Letter for Black Lives: Asian American Activism in the Black Lives Matter Movement [Revised]

“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. Since then, another crowd-sourced document, entitled “Strawmen,” has emerged to discuss common responses to the letter and recommended strategies for addressing these concerns (i.e. “We have our own problems”). While this movement of Asian American millennials successfully promotes pan-ethnic action and breaks the stereotype of quiet, subservient Asian Americans, it still remains an inappropriate activist response for myself and many other Asian American millennials.

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. Furthermore, as damaging as the ‘model minority’ myth may be for Asian Americans, it carries some value in its ability to counter conservative, racialized characterizations of the Black Lives Matter movement and its participants as violent and reactionary.

Furthermore, as Leslie Bow points out in Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion, the ethnic homogenization of Asian Americans may be used either 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.

But despite all of these successes, I never have and likely never will share this letter with any of my family members. While we may not own Priuses, my family fits comfortably into the San Francisco mold—with a ‘socially liberal but fiscally conservative,’ ‘post racial’ view of the world. In other words, they’re liberal on the surface of their Facebook activity, but I don’t try digging deeper in conversation unless I am prepared for a fight. To my parents, handing them this letter would be no different than handing them a note saying, “you’re racist.” I can practically anticipate them listing off all of their Black friends after reading the third sentence—“ You may not have grown up around people who are Black, but I have.” Instead, I tried to use both the letter and the “Strawmen” document to prepare myself for such conversations this Thanksgiving break, rather than handing them this letter.

Additionally, while the framework of this project allows for adaption for more targeted audiences, the Korean letter is a direct translation of the original letter and therefore fails to consider any ways in which Black Lives Matter applies more specifically to the Korean American community. For example, while the “Strawmen” document briefly mentions African American violence towards the Korean American community in Los Angeles during the 1992 Rodney King Riots, there remains no mention of this topic in the Korean translation.

Overall, continuing to create and push for movement such as Letters for Black Lives is not only important, but necessary. This project not only fights against anti-blackness and police brutality within our country, but also succeeds in fighting back against issues of visibility and stereotypes of feminized subservience for Asian Americans. Identifying the ability of this project to garner amongst Asian American millennials while beginning to address intersecting issues and identities will be important as we (hopefully) move into the next four years of strong political and social activism.


2 Comments Add yours

  1. meiiumayo says:

    love seeing other asian americans confront the antiblackness in our community


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