Letter for Black Lives: Asian American Activism in the Black Lives Matter movement

“Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie, Grandfather, Grandmother: we need to talk.”

These are the opening lines to the crowd-sourced Letter for Black Lives. In the wake of the Philando Castile and Alton Sterling shootings, Christina Xu posted two tweets urging Asian American supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement to speak with their families and communities. This call quickly evolved into an open Google document through which a number of second-generation Asian Americans collectively wrote a letter to their families and communities on the importance of this movement. Within a week, the letter had been translated into over twenty languages. This movement of Asian American millennials successfully addresses and acknowledges two key challenges in Asian American activism that have been discussed in our readings.

First, as Leslie Bow points out in Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion, the ethnic homogenization of Asian Americans may be used to perpetuate racial exclusion or to promote pan-ethnic alliances. The strategies employed by the Letter for Black Lives movement succeed in utilizing the collective Asian American identity to garner interest and involvement in the movement while still acknowledging differences in experience and identity within the Asian American population. The project aims to address heterogeneity within the Asian American population not only through translations of the letter, but also presents the letter as a starting point from which other Asian Americans can adapt the letters content to the specific needs of their family and community. The original authors state on the website that “every family has a different experience, and this is merely a resource for you to use. That’s why this letter, and its translation are published with a CC0 Public Domain [waiver] anyone can use any part of it, though we’d appreciate a linkback.” At the same time, the use of the broad category of Asian American allowed a larger population to identify with the movement. Both this crowd-sourced approach to the writing of the original letter and the use of public domain encourage a sense of collective ownership in the project. While the encouragement for the adaptation of this letter by individuals attends to potential variations in experience or identities like ethnicity or nationality, the project has also expanded to address some of these differences themselves. For example, the sign language video version of the letter appears to be an attempt to acknowledge differences in ability.

Second, the considerable attention paid to this project in the media and over social media breaks the stereotype of quiet, subservient Asian American men and women. As Yen Le Espiritu explains in the final chapter of her book Asian American Women and Men: Labor Laws and Love, both Asian American men and women are represented as feminine beings. In turn, this feminization serves to demonstrate their marginalization and to characterize them as the passive “model minority.” Such characterizations of Asian Americans, particularly Asian American women, have heavily contributed to poor visibility in politics and political movements (for more on this, see Esther Ngan-Ling Chow’s essay “The Feminist Movement: Where Are All the Asian American Women?”). While other minority groups have since become involved in the project, writing new versions of the letter like the Open Letter from Latinxs to Our Families, Asian Americans remain at the forefront of the movement. In particular, the originator of the movement, Chinese American Christina Xu, has remained as a key face in media coverage of the project.

Where this project may still fall short:  While the Letter for Black Lives project provides important visibility for the Asian American millennials that stand behind it, they also appear to reflect the demographics of Asian Americans who have been historically involved in political organizing. Looking through the editing comments on the Google document, I read conversations filled with topics such as the Immigration Act of 1965, Racial Formation Theory, and intersectionality. These Google document comments, along with the individuals I have seen involved in the project on my Facebook newsfeed, give me the members in this movement are largely college educated and middle to upper class. However, I must acknowledge that there are many involved who did not write directly on this Google document and that I cannot make assumptions based upon what I have read or seen on the incredibly limited view that is my Facebook newsfeed. 



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