“Yesterday was a really bad day for him and this is what he did.” So said white law enforcement in the aftermath of the Atlanta spa shooting. It was this blasé response that forced me to confront some baggage I had been carrying about the Asian community.
The few Asian faces I had seen in my small, predominantly Latinx city, were faces that scowled if I glanced at them. Those same faces rolled their eyes if a Black or Latinx person spoke to them, while smiling when a white person did the same.
An Asian voice I distinctly recall hearing was a Chinese American eighth-grade classmate questioning why I won a writing award despite having been home-schooled that year (due to mental health issues). He spat the question after seeing me for the first time in months. Did he perceive my academic success to be a threat to his own?
As years wore on, I molded an image of Asians as passive-aggressive people who couldn’t stand to see anyone who wasn’t their own succeed.
I recognized something in that careless response to the Atlanta shootings though.
As an Afro Indigenous person, I know all too well what it means to be stuck in the middle of colonial dreams of domination and subjugation. I know what it feels like to cry and scream out of anger while white people look on. Above all, I know what it’s like to exhaust my mouth and lungs attempting to convince others unlike me that I exist and matter.
At the conclusion of his TEDx talk, Korean American legal academic and bias scholar Jerry Kang expresses to his audience, “No matter what your Asian baggage might have been in your head, it might be that by the course of this talk, I changed them along the way.” Based on whatever positions in society we occupy, we all have biases regarding people we perceive as different from us. It’s the unconscious negative ones that harm others. Let’s unpack this baggage together.
What is Bias?
According to Dushaw Hockett, founder and Executive Director of Safe Places for the Advancement of Community and Equity (SPACEs), bias is “a preference for, or a prejudice against, a person or a group of people.”
Biases come in two flavors: explicit and implicit. Explicit biases are the preferences and prejudices we are consciously aware of. These preferences and prejudices also tend to not be widely accepted in our society. Because we are aware that our explicit biases are politically incorrect, we often do not reveal these biases openly — unless we’re in company with others who share them.
Implicit biases are the preferences and prejudices that we’re unaware of. They’re embedded so deeply in our minds that one way we can gain any insight about them is often through participation in research studies. However, in my experience, implicit biases can be sussed out through extreme introspection and nonjudgmental inquiry of one’s actions.
Public Service Announcement #1: I want to emphasize the axial relationship between preferences and prejudices. By preferring one group over another, a prejudice is automatically formed against another group that has opposing qualities. Imagine a seesaw: When one side goes down, the opposing side goes up. In Asian American communities, a preference towards white Americans automatically creates prejudices against other racialized groups that are racialized as nonwhite — specifically Black people, who are stereotyped to lack the attributes that whites have.
What do I mean by “stereotypes” and “attitudes?” According to Kang, attitudes are “gut feelings” such as “positive versus negative, like versus dislike,” etc. Stereotypes are “traits we associate with a category.”
In this case, let’s use racialized groups as categories. Returning to my theory of preferences and prejudices forming an axial relationship, I’ve observed that Asian Americans apply positive attributes onto white people such as wealthy, hardworking (because many Asians erroneously assume white people’s wealth comes from their own labor and intelligence), and attractive (because they often fit the Asian beauty standards of being light-skinned and thin.) Meanwhile, Black people automatically receive the opposite/negative attributes e.g. poor, lazy (because poverty is obviously a symptom of laziness, right?) and ugly (because they do not fit into Asian beauty standards.) These attributes are later expanded and associated with the whole group, e.g. Black people are undesirable because they are poor, lazy, and unattractive.
Where Do Our Biases Come From?
Although not explicitly mentioned by bias researchers and scholars like Hockett and Kang, American biases are molded by the very systems that uphold this society, i.e. white, Christian, and settler colonial supremacy.
Because white Christian settler colonial supremacy created a stratified society that places Indigenous and African peoples on the very bottom rung and whiteness on the top, that means everyone else who holds either a combination of these identities — or none of them — fall along the middle of this societal plain like plots on a graph. Thus, if we are going to dismantle this system, we must understand who we are and where we are located along the plot graph to comprehend our marginalization and our privileges (everything exists as axial relationships in my book). Hence, our positionalities in the societies we inhabit inform our respective privileges which, in turn, inform our implicit and explicit biases.
Some recent examples I’ve found of positionality breeding “implicit” biases include lifestyle influencer Aileen Xu a.k.a. Lavendaire; Lavendaire’s blog mostly contains articles featuring white and Asian female guests — and one Black woman, thus far. Another example that jumped out at me was K-beauty e-commerce business Soko Glam; Soko Glam’s Female Founders Collective initiative features brands founded by Asian and white women only. Meanwhile, an Indigenous-owned brand, Prados Beauty, was only featured in a blog article, not included in the Collective partnership.
As an Indigenous person, I’ve often noticed non-Natives using past tense verbs (“was,” “were,” etc.) when speaking about Native peoples, especially during land acknowledgements. Yet, when speaking about other racialized minorities in the U.S., people use present tense (“is,” “are,” etc.)
This is a minor, yet crucial, detail that is often overlooked.
This illustrates a deeply embedded perception — based on white colonial supremacist education — that Indigenous people have been wiped off our homelands by European settlers through their mighty militaristic power, a.k.a the extinction myth.
In contrast to bias scholarship and research’s binary system, I believe all biases are perceivable to the senses to various degrees. I don’t believe that implicit biases are as hidden as Kang and Hockett suggest. Instead, they are only hidden to those whom those biases do not affect, and very visible to those directly affected. As an Afro Indigenous person, I was able to recognize the above examples of “hidden” biases very easily because they exclude and affect people like myself.
Food for thought: What anti-Asian biases can you easily recognize that non-Asians can’t seem to identify?
What is Positionality?
As stated by The University of British Columbia’s CTLT Indigenous Initiatives, positionality is a concept that describes “how differences in social position and power shape identities and access in society.” Researcher Mitsunori Misawa further explains positionality as the idea that “all parts of our identities are shaped by socially constructed positions and memberships to which we belong” which are inherently “embedded in our society as a system.”
Why should we care about what station(s) in society we occupy? What practical use will that serve? Marisa Elena Duarte, a Pascua Yaqui and Chicana scholar, explains that positionality requires researchers (and ordinary folks like us) “to identify their own degrees of privilege through factors of race, class, educational attainment, income, ability, gender, and citizenship, among others.”
Public Service Announcement #2: I must add that as “hyphenated Americans,” we do not live in a single society. In fact, we live in multiple societies, often at once. The culture we grew up with inside the four walls of our homes was often different, to some degree, from the worlds outside. For many of us, even in adulthood, that multiplicity of worlds we enter and exit still remains. This adds layers when identifying and recognizing our positionalities because we must do so for each and every society we are a part of.
As Misawa wrote in their study, there are fluid and relational qualities regarding social identity formation. In short, our identities shift depending on where we are and with whom we are in company. This is also connected to the axial relationship I mentioned of holding both marginalized and privileged identities. There is no such thing as being completely marginalized nor privileged because said states of being are dependent on who occupies a higher position than us in the societies we are a part of, and who occupies stations below us. We are always in relationship to others at all times, horizontally and vertically. (Shoutout to Sonya Renee Taylor and her concept of the ladder of oppression.)
Imagine an analog audio mixer in a recording studio: The number of societies you belong to are represented by the number of level faders on the mixer itself. Your positionalities in each society are demarcated by how high or low each level fader is set. Altogether, these uniquely positioned and altered sounds come together to create a musical composition that is uniquely you.
How Does Positionality Inform Our Privileges?
Due to our positionalities in our respective societies, we have either been awarded certain privileges and/or denied them. Every one of us holds privileges in some shape or form. We hold both privileges and forms of marginalization because we exist in intersectional spaces and societies. On top of that, because our identities in these multiple spaces and societies are ever-changing, we may be placed on a pedestal in one society while on the bottom rung in another.
I suggest using the following words of guidance all day, every day: “This work is daily, inside and outside of specially designated social justice spaces — because social justice is about society and we are always a part of society.”
Dominant Culture Check
Before we engage with anyone, we must perform what Jovida Ross and Weyam Ghadbian call a “dominant culture check.”
As Tema Okun and Kenneth Jones’ Characteristics of White Supremacy states, as racialized people born, raised, and/or exposed to white supremacist culture, there is no way we have not internalized those ideas in some shape or form. I invite you to read Okun and Jones’ work and assess what characteristics you hold Black people to.
Perhaps you don’t value our stories unless they are documented or supported by statistics? (Worship of the written word.)
Maybe you believe Black people are poor because we’re lazy and didn’t pull ourselves up by our bootstraps like your immigrant parents did — rather than educate yourself about how colonialism, the trans-Atlantic slave trade, and other sociopolitical factors continue to deny Black people in the Americas opportunities to build generational wealth? (Individualism.)
Or — my favorite — maybe you don’t want to voice what you really think about Black people because, hey, at least we’re meeting up in BIPOC spaces, right? Why do we need to get into the nitty-gritty harsh realities of Black and Asian tensions? (Right to comfort and fear of conflict.)
I invite you to munch on a prompt by Ross and Ghadbian: “What characteristic(s) of dominant culture do I most clearly recognize in myself?”
PRIVILEGES FEED THE SEEDS OF BIASES
Race, Class, and Socioeconomic Privilege and Power
Our implicit and explicit biases, like flora, don’t grow from nothing. They grow from a seed. I have found, through personal observation of myself and others, that the seeds of bias are often nurtured in the soil of our privileges. After all, it’s quite easy to condescend to someone who “talks ghetto” when one grew up in a neighborhood or small town that had a well-stocked public library with a wide variety of media and the latest book releases, offering the infinite opportunity to broaden one’s vocabulary.
In BIPOC-centered social justice spaces, it is very easy to focus on the visible similarities we hold, i.e. being nonwhite, and forget about the intangible aspects of our lives and how they have shaped us. Amy Benson and Kad Smith ask in their workbook, “Are there some forms of privilege you’re more comfortable acknowledging and claiming?”
I ask you the opposite question: What forms of privilege are you more uncomfortable acknowledging and claiming? What forms of privilege are you completely unaware of? That is one of the very essences of privilege: It is our blind spots that are invisible to us, yet very visible to those who lack them.
Allow me to model: Because I’m American-born, I’ve never had to learn nor agonize about the labyrinthine systems of immigration. Because I am American-born, I’ve never had to struggle to learn a new language, unless it was for pleasure, not survival. Because I was raised by a mother who was relatively class-privileged in her birth country, I was socialized to perceive and value books as trustworthy companions, not classist enemies who would reveal to a teacher and a class of 30 students the fact that I couldn’t pronounce a word correctly (or even know its definition).
Before engaging with Black folks, I need Asian Americans to investigate a specific aspect of their multifaceted identities that often goes unspoken in racial justice spaces: class, socioeconomic status, and educational attainment — all intertwined in American society. Classism is racialized — and yes, I’m including college-educated middle to upper class Asian American yuppies in that statement.
Personal Storytime #1: Back in my Columbia University days, I lived with a Hong Kong-born Chinese graduate student who had served in the U.S. military. One evening, she shared with me an observation about Black American military personnel who had been stationed in Germany with her: “Black people drink soda and eat junk food. Why don’t they eat healthier food? Why don’t they try new foods?”
I informed and reminded her of food deserts and the inherent classism of food in the U.S. Healthier food costs more than junk food. Hell, even bottled water is more expensive than liters of soda!
The ability to try new cuisines is also class-based: You need money to go to a restaurant, for bus fare or gas, money for the food itself, and money for tips at restaurants offering table service. Restaurants offering more “exotic” fare are often located in ethnic enclaves or middle- to upper-class white-populated areas or neighborhoods.
Even the food we are able to eat is determined by our societal privileges, including, but not limited to, socioeconomic class, which is informed by income; income which is, in turn, informed by (dis)ability and level of education in the U.S., if any; and geographical location informed by (dis)ability, race/ethnicity due to redlining, and educational level, which are all informed by income.
Towards the end of Kang’s TEDx talk, he dropped this little gem of advice: “A temporary treatment for our implicit biases is to expose ourselves to counter-typical exemplars. By doing so, scientific evidence has shown that our biases decrease, albeit temporarily.”
Here’s another hypothesis I have for y’all: What if we continually exposed ourselves to counter-typical examples of stereotypes?
How do we do that? By engaging with communities we often do not and/or were not socialized with. By engaging with Black folks, sooner or later, you’ll find many countertypical examples: nerds, mathematicians, disabled people, and so forth.
Along the same lines, Right to Be (formerly known as Hollaback) hosted a workshop titled “8 Tools to Mitigate Implicit Bias.” The most impactful tool I learned through it was Strategy #8: Exposure. Expose yourself to media, culture, language, literature, etc.
Public service announcement #3: The goal here is not to watch Black media for entertainment purposes only, but to also consume our media with the intention of learning about us as diverse peoples with diverse cultures.
Take time to learn about the culture(s) of people(s) you hold biases against. Don’t watch documentaries about Black people, created by and for non-Black audiences. Avoid media that further stereotypes Black people (again, these kinds of media are usually not created by and for Black people.) Consume media created by us, for us.
Public service announcement #4: Although we are specifically discussing American issues and Black people who live in the United States, I am not only referring to Black Americans. When I say “Black,” I am including every one of the African diasporas, including multiracial folks: Afro Indigenous people, Afro Latinxs, Afro Caribbean folks, Black British people, other African diasporas in Europe, Sub-Saharan Africans (West, Central, East, and Southern Africans), Blasians, Afro Pacific Islanders, etc.
Black people, like Asians, are diverse and so are our lived experiences. Many of us are immigrants and many of us are first-generation Americans. These stories matter too. Learn about the many shapes our experiences take, and don’t use the Black American experience as a blanket for all Black people in the United States.
Here is a small starter kit of some Anglophone Black-created media from the United States and United Kingdom:
- Black Queer Town Hall
- Blavity: Black Millennial and Gen Z content, inclusive of the diaspora
- Buzzfeed’s Cocoa Butter: Black Millennial and Gen Z video and written content, inclusive of the diaspora
- Ebony Magazine: A legendary African American publication, renowned for its covers
- Jet Magazine: Another legendary African American publication, also renowned for its covers
- Essence: African American women’s lifestyle magazine
- Madame Noire: African American women’s lifestyle content and Black pop culture gossip
- PBS Say It Loud: Black American culture & history
- Pride Magazine: Black British lifestyle magazine
- SWERV Magazine: LGBT African American lifestyle magazine. Print copies available in U.S. LGBT centers nationwide
- The Grio: African American journalism
- The Root: African American journalism
- The Voice: Black British journalism
- POZ magazine: American publication for HIV+ people. Often features Black American HIV+ trailblazers and issues. Print copies available in U.S. LGBT centers nationwide.
Disclaimer #1: The myriad opinions you’ll find in the links above do not cover the totality of Black experiences globally. Please don’t generalize and claim that because you read one article written by an articulate Negro that you now know how all Negroes think. Each and every Black person in this world has a plethora of unique opinions based on their equally unique lives and experiences.
Disclaimer #2: No matter how much Black-created media you consume, you’ll never truly gain an insider’s perspective. That’s okay. You will gain deep insight into the issues that affect our daily lives and the conversations we have when you’re not in the room.
Personal Storytime #2: Despite watching Japanese anime since childhood, anime in the 1990s and early 2000s suffered from removing Japanese-specific cultural references for “American localization.” In plain English, anime was white-washed: White voice actors dubbed characters whose names were changed into the most middle-class suburban names you could imagine. I consumed Asian media without Asian voices and faces attached to it.
However, since delving into the world of K-pop, Thai boys love series, Korean variety shows, and Asian vloggers, I have come to see and hear how wickedly funny and witty y’all can be, how handsome some of the men are, how wise the insights of a local auntie and uncle running a shopping center stall can be. Above all, I was shocked by how enthusiastic some Asians in the motherlands are to meet Black celebrities, fans, or regular tourists/people. (Honestly, this is a phenomenon I’m still trying to wrap my head around.) None of these insights would have come to me had I never consumed live-action Asian media, media created by and for Asians.
Will I ever understand the totality of the Asian and Asian American experience? Nope, because I’m not Asian and never will be … and that’s why I need to keep watching, listening, and learning.
If you’ve made it this far, I thank you for your open mind and heart. However, this article won’t be the end of our journeys to deconstruct and decolonize our biases and prejudices. If we made it this far, we can go further. Let’s continue moving forward together.
Mochi Magazine’s Black Allyship @ Mochi column is an ongoing project that urges an awareness of racial injustice in the United States, particularly the oppression of Black people in America. The articles, resources and opinions we share are a call to action, an open discussion, and a place to take a stance against anti-Black racism. Read more about the column here.
We want Black Allyship @ Mochi to spark productive conversation. We want to know how we can do better: Feel free to email the co-editors at BlackAllyship@mochimag.com.
Credit: Markus Spiske/Unsplash
Last modified: November 13, 2022