The New Year is always a time for deep reflection and gratitude—all the more so in this most strange and traumatic of times when the deep injustices of society are laid bare.
I originally wrote a version of this piece as a draft email to my extended family back in June 2020 amid the historic Black Lives Matter uprisings—a powerful moment of collective trauma and collective awakening. But ever the perfectionist and procrastinator, I never finished writing the email. Well perhaps it makes more sense to bring this up now after the fervor has died down, as racial justice requires constant and sustained effort, not just when emotions and media attention are high. ISo in this time of reflection and hope, I want to share a bit of both.
As someone who has done a lot of internal anti-racism work, I still have so much to do to listen, learn, reflect, unlearn, and evolve in my own journey. Working in the nonprofit social justice sector as I have for the past five years, I have had to acknowledge and confront my racial and economic privileges—and how those privileges affect my attitudes and actions—as an affluent Asian American woman working in and with predominantly and systemically poor Black and brown communities. For the first time in my life, my race, class, and family privilege are front and center in my consciousness, as I am surrounded by colleagues who grew up cleaning houses with their mothers, whose parents have never owned a home, whose family members were murdered or incarcerated, who are the first in their family to go to college, who are undocumented, who have suffered serious trauma and instability in their life.
Within the past two years at my current social justice organization, despite my best intentions, I have been called out as “taking up too much space” and stepping on toes, as white people often do. My ego has been checked; I have been humbled. I am learning how and where to use my privilege and how and where to not. I am learning what I need to unlearn: what things I have absorbed and perpetuate from white supremacy culture—which is not about white hoods and confederate flags, but rather about deeply ingrained norms and behaviors (see http://bit.ly/whitesupremacyculture).
Anti-racism is a challenging, humbling journey. But as Ijeoma Oluo, author of So You Want to Talk About Race, says, “The beauty of anti-racism is that you don't have to pretend to be free of racism to be an anti-racist. Anti-racism is the commitment to fight racism wherever you find it, including in yourself. And it's the only way forward.”
WSo with that, I invite all of us to deepen our own journeys in anti-racism; reflect on our assumptions, racial and class privileges, beliefs, and actions; push our comfort levels into discomfort; and make changes within ourselves. I challenge us to consider that we can be good people and “liberals” and immigrants and people of color—and still be racist and/or benefit from and/or uphold the systems of white supremacy.
This is particularly true for us as Chinese/Asian Americans because we have unique and complex racial positioning. As my Cambodian American friend and former colleague described, Asian Americans are racialized in a unique way where we are conditioned to be complicit in anti-Blackness, eat up our proximity to whiteness, and simultaneously experience xenophobia and discrimination as “perpetual foreigners.”
Not to diminish nor be ungrateful for the hard work and sacrifice it took each of us to get to where we are now—especially the immigrant generations who first came to the United States and provided American-born generations like me with incredible opportunities—but we need to acknowledge the uncomfortable truth of Chinese Americans’ “proximity to whiteness” and the intersections of our racial and class privileges, especially given our lighter skin color and for many of us, high levels of education and consequent wealth. In her article “20+ Allyship Actions for Asians to Show Up for the Black Community Right Now,” anti-racism consultant Michelle Kim writes, “In our quest to survive, some of us may have been striving to become white-adjacent—as successful as white people, as fitting in and assimilated as white people, as deserving as white people of dignity and respect—and along the journey, consciously or subconsciously, have adopted the language and beliefs of White Supremacy and anti-Blackness” (see http://bit.ly/20allyshipactions).
For more historical context, check out Elena Kuran’s well-researched 2018 article, “Anti-blackness in Asian and Asian-American Communities,” where she goes deep into the white supremacist and divisive origins of the “model minority myth,” how we Asian Americans benefit from it (i.e. our general experience with police as a source of safety rather than a source of terror and violence), how we internalize it, and how it is a barrier to building cross-racial solidarity with Black struggles against systemic oppression (see http://bit.ly/asianantiblackness). The above articles and many more are included in an excellent compilation of resources for Asian American solidarity work that has been curated by Asian American anti-racist scholars (see http://bit.ly/resourcesforaapisolidarity). Personally, learning about the trailblazing work of Asian American women and Black liberation activists Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama has been hugely inspiring.
ISo in the spirit of the New Year, I share a bit of my journey and struggles in anti-racism in hopes that it will inspire you to dive deeper into yours, wherever you are in it. This stuff can be heavy and overwhelming, but there is no wrong way to start and no wrong age to start. I hope that when dinner gatherings are safe again, we can all have honest conversations with our family and friends around a dinner table surrounded by love, good food, and hopes and plans for a better, more racially just future.
Elsa Mei Tung is a public policy professional and social justice advocate who lives and works in Long Beach, CA.