In Manhattan’s Chinatown, I grew up around anti-Blackness. I heard comments in Cantonese like, “Don’t hang out with that black kid,” “That Spanish kid is a bad influence,” and “Don’t bring your black friend home.” It was a given for me that first-generation immigrants and their American-born kids had different views on Black people in America.
My friends and I thought it pointless or didn’t have the courage to confront anti-Black racism in our families. “They’re set in their ways,” my friends said. On top of this, many in my Asian American community, even if they didn’t explicitly exhibit anti-Black racism, were silent on Black Lives Matter. With my experiences growing up and as a Chinese and Asian American educator with Chinese, Latinx, and Arabic students, I am constantly grappling with how to address and counter anti-black racism.
The Movement for Black Lives believes that all people can contribute regardless of age. The BLM intergenerational principle states, “We cultivate an intergenerational and communal network free from ageism. We believe that all people, regardless of age, show up with the capacity to lead and learn.”
If all people are capable of leading and learning, could my parents, my grandparents, my uncles and aunties and cousins, learn, too? Could they, too, confront and unlearn anti-Blackness?
Recently, the Asian American community was forced to confront anti-Blackness and its relationship to American society when Akai Gurley, a Black man, was shot and killed by Chinese American NYPD officer Peter Liang in November 2014. A little over a year later, in February 2016, Liang was found guilty of second-degree manslaughter. Liang became the first NYPD police officer to be convicted for a line-of-duty shooting in over a decade.
The Akai Gurley and Peter Liang case divided the Chinese community. Many believed Liang received unjust treatment as a Chinese American officer; had Liang been white, many thought, Liang would likely not have been convicted. Others thought that other police officers, such as Daniel Pantaleo in the Eric Garner case, should be prosecuted just as Peter Liang had.
A few days after the guilty verdict was rendered, 10,000 Asian Americans, predominantly Chinese Americans, rallied in Brooklyn in support of Officer Liang. Protestors came for different reasons; some called for accountability of all police officers involved in fatal shootings, and others wanted a lenient sentence for Liang. Some protesters brought signs reading, “One Tragedy, Two Victims,” asserting that both Liang and Gurley were failed by the justice system.
As with the Liang verdict, many found the Brooklyn rally divisive. The rallies in support of Peter Liang were organized and attended by many Chinese immigrants whose first language is Chinese. Some of my cousins had gone. Many, including myself, saw the divide in opinions as falling on generational lines, with older people supporting Liang and the younger generation tending to see the need for justice for Gurley. Many in the Chinese community felt this rally was empowering, and others saw it as dividing ourselves from other communities.
I thought, How could 10,000 mostly Chinese people be rallying for an officer who killed a man? How would this rally look to the black community, to Akai Gurley’s family? I was dumbfounded.
Some in my community had compared Peter Liang to an important icon in Chinese and Asian American history. That “someone” happens to be my second cousin: Vincent Chin. Vincent Chin, mistaken as Japanese during a height of anti-Japanese sentiment, was murdered in 1982, and his killers, two white men, never served jail time. Chin’s murder led to a pan-Asian civil rights movement in the 1980s, a movement unparalleled since. Some who rallied for Peter Liang saw Liang’s guilty verdict, like Chin’s murder, as yet another case of an Asian American being robbed of justice. I did not see Liang’s guilty verdict this way and was furious at the comparison.
Two days after the Brooklyn rally, I wrote and published a piece on Medium asking my community to consider what it meant to support Officer Liang. I wrote partly out of empathy for Gurley’s family and for my Chinese community, but mostly I wrote out of anger. I refuted this comparison, stating,
“Vincent Chin has far more in common with Akai Gurley than with Peter Liang.”
I then called for justice for Akai Gurley and his family.
When I wrote the article, I didn’t think anyone in my family would read it, as it was in English and most of the elders in my family only speak Chinese. Within three days, tens of thousands of people had read and circulated my article, now on Huffington Post, and commented by the hundreds. My family inevitably heard about my article and read my words, as snippets were translated in Chinese newspapers like World Journal.
My family was furious at me for a number of reasons, the largest reason being that I had brought our family into a heated political conversation around police accountability and anti-Black racism by invoking our relative Vincent Chin’s name. Vincent’s mother, Lily Chin, spent years fighting and never got justice for her son’s murder- why should we fight then, or be political?
My family asked me to take down the article, which I didn’t want to do, and couldn’t do even if I wanted to. After a week or so, the controversy died down, but the rift within my family was clear and present.
In retrospect, how could we as Asian Americans tackle conversations about race as important as Black Lives Matter when Asian Americans often feel invisible? Asian Americans make up 18 million people and are the fastest-growing demographic in the nation, yet issues such as poverty, immigration, language access, healthcare, mental health, and anti-Asian racism get very little airtime and representation in the media. With this context, why would elders talk about Black Lives Matter when we as a community have so many other struggles to fight against?
That is why I think so many people rallied for Peter Liang that day. Liang, to those rallying for him, represented the invisibility and struggles that Asian Americans identified with. Peter Liang was supposed to be an example of the American Dream, yet, in my opinion, was scapegoated and left behind by the New York Police Department. To be clear, these issues do not excuse Liang for his role in Akai Gurley’s death. As I wrote in my article, “[Liang] may have been unaware he was complicit in a system of injustice that preys on Black lives, yet he voluntarily operated in that system.” To many, the Peter Liang case represents both the brutality of Asian American invisibility and the systemic injustice toward the Black community. But, while Peter Liang was not a victim, many in the Asian American community saw him as such- and why wouldn’t they?
What seemed missing for everyone was a shared understanding of systemic racism. If we all understood the history and complexities of racism in this country, we might have understood Peter Liang’s role within the police institution more clearly. We might have better expressed condolences and supported Akai Gurley’s family. And we as an Asian American community would have to face our own complicity in our anti-Blackness, struggles against the model minority myth, and how we might benefit from anti-Black racism.
If we don’t have these conversations, minds and hearts can’t be changed. We need to be willing to talk about these issues with those closest to us.
As more people were killed in 2016 police shootings, notably Alton Sterling and Philando Castile, hundreds of Asian Americans came together to create intergenerational resource for our community. Rumors swirled that the killer of Philando Castile was an Asian American police officer, and many worried the divisions of the Peter Liang trial would play out once again. Christina Xu, an ethnographer in Brooklyn, tweeted and asked Asian Americans to start drafting letters to our parents around Black Lives Matter. Xu opened a Google drive document, which hundreds of people contributed to, and Letters For Black Lives was formed. The letters were translated in over 30 languages and customized for different groups of people.
The goal in 2016 for these Letters for Black Lives remains today, according to this blog post on their website:
“[to speak] empathetically, kindly, and earnestly to our elders about why Black lives matter to us. As many of us are first- and second-generation immigrants ourselves, we know first-hand that it can be difficult to find the words to talk about this complex issue, especially in the languages that resonate most with our elders. Our hope with this letter and its translations is to make it easier for people to craft their own starting points, and serve as a first step towards more difficult intergenerational conversations about race and police violence.”
One quote from the letter particularly strikes me in the way it ties Asian American first-generation immigrant struggles and the struggles Black people face in our society today:
“you’ve suffered through a prejudiced America, to bring me closer to the American Dream. But I hope you can consider this: the American Dream cannot exist for only your children. We are all in this together, and we cannot feel safe until ALL our friends, loved ones, and neighbors are safe. “
The Letters For Black Lives campaign was inspiring and gave hope that the Asian American community could and would hold in solidarity with Black Lives. You can read the full letter in English, access audio recordings in different languages, find translations and more at the Letters For Black Lives website.
The Black Lives Matter movement has forced many non-Black people of color, like myself, and our communities to consider our relationships to anti-Black racism. What is our relationship to the Black Lives Matter movement? Do we accept anti-Black racism as something to fight, and do we accept the Black Lives Matter movement as valid? And, if we accept those two things as valid, how do we confront anti-Black racism in our own communities?
The Letters For Black Lives campaign bridged generational, cultural, and language barriers while speaking to communities with love and acceptance. This philosophy was in stark contrast with the anger I used while writing my own piece. In order to build our own communities, we cannot come into the work just with anger, but come with the hope and understanding that everyone is capable of learning and leading.
This means we have to learn and lead as well. As teachers, we do the work with our students, but I know now I have a lot of work to do in my own community.
As a teacher, I trust in my ten-year-old students, so shouldn’t I trust in my community? It was too painful to realize I was fighting racism and other systemic injustices in my classroom but that I didn’t have the courage to face the same issues within my own family and community.
I knew what I had to do. As a direct result of this work, two summers ago I moved from Chicago back home to my hometown, Manhattan’s Chinatown.
I am working now to build within my own community. I am trying hard to build with my parents and family, which is incredibly difficult with our cultural and language differences. But, as the Black Lives Matter principle espouses, everyone has the capacity to lead and learn. I take Cantonese classes and speak with Chinatown tenants who face eviction and harassment.
I have a lot to learn from my elders, and my elders, hopefully, will learn from me, too. And, in time, hopefully we will lead together for a more just world for everyone. Justice, after all, is not “just us.” I’m so excited for the world we kids and elders organize and build, together.
Annie Tan is a 6th-year special education teacher at a NYC public school in Sunset Park, Brooklyn. Born and raised in Chinatown, Manhattan, Annie worked in Chicago from 2011-2016, teaching and eventually serving two years as the co-chair of the Chicago Teachers Union Special Education Committee and as a member of the Chicago Special Education Taskforce. Annie is currently involved as a member of the Chinatown Tenants Union of CAAAV: Organizing Asian Communities, the Movement of Rank-and-File Educators (MORE-UFT) Caucus within the United Federation of Teachers, and #educolor. You can find Annie’s work and current life endeavors at @angryteachr.