From the Inside
Does Asian American + POC = Anti-Black?
By Kil Ja
For a long time, I have considered myself a
person of color (POC). I
remember the first time I became really invested in POC politics
was when I attended a predominantly white liberal arts college.
As a Korean woman I gravitated towards the Black students
socially and organizationally on campus.
I had been involved in Black student activities in my
high school, and socially was very comfortable around Black
people compared to many of the white students. So "choosing" between Black and white was the
option for me as an Asian teenager with few Asian people to be
around. I chose to
hang out with the Black students.
Many of the Black students on the college
campus referred to themselves as people of color.
But it became clear throughout my four years that we had
very different perspectives of what this meant.
I thought it meant all non-white people.
My racial analysis was not that complicated, but I
thought in terms of white and non-white and so anyone who was
part of the latter was a person of color.
Black students and the Black administrator,
who was the only one in student affairs, tended to think
differently. Not uniformly across the board of course, but enough did.
To many Black people on my campus, people of color was
equal to Black. Activities
planned for people of color were geared towards African American
students in terms of content, outreach and invited guests.
And me, the Asian person who had
"found myself" with the support of Black people, was
pissed. I resented
what I considered Black people's reverse racism, selfishness and
limited perspective. I
would suggest, more like demand, that people of color be a more
Black students and the Black administrator
would (patiently) explain to me that they had struggled to get
people of color activities for Black students, that they had
only so much of a budget and that it was a priority for them to
recruit and retain Black students.
I never stopped to think of how much more
likely Asians are to go to college than Blacks.
Instead, I was just pissed.
I made demands such as asking them to change the name of
a Black organization to something having to do with people of
color so I could feel included instead of "tokenized."
Again, Black people had to patiently explain to me why it
was important to have an organization for Black people but that
I was welcome to participate.
I wanted to be co-editor of a Black campus magazine,
feeling I had "earned" this responsibility because of
all of my involvement. I
would meet with white administrators demanding to know why they
did not fund Asian American oriented programs as much as they
did Black programs. I would accuse the white administrators of being racist
towards Asian Americans and demand that some of the budget for
minority student affairs reflect "all people of
Later, I set off to "find" my
Asian American identity, beginning my own organization on campus
and demanding classes be taught to reflect “my experience.”
I stopped supporting some of the Black student events,
resentful because I felt "used" and
"overlooked" by those I had shown support for.
And all along, it was Black students who
supported me and showed up to my events.
Some even nominated me for a Martin Luther King Jr. Award
my senior year and the Black student organization gave me a
student leadership award at their Black baccalaureate ceremony.
At the ceremony, they did not present me with a Kente
cloth, as is traditionally done with Black graduates.
During the planning stages of the event I had made sure
to remind them, "I'm Asian, not Black!" And so to
accommodate me, they had gone to great lengths to buy me a
It has been almost seven years since I
graduated from undergrad. But
the fucked-up tendencies I showed were not isolated to my early
college years. Nor were they isolated to me.
As I became more involved in racial politics off of
college campuses, I learned more that my behavior was not just
that of some immature, self-centered college student trying to
find her racial and cultural identity.
Indeed, I have come to understand that anti-Black racism
and hostility was the means to finding myself and expressing
what it meant to be an Asian American and a POC.
When I got involved in Asian American
activism, it was not from the vantage point of not wanting to do
activism with white people.
For some, that is how we get involved in POC work.
We have been isolated or have isolated ourselves to
working with white activists. So many POC are very hungry to be around anyone not white.
For me, though, getting involved in both Asian American
and POC work was really a way to escape working with Black
Of course, POC work involved Black people
here and there. But
POC work was a way for me to "not be stuck" working
with just Black people or getting "used" by them.
It was a way for me to see myself as more
"worldly" and "more cosmopolitan" than those
I had dismissed as "nationalist" Black people on my
college campus, long before I even really had a better
understanding of what nationalism was or the variations of it.
In short, POC work was a way for me to be
both Asian American and "buddies" with Black people. I could soothe my conscience by saying I was not like others
because I am not totally "abandoning" Black people, as
is the case with most of us who find meaning in our lives by
interacting with Blacks but then dump them when something better
comes along. Instead, I saw myself as some sort of "bridge"
between communities. I
was also conducting research on Korean-Black conflict and wanted
to "heal" the rift, a gesture that made me feel
better. Like some
weird post-1965 missionary activist, I saw myself as someone
who, because of my past experiences, was some kind of innovative
I was able to have it three ways, I could be friends with
Blacks and be Asian American and be a POC.
Now I did not, of course, acknowledge that
I thought I was better than Black people.
Instead, I wanted to "find" my true self and
"expand" my horizons and others.
Or at least that's what I told myself and others.
I came to find that other Asians, those who
had been in similar situations coming up politically, felt the
same way. I
remember talking to an Asian woman who told me how she
"saved" her boyfriend from being Black by giving him
books written by Asian Americans.
Her boyfriend had been politically and socially engaging
Black people and politics, but this was not his "true"
identity. The woman felt the need to intervene.
This story is not an isolated one, as I
have met more Asian Americans who develop an affinity with Black
politics and people but then jump ship when they get a chance to
be with Asian Americans. Many
of us, Asian American or not, have drunk from the fountain of
knowledge we call Black politics only to spit the water back
into the well when we are no longer thirsty.
See, Asian Americans don't tend to jump
ship for ethical reasons. It
is certainly not an issue of feeling that they shouldn't have
more power compared to, or over Blacks, or because they
shouldn't have too much control in Black people's affairs.
If they felt this way, they wouldn't adamantly defend
Asian business owners who create business enclaves in Black
neighborhoods or they wouldn't be so quick to establish Asian
hip hop or spoken word collectives that tell off Black people at
the same time appropriating from them.
And so me, I jumped ship like the rest of
them. I got
involved in Asian American politics to the point where I saw
myself as Asian American, read and wrote about Asian American
affairs, and presented myself as Asian American at political
events, college settings and social gatherings.
The fucked up part of it though is that I was able to
solidify my identity as both Asian American and POC by being
sense of myself politically was basically established by
distancing myself from Blacks.
Me and other Asians would solidify our
bonds with one another politically in forums, private
organizational meetings or just quick conversation by talking
about how selfish Black people were or how there is more than
just Black and white and how people need to recognize Asian
Americans in the mix. I
would cheer loudly for racist Asian American spoken word
performances where Asian American artists would loudly sound off
about "Don't exotify my culture!" to some implied
Black and white audience, at the same time using hip hop slang
and Black colloquialisms or signifying Blackness through their
gestures and cadences.
would try to get funding and support by pointing out to
administrators (usually white) and others (usually Black) that
"Black people are not the only ones who experience
would be vocal about the need to go "beyond" Black and
white and would confront Black activists and friends if I felt
that they weren't being "open" enough to Asian
I would shut down any conversation that had to with the
differential value and power Asian Americans have.
If someone wanted to talk about why so many Asians own
businesses in Black neighborhoods—bam, shut down, then some
nice, intellectual conversation about how Blacks don't
appreciate the struggles of immigrants to "make it" in
a globalized economy. If
someone wanted to talk about Blacks in prison—bam, shut down,
then some commentary about how Asians are in prison too and a
mention of prisoner David Wong.
If someone wanted to talk about Blacks being racially
profiled—bam, shut down, then some treatise on Asian
immigrants getting deported.
Overall, I had become a master at shutting
down conversation with Blacks while at the same time appearing
as if I wanted to seriously engage their concerns or even listen
to them. I had
become the quintessential Asian American.
I also remained the quintessential POC.
There is a reason why POC politics is so heavily driven
by Asian Americans. As
much as wanting to be a POC instead of identifying with white
people, I also wanted to be a POC because it made me feel better
about my anti-Black politics and it also helped assuage the
nagging guilt of knowing that Asian Americans get less shit and
have a lot more than Blacks.
As a POC I could see myself as someone who was being
"who I am" but at the same time not be like Black
activists, who I dismissed as nationalists.
I could see myself as someone who was "making
connections" and "helping to expand the dialogue”
between different non-white groups.
But in the end, I was still anti-Black.
I was only willing to listen to other Black people who
were similarly into POC politics and who would basically put up
with my shit. I
still learned how to shut down critical dialogue with Blacks and
deflect their concerns, using jargon such as "We're being
divided and conquered and that’s what the system wants!"
and "I'm not going to play the 'Oppression Olympics'"
and even appropriating Black writer and activist Audre Lorde by
proclaiming, "The master's tools will never dismantle the
master's house!" I
would only support Black political work and activists if they
dealt with Asian Americans in their campaign and analyses,
because that was the more "worldly" POC way and not
just the “nationalist” approach.
I would shun Asian activists who tended to support Black
politics because I thought they were “dupes” and full of
It took me a long time to understand how
violent Asian American identity is to Black politics and
ultimately to Black people.
That the only way I knew how to become both Asian
American and POC was by being hostile to, or shutting down Black
people is indicative of something, isn't it?
And even with all of the politicking that I
did in Asian American and POC spaces, I didn’t develop much of
a vocabulary for describing and identifying anti-Black racism in
society, let alone in our own work and as part of our
Black intellectuals I know that helped me to understand that a
person can have an analysis of white supremacy but not of
anti-Blackness and that a person can profess a critique of
whiteness and white people and still be anti-Black.
And me, I was proof.
I was very critical of white supremacy at the same time
espousing Asian American and POC rhetoric at every opportunity,
but especially when Black people were present.
And the sad fact of the matter is that it
has usually been Black people who supported my exploration of
identity, who cheered me on when I confronted whiteness, white
people and white supremacy and who listened sympathetically as I
talked about feeling socially and politically isolated.
And how did I repay them?
By becoming someone whose identity was bound with
hostility and resentment towards them, their political activity
and ultimately, their liberation.
At this point, I have been trying to figure
out what it means to be a non-Black person of color engaging in
politics in the US. I
am wondering, how can people with an Asian body or whose origins
are in Asia engage in liberatory politics in the US without
being anti-Black? I
genuinely care about Asian people in the US and elsewhere and
our experiences with white supremacy make me sad, angry and even
furious. But I want
to speak out and organize against white supremacy in a way that
doesn't reproduce or get heard because of anti-Blackness.
But I am beginning to doubt whether or not this is
possible. I am
looking for some good models of how this might be possible, but
I am struggling to find them.
Kil Ja Kim is a
writer, educator and activist currently living and working in
Philadelphia. Her intellectual and political interests are
Asian American politics, immigrant politics, and Black-Asian
American relations. Kil Ja
is currently working on
working on a research project that examines the role of global racial politics
in shaping the disproportionate presence of Korean immigrant
business owners in Black neighborhoods in the US.
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