By Baker Lu and Juan Zhang
At the height of recent #BlackLivesMatter protests, Eileen Huang, a rising third-year English major student at Yale University, published an opened letter to the Chinese American community. In this letter, she called on Asian Americans to support the protests sparked by the death of George Floyd. The Monitor’s student journalist Baker Lu recently interviewed Eileen.
This interview has been edited for clarity and brevity.
Many people read your letter but don’t necessarily know who you are. Could you start with a short introduction about your background?
My name is Eileen. I grew up in New Jersey and have spent most of my life in the United States. I am currently a rising third-year at Yale University majoring in English.
At Yale, I am involved with the Asian American Students Alliance, and I have always been passionate about advocating for community among Asian Americans. Much of my inspiration comes from Black activism.
Topics of interest for me are ethnic studies and critical race theory, which led to my interest in writing this essay.
It sounds like you have rich experience with racial inclusion. Before writing this letter, did you consult with family and friends?
Yes, I definitely did. Although I didn’t really ask for permission from my family to publish it, I simply showed them the letter and said: ‘Hey, I’m going to publish this essay on WeChat.’
My family members were very supportive and considered it an important essay for people in their own circles to read and understand. After the letter was published, my family grew closer and our conversation about the Black Lives Matter movement definitely became more productive.
That is amazing to hear. Do you feel encouraged by their reaction?
I definitely feel encouraged. I think a lot of people had the same reaction to the essay. While there has been some backlash and disagreement, a lot of people have reached out to me, including parents and children in the Chinese American community, saying the essay facilitated productive conversations about race and Black Lives Matter. It is really encouraging to hear.
At the beginning of your letter, you said, ‘I grew up hearing relatives, family friends, and even my parents make subtle, even explicitly racist comments about the Black community.’ In your view, why did they make those racist comments?
I don’t think anyone really meant to intentionally say racist things. Much of the time when they made these really stereotypical or harmful comments about the Black community or Black Lives Matter, they are not saying it because they are racists. They are saying it because they think these correct views are correct. People are just misinformed.
For example, I heard a lot of Asian Americans in my community saying Black Lives Matter is not a legitimate movement because racism to the extent that the movement describes no longer exists in American society. This is a really wrong assumption.
In light of those false assumptions, how did you feel when you heard these comments?
When I grew up hearing these comments as a child, it didn’t really strike me how harmful they were. Yet while growing up and gradually learning about systemic racism in the United States, I began to realize the harm these comments cause to further subordinate and stereotype the Black community.
I think you frequently hear these comments from Chinese Americans, especially those who have benefited from the wealth of this country and found a successful life here. They say these things because they buy into the model minority myth that Chinese Americans achieved so much success because they worked hard.
I don’t think this myth is true. I think Chinese Americans are in this country because of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965. People need to acknowledge that injustice does not occur because people didn’t work hard but because there is a structure of racism that systematically disadvantages some people and especially the Black community.
Compared to older generations, you have a different perspective on systemic racism in the United States. You and others who signed this letter decided to speak up in your support for the Black Lives Matter movement. What makes you and your peer students different from Asian Americans who do make racist comments?
There is a kind of generational divide in the response to my essay. A lot of critics are usually older immigrants or first-generation Chinese American like my parents, whereas those who reacted positively are my generation or the second generation.
In my view, this is because we have different understandings of how race works in America. For a lot of new immigrants, they still believe in the idea of meritocracy and that you can brush off racial trauma. For those who criticized my essay, I bet they also experienced racism. But the way that older generations internalize racism is different; it is much easier to believe in meritocracy and say that racism is simply part of chasing the American dream. The thinking is that we ‘just have to deal with it, keep our heads down, and keep working.’
For my generation, who were all born in the United States, we still face racism despite the status of our citizenship. We are more aware and less tolerant of the deep racism in this country, and we are more willing to speak out. I think this is why my letter received so much support from younger people. We are driven to pursue racial equity in our society.
In your letter, you wrote: ‘I see this same kind of silence from Asian Americans around me. I am especially disappointed in the Chinese American community, whose silence on the murder of Black Americans has been deafening.’ Why particularly the Chinese American community?
I wrote that mostly because this is the community I can speak for, and I was mostly speaking for our generation of increasingly conservative Chinese Americans who don’t believe in things like affirmative action and have been largely silent on Black Lives Matter.
I also received critiques about me being a privileged Chinese American and not truly being able to speak for the entire Chinese American community, which is absolutely correct. I think the Chinese American community does not always encompass people who fit the model minority stereotype. But I was mostly addressing people who have benefited from class privilege but stay out of politics when others’ lives are at stake. I also wanted to emphasize that staying silent about Black Lives Matter implies that you don’t think Black lives matter, and that is a really violent statement to make. Staying silent or opposing Black Lives Matter literally sides with white supremacy and racism.
Asian Americans are also people of color and attacked by racist comments. In your letter, you described your recent experience of being called ‘bat-eater.’ I have also personally experienced these kinds of comments. What should Asian Americans do to prevent such discrimination from happening again? Does joining the Black Lives Matter movement help?
Yes, absolutely. In the response to my letter, a lot of people criticized me for speaking out about the Black community when it ‘does nothing’ for the Asian American community. I’d first like to say that my interest is in ethnic studies and by talking about race, I also come through the interest of Asian American advocacy and activism.
Second, talking about Black liberation and Asian-American liberation are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are deeply interconnected. We cannot fail to support Black Lives Matter and then expect to get fair treatment as Asian Americans. Black Lives Matter and Asian American activism share similar goals by fighting back against systemic racism and ultimately seek to dismantle white supremacy.
I also ask this question because some Asian Americans used ‘thugs,’ ‘rioters,’ and ‘looters’ to describe the protesters. In your letter, you were critical of some Chinese Americans because they also used these words. However, we did see some violence from Black Lives Matter protestors. In New York, there NYPD cars with broken windshields. In Atlanta, the shopping mall I used to frequent was looted. Do you still think it is inappropriate for some Chinese Americans to use “thugs,” “rioters,” and “looters” to describe the protestors?
Yes, I think it is inappropriate. People who point to these instances of violence do not genuinely care about the damage or businesses being destroyed. People who point to this violence often do so to discreditBlack Lives Matter. I think it is concerning that people are more concerned with the destruction of inanimate property than that of Black lives. People are not talking about the similar destruction of the Black community.
It’s also worth noting that the language of ‘thugs,’ ‘rioters,’ and ‘looters’ is very racialized. These words are often used to justify state violence against protestors. When white people protest COVID-19 restrictions with guns and threaten law enforcement, they aren’t called rioters, they are called protesters.
This language was also used to describe protestors during the Civil Rights Movement. At that time, most Americans had a negative view of the Civil Rights Movement and a lot of media used these words to describe Black activists and protesters.
Lastly, I think a lot of people try to oppose Black Lives Matter by saying it is a violent movement. This is not true. The Black Lives Matter organization even describes itself as non-violent and has committed to that fact. However, a lot of these uprisings that we see are in response to the state violence that has brutalized Black people for 400 years. Even today, police officers beat and tear gas protesters. These people are not talking about these acts of state violence, and instead they’re scapegoating the protestors as violent perpetrators.
In your letter, you said, ‘I refuse to call for the racial justice of our own community at the expense of others.’ But there is rhetoric among Chinese Americans that sometimes Black people get advantages at the expense of Asians. A commonly used argument regards college admission. Based on a research by Princeton University, ‘a Black student who scores 1000 on her SATs would have an equal chance of admission as a white student who scores 1310 or an Asian-American student who scores 1450.’ How do you respond to this rhetoric?
Some Chinese Americans oppose affirmative action in the same way that they view George Floyd’s death as an isolated incident that does not represent broader policy brutality against the Black community. They are also using isolated incidents to argue against affirmative action without considering the system that prevents people of color from entering higher education.
These arguments against affirmative action rely on the notion of meritocracy, which is idea that you can get into the university by working hard. This is definitely false. For example, I don’t think I got a good score on the SAT because I have great intelligence. Instead, I went into SAT prep classes and could afford to take time out of school to attend. There are studies that show SAT scores correlate more with wealth than ‘IQ.’ Harvard recently made the SAT optional because there are many studies that show the SAT does not represent merit but wealth and access to testing resources.
Also, the same people who scapegoat Black and underrepresented students do not talk about predominantly white legacy students. At Harvard, there are rumors about the Z’s list— for people who are very well connected to the university, they can get accepted after one gap year even if they don’t meet the admission criteria. And these legacy students take up a huge portion of the student body. For example,11% of students at Yale are legacy students.
You mentioned that you need SAT classes to be prepared. Some Asian Americans argue that, after spending time, energy, and money on SAT prep, they still can’t make it due to affirmative action policies. What’s your reaction to this argument?
Asian Americans are aware that schools are disadvantaging people of color from entering. Yet they are often targeting Black, brown, underrepresented, low-income students and blaming them for this without looking at the fact that these universities have always served predominately wealthy white elite members. I want to see more questions of why schools are exclusive and disadvantaging low income, Black and brown students. Why are Asian Americans identifying these people as the problem? I don’t think they are the problem. The exclusive practices of universities are the problem.
You mentioned that the correlation between wealth and SAT scores is a systemic problem. If you could change the current college application process, what changes would you make? How can universities improve their admissions processes?
I think the fairest admissions policies would be to have no criteria at all. These gatekeeping checkpoints, such as SAT and AP scores, systemically prevent low-income minority students from attending schools. I think Harvard and other schools are heading in the right direction with affirmative action policies and by making the SAT optional.
Another follow-up to your response. If schools are getting rid of standardized testing requirements, how should universities select students? What qualifications should these schools look for?
As a Yale student, I am aware that the school has immense wealth and incredible resources but at the same time is only able to accept a very small percentage of the population. I want to pose a question to the general public: why do the sons and daughters of wealthy elites get to access these resources?
We should stop asking what kind of students these schools should recruit because the idea that only some people can have access to these resources is problematic. We have to question why these resources are being kept out of reach for people who are low-income, minorities, underrepresented, and economically or institutionally disadvantaged.
One of my friends is a Hispanic American. Once the Black Lives Matter movement started, he told me ‘I am not a white or Black. I guess I am a yellow, so where should I stand in this movement?’ I think this question may also apply to Asian Americans, many of whom view this movement as a clash between African Americans and white people. What’s your answer to this question?
I think this is exactly what I was arguing against in my essay: that Black Lives Matter is not an exclusive movement. It is not restricted to this ‘clash between Black Americans and white Americans.’ All people of color are implicated in this and we cannot afford to sit out of Black Lives Matter because that would be supporting white supremacy and racism.
Second, our lives are at stake too. The Asian Americans who oppose my essay and perceive affirmative action as a disadvantage to them are also those who experience racism and hate crimes due to xenophobia promoted by COVID-19. This is just like the racism that drives police brutality against Black people. There is no different strain of racism targeted at different racial groups. It is all part of an overarching structure of white supremacy that targets people of color. All of these things will keep happening to Black and people of color until we have decided that we’re not going to sit out anymore.
Baker Lu is an incoming MA student at the Johns Hopkins School of Advanced International Studies.
The interview transcript was edited by Michael Cerny.