Last week, a large group of protesters passed in front of my apartment on O Street in the Georgetown neighborhood of Washington, D.C. The loud chants calling for justice in the wake of a Minneapolis police officer killing George Floyd were infectious and it truly felt like change is on its way. This isn’t localized just to my neighborhood in Washington, D.C.; it’s a moment of rebirth spread across the nation. But there’s one group that has been actively missing from the front lines: Non-Black minorities.
One quick look at the hundreds of pictures documenting nationwide protests will reveal that in a sea of Black and white, there is disproportionately low representation from Asian-American, South Asians, and Hispanic communities. But this isn’t just a matter of optics: Non-Black minorities in this country have been silently complicit in the oppression of Black communities. Among the four police officers charged for the death of George Floyd, Asian-American officer Tou Thao has a history of complaints made against him. Why, even then, did we not see an unprecedented condemnation coming from the country’s Asian community? This isn’t the first time: In 2016, after the shooting of a 28-year old Black man Akai Gurley in Brooklyn, thousands of Asian-Americans stormed streets across the country. However, this wasn’t to seek justice for Gurley’s killing but rather for demanding forgiveness for the Chinese-American police officer who shot him. Protesters supporting the officer claimed that “Life matters,” and, “Justice for all.”
At the same time, standing behind Black Lives Matter has been met with hesitation from many non-Black minorities. Terrence Johnson, associate professor at Georgetown University and author of “We Testify with Our Lives: Black Power and Ethical Turn in Politics” explains that “there’s a deep denial among some Asian-Americans, South Asian Americans, and Hispanics of their own complicity in reinforcing white supremacy. In far too many instances, they benefited from the political gains Blacks struggled to achieve in the late 1960s.” How could these minorities fight racism against Black communities when they have themselves failed to confront their anti-Blackness? Within safe spaces, derogatory racist remarks geared toward Black people are a toxic trope in the living rooms of many South Asian families in America and beyond. Colorism and the pursuit of fair skin — exemplified by skin lightening products still sold in family-owned ethnic stores across the country — are marks of the latent tumor of Black-targeted racism living and breathing among us. Locker-room talk on the perceived evils of affirmative action in college admissions and of diversity hiring in corporate America is normalized as a given.
I am not negating the struggles of non-Black communities in modern America: South Asians have widely suffered from Islamophobic discrimination, Latinos have undergone systemic violence in their own neighborhoods, and Asian-Americans have been reduced to the label “model minority.” Given their shared experiences of discrimination, one would think that non-Black minority groups would show undisputed allyship with the Black community. In 2019, scholars at the University of Kansas theorized that “members of a given minority group may at times feel a sense of solidarity with another minority outgroup, which can catalyze confrontation on behalf of that outgroup.” Similarly, researchers at the Steinhardt School of Culture at NYU found that “minority groups express similar or more favorable attitudes and political support toward a minority outgroup.” But this is hardly the case. In fact, it is inter-minority racism that has dominated the discourse of race relations between these groups. Aminatta Forna, director of the Lannan Center for Poetics and Social Justice at Georgetown University, detangles this phenomenon. “America is a post-apartheid country,” Forna said in an intereview. “Each group had its place in the hierarchy, whether or not that was codified in law. Today some people are still trying to hold onto that and so there is a certain amount of jostling for position over who stands next to the white man.”
The reality is: the Black experience in America is laden with oppression and systemic injustice — and while non-Black minorities continue to have their own challenges, we will never truly understand the fear, anger, and threat to life that Black people face on a daily. That said, it is not conducive to compare suffering. What we should compare, though, is privilege.
I am of Asian descent but went to an affluent boarding school in Europe where the student body had a sizable people-of-color population from the Middle East, Asia, and Africa. We grew together in a multicultural, cosmopolitan environment and joked that we “don’t see color.” This was our way of showing unity amid diversity. It wasn’t until I returned to America to start at Georgetown that I realized how this statement was loaded with an offensive amount of privilege. Not “seeing” race means failure to acknowledge the traumas that people of color and their ancestors have faced through oppressive power structures. I immediately remedied my thinking, putting my privilege in check.
This is exactly what non-Black minorities need right now: a self-awareness of our privilege and our relative power in an overall unjust system. That is step one. Step two is to leverage this clout to explicitly and irrevocably stand behind communities that are most susceptible to systemic injustice. Seeing our Black counterparts as competition rather than coalition will never solve the plague of structural, institutional bias and prejudice. It is inevitable that in the coming decades, people of color will form the majority demographic in America. The responsibility to rectify, reform, and regulate our racial tendencies is greater than ever.
Ali Shahbaz is a recent graduate of Georgetown University.