Reorientation is author JS Lee’s monthly column about reclamation & actualization as an unwilling Korean import to the US.
With the heightened anti-Asian violence of the pandemic followed by another giant wave of relentless anti-Blackness, it’s been interesting to witness my various Asian American communities respond. Many who—for the first time—shared their experiences of anti-Asian racism, quickly shifted to declaring their privilege, exhibiting performative tactics of White liberals.
As a Korean adoptee, the bulk of the Asian Americans in my networks are transracial adoptees. I expect some of this behavior from our demographic due to adoption’s identity erasure and the racial trauma that often stems from being raised entrenched in Whiteness. To my surprise, I’ve seen these behaviors extend to those raised in Asian American families, too.
Given that the violence I’ve experienced was connected to racist stereotypes, I’ve been offended and triggered by this knee-jerk downplaying of anti-Asian racism. It’s compelled me to share the following:
If you’re Asian and present as such, you don’t have White privilege. It doesn’t matter if you were raised in a White family, are multiracial, have mostly White friends, or are partnered with a White person. What you have is conditional acceptance based on assimilation and compliance, mostly by those who view you as one of “The Good Non-Whites”. When you make social media posts about how you have White privilege and play-act White guilt, it diminishes the racial trauma and experiences of other Asian Americans while making you look racially ignorant.
White Adjacency & Proximity
White adjacency/proximity is not a privilege but a social contract that upholds Whiteness. A privilege would be innate and free, whereas this comes with strings attached. When you use White connections and White approval to your advantage, in exchange, you often sell out your people. When a racist incident occurs, you’re called upon to reinforce the White perspective. Even when you don’t respond, your silence translates to approval. Perhaps you were raised trying to survive as a Super Minority, with White voices drowning out those of your people. Maybe now you’re reconciling past behavior and it feels better to attribute bad actions to privilege. We’re all products of a White supremacist society, and we each have a certain amount of internalized racism. It's our job to unpack these dynamics, instincts, and choices.
There’s no honor in being so devoid of our culture that White people give us this badge that allows them to maintain their color-evasive mentality. Being dubbed an honorary White is gas-lighting that keeps you racially disconnected. It’s White supremacy because it assumes you aspire to Whiteness. Tear that flimsy and flammable badge off your chest. Don’t let White supremacists erase your color under the guise that you’re one of them.
But I Don’t Actually Know Any White Supremacists
This is impossible. White supremacy is everywhere. It’s your partner questioning whether something “has to do with race”. It’s your sister-in-law who claims Black folks wouldn’t be murdered if they’d just obey. It’s your boss who—instead of providing resources for employees of color—makes a display of White tears. It’s your friends who claim they don’t see you as Asian. It’s your neighbor who puts up antiracist signs but avoids you. It’s the sports fan who wants to keep racist team names. It’s the teacher who continues to spread incorrect history that favors the false White narrative. It’s everyone who stands by in silence when witnessing a racist encounter. It’s not necessarily a permanent label or persona performed every minute of the day. A White supremacist is anyone who upholds ideas, systems, and policies that keep Whiteness dominant and in power. And, yes, even Asian, Black, Indigenous—and any Person of Color—can be White supremacist.
What About Asian Privilege?
Those of us who have privilege tend to have light-skinned privilege and/or class privilege. What’s often touted as Asian privilege is racist participation. Upholding White supremacy is not a privilege but a crime that sometimes rewards us. You may notice that once you stop participating and complying, the privilege you thought you had dwindles. White folks become uncomfortable around you. Those you thought were your friends respond with anger or stop interacting. Your boss and coworkers suddenly find you “difficult”. Your business starts losing money. We need to reexamine what’s perceived as Asian privilege.
But Asians Don’t Have it as Bad as Black Americans
This is true—despite Asian Americans reporting the same rate of racism as Black Americans. There’s much to unpack there, in regards to the prevalence of violence in anti-Blackness. In the meantime, we can fight anti-Blackness without supporting anti-Asian narratives. Rather than viewing and discussing it as a competition, I invite you to connect how anti-Blackness and anti-Asianness is related, and learn how those of us who are succeeding in life and capitalism are used as pawns to dismiss and continue marginalizing other BIPOC—fellow Asian Americans, included.
Why Haven’t I Heard Much About Anti-Asian Racism Until The Pandemic?
Society has a way of silencing those suffering if they’re not deemed to be suffering enough. We even tell ourselves “it could’ve been worse” and guilt keeps us from sharing our encounters, therefore co-writing a false narrative. Someone shouldn’t have to be murdered for racial injustice to be recognized. Even when we are murdered, it’s not widely acknowledged. Crimes against Asians are historically under-reported, as they don’t serve the Model Minority myth. Don’t forget that White supremacy needs Asian Americans to play the role of the Golden Child in order to scapegoat everyone they deem “non-White”.
So, What Should We Do?
Performative Whites rush to be seen as “Not Racists”, dominating our feeds with guilt and proof that they’re suddenly woke. They announce and renounce their privilege—as if it’s possible. We don’t have to mimic this behavior. We should keep learning and join anti-racist movements. If we have something relevant and anti-racist to share, we should. While we need to be mindful of inappropriate centering, I’ve seen us policing our people into shame, silence, and inaction. We can’t be so fragile that we stop fighting. We’re all going to misspeak or misstep at some point. When we do, we can reflect, hold ourselves accountable, and move on. If we care more about how we’re perceived than doing the work, we’re not fighting for the right reason. Don’t listen to those telling us to pipe down because it’s not our time. As long as we’re not co-opting Black suffering or minimizing non-Black racism, we’re good. It’s everyone’s time to be anti-racist. Stay mindful and focused. This racial reckoning will only succeed if we all persist.