One of the most striking moments of racial solidarity during the Black Power movement of the late-1960s is immortalized in a grainy photo of a young Japanese man donning the iconic leather jacket and black beret of the Oakland-born Black Panther Party. One hand is raised to the air in a clenched fist, a symbol recognized around the world to represent the power of people’s movements and the possibility of liberation; in the other hand rests a poster board sign that reads, “YELLOW PERIL SUPPORTS BLACK POWER.”
Unfortunately, this striking moment turned out to be merely that — a moment. When Huey P. Newton and Bobby Seale, the co-founders of the Black Panther Party, asked Richard Aoki to speak about the infamous US policy of Japanese-American internment, they had no idea that this “Japanese radical cat,” as Seale called him, had been an informant of the FBI since 1950.
With Black radical organizations and other militant left-wing social movements that operate above ground being stomped out through state surveillance and violence, the ways in which the Asian diaspora can exercise anti-Black racism and enforce white supremacy look far different than they did in the 1960’s and 70’s, today taking a more systemic fashion in culture, politics, and economics. If we are serious about Black and Indigenous liberation and putting an end to white supremacy, it is incumbent to point a critical eye at anti-Blackness and white supremacy in our communities.
Moving into a large university with a truly global student body, the most interesting moment of “culture shock” I experienced was the concept of an “Asian babyboy” (ABB) or “babygirl” (ABG). In fact, I didn’t even hear the term until nearly halfway into my second semester on campus and becoming more involved in Asian spaces.
ABB or ABG is a tongue-in-cheek meme among college-age Asians — particularly East Asian — people which refers to some of the trends they see develop. These include thick eyeliner, getting tattoos, adopting high fashion, and frequenting the boba tea spot.
This may seem like a fun and harmless trend, however the most outstanding yet unrecognized aspect of the ABG/ABB archetype is the appropriation of Black culture by adopting a “Blaccent” and wearing makeup look and clothes that Black people are often derided for. It’s not cultural “exchange” when communities adopt elements of another culture and claim it as unique to them. Asian celebrities like Awkwafina or Aziz Ansari’s use of African American Vernacular English, also known as AAVE or Ebonics, are models for the double standard that exists between Black and non-Black communities.
Cultural appropriation is one of the more mundane but nonetheless significant examples of anti-Blackness in the Asian diaspora, itself being rooted in material systems like the structure of the economy, government, and other societal arrangements. Other forms include the aspiration of greater Asian representation in oppressive institutions such as the police, military, or the political and economic ruling class.
Not unlike the story of Richard Aoki, the young FBI informant, is that of Tou Thao, a Vietnamese-American Minneapolis police officer who stood by as white officer Derek Chauvin killed George Floyd in 2020. Both were participants in violent arms of the state while simultaneously being from relatively marginalized backgrounds. An Axios article from 2021 bemoans the fact that Asian Americans are underrepresented in law enforcement, comprising about 2%, thinking this to be a form of systemic oppression against our community; rather, bolstering Asian participation in law enforcement would simply mean the diversification of state violence against Black people, mentally ill people and people with disabilities, and poor and homeless people — the latter three obviously include Asians.
Being an Asian accomplice in the struggle for Black liberation under white supremacy requires us to criticize friends and family members who join the police and military, the consequences of which implicate increased violence against marginalized people within and outside of US borders. It requires understanding that an Asian CEO or billionaire is not a win for the community when that position necessitates the theft of wealth from the working class.
It requires understanding that media which highlights Asian accomplishments such as Nextshark and Asianfeed are inherently counterproductive when they only showcase wealthy celebrities and media figures, and often exclude people of South, Southeast, Central, and West Asian descent. It is incumbent on us to highlight how capitalism and imperialism impoverish and prey on Asian workers and migrants as well as our Black and Brown siblings.
Reckoning with anti-Black racism in our community is a hands-on effort that requires confronting our community members and having honest dialogues on a level playing field.