Race Matters: “Can Asian-Americans Be Included in This Conversation?”

christine pride portrait by christine han

In the beginning, I conceived of Race Matters as a classic advice column, where I would answer readers’ race-related questions, but it has developed into an organic and free form approach, which I love (and hope you do, too).

After my last column, a few readers pointed out that I’ve largely focused on Black and white interracial relationships. It’s a valid assessment (and why I love the Cup of Jo comments section and the dynamic conversations that take place there). Asian Americans, in particular, as a few commenters noted, are often left out of the race conversation in this country, which can be so entrenched in a Black/white binary. For example, Michelle wrote, “Please consider Asians and the Asian diaspora when you talk about race. Our experiences matter, too!” and Pam commented, “We are often overlooked in conversations about minorities.”

In recent years, with the rise of “diversity” as a buzzword and progressive goal, “minorities” have been lumped under vague umbrella terms: Brown people, or people of color, or BIPOC communities, or “diverse people,” which irks me every time. (Note: individual people cannot be diverse!) These terms do little to account for the specific concerns of individual minority communities. All of which deserve to have their experiences centered and understood, even if it might sometimes be hard to advocate for that in a country where other people may have it worse.

But we do no one any good when we play that futile game: who has it worse? In fact, it’s a way for white supremacy to maintain its insidious hold, by pitting non-white people against each other in a twisted racial hierarchy, with white on top. Ultimately, to unpack and undercut white supremacy, we must grapple with the ways that it affects all people who aren’t white, in different, but interconnected, ways.

Recently, I re-read Minor Feelings by Cathy Park Hong, a beautiful collection of essays. She writes about Asian Americans who have been “cowed by the lie that if we keep our heads down and work hard, believe that our diligence will reward us with our dignity, but our diligence will only make us disappear. By not speaking up we perpetuate the myth that our shame is caused by our repressive culture and the countries we fled, whereas America has given us nothing but opportunity. The lie that Asians have it so good, is so insidious that even now, as I write, I’m shadowed by doubt that I didn’t have it bad compared to others.”

For me what this passage, and the book, highlights is just how much we, as people of color, are forced to be preoccupied with race and identity and how it shapes our lives on a nearly constant basis, in both big and small ways, from the bully who calls you “slant eyes” to the promotion you don’t get because you’re not “management material.”

The other book I turned to was The Loneliest Americans by Jay Caspian Kang. (An incredible excerpt was published in the New York Times in October.) Jay generously agreed to talk to me, and we had a long, thought-provoking conversation that touched on everything from our suburban childhoods to working in the all-white media world.

The central question of The Loneliest Americans is, What is the Asian American identity? Does it exist? With so many people having immigrated from so many different countries, under vastly different circumstances, what coheres a group of people?

As Jay put it: “There’s no real unifying image that could encapsulate what an Asian American history is that people would feel reflected in their lives. Take, the Japanese internment, right? That’s clearly something that happened in the past that’s wrong. And it should be a sort of a unifying, Hey, we are an oppressed people. But the vast majority of Asian Americans weren’t around in the United States at that time. In fact, the vast majority of Asian Americans in their home countries probably did not have particularly fond feelings about Japan, or were ambivalent. So, the question becomes, How are we going to construct this identity? If none of the things that usually bond people — from history to shared culture to even the stories that their grandparents pass down — does the idea that this is a political identity hold sway? Or even a cultural identity, because what are the cultural markers?”

Shared oppression certainly can be a uniting factor. Put a bunch of Black folks together in a room without white people and the conversation is likely to have similar contours, regardless of class, and that solidarity is easier to amplify. It can form a collective primal scream that, for example, rises to impassioned protests. But a first-generation Korean entrepreneur in L.A., a Chinese restaurant worker in New York, and an Indian surgeon from Bangalore are going to have such vastly different experiences, and thus have a harder time creating and advancing communal political and cultural interests.

That said, racism itself can be uniting, however disturbing that is. Aligning with the anti-Blackness that is the bedrock of American race relations can feel like a way to assimilate in American culture. Many immigrants feel they have a choice to make when confronted with the Black/white dichotomy in America: align with the oppressed or the oppressor in order to figure out your place in society and navigate upward mobility.

This brought to mind a conversation I had with a friend of a friend who had immigrated from Senegal. He and his immigrant friends shared a virulent anti-Blackness. Their stance was: if we hard-working immigrants are able to make something of ourselves, why can’t they? They were either unaware of or discounting the many factors — e.g., the generations of racial trauma and the myriad laws and systems in place to intentionally prevent success — that have stymied social and economic equality for Black Americans specifically. This friend and others bought into the (problematic) myth that America is the ultimate bootstraps meritocracy. After all, an investment in this belief is what brought them here in the first place.

Chasing the American dream itself and climbing the economic ladder can mean separating and aligning yourself with whiteness in this manner. Jay described it this way: “​​I think it’s just making a series of decisions for your own family that ensures their own comfort, their safety, and that a lot of that stuff is separating yourself from Blackness.”

This is why the label “model minority” is so dangerous — it’s bestowed on a community by those in power as a way to sow superiority and condescension. The subtext isn’t that far below the surface: you’re better than them. And who wouldn’t want to be better, to be celebrated for being hardworking and industrious? And yet, the moniker and the assumptions that go with it — Asians are “good” and “successful” and “respectable” — make it all too easy to also say, well, they don’t have it that bad. But the myriad individual experiences of people being “othered” and mocked, women being fetishized, the terrible rash of violent hate crimes over the last year (not to mention in history), and the extreme inequality and rates of poverty in the Asian community tell a different story.

It’s entirely fair to want the world (including this column) to be more aware of and vocal about those realities, and to crave allyship and support. And to ask questions and listen when it comes to all types of racial experiences. I hope this column is a reminder that every experience is so different. We can always be more mindful and inquisitive about our struggles and blind spots.

Race Matters is an ongoing journey about growth, awareness and compassion. In this corner at Cup of Jo, we want to make sure everyone feels safe and heard, and I urge you, too, to hold those sentiments in your hearts as we embark on a new year.

Thoughts? Please feel free to email me with any questions or feedback at racematters@cupofjo.com. Thank you!

Christine Pride is a writer, book editor and content consultant. Her debut novel, We Are Not Like Them, written with Jo Piazza came out in 2021. She lives in Harlem, New York. Find her on Instagram @cpride.

P.S. More race matters columns, and five things I’d like to tell my white friends.

(Photo by Christine Han for Cup of Jo.)

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