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Why Black History Month should matter to the Southeast Asian community

Updated: Feb 24, 2023

This year, the month of February marked the start of Lunar New Year and Black History Month. Many people have shared their favorite Black-Asian duos from entertainment and in real life to commemorate this occurrence.

While there are several iconic historical duos worth acknowledging, I want to highlight one in particular: the civil rights leader Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Thích Nhất Hạnh, a Vietnamese Buddhist monk and peace activist.

The two shared a bond built around the principles of peace, justice, and liberation. Their friendship had a significant impact on King, leading him to speak out against the Vietnam War.

In 1967, King nominated Thích Nhất Hạnh for the Nobel Peace Prize, writing, “His ideas for peace, if applied, would build a monument to ecumenism, to world brotherhood, to humanity.”

King’s friendship with Thích Nhất Hạnh is not unique for it is part of a long tradition of Black-Asian solidarity.

A History of Solidarity

Asian Americans have a long history of standing in solidarity with Black Americans. From Frederick Douglass’ “Composite Nation” speech to the Black Lives Matter movement, the shared goal of tackling racism and white supremacy has fueled Black-Asian collaboration over the years.

The success of the Civil Rights Movement led by Black Americans led to the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964, which eventually resulted in the passing of the Immigration & Nationality Act of 1965. The Immigration & Nationality Act of 1965 removed the racial discrimination in immigration and naturalization policies that Asian Americans had been battling for years.

Asian American history is directly tied to the activism of Black Americans. In fact, Black civil rights leaders had a direct hand in advocating for Southeast Asian refugees.

Bayard Rustin was a Black, gay activist during the civil rights movement who co-organized the March on Washington 1963, where Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his iconic “I Have a Dream” speech. Rustin was also a member of the International Rescue Committee’s Citizen Commission on Indochinese Refugees. In 1978, he visited the refugee camps in Thailand. Rustin witnessed the struggles of Cambodian, Hmong, Lao, and Vietnamese refugees. He saw the horrific conditions that the refugees were living in as he spoke to them about their desire to escape their war-torn lives.

Bayard Rustin’s visit to Thailand occurred at a time when most Americans opposed the idea of changing immigration laws to allow Southeast Asian refugees to resettle in the United States. Rustin fought to change public opinion, urging America to open its borders. He and other Black leaders publicly supported the refugees, which is illustrated in The New York Times advertisement.

Rustin’s advocacy played an impactful role that led to Southeast Asian refugees finally being able to start a new life in the United States.

Anti-Blackness Within Our Communities

While black communities fight for their right to live and breathe, our Asian American & Pacific Islander (AAPI) community has been largely silent, including Southeast Asians, despite having played a role in their oppression. Some disengage from issues that they do not feel directly affect them, thus becoming bystanders benefiting from their proximity to whiteness. Others may uphold the model minority myth or carry an ignorance of the existence of anti-Black racism, leading some to believe the fallacy that people who experience police brutality must have done something to deserve it. Such mindsets have led to the overarching problem of the pervasive anti-blackness in our communities.

After the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, a Gallup poll was administered to Americans that asked whether immigration laws should be changed to allow Southeast Asian refugees to resettle in the United States. With the majority of Americans opposing this idea, it’s important to recognize those who fought for our resettlement. Two decades before the first Southeast Asian refugees resettled in the United States, it was Black civil rights activists who advanced policies to reshape immigration policies that have saved our families.

On a more mainstream level, the highly offensive issue of Blackface still permeates the AAPI community. Blackface is not just about painting one’s skin darker or putting on a costume. It speaks to a racist and painful history. While the problematic use of blackface is more common in Asian countries across many forms of entertainment, it appears in the United States as well. Blackface is an example that showcases a society that systematically dehumanizes and mistreats Black people. Just as pop culture can contribute to perpetuating negative stereotypes, it can also foster more-inclusive values that will lead to more responsible and culturally sensitive portrayals of people of color in the media.

We are responsible for building the collective consciousness of our community to understand the role of the Southeast Asian community in perpetuating anti-black racism. It’s overdue that we move our Southeast Asian community towards action to support Black communities.

The Goal of Unity

It’s crucial to acknowledge that the many opportunities that we have been fortunate enough to enjoy would not be possible if Southeast Asians had been rejected from settling in this country. We must remember the Black civil rights activists who paved the way to allow us to live here.

We also need to address the interracial conflict that unfortunately exists between Asian and Black communities with tensions severely escalating in the 1990s. While Black and Asian Americans share goals in tackling racism, the differing experiences of being Black and Asian in this country is often the source of conflict. For example, the model minority myth is used as evidence to deny or downplay the impact of racism on communities of color in the United States. Given the history of that impact on Black Americans, the myth ultimately serves as a way to perpetuate anti-Blackness.

Asian and Black communities can continue to build on a long history of solidarity, despite it often being ignored by the greater public. Our communities have historically lived in close proximity to Black communities across the United States with members of our Southeast Asian community also belonging to the Black community. We share interconnected struggles in regards to poverty, discrimination, and police violence. However, we also have experienced conflict that serves as a reminder that we must continue to do better. Both communities should continue to have conversation around the challenges we face by working together, not against one another.

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