Protests surrounding the heinous murder of George Floyd have taken place in all 50 states and more than 700 cities in America. 50 other countries from all continents (except Antarctica) have also protested. Countries with the highest number of cities joining the rally for justice are England and Canada, followed by Australia and New Zealand. The Black Lives Matter movement is the largest civil rights movement in history.
Hundreds of people have also protested in Tokyo. Seoul held its first peaceful protest on June 6, and has a series of other virtual ones planned. K-Pop fans all over the world have been clogging the #WhiteOutWednesday and #BlueLivesMatter hashtags on social media with fancams of their favorite idols. But many parts of Asia remain detached from the Black Lives Matter movement, with no organizing activists or little support.
The nature of that detachment goes beyond physical distance and mono-ethnicity. Asian countries have issues at home, preoccupied with their own crises of immediate concern. Hong Kong has been protesting against China for democratic reform for over a year, facing violent police brutality every day. The Philippines is on the verge of legislating the Anti-Terrorism Act of 2020, which would allow law enforcers to broadly define acts of “terrorism” and potentially, wrongfully punish human rights activists. The Black Lives Matter movement was even classified as a terrorist act in the country to spur the bill’s passage.
As a result, supporters of BLM in Asia are met with hateful criticism, spurring a rise in anti-Black rhetoric among opposers. This negative sentiment doesn’t just exist all over Asia, but in the international Asian communities in America and beyond. Those of us who are informed on the true cause, intention and reality of the Black Lives Matter movement have the obligation to educate our communities. Around the world, we need to engage in on-the-ground, individual conversations with friends and family to address sensitive cultural nuances. We cannot establish effective allyship without actively working towards change from within.
Historically, Asians and Asian-Americans have been in continuous conflict with the Black community. Most recently, news on coronavirus-related hate crimes against Asians around the world sparked outrage. Even though not all perpetrators were Black, viral footage of Black people harassing innocent Chinese or Koreans are still fresh on people’s minds. In Los Angeles, ethnic tensions between Asians and Blacks started to brew in the 1980s, when a surge in Korean migration to the city led to numerous cases of interracial conflict. This is most recounted through the 1992 LA riots following the brutal police beating of Rodney King, where it was the Korean-owned businesses that suffered the most devastating loss from the lootings.
This decades-long conflict is aggravated by Asians’ own experience with racism as people of color. It is a common Asian experience to have often felt personally harassed by Black people with derogatory slurs or physical abuse. Of course, not all Asians are forming toxic rhetoric around the Black Lives Matter movement. But it is enough to cause concern. As the media continues to sensationalize BLM-related lootings, many are quick to wrongfully criticize BLM and fail to see past their personal biases. This is fueling a dangerously negative outlook on the movement, and consequently on Black people, further deepening ethnic friction and divide.
For example, so much as a gesture of supporting BLM-related charity funds can spur outrage among Koreans on the Internet. Some of the most common reactions are: “Why do you support Black Lives Matter and not initiatives in our own country?” or “Why should we care about Black people who are racist themselves?” The very validity of the phrase “Black Lives Matter” is being called into question repeatedly, because Asians have felt that their lives did not matter to Black people.
“We’ve seen a lack of representation with Asians at these protests,” rapper Dumbfoundead says in a recent podcast. “I have seen a lot of ignorance right now in my community. There is this other side of the Asian community who are not in solidarity. If we don’t educate and talk to them, [that will] push them away, [but] you want them as your ally.”
Below are some conversation points we can refer to when speaking with friends and family to combat anti-Black sentiment in our communities.
Why should Asians even care about Black Lives Matter?
Asians abroad who are watching the protests from afar may question the need to even concern themselves with Black Lives Matter because it feels too distant from them. “A lot of people in Asia hardly interact with Black people their whole lives,” says Terrence Kim, co-founder of Korean fashion brand IISE. “It’s not that they are necessarily against Black Lives Matter, but it is just not a priority for them.”
But the international Asian community is still accountable, because it perpetuates anti-Black sentiment. This past April, a McDonald’s restaurant in Guangzhou openly banned Black people from entering. In Singapore, the use of “brownface” is still prevalent, despite the country being lauded for its modern policy and thriving economy. Asians, both East and Southeast Asians alike, have been known to carry a visceral, post-colonial aversion to dark skin, resulting in a multibillion-dollar skin-whitening industry. These everyday biases accumulate and directly feed into the maintenance of structural racism against Black people all over the world.
In a digital episode of his show Patriot Act, Hasan Minhaj echoes that these anti-Black ideas permeate South Asia as well. “I know how we talk about Black people. Asians, we love seeing Black excellence — Barack, Jay, Beyonce — on screen, in our living rooms. But if a Black man walks into your living room? Or wants to, god forbid, date your daughter?” Minhaj asks before answering: “You’d call the cops.”
As the “model minority,” Asian-Americans have been complicit to the system built upon white supremacy, so tangibly evidenced by the complicity of former Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao in the killing of George Floyd. “We are witnesses to a crime,” podcast producer Isaac Lee says on an episode of The David Chang Show. “And as witnesses, we have the obligation, whether it’s beneficial to [us] or not, to be on the stand and testify. Being passive right now is letting things continue as they are.”
Asians and Asian-Americans also continue to benefit from Black culture. It was the sacrifice of the Black community and its civil rights activism that allowed all other minorities to immigrate, gain rights and improve their livelihood abroad. Countless Asian businesses and figures still profit from the creation and promotion of Black culture, especially in music and fashion. It is exploitative and counterintuitive to appropriate and consume Black creativity without supporting Black Lives Matter.
The relevance of Black Lives Matter will only continue to grow around the world, and its effects will last beyond city marches and social media trends. BLM is an unprecedented movement transforming all aspects of life beyond America’s social and political spheres. It is imperative to understand the validity of BLM to navigate these shifts that will continue to change our everyday language surrounding race.
Black Lives Matter does not overlook oppression against Asians or the importance of “All Lives.”
Asian opposers of Black Lives Matter often fail to distinguish isolated incidents of racism with prolonged systemic racism. A common misunderstanding of Black Lives Matter is that it overlooks or tolerates Black people being the racist oppressor against Asians and other non-Black people of color.
It is ignorant to dismiss the entire Black community as guilty of racism because of personal experience or select viral videos. The perpetrators of these incidents hardly represent the entire Black population. The institutionalized racism that led to the death of George Floyd goes beyond mere prejudice. It is embedded in the very governmental and corporate structures that enable law enforcers to use excessive force or even kill people for simply being Black.
Without condoning racist demeanor of any degree, it is essential to recognize that BLM stems from racial inequalities in housing, education, employment, the criminal system and even healthcare, upon which hinge the very life and death of Black people. “[Personal] trauma [with racism] can come in different forms and that is totally valid. But [as an Asian] I’m not worried about my life in a specific moment,” says David Chang in his podcast.
“Black Lives Matter” does not dispute the importance of all lives. It merely pinpoints the problem of racial oppression that is systemically designed to disproportionately target and kill Black people. Diving into a “What about me?” mentality and echoing “All Lives Matter” immediately misses the point and shadows the reason BLM had to come into fruition in the first place.
Looters are not protestors.
Another point of heated debate among Asian BLM-opposers surrounds the looting and seemingly indiscriminate property destruction caused by the protests. “The news heavily skews to showing the violence and looting part of it,” says Cindy Lim, co-founder of Korean-American streetwear label Sundae School. “The local media frames it that way, so international Asians have a misunderstanding. It’s really important to point out that the protestors and looters are different.”
Lim co-founded Project Rush Hour last week, an initiative to help donate money to small minority-owned businesses affected by looting. “Even the small businesses that have been looted are usually supporters of the BLM movement,” Lim says. “Looting is symbolic of human depravity and the destruction of capitalism and government structures. It’s sending a message that life is much more important than commercial goods.”
On May 31, Facebook photos posted by Chicago restaurant owner David Choi went viral, showing his Seoul Taco joint completely demolished from the riots. “Everything in my store will be replaceable… There are lives in our Black and minority communities that are NOT replaceable and that is the biggest root of the cause and effect of this situation,” his caption read.
Looters should be viewed as a select group of exploitative opportunists, completely separate from the protestors. More importantly, not all Black people are looting, and not all looters are Black. There are many, many more Black protestors and activists who do not condone the destruction of local communities which directly affects those most in need. In fact, most organizing protestors actively try to prevent looting or volunteer to clean up the aftermath of their own protests.
Be hopeful and commit.
We cannot combat racism with racism. Asians as people of color should not make judgements on the Black Lives Matter movement — and Black people in general — solely based on isolated incidents. BLM does not fight exclusively for Black lives, but against systemic oppression that unfairly targets Black people. Racism affects all minorities, and to combat racism of any kind, we must come together in alliance instead of arguing with each other.
Chris Ying, another producer of David Chang’s podcast, says, “Black people’s suffering and the systemic oppression and violence toward them does not invalidate your own suffering. What your pain and experience should do is give you a better basis for empathy.”
For many of us, it may be daunting to have these conversations with friends and family, especially with the older generation. But don’t underestimate their ability to understand and empathize. Our parents and the generations before them have gone through and endured more human conflict than we have.
There are already many helpful resources online directing Asians and Asian-Americans on how to approach these topics. Letters for Black Lives for example, is an ongoing, crowdsourced translation project appealing for BLM in more than 20 languages. We must muster the courage and hope to educate our communities, because that is what will give us the energy to continue driving these conversations for generations to come.