A Letter From Young Asian-Americans To Their Families About Black Lives Matter
In the Facebook Live video streamed earlier this month by Diamond Reynolds after her fiance, Philando Castile, was fatally shot by a police officer during a traffic stop in a Minnesota suburb, Reynolds identified the man who shot Castile as "Chinese" as she narrated the scene.
It was later understood that Castile was shot by Jeronimo Yanez, who is Latino. In the meantime, Reynolds' testimony gave Christina Xu, a 28-year-old Chinese-American ethnographer who lives in New York City, flashbacks to earlier this year, when many Asian-Americans around the country protested the prosecution and conviction of Peter Liang, the Chinese-American cop who shot and killed Akai Gurley in a dark stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project in 2014.
The protesters said Liang was being treated as a scapegoat at a time of heightened focus on police shootings of unarmed black people, pointing out that white law enforcement officials involved in several high-profile cases in recent years have not faced similar consequences.
For Xu, and other younger Asian-Americans who have shown support for the Black Lives Matter movement and anti-police brutality causes, this was disturbing. "To me, clearly justice is about getting justice for these black families," Xu says. "Not about making sure that Asian people have the same privilege as white people."
Xu says that before it became clear that Castile's shooter was not Chinese, she was worried that similar dynamics might surface in the wake of this case, and that many Asian-Americans would rally to support another Asian cop who killed a black man. So she put out a call on Twitter asking other young Asian-Americans to help her draft an open letter through Google Docs, addressed to their families — in English and eventually translated into dozens of other languages — about why they felt that Asian-Americans should also care about police violence against black Americans.
The letter also brought up a subject that Xu and many others felt really uncomfortable broaching with their parents: anti-blackness in Asian-American and immigrant communities. Here's some of what they wrote:
"When a policeman shoots a Black person, you might think it's the victim's fault because you see so many images of them in the media as thugs and criminals. After all, you might say, we managed to come to America with nothing and build good lives for ourselves despite discrimination, so why can't they?"
We talked to Xu in this week's episode of the Code Switch podcast, about that letter and why she and hundreds of others felt they had to write it — and why many felt nervous to send it along. We also talk to Claire J. Kim, a professor at the University of California, Irvine whose work focuses on anti-blackness in Asian-American communities. And we hear from Tien Dang, a 22-year-old who lives in New York, who let us listen in on a conversation she had with her dad that was inspired by the Vietnamese version of the letter.
Read the letter, as well as its various translations to Korean, Urdu, Vietnamese, Tagalog and other languages.
SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:
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MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH from NPR. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
KAT CHOW, HOST:
And I'm Kat Chow. Should we just get into it, Shereen? Let's do it.
TIEN DANG: Mom, dad, uncle, auntie, grandfather, grandmother, we need to talk. You may not have grown up around people who are black, but I have. Black people are a fundamental part of my life. They're my friends, my classmates and teammates, my roommates, my family. Today, I'm scared for them.
MERAJI: That's Tien Dang. She's a young Vietnamese-American woman reading the Letter for Black Lives. And we're going to hear more from her after the break. But that letter she's reading, it was written to get the older generation of Asians living in this country to understand and hopefully care about the Black Lives Matter movement.
T. DANG: Even as we hear about the dangers Black Americans face, our instinct is sometimes to point out all the ways we are different from them, to shield ourselves from their reality instead of empathizing. When a policeman shoots a black person, you might think it's the victim's fault because you see so many images of them in the media as thugs and criminals. After all, you might say we managed to come into America with nothing and build good lives for ourselves despite discrimination, so why can't they?
CHOW: Shereen, you know this. There's this thing in some immigrant families, especially some Asian families. I've heard from some cousins that their parents have said stuff like this, that, you know, if black people just worked as hard as immigrants, they'd be better off, or if black people just obeyed the law, they wouldn't be getting arrested.
MERAJI: Unfortunately, I've heard this more than once. But we decided to talk with an expert about this because we didn't just want anecdotal evidence for this piece. We wanted to get at where this tension comes from.
MERAJI: So we called up Claire Jean Kim.
CLAIRE KIM: The philosopher Lewis Gordon has described the U.S. racial order as being structured by two principles. The first is be white, and the second is, but above all, don't be black.
CHOW: Claire is an Asian-American studies and poli-sci professor at UC, Irvine, in California. Her first book's about black and Korean conflict in New York City.
MERAJI: And she says, look, there's more than personal prejudice at work here. It's the system in this country, the system in America which puts black people at the bottom and has since the beginning, forcing other people of color, like Asians, to separate themselves in order to get ahead. It's something, she says, that's been happening since the 1850s, when Chinese immigrants were coming to the U.S. as laborers.
KIM: So right from the very beginning, the Chinese elites in San Francisco, the leaders of the Chinese community there, were saying to U.S. government, we are foreigners, not slaves. We are not black. Do not treat us or imagine us as blacks.
CHOW: But we can't forget that there's also a history of civil rights activism by Asian-Americans, too. Like, I want to namecheck Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, to name a couple, who we've written about here on CODE SWITCH.
MERAJI: Right, and this letter we're talking about, it's from Asian-Americans who support Black Lives Matters, so that activism is alive and well. And I would say it's on fire these days. I had a CODE SWITCH listener send me photos from a recent Black Lives Matter protest in D.C. There were Asians in the photo holding signs that said Asian Pacific Islander silence equals violence. There's the hash tag, #asiansforblacklives, and there are also Facebook groups out there where young Asian-Americans are sharing literature about this history of anti-blackness, and they're trying to figure out how to address it.
CHOW: Christina Xu is one of those 20-somethings involved in this work, and the letter was Christina's idea. A little bit about her - she was born in the Fujian province in China and moved with her family to the U.S., to Ohio, when she was 7. And now, Christina lives in Brooklyn, where she works as an ethnographer. And when I talked to her on Skype a few weeks ago, she had just tweeted out this link to an open google doc where she was inviting other Asian-Americans to help her out and crowd source a letter. And when we talked, she said that hundreds of people were in this doc at the same time writing together. And she said that she was starting to feel overwhelmed.
What are you going to do?
CHRISTINA XU: I'm just turning it to comments-only, the doc, because it's kind of getting to the point where people are just writing over each other. And I would like for this to be an actual thing that produces something.
MERAJI: It did. Actually, just days after Christina's initial callout, she and the other letter-writers published it to Medium. It's been translated into a bunch of different languages - Mandarin, Korean, Tagalog, Vietnamese, Urdu. There are video versions of this letter. It's been shared all over social media. Kids are emailing it to their parents. And that's what we're going to talk about today on CODE SWITCH.
CHOW: We're going to share the origin story of the Letter for Black Lives from Asian-American 20-somethings to the older generation. And we talk with a Vietnamese-American and her dad after she sent him the Vietnamese version.
MERAJI: So, Kat, let's go back to Christina Xu and why she came up with this idea in the first place.
CHOW: Yeah, so Christina told me that she was just taking in all of this tragic news of the black people who had died at the hands of police officers, especially after the most recent video surfaced.
MERAJI: Of Alton Sterling and Philando Castile getting shot and killed by the police.
CHOW: Yeah. And after those videos, Christina, she was addicted to Twitter, constantly scrolling through her feed. And she started seeing tweets that suggested the cop who shot Philando Castile was Chinese. Diamond Reynolds, Philando Castile's girlfriend, she says so in the video that was live-streamed.
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DIAMOND REYNOLDS: It was a Chinese police officer that shot him. He's Chinese. He's about 5'5", 5'6"-and-a-half, heavyset guy.
MERAJI: We know now that the officer who shot Philando Castile is not Chinese. He's actually Latino, but that's a conversation for another time.
CHOW: In those first few days after that video, Shereen, there was just so much anxiety among Asian-Americans that he was one of us.
MERAJI: I bet.
CHOW: Yeah, and Christina, she couldn't help but think about when a Chinese-American cop, Peter Liang, shot Akai Gurley a couple years ago.
MERAJI: Akai Gurley was 28. He was the father of a 2-year-old daughter, and he was shot in the stairwell of a Brooklyn housing project. He was unarmed and black. And Peter Liang, the rookie NYPD cop who shot him, was eventually convicted of manslaughter this year, but the prosecution even said it was an accidental shooting.
CHOW: Some Asian-Americans protested that conviction and the fact that Liang was even charged, saying if he was white, he wouldn't have been charged at all. And so many people were talking about this, so many Asians, like, even Christina's parents. They were sending her article after article on WeChat that said as much.
XU: I just had this, like, overwhelming feeling of, like, I can't do this again. That was just such a twisted version of justice to me because, you know, I actually - I - as somebody who - I think, like, I've marched in the Black Lives Matter marches and, like, to me, it's just, like, clearly justice is about making sure that we get justice for these black families, not about making sure that Asian people have the same privilege as white people.
MERAJI: So did she express that feeling to her parents? Did she talk to them - because I know I struggle with this, especially with my dad and my grandparents on my mom's side. It's like, I don't want to have these kinds of arguments because I don't want to seem ungrateful. They left everything to come to the U.S. so I could have more opportunities, and there's a lot of guilt there. And for me, it can be paralyzing. I would not know how to start a conversation like that.
CHOW: Christina, she did talk to her family. And she told me that she was so upset when she confronted them. She was thinking about it all day at work. And she thought, OK, you know, maybe this is going to be a conversation better had on the phone than just over WeChat, and I get it. Having conversations like this, it's so hard.
XU: I didn't go into that conversation expecting anything positive. Like, I expected it to be a - just a full-on shouting match of bad stuff. And I was really surprised that we actually did manage to talk more about these issues than I think we had in a long time. I think I walked out of it being able to see their side more, in terms of what they were concerned about. They walked out of it, I think, understanding a little bit more about - of what I was upset about. I don't know. It was - I wouldn't say that, like, my parents and I have the same views on this by any stretch of the imagination now, but just the fact that we're able to have an open line of dialogue about it is - is pretty revelatory to me.
CHOW: When Philando Castile was shot to death in Minnesota and there was a rumor that the officer was Chinese, Christina wanted to do something to provide a starting point for a dialogue between Asian-Americans who supported the Black Lives Matter movement and their parents, who just didn't get it in a lot of cases.
XU: When everything in America is foreign to you, maybe you don't know about the nuances of what it means to have the aftermath of slavery to black people. That's not something that they ever learned in school or ever could have learned in school. And, you know, even after coming to the States, even people who have been here for decades, who would have taught them that, basically, right? So in the absence of that information, they instead, you know, inherit a lot of the views that are passed to them by the media. And, you know, the media in this country overwhelmingly portrays black people in a negative light. And so I think it's natural that a lot of our elders in our communities would have racist views against black people, but I don't think that that can't be fixed.
MERAJI: So this letter is a way to start a cross-generational dialogue. And in some cases, it's working.
CHOW: Yeah, and it's something that Christina told me she wished she had when she was trying to talk to her parents about Peter Liang. And coming up, Shereen, we hear from a Vietnamese-American woman who sent the letter to her dad.
T. DANG: I saw that the draft for the Vietnamese email had been finished. And in my head, I was like, Tien, you just got to send it to him. He's going to love you regardless.
MERAJI: How Tien Dang's dad reacted to the email - that's after the break. You're listening to CODE SWITCH.
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MERAJI: Thanks for listening to CODE SWITCH. The Republican National Convention is a memory, and now it's all about the Democratic National Convention. Philadelphia is about to be all over the news. But if the news is a lot to keep up with, don't. Just keep up with the NPR Politics Podcast. The NPR team will be at the conventions doing quick, daily episodes first thing every morning. Know what's happening and what it all means, without that cable news hangover. Subscribe to the NPR Politics Podcast at npr.org/podcasts or on the NPR One app.
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MERAJI: You're listening to CODE SWITCH. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
CHOW: And I'm Kat Chow.
MERAJI: Yes, parent just don't understand is a cliche. But when it comes to the children of immigrant parents, Kat, we are both those kids. There's not only generational misunderstandings at play. There's cultural misunderstandings. Oftentimes, there's a language barrier on top of all that. And I speak from experience here. My dad's from Iran. I speak, like, no Farsi. English is his second language. There's definitely a lot of stuff lost in translation, especially when we argue.
CHOW: And both my parents, they grew up in China, so I get it, too.
MERAJI: And that's why this letter we've been talking about in this episode, this letter from Asian-American millennials to their older family members explaining why they're supporting the black struggle for equality in America, this is why it was so important to get this letter translated into a bunch of different languages.
T. DANG: (Speaking Vietnamese).
CHOW: That right there is Tien Dang reading the Vietnamese version of the letter, which she emailed to her dad, Nam. Tien, she said that her dad never really understood why she insisted on protesting things. And to illustrate that point, she told me this one story from when she just started college at Southern Methodist University in Dallas. And she was working for the student multicultural affairs office. She had joined a black sorority. She was a Delta. And one day, she was protesting one of those annual blackface parties that some white frats throw.
MERAJI: Oh, yes, the annual college blackface party and the subsequent annual college blackface party protests that we - I feel like we've covered a bunch of those on CODE SWITCH.
CHOW: Yeah, I mean, we have. And apparently, Tien's dad, he saw a story on the local news about that protest, and he saw her.
T. DANG: And my dad called me. And he said, Tien, I saw you on the news. And I said, oh, did you, Dad? And he said, why are you in the street? Do you know how dangerous that is? And I said, you know, my friends, they deserve to be heard. And I truly believe that, you know, as an Asian-American person, we understand the struggle. And we'll never understand what it's like to be African-American in America, but we do have a lot of similarities. And I - I didn't know how to get that across to him. And for him, I think he was more concerned about my health and my safety than he was concerned about how I felt about things.
MERAJI: That's interesting to me. So to be clear, Tien's dad, he wasn't upset about what she was protesting, just that she was in the streets protesting.
CHOW: Yeah. So a little bit about Tien's dad - so Nam, he was born and raised in Vietnam. He fought the communists there. And his job was to go into Viet Cong territory and rescue American soldiers. And after the war, the communists came, and they sent Nam to a re-education camp for seven years.
T. DANG: You know, he stood up to speak about what he felt was right. And at the day, you know, we had to leave our mother nation. And he - I think the last thing he wanted was for me to get hurt.
MERAJI: I mean, that's totally understandable. I get that. He spent seven years in a re-education camp, which is just a fancy way of saying a prison camp. So you know that was probably a terrible experience.
CHOW: And, I mean, when your parents - when they see you protesting and they feel like you're risking everything that they struggled to build for you, there's this tension, which Tien and her dad, they sat with for a while. And it was a tension of Tien feeling very passionately about social justice issues, but not feeling like she could talk about why she was spending so much time doing what she did. But let's fast forward to just a few weeks ago. Tien's in New York City. She's just started her first job out of college. And a friend sends her this letter, the one we've been talking about.
T. DANG: I saw that the draft for the Vietnamese email had been finished. And in my head I was like, Tien, you just got to send it to him. He's going to love you regardless. If you have to have that tough conversation, you will. You're just going to get through it. And I was just so nervous. My heart was beating. I stared at my screen for about five minutes and finally I just said, just do it.
MERAJI: The suspense - what is Mr. Dang going to say?
CHOW: I know.
T. DANG: So I click send. And not even five minutes later, I get a phone call from my dad. And I thought - I was just so ready - I don't know why, but I was so ready to be defensive. And I had all of these points to give to him and tell him why I felt this way. And he said, gon (ph), which means daughter, where did you get this? This is so beautiful. This is so well-written. It's so eloquent. It's so written out. I don't - where did you get this? And I said, are you serious, Dad? And he said yes. And then he was like, I know there's no way you wrote this. And I laughed, and I said, yes, Dad, you're right. This is - there's no way I wrote this.
MERAJI: I just have to butt in here. That's such an immigrant dad thing to say - where did you get this? There's no way you wrote this because it's too good.
CHOW: I know. I mean, it made me laugh because I can totally picture my dad saying that.
T. DANG: He said, there's no way anyone in your generation wrote this. And I said, well, Dad, surprise. There's this thing called technology. And I - it's been hard explaining Google Docs to him and how it works. So he hasn't really wrapped his mind around how many people have really put effort into this yet. But I tried to explain to him that it's crowdsourced; a whole bunch of Asian-American people came together and said, this is something we want to stand up for. You know, we took all of our knowledge together and, you know, lo and behold, there are native speakers who really are trying to fight for the Black Lives Matter movement who did volunteer their time.
MERAJI: I honestly can't imagine how hard it was for her to explain Google Docs and the entire effort that went into writing this in Vietnamese, which she's not as comfortable in as she is with English.
CHOW: Right. And, I mean, so when Tien and I first talked - just her and me - I got the sense that she was beginning to feel like her dad was finally getting her. Like, this eloquently written email in his native language, that was exactly what she needed to open up a dialogue.
MERAJI: So, Kat, you thought, wouldn't it be amazing to get Tien and her dad on the phone and record some of this newfound understanding? It would be CODE SWITCH podcast magic.
CHOW: Right. I mean, that is exactly what I thought, but it didn't really work out that way.
T. DANG: Hi, Daddy.
NAM DANG: (Speaking Vietnamese).
T. DANG: My dad says he's switching to get the phone with a battery.
N. DANG: (Speaking Vietnamese).
CHOW: And before Tien's dad, Nam, who I feel like I should Mr. Dang - before he would even answer my first question, he basically just wanted me to recite my resume.
My name is Kat Chow. I'm a journalist, producer and reporter with National Public Radio. And three-and-a-half years ago, I was hired to be...
A little bit about this - I mean, I felt like what Mr. Dang did, that's exactly something my dad would ask a journalist. There's just this, like, little, low level of distrust under the surface. And, I mean, it was a herd interview. And at the beginning of the interview, I asked Nam if the letter changed how he sees black people. And something completely got lost in translation, and he was super offended. And it almost derailed the conversation.
Yeah, so I actually didn't know what his opinions about black people were, so that's why I asked.
Yeah, so, I mean, you can hear right there that I'm responding to when the translator was essentially telling me, like, don't you know who this man is? Why would you even ask that question?
MERAJI: Yeah, I did not think the interview was going to survive that awkward moment. I was listening in in the control booth, and I was like, oh, boy. We're done. But toward the very end, after the translator got dropped off the line, it was just you, Nam and Tien. And you asked one simple question. And, Kat, it just broke the interview wide open.
CHOW: What have you been wanting to say to him?
T. DANG: (Speaking Vietnamese).
N. DANG: (Speaking Vietnamese).
T. DANG: OK. I said, I thank you, and I know your struggle that you and Mom had to go through so that I could have a better life. And I couldn't finish, and he said, the tears you're crying now, they're not tears of sadness, but they're the tears of joy, like when you're going to have your first child or start a family. And I want you to continue being the good person you are and fighting for what you believe in and being great to your friends. And I believe in you.
MERAJI: That is so - I don't know. I've heard that before. I heard that when it happened, and it made me cry then, and it makes me tear up now. And I know that Tien sending this letter to her dad - this email, in this case - probably didn't inspire him to join her at a Black Lives Matter protest, but it obviously started to break down a wall that was up between them. And, you know, that wall was created by a lot of things - a language barrier, cultural and generational misunderstandings.
CHOW: And what the letter did was remind them that maybe they get each other way more than they thought they did. And honestly, Shereen, like, this whole episode, it just makes me want to call my dad.
MERAJI: Me, too. So let's wrap this up and go to that, OK?
CHOW: Sounds good.
MERAJI: You've been listening to the CODE SWITCH podcast. I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.
CHOW: And I'm Kat Chow. Our producer is Walter Ray Watson. Our editors are Alicia Montgomery and Tasneem Raja. Our news assistant is Leah Donnella.
MERAJI: And special thanks to our teammates, Gene Demby, Karen Grigsby Bates and Adrian Florido and our ace interns, Ericka Cruz Guevarra and Hailey Blastengame (ph). And a big thanks to all our immigrant parents. Thank you, Dad. And we had original music this week by Ramtin Arablouei. And you can find the team on Twitter - @NPRCodeSwitch. You should definitely subscribe to our podcast wherever fine podcasts can be found. And we want to hear from you. Email us at firstname.lastname@example.org. And we're back next week.
N. DANG: Thank you, everyone.
T. DANG: Thank you, Daddy.
N. DANG: Thank you.
T. DANG: Love you.
N. DANG: Me, too.
T. DANG: Bye, everybody.
N. DANG: (Speaking Vietnamese).
Thank you. Bye. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.