I spent my freshman year at Texas Christian University. It was a year filled with quiet struggle, feeling hyper-aware of my ethnicity as I walked through a sea of naturally blond hair wherever I went. It was a year of repeatedly hearing casually racist remarks that fell too easily from the lips of my white “friends.” Time and time again, they made racist jokes because they enjoyed seeing their friends of color enraged. No matter how hard students like me tried to explain why their comments were fucked up, they would laugh and return to their lives unbothered. In most cases, the arguments ended with me having no choice but to walk away. They wouldn’t listen to reason—it was all a game to them.
None of it was a game to me.
Around February of my freshman year, I made the decision to transfer out of TCU. I was only one small Asian-American girl with a few allies fighting an institution—an institution filled with students, professors, and administrators who had no understanding of their privilege and who upheld values of white supremacy, racism, and anti-blackness.
It was a hopeless battle with no end in sight. I was exhausted after a year of fighting to be seen and heard by my peers to no avail, so I chose to tap out. I left that space to occupy a new one at a different school, one that was far more conducive to my trajectory of academic and personal growth.
I must acknowledge that it was thanks to my privilege that I was even afforded the option to leave TCU. I come from a financially well-off household. I received a good high-school education. My parents paid for a private college admissions counselor who guided me step by step through applying to universities. While I was in high school, my father met the former TCU Dean of Admissions in first class on a flight; years later, when my time to leave TCU came, he gladly submitted a letter of recommendation as a supplement for my transfer applications. My family was able to pay for the cost of my transfer applications, moving halfway across the country, and my tuition. I wouldn’t be where I am if it wasn’t for my financial privilege.
If I wanted to, I could stay quiet. I could say absolutely nothing about the Black Lives Matter movement. I could watch the world burn around me and not care. I could ignore the massive unrest and injustice taking place and return to my life unaffected. My ability to look away in and of itself is privilege. I am privileged because my life is not directly affected by the murders of George Floyd, Breonna Taylor, Ahmaud Arbery, or any of the other thousands of Black lives taken by racism; their family members are not so lucky.
But Black people don’t have the option to look away. Black people can’t ignore the protests or the civil unrest and return to their lives unbothered and unaffected, because their lives are the ones at stake.
The Asian-American community has shown itself to be deeply divided over Black rights recently. Much of this division stems from the model-minority trope, a mythical narrative that white people have tricked us into believing, that—as writer Sarah-Soonling Blackburn states—Asian-Americans are “polite [and] law-abiding and have achieved a higher level of success than the general population through some combination of innate talent and pull-yourselves-up-by-your-bootstraps immigrant striving.” It is a direct handout of pseudo-privilege intended to plant seeds of colorism and anti-blackness within the Asian-American community. White people “lifted us up” as a tactic to shove Black, brown, and Indigenous communities further and further down the socioeconomic hierarchy. By pointing to us as the ideal and saying “if they can do it, why can’t you?”, white people place the blame for socioeconomic shortcoming on Black, brown, and indigenous people’s backs and thereby avoid their own responsibility.
The world watched Asian-American police officer Tou Thao stand by, complicit, as Derek Chauvin slowly and painfully strangled George Floyd to death. Black people have watched this happen, in person and on screen, too many times. They watched as a fellow person of color, a person they thought might have stood up for George Floyd, a person who they thought would stand in solidarity with them, allowed a Black life to be lost to white supremacy.
Asian-Americans, where is the pain you felt when Trump labeled COVID the “Chinese virus”? Where is the disappointment you felt when white Americans abandoned small Asian-owned businesses and restaurants out of fear of catching the virus? Chinese-Americans, why are you devoid of the anger you feel when you think back on the Tiananmen Square Massacre when crowds of Black Lives Matter protesters in New York City get run down by police vehicles? Where are the hurt and rage you felt when you were called a chink when non-Black people call Black people the n-word? What exactly is holding you back from extending your empathy to Black, brown, and indigenous people?
I am angry. I am tired. I am in pain. My Asian and Asian-American siblings, check yourselves and your privilege. The model minority was designed by the white majority to divide communities of color. Do not let them do so. They know we are strong when we stand in solidarity with one another and that is exactly what they are afraid of.
White and non-Black readers, check yourselves and your privilege. The choice to stay silent and remain unaffected is a privilege. I have seen too many of my white friends with suspiciously locked lips, and I wonder: are these people really my friends if they won’t stand up for people of color? This is your reminder that your silence is not comforting—it is a red fucking flag.
Black people are tired. Black people are angry. If you aren’t, it’s because you are privileged.
By Kalena Chiu
Photo by Carlos Barria