By Susan Park
This post will be updated on a running basis. I originally wrote it as notes for a panel discussion hosted by Gyopu.us I will edit this to include links.
I was born in Seoul, South Korea to a comfortable family. I moved to Los Angeles when I was 5 years old in January of 1975 with my parents and two older brothers. Los Angeles was very openly racist back then. Trump level racism was a daily occurrence.
Being Asian American is a political term for me. It is an interconnected history of immigration, labor exploitation, and racism; as well as a common political agenda to fight for justice for ourselves and other marginalized BIPOC. Saying that I am Asian American is a fight that I am picking with white supremacy, vulture/crisis capitalism, and patriarchies including Asian and BIPOC ones. Asian men and BIPOC men are still men.
Being Asian American is an idea. It is not my personal identity. The Asian continent and Pacific Islands represent hundreds of ethno-linguistic groups. Our shared experience in America is our Americaness and otherness. It is not our Asianess. I am Korean because that is my heritage. I am not Korean American to avoid racism against Chinese Americans. I am Asian American to fight racism against Chinese Americans and to stand in solidarity with other Asian Americans who are being harmed or marginalized. I am not Asian American to veil issues that are specific to Korean Americans or sub-groups of Korean Americans. I am not Asian American to collectivise the wrongs of Korean Americans or a Korean American person.
At this point, I would say that I am a very privileged Korean American person at the social level. I have light skin, I am middle class and up presenting, and I speak English. Benefitting from white privilege is not an active gift that white people gave me. It means that most of the time, they stand out of my fucking way, except when it comes to loans and housing. I will never get the kind of loans that white men or East Asian men get in America.
While growing up, most of my Asian American friends were of East Asian heritage, specifically Korean, Cantonese, and Japanese. We did not identify as Asian Americans. This came later in the 1990s. We were the first generation of Asian Americans to benefit from the model minority myth. It wasn’t hard work and extra study time that got us there. White Americans simply decided to be less and less racist to sub-groups of Asian Americans, mostly East Asians who would have done well anyway as long white Americans left us alone.. At some point, probably starting the mid-1990s to late 1990s, white Americans started giving some of us the same benefit of the doubt that they give each other. In other words, White Privilege.
It wasn’t until I was in high school that I met Vietnamese and Southeast Asian kids. I never forgot what a few of them said to me, “We’re not all the same kind of immigrants. Your family left Seoul on a Boeing 747. My family left Vietnam (or Cambodia) on a boat. I remember starving for days and days.” I thought about this when I found out that one of the police officers present during George Floyd’s murder is Hmong American. His name is Tou Thao.
I want to address issues I have seen online that don’t intersect with real life, since this is an online panel. I think it is safe to assume that a critical mass of you are wired in.
The Hmong are a nationless people from Southeast Asia. Hmong Americans came to the United States as refugees after siding with America during the American War in Southeast Asia, also known as the Vietnam War or the Second Indochina War. Hmong Americans have a very high poverty rate and they didn’t have much choice in where they were settled in America, neither did other Southeast Asian refugees. Their experience is a far cry from the comfortable, San Fernando Valley, suburban existence of my childhood and my East Asian American friends. We are not Asian like the Hmong and they are not Asian like us. There is no coherent or unified Asian American community. I have also kept up with what has been happening with Hmong Americans and want to support their efforts towards reconciliation and inter-ethnic coalition building.
Asian Americans, mostly very privileged East Asian Americans pounced on Tou Thao immediately in the virtual world of social media. Where it is easy to flatten another person and an entire group. It became rote for a subgroup of East Asian Americans, who describe themselves as beneficiaries of adjacency to whiteness, i.e. they admit to their privileged position and then use it to demand, to command, and to order Tou Thao and other Asian Americans to do better. “Our community needs to do better” only reveals the falsehood of this claim of Pan-Asian solidarity.
There are Black and Brown Asians. Darker, poorer Asian Americans, Southeast Asians, and Asian Americans who don’t speak English that tend to suffer more from income inequality, institutionalized racism, and anti Asian violence. They do not benefit from the model minority myth or white privilege.
The tone deafness of privileged East Asian Americans has many problematic layers. 1) East Asian Americans are racist towards Southeast Asian Americans. 2) The worlds of wealthy East Asian Americans and Hmong American rarely intersect in real life. They don’t intersect with poorer Asian Americans in general unless they are invisibilized hired help. 3) So, it’s dubious at best that East Asian Americans with large social media and mainstream media platforms would choose Tou Thao to suddenly include Hmong Americans in the conversation about Asian Americans. It is egregious to assume that all Asian Americans enjoy the same sort of privileges as well to do East Asians while using this privileged platform to disassociate from the apparent racism of Tou Thao and by extension Hmong Americans. This is akin to Korean and Chinese Americans who wore pins that said, “I am Chinese” or “I am Korean” when Japanese Americans were being rounded up for internment. Some Korean Americans announced, “I hate the Japs more than you do.” This is in effect what elite East Asian Americans are saying, “I hate Tou Thao, those racist and ignorant Asian Americans, more than you do.”
There is another online movement in which elite Asian Americans feel the need to tell Asian Americans who don’t speak English to not call the police. These are Asian Americans who don’t call the cops in the first place. This is precisely why they are targeted by multicultural bands of home invasion robbers, for example. They specifically target non-English speaking Asian Americans because they don’t call the cops. This movement suggests there is a problem of Asian Americans who don’t speak English calling the police on Black people when they are contextualized with Black Lives Matter protests. It solves a non-existent problem and creates more problems by racially villainizing Asian Americans who don’t speak English. It scapegoats people who are not even a part of these online discussions.
Which brings me to another online exercise by upwardly mobile, elite educated, second generation Asian Americans, “Letters for Black Lives”, which was started in 2016 by Christine Xu, a Chinese American ethnographer who was concerned that Chinese American support for Peter Liang, the Chinese American cop who shot and killed Akai Gurle, a Black man, would surface again for another Chinese American cop. Philando Castile’s killer was described as a Chinese cop. It turned out that he was Latino. Whew! The problem she intended to solve never materialized. But why give up a project that has so much attention?
I am quoting Christine Xu, “I saw a bunch of other Asian people who I follow online start to kind of freak out preemptively about the possibility of yet another situation where the first generation Asian Americans or the Asian American community would come out in support of the cops again.”
Xu uses the terms “Chinese American” and “Asian American” interchangeably. When the reality is that Peter Liang’s defenders in real life were almost entirely Chinese Americans.
Xu’s letter translation performance piece fizzled off for a while. Then it recently resurfaced and it is now translated into dozens of languages.
I ask who are these translated letters for? They seem to be more for the people who are translating them and widely publicizing them, than they are for actual people in real life.
I read the Korean iterations in both English and Korean. I speak Korean well enough to have political discussions with my parents. I only went to Korean school for one day. It was difficult for me to read the Korean text.
I am quoting from the English text
“I acknowledge that the relationship between the Korean American and African American communities is complex. These thoughts should not distract us from thinking about what the right thing to do is. I understand that you are worried and scared about the looting and damages that you are seeing, especially because of our familiarity with the destruction from the 1992 LA uprising and the pain felt by the Korean American community.
These sentences were torn straight from yt stream media and Asian American studies courses for Asian Americans who crave an upper income stratified diversity.
There is a 5 mile east west, geographical band that separates South Central LA and Koreatown. The two communities don’t have a complex relationship, because they are not intertwined. As such, they have almost no relationship. A handful of Korean business owners in South Central LA only make up a tiny fraction of Korean owned businesses in Los Angeles. The vast majority of Korean owned businesses that were damaged during the 1992 riots were in Koreatown. There was an uprising in South Central LA that never made it to Koreatown. South Central LA was barricaded by the LAPD and later the National Guard. Black people did not have a beef with Koreans in general or Koreatown. They did not want to damage Koreatown and they did not even come to Koreatown. Most of the looters in Koreatown were Latinx who did not care about police brutality against Black Americans. Suggesting that 1992 Korean Americans from Los Angeles might be triggered by seeing Black Lives Matter protests suggests that 1992 in Koreatown was a Black riot and that today’s looters are mostly Black. Neither one of these things are true. Worse, this often repeated narrative frame harms both Koreans and Blacks. Japanese American owned businesses in the Crenshaw District and Leimert Part; and Thai American owned businesses in what would later become Thai Town were also targeted by anti-Asian sentiments.
The Rooftop Koreans from 1992 are trending again on Social Media. There is a Huffington Post article, “The Real, Tragic Story Behind That ‘Roof Korean’ Meme You May Have Seen” written by Brittany Wong with the subheadline “Those who share “rooftop Korean” memes owe it to store owners in the photos to dig into the history of the 1992 L.A. uprising ― and what led them to take up arms.” Like many journalists, Wong practices sloppy mapping. She conflates and juxtaposes events OVER THERE with events OVER HERE. Like white supremacists and extremist Asian Americans; she frames the rooftop Koreans vis a vis Black Lives Matter protests and suggests that the rooftop Koreans of 1992 were shooting in the air at Black protestors or Black looters. They were shooting into the air at mostly Latinx looters, arsonists, and vandals. Many of whom were recent immigrants from Central America. So they probably had PTSD from civil wars and revolutions in their home countries. A lot of the Korean store owners probably had PTSD from the Korean Civil War. Black Americans can have PTSD symptoms from hundreds of years of racial trauma inflicted by white supremacy.
All of these online conversations have one thing in common: They make an Asian American person feel good or look good at the expense of another Asian American person or Asian American group who is not a part of the conversation. They speak of anti-Blackness among Asian American communities or a single Asian American community without defining what that means. They are riddled with shame and guilt over their own white privilege and cannot find the words to talk about anti-Asian violence. They seek answers in a mythical shared Asianess instead of our actual shared Americaness. There are almost no aggrieved Black people or a Black person claiming injury because of anti-Blackness among Asian Americans, in particular Asian Americans who don’t speak English.. There are almost no Asian Americans who don’t speak English thanking the translators. The disconnect should be obvious.
I am not claiming that anti-Blackness among Asian Americans is not an issue. What I am saying is that a magnifying glass has been applied to the same Asian Americans again and again. An extremely distorted view has been created online. While at the same time the privileged Asian Americans participating in this have not reflected on their own participation in white supremacy and anti-Blackness. We all live in America. We are all in the smog of white supremacy and anti-Blackness. Privileged Asian Americans should fight racism where it has power in the white spaces that we are privy to.
Both my parents were born at the tail end of Japanese Occupation of the Korean peninsula. They were 6 and 8 years old when the Korean Civil War erupted, which was also a proxy war for Imperialist forces. Approximately 5 million Koreans were killed during the civil war. South Korea and North Korea are technically still at war. My parents were 15 and 17 years old when the April revolution happened in South Korea. Student and labor groups protested President Syngman Rhee. The protests turned violent and Rhee resigned. It took almost 100 years from the time that the Yangban class was discarded in Korea for South Korea to achieve democracy. The irony is that South Korea has one of the highest rates of income inequality in Asia. The road to democracy for South Koreans was often violent, there were millions of deaths, and unintended outcomes. My parents have a sophisticated understanding of the sloppy and sometimes violent soup that is politics. And how your own people can become your worst enemies. They don’t need a connect the dots translation.
My parents immigrated to America because they disagreed with President Park Chung Hee’s military dictatorship and rampant police corruption. Back then, South Korean police ticketed you to solicit a bribe. They understand the police can be corrupt in any country. My parents are also 1992 LA Koreans. Back then, a lot of Korean Americans in Los Angeles were mad at white media, the LAPD, and community leaders from all groups who spoke in inflammatory terms. A lot of us wondered why Black protestors didn’t protest in white neighborhoods, “take it Beverly Hills,” a lot of us said. We would later learn that South Central LA was barricaded just like Koreatown.
There are very few comparisons to 1992 and 2020 in Los Angeles. There are a lot of contrasts. A lot of very good contrasts.
My Americaness was shaped by being a part of the first generation of American public school children to attend rapidly desegregating schools that were multicultural and multilingual. I started kindergarten in Los Angeles in 1975, just 11 years after the Civil Rights Act passed. Zerita Jones and I went to the same middle school in Encino. She was bused from South Central LA and I was bused from Northridge. Zerita was friends with Janet Jackson. I was friends with John Singleton. We are in our early 50s now and we are the first generation of Americans to grow up with truly diverse friends. We started BAKC (Black and Korean Coalition) last year. We both also refer to ourselves as 1992 Angelenos. Zerita got 18 Black grassroots organizations in Koreatown to endorse a Korean American candidate, Grace Yoo for City Council District 10.
I also established Asian Americans for Housing in February of this year. We provide in language, culturally competent services and support to at-risk or unhoused Asian Americans. We do this through a myriad of partnerships with Asian American nonprofits and Special Services Group, which provides mental health and information services in several Asian languages.
KIWA (Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance) our non-profit fiscal sponsor. KIWA was founded in 1992 by progressive Korean Americans who saw class struggle as a commonality among Korean, API, and Latinx working people. Asian Americans for Housing’s mission and operations are separate from KIWA. We do not represent KIWA, nor do they represent us. We do work together for supplemental, emergency food aid to low income seniors who do not qualify for other programs.
Asian Americans for Housing has also worked with Koreatown Youth and Community Center to provide direct food aid to low income seniors who do not qualify for other programs or who were in between qualifying for new food programs. Both KIWA and KYCC have multiethnic and multilingual staff serving the needs of multiethnic Koreatown.
Asian Americans for Housing doesn’t just serve Asian Americans. We serve underserved, invisibilized low income people of all ethnicities including white people. A couple of months ago, we expanded our food bank services to isolated, low income Black seniors in South Central LA. They are also extremely underserved like low income Asian American seniors. Herb Wesson’s office and a Neighborhood Council in South Central LA offered funds right away to help Korean and Asian owned restaurants in South Central LA.
Korean, Latinx, and Black residents and community organizers have come a long way since 1992. We have done a lot of inter-ethnic coalition building. We have been talking to and listening to each other. We do not care to have our positive work diminished by online Asian Americans who are new to inter-ethnic coalition building.
These initiatives can be sustained by political and policy changes; and through the reallocation of resources. My parents, in particular my mother, inspired me throughout my life to help others, especially invisible people. My mother would find out about a need or a problem then start talking to people who she knew about it. When she found out that children in an orphanage in Mexico needed shoes. She got her business owner friends to donate 3000 pairs of shoes.