Local voices: AAPI and Black Liberation Asian population needs to speak up for other minorities
This past Fourth of July felt different to me. More than in the past, I felt hopeful for true change in our country. Though the violence and discrimination we have seen from our institutions has not yet changed, there is a greater recognition and celebration of Black excellence. More people are being put in the uncomfortable space of having to confront and unlearn their own prejudices and learn what it means to be anti-racist.
Recently, I read an op-ed titled "Freedom is our systemic value" published in this paper and written by James Mukoyama, an Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) veteran and community leader. While Gen. Mukoyama agreed that the death of George Floyd was horrific, he also contended that freedom, rather than racism, is our country's systemic value.
I was moved to write a response to this article because, as a fellow AAPI, I have heard this opinion from my own AAPI circles. It is a mindset that I have had to unlearn as I look back on my own experiences and push myself to be an ally and accomplice in the Black Lives Matter movement.
The term "systemic racism" refers to systems created by white American society that disproportionately and needlessly inflict harm on people of color, in particular Black and Indigenous populations. Systemic racism is the existence of police, a system created originally as slave patrols in the South and security from Black people for white landowners in the North. Systemic racism is also the War on Drugs, mass incarceration, wage gaps, health disparities, and so much more. The birth of our nation came from the genocide of Native people. Our country is stolen land. AAPI need to push themselves away from being labeled as complicit and white-adjacent and examine our own colorism and anti-Blackness in order to become allies.
That we should be grateful for the opportunities we have been provided in the U.S. is a very common idea in AAPI communities, often because our families immigrated here in search of a better life. Patriotism in the AAPI community becomes a defense of the American Dream: an assertion that it's attainable for others because our families have struggled and made it. This mindset is the core of the model minority myth and used by white institutions to discount the barriers that other populations face.
It erases the struggles AAPI have faced in the U.S. to make AAPI complacent; this is something we must challenge.
The first law passed to ban a specific ethnic or national group was the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882. It allowed the U.S. to openly discriminate against Chinese laborers and permitted the government to detain noncitizens for years, separating families whose children were naturalized citizens.
We see this same injustice today inflicted upon undocumented immigrants, including Sikhs and Southeast Asian refugees. The Immigration and Nationality act of 1965 was pivotal in changing the American landscape. Though it promised a more equal opportunity for non-Europeans to enter the states, it effectively only allowed highly skilled and educated Asians to obtain visas and immigrate.
This coincided with white Americans deploying the model minority myth to dismiss the pursuit of justice by Black activists during the Civil Rights Movement.
The material success of some AAPI became a tool for white America to justify existing disparities in living standards between white and Black people, disparities rooted in discrimination. These disparities persist in no small part because the racism that Black populations face is exceptionally violent and reinforced by the carceral state. The burden of fighting the oppressors has fallen on the shoulders of Black people for far too long. Where we have the choice to stay silent, they have no choice but to fight for their survival.
Ultimately, we need to become accomplices in challenging white institutions. Our experiences as AAPI are not homogenous, so we must reject the model minority myth that paints us all with the same brush.
AAPI have a strong activist history that I am proud of. As activist Grace Lee Boggs said, "The oppressed internalize the values of the oppressor. Therefore, any group that achieves power, no matter how oppressed, is not going to act differently from their oppressors as long as they have not confronted the values that they have internalized and consciously adopted different values."
Fighting for someone else's freedom does not imprison us; acknowledging someone else's struggles does not diminish ours.
• Yasmine Ramachandra of Northbrook is a graduate of Oberlin College ('19), Master of Science in Law candidate at Northwestern University ('21), founder of the Acorn Collective, and Chicago chapter leader in the National Asian Pacific American Women's Forum.