For East Asians who practice anti-racist activism, we need to be honest about our relationship to whiteness and how this affects our racialisation.
By Shelley Cheng
As East Asian migrants, our narratives often strategically ignore colonialism by failing to grapple with the historical conditions of our arrival. In so-called Australia (this term is used to describe the unceded Indigenous lands from an anti-colonial, Indigenous perspective), our incomplete narratives enable the ongoing erasure of Indigenous peoples’ sovereignty. Increasingly, I think that a meaningful anti-racist political praxis for East Asian migrants living on colonised lands and specifically, in so-called Australia, must start with decolonisation. This includes knowing the root of racism, seeing where we fit into the colonial project, recognising how we hold the position of oppressed and oppressor, vehemently opposing anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism in our communities, and weaponising our proximity to whiteness to dismantle the colonial project.
The dispossession, genocide, enslavement, and oppression of Indigenous people instituted white supremacy and racism in so-called Australia. As Dr. Chelsea Bond observes: “[racism] is engrained in our society, enshrined in our institutions and our legislation. Race is inescapable and it has been central to the colonial project”. Since the invasion, white supremacy has sustained and maintained the colonial project of Australia. Dr. Irene Watson describes the colonial project as “a centuries-long, ongoing campaign to annihilate, define, subordinate and exclude the ‘native’, and an arsenal of tools has been applied to these ends.” Today these tools are the racist policies, laws and policing that control, regulate and dispose of Indigenous peoples’ lives. Colonialism is ongoing because illegal occupation is ongoing; it is maintained by the hyper incarceration of Indigenous people, the ongoing deaths in custody crisis, the Northern Territory military Intervention, state-sponsored child abduction, and other forms of racial targeting used to secure white possession.
There’s no doubt that colonialism touches non-Indigenous People of Colour. We experience racial-violence, xenophobia, and marginalisation, and often we carry intergenerational trauma from displacement and loss of culture and identity. While some of our experiences may overlap with those of Indigenous people, it is Indigenous people who bear the brunt of colonisation, white supremacy, and anti-Blackness. And it is Indigenous people who lead the resistance against these systems — their continued survival is itself resistance. The common immigrant experience is one of sacrifice, loss and hard choices. But unlike Indigenous people, we chose this plight. At the end of the day, the intricate system of white supremacy — and all its entangled forms of violence — grew after invasion sowed the seeds. For those of us who are trying to kill the weeds, we must pull them out by the root and destroy the seeds.
We must remember that East Asian bodies have been used as an attack against Black and Indigenous people. This is seen through the attachment of the Model Minority Myth to East Asian bodies. The myth portrays East Asian migrants as law-abiding citizens who, through their own hard work, have become successful; and it positions darker-skinned migrants and Indigenous people as criminally prone and welfare-dependent. The myth is strategically deployed to deceive East Asian migrants into embracing the idea of meritocracy, distancing ourselves from the realities of systemic issues and perpetuating anti-Black and anti-Indigenous racism. Remember when Chin Tan, a Chinese-Malaysian migrant, assumed the role of Australia’s Race Commissioner and denied that Australia is a racist country? It’s clear the Model Minority Myth is a harmful tool used to collectively gaslight other minorities — especially Black and Indigenous people — by disguising manifestations of systemic oppression and colonialism as their personal shortcomings.
While it’s relatively easy to critique how white supremacy has driven a wedge between East Asians, we must also acknowledge it’s a problem we actively participate in. In the U.S., during the Jim Crow era, Chinese-American children in Mississippi were allowed to attend white-only schools. Some of their parents were actually members of the “White Citizens’ Council” who enforced policies of racial segregation. More recent examples of anti-Blackness amongst East Asians include Crazy Rich Asians’ erasure of South and Southeast Asians; East Asian American celebrities like Eddie Huang and Awkwafina building their fame by exploiting Black culture; and the viral Subtle Asian Traits Facebook group’s colourism, and virulent use of anti-Black slurs and AAVE. But the way East Asians are climbing the social, racial and economic hierarchies to avoid being on the bottom only reinforces these hierarchies further. We’re buddying up to white supremacy and replicating its violence against not only Black and brown people but also our own. Those of us from East Asian communities need to do better, and we can.
For East Asians who practice anti-racist activism, we need to be honest about our relationship to whiteness and how this affects our racialisation. Chinese and Japanese people were historically considered white because of our presumed levels of civilisation, culture, and literacy. This classification also applied in so-called Australia. Monica Tan, in her travels to Broome, highlights how Australian segregation played out: “I saw a photo from the 1920s of a crowded cinema with forced segregated seating: a row of white men occupied the nicest seats with the best view; the Chinese and Japanese were in a section behind them, and sitting […] at the back were the remaining ‘coloured people’, including the Malays, Timorese, Filipinos, and Aboriginal Australians.” East Asians need to acknowledge that our proximity to whiteness protects us from a lot of racial violence.
Our light skin means we’re rarely stopped by police because of our appearance and we’re rarely targeted for race-motivated or religious hate crimes. East Asian bodies aren’t read as violent or threatening. The most vivid example I’ve seen of this is from a video of the Sacramento City Council board meeting about the murder of Stephon Clark. As activist Ebony Janice points out, everywhere the Black protestor moves the police move. The Asian woman hops up onto the table with the Black man and a white man puts his arm around the Black man; the police never follow or try to touch the non-Black persons. My own experiences have made me realise that I will never be the target. While I’ve felt anxious while participating in direct action, I’ve never been targeted by police. I’ve never feared for my life, even when police raided my house. Being East Asian means my body affords me some privilege and safety in these situations. We must use our privilege in meaningful ways and exploit this relative safety.
As East Asians trying to practice anti-racism in a settler-colonial context, it is not enough to protect ourselves from the racial violence that we experience — we must work towards uprooting all the systems that enable racial violence to exist. The way we do this might look different depending on our access to resources, our capacities and limitations, but we must aim to be accomplices to Indigenous people, who lead the struggle and fight against white supremacy. We need to amplify and honour their struggles, knowledge, skills and wisdom. We need to share the responsibility and burden of the fight, give up our resources, time and power when we can. We must recognise our complicity in colonisation, oppose anti-Blackness within our communities, and understand how our unique position — as both oppressed and oppressors — provides us with both insights into the struggle against racial violence and also affords us relative safety due to our proximity to whiteness.
Shelley Cheng is a Chinese migrant-settler who lives and works on unceded Yuggera and Turrbal country. Shelley is a community organiser and interdisciplinary artist whose work primarily explores unlikely ways of resisting systemic oppression. They are also working on building community, resisting carceral responses, and resting. They are currently completing their Law (Honours)/Journalism degree while undertaking an artists’ residency at Visible Ink.