Updated: Sep 1
A look at Asians’ unwitting assistance to white supremacy, and the way out.
-Photo credit to Vox
I can’t tell you how many times I had to tell *unnamed male family member* that he shouldn’t say the N-word when I was growing up. One recurring argument he used to justify his behavior was that it didn’t matter since “everyone says it, all my friends.” Keep in mind that my family is Chinese-born but raised in Canada, so none of us had any right or reason to be using the N-word unless we were racist, which he was. Although he and his friends eventually stopped using the N-word, the factors behind why a group of largely East Asian boys exhibited such anti-Blackness would continue to persist, permeating and growing in the Asian community.
Many argue that Asians, specifically East Asians, have achieved a new status in today’s world: honorary whites. While there is merit to this idea, many scholars and Asian people like myself place too much emphasis on economic success or upward mobility as the cause of our ‘whitening’, and not enough on the rampant anti-Blackness in our communities. The reality is that we are being subsumed into whiteness, both unknowingly and willingly, through our deep anti-Blackness sentiments.
First, we need to realize that race is a social construct that produces real life impacts and consequences. Scholars such as Rashawn Ray trace the origin of race back to the discovery of the New World, when Anglo-Saxons sought to maintain their advantage and justify the Transatlantic Slave Trade through the concept of race. Race, or the social identification and classification of people, was crucial to the racial stratification that needed to occur for the sake of capitalist growth in early America. In other words, capitalism is not possible without racism, and racism is not possible without race. These constructions and structures serve a common goal of maintaining the racial hierarchy with white people at the top.
Sociologists Michael Omi and Howard Winant defines racial formation as the “sociohistorical process by which racial categories are created, lived out, transformed, and destroyed.” We can see this process play out through racial projects over time that define and redefine what it means to be white and non-white. From chattel slavery to the Jim Crow era, we’ve seen whiteness defined in starch opposition to Blackness—whiteness is pure, genetically superior, and associated with innocence, while Blackness is inherently inferior or evil or bad. Historian Danielle Bainbridge demonstrates how the great migration of the 1920s served as a racial project that redefined whiteness as ethnic groups such as Slavs, Celts, Iberics, and Hebrews were “subsumed into whiteness to shore up a cultural majority.” This was necessary as more ethnic groups migrated to the US, and white supremacy feared the rise of an ethnic, immigrant majority population. Thus, we can see white supremacy having historically positioned itself as opposite of Blackness, and expanding its definitions and formation when threatened.
Many scholars have identified this racial (re)formation for Asian Americans, often citing statistics of our economic growth and upward mobility for the change in status. In Eduardo Bonilla-Silva’s 2002 study, an emerging “tri-racial system” is proposed, where 3 broad categories can be used to organize racial groups in the US. Bonilla-Silva defines the intermediate group as “Honorary Whites” who could “buffer racial conflict”. In other words, become a cultural laborer to hold other racial groups in line with white supremacy.
Scholars neglect anti-Blackness through using economic success as a measure of proximity to whiteness, such as income, education level, and ownership of wealth and property. It also demonstrates the symbiotic relationship of white supremacy and capitalism, and how both depend on the exploitation of race. But the most insidious thing is that we as Asians are doing the work for them by quite literally choosing to position ourselves in opposition to Blackness and Black people, and by simple math, as white. The persistent anti-Blackness also serves to distinguish Asians from other non-white populations, while maintaining and sustaining the racial caste system that upholds racial barriers and the color line between white and Black.
Today, Asian Americans are one of white supremacy’s best weapons in the maintenance of the racial caste system, demonstrated by the rampant Anti-Blackness that has been pumped into our communities. For examples other than my own, look to scholars like Bonilla-Silva who cited numerous studies between the years of 1995-2000 of anti-Black sentiments in the Asian community, such as reports that over 70% of Korean shopkeepers hold anti-Black attitudes. Vox also offers a great historical breakdown of Asian-Black tensions (and solidarity) in the U.S. White supremacy and capitalism has worked hand in hand throughout the history of America to pit Asian people and Black people against one another. The dominant class in our society have consistently shifted the labor of subjugating Blackness onto other racial groups, and Asian Americans are the newest cultural laborers in this racial formation.
Unfortunately, anti-Blackness in the Asian community has only worsened through the racialization of COVID-19 as inherently “Asian” or “Chinese”, causing exponential rises in hate crimes against Asians in the U.S. and Canada. As more and more news reports alarmed the public about growing attacks against Asian Americans, many began to correlate the rising numbers of hate crimes against Asians with racist narratives of Black criminality. Despite findings showing that most perpetrators of anti-Asian violence to be white people, anti-Blackness and calls for increasing the punitive nature of the carceral state such as repealing bail reform in New York has received renewed fuel. When we factor in how crime is also a social construction to dehumanize Blackness and that Black populations are more heavily policed and incarcerated, we realize our compliancy in contributing to white supremacy.
We need to realize that our proximity to whiteness or honorary status of whiteness is not due to just our economic success or education status, but due to the anti-Blackness sentiments and the ways these sentiments manifest in our community. Asians, especially East Asians, need to address the anti-Blackness in our communities head on, and acknowledge our privilege and complicit role in maintaining white supremacy. I don’t know all the answers, but I do know that it starts with explaining race, racism, and white supremacy as well as not tolerating anti-Blackness in our immediate community. Remember that asking someone to take accountability is love, and that being uncomfortable means you’re unlearning and growing. Though it might not be our choice to be an intermediary group between whiteness and Blackness, I know that I’m personally not going to continue working for a boss like white supremacy or capitalism, and I hope to encourage others to do the same.1