Does Asian American + POC = Anti-Black?
By Kil Ja Kim
For a long time, I have considered myself a person of color (POC). I remember the first time I became really invested in POC politics was when I attended a predominantly white liberal arts college. As a Korean woman I gravitated towards the Black students socially and organizationally on campus. I had been involved in Black student activities in my high school, and socially was very comfortable around Black people compared to many of the white students. So “choosing” between Black and white was the option for me as an Asian teenager with few Asian people to be around. I chose to hang out with the Black students.
Many of the Black students on the college campus referred to themselves as people of color. But it became clear throughout my four years that we had very different perspectives of what this meant. I thought it meant all non-white people. My racial analysis was not that complicated, but I thought in terms of white and non-white and so anyone who was part of the latter was a person of color.
Black students and the Black administrator, who was the only one in student affairs, tended to think differently. Not uniformly across the board of course, but enough did. To many Black people on my campus, people of color was equal to Black. Activities planned for people of color were geared towards African American students in terms of content, outreach and invited guests.
And me, the Asian person who had “found myself” with the support of Black people, was pissed. I resented what I considered Black people’s reverse racism, selfishness and limited perspective. I would suggest, more like demand, that people of color be a more expansive term.
Black students and the Black administrator would (patiently) explain to me that they had struggled to get people of color activities for Black students, that they had only so much of a budget and that it was a priority for them to recruit and retain Black students.
I never stopped to think of how much more likely Asians are to go to college than Blacks. Instead, I was just pissed. I made demands such as asking them to change the name of a Black organization to something having to do with people of color so I could feel included instead of “tokenized.” Again, Black people had to patiently explain to me why it was important to have an organization for Black people but that I was welcome to participate. I wanted to be co-editor of a Black campus magazine, feeling I had “earned” this responsibility because of all of my involvement. I would meet with white administrators demanding to know why they did not fund Asian American oriented programs as much as they did Black programs. I would accuse the white administrators of being racist towards Asian Americans and demand that some of the budget for minority student affairs reflect “all people of color.”
Later, I set off to “find” my Asian American identity, beginning my own organization on campus and demanding classes be taught to reflect “my experience.” I stopped supporting some of the Black student events, resentful because I felt “used” and “overlooked” by those I had shown support for.
And all along, it was Black students who supported me and showed up to my events. Some even nominated me for a Martin Luther King Jr. Award my senior year and the Black student organization gave me a student leadership award at their Black baccalaureate ceremony. At the ceremony, they did not present me with a Kente cloth, as is traditionally done with Black graduates. During the planning stages of the event I had made sure to remind them, “I’m Asian, not Black!” And so to accommodate me, they had gone to great lengths to buy me a Korean flag.
It has been almost seven years since I graduated from undergrad. But the fucked-up tendencies I showed were not isolated to my early college years. Nor were they isolated to me. As I became more involved in racial politics off of college campuses, I learned more that my behavior was not just that of some immature, self-centered college student trying to find her racial and cultural identity. Indeed, I have come to understand that anti-Black racism and hostility was the means to finding myself and expressing what it meant to be an Asian American and a POC.
When I got involved in Asian American activism, it was not from the vantage point of not wanting to do activism with white people. For some, that is how we get involved in POC work. We have been isolated or have isolated ourselves to working with white activists. So many POC are very hungry to be around anyone not white. For me, though, getting involved in both Asian American and POC work was really a way to escape working with Black people.
Of course, POC work involved Black people here and there. But POC work was a way for me to “not be stuck” working with just Black people or getting “used” by them. It was a way for me to see myself as more “worldly” and “more cosmopolitan” than those I had dismissed as “nationalist” Black people on my college campus, long before I even really had a better understanding of what nationalism was or the variations of it.
In short, POC work was a way for me to be both Asian American and “buddies” with Black people. I could soothe my conscience by saying I was not like others because I am not totally “abandoning” Black people, as is the case with most of us who find meaning in our lives by interacting with Blacks but then dump them when something better comes along. Instead, I saw myself as some sort of “bridge” between communities. I was also conducting research on Korean-Black conflict and wanted to “heal” the rift, a gesture that made me feel better. Like some weird post-1965 missionary activist, I saw myself as someone who, because of my past experiences, was some kind of innovative “border crosser.” I was able to have it three ways, I could be friends with Blacks and be Asian American and be a POC.
Now I did not, of course, acknowledge that I thought I was better than Black people. Instead, I wanted to “find” my true self and “expand” my horizons and others. Or at least that’s what I told myself and others.
I came to find that other Asians, those who had been in similar situations coming up politically, felt the same way. I remember talking to an Asian woman who told me how she “saved” her boyfriend from being Black by giving him books written by Asian Americans. Her boyfriend had been politically and socially engaging Black people and politics, but this was not his “true” identity. The woman felt the need to intervene.
This story is not an isolated one, as I have met more Asian Americans who develop an affinity with Black politics and people but then jump ship when they get a chance to be with Asian Americans. Many of us, Asian American or not, have drunk from the fountain of knowledge we call Black politics only to spit the water back into the well when we are no longer thirsty.
See, Asian Americans don’t tend to jump ship for ethical reasons. It is certainly not an issue of feeling that they shouldn’t have more power compared to, or over Blacks, or because they shouldn’t have too much control in Black people’s affairs. If they felt this way, they wouldn’t adamantly defend Asian business owners who create business enclaves in Black neighborhoods or they wouldn’t be so quick to establish Asian hip hop or spoken word collectives that tell off Black people at the same time appropriating from them.
And so me, I jumped ship like the rest of them. I got involved in Asian American politics to the point where I saw myself as Asian American, read and wrote about Asian American affairs, and presented myself as Asian American at political events, college settings and social gatherings. The fucked up part of it though is that I was able to solidify my identity as both Asian American and POC by being anti-Black. My sense of myself politically was basically established by distancing myself from Blacks.
Me and other Asians would solidify our bonds with one another politically in forums, private organizational meetings or just quick conversation by talking about how selfish Black people were or how there is more than just Black and white and how people need to recognize Asian Americans in the mix. I would cheer loudly for racist Asian American spoken word performances where Asian American artists would loudly sound off about “Don’t exotify my culture!” to some implied Black and white audience, at the same time using hip hop slang and Black colloquialisms or signifying Blackness through their gestures and cadences.
I would try to get funding and support by pointing out to administrators (usually white) and others (usually Black) that “Black people are not the only ones who experience racism.” I would be vocal about the need to go “beyond” Black and white and would confront Black activists and friends if I felt that they weren’t being “open” enough to Asian American concerns.
And I would shut down any conversation that had to with the differential value and power Asian Americans have. If someone wanted to talk about why so many Asians own businesses in Black neighborhoods—bam, shut down, then some nice, intellectual conversation about how Blacks don’t appreciate the struggles of immigrants to “make it” in a globalized economy. If someone wanted to talk about Blacks in prison—bam, shut down, then some commentary about how Asians are in prison too and a mention of prisoner David Wong. If someone wanted to talk about Blacks being racially profiled—bam, shut down, then some treatise on Asian immigrants getting deported.
Overall, I had become a master at shutting down conversation with Blacks while at the same time appearing as if I wanted to seriously engage their concerns or even listen to them. I had become the quintessential Asian American.
I also remained the quintessential POC. There is a reason why POC politics is so heavily driven by Asian Americans. As much as wanting to be a POC instead of identifying with white people, I also wanted to be a POC because it made me feel better about my anti-Black politics and it also helped assuage the nagging guilt of knowing that Asian Americans get less shit and have a lot more than Blacks. As a POC I could see myself as someone who was being “who I am” but at the same time not be like Black activists, who I dismissed as nationalists. I could see myself as someone who was “making connections” and “helping to expand the dialogue” between different non-white groups.
But in the end, I was still anti-Black. I was only willing to listen to other Black people who were similarly into POC politics and who would basically put up with my shit. I still learned how to shut down critical dialogue with Blacks and deflect their concerns, using jargon such as “We’re being divided and conquered and that’s what the system wants!” and “I’m not going to play the ‘Oppression Olympics’” and even appropriating Black writer and activist Audre Lorde by proclaiming, “The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house!” I would only support Black political work and activists if they dealt with Asian Americans in their campaign and analyses, because that was the more “worldly” POC way and not just the “nationalist” approach. I would shun Asian activists who tended to support Black politics because I thought they were “dupes” and full of “self-hatred.”
It took me a long time to understand how violent Asian American identity is to Black politics and ultimately to Black people. That the only way I knew how to become both Asian American and POC was by being hostile to, or shutting down Black people is indicative of something, isn’t it?
And even with all of the politicking that I did in Asian American and POC spaces, I didn’t develop much of a vocabulary for describing and identifying anti-Black racism in society, let alone in our own work and as part of our identities. Some Black intellectuals I know that helped me to understand that a person can have an analysis of white supremacy but not of anti-Blackness and that a person can profess a critique of whiteness and white people and still be anti-Black. And me, I was proof. I was very critical of white supremacy at the same time espousing Asian American and POC rhetoric at every opportunity, but especially when Black people were present.
And the sad fact of the matter is that it has usually been Black people who supported my exploration of identity, who cheered me on when I confronted whiteness, white people and white supremacy and who listened sympathetically as I talked about feeling socially and politically isolated. And how did I repay them? By becoming someone whose identity was bound with hostility and resentment towards them, their political activity and ultimately, their liberation.
At this point, I have been trying to figure out what it means to be a non-Black person of color engaging in politics in the US. I am wondering, how can people with an Asian body or whose origins are in Asia engage in liberatory politics in the US without being anti-Black? I genuinely care about Asian people in the US and elsewhere and our experiences with white supremacy make me sad, angry and even furious. But I want to speak out and organize against white supremacy in a way that doesn’t reproduce or get heard because of anti-Blackness. But I am beginning to doubt whether or not this is possible. I am looking for some good models of how this might be possible, but I am struggling to find them. Any suggestions?
Kil Ja Kim is a writer, educator and activist currently living and working in Philadelphia. Her intellectual and political interests are Asian American politics, immigrant politics, and Black-Asian American relations. Kil Ja is currently working on working on a research project that examines the role of global racial politics in shaping the disproportionate presence of Korean immigrant business owners in Black neighborhoods in the US.
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I really could not bold enough of this post. I really could not.
It’s literally like watching the Asian people here on tumblr. More specifically, the East Asian people here on tumblr. When fuckyouimadinosaur and that entire crew was fucking up, they were literally employing every. single. fucking. tactic. that Kil Ja Kim mentioned here.
I don’t know how I feel right now.
But I know I feel disgusted that people’s entire identities as PoC are built on trying to fuck me in the ass despite me being most likely to support them.
Damn…I definitely know of some Eastern and Southern Asians who do that same shit…