Anti-Blackness in Asian communities must be addressed
By Nathan Canilao
In the summers when I was a kid, I waited for the sun to go down before I went outside.
It was safe to do so. I lived in a five-house cul-de-sac with a Spalding basketball hoop in the front and neighbors who were as nice as could be. My street was mostly middle-class families who plowed the snow in their driveway in the winters and watched the Bears play on Sundays. Down the block was a K-8 school. Police officers routinely patrolled the streets while kids played ball and rode their bikes.
So why did I wait until sundown to go outside? Well, for starters, Chicago summers were hot and humid. A bit of relief didn’t come until the sun made its way toward California. But mostly because my mom would always complain if I went to play during the day. It worried her.
“Why do you have to play outside now?” she’d ask. “It’s hot and you’re going to get dark.”
I didn’t understand what it was all about. I just listened to my parents, like any good kid. But every summer until my teenage years, I’d wait for the sun to set and the Chicago heat to calm down and then go outside and play.
Yes, you read that correctly. She was worried I was going to “get dark.”
As a teenager, I learned what she meant. Her fear was my skin getting darker.
This is common in Asian-American communities. For some, such concerns are but a tasteless joke. For others, they legitimately do not want their kids to have darker skin. Either way, it is one of the biggest microaggressions that exist in our community.
I’ve come to understand the great harm in this toxic behavior. It’s not only a troubling adoption of problematic beauty standards, preferring lighter skin, but it also hints at how many in the Asian-American community regard African- Americans. Anti-Blackness is not confined to racist whites waving a Confederate flag, or even to white people. But people of color also buy into the nation’s anti-Black history, including in the Asian-American community.
The essence of my mother’s concerns is rational. It doesn’t take much to see the struggle and treatment of African-Americans in this country. You can’t consume modern media, or participate in the public education system, without getting some idea about the history of the hostile relationship America has had with Black people. Of course, my mother wouldn’t want that for me. Of course, she’d want me to do things to avoid being grouped into such a fate. It makes sense. But it came with great expense as we were complicit in systemic oppression.
These colorism standards, the preference for lighter skin, was a type of thinking passed down from my grandmother, who learned it from her mom, who learned it from her mom. These ideologies can be traced back generations. Like many countries, the Philippines was colonized by a European power, specifically Spain. With them came the teachings of Catholicism and also the notion that dark-skinned Native Filipinos were inferior to their light-skinned counterparts.
This, of course, created a demand for lighter skin.
Fast forward to the modern day. Those paradigms still exist and are echoed in the traditions and cultures of Filipinos. Young girls, like my mom, were taught if they wanted to stay beautiful they needed to be as close to white as possible. The more melanin you were born with, the uglier you were considered to be by society.
Obviously, this produces all kinds of issues in young Asian-Americans girls. Some went to extremes to not look dark. In the Philippines, young girls use whitening creams and even bleach their skin. The World Health Organization said a common ingredient in these whiteners can cause kidney damage. Ghana and Rwanda are among the countries that have banned skin whitening products. Still, the skin whitening industry is expected to top $31 billion by 2024.
But beauty is only part of the equation. Colorism produces an anti-Blackness spirit that leads to stereotyping, discrimination and prejudice against Black people. Older generations of Asian-Americans tend to believe a lot of the tropes propagated about Black Americans.
For young Asian-Americans like myself, it wasn’t uncommon to have a talk with our parents about having Black friends over at the house. Comedian Jo Koy talked about this in his special “Jokoy: Live From Seattle.” His mother used to tell him to hide her purse while his Black friend was over at his house. It was funny the way he told it, and many of us can relate, but it is indicative of a grander issue.
If having a Black person over the house was a problem, imagine the reaction to dating an African-American. The traditional views on this matter underscore how deep the anti-Blackness runs. If a woman of Asian heritage dates a white man, she will be regarded as a success by many in her community because dating a white man is seen as an accomplishment. A symbol of success. Dating a Black man? The grilling would be instant as the decision would be met with disapproval.
Progress is happening, though, especially with the younger generations of Asian-Americans. Over the summer of 2020, hundreds of protests broke out across the country over the death of George Floyd, an unarmed African-American man from Minneapolis. Millions of people from all walks of life showed in support of the Black Lives Matter movement and the young Asian- American population was represented. These protests also sparked demonstrations aimed at problems in the Asian-American community as well.
The “They Can’t Burn Us All” rally held in San Francisco, Seattle and Los Angeles were protests about racism and discrimination against Asian- Americans during the COVID-19 pandemic. The rallies reiterated the need for Asian-Americans to unite in support of African-Americans as they fight for equality in this country, especially since whatever strides have been made by the Black community tend to benefit all people of color. The Asian-American community is among those still benefiting from those movements' progress made during the Civil Rights Movement in the 60s.
The solutions are never so obvious and easy, but there are ways to combat anti-Blackness in the Asian community. One of them, according to psychology professor E.J. David Ph.D. from the University of Alaska, Anchorage, is challenging peers and relatives when they express anti-Black views.
“You can challenge their beliefs by appealing to their values and pointing out commonalities,” David said. “Making them think more critically by asking them where they got their information from and possibly engage in a productive conversation that explores their biases.”
The only way to combat these microaggressions is to talk about them. While the history of anti-Blackness in the Asian- American community is long and entrenched, it still must be addressed because the struggle for equality in the Black community is just as much of our fight as it is theirs.