By Tiffany Diane Tso, edited by Leona Chen | original photography by Micheile Henderson
Editor’s Note: I’ve been thinking a lot about (valid) accusations that Asian Americans, frankly, suck at standing up for others. And though there is no singular Taiwanese American immigration narrative, many families in our community arrived by way of H-1B visas, prestigious education, and the logical conclusion that obedience produces success. Diasporic Taiwanese of my parents’ and grandparents’ generation may also associate the status quo with safety, having barely survived an authoritarian regime that brutally punished those who would insist upon a progressive, democratic Taiwan. Given all these, I understand why difficult conversations about police brutality, anti-blackness, and the many failings of a country they’ve given so much to can sometimes feel impossible.
But I would also venture that third-culture children of immigrants are predestined for a lifelong habit of fierce advocacy. From a very early age, we explain, negotiate, order at the drive-through kiosk on behalf of our parents. We introduce things to them — Girl Scouts, Little League, PTA. We introduce them to others, dissolving each paradigm to include generational and cultural complexities, building the seats at each table to which they’ve ever felt unwelcome. I’m so honored to share Tiffany’s contribution to TaiwaneseAmerican.org after reading her work in Refinery29 last year. She is such a shining example of what the real American Dream should be for immigrants: that they might raise children unflinching and unafraid of a better world.
How do we talk about racism when it comes to members of our own community, our own families? In the fight for racial justice as “minorities,” this can be an incredibly challenging issue to tackle. As Taiwanese Americans (as anybody non-white), we deal with racial discrimination ourselves and have a long battle ahead to reach our own vision for racial equity, which can make it difficult to look inwardly at the ways we might cause harm to another group. What I’m driving at, in my own roundabout way, is our community’s anti-Blackness problem.
In August, I wrote about the issue of anti-Blackness within Asian American communities in an article for Refinery29, following a violent incident at a nail salon in the East Flatbush neighborhood of Brooklyn, NY that went viral online. What happened in the video is utterly dehumanizing, and it doesn’t stand alone. There is a long string of violent confrontations at Asian-owned businesses rooted in anti-Blackness, which is so pervasive that it is even parodied. While these reports have largely involved Korean-owned businesses (given their presence in Black enclaves and monopoly over the Black beauty market), the issue of anti-Black sentiment in Asian America is not isolated to the Korean American community — or even to Asians in America.
I opened up the story talking about my father, who is Taiwanese, and his use of the term 黑鬼 (hēi guǐ), meaning “black ghost” in Mandarin. Essentially the Mandarin equivalent of the n-word, this term is meant to be derogatory, like all the other “ghosts” in the Chinese vernacular. And in the instances that I heard it used throughout my childhood, I know that it was intended that way, considering the many times I had also heard Black people referred to as the much more neutral label 黑人 (hēi rén). These distinctions are necessary. Much of the feedback I received after the article published included pushback that 黑鬼 was not racist, nor the Chinese equivalent of the n-word, but a result of China’s isolationism given the popularity of terms like 鬼佬 (gweilo). Of course this argument ignores the racial power structures at play — “cracker” will never carry the same weight as the n-word.
Out of everything I’ve ever written, I received the most pushback from fellow Asians following this piece. There were straight up rebuttals and denials; there were tangential points made about hate crimes against Asians; there were long Twitter threads egging me into debate. Folks who grew up conflict-free around Black people argued that there was no issue that needing addressing. And while there are certain solidarities between our groups, from Yellow Peril Supports Black Power to #Asians4BlackLives, they don’t negate the very real racial inequities and hierarchies our society has normalized — passed down from caste systems back home and the cultural imperialism of the West. And they certainly don’t erase the lived experiences of Black people, who experience microaggressions and racism daily in Asian-owned establishments in America and abroad in Taiwan, China and other Asian countries.
As jarring and uncomfortable as it may be to consider and call out racism within your own family, friends or community, it is even more jarring and uncomfortable to be on the receiving end of said racism — especially from other people of color. As individuals, the least we can do to fight against systemic oppression is recognizing that these issues exist and moving forward with solidarity in mind.
Tiffany Diane Tso is a multimedia journalist and producer based in Brooklyn, by way of Texas. She writes on topics surrounding art, culture, identity and advocacy, and is a co-founder of the Asian American Feminist Collective. Follow her on Twitter or Instagram.