By Mandy Day
AsAmNews Staff Writer
There has always been an ethnic hierarchy in the western world. The very system that rules the land in the United States existed to protect Whites when it was originally created. While the Bill of Rights was written in language inclusive of all people, we cannot ignore that millions of people were left out of our country’s most sacred legal document. Asians and Pacific Islanders have been living on U.S. soil since before the United States was a country. More than four hundred years ago, Filipinos arrived on the West Coast. With a massive wave of Chinese immigration in the 1800s, fearing the growing influence and power of Chinese in American society, Congress enacted the Chinese Exclusion Act, four years after Chinese immigrants were barred from obtaining U.S. citizenship. The decades following the Chinese Exclusion Act saw dozens of laws restricting the rights of immigrants from Asia, including another discriminatory law, The Immigration Act of 1924 (or Oriental Exclusion Act). Interracial marriage was illegal for Asian Americans, segregation was legal, and in 1942, Executive Order 9066 imprisoned 110,000 Japanese Americans in concentration camps without due process.
There are obvious parallels between the racism and discrimination against Asians and Asian Americans, and those committed against Native Americans, Latinos, and African Americans. What differentiates us from Blacks is that our population has been and continues to be largely influenced by immigration rather than citizens by birthright. With that select immigration comes a predominantly well-educated population of people, thus making East and South Asian, and Middle Eastern communities the most economically successful group of ethnic minorities. With that comes a higher status on the ethnic hierarchy mentioned above, and the still common assumption that some Asians are “model minorities”. The connection between APIA growth and civil rights in the U.S. are illustrated in an article by Christopher Punongbayan from 2015 on what we, as Asian Americans, owe African Americans. He wrote:
I am horrified by these deaths. But what is equally disturbing to me is how many Asian Americans distance themselves from these attacks on African Americans, as though what happens to another community of color has nothing to do with Asian Americans. This separation is destructive and perpetuates the model minority myth, a racial stereotype deeply ingrained in the American psyche asserting that Asian Americans aren’t like other (read: lesser) minority groups.
Humanity has entered an era where almost anything can be seen or found on the internet. Cameras are everywhere. Billions of people can access anything that is put on the web within seconds, and mobile technology has only increased what we see, how we learn, and our ability to affect change. In recent years, the killing of unarmed people by police has become something of an all too common occurrence. I have personally seen dozens of people die, and am disgusted by how voyeuristic it seems to watch the last seconds of a complete stranger’s life. White supremacy’s existence was easy to deny when proof of its continued existence wasn’t presented to us on a daily basis.
We didn’t see Oscar Grant die at the hands of a transit police officer in Oakland. We didn’t see Trayvon Martin’s last breath nor did we see what happened when Sandra Bland died in a jail cell in Texas under extraordinarily suspicious circumstances. But we saw Eric Garner, Tamir Rice, and more recently Alton Sterling and Philando Castile lose their lives. The latter two killings, I couldn’t bring myself to watch. Instead, watching Sterling’s eldest child fall apart on national television broke me. Any hope I had of change in how the U.S. does policing ended that night.
When I recollect my own experiences with racism, either as a witness or being subjected to it, I can’t imagine what it must be like for Latinos, African Americans, and Native Americans. Often mistaken for being Latina, my mother and I have been followed, discriminated against and pulled over when driving because we “looked suspicious”. If we looked East Asian, chances are that stereotypes applied to our ethnicity would have prevented us from most, if not all, of these experiences. This has driven me to be acutely aware of racism existent in our country, and outspoken of the injustices committed against targeted ethnic groups. Not surprisingly, many Asian Americans have remained largely silent on police brutality. The disproportionate number of Black, Latino, and Native people killed by police should be extremely alarming to Asian Americans. Our families, communities, and we have been in the very shoes these groups of people are in now, and pretty much always have been in. We have been dehumanized, abused, murdered, imprisoned, segregated, stereotyped and discriminated against. What is disturbing is how silent older generations of Asian Americans, the people who endured the worst of what American society and the U.S. government had to throw at them, have been. When people take to the streets to protest police brutality, the majority of Asian Americans who join them are not the elders. They’re the Millennials.
Looking back, anti-blackness has been extremely prevalent in East Asian communities. Is it because demonizing this group of people has imprinted itself in our cultures due to Western influence? Is it because many of our communities operate on the belief that Walter Scott, Miriam Carey, Rekia Boyd, and Laquan McDonald all had it coming to them somehow? Or are we just accepting that such violence is a part of life? Why is the apathy in the Asian American community so rampant? The Pew Research Center did a study on subconscious racial bias and found that only 22% of Asian-white subjects had no racial preference, and only 20% of monoracial Asians were bias free. We all grow and change as we age. Well, most of us do. I didn’t even notice my own prejudices until I was in college. With hopes of rectifying the problem, I educated myself on how economics, gender, race, education, and social structure all play a role in how we perceive groups of people. Many times, I find my own Japanese American community painfully patriarchal and agitating. Fighting elders who believe that being a part of Black Lives Matter equates to wanting all cops to die is draining and stressful. With the discouraging encounters and prevailing naiveté, there is hope.
The killings continue to draw more outrage and acknowledgment of racism’s existence in the U.S. from some very surprising sources, like conservative political leader Newt Gingrich. The pressure for change will continue to grow, and Asian Americans are becoming a vocal portion of the movement. The Japanese American Citizens League released a statement about race in America and a call to action for all Americans to combat racism and police brutality. So did the Council on American Islamic Relations, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and South Asian American Policy & Research Institute. Several APIA members of Congress have released statements decrying the disproportionate number of black men being killed by police including Rep. Mark Takano (D-Riverside) and Rep. Judy Chu (D-Los Angeles). Journalists, celebrities, and bloggers are speaking out trying to change the perception of non-Asian minorities in the U.S. like Scot Nakagawa who wrote about Asian racism for Race Files. Actor and activist George Takei has posted to his nearly ten million fans about Black Lives Matter and the counterproductive #AllLiveMatter hashtag. Even Forbes Magazine’s website published an article about Asian Americans taking action to show solidarity with Black Lives Matter.
Something I’ve always tried to live by (and have failed at innumerable times), that it is a wonderful thing to be proud of where you come from, your ethnic heritage, but you have to know when to call out your community too. Our silence and inaction is complicity. Just like cops who remain silent when fellow law enforcement officers violate the human and civil rights of people of color. By failing to acknowledge the existence of racism and look within ourselves to discover our own prejudices, we help perpetuate the ideology that has poisoned the core of our society. Our ethnicity does not define us, our humanity does.
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