Editor’s note: this is a longer version of John Wood Jr.’s Braver Angels Member Newsletter of Sunday, Feb. 13th. -LNP
I received a message recently from a friend of mine at a prominent university. The campus was in uproar over incidents of anti-Asian hate speech by a member of the student body. It was interesting to note, however, a subtle divide—between Asian student activists assertively demanding change from the administration alongside traditional activist groups, and traditional Asian student organizations who eschewed demonstration in favor of quiet talks with college officials as a means of addressing the problem.
That did not surprise me. It points to the delicate relationship that exists between Asian-American identity, black culture, the culture of black activism, and black cultural activism’s power to adjust mainstream American social norms as effectively as popular black culture has otherwise inspired them.
Joe Rogan is no stranger to controversy. But after already having diplomatically avoided explicit contrition in response to charges of spreading misinformation with respect to the COVID-19 vaccine, the world’s most popular podcaster then offered a fulsome apology for his history of using the N-word. A highlight reel of Rogan liberally employing the term was compiled and published in light of the other controversies surrounding him. Of the video, Rogan said “it looks f***ing horrible, even to me. I know that to most people there is no context where a white person is ever allowed to say that word…I agree with that now.”
I imagine Mr. Rogan is perfectly sincere in his apology. Given that it seems he never used the term maliciously, some are arguing such repentance should not be necessary. Whether necessary or not however, Rogan’s apology demonstrates the immense social pressure that comes down upon Americans for racist behavior generally and perhaps for anti-black racism in particular. This has to do with the fact that the modern antiracist movement, while intersectional, is largely a product of a fierce tradition of activism in Black America that has come to inform the larger culture of social justice for all marginalized groups in the present day. This leads to sensitive cultural conflicts that most Americans never consider, including between African-Americans and Asian-Americans.
Another celebrity who has recently had to navigate very different charges of anti-blackness is the popular actress Nora Lum, popularly known as “Awkwafina” (Crazy Rich Asians, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings.) After she called out the longtime Hollywood practice of casting Asian actors to fit clumsy stereotypes using stereotypical accents, Awkwafina came under fire by activists, including many African-Americans, for hypocrisy. She herself is widely understood to employ a “blaccent”— simply put, many people thinks she talks Black. It is a part of the personality that has gained her success in the entertainment business. And many now feel this success is exploitative.
It’s true that Nora Lum speaks in a dialect that could easily be called black, but it might be more appropriate to call it a dialect inspired by Hip-Hop culture. Hip-Hop is so closely related to urban black culture, in the modern American mind, that there is a degree to which all this may sound redundant.
Yet as Awkwafina pleaded the purity of her intentions, as Rogan did in his response, she made reference to her “immigrant background,” “the movies and TV shows I watched,” and “the children I went to public school with” as allowing her “to carve out an American identity.”
She went on to say: “…as a group, Asian-Americans are still trying to figure out what that journey means for them—what is correct and where they don’t belong.”
In her Twitter response Awkwafina went out of her way to express deep empathy for the black experience and what she feels to be the reality of systemic racism, without ever actually apologizing for her way of speaking. That left many dissatisfied. But Awkwafina grew up in Queens in the 90’s and early 2000’s. She was surrounded by black and brown kids listening to Hip-Hop, melting into the culture that enveloped her and finding a home in it. On some level, is she now being asked to apologize for her very identity? Is her very identity on some level exploitative appropriation of the culture of others?
On the group level the relationship between Black Americans and Asian-Americans is more complicated than many people realize. As a young black boy in a multicultural suburb, it just so happened to be the case that most of my closest friends were Asian. I was surrounded by Korean kids who excelled on the basketball court and by Filipino kids who rapped and dressed in baggy pants. For that matter, I also knew white kids who had “n-word passes”—white kids who wielded an “urban” dialect and used the n-word freely within their circle of black friends (and for Joe Rogan, a person who established himself as a young comic in the close company of black comedians like Dave Chappelle, I can imagine how his comfort with the term might have evolved).
All of this was incredibly normal to me, given where I grew up. As I grew older, and moved into a predominantly black neighborhood, the tensions between Korean (and Indian and Pakistani) shop owners and black people in the community became visible to me.
“Can’t stand these Asians!” I recall a middle-aged black man in front of a liquor store shouting following an argument with the attendant or store owner. “They wanna hide behind us in prison, but treat us like sh*t on the outside!”
He was referring to a phenomenon where, in prison life, because tribal associations are so often necessary for survival, outnumbered Asians will sometimes ally themselves with black prisoners against other groups. (Similarly, whites who have no history of white supremacist prejudice or affiliation have been known to join ranks with white supremacist groups in prison as a matter of survival.) The fact that Asians own far more businesses per capita in inner-city black communities sets the stage for the friction “on the outside” that the man referred to.
But outside of poorer communities, these tense dynamics between blacks and Asians often persist, and along similar lines. Like other groups who advocate for equity and justice within the broader rubric of antiracism, and like other groups who have been historically marginalized in American history, Asian activists have pledged themselves in a common cause with African-Americans in intersectional coalitions aiming at social justice. Yet immigrant Asian communities have embraced assimilation into mainstream academic and institutional culture traditionally, an approach that, in spite of racism, has represented a path forward for Asians in the United States. Meantime many black Americans feel (for many historical reasons) that this approach has been unavailable to most people of our hue. As such, the idea of Asians as the “model minority” points to a deeper comfort or investment in the norms and structures of white society that make Asians unreliable or even opportunistic allies in the larger fight for racial justice. Some Asian-American student activists have even said this about their own communities.
Yet who is to judge? There are no villains in this story. It is true that African-American culture—through food, song, dance and so much more—has authentically inspired non-black Americans and enriched American and even global society, even as many African-Americans have felt that their very culture has been commodified, diminished and exploited by powers that neither truly understand nor respect it. It is true that Asian-Americans have an American experience that has been marked by the bitter sting of racial oppression in ways that are reminiscent of the struggles of African-Americans, while also having a unique (and, within the catchall category of “Asian,” incredibly diverse) American experience unto themselves that differentiates the Asian community’s relationship to black and white America from black and white Americans’ relationship to each other. And it is true that Asian-Americans, white Americans, and all Americans are grappling with shifting norms over race and language that present no easy answers as to how we reconcile cultural sensitivity with our right to free expression when we feel our hearts are in the right place.
This is why, as important as it may be for us to reflect on or challenge the behavior of others, we must also we abide by the moral wisdom of Martin Luther King Jr., who wrote “…the important thing about a man is not his specificity but his fundamentum, not the texture of his skin but the quality of his soul.” That may sound like just another King quote. But think about its implications; that the quality of one’s soul bespeaks the purity of one’s intentions. It does not mean that one does not make mistakes. But we all make mistakes; a changing world ensures that we will continue to make them, and that they will not be easy to see in the moments when they are made. This is true for black, white, Asian, Latino and all of us alike. We all must hold the balance. When we believe we are right we must advocate, or defend ourselves, with the courage of our convictions. When we see that we are wrong, we must have the humility to apologize. But most of all, when others acknowledge their mistakes, we must have the decency to forgive. In an ever more diverse and complicated society such as ours, it is only through the balm of understanding and forgiveness that we may nurture our way towards liberty and justice for all.