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I will never know my great-grandfather’s true name. He came to the United States during a time when anti-Asian hate was rampant. This was the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act era, which banned all Chinese migration and predated the Paper Act of 1875, which barred all Asian women from migrating. However, those already in the States sold their papers back to people in China. The papers were bought by complete strangers who would then change their names and claim to be that person’s child. That was my great-grandfather. On paper, white immigration authorities renamed him Joe Suey, but that was never his real name. He would come to run a laundromat in Florida, a job relegated to Asian men because it was considered too effeminate in the States. He and all “paper sons,” “paper daughters,” and “paper children” gave up their names to come here. What some call illegal immigration, I call a great sacrifice and a resilience against U.S. imperialism.

In his honor, I claimed my Asian Power by taking his paper surname, Zhou. Learning my history has granted me my truth. That is something I urge the Asian Diaspora here in the States and worldwide to claim as well: In order for us to build solidarity, we must know who we are first. What is my story? What is your story? And how do all of our stories join at the intersections of struggle and collective liberation?

Several Asian organizers I have met say that we don’t have a history on this stolen land.

Yes, we do.

Asian Americans have a long history of resilience and power here on Turtle Island, this stolen land known as the United States of America. Our resistance, however, has been censored from public education in order for us to remain under colonial control. These structures encourage Asian Americans to imagine the racial struggles of others as not our own. We see our solidarities with other people at a political distance. Such solidarity building, based on this white mythology, runs the risk of charity work. 

Murri activist and academic Dr. Lilla Watson is known to have said, “If you have come here to help me, you are wasting your time. But if you have come because your liberation is bound up with mine, then let us work together.” In order for us to work together, side by side with Black, Latinx, and Indigenous folks, Asian Americans must discover what exactly is our fight for Asian freedom. In order to build solidarity with others, we must anchor ourselves in our stories, our truths, and our power.

How Does Our Oppression and Resistance Story Begin?

The author’s maternal grandparents
Courtesy: Rohan Zhou-Lee

Early Asian American resistance can be traced as far back as 1763. The Spanish Empire had been exploiting Filipinos for labor during the two-and-a-half-century-long Galleon Trade. In this year, Filipinos on a ship to New Orleans fought themselves free and fled into swampland once the galleon docked. It was reported that “the Spaniards did not pursue the Filipinos for fear of being eaten by alligators.” A decade later, African slave rebel leader Jean Saint Malo would find refuge in the same area and resist the Spanish until his capture and hanging in 1784. To this day, this area is named after him and Filipinos still live there. While information on how these communities interacted is sparse, it can be inferred that if both peoples stayed in the same area and resisted the Spanish, mutual protection against the colonizers had occurred. This period of the late 18th century very well may have been one of the earliest moments of Black-Asian solidarity on this stolen land.

Indian and Chinese communities were similarly forced into labor by the British Empire. During this Coolie Trade, by 1838, approximately 25,000 Indians had been indentured. Following the first Opium War, between 250,000 and 500,000 Chinese were also removed from their homeland and brought to the Caribbean and Peru for this nonconsensual work.

This time period reveals similarities to the slavery and exploitation of Black and Native communities under colonization. This historic and violent oppression easily disproves that Asian Americans have had a “better” experience than other people of color.

How the Colonial State Relies on Us Not Knowing Our Stories

In 2014, I graduated from university, and around this time, social upheaval had begun with the racially-motivated murders of Black people. The historic Black Lives Matter movement had come into being. I had only attended two protests in college, and didn’t really think it a good idea to attend one in the “real world.” College was a bubble of safety. Police are dangerous. What about my dance career? If I was seen or injured, how would that impact my dancing in such a white industry?

At a holiday party with other Filipino alumni, I received a copy of Carlos Bulosan’s “America Is In The Heart.” Through his words, I learned about the legacy I had inherited. I learned of the lynchings of Filipinos in the West. As my Black people were called the n-word, so my Filipino people were called “dogs.” If both my Black and Asian ancestors had survived so much, why was I sitting still? What reason had I to be afraid when our people have been so brave?

Filipino American Diaspora literature, in its raw truth, catapulted me to join the Black Lives Matter movement. I wasn’t only marching for myself, but for all my people who have experienced centuries of colonial oppression. Bulosan’s writing drew me to learn more about my Asian heritage.

Before the infamous Exclusion Act of 1882, and even the 1875 Page Act that excluded Asian women from migrating under the assumption that they were all sex workers, Asian immigrants had already been struggling with racial violence. A notable and grievous moment would be the LA Chinatown Massacre, in which five hundred people descended on the neighborhood and lynched around 17 Chinese and left several more injured. These immigrants also had an underground network of tunnels that, to this day, “must be accessed separately through trap doors.”

White supremacy relies heavily on Asian recognition of its imagined authority. Claire Jean Kim observes how the model minority myth implies that Asians and Pacific Islanders are the “good” minority, the ones with good grades, who behave according to the rules and excel in the industry. It should be noted, however, that oftentimes many Pacific Islanders’ stories do not quite fit into the typically assumed Asian category. This is due to a more violent history of U.S. colonial invasion, imperialism, militarism, and interference with democracy in Southeast Asia and the Pacific Islands. Because the Pacific Islander population in the States is 45 times smaller than the Asian American population, using these terms interchangeably risks erasing the stories and needs of people indigenous to and of the diasporas of Polynesia, Micronesia, Melanesia, etc.

In this chart, Kim theorizes that Asian Americans are seen as a minority but still valued above Black communities because of the myth of goodness and conformity, while also remaining an outsider, or the perpetual foreigner. This is due to common assumptions that Asians are hardworking, produce effective results, and can contribute to white society in the position they are allotted. Kim notes how racial triangulation not only pits Asian Americans against Black and other communities of color, but also uses Asian Americans as a distraction tactic for white supremacy to flourish. This has a direct impact on our mental health, putting us at high risk for a mental health crisis that is both individual and communal. While we are presumed by many as white-adjacent, we still experience racism and must be silent and internalize these traumas.

Cathy Hong Park writes that, “Minor feelings occur when American optimism is enforced upon you, which contradicts your own racialized reality, therefore creating a static cognitive dissonance. You are told, ‘Things are so much better,’ while you think, ‘Things are the same.’ You are told ‘Asian Americans are so successful,’ while you feel like a failure. This optimism sets up false expectations that increase these feelings of dysphoria.”

The author at the Blasian Trans March
Credit: Stas Ginzburg

In 1966, William Petersen coined the term “model minority” in his The New York Times Magazine article “Success Story, Japanese-American Style.” He painted Japanese Americans as the exemplary group for overcoming racial hardship, i.e. the internment camps during World War II. This term appeared in the decade during which many Japanese Americans, a generation of survivors of that internment, had been collaborating with Black Panthers and other civil rights icons. Among those are Richard Aoki, Kiyoshi Kuromiya, Nabuko Miyamoto, and Yuri Kochiyama. Two years later, Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee would coin the term “Asian American,” form the Asian American Political Alliance at UCLA Berkeley (which also included Aoki,) and collaborate closely with The Black Student Union and Indigenous student organizers to form the Third World Liberation Front.

The Asian American identity was formed in conjunction and solidarity with Black liberation, Latine freedom, and Native sovereignty. It can be interpreted that “model minority” was a strategic term built to disrupt and separate Black-Asian solidarity of the 60s. Media as a means to divide Asians from other communities of color was also implemented in the ‘90s during the LA Uprisings between Black and Korean diaspora communities. This strategy has returned with the overlap of Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate when much mainstream media portrays anti-Asian violence perpetrated by Black men, usually towards elders or women, when in reality, 89.6% of anti-Asian bigotry, rhetoric, and violence was perpetuated by white people.

Model minority structures rely on the omission of the truth. As my great-grandfather had to give up his name for low-level admission into white society, Asian Americans have historically been forced to give up history and identity. To achieve white proximity, we have had to surrender our Asianness, cheapen and commercialize it for a racial tourism, to celebrate, for example, the building of railroads but not how the Chinese laborers were lynched, massacred, grossly underpaid in unsafe and inhumane conditions, or expelled from stolen land.

It is imperative that for Asian Americans to build solidarity, we must as a community destroy the triangulation that oppresses and depresses us. We must vocalize how we are not white-adjacent by telling our truths and stories. Calling ourselves Asian American, historically, is already an act of defiance, liberation, and alliance with other communities of color.

How Does Your Story Join with Others to Fight the Colonial State?

Cross racial struggles intersect distinctly with disability justice. Black disability justice organizer Talila “TL” Lewis in the essay “Disability Justice In The Age of Mass Incarceration” also notes how ableism appears in policing towards Asian Americans. Lewis speaks on how those who are Deaf and/or Mute are often assaulted by police, and convicted on false charges. Lewis shares, “In 2016, over 750 people have been killed by law enforcement. Studies show that no less than 60–80% of these victims are people with disabilities. Notably, Black people and other people of color are disproportionately represented among these victims.

Asian Americans are also a part of this statistic. In a 2017 case, 76-year-old grandmother Hui Jie Jin, a Deaf Asian American woman, was assaulted and arrested by police in Alameda County. “[T]his incident is especially outrageous because only years prior, Alameda County and ACSO had been sued by the Department of Justice for precisely the same failure,” Lewis writes. The parallel mistreatment between Asian Americans and other people of color thus shatters the racial triangulation and paves the way for cross-racial solidarity. It encourages us to stop separating Asian Americans from the “BIPOC” umbrella term, when we have always been othered and considered people of color as well.

Cross-racial solidarity, although erased from our public education, occurs very often in Asian American history. In September 1965, Filipino and Mexican farm workers joined forces to form the famous Delano Grape Strike. Due to unsustainable wages, the Agricultural Workers Organizing committee, led by the Filipino Larry Itliong, and later the National Farm Workers Association, headed by the Mexican César Chávez, boycotted inhumane labor conditions. This act of intersectional power won and expanded labor rights for all

Similar intersectional power exchanges are prevalent in Black-Asian history. Alongside the Filipinos in New Orleans, Black-Asian solidarity has been extensively erased from public education. Such history includes Fredrick Douglass’s 1869 “Composite Nation speech,” Ida B. Wells’ solidarity with Filipinos during the U.S. Philippine war, LGBT civil rights icon Bayard Rustin’s adaptation of Ghandian civil disobedience while traveling in India, openly gay Kiyoshi Kuromiya who marched with Martin Luther King, Jr. on Selma and spoke as the sole gay panelist at the 1970 Black Panther Party Constitutional Convention, and even modern time Palestinian and BLM solidarities during the Ferguson uprising.

Credit: Josh Pacheco (@joshpachecophotography)

It can be inferred that Asian American peoples, in the homeland and diaspora, have been experts at solidarity work. This history has been intentionally erased to keep us triangulated against other communities, who also remain ignorant of Asian American history. Removal of these moments of Asian Power, which by nature is in opposition to colonial authority, has kept us from engaging in holistic solidarity that creates mutual liberation across all oppressed communities. This white mythology must be broken before we can look at solidarity with others.

The ugly truth of the Asian American experience must be hidden in order for the colonial state to keep us separate and “above” other communities of color. This legacy remains today through Kim’s racial triangulation, that to be pitted against other communities of color, especially Black people, Asian Americans are systemically kept ignorant of the truth. We must be firm in our education, our stories, and how our stories intersect with other communities of color and anti-racist collaborators.

Conclusion

“When I liberate myself, I liberate others,” civil and voting rights activist Fannie Lou Hamer once said. 

Knowing these truths, distributing unadulterated Asian American history is key to building solidarity. Educating ourselves defeats erasure and invisibilization. We must understand that things like anti-Blackness in our communities are relatively new and institutionalized by white mythology. Teaching ourselves the uncensored legacy of Asian Power can liberate our people from the minor feelings that impact our well-being.

As we struggle through yet another wave of anti-Asian hate, I ask that when we hold each other, and alongside other communities of color, that we remind ourselves of one thing: our own story. In order for Asian Americans to build solidarity, we must rebuild ourselves with truth at the root. We must consolidate our power, our history, our love for one another, as well as learn the stories of other oppressed communities. We must see the parallels, use those narratives to generate and anchor ourselves in intersectional power.

To have a name is to be given the right to occupy space,” disabled community-organizer and activist Sandy Ho writes in an essay for Bitch Media. 

In this guise, we must take away names that give white supremacy power. We must stop calling it “white supremacy” in the first place. Supremacy implies ultimate power, and when we call it such, we are giving such a violent structure imagined authority in our minds. One doesn’t have to be white to uphold this structure, and thus the phrase can suggest BIPOC people’s innocence in maintaining its power. I prefer “colonial state,” for state can imply change, something we all can implement in our daily practice.

We are the leaders we have been looking for,” said Grace Lee Boggs in an interview at the age of 91.

To stand with other communities of color, we must make Asian American history no longer a radical and far-fetched idea in education, but instead common knowledge for everyone. Building solidarity requires our whole selves, with our truths rescued from colonial miseducation. Educating our communities is key to the abolition of our oppression and the access to our Asian Power, which has always been and can once again intersect with Black Power, Native Power, Latinx Power, anti-racism work, and all other oppressed communities.

Cover credit: Josh Pacheco (@joshpachecophotography)

Author

  • Rohan Zhou-Lee, pronouns They/Siya/祂 (Tā) is a Black-Asian author, dancer, and organizer in New York City. Zhou-Lee is the founder of the Blasian March, an initiative to build solidarity between Black, Asian and Blasian communities through education and celebration. They have been featured as an activist on AJ+, CNN, WNYC, and other news outlets. They have also written on Black-Asian solidarity for them. magazine. Zhou-Lee holds a Bachelor of the Arts degree in Ethnomusicology from Northwestern University.

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