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“We Will Not Be Used”: On History, Accountability, and Liberatory Solidarity

This essay was written as part of the 2016 Humanity in Action John Lewis Fellowship at The National Center for Civil and Human Rights in Atlanta, Georgia.


In my junior year of high school, I cracked open my U.S. history textbook and, for the first time, I saw someone who looked like me in it. Next to a paragraph detailing the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act was a racial caricature of a Chinese man with exaggerated features, slanted eyes, and a menacing expression – a visual embodiment of so-called “Yellow Peril.” My first exposure to Asian American history in twelve years of formal education was far from empowering or affirming. It only solidified what I had come to realize as a Chinese-Taiwanese American from an immigrant family attending an all-white high school: despite my efforts to assimilate and blend in, to aspire to whiteness, I still remained somehow foreign, alien, Other. 

In reality, my struggle with identity and self-definition had begun charting its course long before eleventh grade. I grew up in a largely white suburb, had mostly white friends, and would later attend a predominately white university. I spent most of my life navigating through white space, yet I was always acutely aware of my difference. In my mind, my Otherness – my appearance, my native language, even the contents of my lunchbox – was unavoidable, loud. My ignorance regarding my history and my discomfort with my identity converged to produce a distinct lack of pride in my own heritage. How could this pride develop when the only Asian American history I ever encountered revolved around our exclusion and demonization? Where were our stories of resistance and resilience? Where were the heroes of American history who looked like me – if they existed at all?

Because my high school U.S. history class never progressed past the Great Depression, I never learned about Japanese internment during World War II or the racially motivated murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Nor did I learn about the rich history of Asian American organization and mobilization. These histories were hidden and buried by white America, out of fear that this knowledge would lead to an empowerment it could not control. Malcolm X referred to this process as a “whitening” of history (1);  Kenneth B. Morris called it “deodorization.” (2) Whatever the term, the aim of this process is to deprive people of color of the tools and the vocabulary to truly understand themselves. In college, once I began unearthing these narratives – the ones that white America hoped I would not find – there was no going back. I learned the names of radical revolutionaries like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs and tacked their photos up on my wall. I dug deeper into solidarity movements between Asian Americans and the Black Power movement, the farmworkers’ rights movement. For the first time, I felt liberatingly and unmistakably proud of my roots.

This fellowship, for me, has been an intensive, four-week long experience in uncovering more of these narratives and rewriting the false histories I had been fed. The stories I absorbed were ones of survival, strength, and community – Martin Luther King, Jr. traveling to India to connect the Black struggle and the Dalit struggle, Yuri Kochiyama occupying the Statue of Liberty alongside Puerto Rican activists, immigrants’ rights advocates showing up at Black Lives Matter protests. This fellowship has been a timely reminder of the importance of complicating traditional narratives. Even more so, it has been a lesson in understanding that knowledge of one’s own history is the critical first step towards self-love.

Our discussions linking the long Civil Rights Movement with modern social and political movements, from Black Lives Matter to the immigrants’ rights movement, also forced me to consider my own place within these struggles. The fellowship’s focus on coalition building and allyship has deepened my understanding of the work I do on my own campus, primarily with Asian American civic engagement and undocumented students’ rights. Now, I am equipped with a framework that interprets the struggle for civil and human rights as transgenerational, cross-racial, and transnational. My provincial mindset widened, because I realized more and more just how interconnected different oppressions are – how racism collides with mass incarceration, residential segregation, immigrant detention, unchecked capitalism, police brutality, border militarization, educational disparities, and neoliberalism to immortalize white supremacy.

As I saw these lines being drawn, I was confronted with the question of allyship, of how I can best be present and support movements not necessarily my own. My fear has always been that I will fall into the trap of “performing” allyship. Too often on my campus, I have seen people participate in a movement without being truly invested in it. They show up at protests for the gratification of being deemed a “good ally,” then speak over the very voices that should be centered. Yet although insincere, irresponsible allyship does more harm than good, inaction and apathy are just as poisonous. When Dr. Jacqueline Rouse said “Your presence here is the rent you pay for the space you occupy,” I think she meant that activism is not so much a choice as it is a duty we owe to our ancestors, to our future children, and to ourselves. (3)  In other words, to sit idly by in times of social change is to fail to do justice to both others and ourselves.

The most profound thing I ever read about allyship was exceptionally simple: “Allyship is a verb.” Allyship means consistently demanding the best from ourselves – doing the work to educate ourselves while admitting that the work is never done. To me, the essence of allyship is what Ta-Nehisi Coates calls “questioning as ritual.” (4)  Being a good ally means humbling ourselves to constantly be self-critical of our actions and the amount of space we occupy. Especially in the context of racial justice in the U.S., where every group has been racialized and slotted into the racial hierarchy to bolster white supremacy, this kind of intentional allyship is crucial.

As a Chinese-Taiwanese American, intentional allyship means understanding how the construction of Asian Americans as “model minorities” or the “racial bourgeoisie” (5) is a strategic move to pit minorities against each other in what critical race theorist Claire E. Kim refers to as “racial triangulation.” (6) The prototypical, monolithic narrative of Asian American success has been manipulated to “disprove” white privilege and discredit claims of structural inequality by other racial groups. The result is that many Asian Americans have bought into the myth of meritocracy and participated in perpetuating anti-Blackness.

On my own campus, I’ve watched this pattern unfold many times over. While many students of color organized a die-in following the murders of Michael Brown and Eric Garner, our Asian Student Organization organized a ramen-eating contest. Whenever I attended discussion groups on Black and Asian solidarity, I was struck by the lack of Asian faces in the crowd, especially in comparison to the room full of Black students ready to collaborate and exchange ideas. Given these dynamics, I’ve come to understand that intentional allyship in my context means actively working to dismantle the rampant anti-Blackness within Asian American communities. Whatever privilege we have been afforded as Asian Americans must be leveraged to oppose white supremacy, not Blackness.

I’ve watched many of my Asian American friends, classmates, and family members pretend they have no stake in the struggle for racial justice. To be clear, by no means do I believe that Asian Americans have always been a silent, complacent group. I do believe, however, that many of us have forgotten the history that formed us – in fact a history deeply rooted in organized resistance, from the Oxnard Strike of 1903 (7) to Delano Grape Strike of the 1960s (8) to the San Francisco State strike that led to the formation of ethnic studies (9) to the Asian American Movement of the 1980s. Most of all, I believe the lack of Asian American mobilization in support of Black lives stems from a misunderstanding of liberation and solidarity.

Most often, when we discuss liberation, we define it as something fractured along color lines: Black liberation, Brown liberation, Asian liberation. What is missing from this dialogue is the idea of liberatory solidarity, which stresses that as our oppressions are inextricably linked, so too is our liberation. Some writers have named this model of thinking as “selfish solidarity,” calling upon us to reframe standing in solidarity as standing for ourselves. (10) Ultimately, I believe this is the key to sustainable coalition building – realizing that the freedom and the safety of all of us are inherently tied to the freedom and the safety of Black Americans, of undocumented immigrants, of marginalized or impoverished or oppressed people in the U.S. and around the world.

A week before the start of this fellowship, I found myself reclining in a chair at a tattoo parlor in Antigua, Guatemala. I was on one of the last legs of a six-week backpacking trip that took me through the Guatemalan highlands, down to the Pacific coast, and up the third highest volcano in Central America. To commemorate this whirlwind of a journey, I decided to get a tattoo, a small symbol of my nahual, or spiritual protector according to Mayan cosmovision. The meaning of this symbol, directly translated, is “to feel another’s pain as one’s own.” Having this symbol of liberatory solidarity permanently on my body challenges and reminds me to understand others’ struggles, distinct as they may be, as my own and to take others’ liberation as seriously as I take mine. 

In Between the World and Me, Ta-Nehisi Coates describes his hope for his son, a young Black boy coming of age in a country that seeks to negate his very existence. Coates writes: “I would have you be a conscious citizen of this beautiful and terrible world.” (11)  Among some Asian American scholars and activists, a new refrain, articulated by Mari J. Matsuda, has emerged. Drawing inspiration from “We Shall Not Be Moved,” the title of a Black spiritual that gained popularity during the Civil Rights Movement, Matsuda insists: “We Will Not Be Used.” (12) By this she means: We, as Asian Americans, will not be used to prop up white supremacy or to devalue Black life. We will not be used to drive wedges between communities of color or to silence marginalized voices. The conscious citizenship that Coates discusses, the coalition building we have emphasized throughout these past weeks, the liberatory solidarity model we must strive to build – all of it hinges on this refusal to be used, this commitment to genuine accountability. When we refuse to be used, we participate in the active reclamation of our history, in the redefinition of our identities on our own terms, and in the struggle for truly collective liberation. 

References

1. Malcolm X, The Autobiography of Malcolm X, as told to Alex Haley, New York: Ballantine Books (1964), 165. 

2. Kenneth B. Morris, “The Life and Legacy of Frederick Douglass,” July 8, 2016. 

3. Jacqueline Rouse, “Women in the Civil Rights Movement,” July 11, 2016. 

4. Ta-Nehisi Coates, Between the World and Me, New York: Random House (2015), 34. 

5. Mari J. Matsuda, “We Will Not Be Used: Are Asian Americans the New Racial Bourgeoisie?” in Where Is Your Body? and Other Essays on Race, Gender, and the Law, Boston: Beacon Press (1996), 150. 

6. Claire J. Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” Politics and Society (1999). 

7. United Food and Commercial Workers, “1903 Oxnard Beet Sows the Seeds of Diversity,” http://www.ufcw324.org/About_Us/Mission_and_History/Labor_History/1903_Oxnard_Beet_Sows_the_Seeds_of_Diversity.

8. United Farm Workers, “The 1965-1970 Delano Grape Strike and Boycott,” http://www.ufw.org/_board.10482.

9. San Francisco State University, “Campus commemorates 1968 student-led strike,” http://www.sfsu.edu/news/2008/fall/8.html.

10. Sasha W., “On Selfish Solidarity,” To Speak a Song, https://tospeakasong.com/2015/04/28/on-selfish-solidarity/.

11. Coates, Between the World and Me, 108. 

12. Matsuda, “We Will Not Be Used.”

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