Editor’s Note: The opinions expressed in this piece are solely those of the author.
A couple of weeks ago, I was captured on video talking about the importance of the Asian American community showing solidarity with the Movement for Black Lives. I was wearing my “I Can’t Breathe” mask and participating in a march with traditional Korean drummers. I became the viral “ajumma.” That’s Korean for a middle-aged woman.
I am not sure why that video took off the way it did. But I suspect it’s because so many people in the Asian American community are eager to stand up in solidarity for Black lives and against racial injustice. Many people like to think that African Americans and Asian Americans (and Koreans in particular) don’t get along. Indeed, politicians regularly try to drive wedges between our communities, particularly in the decades since the Los Angeles uprising in 1992 and the impact it had on the Koreatown neighborhood.
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But the truth is, our communities have so much more in common than people think. We are all people of color in a country that often treats us as if we don’t belong. We have all been oppressed in this country in various ways, Black people as a result of slavery, Jim Crow and systemic anti-Black racism, and Asian Americans because of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the Red Scare and McCarthyism, and anti-Asian hate brought on by the Covid-19 crisis. And we all want to see the United States live up to the values it espouses: liberty, equality and opportunity for all.
That’s what I was talking about in that video. I was talking about how my heart breaks when members of my community show they are blind to what we share with our Black neighbors. When my children were young and we lived in Oakland, we went to the protests that followed the brutal police killing of Gary King, Jr. in 2007. Gary and his friends were walking out of a corner store when an officer confronted him without cause as a “possible suspect” in a murder. He was tasered and was killed with two shots in the back. These issues are not new; they have been going on for a long time, and it is time to demand change once and for all.
My father grew up in the Japanese occupation of Korea. My mother’s family escaped from the North after the partition. They immigrated because my father was determined to live in a country where his family would not be treated as second-class citizens. Consider how and why most Asian Americans have immigrated to this country over time, and the story is the same. They wanted freedom from oppression. Freedom from fear.
But this history is too often forgotten today, leading to a lack of understanding of the struggle our families have endured. This results in a lack of empathy with Black Americans speaking out against our racist system. Indeed, there is anti-Blackness in our Asian community that we must work to undo. We can and must show up at protests. But we can also challenge structural racism and other forms of oppression by becoming better informed about fair and just policies that can help all of us, and step up to help dismantle racist policies and structures. For example, when it comes to policing, we can support options that can stop communities of color from being harmed or criminalized. We can also advocate for more investments in our communities.
I have dedicated my life to protecting and advancing the rights of people who are discriminated against and oppressed: sexual assault survivors, low-income women and their families, homeless people. And today I am standing in solidarity with Black communities that are rising up after the senseless murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery and so many others.
I am doing this because today’s protesters are crying out for our country to be the place that my parents and so many other Asian Americans envisioned when they set out for the United States. A place without oppression or hierarchy. A place where everyone truly has an equal opportunity to pursue happiness. And a place where the most vulnerable can find safety, support and solidarity with others.
To my Asian American community, at this moment, I say remember our history. And to my fellow ajummas, I say imagine these slain Black youth as your children. In another time or place, this could have easily been our truth. And it is now our duty to stand with our Black brothers and sisters and to say, “Enough.”
About the Author: Isabel Kang is a Korean American activist living and working in Los Angeles.