of hate crimes reignited by the pandemic. However, it is a misguided hope that just an alliance with one or another dominant group in the U.S. will save us. Time and again, alliances have frayed in times of strife. We may wax solidarity now, but no one admits that it is easier to do so when our businesses are not the ones being looted, when our parents are not perched on roofs of our small businesses armed with handguns, when there are no picket lines in front of our groceries and liquor stores, when we’re not cast as the enemy.
When we have been cast as the enemy, as in the Red Apple boycott or the L.A. Riots, the only voices that rang out were those asking for police protection, which never came. The Asian American alliance did not materialize.
I am not suggesting we give up on collective action. There is power in numbers, but we will never be seen or heard as a group unless we are seen and heard as individuals. A collective without humanity is no different than an enemy. The current BLM protests were fueled by George Floyd’s humanity. His cries for his mom reached the ears of mothers in all corners. His vulnerability in those terrible minutes spoke louder than any statistic or missive. We cannot forfeit our humanity for the sake of the collective, no matter how expedient it feels in the moment.
Asian Americans’ call to arms in the shadows of Tou Thao’s inaction is a screed of shame: For not having done enough for our Black friends; for being too successful; for not having suffered as much as our Black and brown friends; for having aunties with racists views; for enjoying the privileges of capitalism; for taking on the wrong survival strategies; for not being brown enough. We are an underdeveloped bunch who fail to live up to the ideals of American democracy, who inadequately exercise the right to protest. We cannot avoid comparing ourselves to other ethnic groups, even as it plays into the hands of racist policies that set up success as a zero-sum game.
Tou Thao has unleashed all of our misgivings. It is not simply enough to support BLM; we have to fall on our swords and repent. We need to prove we belong as we see ourselves through the judging gaze of other communities.
One day, we will be afforded all the foibles and emotions that come with being human. One day, we will enjoy an identity that is not fused with all others who look like us. Maybe we will get there if we put down our stones long enough to own up to them.
Shinyung Oh is a former lawyer, an associate marriage and family therapist, and a blogger at www.capriciousbubbles.com. She lives in the Bay Area with her husband and two children.