Framing Asian Suffering in an Anti-Black World: A Conversation with Claire Jean Kim
This podcast interview is the twelfth piece in the 2020 Visions: Imagining (Post-) COVID Worlds series, which aims to reflect on the uneven impacts of the “pandemic year” and to consider new futures that might be made possible in its wake. Series editors: Weishun Lu, Juniper Lewis, Richelle Wilson, and Addie Hopes.
The discussion about COVID-19 would not be complete without a reflection on the ways in which the virus has been racialized. In the early days of the pandemic, anti-Chinese and anti-Asian rhetoric flooded mainstream reports. As the virus mutated, it took on other racial and racist associations, and the U.S. saw a major uptick in anti-Asian hate crimes. In summer 2021, I talked to Professor Claire Jean Kim about the growing awareness of anti-Asian discrimination and the challenges of framing anti-Asian hate in an anti-Black society.
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This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Weishun Lu: I want to start the interview with a question about COVID since the series is about the pandemic. The pandemic once again shows that wildlife markets (or “wet markets“) in Asia are extremely misunderstood, and this takes me back to your 2015 book Dangerous Crossings. Your research shows how debates over animal markets are not just taking place out there in Asia but it’s also a debate that’s constantly happening in the United States. Could you tell us a little bit more about your reaction to the earlier media accounts of reports that attributed the virus to Asia or Asian bodies?
Claire Jean Kim: From the beginning of the Asian presence in the U.S. (in terms of large numbers of Asians, so I would say the 1850s in California, the arrival of the first large numbers of Chinese immigrants), the Asian body—the Chinese body—was seen as a site of disease and contamination. In the 1800s, the diseases that white people thought the Chinese brought or bred in Chinatown in San Francisco were syphilis, smallpox, and other diseases, and so there were periodic efforts to quarantine Chinatown and move them farther and farther away from the city center in order to avoid the contamination of the Asian body. So this was from the beginning about Otherness, alienness, foreignness as represented in the Asian body, and all of that being a threat. It could be an economic threat—that’s how many white workers viewed Chinese immigrants. It could be a military threat, for example, [the way] Japanese Americans were seen by whites during World War II. It could be an epidemiological threat, which is what we’re seeing right now. This idea of the “Asiatic” or the “Mongolian” as being diseased and being a contamination threat to the white body politic, to white civilization, is a very deep thread in U.S. culture.
The picture gets more complicated, though, when we think about some of the facts that we’re dealing with, for example, the live animal markets that I looked at in my book Dangerous Crossings. These markets are in San Francisco’s Chinatown and they’re in many other Asian communities around the world. Many white animal advocates describe the conditions in these markets as “filthy and cruel.” When animal rights advocates were trying to shut down the markets [in the late 1990s], Chinese community leaders said: Well, if they’re dirty, filthy, and cruel, what about U.S. slaughterhouses? Which is, of course, true. Anywhere you’re raising and killing animals for food, it’s filthy and cruel. It’s not a Chinese thing, it’s not an Asian thing. My response in the book was to say, well if that’s true—that it’s culturally determined what we find repulsive and what we find acceptable and that all of these things are filthy and cruel—then the answer isn’t to say let’s not do anything about either, the answer is to say let’s do something about both.
With COVID-19, most people think that it likely started as a zoonotic disease somewhere in southern China, possibly in a wet market. Even though we know that Donald Trump used phrases like “kung flu” and “Chinese flu” and that that started a continuous wave of anti-Asian harassment and violence with Asian Americans paying the price for his anti-Chinese comments, these are of course still facts to be dealt with—that the COVID-19 virus likely started in a wet market in southern China. So it’s not surprising that the virus gets racialized. If you look at other viruses, they’ve also been racialized: AIDS was racialized as Black, Ebola was racialized as Black, we could go on and on. Everything gets racialized, including viruses and bugs and diseases, because there are no race-free zones in human existence. We live in a highly racialized world, and that’s across the board.
WL: Anti-Asian violence has always been known in Asian communities, but now it’s more visible in mainstream media outlets, especially after the Atlanta shootings. One article I find interesting is an opinion piece in the New York Times by Anne Anlin Cheng, who argues, “There is something wrong with the way Americans think about who deserves social justice—as though attention to nonwhite groups, their histories and conditions, is only as pressing as the injuries that they have suffered.” What do you think of this view that there’s something wrong with the logic of prioritizing those who seem to suffer more?
CJK: With due respect to Professor Cheng, I completely disagree with this argument. Unfortunately, I think the idea that Asian Americans are invisible in U.S. society, that our suffering is invisible, plays right into the hands of the white majority who are really tired of hearing about the Black freedom struggle. They don’t want to think about it anymore because it asks of them more than some of them want to give.
Everything gets racialized, including viruses and diseases, because there are no race-free zones in human existence.
So when stories about anti-Asian harassment and violence started to come out during the pandemic, I sensed this palpable sense of relief and possibly even excitement on the part of white people and also on the part of mainstream institutions, including the media, because now they could talk about racism but not have to talk about Black people—they could actually talk about Asian Americans. It was like a new and exciting issue to talk about. Rather than not listening to Asian American suffering, I think white people jump on it pretty enthusiastically—that’s been my observation. What they see in Asian American suffering is how they can perform anti-racism on the cheap, so they present themselves as being anti-racist by talking about what’s happening to Asian Americans while ignoring what’s happening on a structural, systematic level and on a continuous level to Black Americans.
In my work, I talk about structural anti-Blackness as an important frame for understanding what we’re all seeing. A lot of people in ethnic studies and activists talk about white supremacy. I believe white supremacy is operating, but in addition to white supremacy, we have to think about anti-Blackness, which philosopher Frantz Fanon described as “negrophobia,” or phobic avoidance and hatred of Blackness. Because the country was founded on centuries of racial slavery, I believe, following many Black studies scholars, that structural anti-Blackness is the frame that we’re operating in. So what I think Cheng and other people making the same argument are missing is that when you’re a not-white group, like Asian Americans, being invisible is about as good as it can get because it’s a sign that you’re assimilated—it’s a sign that you’re integrated, at least to some degree.
WL: You’re one of the most prominent scholars on race relations between Asians and Black Americans. Your 1999 essay on racial triangulation has been immensely influential and it’s often cited to show how Asian and Black people could be pitted against each other in the neoliberal multicultural era. Do you have any new thoughts on this triangulation? What are the grounds for Black-Asian solidarity?
CJK: I think that in terms of Black-Asian solidarity in the future, the possibilities are good if certain things happen and not so good if things continue to be the way they are. Social structure really influences interracial conflict, including the conflict between Asian Americans and Black people. If things continue the way they are with Asian Americans and Black people differentially situated in the racial order, the prospects for any meaningful sustained coalition are pretty low.
What happens if we bring anti-Blackness back into the picture and reread Asian American history in that light?
If you look back at history, there’s been more tension and conflict between these communities than coalition. Now, that’s not to say there hasn’t been any. There has been, especially in the 60s. Look at the Black Panther’s and Fred Hampton’s cooperation with the Red Guards or the Filipino and Mexican American farm worker unions. Those are important moments, but in terms of why we don’t see it more often or in a more sustained way, I believe it’s because of this differential positioning, which is usually not acknowledged by anyone. This is kind of a repressed truth because it’s inconvenient for political coalition building. Some people think, How can you have a coalition if you start talking about the things that divide you? [The idea is that] you have to kind of push that aside and focus on what brings you together.
History shows us that doesn’t work all that well. Maybe we would get farther with our political coalitions if we started with the truth, which is that Asian Americans are differently situated. It doesn’t mean we’re not subject to white supremacy. It doesn’t mean we’re not discriminated against and sometimes killed because of race, or that we don’t suffer because of race—it just means it’s a different position compared to Black people. We were not enslaved, we were not subjected to Jim Crow, we are not subjected to mass incarceration and over-policing. There is a different set of issues in a different situation, and we have to be honest about that to build political relationships.
My forthcoming book is called Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World, and it’s trying to revise the racial triangulation theory. That theory came out in an article I wrote in 1999, and there I was saying that Asian Americans are seen as between Black and white in terms of who’s inferior and superior, but they’re also seen as more foreign than either one. That piece is having its moment right now.
But at the very moment that’s happening, I’m saying, well, I don’t agree with that theory anymore. The problem with the racial triangulation argument, in my view, is that one of its premises is that Black people are insiders—that they’re less foreign than Asian. It’s true that they’re not associated with a foreign power, but to say they’re insiders, I now see, having read a lot more Black studies and Black history, is a fallacy. After the Civil War, Black people were given the right to naturalized citizenship rights, the right to vote, but we know what those rights actually meant—they were rights on paper, but they were not honored in practice. Once I revised that essential part of the model, the model doesn’t work.
Structural anti-Blackness is an important frame for understanding what we’re all seeing.
In the new book, what I’m really trying to do is say there are two forces governing the U.S. racial order: white supremacy and anti-Blackness. What happens if we bring anti-Blackness back into the picture and reread Asian American history in that light? I draw upon philosopher Lewis Gordon’s two principles that structure the U.S. order: be white but, above all, don’t be Black. I translate that into white supremacy and anti-Blackness, and I come out with the argument that Asian Americans are not white but, above all, not Black. What this means is we are, as Asian Americans, subjected to various denigrations and dispossessions as not-white people, but we also have something that’s a property I would call “not-Blackness.”
The focus of the book is saying, let’s look at this society in terms of structural anti-Blackness: how the phobic avoidance and hatred of Blackness forms the foundation since slavery for what this society is about, and how there’s this imperative on the part of the powerful to reproduce structural anti-Blackness. Then, how do we understand Asian American history in relation to those facts? I also try to articulate how structural anti-Blackness works together with neoliberal capitalism to determine who matters and who doesn’t.
Featured Image: “Solidarity Against AAPI Hate” sign at the National Mall in Washington, DC. Photo by Victoria Pickering, 2021.
Claire Jean Kim is professor of political science and Asian American studies at the University of California, Irvine, where she teaches classes on comparative race studies and human-animal studies. She is the author of two award-winning books, Bitter Fruit: The Politics of Black-Korean Conflict in New York City (Yale University Press, 2003) and Dangerous Crossings: Race, Species, and Nature in a Multicultural Age (Cambridge University Press, 2015). Her third book, Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World, is forthcoming in 2022. Website. Contact.
Weishun Lu is a Ph.D. candidate in literary studies at the University of Wisconsin–Madison. Her research focuses on contemporary poetry, affect theory, and the place of ethnic studies in a neoliberal multicultural environment. Contact.
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