On building an anti-racist consciousness

06/10/2020

I am writing to denounce a local instance of racially offensive media that hurt members of the Asian American/Pacific Islander community in West Marin, and to use the example as an entry point to educate readers on how to begin to create an anti-racist consciousness. While I write with the encouragement of fellow Asian American/Pacific Islanders, these opinions and word choices are uniquely mine and are not meant to leave the impression that our community has a monolithic mind. 

Sir and Star’s “Oriental House of Beauty Chinese Shelter Suppers” have offended many in our community. I do not wish to publicly shame the restaurant, but I feel it’s important in the current climate to learn lessons that we can apply to the fight for justice in a broader scope. We must lean into discomfort in order to learn and grow; speaking openly about race is not an inherently aggressive act.

The advertisements for the dinner series on Nextdoor and Instagram featured photographs of a Japanese mother and child holding the imperial Japanese flag, a group of Chinese children with queue ponytails, and a Chinese takeout container with the hashtags #orientalhouseofbeauty, #misohungry. The business removed the ads from Instagram after one person complained.

The images were found offensive for a number of reasons, including their use of the Japanese imperial flag, which would have flown above China during the violent Japanese occupation, to sell Chinese food, and the characterization of different Asian heritages as the same. The ads perpetuate stereotypes through the image of Chinese people with queue ponytails, which is the predominant depiction of Chinese people in American media and is continuously used in anti-Chinese propaganda. They used Asian people out of context to sell food, and used the hashtag “misohungry,” which simultaneously fails to differentiate Japanese and Chinese cuisine while referencing a quote from an exhausted depiction of Vietnamese people in the movie “Full Metal Jacket.” 

The word “Oriental” is an outdated term frequently made synonymous with exotic; it contributes to the “forever foreign” view of Asian Americans, and has been removed from use by the federal government. Finally, the menu features dishes drawing from Korean, Japanese, Thai and Mexican cuisine, all under the umbrella of Chinese takeout, which erases the diversity of Asian communities and categorizes us under one identity. These mischaracterizations show a lack of respect for Asian Americans in a community already racially isolated. 

There were back and forth sentiments in my community over whether a public statement was the correct response. Ultimately, I moved forward for a few reasons. First, I recognize the political roots of the identifier “Asian-American,” a term founded in the ’60s to bridge struggles of different Asian diasporas in the fight against white supremacy. It is from those roots that Asian-Americans must uphold our responsibility as an oppressed community to fight in absolute solidarity with black liberation. Second, an apology only holds weight if there is ownership of the offense; I fear a silent deletion of posts lacks a record of accountability. Finally, many in our community saw these advertisements and either did not understand why they were offensive, found them offensive and said nothing, “liked” them on social media, or financially supported them. 

In the absence of an actively anti-racist culture in West Marin, we cannot truly say we support the movement for black lives. To be anti-racist means to proactively fight racism, not to simply disapprove of it after the fact. It is to start from the understanding that our community—in the most racially unequal county in the state, as ranked by the Advancement Project California—is structured on racism because America is built on and maintained through racism. From this understanding, we give up power, time and wealth to change these structures. 

Sometimes responses and emotional reactions can be misinterpreted as action. In looking at our local example, it is not an action to say you think Sir and Star’s posts were wrong; it is an action to ask the business to remove the posts. It is not an action to talk with your children about racial injustice; organizing parents can petition school districts to adopt the Black Lives Matter curriculum for K-12 education. It is not an action to post on social media that you support the abolition of police; it is an action to demand the removal of armed rangers from the Point Reyes National Seashore. These actions require work, and personal and social discomfort, for the benefit of non-white communities.

Educating yourself—watching documentaries, listening to podcasts, reading books and attending lectures—are only prerequisites to taking action. From your education you should be able to synthesize direct actions based on which structures need to be changed. Nor is marching an anti-racist act; in fact, participating in a peaceful protest can leave an individual with a dangerous feeling of unearned righteousness. Marching and protesting are crucial steps, but to hold a sign that says “Black Lives Matter” for an afternoon and return home without forfeiting power, wealth and time for structural change only succeeds in freeing the protestor from some level of guilt or responsibility. Marches and protests must be moments of finding community inspiration and energy that propel us to donate, organize, make phone calls, send letters and identify pillars of oppression that we can topple.

Our community, like our country, is capable of adopting an anti-racist consciousness if we are willing to address issues of race openly, even if it means sacrificing power, time, wealth or comfort. If you have not given money to an organization fighting for black liberation, do so now as a first action. Then, reflecting on how radical our past collective inaction has been in response to injustice, we can swing back with sincere and committed actions that are just as radical.

 

Scott Chang-Fleeman is a Bolinas resident and vegetable farmer.