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Initiating the Dialogue: How 'Letters for Black Lives' Sparked Conversations About Asian American Identity

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Young Asian Americans read the English version of the crowdsourced "Letters for Black Lives" in a YouTube video with over 20,000 views. What began as one Google Doc quickly grew into a community with over 200 contributors and additional content, such as this video and translations of the letters. Image courtesy of the Letters for Black Lives organization.

Young Asian Americans read the English version of the crowdsourced "Letters for Black Lives" in a YouTube video with over 20,000 views. What began as one Google Doc quickly grew into a community with over 200 contributors and additional content, such as this video and translations of the letters. Image courtesy of the Letters for Black Lives organization.

With the simple creation of a Google Doc on July 6, 2016, 28-year-old Chinese-American ethnographer Christina Xu embarked on a project that would provoke honest, often uncomfortable conversations around the world between young Asian Americans and their elders that had previously seemed impossible to broach.

“Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie, Grandfather, Grandmother,” the open letter begins, “We need to talk.”

Xu’s inspiration for the document, which she called “Letters for Black Lives,” was the shooting of Philando Castile, a 32-year-old black man, in Falcon Heights, Minnesota, during a routine traffic stop. Diamond Reynolds, Castile’s girlfriend, streamed the aftermath on Facebook Live and incorrectly identified police officer Jeronimo Yanez as “Chinese.”

Xu and other Asian American activists she follows on Twitter were immediately reminded of a similar situation in 2014, when Chinese-American police officer Peter Liang fatally shot and killed Akai Gurley, a 28-year-old black man, in Brooklyn.

Liang’s conviction was the first in a decade for a NYPD officer for a shooting in the line of duty and revealed great divisions within the Asian American community. Lines were drawn between Asian Americans who protested Liang’s conviction and Asian Americans calling to hold Liang responsible.

“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 recalls.

In order to avoid being “in that situation again, where it’s very contentious,” Xu addressed a series of tweets to “Asian Americans who support BLM [Black Lives Matter]” encouraging them to speak with their families about why they support the organization and stand in solidarity with other people of color.

Soon, thousands of people joined Xu in writing and editing the open letter as well as translating it into other languages. Over a year later, the “Letters for Black Lives” project has published 23 translations of the letter, a video featuring Asian Americans reciting the crowd sourced letter, and additional letters to other global communities such as Asian-Canadian and Latinx communities

The project’s popularity and the premise of the letters themselves–young Asian Americans speaking directly to their elders who were not born and raised in the U.S.–speaks to a difference in the way that foreign-born and native-born Asian Americans identify themselves in relation to other minority groups. Furthermore, the need for a collective voice–to demonstrate that the letter writers are not alone in their simultaneous desire and apprehension to bridge the gap–reveals how pervasive this dynamic is in Asian American communities.

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“You may not have grown up around people who are Black, but I have,” the open letter reads. “Black people are a fundamental part of my life: they are my friends, my classmates and teammates, my roommates, my family. Today, I’m scared for them.”

Andrea Ayres is a second generation Chinese-American and co-director of the Asian American Student Initiative (AASI) at the College of William & Mary. Included in AASI’s mission to promote “Asian American awareness, voice and social issues” at the College is a firm stance of solidarity with people of color, Ayres says.

“It’s our duty as people of color to help other marginalized groups because we should understand what that position is like,” Ayres said. “We’re all fighting for the same overall goal of ending white supremacy.”

Since it was founded in 2015, AASI has created the Asian and Pacific Islander American (APIA) Studies program at the College, which allows students to pursue a minor or an interdisciplinary major. Ayres is now looking to broaden the organization’s scope specifically to include demonstrating support for other minority activism groups on campus.

From an online zine with the overarching theme of “PoC solidarity” to plans for an “Asians for Black Lives” subgroup, AASI’s members share Ayres’ commitment to striving towards being more visible, vocal allies of the College’s black student organizations.

The “Letters for Black Lives” Google Doc was also shared amongst the AASI members and the video screened during a meeting last semester. The project’s message aligned with conversations the members have had about combatting anti-blackness within the Asian American community, specifically perpetuated by some of their parents.

“There are real boundaries that exist for first-generation immigrants that exist less for their offspring,” Xu said. “My parents, at this point, have been here for about 20 years, but their close friends are all still Chinese or at least Chinese-speaking American people. That really limits the type of community you can form whereas for me, because I speak English I have a lot more ability to network and form communities with different types of people.”

According to the Pew Research Center’s 2013 report, “The Rise of Asian Americans,” 42 percent of Asian Americans have friend groups dominated by Asians of the same ethnicity. Only 17 percent of native U.S.-born Asians, however, say that the majority of their friends are from the same country of origin.

For foreign-born, first-generation Asian Americans whose social circles are dominated by those who share the same ethnic background, issues of police violence against African Americans may seem distant or unrelated to their own lives.

The rhetorical methods of self-identification further demonstrate the difference in how foreign-born and native-born Asian Americans situate themselves within the U.S. understanding of race and ethnicity. Pew found that in 2013, 19 percent of Asian Americans most often described themselves as Asian American or Asian while 62 percent said they most often described themselves by their country of origin.

Even more revealing is that only 9 percent of foreign-born Asian Americans most often identified themselves as American while 28% of U.S.-born Asians most often described themselves as American. About two-thirds (65 percent) of U.S.-born Asian Americans also agree that they feel like “a typical American.”

Dr. Chinua Akimaro Thelwell is an assistant professor of Africana Studies and History at the College of William & Mary who also teaches Asian Pacific American history. Dr. Thelwell cites Michael Gomez’s book, Exchanging Our Country Marks, as a point of reference for thinking about shifts in ethnic identity.

“Gomez asks the question: When is it that different African ethnic groups stopped defining themselves as their respective African ethnic groups and bought into a collective racial African American identity?” Dr. Thelwell said in an interview. “Ultimately, Gomez decides that it took two centuries–from 1619 to the 1830s–for the majority of the African American community to begin to see themselves as African Americans rather than different ethnic groups. And the reason why that was the case is because there were more native-born people than foreign-born.”

Despite having lived in the United States for roughly 20 years, for example, Xu’s parents have difficulty shaking off the mentality of a foreigner or an outsider.

The result of this physical and psychological divide between first-generation Asian Americans and other minority groups is that they have “essentially no incentive” to assimilate into a stance of PoC solidarity, according to Xu.

However, both Dr. Thelwell and Xu warn against overgeneralizing the beliefs of foreign-born and native-born Asian Americans. Xu herself was born in China and moved to Ohio when she was 7-years-old. Technically a foreign-born Asian American, Xu exemplifies the complexity and diversity of the Asian American experience.

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“In fighting for their own rights, Black activists have led the movement for opportunities not just for themselves, but for us as well,” the open letter continues. “Black people have been beaten, jailed, even killed fighting for many of the rights that Asian Americans enjoy today. We owe them so much in return. We are all fighting against the same unfair system that prefers we compete against each other.”

Dr. Thelwell echoed these sentiments expressed by the authors of “Letters for Black Lives” by highlighting the Civil Rights Movement’s activism that spurred the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. This act removed the national quotas that had been established by the Johnson-Reed Act in 1924, which restricted the number of immigrants from any Asian country to 100 people per year.

“It was very much about population control and trying to create a nation that was going to look like the way that Donald Trump wants the nation to look right now,” Dr. Thelwell said. “It was about creating a white nation. Many of the first-generation Asian American immigrants wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the Civil Rights Movement.”

Provisions in the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 that made it easier for professionals to gain access to the U.S. played a part in the construction of the model minority myth, the stereotype that Asian Americans are inherently more successful than other racial minority groups.

“A lot of Asians who came in post-1965 were already educated and had big advantages over people who were here,” Dr. Thelwell said. “That’s one of the reasons you see Asians succeeding a lot [in the U.S.] because professionals were one of the preferred categories of immigrants. It’s not just some magic ability that Asians have—there was a structural reason behind much of the economic success stories coming from new Asian immigrants.”

The model minority myth is “dangerous,” according to Dr. Thelwell, not only because “it presents Asians as apolitical” and homogenous, but also because it pits minorities against each other and falsely situates Asians as above other minorities on the racial hierarchy in America.

Xu’s mother has begun questioning Xu about the assumptions underlying the model minority myth since the “Letters for Black Lives” project has cleared more open lines of communication between them.

“Once in awhile she’ll call me and just be like, ‘Well, so how come if we came here with nothing and we were able to build all this for ourselves that black people can’t do the same?’” Xu said. “And I’m like, ‘Well, mom, let’s talk about redlining and discriminatory practices in hiring.’”

Although these conversations are far from resolved, the fact that they are even taking place is a pleasant surprise to Xu.

 “I really appreciate that she’s thinking about it and trying to think it through even if it’s a really hard set of views to change,” Xu said.

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“I hope you can consider this: The American Dream cannot exist only for your children,” the open letter states. “We are all in this together, and we cannot feel safe until ALL our friends, loved ones, and neighbors are safe.”

Xu intended the “Letters for Black Lives” project to act as a springboard for a more open dialogue between different members of the Asian American community, and has seen and experienced its results firsthand.

“I think the coolest part of ‘Letters for Black Lives’ is that we made something and in the making of something, we were able to have all these very nuanced conversations about things that are very messy and difficult to talk about,” Xu said. “I think making something, even if it’s as simple as a letter that gets translated into a bunch of languages, grounds all those conversations in a way that we need now more than ever.”