The tragic murder of George Floyd in May 2020 propelled the Black Lives Matter movement onto the global stage, fueling a wave of protests worldwide that brought to arms’ length the promise of lasting, real change for marginalized groups. Although there were notable improvements in recognition and awareness around these issues, today there are still gaping holes accompanied by faded voices and unanswered questions. For example, as of today, the police officer involved in the death of 26-year-old Breonna Taylor still has not been charged with her death, only with wanton endangerment. While the Black community has been valiantly rallying together and applying pressure to institutions and legal justice systems, there has been a significant reduction in the support and allyship of this movement from non-black folk.
In particular, the support from the Asian community through social media has been inconsistent, plentiful at moments yet the effort unsustained. In fact, a recent study by PEW research center showed that ~20% of Asians self-reported paying “less attention” to issues of racial inequality from July to September 2020, the highest proportion compared to White, Black, and Hispanic respondents. This has left the Black community with less and less traction to pursue justice with each passing day. While many have purported that diminishing support has been the result of performative allyship and eventual desensitization to the issue, I don’t believe we lack empathy and care. I believe that part of the problem lies in a comfortable complacency many Asians have grown accustomed to. I hope that by speaking on this issue as an Asian, we can understand what our faults are and where areas of improvement lie, to ultimately help recreate a society that is fair and just.
A great majority of our Asian communities values societal prosperity, collectivism, and communitarianism. We pride ourselves in having harmonious relationships and having the appropriate respect for authority figures. Although these values are essential in any society, especially in the 21st century, they have to an extent unknowingly upheld existing barriers which reinforce inequalities for the Black community. Truth be told, a lot of Asian immigrants in Western societies have historically been taken advantage of for their labour, and have also experienced their share of racism and prejudice. According to Ellen Wu, a professor at Indiana University, the myth of the model minority concept originated in attempts from Asian immigrants and workers to assimilate into American culture, through demonstration of strong family values and hard work. Similar efforts from other minorities at the time, notably the Black community, were not met with the same support from politicians in power. Moreover, the model minority myth was indeed used as a political rhetoric to fight against the civil rights movement during the mid-1950s and ‘60s. The Black community was challenged: If the Asian community fit in comfortably, why couldn’t they? Of course, we now know these were political strategies used to quell protests and to silence the struggle for social justice.
Today, perhaps it is the need in Asian communities to identify as a “model minority” that prevents us from escaping our cycles of complacency and taking more sustained action for other communities. Indeed, this status and terminology of being a “model minority” is quite damaging, implying that other minorities can be lesser. They also embolden proponents of this myth to perpetuate racist and discriminatory rhetoric. Today, even with the conversion of overt racism into more covert and implicit manifestations, many Asian communities have adjusted to this as a reasonable way of life, an acceptable status quo. While we cannot take away from the individual ways in which Asians and minorities experience day to day life, we can surely agree that the lived Black experience is quite different. Furthermore, the self-identification of communities, as well as how they are perceived by others in society, can have direct ramifications on livelihood and wellbeing. A study conducted by Brown University economist Nathaniel Hilger demonstrated increased household earnings in Asian Americans when they experienced less racism. The complacency our own communities demonstrate not only divides society, but is actually detrimental to all marginalized communities, including our own. Our deep social responsibility to step up and advocate for lasting change must involve reflecting on our own history and how our communities stand in society. I believe that educating ourselves on these issues is an active responsibility and uniquely individual journey – it is not the responsibility of Black people to teach us how we should behave; rather, we must take a long look at our personal and cultural biases and then demand better from ourselves moving forward.
Most of us who identify as Asian can probably attest to how our parents taught us to respect elders and authority, to not get involved with the business of others, and to work hard. It is important to appreciate where these lessons came from while also recognizing their consequences. For many of our parents, some of these guiding principles were practical methods to make ends meet. Unfortunately, some of these principles have unknowingly made our Asian communities more closed off, less receptive to the difficulties and challenges other marginalized communities face. The societal prosperity and harmony which we all covet won’t come if injustices against the Black community continue. We must work hard to make things right, and this is our opportunity, indeed our responsibility, to take lead in creating positive, permanent change.
Sure enough, we know that meaningful -albeit difficult – conversations need to be had with our social circles and our extended families. I have felt hesitance to bring these up in my extended family too, but we cannot expect a social media post or two to create lasting change. While it is easy to recirculate and post about societal issues when everyone else is, it is the sustained, unique, courageous advocacy – the voice when things get quiet – that makes the largest difference.
Interestingly, a recent PEW Research Center Study demonstrated that only 23% of American users say social media has changed their opinions on a given issue. With this in mind, I believe that change requires a proactive, dedicated, creative, and concerted approach. Change is fought for with constructive communication, with mutual respect and openness, with action. One first action step can be to simply read up on the history of discrimination, social justice, and advocacy in our local communities and districts. At times, I have felt awkwardness in starting these conversations with my Black friends. However, these conversations have all paved way to new insights, self-reflection, and dynamic opportunities for change. For me, holding mutual accountability by asking friends to take action together has also been a good strategy. This has ranged from walking a protest together to researching relevant books and documentaries. Indeed, with how connected we are to our phones, our families, and our group chats in these trying times of quarantine and pandemic, these are all moments for us to ignite the right conversations. Taking a minute for a text message is the opportunity to continually amplify innumerable fighting voices. As a member of the Asian community, remembering our history and our values provides us with guidance on how to move forward. I believe that these are very challenging times, but they also signal our societies’ opportunities for the greatest growth.
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