I’m Rebecca Carroll and this is Come Through: 15 essential conversations about race in a pivotal year for America.
I’ve been thinking a lot about allyship recently. Not just the commitment to showing up for each other, but how the actual word “allyship” has been co-opted by White America. Like diversity, intersectionality, and wokeness - allyship has become a buzz word that mostly white people use to signal that they’ve “done the work” of learning about the hardships experienced by certain marginalized people; it’s a word that’s supposed to demonstrate that they’re on the side of the arc that’s slowly bending toward justice.
Now, I am absolutely certain that most White folks who use this word in this way truly believe they are allies. But witnessing inequality and being a genuine ally are two very different things.
For instance, back in 2017, in the days that followed the women’s march, a lot of White liberal feminists in Brooklyn were very eager to tell me that they were my ally. And yet, none of them demonstrated any awareness of how the feminist movement has historically centered and prioritized White women. Honestly, it was insane to me. And the pink pussy hats were just… super… extra.
So here’s how I define allyship: If I’ve got it, as in resources or power, and you don’t, then you do now. If someone with moral integrity is in need, and I have whatever it is that they need, then I’m gonna share. Whether that’s money or time or the use of my platform. To me, allyship has been far more present and meaningful among other people of color… people who, because of our lived experience of being marginalized, have worked to support and lift one another up, for decades.
This sort of allyship has been at the forefront of my mind ever since the pandemic hit, especially as we’ve seen this blatant uptick in anti-Asian and anti-Asian American racism. It’s been perpetuated by the president of the United States, who continues to refer to Covid as the “Chinese virus,” and also by other politicians, including Arkansas Senator Tom Cotton, who recently suggested that Chinese students that come to America shouldn’t be allowed to study science.
The Black and Asian communities each have long been the targets of American racism. They also have a very real history of conflict between them. And at this moment, I want to know: how do we protect others when we’re in survival mode ourselves? So I reached out to my friend Jeff Yang...
Jeff is a regular contributor to CNN and Quartz. He also hosts the podcast They Call Us Bruce - an unfiltered conversation about what's happening in Asian America with Phil Yu, who founded the blog Angry Asian Man.
Jeff lives in LA because his son, Hudson, was a star in the ABC television series Fresh Off the Boat, which just ended its sixth and final season in February. But Jeff and I have known each other for years. Back when he still lived in New York, we’d often meet up for drinks and commiserate over the whiteness of the journalism industry. And as allies, we also frequently pushed each other to get a better and deeper understanding of our very different perspectives as a Black American woman and a Taiwanese American man.
Rebecca: Hi Jeff!
Jeff: Hey Rebecca, how are you? I miss you.
Rebecca: I am well, I mean, I miss you too. I mean, I’m well-ish, you know?
Jeff: I think everything right now is kind of ish, right? I mean, we are in the ish.
Rebecca: Yeah, in all the ways that ish exists. Um, so what are you doing? Like, what’s the day-to-day like for you and your family?
Jeff: Well, you know, I have the two kids and, uh, my wife. Actually, oh hey, that’s new. I got married right before the Covid.
Rebecca: I was just going to say! Fantastic. Congratulations.
Jeff: Thank you, thank you. It was accelerated a little bit because of, uh, the circumstances, but it was definitely good to be in shelter with someone who can be a partner and who can share the pain and challenges mutually and carry the load mutually. At the same time, of course, it’s kind of tough to have a honeymoon or an extended honeymoon that involves basically staring at screens, sitting next to each other and trying not to distract one another on parallel Zoom calls.
Rebecca: Right, right, right, right.
Jeff: So that’s life, yeah. And of course kids, right? So trying to get them to do schoolwork in an environment that is incredibly not conducive to that and to take things seriously, even though things feel remarkably alien and weird and surreal right now is a bit of a challenge.
Rebecca: So before we get into talking about your kids and kids and parenting at this time… I want to, um, I want to address, you know, the podcast that you co-host with Phil, you know, claims to offer an unfiltered conversation about what’s happening in Asian America. Um, and I know that you’re sensitive about being the voice of your community as I am. Uh, as we folks of color are always expected to represent an entire, same-featured, perceived monolith of people. But at the same time, what is happening in Asian America right now? Can you give me a pulse check?
Jeff: Yeah, it's, you know, it's rough. I think that one of the things we're becoming very aware of is that the conditional proximity we have to whiteness, if you will, to acceptance. Uh, in the context of, I guess what some might call an assimilated, uh, reality gets very rough when the world goes into crisis and when America especially, is tuned to facing a threat that precedes beforehand. And we have not seen something quite as explicitly directed at targeting patients or at vilifying Asians or at essentially racializing crisis as intensely as we have today. So for Asian Americans, and again, I can't speak for all Asian Americans or even all East Asian Americans or all Chinese Americans, but I can say that from my very personal basis, I have encountered these things. I have seen in its lowest, most subtle form, perhaps, the extra social distancing that one gets when one is Asian, especially with one on one is Asian wearing a mask. I've seen the stairs and the sort of edge in a way that occurs if you happen to actually clear your throat. And I actually had an incident where somebody very explicitly aimed what I can only translate as a kind of racialized, uh, somewhat more than a microaggression, right? A circumstance in which I was waiting outside of a supermarket on line, you know, six feet away from everybody else as everybody does these days, and somebody shouted a profanity and I looked up, realized they were facing me and that person pulled down her mask. She was wearing a mask, coughed theatrically in my direction, and then ran off to her car. And it took me a few beats to look around and realize I was the only Asian on this line. I'd traveled outside of my neighborhood, gone to a Trader Joe's up North in, uh, in paler country. And it was distressing. I found myself having to really process the fact that this was no longer an abstract thing, but something that I had now seen firsthand.
Rebecca: So a couple of things here. The first is that you talked about the adjacency, the White adjacency, and the sort of assimilation factor that has happened and has been sort of at maybe the root of what, sort of saves, for lack of a better term, Asian Americans from suffering the kind of racism that Black folks have suffered, say, right? That there has been that, that sense of closer to whiteness. But there still was anti-Asian American racism before this. What is the difference between the kind of racism you experienced before the virus and the kind of racism you're experiencing now?
Jeff: It's a really really interesting question and I think that part of what has been interesting in some ways, especially in the wake of sharing the incident I had, was to see the layers of reaction from different groups. I think it points in a way to how anti-Asian bigotry or anti-Asian racism works relative to other kinds of racism. When I first posted this little anecdote about this kind of breathing-while-Asian moment, I got a fair number of people just sort of supporting and amplifying, which was really great. People from all backgrounds. A lot of Asian Americans who just sort of came clean and said, “You know, yeah, something happened to me as well. Uh, I was wondering whether or not to report it. It seemed kind of minor, but yeah this feels very familiar.” But I’ve seen a number of, uh, White people responding, “Oh, Asians are making this up. You’re making this up, you’re the new Jussie Smollette. Asians don’t get subjected to racism, et cetera.” Right? And literally calling out that idea, the comparison to Jussie Smollette, which I thought was particularly wrenching. But then, I mean, African Americans were largely incredibly supportive, while at the same time saying, “Yeah, this is kind of how it is for us all the time.”
Jeff: Which, fully acknowledge that. I think that the biggest separation in some ways between how Asian Americans experience racism and how African Americans, perhaps in particular or Black Americans in particular experience it, is that in America racism, of course, Black Americans is essentially baked into the infrastructure. It is part of what made this country what this country is. It is part of the prosperity of this country, right? Extracting value from Black Americans. And it's part of the way that this society works, essentially ensuring that those who are not Black feel satisfied with what they have by kind of pointing to the fact that Black people have less. I mean, that's just, that's just how, how our politics have worked on both sides of the aisle in many cases. But for Asian Americans, it's very much a sense of a particular kind of “othering” that feels cyclic. That feels really tempered around moments of externalized or perceived foreign threat that then translates into domestic impact. And we've seen that all the way back to the earliest days of Asian immigration to the United States, the Gold Rush era and the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was predicated on the idea that Chinese coming to America were stealing jobs and threatening our way of life, and well unassimilable, unhygienic, even, et cetera. But it's repeated at regular cycles, virtually every generation with war against Asian countries, with competition against Asian economic powers. And finally, in this era, I think geopolitical competition with China is seen as essentially the only other major super power that the United States is contending with. And then here we are now with Covid.
Rebecca: And so when you were standing in that line, right? Like, I feel like when I go to a store, and this is obviously a cliched way of describing anti-Black racism, but I anticipate that I will be looked at, that I will be watched, right? When I go into a store, especially maybe an expensive store. But when you were standing in line at Trader Joe's, did you anticipate that you would be looked at differently?
Jeff: That's exactly it. I think that I had the comfort. I had the privilege in some ways, in many ways, of not having to expect that this was going to happen, not having to be on guard for this to happen, that I could just be staring at my phone playing some dumb game or engaging in memes on Twitter or whatever and not worry that somebody was going to come over to me and harass me or ask me unpleasant questions or pull me out of the line. That is, I think, a certain reality, for most Asian Americans, I think, in environments that are predominantly White and for what it’s worth, I live in a predominantly African American neighborhood right now and usually go to our local supermarket, but that supermarket had incredible lines on that particular day, and I decided to venture north into a different neighborhood. And ordinarily it was something I would not have thought anything of. And I think the fact that I could do so… that I could kind of cross boundaries with little concern is something I very much take for granted. And I think a lot of Asian Americans take for granted.
Rebecca: And so how did that change you? What was your response in the moment and what is your response to that now?
Jeff: I think that in the moment, as much as I didn't want to, I felt a little bit shocked. I felt a little bit, sort of, “Why me?” or “What, what is leading you to call me out?” Right? And then after I'd processed it, and that’s after I recognized the racial component or the, the problem of racial component. Right? My first instinctive reaction was literally, I think the worst one. Right? Like, “Why would you think that I, of all people and of all Asians, right? Was somebody who could possibly be bringing this disease to you, right? Uh, I'm well dressed. I look professional, for all intents and purposes, seem of a socioeconomic status and immigration status that should insulate me from the kinds of stereotypes or projections that people were making.” But the reality is people don't stop to check your propers and your papers when they have a visceral reaction and when they want to actually cast race as it were, which sounds sort of Harry-Potter-esque casting ratio. So.
Rebecca: Yeah, it also plays into, though, our own kind of internalized notions of what or who is quote unquote bringing this virus here. Even you just saying, “When I processed the racial component of it…” That is deep, man. That's powerful. Like that means that there is a step for you between something happening and getting to the racial component. When for me it's one in the same. It's the same step.
Jeff: 100% and I sometimes think of it from the standpoint of how we're wired. I mean literally and figuratively in this sense, right? That, for people who've actually grown up immersed in a sense in which race has been a clear denomination, a clear dimension by which they're measured all the time, right? Where there isn't a sense of ability to tune that out, to filter out that signal, if you will. That ends up becoming very kind of low-level stuff that becomes something which is processed instantly by hardware, right? But for those of us who are privileged enough to generally not have to think about that all the time, you know? Growing up in areas where there is a substantial supportive community of people like ourselves where we can kind of vanish into the background or growing up at a socioeconomic strata where we can pretend that these differences don't exist, at least until they do, right? Then it's not baked into that sort of hardware level. It's almost like you have to absorb the input, you have to buffer it, right? They're sort of like buffering, buffering, buffering…
Rebecca: Right. Yeah, yeah.
Jeff: And then… what just happened? Something just happened and then you translate it, and once you've converted it into something you can parse, you realize, “Oh shit, that was just an incident.” So, yeah. Yeah.
Rebecca: And then what? Do you feel, I mean, this is… Asian American folks are going to come out of this, um, feeling differently than other non-Asian people. Would you agree to that?
Jeff: I do agree to that, but I think it's because we are already seeing the early signs of how this is going to be used, right? That this isn't just simply about visceral and individual reactions from the margins, from people who feel frustrated or hurt, from people who are economically anxious or something. This is becoming an establishment campaign, that this is something that at the very highest level of our government and from people who see this as a means for advantage, there is an active attempt that's beginning to put a face on this disease, to put a race on this disease. And we're going to see this amplify, I think, over the course of the next few months in ways that are very challenging to even predict, except to know that it's going to be bad. I think that, uh, the first signs of this were in the way that the very first ad that Trump decided to put out there in support of his own campaign, attacking his presumptive rival Joe Biden was literally about how Joe Biden is soft on China, and then within that ad, he, the Trump campaign, included a very quick frame of Gary Locke, the first Chinese American U.S. ambassador to China, standing in front of a PRC flag, a People's Republic of China flag. And that slightly, almost subliminal inclusion of a Chinese American blurring the line between Chinese Americans and Chinese. I don't think that's a bug. I think that’s a feature. I think that the way that the Trump campaign operates is to find a visible face to convert anger or frustration or disappointment with him, Donald Trump, into a route that people can actually reach out and touch and abuse and harass. It has been black women. It has been, obviously Mexicans and other, uh, Latinx individuals. And now we're up at bat. And I think that Chinese Americans and those who are often mistaken for Chinese Americans are absolutely being positioned as the new diversion, the new racialized diversion for Trump as he seeks reelection.
Rebecca: Yeah, I mean, I think about it as like the racist target du jour, um, you know, “of the day,” “of the moment.” And it's probably an odd sensation because, I mean, I think about often not being the stereotype that I'm targeted for. You know, not being that that woman, that angry black woman or the pushy black woman or, you know, like…. But I feel like when you're, when you're being looked at, I would imagine for you, you sort of, you're hyper vigilant about not being the stereotype you're being targeted for. Does that make sense?
Jeff: Yeah. I mean, the problem with a lot of these typings, these archetypes slash stereotypes is that they gain a certain amount of cultural currency and then we start inhabiting them, right?
Rebecca: Right. Exactly.
Jeff: We believe them or we react as if we are them, even though we are not, right? There are so many different ways in which, uh, that's especially true for Asian Americans. A lot of the, the in-jokes we make, for instance, really elevate the stereotypes that we try to push back on. The most dangerous one, at least in this time, I will say, I think is the one I sort of cross referenced. This sort of idea of the model minority that somehow, uh, as Asian Americans, we have done all the right things in this country. We have embraced and exemplified the American Dream and as a result, we deserve a certain kind of special treatment, right? Amongst the fields of Brown and Black, we are the ones who have stood forward and done the right thing. And, uh, and yes, that was a direct hat tip to Spike Lee. My, my feeling there is as much as we want to push back against that stereotype, that archetype, right? There are lots of little ways in which we still nevertheless embrace it as Asian Americans, as certain kinds of Asian Americans. Again, this sort of post-immigrant professional Asian Americans, and we often don't think about it. But if we talk about sort of buffering, right? Racial buffering, because that way we don't have to deal with it. Right? We can just assume that when we walk into, when we slide into a Trader Joe's or, you know, when we walk into a White neighborhood, that we're not going to be seen as, as outsiders, as foreigners, as a threats, et cetera. Because of that buffer. And for me, I do think that the biggest change coming out of that incident was a recognition. Maybe a deeper recognition, a more conscious recognition of the buffer and how it operates for me. I also feel that when we talked about the changes to Asian America, I would like to think that we all are going to start examining very carefully the kinds of promises that we have made to ourselves and the kinds of promises that this country has made to us. Because I think all of them, much like our proximity to whiteness and to the things that whiteness confers are conditional. And unless we actually start getting organized, unless we actually start building real coalitions both within and across communities of color, I think that we will soon realize just how conditional those are.
That’s Jeff Yang - coming up, how not to be racist. In just a minute.
I just wanted to take a second to tell you about a very special podcast from WNYC Studios. It’s called the United States of Anxiety and it’s hosted by my friend and colleague Kai Wright. The United States of Anxiety seeks to connect the history of America’s past and present with questions like: Who is the USA for? Who has control over whose body? Who gets to vote? And they just released an episode that digs deep into what it means to be an essential worker during Covid-19 and the ways Black communities continue to be disproportionately impacted by the virus. I’ll be playing a clip from the episode after the credits - so stick around and don’t forget to subscribe to the United States of Anxiety wherever you get your podcasts. And now, back to Jeff Yang.
Rebecca: I also wanted to talk about this really powerful quote that you gave in the LAist where you said, “For Asian American kids, that fear of being labeled as a bringer of disease, as unclean, as somehow dangerous — that's something which I really worry about. We don’t know what the impact on our kids will be until they're older.” How are you talking with your kids about this moment?
Jeff: It's a challenge. I think my kids are of an age right now that I, the older one, of course, Hudson is 16 and in many ways talking to him is a little bit different because he's been immersed in a lot of this conversation in very different and maybe even very adult ways. Right? But for my younger son it's a little bit different. Uh, Skylar. Because he's 12, he's very curious and inquisitive, and he also has, I think, had a lot of immersion into the way that conversation takes place online because that's the cohort, right? Where as much as you want to think otherwise, they are being parented by the internet in so many different ways. And I find myself first and foremost, trying to talk to them about the things that he has picked up and heard from other people, some of which is not just misinformation or active disinformation, but is incredibly troubling. Conspiracy theories sometimes, catching the edge of YouTube, right? Jokes and really ugly claims about hygiene and diet of Chinese people, et cetera. It's been harder to talk those things through in part because it makes me feel very unnerved to know that even at the age of what kids might be watching at age 12, this background radiation, these eruptions of the darker kind of Alex Jones-y side of the web, kind of sliding into their DMs. And I don't know what to think about that really.
Rebecca: Yeah. I mean, I keep thinking as a parent, you know, and um, Kofi, will be 15 in July. Um, I don't want to impress too hard upon him how to experience this. But I don't know I feel like as parents of color, there is an added level of anxiety about how to shepherd our kids through this pandemic.
Jeff: I mean, I have had anxiety about shepherding my kids through a lot of things.
Jeff: I don't think it gets easier. I think if anything it gets more complicated that we now really have nothing else but each other in so many different ways. It means that I feel sometimes like I'm, I'm walking on more eggshells, uh, walking more with a sense of perceived fragility around my kids because yes, I want them to be resilient. I want to be transparent and honest with them. So it's a burden and a responsibility, but it's one which I wish to God, there was a better manual, that they had some sort of template to work from, but I do not. My childhood was, you know, halcyon compared to this.
Rebecca: Yeah. Did you tell them about the incident at Trader Joe's?
Jeff: Yeah, uh, I told Skylar. I told everybody about it when it happened. And then, Hudson, of course, he's actually on Twitter. So he saw some of the reactions and responses, so we had conversations about that. Hudson in particular mentioned that while gaming, that he had actually heard some people use these kinds of terms, use this kind of language. Skylar said, “Oh yeah, you know, someone's passing a meme around our school which made jokes about Chinese people and Covid.” It just, it shocked me a little bit not how blasé they were, but how more tactile a lot of this had already been for them than it had been for me.
Rebecca: Right, right. Um, speaking of coalitions of people of color and tropes and et cetera. I wanted to revisit a conversation that you and I had. I don't know, I want to say like six years ago now? Um, when I shared with you a story about a coworker at the time, and she was Asian American. She was kind of racist toward me at work. She openly undermined my work and intelligence and suggested I was a liar and said it was presumptuous to ask for this raise that I had been promised, among other things. And I was like, “But Asian Americans can't be racist, right?” And you were like, “Um, actually…” You really, like, broke it down for me, which was really, really super important because it, I just didn't know. Do you remember what you said?
Jeff: I don't remember the exact words, but I'm sure they're not too different from what I would say today. You know? So much of, uh, even what we've just been processing here in this conversation leans into this reality that when, when one goes in and seeks the camouflage, right? Uh, when one seeks to earn the stripes, uh, of acceptance, a lot of times that means putting on other kinds of racialized uniform, right? You know, there are no ways in the kind of racial economy we have in the United States where one group of people of color is allowed to advance without stepping on the backs of other people of color. The system is not constructed in a way to allow that. And for Asian Americans, again that notion of model minority, that notion of zero sum competition ends up getting kind of baked into how many in our community, all of us to a certain extent, are socialized by this culture. And it takes a lot of recognition and a lot of work to get over that and to confront it and deal with it. And frankly, it's hard work. It's, it's work. A lot of people don't feel like they have the time to, they're too busy working to get ahead. And again, whether or not that devolves to people around them is not necessarily their highest priority. I will say that, uh, more than anything, I feel a little conflicted about the best way to move forward in a time like this when there is explicitly a risk that Asian Americans are experiencing that's different from that of other people of color, right? We want to expect solidarity. We want to expect a sense of common bond, a common burden. But then I look back and I say, “Have we done that as Asian Americans when others have faced similar or different kinds of risk?” And while I do think there are many people in our community who have in fact stood up… Is it enough? I'm not sure that it is.
Rebecca: You and, um, Phil like to use the tag phrase, “Don't be racist.” Which, you know, I mean, it's flipped, but it's also like, “Don't be racist!” Right? I mean, what does that mean?
Jeff: I will say, uh, that's definitely more of a Phil thing than me in part because I don't want to, uh, steal his tag phrase in some ways. It was Angry Asian Man before it was They Call Us Bruce, but I certainly endorse the idea that, you know, just don't be racist. Right? Uh, at the same time, it isn't as simple as that in many cases. Racism is not about what individual people do. Racism is about what a society is, right? So when we say don't be racist, we're really saying, “Don't act in a fashion that is so frequently encouraged. That is so freaking socialized into us by our racist society.” Right? The reality is all that's going to do is change an act, a moment. All that's going to do is prevent the application of something that we already know is widespread. It's like banning people from a country when the virus is already in your society or population. That is, that is the fact. We're not going to change things unless we change. We won't flatten the curve unless we actually do a broad-based lockdown and sheltering-in-place, uh, against racism.
Rebecca: What do you think is the essential conversation we should all be having right now?
Jeff: If I could have everybody talk to you, Rebecca...
Rebecca: You’re very kind. Jeff, thank you.
Jeff: I miss you so much.
Rebecca: Hopefully we’ll be able to visit one day again.
Jeff: Was going to say that. Yeah, I absolutely cannot wait for the shadow to lift a little bit and for us to be able to visit one another physically again, once more.
That’s Jeff Yang. He’s the co-host of the podcast They Call Us Bruce. You can follow him on twitter @original spin.
Christina Djossa and Joanna Solotaroff produce the show, with editing by Anna Holmes and Jenny Lawton. Our technical director is Joe Plourde, and the music is by Isaac Jones. Special thanks to Jennifer Sanchez.
I’m Rebecca Carroll - you can follow me @Rebel19 for all things Come Through - and - if you liked the show, please rate and review us. And now, as promised - here’s one of my favorite clips from United States of Anxiety - a conversation between producer Veralyn Williams and her father:
VERALYN: My dad is one of these people that are still going to work because he's an essential worker.
KAI: What kind of work does he do?
VERALYN: He works at FedEx.
DAD: I basically run the store and I have more into the graphics section. But because of the Coronavirus, all the companies around us, they all closed now. So we don't do any of that's right. As we speak. Shipping is what we're doing now.
VERALYN: He takes a lot of pride in being able to do this in this moment where everyone is trying to connect in this way.
DAD: We're doing a great service to the public because a lot of people come in. Their mom is in another state. They're worried that they don't have enough supplies of food, mask. You know, they come and we can get it done the next day.
KAI: We still need things delivered. And so that is an essential service.
VERALYN: It's true. But here's the thing. My dad is Black. He's 62 years old and he's diabetic. So these are all factors. That means that if he were to get Covid-19, he would probably not do too well with it.
KAI: And he's in the Bronx. That's one of the places where we see there's so much both infection and death in New York City.
VERALYN (w/ dad): When you leave your house, like, how do you prepare for being outside?
DAD: I leave my house around 7:00 and I walk to the train station just about a 10 minutes walk. And there's hardly anybody in the streets. Everyone is quiet. There's nobody there. But then when you go down to the subway, then there's a whole bunch of people and will have to jump on the same car and go to work. And we're all sitting there looking at each other. We're trying to stay away from each other. It's almost impossible.