PRABAL GURUNG: IT’S TIME FOR ASIAN AMERICANS TO SHED THE ‘MODEL MINORITY’ MYTH AND STAND FOR GEORGE FLOYD
When police officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd, three other officers were present, including Tou Thao, a 12-year veteran of the Minneapolis Police Department. Though Thao’s knee was not on Floyd’s neck, he was an active participant in his death. He has been charged, along with two other former officers, with felony aiding and abetting second-degree murder and second-degree manslaughter. Just as Officer Jared Yeun, who antagonized protesters in San Jose, is a participant in the abuse of power by the police. Just as many in the Asian American community — now the fastest-growing racial and immigrant group in the United States — have been an accessory in the anti-blackness that is woven into the DNA of America.
Growing up in Nepal, while I was somewhat aware of the struggles faced by black people, it was not something I was exposed to or educated on beyond the scope of the media I consumed. The feeling of otherness in Nepal demands a separate in-depth discussion — for centuries its citizens, especially Dalits, have been exploited and violently brutalized based on their caste [kathmandupost.com]. I thought that maybe it wouldn’t be so bad in the U.S. given the romanticized images of American culture that are consistently exported to the rest of the world.
However, upon arrival in America, my eyes were opened to the deeply divided and oppressive system upon which this country was built. Working in fashion, I often found myself witnessing microaggressions or blatant discrimination against the few black people who, like myself and other people of colour, were able to break into this white-dominated Eurocentric industry. And while fashion continues to make strides in the right direction, we still have miles to go. Today, I still see myself and my black, Latinx, Asian, Native American, and LGBTQ peers being tokenized by the industry, often being called upon to perform inclusivity, rather than practice it. But I made the decision long ago that I would no longer worry about making other people uncomfortable when fighting for what I know in my heart is right.
As the coronavirus began to attack our communities, I saw the world as I knew it, and this country as I loved it, grind to a halt. An uncertain future and unknown virus mounted its walls around our country, and a seemingly invisible enemy began to take shape. Then, President Trump gave this virus, technically called SARS-CoV-2 but well-known as coronavirus, a face: the “China virus.” Hate crimes against the Asian American community escalated, and black Americans were disproportionately affected by the health crisis because of the lack of humanity in our health-care system — all windows into the alarming disparities in this country, which this pandemic has once again brought to light. The coronavirus pandemic has shown us that the “protective” model minority label does not serve us in times of uncertainty. As many of us have experienced over the past several months, it offers about as much protection as a nylon stocking against the bitter winds of white supremacy. If we can be scapegoated with terms like “China virus” and dehumanized through heinous hate crimes the moment things get rough, then white America never really thought we belonged in the first place.
Often labeled the “model minority,” a concept based in eugenics and white supremacy, Asian Americans have collectively distanced ourselves from black and other marginalized communities in an attempt to protect our own security and belonging. As the stories of Ahmaud Arbery and Sean Reed were making national news a few weeks ago, I participated in Define American’s Black + Gold Forum to discuss black and Asian relations. During the forum, the inimitable Nikole-Hannah Jones drove home that anti-blackness is part of the Americanization process that Asian families undergo upon arrival in this country. We’re taught that if we want to succeed in this country, we should not align ourselves with those that are on the “bottom,” but to align with the dominant culture — that proximity to whiteness will keep us safe.
The overarching philosophy of Asian culture is the idea of reverence and respect for our elders. We are not conditioned to speak out or be disruptive. It is instilled in us that to show pride in our heritage and honor our families, we must keep our heads down, work hard, and be gracious. For many Asian Americans living in this country, our ancestors and parents worked hard and sacrificed so we could have better opportunities. I believe that speaking out against racism, disparities and xenophobia is the ultimate show of respect. It shows our ancestors that their hard work is not in vain, that we understand all they had to overcome, and that they sacrificed their voice so we could find ours. We must stop the cycle of submission, and take on the mantle to fight for our rights and the rights of others. By opening the door for future generations, we can begin the process of healing.
Beyond simple divestment and rejection of our own trope, we must also actively combat anti-blackness — especially within the Asian community. Seeing that an Asian man was involved in the violent murder of a black man, I feel a responsibility to help cultivate solidarity between black and Asian communities. We cannot perpetuate the narrative that the colonists put forward, which says that minority groups shouldn’t get along. To end this narrative in the fight toward equality, we have to hold members of our community like Thao and Yeun accountable. Confronting our own anti-blackness is the first step. Beyond that, we must collectively decide that it is no longer culturally or socially acceptable to be anti-black. Anti-blackness takes many forms. It’s the off-color comment our auntie makes at the dinner table, but would never dare say in public. It’s the fearful mistrust with which we sometimes treat our black neighbors. Let us name those things, not only when we witness them, but when we do them, because we all have a lot of unlearning to do. Let us have those uncomfortable conversations with our families who may not yet see clearly the role they play. We can no longer afford to be comfortable, only practicing activism in spaces where we know people will agree with us. We have to be loud and get uncomfortable to truly be effective.
To break from this cycle, we must begin by asking: Who benefits when minority groups fight each other or are apathetic to one another’s struggles? The colonists are the ones who have been advantaged by our decades-long burden of being othered, of being divided. As we all fight for our seat at the decision-making table, it is imperative that we make room for others as well, and that we don’t stop until that table is as diverse as the body of people it represents.
It is time for us to stand in solidarity with black communities whose sacrifices led to the civil rights and privileges we benefit from. It is time we show America we are more than a “well-behaved” and complicit trope. Now is the time for action. We have to demand change, and demand that police brutality and the flagrant and systematic disregard for black lives stops. Humanity is not tied to one person, place, gender or race. Black Lives Matter; our liberation is bound together and we must turn our segregated oppression into a collective resistance.
This op-ed, written by Prabal Gurung, first appeared on WashingtonPost.com on June 5th 2020. Click here to visit original page.
Photo credit (courtesy of WashingtonPost.com): People raise their hands as they protest at a makeshift memorial in honor of George Floyd on June 4 in Minneapolis. (Chandan Khanna/AFP/Getty Images)