At this point, you’d have to be dwelling underneath some limestone to have not seen Jesse Williams’ speech at the BET awards. It was powerful. It was concise. It called out the dominant white culture in society. What more could you ask for in an acceptance speech? This was certainly his moment to use his platform and speak his truth and instead of faltering or shying away from the responsibility (as so many celebrities have done in the past), he bravely stepped up to the challenge and let everyone know what time it was. Afterwards, the Internet blew up, everyone was tweeting about it, reposting it, and basically going cashews over this speech from Jackson Avery.
After further reflecting on the speech, I began to think about how different groups of people responded and related to it. Of course, for many Black people, I could only imagine how this experience must have felt. To have someone essentially say everything that you’ve been thinking and feeling, all the while reaffirming your worth within a society that does its best to devalue you, I’m sure was impactful. Additionally, I’m willing to wager there were some white folks that either felt some type of way about it or felt some inspiration akin to Justin Timberlake (which is a completely a different discussion in its own right). Then I began to ruminate on my own positionality and many people just like myself. What does Jesse Williams’ speech mean to non-Black people of color—specifically Asian Americans? How do we connect? How do we relate? Is it even our place to do so?
In a country where the discourse about all things racial orbits around the black and white binary, Asian Americans often times find ourselves in a precarious position. We’re not really included in the conversation about race and if we are, it usually falls along the line of serving as a metaphorical wedge between our Latinx, Native, and Black family. (Cue the montage for the Model Minority Myth). Unless it’s intended to put down and divide other melanted people, Asian Americans have been draped with the cape of invisibility. We’re not mentioned. We are not included. We are relegated as an afterthought even before the idea comes to mind. Furthermore, when you factor in the amount of media representation, or better yet, the lack thereof for Asian Americans, our position gets compounded with even more nuance.
This positionality can be both confusing and difficult to navigate. There is not much to base our identity off of. Sure we have our family and our community. But let’s keep it 100 now, although the aforementioned components play a significant role in our socialization, it could be easily argued the media has just as much—if not more—of an influential role on how we formulate our concept of self. I wish this wasn’t so, but nonetheless, it’s the reality for many in this country. So being that there is a dearth of Asian American representation in the media, many of us default to African Americans as our role models.
Now simply put, this becomes complicated on a multitude of levels.
For starters, it’s great that we can revere, idolize, and look up to people from different ethnic groups—however, that should not be a substitute for having our own representation. I believe this is vital for the development of our mental health. We need this more than some people care to realize. Having more Asian American representation in media benefits everyone, not just Asian Americans. We all grow learning more about our neighbors around us. Only the close-minded would argue against it. Now, I must add, when I say having our own representation, I do not mean just begging the mainstream media to include us anyway they deem fit. I think shows like Fresh Off the Boat and Master of None are definite victories, however, that cannot be the end all be all. Having Asian American representation cannot stop at a TV show. We need our own TV networks, our own publishing companies, and certainly our own film studios. That’s representation!
Second of all, Asian Americans must be honest with ourselves about how on one hand, we appreciate aspects of Black culture, but on the other hand, we contribute to anti-Blackness within our own communities. This is a reality that must be addressed. It’s not something to be ashamed of. Don’t deny it. Don’t ignore its existence. And certainly, don’t pretend like you haven’t been influenced by this pernicious notion at one point or another in your life. The quicker we accept this fact, the sooner we can begin to deconstruct it. Not only is anti-Blackness harmful to all parties involved, it is absolutely hypocritical at its fundamental core. You can’t be angry at being labeled the Model Minority, while at the same time hold onto anti-Black attitudes and behavior. The very same system that has mistreated you and your relatives has also brutalized the Black community. When you continue to practice anti-Blackness, you are indirectly supporting the racist system that has rendered you invisible and dehumanized your family. If you want to get out of a hole, what would be the more effective approach? Would you use a shovel or would you utilize a ladder? Anti-Blackness is the shovel, can you dig it?
I believe Jesse Williams’ speech will go down as a watershed moment for our generation as a whole. The impact of it will be more fully understood as time goes on. For Asian American millenials, it served as another opportunity for us to realize our own position in the conversation of race in the United States. I believe it is imperative for us to remember, that although celebrating in solidarity with the Black community over this speech is an overall positive, we must keep in mind producing our own representation will benefit all communities in the long run. Also, it is incumbent upon us to take the necessary steps of eradicating anti-Blackness within Asian American communities. By being action oriented around these two subjects, we as Asian Americans, can make our own unique contribution to actualizing social justice in this country.