A Statement on Violence and the Racial Divide in America
One of the first questions heard after the mass shootings across three Atlanta-area massage parlors was, “Where is Black Lives Matter?” After the murder of six Asian American women, amid a year of escalating anti-Asian violence, the media and individuals across different communities were pointing out and even inflaming racial divisions. They were keeping score on which community showed up for the other or failed the other, placing responsibility and blame away from where it really belongs—on white supremacy.
There is a long history of white supremacy pitting different ethnicities and races against each other, often using class, economics, and the fear of scarcity. White supremacy masks the long history of Black and Asian American alliances, keeping all eyes from looking up the ladder where White sits at the top.
But today, we’re shifting our gaze.
We’re looking squarely at ourselves and each other. We’re standing on the solid ground beneath us all, which those at the top of the ladder don’t want us to see or share. They don’t want us to fully know or act on our shared history and legacy of advocacy because it connects our humanity and empowers us. Tearing ourselves and each other apart means they keep their seat of power.
It’s time to move forward with an understanding of how white supremacy has long controlled the false narrative of interracial friction and discord.
White Supremacy Thrives on Real and Perceived Racial Divisions
A recent episode of the NPR podcast Code Switch examined the intersections of anti-Asian violence, the history of American colonialism in Asia, Trump’s inflammatory and dangerous language about China and the coronavirus, and the 2020 spike in harassment and violence against Asian Americans and immigrants. But white supremacy was never the focus of national concern.
Instead, Alyssa Jeong Perry reports that after the Atlanta murders, “a few commenters kept pointing out that the people who attacked these elderly men in the Bay Area were African American. They were saying things like, Black people hate Asians. These are Black on Asian hate crimes.” But when you actually look at the numbers, “white people accounted for 90% of anti-Asian incidents in 2020, but only 5% of perpetrators were Black.”
When we shift our focus to white supremacy, a few things become clear. First is the very, very long history of anti-Asian exclusion, racism, scapegoating, and violence. When we examine these cases, the connection between racism and misogyny, connected to the U.S. history of colonialism in Asia, becomes undeniable. Connie Wun, speaking on the same episode of Code Switch, reminds us that “communities of color have always been seen as disposable for white men’s fantasies and their rage.”
It’s not an understatement to say that our communities’ futures depend on seeing white supremacy at work against and among us.
If We Know Our History, We Know Ourselves
But why don’t we know our history? The answer is a complicated mix of white supremacy in our education system, generations searching to escape from the racism they endured, and their desperation to assimilate in order to stay safe.
Joy speaks of her own parents’ hesitations and misgivings:
“My parents are in their mid-seventies and grew up in Birmingham, Alabama. They lived through Jim Crow. I realized I needed to talk to them and get them to tell me things that I need to record because we can’t let it just keep getting washed away. Our parents are going to die, and we need to know what they lived through.
But when I told my dad I was going to be an African American Studies major, we had an argument. He asked, “How are you ever going to get a job studying Black people? Why did I work hard to send you to Berkeley to get a degree in Black people?”
Jennifer also recalls her parents’ similar silences:
“My parents don’t talk about the horrors of segregation to us. But they knew the horrors. My grandfather left his wife and kids in Texas so they could have a better life in California. Bakersfield was relatively better, I guess. They hardly talked about the only job they could get being picking cotton in Bakersfield.”
Similarly, immigrant parents also ask their children not to inherit their pain. They push them to move forward, consequently erasing an entire history of violence and oppression.
Kim describes the demand for gratitude and assimilation her parents contended with:
“My mother was very young when she was adopted into a white family and my dad was in middle school when he came to the U.S. They were both taught to be so grateful to be here. That they were so fortunate, so lucky.
My dad speaks a few different Filipino dialects, but he didn’t teach me or my brother how to speak any of them because he said, “We’re in America. We should speak American.” He didn’t want us to have an accent because he felt he was treated differently because of his. My dad believed he had to be what this country expected him to be.”
Across racial lines, assimilation offers the false promise of being able to achieve on the level of white people if we disappear all our differences.
White Supremacy Manufactures Scarcity
A mentality of scarcity would have us believe that we’re not enough and there aren’t enough resources, power, or justice to go around. It says, if I march with Black Lives Matter, what will I have to contribute to Asian American justice? Scarcity is very simply a lever for division, meant to keep communities separated and self-serving, to prevent collaboration and allyship. And it almost inevitably leads to scapegoating.
The murder of Vincent Chin is a landmark example. In the Detroit of the 1980s, the American auto industry was struggling to compete with Japanese carmakers. An out-of-work father and son, both white, beat Chin to death with a baseball bat. It didn’t matter that Chin was Chinese American or a U.S. citizen. White supremacy and its narrative of scarcity led the murderers to believe they were entitled to work and that they could blame any or all Asians for their employment situation.
What remains largely untold is how the Civil Rights movement rallied around Lily Chin, Vincent’s mother, who fought tirelessly for the conviction of his murders. How Jesse Jackson stood with her and drew parallels between the murders of Vincent Chin and Emmett Till. There was, and there still is, enough energy and activism for everyone.
White Supremacy Separates Humans from their Humanity
When, in the same week as the Atlanta killings, 10 people were murdered by a gunman in Boulder, there was a noticeable absence of white terror, outrage, or grief. The same is true for most mass shootings in the U.S. in which the victims were white. Why don’t white people feel a sense of communal terror or grief? Why don’t we hear white people say things like, they have to stop anti-white violence? They have to stop killing us. Why do they hate us? We’re terrified.
White supremacy seeks to ensure that white people hold unquestioned autonomy, even over the lives of others, even over the lives of white people.
Oppressed groups are often compelled into community through violence or terror. Perhaps this keeps individuals connected despite being strangers. But white supremacy, which holds individualism as a cardinal value, doesn’t allow individuals to come together with empathy or communal obligation. This is how it dehumanizes. While dehumanization almost always targets people of color, white people feel the collateral damage. Supreme individualism separates people from each other and their own humanity. When white people are killed, there is no white outrage, fear, or drive for change.
The Slow Work of Our Shared Humanity
Our work at Leverage to Lead is deliberately slow, and sometimes met with impatience. Believe us, we want change too. We want it now. But equity and inclusion are values we build and practice each day, not one-time achievements. They both require building emotional intelligence and cultural competency, neither of which is easy nor quick work. It takes time to normalize our emotions, to learn to greet them with curiosity, name them, and examine them. Then to connect our emotions to our behaviors, and our behaviors to their effects on others.
Equity and inclusion work is activating our own humanity and subsequently the humanity of others. It’s the only way we will be connected enough to care about how those who are different from us are treated. It’s the only way we can conceive of relinquishing some of our own power so that others can have equitable shares.
Our team has discussed whether we should craft a company statement in light of the Atlanta murders, if we needed to put out words of solidarity with the Asian American and immigrant communities. We decided we would let this article be our statement.
The next time a group is targeted with violence—and we know there will be a next time—we want others to read this and ask the crucial questions as they begin their responses and their work:
Who is being humanized?
Who is being dehumanized?
What am I feeling?
What biases are being activated in me right now?
What is impeding my empathy?
What divisions is white supremacy manufacturing?
What animosity, discord, or blame is being inflamed? Who benefits from this?
What does white supremacy want us to believe is scarce?
What do I see about racialized violence that is systemic and not individual?
What is my personal responsibility right now?
Our statement is this: we belong to each other in celebration and in grief.
There is no escaping our human connections. Let’s embrace our messy humanity and learn to build it. Otherwise, it will be built for us. And it will in turn be taken from us.