In the video capturing white police officer Derek Chauvin holding his knee to George Floyd’s neck for nearly nine minutes, we also saw an Asian American officer guarding the awful scene. At any point, Tou Thao could have interfered with Chauvin to make him stop, to say that he had gone too far, but he didn’t. And this silence makes him an accused accomplice to murder.
In addition to his inexcusable role in the murder of Floyd, Thao became an emblem of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) community’s complicity in perpetuating anti-Blackness as well as a cautionary tale. And yet, there was something about those connections that seemed simplistic to me.
That discomfort lies in my observation that so many AAPIs, and particularly AAPI activists, are quick to support social justice movements that impact others’ lives with very little to no reflection on how white supremacist systems impact our own. There is a disconnect between our communities’ experiences with discrimination throughout history and why we support the movement for Black liberation. It is this disconnect that leads us to feel guilty about the police officer being Asian American and quick to shame him because of his complicity. But we are not white and so we should not replicate white allyship.
As AAPIs, we often center our guilt about anti-Blackness in our communities. And anti-Blackness among AAPIs is real. But I also want us to reflect on how and why we’re supporting the movement for Black liberation. I would like AAPIs to think about standing in solidarity with Black Lives Matter and other racial justice movements as partners in the struggle rather than as allies.
Though we do not equate our struggles as AAPIs with the struggles of the Black community, we experience the effects of white supremacy too. White supremacy excluded Chinese people from entering the United States in 1882 through the Chinese Exclusion Act. White supremacy incarcerated more than 120,000 Japanese Americans in internment camps during World War II. White supremacy racially profiles the Muslim, Middle Eastern and South Asian American communities. White supremacy forces our parents, siblings, aunties and uncles to fear deportation.
Throughout history and especially now, we are committed to fighting white supremacy hand-in-hand with Black people, through co-creation and solidarity. AAPI liberation from white supremacy is dependent on Black Liberation from white supremacy and vice versa. We need to have conversations about and eliminate the anti-Black worldview and customs that many in our communities hold. This begins with understanding our own narrative of oppression, internalized racism and colonialism that created this anti-Black worldview in the first place.
In our activism, we must examine how we’re playing into the false idea that there is a hierarchy of oppression that demands that we show up for others before we fight for our own interests. Only when we are able to understand how we’re impacted by white supremacy will our solidarity with Black people be authentic and genuine. We will be able to show solidarity without shame or guilt, themes that I often hear from AAPI activists when we talk about how our own community is grappling with anti-Blackness.
When we deeply understand our own oppression and its source, we are able to say “Black Lives Matter” without feeling the scarcity that somehow our communities’ concerns and needs are being made invisible. We’re able to say, “Black Live Matter,” not out of guilt and shame for our relative privilege but out of the shared goal to dismantle the root causes of our shared struggles: white supremacy.
Our work is to help connect our stories and experiences so that folks in our community can see how white supremacy in this country affects us all. Our understanding of the ways our struggles are intertwined will help us become better co-conspirators and move beyond allyship. We cannot co-create a movement out of shame. We have to approach these conversations and our work within the community by first acknowledging in earnest and with specificity the impact of white supremacy on us and understand how our liberation is bound up in the liberation of Black, Brown and Indigenous people.
I truly believe that then we will build a stronger, more authentic movement for racial justice. As Lilla Watson, an Australian Aboriginal activist and artist once famously said, “If you have come here to help me, you’re wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” This is how AAPIs should approach our solidarity with the movement for Black lives and our shared struggles for liberation.
Sung Yeon Choimorrow is a first-generation immigrant working mom and serves as Executive Director of NAPAWF. Sung Yeon is also a board member of the Hana Center where she works with Korean American immigrants in Chicago.