The Taiwanese American Conversation about #BlackLivesMatter

BY CHRISTINA HU & LEONA CHEN | FEATURE PHOTO BY MIKE VON

Taiwanese American yuppies, we’ve got some work to do.

This is a long-overdue reckoning. A conversation is not a solution, but a critical place to start. And we believe that showing up imperfectly – with our unsure language, blind spots, and all – is better than not showing up at all. 

I thought a lot about the role of Taiwanese Americans in civic society when many who identified as such were trying to distance themselves from Chinese and Chinese Americans in order to deflect COVID-related racism. You can read our full statement here, but the point is this: comprehensive respect for the ways we are different – in immigration histories, in average socioeconomic status, in access to resources – creates more accountability for us to do right by each other, to approach each other with acute understanding.  Evoking our differences does not give us permission to walk away.

Our dignity is not a zero sum game, but rather takes root in our belief in democratic values. As we continue to fight for our dignity, we must not forget to support others in their fight for the same things, especially if they’ve laid the blueprint – and Black Americans have. 

Solidarity, I’ve once written, might look like this: using our own histories and stories to deepen our compassion for those of others. In our language, we call this 概念 (gai nian / kai liam): how we conceptualize another’s suffering by finding its likeness within ourselves. 

In the past, I’ve tried to make sweeping connections that would root us in a culture of activism: how Taiwan’s colonized history may help us recognize colonialism everywhere, from Mauna Kea to Hong Kong; how being third-culture children can make us insightful allies for other immigrant communities. How a recent history of state-sanctioned violence in Taiwan or Hong Kong can help us understand police brutality in the United States. 

But frankly, the reality is that much of the Taiwanese American experience is suspended in a liminal zone of privilege. 

We benefit from the efforts of working-class Chinese Americans in the United States, from the 1960s Civil Rights Movement – led by Black Americans, and from martial law-era democratization movements in Taiwan. It is interesting to note that many of the Taiwanese martial law era democratization activists were actually inspired by the Civil Rights protests. But all of this might be part of an unacknowledged heritage; many young, professional-class Taiwanese Americans today may not intimately understand the San Francisco State strike for ethnic studies or the 228 Incident in Taiwan. To put it bluntly, we probably assume the benefits of their outcomes but haven’t actually participated in their struggles; as such, our conversation needs to start with our unacknowledged privilege. 

“When we identify where our privilege intersects with somebody else’s oppression,” writes Ijeoma Oluo, “we’ll find our opportunities to make real change.” 

Taiwanese Americans, in general, are part of the secure American middle class, with life patterns that tend to be stable, conventional, and non-confrontational. In many ways, our lives have been largely shielded from real civic engagement or political friction in the United States. (To note – we’re not at all saying that Taiwanese American experiences can’t be hard! Or that our race, our ethnicity are not sources of tension. We see and honor our community’s complexities – but we want to establish wider context.) 

Ask yourself: without getting defensive, can I own up to that? 

So if we have the privilege of lacking personal context, the 概念 for #blacklivesmatter- the way forward for our community requires deep self-reflection, dialogue, and learning. We will find it hard to extend support when we haven’t truly wrestled with the ways in which we are complicit. 

Drawing similarities between 228 and the Black Lives Matter movement, for example, while meaningful – still does not address the ways Taiwanese Americans today benefit from hundreds of years of systemic racism in this country. Comparing the events in Hong Kong with those in Minneapolis might be helpful, but only if we’ve bothered to mobilize against police brutality on behalf of either. 

And Taiwanese Americans, have we truly? 

Some conversation starters we’ve put together:

Can I support ‘black lives matter’ while condemning violence?

This is an important question – and one asked often in our community – because it challenges us to take self-inventory: why do I distinguish supporting Black lives from condemning violence? Doesn’t supporting Black humanity fundamentally mean that I will not accept the violence inflicted on their community? 

Perhaps the question really being asked is:  why are we not acknowledging that the rules of civility had already been broken by those in power – namely the law enforcers themselves? And can we support Black lives while disagreeing with how their protests have violently escalated? Let’s sit with that for a bit: are we confining ourselves to a justice system that values goods and services over human life? Is it because the model minority myth – our deepest experience of race in the US – is equally a function of capitalism as it is of white supremacy? We defer to this 2015 TIME article explaining MLK’s oft-invoked statement that a “riot is the language of the unheard”: 

“…I think America must see that riots do not develop out of thin air. Certain conditions continue to exist in our society which must be condemned as vigorously as we condemn riots. But in the final analysis, a riot is the language of the unheard. And what is it that America has failed to hear? It has failed to hear that the plight of the Negro poor has worsened over the last few years. It has failed to hear that the promises of freedom and justice have not been met. And it has failed to hear that large segments of white society are more concerned about tranquility and the status quo than about justice, equality, and humanity. And so in a real sense our nation’s summers of riots are caused by our nation’s winters of delay. And as long as America postpones justice, we stand in the position of having these recurrences of violence and riots over and over again. Social justice and progress are the absolute guarantors of riot prevention.”

We also stand by Yolanda Renteria (@thisisyolandarenteria), who writes that “it is not your choice to determine how an oppressed group protests; when as a [non-Black] person you say ‘violence is not the answer,’ you are saying ‘peaceful protests and negotiation are the answer.’ You are denying the fact that marginalized groups often aren’t heard. Implying there are other ways minimizes the frustration and provides no answers, or solutions. It just points, with privilege, to do things a different way that doesn’t disturb your comfort.”

To each other, we ask: at any step of the movement – peaceful or otherwise – have we tried to help? 

What does “yellow peril supports black power” mean for us?

“Yellow peril supports Black power” is currently used as a social justice slogan – a stirring one, at that – to demonstrate AAPI solidarity with Black lives, but, in our opinion, risks being performative/virtue-signaling if used without context/understanding. We recommend reading up on the history of yellow peril and its intersection with the Black power movement (some really good readings here). 

I also fear that we might misinterpret “yellow peril supports Black power” as a suggestion that we empathize because we’ve equally suffered. This isn’t true. To be specific, Black-Taiwanese solidarity shouldn’t rely on an interchangeability between the Black and Taiwanese American experience. In a Huffington post article, op-ed columnist Dan Truong wrote that “this sense of camaraderie and brotherhood Asian Americans can give to Black Americans stems from the recognition that [individuals like] Trayvon Martin could just as easily have been ‘Tranh Van Minh’ [and that] any Asian could easily have fallen under the historically ingrained system of ‘othering’ George Zimmerman clearly used to make his decision.”

This doesn’t necessarily resonate with us. To suggest a Taiwanese American today faces similar or equal threats as a Black American does continues to prove that we are not listening to the plight of Black Americans, or that we are still centering our own narratives above those of Black Americans, creating fraternal conditions for their humanity. 

“Yellow peril supports Black power” is powerful and necessary; but more importantly, it signals a promissory bias for action. We can use it, but are we saying it to deflect accountability for white supremacy, or are we saying it because we really, truly intend to change our hearts and communities? 

What can I do about it? 

In addition to well-researched lists currently in circulation, here are additional ways for Taiwanese Americans to be helpful: 

“The word my mother had used, “鬧事” (naoshi) – “to create a disturbance, to make trouble” values harmony and peace. However, it also seemingly holds the connotation of creating something out of nothing—which is not true. African Americans in the United States have faced decades of structural oppression and violence that did not just suddenly culminate into one verdict. By using this word, we erase history. We fail to acknowledge historical injustices.

In contrast, the word: “抗議” (kangyi) is a verb that means “to protest, to express strong opposition to the speech, actions, or measures of someone, a country, or a unit”. The verb in its function often takes a direct object. By having the ability to take a direct object, the word prompts us to find a reason. We start asking ourselves: what are people protesting? Is there a reason for their anger?” 

  • Share resources, time, capital, space: Taiwan Bento, for example, a Taiwanese American casual restaurant in Oakland, shared on their Instagram on May 29 that “starting 8pm tonight, there will be a demonstration over the police killing of George Floyd. If any protestors need a surgical mask[,] come by Taiwan Bento before we close at 7 and we will provide one. Let’s all stay safe and keep our community safe.” 
  • Professional/affinity groups can sponsor or host “learning sessions” with trained diversity and inclusion counselors

Taiwanese Americans are capable of civic participation. We’ve been campaigning for census participation and representation for years. We’ve recently seen community efforts to direct Taiwan’s commendable PPE (personal protective equipment) production towards hospitals in the US, and fundraising initiatives to provide lunches for essential workers. Today and moving forward, can we summon the same spirit to hold ourselves accountable for our role in #blacklivesmatter? To focus more on inward, intergenerational change than routinely performing our sympathies? Who will we be, online and offline? 


Other reading material: 

This recommended reading list about American history and policy by Clint Smith III, to which we add Cathy Park Hong’s “Minor Feelings”:

“I embraced all these half-baked opinions without doing my homework. Whatever their politics were, I thought, they were now outdated. It concerns me how fast I dismissed the hard work of my activist predecessors after hearing enough “experts” spout off on the frivolity of identity politics when the international and interracial politics of Kochiyama was anything but frivolous. It makes me worried about the future, about this nation’s inborn capacity to forget, about the powers that be who always win and take over the narrative. Already, “woke” is a hashtag that’s now mocked, when being awake is not a singular revelation but a long-term commitment fueled by constant reevaluation. Ending this book, I think about what prognosis I can offer among the crowded field of experts who warn of our end times. What I can say is look back to that lost blade of history when activists like Kochiyama offered an alternate model of mutual aid and alliance. They offered an alternate model of us.”

CATHY PARK HONG, “MINOR FEELINGS”

20+ Allyship Actions for Asians to Show Up for the Black Community Right Now | Michelle Kim

In light of #AhmaudArbery and ongoing police violence, how can the Asian and Asian American community show up for our Black siblings?

30+ Ways Asians Perpetuate Anti-Black Racism Everyday | Michelle Kim

We all perpetuate anti-Black racism in our daily lives. We can’t fight anti-Black racism unless we can notice its manifestation in ourselves and others on a daily basis in our workplace, social interactions, and online engagement.

Tou Thao and the Myths of Asian American Solidarity | Jay Caspian Kang, Time to Say Goodbye (h/t Gloria Hu for bringing this to our attention!)

You don’t need to be a Hmong scholar to understand the differences between the lives in a refugee community who have spent much of the past fifty years in poverty and the life of an upwardly mobile East Asian whose family came over on a skilled worker or student visa and quickly found a foothold in a town with a good school system. Hmongs and wealthy East Asians do not share a history, except at some point, one of them was oppressing the other. They also do not “benefit from White Supremacy” in the same way. Any category that includes both of them fails, mostly because wealthy East Asians define “Asian American” through their own personalized politics. So, why would the Hmong community have to carry the guilt burdens of wealthy Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants? And why, for God’s sake, do upwardly mobile Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants feel the need to launder their own class guilt through the Hmongs? It’s all nonsense.

2 Responses to “The Taiwanese American Conversation about #BlackLivesMatter”

  1. Thank you for this article. I also want to point out that in my experiences in talking about issues in the East Asian community, I feel that our community has a tendency to quickly try to shut down a discussion when the viewpoint is different, rather than encouraging different voices. Maybe the protests will encourage people to have longer, deeper conversations with each other, instead of shorter, more divisive conversations that only deepen our polarized views on how to treat social issues.

Leave a Reply