Five powerhouses came together on May 5 to discuss, dissect and define what it means to be American and how white supremacy led to the marginalized history of Black and Asian American people.
Hosted by Define American and featuring MSNBC’s Joy-Ann Reid, New York Times investigative journalist and creator of the 1619 Project Nikole Hannah-Jones, “Crazy Rich Asians” and “In the Heights” director Jon M. Chu, fashion designer and activist Prabal Gurung, and The Black List founder Franklin Leonard, the panelists offered groundbreaking dialogue on the current COVID-19 social climate and how it’s an important time to stand up for each other.
To start off the forum, Reid brought up the parallels between the Black and Asian communities from the proximity of the Chinese Exclusion Act and the fixation of lynching Black bodies.
From the way the virus is disproportionately killing Black Americans while giving Asian Americans a sense of not belonging and fear, Jones said there is a “synergy” between the two communities.
Keeping your head down gets you erased, she said.
White Supremacy and Tools of Oppression
Jones turned to history and how most Asian Americans immigrated after the end of the Civil Rights movement.
“Despite having no enduring legacy of legalized racial discrimination, [they are] yet often used against Black people as [the] model minority,” she said.
The model minority myth is a tool of white supremacy and comes in opposition to the Civil Rights Movement, she continued.
The immigrant experience is the same, as “Anti-Blackness is part of your Americanization process and if you want to succeed in this country, you certainly are not going to align yourself to those that are on the bottom — you are going to align yourself with those that are on the top.”
The concept of acceptance and “making it” in a white supremacist structure is that it’s “always temporary and conditional” and “only if you are useful to them.”
Jones compared it to President Trump needing a scapegoat for the administration’s widely criticized incompetence in dealing with the virus.
“You become just like every other ‘problematic race,'” she said, referencing the Asian American struggle.
Leonard chimed in with how there is a gate within the film industry and Hollywood that prevents Black movies from succeeding. This racism is born and sustained in Hollywood and only allows a few stories to get greenlit outside the narrative of Black people as criminals. Viewers, in turn, kept watching and browsing through the same specific niches on TV, like if an Asian show or movie is only meant for Asians, or a Black show or movie is only meant for Black people.
“Black Panther” was a massive win for the community, where Chu, self-described as a “baby activist,” talked about a feeling of solidarity and a feeling of “we made it,” when the “Crazy Rich Asians” cast hung out with the “Black Panther” cast.
“Half the reason I never made a movie about my own identity crisis was that I was scared I would say the wrong thing and I didn’t think there were other people out there who understood,” Chu revealed.
Gurung said “Crazy Rich Asians” made him cry because it gave him the validation that he didn’t know he needed.
The “justification” for greenlighting committees not making more Black movies despite their popularity within the U.S. is that Black faces aren’t sellable abroad — an absurd concept to Leonard because of all the people listening to Black music and rooting for Black athletes. He mentioned a time in Shanghai 2018, where he attended a series of meetings with Chinese filmmakers and saw a billboard advertising the latest iPhone with a dark-skinned Black woman.
It brought up three thoughts: (1) besides the racism behind the assumption that Black people can’t sell overseas, there’s “white racism over Chinese people” pushing that Chinese people are the racist ones; (2) there’s “double racism preventing Black movies from being made, [and] preventing Chinese people from seeing complicated three-dimensional Black characters in their movies”; (3) one that would “change the way the Chinese community in China [view] the Black people.”
Internalized Hatred Within the Community Due to Oppression
“When you realize colorism was a tool, systematically created, used as a tactic of colonization not just in the U.S., but all over the world, then you realize how useless it is to us and how useful it is to those who want to oppress us,” Jones said.
As a fashion designer who came to America for its perceived ideals, Gurung said he accidentally turned into an activist along the way.
There’s a divide with the Asians versus the “Brown Asians,” he said, and there are two things needed to combat it: (1) “to acknowledge that it exists and that we all participate in it. Acknowledge and unlearn”; and (2) “question it.”
“We have to recognize that some of our relatives may not be open to the idea of it because they’re so accustomed to the narrative set by the colonists,” he continued.
The cost of Gurung’s activism meant that he could have made more profit outside of the U.S., but he wanted to raise his voice about its issues.
“You might not be the most popular person in the room and you should be ok with it,” he said. “When you get that, ‘A Seat’ at the table, you ask and demand for more until it’s 50% or more minorities.”
The fashion designer talked about an experience he had with a white investor about one of his collections. Gurung wanted it to be about America and being American, however, was slapped with “how can you do that when you don’t even look American?”
Which brings up the question: Who gets to be American?
How Do You Define American?
For Chu, it’s “the dream of pursuing what you want.”
For Prabal, it’s “an appreciation and celebration of differences and not an apology.”
For Jones, it’s “anyone who believes they’re an American. Anyone who believes not in the inequalities that we have but the ideals on which we were founded.”
For Leonard, it’s “bridging the gap between the ideals we purport to represent and the way we’ve represented them since the country was founded.”
Leonard pointed out how there are only more benefits for solidarity between the Black and Asian communities in economic and creative growth — “There’s literally no compelling argument against it except racism and white supremacy.”
“If you’re not part of the community being oppressed against,” he said, “be the one to step up and say ‘hey man, not cool, it’s not just about me, period.'”
The Black List founder also stressed the importance of “[amplifying] voices that are not a part of your community to your community.”
“Consider following more diverse people: women, Asian community, Latinx community, people with disabilities, people with perspectives you might not be familiar with.”
Feature Image via Define American