In the immediate aftermath of the police shooting of unarmed black teen Michael Brown in Ferguson, Missouri, I wanted to listen, observe, and amplify the voices of African Americans. As an Asian American woman, I don’t know firsthand what it’s like to be followed around by security while shopping or to be stopped by police while jogging in an unfamiliar neighborhood. But I do know that racism is real, and I’ve also familiar the blank stares and disbelief from people who have not personally experienced the effects of racial discrimination.
But I also know that as an Asian American woman, I have a specific point of view in discussions of race relations in the United States, and this latest conversation about police profiling and brutality has been reduced in the public eye to a narrative about racist white cops and innocent black victims — or on the flip side — law-upholding white police and black rioters. Or perhaps we’ve heard the voices of whites who are grappling with the concept of privilege. But while statistics have been reporting a divide in the way the Ferguson story is perceived by blacks and whites, there is more to the story than can be told in just black and white. At the risk of inserting myself into a story that isn’t really mine, I know need to say that Asians do belong in the conversation about race and even as it pertains specifically to the police shooting death of Mike Brown and other African American men.
Twenty-five years ago this August, I walked into a freshman Asian American studies course at Berkeley. The first piece of reading on our syllabus was Richard Wright’s Native Son. Then there were poems by James Baldwin. Before we could crack open a book by Carlos Bulosan or Amy Tan, we were assigned Louise Erdrich and Richard Rodriguez. I will always remember my professors explanation: We cannot understand Asian American history without being aware of the complex racial history of the United States.
A few years later, during the riots in South Central L.A. after the Rodney King beating verdict, a new image of Asian-black race relations emerged. News reports flashed images of Korean shopkeepers arming themselves against black looters. As the events in and investigation in Ferguson continue to unfold, I’ve seen some attempts to revive that Asian-black tension, like The Daily Beast headline to Tim Mak’s story Ferguson’s Other Race Problem: Riots Damaged Asian-Owned Stores that seemed to be inspired by Spike Lee’s “Do the Right Thing”.
But look beyond the headline and you’ll see that the real story lies not in a simplistic Asian v. black conflict, but in the struggles of small businesses trying to file insurance claims and in the questions of whether law enforcement was protecting small businesses owned by Chinese or Indian Americans in the same way they would guard a Walmart or Starbucks.
Asian Americans Advancing Justice has issued a statement against The Daily Beast coverage. AAAJ Executive Director Stewart Kwoh warns the media not to pit communities of color against one another, as happened in LA in 1992:
“The Asian American and Pacific Islander community stands in solidarity with the African American community in this fight.”
But there are more subtle ways that Ferguson coverage could easily fall into old tropes. When Asian Americans don’t speak up about police violence and profiling of African Americans, some people assume our silence is complicity with white privilege. We could be better allies with our black fellow citizens, not because we are more privileged, but influence in our own circles.
The United States is a different place than it was in 1992. The Asian population more than doubled between 1990 and 2010, and the Hispanic population grew by nearly 25 percent. And access to the Internet means that there are many more perspectives that can be shared, not just the select images and stories we see on the networks or the major newspapers. Perhaps this time around, communities of color will be able to voice their own complicated, stories and not be pawns in convenient narratives. While African American men may be the most common victims of police shootings, other minorities are affected too. And it’s not just a matter of whether your particular demographic is at risk… it’s a humanitarian issue, and I’m heartened to see that other Hispanic, Muslim groups are speaking out too.
I’ve thought back many times to that college professor’s words: We cannot understand Asian American history without being aware of the complex racial history of the United States.
And I’d like to add my own version: We cannot understand the state of race of the United States without learning about the complex racial history of the United States, one that includes blacks, Asians, Latinos, and Native Americans.
Here are some other articles featuring Asian American perspectives on Ferguson:
Why Ferguson Matters to Asian Americans by Soya Jung on RaceFiles
Why All Communities of Color Must Demand an End to Police Brutality by Deepa Iyer on The Nation
Men Without a Country: Mike Brown, Trayvon Martin, My Father and Me by Arthur Chu on The Daily Beast
Three Ways AAPIs Can Help Seek Justice for Michael Brown on 18 Million Rising
News and Politics Editor Grace Hwang Lynch blogs about raising an Asian mixed-race family at HapaMama.
More from living