Editor’s Note: The blog is taking a short hiatus next week for the long-weekend (if that is even a thing these days) and the following week off. We’ll be back in mid or late July.
This week’s post is personal. I often share bits and pieces about myself and my life in the blog, but this one is more personal than other posts. I am sharing it for a few reasons, one is so I can be honest with myself and accountable to others, and maybe in a small way it can help others, especially my Asian relations be better allies. It is also a rare moment to talk about this because the twin moments of anti-Asian racism surrounding COVID-19 and Black Lives Matter movement in response to too many deaths of Black people make it an important time to reflect and grow.
I grew up in Hawaii. It is a great place to be from and it formed my racial self-identity. I knew from an early age I am Japanese American. I knew the word Asian, and race were talked about openly in many settings. Our neighborhoods were diverse and I grew up escaping a lot of overt Asian racism and microaggressions others told me they experienced in other places. That said it wasn’t a utopia or a land of racial inclusion. Now as an adult I can look back and see where racism and othering still occurred, including anti-Blackness.
Hawaii, like many other places, has a class system. Asians, and in particular East Asians, are often perceived to be near the top. White people have a funny place of being on the top but also othered – sometimes accepted especially if they are part of the community, but also criticized because of the colonizer history of Hawaii. Hawaii is a place where how you treat others is how they will treat you back. If you act too uppity or behave like a jerk, people will let you know. Being a POC doesn’t mean you get a pass or automatic social inclusion. Through this social hierarchy I learned to navigate the world and how I see race.
I didn’t grow up with a lot of African American or Black people in my schools, playgroups, teen groups, etc. I remember looking at the demographics of the state as a teen and wondering where the Black people lived. They were in the demographic charts but I didn’t see them in my neighborhood. I remember someone telling me many of them were part of the military. This may be true, but also maybe we just saw them as part of the general POC community, which is unfair and erased much of their identity. For the Black people who were in my schools and part of the community, we never stopped to understand their Black and African American identities.
Leaving Hawaii for college and landing in Seattle, I’ve had to learn about race through a new context, including the Black and African American communities here. As an example, I probably learned some about slavery, the plantations, and emancipation as part of American history classes, but we glossed over a lot of the deeper and more nuanced Black history. I know I didn’t learn about the rich African immigrant cultures I see in Seattle. Immigration from African nations to Hawaii isn’t very populous. I went to a few reggae concerts in Hawaii, but the music and culture is so intertwined with island music than linked to Black culture.
As a result of the absence of Black and African American people and cultural references, I’ve had to unpack a lot of anti-Blackness over time. I’m grateful to many Black people, especially Black friends, who helped me understand the Black experience, institutional racism, and what I need to do to unpack my own racism. I know this will be a lifelong journey to learn about race and how to be in more just relations with Black people.
Part of my learning and undoing around anti-Blackness is learning about historical racism. I grew up watching TV and movies portraying Black people that shaped stereotypes. I also grew up around many Asians who would say they weren’t racist, but then speak ill of Black people. I can see how my upbringing in Hawaii taught me anti-Blackness beliefs, but also gave me tools to now undo it.
Learning about historical racism and history from the Black perspective have been important ways for me to understand racism. I’ve sat with many friends and colleagues and listened to their stories. In the beginning I heard their stories but couldn’t fully comprehend them. I would make excuses and tell myself their experience of being followed in a store, being passed over for jobs, or even more blatant racism weren’t because of race. Being socialized in Hawaii I was taught we were equal because we were all part of the POC majority. If you didn’t get what you wanted it wasn’t because of your race or skin color, it was because you didn’t work hard, not being a team player, or being too uppity and pushing too hard – very Asian values. I had to learn about historical racism and how our histories in America give white people advantages and white privileges and hold back Black and Brown people, and how Asians are many times part of upholding the racialized hierarchy. As Ta-Nehisi Coates, wrote in Between the World and Me, “But race is the child of racism, not the father. And the process of naming ‘the people’ has never been a matter of genealogy and physiognomy so much as one of hierarchy.”
As an Asian American I see anti-Asian racism, but at the same time, it is important to recognize the privileges we have and how we’ve benefited from the hard work many Black and African American people before us. The Civil Rights Movement led by many Black leaders and communities put many structural changes in place that benefit us as an Asian community. Acting in solidarity with our Black kin is important now and always.
I know I have more learning and work to do to be in a more justice based relationship with Black people and to show up as an ally. I know I will mess up, and I hope my Black friends and colleagues will trust me enough to call me out and it and set me straight. Some of them have over the years and I am grateful for their counsel. I also know the work isn’t on them to teach me, it is for me to humble myself and to practice self-reflection, learning, and reckoning with my biases, internalized racism, and remembering this is about Black liberation, not me.
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