In the last year, there have been over 3000 anti-Asian American attacks and incidents reported. With numerous reports of violence against Asians, I’ve had to sit and think about my relationship with the Asian community for the first time. I’ve always had Asian friends and appreciated aspects of various Asian cultures.
The flip side to the appreciation is the full-blown racism and prejudice I’ve allowed my Asian friends to inflict on me. I’ve heard numerous times from different friends that Asians don’t like Black people. I’ve listened to this more times than I’ve heard Asians stick up for the Black community. So when the Stop Asian Hate hashtags start rolling, emotions dart back and forth between support and the ongoing racism I’ve encountered from Asians in my life. Stop Asian Hate? Yes, but we also need to stop Asian haters and insist they publicly realign their sentiments toward white supremacy.
My History with Asian Racism
When I was in first grade, Tam, a Vietnamese kid with a big strawberry-shaped head, called me black boy and laughed at me. Even today, I hear his tiny broken English and picture his tongue reverberating in his mouth as he laughed at the color of my skin. I didn’t understand why I was at fault because no one had ever drawn attention to my skin color before, but apparently, Tam had learned at the ripe age of 7 that being Black was a joke. But this didn’t create Asian hate in my heart because Tam was one of at least 3 Asian kids in the class who were evasive and non-problematic.
In fourth grade, I had a crush on an Asian girl, Megan. I thought because we were both honor roll students, we could be friends. However, without provocation, she began calling me burnt toast and laughing each time, as if the realization of my skin’s connection to burnt toast, obviously inedible, gained hilarity with each utterance. Again, I didn’t retaliate because I had Asian friends who didn’t treat my skin like a problem.
In 7th grade, my best friend was an American-Vietnamese girl, Danielle. We’d make each other laugh on bus rides home or in between classes. Sometimes we’d gossip on phone calls when I wasn’t nervous about dialing her home number. I did like her a little, but I couldn’t say anything because I felt she wouldn’t just deny me; she would reject my Blackness.
Years later, in high school, I made sure to avoid Megan because I realized that being Black was a topsy turvy ride. Being a Black teen meant I was supposed to perform well in athletics, listen to rap music, live in the hood. As one girl, Katie, once said to a neighborhood friend of mine, “Why does Phil’s dad drive a nice car?”
(On another note, as I write this, it occurs how many friends I lost in high school because I didn’t embrace more of my Black culture or embody Black stereotypes. Meanwhile, all the non-Black kids don Nikes and adopt hip-hop as their way of life. While Black culture was “hip,” I was not because I didn’t embrace it. So for the intents and purposes of my peers, I was white. So white that people assumed I was mixed race. Nope. Two Black parents. Though today, with the help of Ancestry tests, I can finally say I’m predominately West African and 10% European.)
I was a theatre geek in high school and participated heavily in the Japanese Club, which brought on people saying, “you’re Black, not Asian.” However, I never tried to emulate Asian culture, aside from always kicking it with Asian friends who also love anime and video games. On one occasion, a group of us gathered at my Cambodian friend’s house to BBQ in the garage and play video games on multiple TVs we set up. At one point, I had to use the bathroom, and after watching a few other kids go in and out of the house, I approached the door, but my friend stopped me from entering. “Hey man, you can’t go inside. My mom doesn’t like Black people, I’m sorry”. And like every other time I’d been put in my place by Asians, I recoiled into understanding, then pissed on the side of the house, and went back to gaming (today, she allows everyone inside, and we’ve hugged). Even after, I didn’t develop any animosity toward Asians.
It was becoming more and more apparent to me that our people aren’t supposed to mix, and I was the exceptional Black person who Asians like but also knew my Blackness is problematic for them for whatever reasons. So problematic that one of my crushes, Minami, a first-gen Japanese-American, rejected me, saying, “you’d be cuter if you acted Black.”
During the same teen years, I met Jenny, who is a first-generation Vietnamese American. Jenny was a voice of reason, a calm, confident, and resilient young woman who had been the victim of dog-napping as a child. As Jenny tells it, while walking with her puppy, a black man came up to her, snatched her puppy, and ran. Understandably, this could haunt a child for a lifetime, but Jenny didn’t treat me as if I were the culprit. Between us, race identity was never an issue in all the 15+ years we’ve known each other. However, I was aware her mom also didn’t like Black people. She told me so. And it was Jenny who helped me understand that a lot of racism in the Asian community comes from the older generation. The same older generation known for urging their children to strive for the American Dream and close proximity to whiteness.
Dividing racism generationally does not prevent it. The older I got, the more I realized Asians in America are dependent on Black culture to be the antithesis to aspirations forced on young Asian Americans. It becomes normal to hear Asians call each other niggas. It becomes normal to be the only Black person in Asian environments, where hip-hop culture is heavily influential. Over time, I started to see Asians as ‘Blacks by proxy’ while still enduring racist comments, rejection, or objections to my potency of Black blood.
As an adult, I became frustrated with the subtle aggressions I saw from Asians in my community. Even having Asian friends defend their learned racism against Black people while simultaneously appropriating black culture.
A couple of years ago, I was invited to a boat party where I was the only black man on a boat of 40 invites. One of those 40 was a white man, one Latino man, and a biracial Black and Filipino woman. Except for the staff and us, everyone on the boat was Asian. While admiring the San Francisco Bay on the deck, I hear the N-word being thrown around, and I instinctively begin looking for a Black person but turn around to see a group of Asian men. One of them looks at me and apologizes. I’m clearly visibly upset, thinking to myself, I can’t call this out right now because I’m dramatically outnumbered. But I took comfort in the fact that even if they threw me overboard, I was the only real nigga on the ship anyway. Later, after a meal and cocktails, I befriended the offender, not calling attention to his use of the n-word but examining him as a person and seeing that we both have a lot in common- a mutual charisma.
Another time at a game night hosted by an Asian friend, someone’s Hmong girlfriend (I’d never met before) would tell me to shut up whenever it was her turn to roll dice. I held off before speaking to see if anybody else was being treated this way, and no, they weren’t. It was only when I opened my mouth that the Hmong woman wanted me to be quiet. As I started to speak out against her, another friend turned to me and said not to because her boyfriend is a gangster (and if you’ve never rolled with Chinese/Asian gangsters before, they are serious business, but you wouldn’t know it by looking at them.) Then again, I’m not going to allow ANY person to speak to me like a child, and fortunately, the boyfriend was in agreement, so he took his Hmong girlfriend outside to argue. They came back in, and she issued a drunken apology. A few weeks later, I see the couple at a bar. He apologizes for her behavior again, and with Jameson Whiskey’s help, reveals his girlfriend is racist and doesn’t like Black people. Instead of displaying shock, I nodded and absorbed the information like I’ve trained myself to do, all while maintaining politeness toward the Hmong woman, but still also drained by her personality and leery.
Not too long ago, my high school friend Jenny married her white partner. And they had a beautiful Vietnamese-style wedding. This was the first time I met Jenny’s family. All of her aunts, uncles, cousins, and elder grandmother were there; some folks had even flown in from Vietnam. While everyone was kind to me, Jenny informed me that I was known amongst her family as the Black Guy. When Jenny told me this, I thought, we’ve been friends since we were in high school, why couldn’t she simply tell them my name? Why couldn’t she say I’m one of her oldest friends and I’m important to her? Though it wasn’t the first time I sensed it, it hit closer to home to realize that Asian people see Blacks on a monolith on a core level, and even those of us who are non-threatening are not viable to be introduced as individuals. The space I filled in that wedding didn’t add points to the overall perception of Black people.
Fast forward to the wedding reception, and people are urging me to dance, and when I do (and every Black person goes through this at some point), I become the center of attention on the dance floor, with Jenny’s Asian guests trying to emulate my moves and rhythm. Once I realized I was adding charisma to the dance floor, I returned to my table and never got back up. It felt like I was being used for my Blackness, and the cultural perception of us being entertainers had played itself out in front of me. Again, no animosity spilled from me. These people were as harmless to me as I was to them, but I still felt like a token, a utility, and not a sentient being in their eyes.
Today, I cannot rally behind calls to end Asian Hate without first saying end Asians haters. Asian Haters are Asian Americans complicit in their communities’ racism towards Black Americans. Asians in the US have the privilege of maintaining cultural traditions indoors while also maintaining white adjacency and appropriating Black culture outdoors. What makes it worse is that Asian entrepreneurs profit from Black communities while also subjecting us to our thievery stereotypes. Blacks going into Asian-owned stores are conscious of the leering eyes, the subtle following, and the sudden need to stock products in every aisle we wander down. Can someone please unlock this caged shelf, so I can grab a bottle of shampoo? In the 30+ years I’ve been Black, it wasn’t until this year, 2021, that I entered my first Black-owned beauty supply store. I was surprised because it wasn’t until I saw the owner that I realized it was my first time.
There is one story I have that brings me joy and lightness whenever I think of it. During college, I worked on Pier 39 in San Francisco, and early in the morning, I’d grab a giant pretzel from one of the vendors near the Left Hand Store, where I was employed simply for being left-handed. The older Asian ladies in the morning would serve me, and they were always polite and happy. One day, a coworker came in a little late with food from the pretzel vendor and told me one of the ladies had talked about me. She asked my coworker if he worked with “the tall guy.” It was such a good feeling, after micro-aggressive experiences, to hear this older Asian woman see past my Blackness, my potent primary label, and instead see me as the “tall guy.” I was happy for once to not be the Black one, but merely a tall guy in this person’s eyes. You may not understand, but this was the biggest compliment I would ever receive from anyone Asian. She saw me as a person, and it still makes my day.
The Order of Operations
Even though historically white American policies have been the most unkind to Asian Americans, they still seek to conform to the needs demanded by white patriarchy. Blacks are not responsible for Japanese internment camps, nor are we responsible for the Asiatic Barred Zone Act of 1917, nor did Blacks have any say in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 or the Page Act of 1875. All of our core racial problems are nested within other issues under the faults of white supremacy.
As a Black person talking about racism, especially ending the hate of a specific community, I am deeply enveloped and acquainted with this country’s racist system. I can see that solving the hate equation is not as simple as adding kindness and understanding to subtract the hate or making everyone aware of hate. No, the racist equation requires a societal Order of Operations.
In mathematics, the Order of Operations refers to the “collection of rules that reflect conventions about which procedures to perform first to evaluate a given mathematical expression.” We are taught to remember the Order of Operations using a mnemonic device, PEMDAS (parenthesis, exponents, multiplication, division, addition, subtraction). In the English language, an exponent is also a person who believes in and promotes the truth or benefits of an idea or theory.
In racism, the Order of Operations refers to the actions needed to evaluate and eliminate racism nested within our communities. This calls for individuals and communities to take responsibility for their function in the working cogs of racism, prejudice, and discrimination. It is not Black people’s responsibility to bear the weight of the racial fight. Stop Asian Hate is only uttered in the rise of violence, though Asian haters have existed for as long as I can remember. If Asians can address the racism and colorism within their homes, others doing the work in their operations can add found solutions to the more significant cause.
In the Order of Operations, you don’t attack a problem without first adding the parenthesis. In our case, the parenthesis is the complicit racism in Asian Americans towards Blacks. The exponents come next; those who are willing to promote the idea that discrimination against Blacks causes more harm than good, especially considering there seems to be a general appreciation of Black culture in Asian youth. When we multiply this idea across communities and cultures, we can find consensus and gather momentum. If not, this new way of seeing past divisiveness can further divide those willing to stand up against those who dwell in prejudice. Finally, we add allies, add voices, and add support in all the places lacking, giving resources to those willing to work to solve this problem. We subtract the haters, the naysayers, and nonbelievers, and hopefully, the repetition of this process occurs numerous times over within every ethnic identity and racial group.
After the Order of Operations is complete, we have a baseline of effort, respect, and willingness to challenge each other’s racial status quo and assumptions. We break the monolith and see each other for our worth and not what we’ve been trained to expect. And the Order of Operations doesn’t just apply to Asian treatment of Blacks. It goes the other way around and can be repurposed for every group of people because we all have work to do, but we have to be willing to see the equation’s multi-faceted layers and nested complexities.
Originally published at https://www.geekyblackqueer.com on March 24, 2021.