For weeks I have been in awe of the organizers and writers – Rev. Osagyefo Sekou, Jamala Rogers, Malkia Cyril, Ta-Nehesi Coates, john a. powell, Falguni A. Sheth, and so many others – who have placed the situation in Ferguson into critical historical and political context. This despite persistent attempts by police, elected officials, and mainstream media to erase that context with vilifications of black political protest and black life. I write this post to express my solidarity and rage, and to offer a response to the disturbing question that I’ve heard asked, and that demands an answer: Does Ferguson matter to Asian Americans?
First and foremost, the murder of Mike Brown by Ferguson police officer Darren Wilson is causing profound grief at the violent loss of yet another black mother’s child. The expression of that grief by the Brown family, and the pained words of solidarity from Sybrina Fulton, the mother of Trayvon Martin, are necessary bedrocks for understanding the human toll that anti-black racism takes. What makes this a national political crisis is that Mike Brown’s death was not an isolated incident. It was excruciatingly unexceptional – one more deadly outcome of white supremacy in a human rights crisis that spans cities, nations, centuries.
The predictable and familiar response – mainstream media pondering whether Mike Brown deserved to die, the City of Ferguson sending in a militarized police force to occupy an already disenfranchised neighborhood, whites denying that this is about race, and the indictment of black rage rather than the indictment of the murdering police officer – these are the mechanics of how America normalizes black death.
That Wilson gunned down Mike Brown so close to the buried body of Dred Scott is a gut-wrenching reminder that the fight for the recognition of black humanity is centuries long, still raging, and yet unfinished. The only way to make sense of this is through the logic of anti-black racism, a logic that asks us to set aside our humanity.
In the words of black feminist writer Brittney Cooper:
The idea that we would show no rage as we accrete body upon body – Eric Garner, John Crawford, Mike Brown (and those are just our summer season casualties) — is the height of delusion. It betrays a stunning lack of empathy, a stunning refusal of people to grant the fact of black humanity, and in granting our humanity, granting us the right to the full range of emotions that come with being human…
Nothing makes white people more uncomfortable than black anger. But nothing is more threatening to black people on a systemic level than white anger… We should sit up and pay attention to where this trail of black bodies leads us. They are a compass pointing us to a raging fire just beneath the surface of our national consciousness.
I do not move through the world in the crosshairs of a policing system that has its roots in slave patrols, or in a nation that has used me as an “object of fear” to justify state repression and public disinvestment from the infrastructure on which my community relies. I am not public enemy number one in the ongoing U.S. domestic war over power and resources that has systematically denied black humanity. Yet as an Asian American, black rage occupies an important and intimate place in my heart and mind for at least two reasons.
First, I have said before that I come from war. My rage is not the same rage that Cooper describes. But I can relate to her when she says:
Rage must be expressed. If not it will tear you up from the inside out or make you tear other people up. Usually the targets are those in closest proximity. The disproportionate amount of heart disease, cancers, hypertension, obesity, violence and other maladies that plague black people is as much a product of internalized, unrecognized, unaddressed rage as it is anything else.
There is a word in Korean culture, han. It is hard to define, yet it deeply shapes Korean consciousness. To quote Elaine H. Kim, it loosely means “the sorrow and anger that grow from the accumulated experiences of oppression… When people die of han, it is called dying of hwabyong, a disease of frustration and rage.”
Coming from a people who were controlled, occupied, and threatened with erasure by outside forces over centuries, and brutalized as silage in a war between the United States and the Soviet Union, han was not something that I consciously embraced. It is in my blood. Han is Korean rage. It was expressed in protests against Japanese colonial rule in 1919, in the struggle for self-determination as the Korean war broke out in 1950, during student protests against the oppressive U.S.-backed South Korean government in 1960, and again during the democratic uprising in Kwangju in 1980.
I would never equate my inheritance of han to the real and imminent threat of violence that Ferguson’s black community and so many others face now. But I will say that I hold my own rage close to me, as part of my identity. I understand the need to defend, protect, and express it.
Secondly, America normalizes and indulges in black death in service to a dehumanizing narrative of black criminality. The exalting of Asian Americans as a model minority reinforces this narrative. And Asian death is rendered invisible when it has no value to the power structure. If Asian life falls outside of model minority and Orientalist narratives, if it doesn’t prop up ideas of American exceptionalism and meritocracy, it doesn’t register much. I was reminded of this a few weeks ago, when the story broke (but did not go viral) of Sandeep Singh, a 29-year-old Sikh man, who was run over and dragged 30 feet by a white man driving a pickup truck in Queens, shouting “Go back to your own country, Bin Laden!” That was less than a week before the two-year anniversary of a white supremacist shooting rampage that killed six people at the Sikh Temple in Oak Creek, WI in 2012.
The invisibility of Asian death, and the denial of any form of Asian American identity that doesn’t play by the model minority rulebook, is another reason why black rage holds such importance to me. It serves as a beacon when faced with the racial quandary that Asian Americans must navigate. As Jamala Rogers reminds us, the findings of the Kerner Commission in 1968, nearly 50 years ago, have come to fruition now: “Our nation is moving toward two societies, one black, one white—separate and unequal.”
In that reality, Asian Americans often end up somewhere in the chasm between blackness and whiteness – whether pushed there, largely invisible and struggling to dodge the crossfire, or diving in to eagerly reap the rewards of non-blackness. Our options are invisibility, complicity, or resistance, and black rage is a clarion call for standing on the correct side of the color line, for reaping the collective rewards of justice.
Asian America is not a monolith. We occupy both ends of the economic spectrum, and most people included in the Asian American demographic category identify by ethnicity, not by the western-conceived imagination of what’s known as Asia. But all the important work that advocates do to disaggregate demographic data and research is only meaningful if we are clear about the politics and values that hold us together as Asian Americans. Given that the U.S. economy and political system are rooted in anti-blackness, claiming our place in America means that we must take a position when faced with the separate but unequal worlds of whiteness and blackness. We are either left or right of the color line. There is no sitting that out.
Japanese and Chinese American organizations and leaders were active in creating the model minority myth, and they embraced anti-blackness. But Asian American identity was forged in the crucible of the black liberation struggle, and also centered demands to end imperialism and war. This is what it means to be Asian American. I choose resistance.
Organizers in Ferguson, with national allies, put out this vision statement last night:
We are striving for a world where we deal with harm in our communities through healing, love, and kinship. This means an end to state sponsored violence, including the excessive use of force by law enforcement. We are committed to an America that comes to terms with the trauma of its painful history and finds true reconciliation for it. Mass incarceration and the over criminalization of black and brown people must forever end, leaving in its place a culture that embraces our histories and stories. This means an end to racial bias and white supremacy in all its forms.
Our dreams are directly linked with those resisting militarism, war, and state repression around the world. We will achieve this new beloved community hand in hand, step by step, in global solidarity with all people committed to lasting peace and full justice.
The mutually reinforcing myths of black criminality and the model minority have no place in the world envisioned by the people of Ferguson, defiantly standing their ground, armed with love and rage in the face of tanks and guns. That is the world that I yearn for, in which we can all thrive and be seen.
Does Ferguson matter to Asian Americans? Yes.