“I can’t breathe”—were the last words spoken by George Floyd, a 46-year-old Black man who gasped for his final breaths while a police officer pressed his knee down on Floyd’s neck in Minnesota, leaving him dead shortly afterwards.
As the day has gone by since Floyd’s death, many protests have drawn tens of thousands to the streets in more than 140 cities in the United States. In the wake of a chain of tragedies that have resulted in the deaths of Black Americans due to police brutality, Black Lives Matter—the collective that campaigns against violence and systemic racism against Black people—is becoming more powerful than ever.
On the other side of the globe, there are various opinions within the Southeast Asian communities in response to the movement. As a non-Black people of colour, some of us have chosen to turn a blind eye. On the other hand, some think that we should stand up for #AllLivesMatter instead—since the Asians and Black are both parts of the oppressed.
While we can’t deny that we might have been largely discriminated against during the pandemic or even on a daily basis, we must also remember that we are never targeted because of our skin colour and we are never be seen as a violent threat by the police and authorities.
What’s even worse is that we are not equal to Black people: Truth to be told, we have also actively perpetuated the anti-blackness within our own communities.
In Southeast Asia, the notion of achieving the “light-coloured skin” by using a variety of skin-whitening products is very common. According to market research publisher Global Industry Analysts, the global skin-whitening market was valued at US$4.8 billion in 2017 and is projected to hit US$8.9 billion by 2027 with Asian countries serving as major contributors. This image of a skinny, and fair-skinned woman that is being depicted as ideal for women was created based on the ideals of Western beauty, and has created the stereotype of dark-skinned people as the “less pretty” ones.
This belief exists not only rooted in the beauty industry, but there is also a deeply ingrained notion that associates dark skin with poverty or outdoor labour, therefore associating skin colour to the hierarchy of socioeconomic status. This has led to the belief that the whiter your skin is, the better and richer you are.
And if that’s not enough, the demonisation of darker-skinned people has further led to racial discrimination in our wider society. In Malaysia, the African population has been actively growing, and the locals often stereotype them as “illegals” and “criminals” due to the existing prejudice. In Indonesia, the racist abuse and mistreatment towards Papuans have been deeply internalised in the culture and national history. Meanwhile, Thailand is also found guilty for the racist advertisement run by Dunkin’ Donuts showing a woman in “black-face” makeup.
Given all these cases, we, Southeast Asians, are not innocent. We must be held accountable for our internalised anti-black racism and our complicit silence. We must acknowledge the colourism that is ingrained into many of our mindsets across the countries. We must not stand in the place of bystanders and watch other innocent lives got taken at the hands of authorities or vigilantes. It is not enough for us to be non-racist—we must be anti-racist. It is not Black versus. White: it is everybody against racism. If we can stand together with our other Asian fellows—Hongkong protests, Palestinian struggles, Arab Spring—then why can’t we stand hand in hand with the Black community?
To be in solidarity with them, we have the power to unlearn and relearn by educating ourselves. We cannot speak in their positions, but we can always change our view on how we see their positions. Only by understanding the roots of systemic racism, would we be able to fully support them and become their allies. Below are some links that can guide you through this.
How to Be an Antiracist by Ibram X. Kendi
Why Are All The Black Kids Sitting Together In The Cafeteria? And Other Conversations About Race by Beverly Daniel Tatum
Blackballed: The Black Vote and U.S. Democracy by Darryl Pinckney
Black History Month Library compiled by Charles Preston
Floodlines from The Atlantic
Intersectionality Matters! from The African American Policy Forum
https://www.vice.com/en_asia/article/4ayvew/george-floyd-was-held-down-for-almost-3-minutes-after-he-went-unresponsive-and-had-no-pulse Vice.com: The complete timeline of the fatal arrest detailed
https://www.nytimes.com/2020/05/31/us/george-floyd-protests-live-updates.html the New York Times: Cities on Edge as Fires Burn Near White House
https://theaseanpost.com/article/anti-blackness-southeast-asia the Asean Post: Anti-Blackness In Southeast Asia?
https://nmaahc.si.edu/learn/talking-about-race/topics/being-antiracist Smithsonian: National Museum of African American History & Culture