For Tufts University junior Liz Bishop, her winter break won’t just be a time to catch up with her friends and relax after finals. This year, her trip home to Los Altos, California, will include difficult conversations about class privilege and the Black Lives Matter movement with her Taiwanese mother.
This task seemed daunting. But after taking an Asian studies course at Tufts, Bishop realized she wasn’t alone in struggling to talk to her family about social justice issues.
“I know there’s interest in talking about anti-Blackness and talking about class at Tufts in the Asian American community, and I think that those are really important conversations to have,” said Bishop.
Economics have long been intertwined with racial issues in the United States. One of the most common stereotypes within the Asian American community is the concept of the Model Minority. (I wrote about this a few years back, but even then I didn’t fully understand the economic ramifications; see this and this.) To explain it briefly, the myth states that Asians are the ideal minority group, as they’re well educated, economically sound, and don’t cause much political unrest. They fit neatly into the American racial hierarchy, below Whites but above everyone else, as a group Whites can point to when they ask why other minorities can’t behave as well.
This myth creates conflict, as Asians would theoretically seek to keep other minorities below them, while Blacks and Hispanics would attempt to climb the ladder, creating competition with Asians. The Model Minority myth not only supports White supremacy, but uses Asians as a tool to keep other minorities oppressed. Supporters of the myth use the high educational and financial achievements of Asian Americans, as well as violent conflicts between racial groups like the 1992 Los Angeles riots or the Family Red Apple boycott in Flatbush, Brooklyn, in 1991, to paint a picture of American race relations rife with conflict. (Check out this New Republic article on the boycott but take it with a grain of salt—it paints neither Blacks nor Koreans in a particularly good light.)
According to Lai Ying Yu, a lecturer who taught the course Asian American Experience at Northeastern University, this picture is historically inaccurate. Yu cited figures like Yuri Kochiyama and Grace Lee Boggs, activists who worked alongside Malcolm X and many others to build bridges between racial groups, saying that those interracial coalitions get sidelined. Instead, Yu said, “what gets discussed is interethnic conflict or interracial conflict as being the true origin, as though there was something essentially in conflict between Asians and Blacks, versus a larger structure that has a lot to do with economic inequalities.”
Those connections between racial and economic struggles are what caused Uma Ventrakaman to start building a workshop on racial equality and economic justice.
Venkatraman is the education and outreach coordinator at the Asian American Resource Workshop (AARW), located in Dorchester. Through the AARW, she began running workshops on college campuses to educated the Asian American community in Boston. With her intern Suzie Kim, a Northeastern University student, Ventrakaman created a workshop centered on the intersection of economic and racial equality.
“We wanted the focus to be on economic justice, wealth redistribution, and how both of those things connect to our solidarity with Black communities,” said Ventrakaman. She and Kim put together a two-hour workshop and teamed up with Bishop to bring the event to Tufts University.
Ventrakaman guided nearly 40 participants through a conversation on economic inequality, while Kim used improv theater skits to help participants find ways to respond to anti-Black statements they might hear. Challenging attendees to argue against the phrase “All Lives Matter,” Kim suggested that participants attempt to understand where their families might be coming from.
Looking back, there’s tension “between the Korean community in LA and then the Black community,” Kim said, referencing the 1992 Los Angeles riots. “There’s a certain amount that I can understand the root of where that fear might come from, and it has to be acknowledged that yes there was hurt between our communities, but how do you start questioning and breaking down and moving past that hurt?”
One should treat these conversations with their families an entree into change, said Yu. “It’s hard to expect conversations to ever heal everything or to be revolutionary, but I think it’s an ongoing process,” she said. “It’s interesting when people approach it and say, ‘When I go to my parents to talk to them, I don’t even really know what I’m thinking.’ I think that’s OK. Because that acknowledges that you don’t need to know everything, and you’re not necessarily always the teacher to your parents.”
For Liz Bishop, her return home will give her a chance to try to have these difficult conversations with her mother. Taking into account her mom’s history—emigrating from Taiwan to Vancouver and growing up in a single-parent, working-class household before climbing the economic ladder—Bishop recognizes that she has an uphill battle in front of her. Like many working-class immigrants, Bishop’s mother struggles to understand why Black Americans can’t just work harder to achieve financial success.
While that change won’t come over night, Bishop still has hope that she can help her mom to see the larger power structures at play.
“Coming from that working-class background,” said Bishop, “there is empathy there and there’s connections that can be made. But I think going into those conversations there has to be a lot of thought put into it.”
This multimedia story was produced as part of WGBH News contributor Dan Kennedy's class in Digital Storytelling and Social Media at Northeastern University.