A Critical View On Asian Activism: Do They Represent Us? Or Undermine Us?

(12 min read)

The Erasure and Downplay of Anti-Asian Racism 

A recent video surfaced from CBS News and various news media outlets, in which a Black woman was seen in a heated argument with a nail salon worker in East Flatbush, Brooklyn, NY. According to the information provided by an article in The Washington Post, the woman, named Christina Thomas, headed to Happy Red Apple Nails on August 3, 2018, for a manicure, pedicure, and eyebrow wax. To summarize the events that transpired, Thomas disliked the eyebrow wax she received and refused to pay for the service, though the manager Michael Lim was reported saying that “[Thomas] didn’t like it and doesn’t want to pay for nothing,” to which a verbal altercation broke out and escalated into a physical one.

Two videos of the incident have surfaced on YouTube, and upon watching the video, the ambience of the salon appears to be normal. From the first video footage posted, a customer, supposedly Thomas, appears to be unsatisfied with the eyebrow wax she received and expresses her sentiments to the manager. The two of them converse with one another, before she steps out of view from the security camera. In the second video, another Black woman, possibly an affiliate of Thomas, appears to be leaving, albeit she begins lifting equipment on a worker’s table in a rather aggressive manner before doing so. She is then seen cracking her knuckles. One of the salon workers tells the women to leave, before grabbing a broom when the women starts approaching her. Other employees begin to aggregate there, before another worker tells the two customers to leave. Both the employees and the customers start pushing one another, before one of the customers aggressively shoves an employee, and the fighting starts.

In light of the recent event, several Asian Americans and Asian American organizations have taken to social media to express their thoughts on the matter, as well as the general relations between the Black and Asian communities. Unfortunately, a bulk of them seem to echo the same sentiment: Asian Americans are typically racist against Blacks.

One of them included the Twitter user Mark Tseng-Putterman of 18MR, a writer and a PhD student, who has, at the time this was written, now deleted his account.

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Two Asian American organizations, including 18MillionRising.org or 18MR.org and Grassroots Asians Rising, both with the purpose of centering issues that afflict the Asian American diaspora and promoting discussion, has also commented on the altercation that took place.

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Grassroots Asians Rising published an extensive statement in response to the event, which can be read below. To summarize, they believe that the nail salon workers had stepped out of line and that this incident serves as an example of anti-black racism, a major issue in need of addressing and resolving within the Asian American community, and an “exploitative and abusive” relationship between the Black and Asian communities.

In addition to the statement that 18MR.org quoted above, they also argued “there is little relationship built with the community [from Asian-owned businesses in predominantly Black neighborhoods], and profits are prioritized over the humanity and well-being of Black communities.” They also go on to say that “Asian business owners will operate while neither providing job opportunities… nor becoming intimately part of the communities, which makes it clear that it is a transactional relationship where Black communities are only a source of profit and nothing else.” The organization, believing that owners like these are not focused on establishing two-way relationships with the Black communities, are suggesting that the incident be a call to action, an incentive to “step up and be a part of the communities, hire locally, give back, and treat customers and communities with the respect they deserve.”

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Another user by the name of Kristin Chang, a writer and poet, comments about the violence Asian American community deals to the Black community, while expressing disappointment at the support of the impending theatrical release of Crazy Rich Asians from her own community.

ZasadIn addition, the Chinese community in Brooklyn has recently given their take on the incident. According to John Chan, the Asian American Community Empowerment President, “this episode involved only one store in an area where relations between Chinese-Americans and African-Americans have largely been harmonious.” An apology was demanded of both the community and the owner of the nail salon, and Chan admits that “even as many of our countrymen in the food befell victims to murderous and violent assaults… [they’ve] never held an entire population accountable.” According to Summer Chan of the Chinese-American Nail Salon Association, who spoke with the owner, “after… [removing] the $5 eye brow charge and an extra $3 from the bill, the customers allegedly refused to pay for their entire bill, including two pedicures, totaling $31.” The owner then called the police, only to be put on hold for about twenty-three minutes, in which the altercation began to occur. One customer and one employee was charged, and the employee was hospitalized.

It is unclear as to whether or not the people making these claims have seen the full footage, considering how quickly these statements were published and how belligerently the Black women acted towards the employees. They were instructed to leave multiple times, indicating that the workers had dropped the issue of Thomas refusing to pay for the services she requested. From what the videos suggests, the altercation escalated due to their reluctance to leave and one of the customers’ refusal to pay. Regardless of race, it is expected that people pay for the services they are receiving; nail salon workers are expending their energy and time for the customers. Thomas claims that she refrained from paying due to her disliking the work done on her eyebrows, which is understandable, but assuming she had other services done, it was morally impermissible of her to not pay for them.

Removing these people’s arguments and claims from this particular incident, why are they problematic? For one, these statements are, more often than not, made by Asian American individuals and organizations with a voice and a following– people who have palpable influence over or happen to speak on behalf of the Asian American community. Pushing forth the narrative that Asian Americans are intrinsically anti-Black, that they regularly commit crimes against the Black community, or happen to be frequent perpetrators in anti-Black racism is disingenuous and only serves to further ramp up the tension between the two communities.

In regards to the responses to the nail salon incident, specifically, 18MR.org and Grassroots Asians Rising’s claim that the nail salon workers or Asian people would have never reacted in such an antagonistic manner towards White people is false. Spreading the notion that Asians in Western countries will remain passive when antagonized or attacked only furthers the stereotype that all Asian immigrants or those born in Western countries are meek and eager to kowtow to White people. Considering the amount of privilege that White people have, these types of sentiments will only make Asians easier targets to pick on.

Take, for an example, a similar incident that occurred at HD Nails, in which a White woman refused to pay for the services she received, and the manager proceeded to lock her in. Both the customer and nail salon workers received injuries and bruises when the altercation escalated and became physical.

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According to an article on BBC, the Chinese community in France faces similar issues. As with Asian Americans, casual racism is rampant there, evidenced by the generalizations quoted by the community there—that they are “weak, will not fight back, and carry a lot of cash.” As a result, the diaspora in France is frequently subjected to violent attacks and robberies, which appeared more and more amplified with time. Supposedly, over one-hundred attacks transpired over a span of seven months. A university student who goes by the alias David Liu says that he had been “assaulted and robbed by a gang of youths in a side street when he was in primary school” and that his family members had also been targeted before. One particular incident, in which a father named Zhang Chaolin was targeted by three teenagers and wound up dying in a hospital afterwards, served as fuel for protests.

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(Photo Source)

Another problem with these aforementioned Tweets and statements is the amount of virtue-signaling present in them. For those who are not aware, virtue-signaling occurs when the person in question makes public statements to exude their moral superiority on a topic. All of them openly speak about how Asian Americans are racist against the Black community, about how supposedly self-serving they are, without offering any plausible or tangible solutions to address the issues that the Black community faces. They do so while defaming the Asian American community, which they belong to and should be primarily speaking on behalf of, as people with influence, which is dangerous. In the case of Kristin Chang, she decides to slander and denigrate the Asian American community for being violent towards the Black community. The problem with this is that it again erases and downplays the crimes and struggles afflicting the Asian American diaspora.

Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 5.42.02 PMBy doing so, these individuals and organizations are tangentially perpetuating the model minority myth, a harmful notion that not only undermines the financial hurdles that the Asian American diaspora experiences, but also serves to pit Asians against other racial minorities, especially Blacks. According to an article on Slate, the model minority myth is often used to encourage the Black community to pull itself up by the bootstraps, connecting the cause of poverty to culture. It also downplays the issue of wealth disparity within the Asian American community, as it fails to take into account of the various factors and outliers that may skew the data. Research from the Pew Research Center shows that Asian Americans have an alarming wealth gap between various ethnicities, as the community is not a monolith, with socioeconomic backgrounds playing a significant role. Perpetuating this myth has ramifications, not only for Asian Americans, but other racial minorities as well.

To add to that, regardless of whether this is the intent of these organizations and leaders, they appear to be echoing similar sentiments to that of most White people nowadays. When engaged in discourse about the struggles of people of color, their focus seems to primarily center and promote Afro-pessimism, a normalized narrative in Western countries that paints Africans as incapable of escaping victimhood and unlikely to attain economic growth. In other words, these Asian American spokespeople appear to be adopting an assimilationist strategy, one in which they remain within the constraints of white supremacy, as a means to attain power and a voice. According to a paper written by Kevin Shawn Hsu, a problem with resorting to these tactics is that it fails to challenge white supremacy, does little to change the status quo, and furthers ignorance regarding the discrimination and marginalization of Asian Americans.

In addition, the rhetoric that hate crimes and attacks inflicted on Asian Americans are not severe or that they are not common is one that needs to be eradicated. Twitter user Ren has compiled a list detailing crimes against native Asians and Asian diaspora; the list itself is not exhaustive, as there are cases that are potentially either missed or not reported due to issues such as language barriers. A member of the Journey to the West podcast, as well as writer for NextShark and April Magazine, J. Maraan brought to the forefront examples of crimes targeting Asians. In her article, she goes on to highlight a few cases, one in which an elderly Korean woman was physically attacked by a white woman, who proceeded to yell “white power!” before fleeing the scene, and a case where a Vietnamese-American man was verbally assaulted with racist comments by three White people who decided to cut him in line, before being physically attacked—a crime the police later stated was not racially motivated.

There was also a case earlier this year, after a series of attempted attacks directed towards him and his family, where restaurant owner named Hong Zheng was shot and killed. He and his family were subjected to a total of five attempted robberies and break-ins. (Photo Source)Screen Shot 2018-08-15 at 5.47.36 PM

In addition, in places such as San Francisco, black on Asian crime is not uncommon. According to an article on SFGate, “in eighty-five percent of the physical assault crimes, the victims were Asian, and the perpetrators were African American.” Reasons for the tension and hostility between the two communities in the area include perceived invasion of territory by Asians, as well as preconceived notions that Asians are “the favored minority.”

What about hate crimes committed by Asians towards Blacks, as Kristin Chang claims? According to the data gathered by the Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2016, which was the most recent data available at the time of writing this, there were only seventeen offenders who acted out of anti-Black sentiments, in contrast with 1,142 White offenders, eighty Black offenders, and eighty-two Hispanic or Latino offenders. Even when observing data gathered prior to that year on the Federal Bureau of Investigation website, Asian offenders generally do not target Black individuals at the same rate as other individuals of other races. Arguing that they commit violent acts towards them daily is false; it is also quite concerning, as this rhetoric will only create tension between both Asians and Blacks.

All of these aforementioned examples serve as a reminder that the Asian American diaspora suffers as well. The lack of news media coverage, as well as the possibility of crimes directed towards the community to be underreported, does not and should not undermine the weight of these issues. Censoring and undermining these problems will only be detrimental to the community, and falsely perpetrating the narrative that “Asians are not subject to crimes and attacks” is disingenuous and harmful. It is important to abstain from playing oppression Olympics; whichever group has it worse is irrelevant. What matters is that these problems and hurdles exist for the communities, and they should be addressed accordingly.

One criticism that people may have to all of this is where native Asians, those born and raised in Asia, fall into all of this, considering that there have been incidents in which anti-Black racism was apparent. The infamous laundry detergent commercial from China, one in which a Chinese woman is seen leading a Black man to a washing machine, only to shove him into it, apply detergent, and reveal an attractive Chinese man appearing at the end instead, is one that is often cited. The South Korean entertainment industry, as well as celebrities, also receive some backlash from time to time whenever an actor or artist decides to don blackface. One such notable example includes Apink’s Bomi.

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While, yes, this behavior is undeniably racist and should be heavily ostracized, conflating native Asians with diasporic Asians is problematic. Again, the Asian American community itself is not monolithic, given how culturally and ethnically diverse it is, much less the entire Asian population on the planet. Treating the two as if they are equivalent to one another only perpetuates the stereotype and misconception that “Asians are all the same and interchangeable.” The same would apply to native Asians themselves, even to those within a specific ethnicity or nationality, considering how significantly larger in numbers they are compared to the Asian diasporas and how geographical area and culture can again influence how they think and behave. Nuance and unaccounted factors are important to take into consideration, as they can easily skew reality.

In addition, while addressing these issues, it is essential to take into consideration of double standards. If one were to take on another perspective, for example, the racially-tinted perspective often held towards Black people, one would notice that there are a significant number of unflattering stereotypes and preconceived notions of them. They are often perceived as belligerent, dangerous, and unrefined. As people learn more and work to fight against these harmful stereotypes, knowing full well of the ramifications that can and will come about, it is important to recognize that these issues do not only afflict the Black community. Similar issues also afflict the Asian American diaspora: these notions all serve to smear them and paint them as self-serving and racist– with a bias in favor of Whites and a bias against Blacks. As the general population does and should not tolerate racist notions or insulting caricatures of Black people, it is fair to expect the same for other racial minorities as well. If possible, one should refrain from holding double standards.

Of course, this is not to say that the Black community does not struggle with its own unique brand of problems, problems that other racial minorities may be ignorant of, but it is possible to discuss the issues that afflict their community without it being done at the expense of the Asian American community or any other racial minority. The problems that Asian diaspora faces is not, even a modicum, less relevant than the ones the Black community faces. Yes, bias is almost unavoidable, and most individuals are inherently going to be more or less biased in favor of their own. Generally, it is not morally impermissible to look out for oneself and one’s own community, supposing that it is not done at the expense of others. It is important to remember that people of color in Western countries are ultimately oppressed and marginalized by White supremacy– by White people– a system that serves to establish a racial hierarchy where Whites are the top.

Guest contributor Ji Xian is a Chinese-Vietnamese queer woman. She is currently a college student studying nursing.

[Edited by Benny]

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