Black and Asian communities in America today are often portrayed as in conflict with each other. But we have a long history of organizing with each other, too. In the 19th and early 20th centuries, Asian Americans working as immigrant laborers in the United States were often subjected to racial violence. That experience of discrimination created solidarity with the Black community.
In 1869, Frederick Douglass spoke out against restrictions on Chinese immigration. Yuri Kochiyama, a friend and ally of Malcolm X, cradled his bleeding head when he was assassinated in 1965. Jesse Jackson took time away from his presidential bid to protest the killing of Vincent Chin in 1982. These stories of loss, struggle, change and hope are the most powerful tools we have to understand one another and bridge what divides us.
Betty Yu, artist and activist. “Our communities are paving our own way toward healing, restoration and solidarity. We understand that we, everyday Asians, have more in common with the Black community than we do differences.”
The Asian civil rights movement was inspired in part by the Black civil rights campaigns of the 1960s. It was around this time that the model minority myth emerged, portraying Asian and Pacific Islander Americans as mostly hard-working, well educated and healthy, the artist and activist Betty Yu explained. “The model minority stereotype falsely depicts Asians as a wealthy Ivy League-educated monolith while completely ignoring the economic inequalities that exist to this day,” she said.
Sammy Kim, artist and social advocate. “We need to focus on ending cycles of harm that originate from slavery and discriminatory immigration policies.”Nia White, activist. “It isn’t enough to just hear others’ problems without doing anything. Allyship is cute and all for your social feeds, but be a co-conspirator, not a bystander.”
As Americans reckon with racial injustice, police brutality and a spike in anti-Asian attacks, we have an opportunity to relearn our shared history and build on that solidarity.
I was living in Taiwan when George Floyd died after being handcuffed and pinned to the ground under a police officer’s knee. I coped by helping to coordinate the Black Lives Matter March in Taipei. It was important to me to stand up for myself and my community and close the metaphorical distance between me and my home.
In New York City, Jeanie Jay Park, the lead organizer of Warriors in the Garden, a collective of nonviolent activists and the founder of Sanitation Nation, a nonprofit youth solidarity collective, was among the thousands marching on the Brooklyn Bridge that summer when a group of young boys approached her and yelled, “Your people killed my people.” They were talking about an officer of Hmong descent who stood by while Mr. Floyd was murdered.
Jeannie Jay Park, activist. “At the center of my work is the acknowledgment that I am entering a space built by generations of brave leaders and activists, many of them Black voices of liberation.”Nupol Kiazolu, activist. “We have the opportunity to band together to create change. I truly believe that the rainbow coalition Fred Hampton spoke of is possible if we work together.”
“I understood their reaction,” she said. She has since worked to build intersectional solidarity between Black and Asian communities. Coalition building requires having uncomfortable conversations with not just ourselves but also our families in order to dismantle generational colorism and anti-Black sentiment that exists in many Asian cultures, Ms. Park said.
Nupol Kiazolu, the founder of We Protect Us, believes that practicing love, education and patience is the key to fostering unity between Black and Asian communities. “We must be willing to listen to each other with open minds, ears and hearts,” she said.
Chris Zou and his mother, Wendy Wang, business owner. Mr. Zou grew up working at his parents’ restaurants in New York City. “It’s important to understand and respect each other and see one another with empathy and as humans,” Ms. Wang said.
Wendy Wang immigrated to the United States in the 1990s. She worked in restaurants around the city, until she was eventually able to open her own restaurant. She’s faced obstacles in the community — someone once shot her husband in the face with a BB gun — but over time she’s built strong relationships with the loyal customers she serves.
Francisco Wong, business owner. When Mr. Wong moved to New York City from Mozambique to attend college, Manhattan’s Harlem neighborhood reminded him of home. He has owned and operated a pharmacy in East Harlem for 35 years. Leslie Nguyen-Okwu, the author. Ms. Nguyen-Okwu is a child of immigrants from Nigeria and Vietnam.
I come from a family of immigrants, too. My mother is from Vietnam, and my father is from Nigeria. They met and fell in love in Texas, but their families didn’t approve of their union. As a result, my siblings and I didn’t have a relationship with our extended family or with our cultures, for that matter.
Ed Be and Jared Blake, business partners. Mr. Be and Mr. Blake founded Lichen, a Brooklyn-based design incubator. “When Black and Asian cultures come together, it’s always been a powerful cultural impact,” said Mr. Blake.Holly Yuen and Ashley Schloss, childhood friends. Ms. Yuen and Ms. Schloss grew up in Canarsie in Brooklyn. “Racism comes from not being open-minded and unwilling to see beyond your own kind, and that can discourage people from seeing the possibilities of unity,” Ms. Yuen said.
Navigating a mix of identities at times felt complicated. When I’d watch my father’s interactions with law enforcement, I surmised that perhaps one part of my identity could be safer than the other. But the rise in anti-Asian violence has shattered that illusion and reminded me that the shields we hide behind can be dangerously thin.
Wei Tsay, entrepreneur, and Michael Stallworth, corporate strategist. Mr. Tsay, who grew up in North Carolina, was adopted into a white family. Mr. Stallworth identifies as biracial. The two have been together for nine years. They have learned how to communicate and be engaged in their respective communities in order to keep each other informed.Nialah Edari, activist and organizer. “We organize and work together and support each other. So last year, after the 2021 spa killings in Atlanta, it was only natural that we would come together to call out anti-Asian violence.”Chelsea Miller, organizer and strategist. “It’s so important to remember we are not here solely for the purpose of eradicating a system that was built to fail us. We are here to create, to define and reimagine.”
Social media has been a powerful tool for organizing, but it can also push us into echo chambers. Chelsea Miller, a co-founder of Freedom March NYC and a social impact strategist, believes that challenging rhetorics that divide our communities is a critical step forward. “The reality is, we are all connected,” she said.
Clockwise from top, center: Shinobu Fujiwara-Caar; her husband, Cebo Terry Caar; and two of their four daughters, Cocoro and Myka. Ms. Fujiwara-Caar and Mr. Caar met at a dance competition in New York City in the 1990s. Over the years, they’ve learned about each other’s cultural idiosyncrasies. “There needs to be an emphasis on educating people on the history of unity between Black and Asian communities to really create understanding,” Mr. Caar said.
I am still striving, and struggling, to carry the weight of being both Black and Asian in this uncertain moment. I feel the push and pull of both sides, but I’m learning to lean into the liminal spaces where my intersectional identity sits. I see that there is nuance, beauty and complexity to be found in that messy middle. Belonging can happen in connections and contradictions and in bridging and breaking. Being in between can be painful but also powerful.
Kiara Williams, creator and activist. “Divide and conquer is what this system was built upon, but unite and stand is what I believe can help us change the world. None of us can do it alone.”
An Rong Xu is a photographer, filmmaker and artist. Leslie Nguyen-Okwu is a journalist and the author of the forthcoming book “American Hyphen.”
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