Dear Baba and Mama
a letter by Yi-Ann Li
Dear Baba and Mama,
We’ve had tough conversations in the past few weeks and we’ve butted heads in the midst of this fight for social justice. “You are young and haven’t seen a fraction of the ugly things we have seen.” “We lived through the Cultural Revolution and saw its horrors--there are some things you will never understand.” I want you to know that I do not respect or love you any less for the viewpoints you have because I know that as immigrants, you have faced obstacles I will probably never face in my lifetime. I know you fled from China with hopes of clinging onto your vision of the American Dream: democracy, education, ability to speak up in the face of oppression, and a better future. And I know that the current state of this country must feel so disillusioning, when the faults in our system are exposed and you feel like you have walked from one place of chaos right into another.
I wish to educate you more on the history of minorities in this country, and its relationship with the Black Lives Matter movement. I recognize the ingrained opinions you have through no fault of your own, and it is in my hopes to ease some of your worries through this letter. Because the truth is that even as Asians, our history is tangled with Black lives and Black history.
You have wondered why Black lives are receiving so much attention now, and why it seems like the attention is only focused on them—because as minorities, we too, have experienced much discrimination throughout American history. The attack on Vincent Chin: a man beaten to death in the 1980’s. We were once banned from immigrating to the United States. And during this COVID-19 pandemic, many of our Asian brothers and sisters lost their businesses to prejudice or were beaten in the streets. I understand any discomfort you feel towards the spotlight on Black Lives Matter, because to be banned from entering the country implies the malice in the ones who orchestrated it. You wonder why we should be supporting Black lives now; because if Asians were able to face our initial hardships and make it to where we are now, why can’t Black people do the same? We’ve worked our way to a “good reputation” (as stated in the “Model Minority Myth”). Why should we support them now? Where was our “special attention”?
The fact is that we owe many of our freedoms, and maybe even our reputation today, to Black activists from the Civil Rights Movement in the 60’s. In 1882, the Chinese Exclusion Act banned Chinese laborers from immigration into the U.S. Not even fifty years later, the Immigration Act of 1917 banned all Asian, Mexican, and Mediterranean people, among many other ethnic groups, from entering the U.S. This was shortly followed by the Immigration Act of 1924; it created a quota which prioritized European immigrants and effectively made it impossible for Asians to immigrate, for the sake of “preserving the idea of American homogeneity” and to uphold the image of a “white America.” We were never even given a chance to exist in this country for more than a century. So how did we finally make it in? How did we go from not even being allowed to step foot into America, to becoming the “model minority” group?
The answer is the Civil Rights Movement. In popular culture, the movement is often portrayed as more of a “Civil Rights for Black people” movement. But, it actually included much more than just Black people. Even though the people who led this movement were mainly Black activists, it was a fight for rights for all people of color, The grassroots founders of this movement, who inspired the rest of the nation to fight for equality and uplift the voices of minorities—including Black people, Hispanic and Latinx people, Asian people—were Black: Martin Luther King Jr., Malcolm X, and Rosa Parks.
The Civil Rights Movement’s incitement was marked when four Black college students sat down in a segregated lunch counter in Greensboro, North Carolina, and ignored the “whites only” signs as well as the demands to move. This act of defiance towards segregation inspired the other acts that followed that you may have heard of, such as Rosa Parks refusing to give up her seat, as well as Martin Luther King’s arrests. History books, news media, and popular culture like to say that it ended there: the Black community defied the Jim Crow discriminatory laws, Martin Luther King, Jr. gave his “I Have a Dream” speech, and then America fixed its mistakes. Towards the end of the movement, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965, which prohibited racial discrimination in voting. This, in legal terms, and according to the Constitution, means that no one can be denied the right to vote because of their skin color. This means that Asians, Mexicans, Mediterranean’s, Middle Eastern individuals—all people of color could no longer be denied the right to vote. It was just unfortunate that at the time the Voting Rights Act was passed, many other people of color (including Asians) could not immigrate into the U.S. yet. What America didn’t teach everyone is that the Civil Rights Movement did not stop there. In fact, the Civil Rights Movement gained so much momentum in the 60’s that it became much more than a movement for only “Black rights.” These activists wanted to tear down the idea of a “white America,” and fought for human rights in general.
Shortly after the passage of the Voting Rights Act of 1965, Congress then passed the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, which abolished the quota and restrictions on immigrants based on race and country. This is when the second part of the story of Asians in the U.S. begins.This is the act that allowed Asians to immigrate into the country again. This is the act that welcomed Asians, Latinx, Mediterraneans, Jamaicans, Malaysians, Filipinos, etc… into America once again.
In 1968, the 14th Amendment of the Constitution was passed. This amendment extended “equal protection of the laws” to all individuals of the United States, effectively stating that people of all colors in the U.S.--including Asians--were to be guaranteed the same types of protections. “You haven’t faced real oppression.” And it’s true; I haven’t faced the same oppression you faced in Asia, because legislations like these prevent us from reliving those shackles you sought to escape.
Then in 1969, the 15th Amendment of the Constitution was passed. Many people view this as the Amendment which wrote into the Constitution African Americans’ right to vote.Once again, there is more.. The Amendment states that the right to vote cannot be denied based on race or color. This means that all people of color can now vote—including Asians and Hispanics and any other minorities newly admitted immigration into the U.S. And when you felt like you didn’t have a voice before across the ocean… this amendment gives you the voice in democracy you tried to fight for in China.
As you can see in our history, much of the freedoms Asians have today are entangled with the history of Black activists fighting for human rights. I hear you when you say that you have faced racism and discrimination. I hear you when you say you have faced obstacles I can only dream of as you fought for a better life for me. And I cannot thank you enough for uprooting your lives in your home country for the chance of a better life for your children here. But it cannot be denied; we would not be here today if it were not for the battles that the Black community fought sixty years ago. It was the Civil Rights Movement, started and led by Black people, fighting for rights for all people of color, that allowed the Immigration Act to be signed, allowing Asians back into the country. It was the black community that fought for legislation leading to the 14th and 15th Amendment, which now guarantees us and all minorities the same protections the white people of America have had for centuries. Those Black people marched in the streets for the laws that helped us be here today.
And then when Vincent Chin, a Chinese man, was murdered years later in 1982, and Asian Americans rallied to fight for justice—just as people are now marching for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Elijah McClain, and countless others—Black people joined us in those streets. They marched alongside us and joined the American Citizens for Justice—a civil rights organization for Asians. Then in 1984, the U.S. District Court finally sentenced the man who murdered Vincent Chin, marking the first time Asians had marched for justice for one of our own, and then was protected in court for it. Those marches that Asians organized in 1982 were inspired by the Civil Rights Movement, and sparked an interest in activism among the Asian community for the years to come. We were joined by the Black community, who had marched before in 1965 and knew what it was like, and who inspired a whole new generation of Asian activists to continue the fight for minority rights.
Now, Black people need our help. Yes, Asians still face hardships. As do Latinx, Indigenous people, and so many more people of color. The Coronavirus-inspired xenophobia is just one example. But supporting the Black community in their fight doesn’t invalidate our struggles. We see you. We hear you. Other minorities face hardships, but as we fight for Black people now, others will fight for us, too.
Racism is still prevalent today, including microaggressions on the basis of race. Even though on paper it says all minorities have the same rights, we still feel like outsiders through the little moments in our daily lives. You know this from the stories I tell of classmates mocking me about eating dog, asking me where I “really” come from. You know this from the times I came home crying in middle school, hating how my eyes looked. You know this from how much more effort you have to give in your workplace to progress as far as the white man in the cubicle next to you. But although the work isn’t finished, the Civil Rights Movement paved the pathway for a future in which everyone has equal lives regardless of their race. Black people were here for us before we were even allowed in this country; and now that they need support, we can only do our best to help them too. Stand with them for George Floyd, Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, and Elijah McClain, just as they stood with us for Vincent Chin. Just as they stood sixty years ago for us to be here today. Black lives matter. Because fighting for Black rights and Black justice now—just like in the Civil Rights Movement—is part of a larger movement in America to tear down systemic racism and fight for justice for all people of color, which includes Asians, too.
Respectfully and with love,