With the intensification of the Black Lives Matter movement across the U.S., I often find conflicting views of where exactly Asian Americans fit into conversations about social justice. Those outside of our community often criticize us for being apathetic. Within my own Asian American circles, I’ve seen a range of reactions: from outrage to dismissal of anti-black injustices around us. Most often, I see a disappointing collective silence.
The silence was most recently broken, albeit temporarily, back in February. On February 11, former NYPD officer Peter Liang was convicted in a line-of-duty shooting that caused the death of Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man. On February 20, Asian Americans protested fervently across the nation in defense of Liang’s innocence.
I have to admit that when I first heard about Liang’s conviction, I was outraged. It was painfully unsurprising that after so much coddling of white police officers in cases of anti-black violence, the first police officer to be charged was an Asian American. But I quickly saw how this shortsighted, emotional response was flawed.
Liang has been rightly convicted because a murder is a murder. Our prejudiced legal system has sanctioned white police officers’ abuse of power. We should not be arguing for this racist privilege to be extended to Asian Americans; we should be working in conjunction with other minority movements, particularly Black Lives Matter, to confront and dismantle it.
While I was able to unpack my initially skewed interpretation, I found that most of my Asian American friends were still passionately asserting Liang’s innocence. I was disturbed by their narrow view of the racism acting in Liang’s conviction. I couldn’t understand how a community of highly intelligent, motivated, and compassionate people could be missing the bigger picture like this.
It’s taken me a while to move past my disappointment to reflect critically on why our community’s presence in social and political movements has too often been characterized by silence or incomplete understandings. At the root of it is a lack of self-efficacy and cultural discourse in the political landscape. As the so-called “Model Minority”, we are taught that our only worth is academic achievement. We’ve grown up in a country where the media continually popularizes one-dimensional images of Asian Americans and our immigrant parents. We are reduced to the timid, studious nerd in your math class; our parents become the perpetual foreigners, the Leslie Chow’s to be laughed at and forgotten.
A large part of our community has internalized these harmful messages, and it’s tragic but unsurprising when we feel erased from conversations not only about race, but also other salient social topics such as class, sexuality, gender, etc. This feeling of invisibility has been infused in our culture through generations, cultivating the inhibiting belief that our opinions do not make a difference, and that we are not capable of effecting change.
Understanding this is not an excuse for past or future inaction, but a necessary step toward ending it. We are not apathetic or oblivious – we do see what’s happening and we do care. But we also need to learn the social and political language, history, and most importantly, self-efficacy necessary to translate our beliefs and lived experiences into action. This requires ongoing effort to sharpen understandings of the distinct subgroups forming our larger Asian American community. It also means engaging and supporting other communities of color, queer communities, and marginalized communities in general. We have a lot of collective learning and developing to do, but throughout the process, the most important thing to remember is that we can do better.