Liberative Kinship

Black Lives, the Asian Diaspora, and an Already Looted World

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By Nate Lee
Illustration by Alice Young
Aug 13, 2020 | 11 min read
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Allies

Many of us gazed upon the scene in horror as Minneapolis Police Officer Derek Chauvin wedged his knee into the back of George Floyd’s neck for almost 9 minutes. Trapped inside by what would be called the “Chinese virus”, we could not escape the images, the feelings of disgust, rage, and utter helplessness as Floyd cried out, a scene replayed again and again as if to sear the images on our collective consciousness. But this time, rather conspicuously, there was an Asian face staring back at us. I could not place him and I didn’t know his name, but I recognized the posture, how he pushed his chin out and lifted his eyes past his enemies, the ways I too have learned to project toughness in a world that never recognized me or took me seriously. Many others thought they recognized him too. And as the images flashed across the screen, cities burning, buildings ablaze, East Asian Americans like myself also threw fire onto Tou Thao, the Asian police officer who let George Floyd die.

All we saw was his Asian face, and so we jumped at the opportunity to be good allies, seizing the object lesson: the Asian American choosing to align with white supremacist violence at the expense of a Black man. The optics were almost too perfect: Chauvin’s ruthlessness, Floyd’s helplessness, foregrounded by Thao’s enabling of it all. It was rare to find such an illustrative example of the complicit violence of the model minority and the ways Asian American liminality is weaponized against Black and Brown communities. Our allyship, however, meant using Thao as a prop. It meant abstracting his identity in order to make him Asian American so that we could prove a point, even if Hmong people had never really been included in Asian America. And so Thao’s presence became a means of our deflection, an attempt to distance ourselves, because surely we weren’t one of those Asian Americans.

What kind of Asian Americans were we, then? When we learned Tou Thao’s name, its syllables challenged our conceptions of his Asian Americanness. The model minority myth assumes a monolithic Asian-raced people in America, light skinned and straight-haired, full of high achieving, filial pious, deferential doctors and engineers, but we know that this merely obscures the fact that we are frustratingly heterogeneous, that there are marginalized Asian American groups whose oppression is masked under the umbrella of “Asian America”. Tou Thao disturbs the typical story of what we imagine an Asian American to be, which is to say that Asian Americanness is not so much a race or an ethnicity, but a position in the world, a name for the ways our bodies have been gazed upon and read into the myth of America. And so we too gazed upon Thao’s Asian face and assumed its place in the world without realizing that the Hmong body has always been a displaced body, which is to say, a body open to our projections.

The great irony of it all is that while the genuine intention of many East Asian Americans was to stand with Black folks and to educate other Asian Americans in the painful wake of George Floyd’s death, we actually ended up aligning ourselves with white forms of allyship. White allyship is deflective and guilt-driven. It depends on abstract and individualized ways of showing that you’ve been delivered, that you know better, are smarter, and are more woke than the next person. White allyship assumes an ahistorical subject that needs to be educated and convinced that racism exists, as if injustice was merely a function of ignorance, as if white supremacy hasn’t infiltrated our bodies, distorted our relationships, and seeped into our prayers.

Performative white allyship is what happens when anti-racism work has been subsumed into the very neoliberal, unjust systems it purports to dismantle. This kind of disembodied allyship enables companies with all-white leadership to host dialogues on anti-racism. It enables churches that have gentrified entire neighborhoods to release statements about fighting for Black and Brown lives. And it enables Asian Americans to believe that we are dismantling racism when we are actually erasing parts of ourselves and our communities.

What good is it to know all the right things to say but to have no clue about how to honor or grieve the past, how to lament the present, or how to face ourselves honestly in the mirror, to see how our hands are dirty with same injustices we are now able to refute? In this way the trellis of white supremacy is left untouched, and healing is impossible. What if Asian Americans instead imagined embodied and organic ways of joining Black and Brown — and other Asian American — communities that actually grow out of our histories of struggle and resistance, that honor the immense resilience of our families, and that wrestle with the transnational webs of oppression that led us to these violent shores?

Accomplices

In the 1960s, the United States was engaged in two wars. At the same time they were carpet bombing countries in Southeast Asia, they were releasing dogs on Black civil rights protestors — all while claiming to be the land of the free. It was in large part because of anti-war protests and the advocacy of Black activists like Martin Luther King, Jr., Muhammed Ali, and the Black Panther Party that the U.S. government finally decided to withdraw troops from Southeast Asia, but not without relinquishing power.

Withdrawal of troops signified a shift of U.S. attention from Vietnam to proxy wars in Laos and Cambodia. Because the 1962 Geneva Accords had outlawed foreign troops in Laos, the CIA began recruiting Hmong soldiers to wage what would be called the Secret War on the communist forces in Laos and Northern Vietnam. The Hmong were a stateless people, ethnic minorities originally from Southern China who had been forced to the mountainous regions of Northwestern Laos. The CIA allegedly made a deal with the displaced Hmong people, promising that in exchange for their military service, the U.S. government would give them a place to finally call home.

By the time the Vietnam War had finished, over 30,000 Hmong soldiers and civilians — about 10% of their population — had been killed. Those who remained in Laos after the communist Pathet Lao had proved victorious were at great risk of capture or death because of their support of the U.S. anticommunist forces during the war. Many Hmong people thus escaped to Thailand, relocated to refugee camps, or depended on intervention from the U.S. government that had launched a “mission of mercy” to resettle the refugees. So beginning in 1975, many Hmong people — including Tou Thao’s family — fled to the U.S. and resettled in places like Minneapolis, MN.

I say all this not to let Thao off the hook or to fashion a narrative of victimization around him, but merely to contextualize his presence in George Floyd’s murder and to highlight the larger story of violence that had been inscribed on his Hmong body. That Thao is a police officer, a defender of the violent country that in many ways caused his displacement in the first place is no accident. A line can be drawn between Thao’s complicity in George Floyd’s murder and the fact that in 1969, the CIA called the Hmong army they had trained “America’s most lethal weapon”. What does it mean to be a weaponized people? How have we learned to identify America’s enemies on its behalf? And how can we begin to see Asian anti-Blackness as a function of Euro/American colonialism rather than an internal tenet of our culture?

It is here where the realities of East Asian and Hmong Americans converge. It is here where we learn that to be Asian American is not about our countries of origin, our first languages, or the trauma of being torn from those things. It is not about test scores, incomes, food, or “Confucian values”. Rather, it is about the white American gaze and how it transfigures all of us into proxy warriors to fight its battles and to dispatch its enemies, whether at home or abroad. It is about how the American project has tried to weaponize Asian-raced people against Black and Brown communities, making us into defenders of a nation that offered us promises of belonging that it never intended to fulfill.

When Black soldiers were sent to Vietnam to fight against communist forces abroad, they often found themselves identifying with their supposed enemies. Black soldiers in 1966 did not miss the profound irony of fighting for freedom and democracy for a nation that had offered them the right to vote only one year prior. When they looked at the Vietnamese enemy, they saw themselves: colonized people fighting for self-determination in the shadow of empires who had already looted the world. It is this fundamental recognition, the ability to see the ways that the lives, lands, and bodies of both Black and Asian people have been carved up by those who promised us freedom, that will allow us not only to be allies, but accomplices willing to fight for our collective liberation.

Unlike the Black soldiers who were able to see themselves in the Vietnamese people, however, Tou Thao was unable to see how white supremacy also had its grip on him, the ways that he is both a victim of white supremacist colonial violence on the one hand and a perpetrator of white supremacist domestic violence on the other. In order for Asian Americans to be accomplices, then, we must defect from white America’s proxy war and unlearn the ways we have come to see Black folks as enemy, as competition, or at best, as distant other. We must realize too how Asian Americans have been pitted against one another, how U.S. immigration policy has always selected Asian groups that align most with its imperialist interests in the world, thus creating a hierarchy of Asianness that we too have adopted. We must, as many Black soldiers did, recognize one another as different inflections of an imperialist nightmare. To be an accomplice is to engage in the difficult, painful work of releasing our grip from the weapons we have fashioned against one another, often without even knowing it.

This is not a zero-sum game. The revolution will not be a rat race for a seat at the table. We are all oppressed by white supremacy. And those of us who are less likely to be killed for a bad check or a turn signal or a dance or a jog or a Bible study or a toy or a glance — we are especially called to turn and face our captors, to risk ourselves that we might all get free. Our liberation is profoundly interlinked.

Liberative Kinship

Liberative Kinship

And yet, I still believe that better language exists for Asian Americans to understand their place in the movement. The categories of allies and accomplices can certainly be helpful, but they miss the intimacy and mutual support that has defined our communities for so long. I think there are ways, then, that we can begin to imagine a kind of liberation where we carry with us the fullness of our stories and the stories of those we love, where “Asian American” is less about where we’re from or what we look like and more about the shape of our resilience, the way we bring our ancestors into the protest, and where the fundamental reason for our activism is not ideology, but our friendships and relationships, the commitments we have made to fight alongside Black and Brown folks because we have extended our circles of belonging knowing that we simply cannot be whole without their liberation and healing. This kind of activism does not begin with the mind, but with the heart and hands; theory meets us later to help us articulate the stories that already live in our bones.

Activist Grace Lee Boggs reflected that for much of her life, revolution had often recapitulated the masculinist tendencies of capitalist society — the centering of charismatic leadership, the egoism, the ruthlessness, and the ways that power had become commodity. She invited us to consider instead what a revolution would look like if it were built on a fierce tenderness, on interdependence and hospitality, on supporting the creative potential of those around us. So much of the language we have around activism is militaristic, but if our struggle is going to last, it must center the relational ties that have sustained our communities from the very beginning.

Those relational ties have always pushed the boundaries for what we consider family. I think of how, after the 1906 earthquake and fire destroyed all of San Francisco’s immigration documentation, Chinese people skirted the racist restrictions of the Chinese Exclusion Act by forming relationships of paper sonship where young men changed their identities in order to be sponsored under the name of a family that was not theirs. When it came to survival, then, our conceptions of belonging would expand based on who was most vulnerable. Our struggle and resistance, therefore, does not revolve around racial identity or an empty rallying around “Asian issues”; rather, it is built on the recognition that there are people we love who are extremely vulnerable and we must do whatever it takes to fight for their survival.

Segregation has deeply distorted our understanding of community because it restricted the possibilities of life together, but if we are to be free, we must begin to extend our idea of family, of our people, to include Black, Brown, and other Asian communities across the globe. This kind of liberative kinship is truly revolutionary. It is what Black Panther Fred Hampton was fighting for in his Rainbow Coalition, and the U.S. government assassinated him when he was only 21 years old. There is nothing more threatening to white supremacy than the people realizing that their destinies are profoundly interlinked in their struggle against a racist economic order. We can call it allyship, we can call it being accomplices, but liberative kinship has always been at the heart of our communities, driving us toward a healing revolution that honors the complexity of our stories and the relationships that helped us survive.

Liberative kinship means that we must learn to let go of all the ways we use a limited understanding of identity to build walls, to protect ourselves from the pain, suffering, and joy of others. It doesn’t mean that we adopt a colorblind ideology, put our faith in the flimsy aspirations of melting pot multiculturalism, or erase the differences of where we come from and how that shapes our struggle. On the contrary, in order to stand in fuller solidarity with the oppressed, we must draw deeply from the wells of our own particular histories, that we might see how our stories of resilience and pain in the shadow of empire lead directly into the stories of those we have learned to call Other. These stories are not limited to the U.S.; the roots of our diaspora and the global nature of anti-Blackness do not afford us that luxury. New uprisings, tyrannies, and nationalisms are springing up around the globe as we speak, each a unique phenomenon detonating along a single fuse, drawing us all into a shared destiny whether we like it or not. Our ability to imagine a more whole and just world depends on whether or not we can begin to think transnationally, to throw in our lot with the colonized of the world.

But we cannot do this difficult work alone. As we share our stories, we must learn to lament and grieve together, to apologize and forgive one another for our histories of violence toward each other, and we must learn to trust with patience and grace, knowing that all we have ever learned is to lift our fists against one another. And for better or worse, this also means that we cannot abandon Tou Thao, because retributive acts against him will not heal us. And because there are days that I, too, still believe in the lies, the myths, and the empty promises of home. I am still learning to heal and trust. And for those of us who are Christian, we must wrestle with the fact that God’s justice is a restorative justice, that our relatives — even the problematic ones — can be healed, which means that I can be healed, which means that even Tou Thao can be healed.  

Because at the end of the day, our relatives are not only those whose blood we share, but those we bleed beside, those whose calloused hands are placed on our shoulders in blessing as the hands of the powerful try to tear us apart. To fight for a better future for the next generation means honoring the relatives who have gone before us, and bringing the ancestors who struggled for us into the present struggle for Black lives.

So today, let us honor our ancestors — our grandparents, parents, church aunties and uncles, or simply those we have chosen to call family — those who were torn from land and language, who found themselves caught in the crossfire of warring kingdoms and were yet able to breathe life into the dust of their displacement. Their resilience and love are a testament to the fact that this place could not take everything from us, though it tried.

But today we also honor Uncle George Floyd, and we mourn that he joined the ancestors far too soon. We honor our siblings Elijah, Breonna, and Ahmaud as they join our brothers Vincent Chin and Fong Lee, this great cloud of witnesses who ensure that we do not fight in vain. We hold space for our trans siblings who continue to die with no memorial: Tony McDade, Rem’mie Fells, Brayla Stone, and the 22 others who have already been taken this year. And finally, we honor the pillars holding up this circle of kinship: John Lewis and C.T. Vivian, because without their fearlessness, their belief in our liberation, none of us would be here. We honor all of our relatives today: we grieve, we hold their stories close, we lay out the food, and we set fire to everything that must be burned.

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Nate Lee

Nate Lee (he/him/his) is a 3rd gen Chinese American who grew up in Daly City, CA. He is a Warriors fan, a pho connoisseur, and an Associate Pastor at Great Exchange Covenant Church in Santa Clara, CA. You can read more of his stuff at www.natejlee.com.

Alice Young

Alice Young studied illustration at Art Center College of Design and philosophy of religion at Talbot Theological Seminary. She is an illustrator based in Los Angeles. Learn more about her work at alicesyoung.com.

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