The Importance of Interracial Solidarity
By Soya Jung
Seattle has seen some great racial justice trainings and projects over the last decade or so on issues like immigrant rights, police accountability and redistricting, to name a few. I feel lucky to have participated in some of them. But I also think that something important has been missing from conversations about race, and it has something to do with silence.
One example took place last year, when the Pew Research Center’s report, “The Rise of Asian Americans” set off a blaze of Asian American responses challenging its accuracy and implications. The criticism, especially from those who took issue with the report’s reinforcement of the model minority myth, was good and right. Many pointed out how the myth hurts Asian Americans, and of course that’s true. It masks the real needs of the most marginalized among us and dehumanizes us into a monolithic stereotype.
But this is where the silence comes in. Beginning and ending with “Asians suffer, too” falls short of challenging anti-Black racism, which drives the very economic system we seek to change, the one that leaves the most marginalized among us poor and underserved. The dismantling of welfare programs, for example, would not have been possible without casting blackness its stereotypes as the thing to be avoided at all costs. The problem of criminalization, which now includes growing numbers of Asian Americans, relies on a prison system born of slavery. Our silence on these points makes us less effective as social change agents.
So what’s behind the silence? A year and a half ago, I did confidential interviews with more than 80 Asian American leaders, organizers and intellectuals around the country about Asian Americans and race. I didn’t interview Native Hawaiians or Pacific Islanders, in order to avoid marginalizing their experiences in a broader Asian Pacific Islander (API) framework, where honestly, Asian Americans dominate. Still, many participants used the term “API” without ever talking about the “PI” part. Over the last year, my job has been to make sense of those interviews and to reflect back what I heard. The upshot is that we need to have some hard conversations about our role as Asian Americans in racial justice work.
These days I get asked to talk about race pretty often, and I struggle with some of the things that come up when talking with Asian Americans – comments like, “It’s not just black and white,” or “There are poor Asians, too.” These responses require, not judgment, but honest and focused attention. It’s where our work lies. There’s a real, experiential basis for not wanting to talk about blackness, and ignoring that keeps white supremacy in place. The truth is that Asian Americans are fragmented and traumatized, and we need to struggle with one another over who we are and what roles we play to build the unity and scale of support that racial justice demands.
One of my own “Aha!” moments came from reading the work of Native scholar Andrea Smith, who helped me understand the full force of structural racism and led me to think about how we might need to work differently. As people of color, we’re trained to organize ourselves as separate racial categories – Asian Americans, Latinos, Blacks and Native Americans. There are historical reasons for doing that, but over time, we’ve somehow reinforced the idea that race is based on shared physical or cultural traits, or that it’s fundamentally a demographic category. In reality, race is a political idea. It serves a political purpose. White supremacy creates distinctly racialized injuries and impacts, but those impacts transcend demographic categories.
For example, the criminal system is an outgrowth of slavery. In order to build the U.S. economy, white supremacy created the idea that Blacks were inherently suited to be slaves. After Emancipation, that shifted to the idea that Blacks were
criminal. But today, criminalization is also deeply affecting South Asians and Southeast Asians, for example. Its expansion is based on ideas of national security that are rooted in Orientalism, another crucial part of white supremacy. It’s the “us-versus-them” thinking that justifies war. Slavery and Orientalism serve distinct purposes, but the injuries of criminalization aren’t contained to a single racial category.
We need to shift from thinking about race as specific categories of people to seeing the unique but linked systems of privileges and harm that support white supremacy. Racial justice demands authentic solidarity, which can only come from acknowledging the racial bribes that we as people of color face, and often accept. As Smith explains: “Our survival strategies and resistance… are set by the system of white supremacy itself. … All non-Native peoples are promised the ability to join in the colonial project of settling indigenous lands. All Non-Black peoples are promised that if they comply, they will not be at the bottom of the racial hierarchy. And Black and Native peoples are promised that they will advance economically and politically if they join U.S. wars to spread ‘democracy.’ Thus, people of color organizing must be premised on making strategic alliances with one another, based on where we are situated.”
Understanding how white supremacy operates today demands new conversations. Anti-Black racism is important to Asian American liberation, because participating in it both hurts and benefits us in real ways. Asians are promised freedom from criminalization if we distance ourselves from blackness, but only if we aren’t a threat to the state. Today the ranks of alleged Asian “terrorists” are growing. For those Asian Americans not understanding (or worse, participating in) anti-Black racism, it pushes important handles for fighting back out of reach.
A new kind of conversation would grapple honestly with how fragmented we are as people of color. It would challenge us to rethink our ideas about identity and about rights and privileges. It would build new forms of solidarity based on who among us is disadvantaged, and also on when and how participating in white supremacy benefits us.
Silence comes from a rational place, because white supremacy forces those of us held in its crosshairs to fight for survival, and entices those of us with some privilege to not think or talk about it. We don’t learn about white supremacy in school or on TV. You can’t type, “What is racial justice?” into Google and get a good answer. Not only is interracial solidarity difficult because mainstream education and media don’t define or support it, it’s also threatening.
It’s time have new and challenging conversations with each other. But in order for interracial solidarity to happen, we must first remember to be compassionate with each other.
Soya Jung will be speaking on a panel with with Rich Stolz, executive director of OneAmerica, Aaron Dixon, former captain of the Seattle chapter of the Black Panther Party and nationally renowned oral historian Ron Chew about “The Past, Present and Future of Multiracial Solidarity” on May 11th, from 10 a.m. to 1 p.m. at the offices of OneAmerica.