Do Asian Americans have a Race Problem? Asians and African Americans in Baltimore, Ferguson, and Beyond. 

NPR: Baltimore Unrest Reveals Tensions Between African-Americans And Asians (April 30, 2015)

One dimension of the Baltimore protests in April that has received little media attention is the looting of some Asian American businesses during those protests. This piece from National Public Radio fills in some of that reporting gap. Asian American business owners also experienced looting in Ferguson. And of course, many Korean Americans remember quite vividly the kind of looting that took place in L.A.’s Koreatown in 1992, in response to the Rodney King incident. The looting against Asian American businesses in Baltimore, I think, should once again push Asian Americans to think more seriously and soberly about our often fraught relationship with the African American community.

Let me be clear. In what I am about to write below, I am in no way insinuating that Asian Americans are purposefully setting out to profit off of African Americans. Many Asian American business owners are decent, honest, and hard working persons trying to make it in the U.S.

But considering how some Asian American businesses fared in Baltimore, it would be irresponsible of Asian Americans to ignore the kind of question that we don’t seem to want to discuss more openly in a sustained manner (at least in my opinion). The question is this: are Asian Americans insensitive and perhaps willfully ignorant of the problem of race in America, specifically racism against African Americans? To the extent that some African Americans in Baltimore involved in the looting of Asian American businesses suggested that those shops deserved to be vandalized underscores the urgency of the question.

Now of course, no one deserves to be vandalized. What I am trying to call attention to, however, is whether the looting that took place against some Asian American businesses in Baltimore and beyond is symptomatic of a kind of racial tone-deafness among some Asian American small businesses and Asian Americans more generally. I realize that I may be embarking on some very sensitive territory here, but again, it’s a topic that Asian Americans need to discuss more openly as far as I’m concerned.

So let’s start with this proposition. So long as Asian Americans continue to open and operate small businesses in poor and working class African American neighborhoods–laundromats, liquor stores, convenience stores and so on–then Asian Americans need to be a greater part of the neighborhoods in which they do business. Many Asian American businesses owners do just that, but many do not as well. To those who don’t, it’s just not good enough to show up in the morning and then leave at the end of the day without being meaningful participants in the life of that neighborhood. That may be asking a lot from folks who are simply trying to make a living, but it’s not really and shouldn’t be seen as an added burden. Otherwise, we should hardly be surprised if Asian Americans doing business in these communities are perceived as contributing to the economic exploitation of African Americans. If this proposition doesn’t resonate among Asian Americans business owners, then I encourage them to ask why. And in doing so, I am encouraging all Asian Americans to think about racism, whether at the unconscious level or not.

Here’s a reality check: Asian Americans are not immune to racism. By racism I don’t just mean racism against Asian Americans. I don’t want to understate the the persistence of discrimination that many Asian Americans experience routinely. But as much as we need to make more visible the kind of subtle, often covert racism Asian Americans are subject to, we also need to face the reality that we can (and do) dish out the same to others.

One thing that concerns me greatly is the extent to which Asian Americans may be reinscribing, knowingly or unwittingly, patterns of bias against African Americans, especially against economically disadvantaged African Americans. The social forces that may facilitate and bolster such reinscription are complex and varied. In a book chapter that will be coming out later in the fall, I attempt to parse out one possible social force. Specifically, how the desire to assimilate or gain recognition as a peer (or, simply, to “make it”) in mainstream, middle class America, coupled with the actual rise of Asian American educational achievement and economic affluence, can too easily create a false sense that Asian Americans can be a part of American society while being apart from the larger American narrative of racism.

I may post more details about that chapter when it is published in a few months. For now, all I want to emphasize is the following. An attitude that Asian Americans need to guard against is that racism is not an Asian American problem but the problem of others, specifically, between White and Black Americans. But the reality is much different. There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting a good education and living a comfortable life, but so long as you live in the U.S., you cannot insulate yourself from racism. The challenge is discerning how you and your community are plugged into it. That Asian Americans continue to experience discrimination is one way we are plugged into the narrative of American racism. (On that front, there is a good deal of research that strongly suggests the purported integration of Asian Americans into the mainstream has far from eliminated racism against Asian Americans.) But we also need to think more about whether Asian Americans are plugged into that narrative as racists or unwitting perpetrators of racism.

Coming back to the more specific instance of Asian American businesses in economically challenged neighborhoods of color, here’s a revised version of my earlier proposition. Inasmuch as Asian Americans are part of the American narrative of racism, how Asian Americans conduct business in a particular community of color without regard for that community’s history can reinforce and perpetuate patterns of bias against that community. That’s why doing business is never simply a “value-neutral” act. Business is never just business; this applies to Asian American businesses as much as non-Asian American businesses. Such is the reality–the historical reality–of American society.

A few statistics from from a 2012 Pew study should raise hard questions for Asian Americans. The study finds that 61% of Asian Americans say they get along “pretty well” with whites (26% say “very well”). In comparison, 48% of Asian Americans say their group gets along with African Americans “pretty well” (15% say very well). The Pew study then reports that “Korean Americans have an especially negative view of group relations with blacks.” Only 39% of Korean Americans surveyed say they get along “pretty well” with African Americans (and just 4% say “very well”). From these statistics, I wonder about the extent to which Asian Americans are becoming/have become more socially disconnected to African Americans. Whatever the causes of that disconnection, may it not be the case that greater the disconnection, the greater the insensitivity to the kind of racial legacy and realities African Americans face on a daily basis? Let’s resolve to have this conversation in a sustained, honest, and open manner.

Originally posted on, June 2015

Racial Aesthetics: How Asian Can You Look to be American?

Racially or ethnically specific baby dolls from the company that makes the American Girl line of toys–apparently very popular, at least based on the lines that form in front of the midtown storefront (in Manhattan) during special events. (My 3 year old daughter seems to like these dolls a lot too.) I get why the American Girl company made these baby dolls, and I get why some kids and their parents prefer them over the “traditional” American girl doll (traditional meaning white). In other words, it makes sense for a little kid to have a doll that looks like her. But there’s the rub. Do these dolls look like an Asian American kid or a Latina child? The doll on the top left is suppose to appeal to Asian American girls–note the “almond eyes” description. My daughter has that one. When I first saw the actual doll, my initial reaction was, okay, maybe it looks Asian. But then when I saw the picture of the doll next to the Latina doll (see the picture top right), I began to wonder what the American Girl company is trying to do with these dolls.
Both dolls on top look pretty much the same. Am I completely off the mark on that? Perhaps more interestingly, the top two dolls don’t look all that dissimilar to the one on the bottom right, which is suppose to the Caucasian doll.

I was more amused than anything else when my daughter received her American Girl baby doll. The doll, especially in relation to the picture of the other ones, is a tad funny looking. Amusing or not, the dolls do reflect, I think, the kind of racial dynamics at play in American society. On the one hand, the increasing sensitivity to difference and the affirmation of diverse identities. On the other hand, respecting difference within the context of whiteness. The latter dynamic is the more subtle and covert dimension of the American experience of race and can be studied in the comparison of the American girl dolls.

My feeling has always been that American society is quite willing to embrace racial and ethnic differences but under certain, often unspoken, stipulations. This observation is not entirely original; we all probably can observe what I mean by flipping through a magazine or watching some commercials. Black is beautiful, but not too black please (Halle Berry, anyone?); nothing wrong with being Asian so long as one doesn’t look too Asian (read: foreign). Perhaps that explains, in part, the popularity of skin whitening and eyelid surgeries among some Asian and Asian American communities. Looking and being different is fine, even to be celebrated, to the extent that difference is modeled after and conforms to “white” standards of aesthetics and “mainstream” or “traditional” American values.

I have nothing against American Girl dolls; my daughter loves playing with hers, and a lot of other girls seem to adore them too. Nothing wrong with childhood joy. But these American Girl baby dolls are indicative of powerful racial forces in American society. An Asian American girl playing with an Asian American-esque baby doll–why not? Empowering, isn’t it? That she can play with a doll that looks more like her provides subtle affirmation of who she is. But what kind of message is covertly communicated when the doll that supposedly looks like her looks more like the white doll, the main difference perhaps being the color of the dolls’ hair? How about this as a possible message: It’s great to be Asian American, but not too Asian American. To be one of us (i.e., American) is to be more like that other doll, white and whatever social and cultural meanings that may be presumed and affirmed with that whiteness. Is this all too sinister? Or, is a baby doll just a baby doll?

Originally posted on, June 2015