THROUGH YONSEI EYES: DEAR ASIAN AMERICANS: An open letter and guide-in-progress on being a productive ally to African Americans by a devastated and outraged Asian American

Are you also devastated and outraged? You should be. That’s just the start. So, what’s next? How can the Asian American community mobilize to be productive and supportive to the Black community right now? I’m not claiming to be a perfect ally/activist, or that this is the definitive guide to being an ally in 2020, or that I speak on behalf of the entire Asian American community. I just want to lay out some next steps that we as a community can take to support our Black friends and neighbors who are fighting for their lives right now.

I’m currently living abroad in Japan teaching English. I’m pissed and I’m frustrated that I’m unable to attend protests or physically demonstrate. For a while I didn’t know how or where to direct these feelings, and was at a loss as to how I could actively support the Black Lives Matter movement from so far away. I’ve heard similar sentiments of uncertainty and frustration echoed by a number of my Asian American peers.

A lot of people I’ve spoken to want to help, but don’t know how to do so. We’ve been conditioned to remain silent in times of adversity in order to survive and maintain the backwards and harmful “model minority” myth; so many Asians feel uncomfortable about being outspoken or public about solidarity with other marginalized groups. However, the discomfort you feel about putting your beliefs out there right now is frankly irrelevant in the face of the violent and institutionalized oppression of Black people. I’m calling you out — if there was EVER a time to break your silence and take on an active role in the movement, it’s now.

I’ve been writing a column for the Nichi Bei Weekly for the past two years. My columns so far have been about my experiences as a Japanese American woman living in Japan. After ruminating on my frustration and trying to figure out how to be useful, I realized that I have a platform within the Asian American community through my writing (thanks mom for reminding me). I can use my voice to engage with my own community and join the conversation about Asian American allyship and solidarity with the Black Lives Matter movement.

If you consider yourself to be an ally, or are looking for ways to become one, I urge you to consider the following points.

This Is Not About You

Right now, the sole priority of the human rights movement happening in the states is ending the police brutality and institutionalized racism that have oppressed African Americans for hundreds of years. We need to be uplifting the Black community and listening to their stories, perspectives and grief.

This is not the time to push narratives about the historical or contemporary racism against Asians that exists in America. These experiences are real and painful and valid, but they are not the point right now. There will be another time and place for those discussions. In this moment, we all need to channel our voices and our activism towards a single cause — and that is Black Lives Matter.

The rights of every marginalized group in America, including the rights of Asian Americans, are directly tied to Black liberation. None of us will ever be truly free as long as the Black community continues to be oppressed. Use the lessons you learned from the racism you and your community have faced to be more empathetic, more compassionate, and more motivated to actively support the Black Lives Matter movement.

Confront And Dismantle Anti-Blackness Within Your Own Family And Community

We cannot discuss our solidarity with Black Lives Matter without addressing the fact that anti-Blackness exists within our community.

We could probably debate who and how many Asian Americans are guilty of this, but again that’s not the point. Anti-Blackness exists, and we all know it. It is uncomfortable to talk about this, there’s no getting around that. It makes those of us who work to combat racial injustice ashamed and embarrassed. But right now, we have no choice but to have these conversations with our family and community members who exhibit prejudiced words and behaviors.

We need to do the difficult, uncomfortable thing and have these discussions and we need to have them now. Call out bad behaviors and hold them accountable. Make a definitive statement against their anti-Blackness and stick to it. Do not let the people around you get away with being prejudiced.

I know it isn’t easy, the people making problematic statements are often our elders, but it’s essential that we try. Again, our discomfort is irrelevant. POC have to be united right now, we cannot let prejudice divide us and pit us against each other. Minorities need to band together to fight the common enemy of the violent, systemic oppression of African Americans, and a vital part of that is confronting and dismantling the anti-Blackness in our own community.

Acknowledge Your Privilege. Use It.

A lot of the uncertainty I’ve seen from Asian Americans around being vocal about this issue has been the awareness of the simple fact that in white America, we are more privileged than African Americans. We face less discrimination, less violence, and fewer obstacles to success. It’s not the same as being white, but it’s also not the same as being Black.

Current events have made all of us acutely aware of the fact that despite whatever discrimination Asians may face, we do not experience anywhere near the same level of racism that the Black community does. We don’t have the right to pretend that we understand exactly what the Black community is going through. We don’t have the right to criticize how the Black community is expressing their grief at over 400 years of violent oppression.

But we have RESPONSIBILITY to express our solidarity as another minority group in America. We have a RESPONSIBILITY to show up and resist alongside them. We have a RESPONSIBILITY to use our platforms and our voices to condemn the uneven distribution of resources, the school to prison pipeline, the food deserts, the mass incarceration, the never-ending police brutality and corruption within law enforcement, and all of the other institutions whose very existence destroys Black lives and Black communities.

Our stories are different, but that doesn’t mean we have nothing to offer to the current conversation. We can show our solidarity and speak out against institutionalized racism, we can call out problematic behaviors within  our own Asian communities, and we can listen to the needs, stories, and pain expressed by the Black community. 

Support The Black Community. Educate Yourself.

Check on the well-being of your Black friends and neighbors.What is happening right now is exposing generations of built up trauma. Show them that you’re there for them, show them compassion, show them love. Provide a safe space and a soft heart. Listen more than you speak.

Do not place the burden on the Black community to help you process your own emotions about what’s happening, to teach you about history or current events, or to tell you how to be an ally. Pick up a book or get on the Internet. Do your own research. Think critically on your own, empathize as much as you can, and correct any mistakes you may make along the way without ego or pride. It’s our duty. A non-negotiable part of allyship is to educate yourself about the history and perspective of the people you are standing by. It’s okay if you don’t understand all of the nuances behind the African American experience (it’s not your experience, you will never fully understand), but it’s not okay to be complacent and remain uneducated.

I’m also a work in progress, and I’m trying my best to become more informed. You cannot be an advocate and ally if you don’t open up your mind to learn about the human beings that the cause is centered around. Elevate their voices, their stories, their art and their history.

It is also so important for us to support Black businesses. There is a lot of opportunism going on right now, and people who are not about the movement are damaging and looting anything and everything.

Protest. Donate. Sign Petitions. Share Information.

If you’re willing and able, attend protests. Be peaceful, do not engage in violence or looting. If you see anyone else being destructive, do not join in. Do not use force unless it is to protect a human life. Protect yourself with goggles, face masks and have emergency phone numbers written on your person.

Do not publish pictures of protesters’ faces; film the cops instead. Tell loved ones where you’ll be in case something goes wrong. I understand that COVID-19 is still a very real threat, and that physical protesting isn’t an option for people who are asthmatic or immunocompromised. I know a lot of people are financially struggling right now because of COVID-19 as well, but if you have some disposable income donate what you can to grassroots organizations by and for the Black community such as Black Lives Matter, the Emergency Release Fund, the Minneapolis NAACP, and WFPC (Women for Political Change).

If neither of these actions are possible for you, you can still sign and circulate petitions and spread as much (fact checked) information as you can. Follow reputable activists and #blacklivesmatter on social media. Be sure to verify the accuracy of whatever you’re posting or retweeting.

Again, this is not the infallible guide to perfect allyship, but this is a good place to start. We can continue the conversation from here. Now more than ever, we need to express solidarity with the Black community and the Black Lives Matter movement. Silence is the same as complicity, silence is condoning the bloodshed and the loss of life. Don’t be a part of the problem, be a productive part of the solution.

To the Asian American community that I love so dearly — I am calling on you to take action now. Do not be passive in this moment. Stand up for what you believe in, and do not stop fighting until equality and justice is a reality for us all.

With love, solidarity, respect and gratitude.

Mika Osaki is a Yonsei and a recent college graduate. Originally from the San Francisco Bay Area, she grew up deeply involved in San Francisco’s Japantown community. She is currently living in Tottori City, Japan as an English teacher with the JET (Japan Exchange and Teaching) Program. She can be reached at sydnieosaki@gmail.com. The views expressed in the preceding column are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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