As Asian Americans and Canadians committed to racial justice, we often face the challenge of confronting racism in different forms. In the past few months, for example, many of us have been fighting COVID-related anti-Asian racism and anti-Black policing and violence at the same time. But what if we could draw connections between these racisms more directly? Doing so might help us to organise more effectively, and to find starting points for empathy and solidarity.
In order to draw these connections, I think it helps to consider some history.
When white settlers first arrived here, they thought of themselves as a chosen people, and of this so-called “New World” as their promised land. Like the promised land of the Israelites, though, this land was already inhabited. And so, like the Israelites, these “chosen” white settlers tried to eradicate Indigenous peoples, in order to claim the land for themselves.
Waging wars and spreading disease, white settlers forced Indigenous peoples off of their traditional territories. As they did, they found themselves in need of bodies and labour to work this newly conquered and unfamiliar terrain. White people might’ve taken the land, but someone still needed to bleed, sweat, and toil to make it livable and profitable for them.
So began the abduction and enslavement of African peoples. Working the lands that settlers had stolen, these slaves built the colonial infrastructure of “chosen” white dominance through their forced, backbreaking labour. Even after slavery was abolished, Black people continued to be exploited in order to establish and expand white dominance.
Out of this brutal legacy, new nations were born—nations that enshrined white chosenness on a global scale. But there was a problem. The colossal violence needed to establish white nations betrayed the very moral premise of their nationhood. How could white people claim to be chosen, and how could white nations claim to hold “that all men are created equal,” when they’d so clearly “chosen” themselves, through unequal violence?
Facing this fundamental hypocrisy, white supremacy chose to wipe the slate clean: to paint a picture of white “belonging” on this continent that covered over its legacy of violence. Through popular images of pioneers and frontiersmen, of innocent and hardy people taming an uninhabited land, white people imagined that their “chosen” dominance was the fruit of their own tireless effort.
But they couldn’t erase everything. Ongoing “Indian wars” and segregation were constant reminders that white settlers hadn’t been chosen at all, but had seized their dominance by force. Try as they might, white people were never able to fully exorcise these ghosts of their violent past.
That is, until others started coming to live and work on this continent. The arrival of large numbers of Chinese and other Asian migrants—the labour force for the last leg of western settlement—provided the perfect foil for white belonging. Now, there were newcomers who very visibly didn’t “belong”; and now, white settlers could stake a contrasting claim to their own belonging, a claim that “we were here first.”
An immediate surge of anti-Asian xenophobia followed. Laws were passed to restrict Asians’ arrival, and eventually to exclude them altogether. But the idea wasn’t so much to remove Asians as it was to define them as foreign and unwanted. In fact, it was their very presence—alienated as “foreign” by the xenophobia that targeted them—that established white settlers as the “original,” rightful inhabitants of the land. And as the pandemic has shown, this white-nativist alienation of Asians continues today.
This is the connection between anti-Asian racism and some of the other racial dynamics of this continent. White supremacy uses Asian alienation to bolster its narrative of white belonging; and by doing so, it covers over its past and ongoing atrocities, and legitimises the white dominance, or “chosenness,” that these atrocities have established.
In other words, Indigenous genocide and Black enslavement have created both the conditions and the need for anti-Asian racism, while Asian alienation sets up a cover of white “belonging” that conceals and further enables anti-Indigenous and anti-Black violence—all in the service of establishing the “chosen” dominance, or supremacy, of white people.
This means that without confronting violence against Indigenous and Black peoples, we’ll never address why and how white supremacy is so invested in anti-Asian racism. And it means that until we address anti-Asian racism, white supremacy will always have a way of concealing its other violences under the veneer of its rightful belonging on this continent.
Our struggles are intimately connected because the racial dynamics that target us are intertwined. If we’re going to have any hope of effectively disrupting white supremacy, our work of resistance and liberation needs to be intertwined, too. Truly, none of us will be free until all of us are free.
If you’re interested in exploring these ideas further, here are a few resources you can check out:
- Donald M. Scott, “The Religious Origins of Manifest Destiny,” Divining America: Religion in American History (TeacherServe, National Humanities Center): http://nationalhumanitiescenter.org/tserve/nineteen/nkeyinfo/mandestiny.htm — A historical overview of the theological foundation of “chosenness” at the heart of white settler supremacy in North America.
- Laura Hurwitz and Shawn Bourque, “Settler Colonialism Primer,” Unsettling America: Decolonization in Theory and Practice: https://unsettlingamerica.wordpress.com/2014/06/06/settler-colonialism-primer — A breakdown of settler colonialism and many related concepts and dynamics.
- Willie J. Jennings, The Christian Imagination: Theology and the Origins of Race (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2011) — A rich history of the ideological and material evolution of race, including its religious/theological foundations and its formations of Blackness.
- Avery F. Gordon, Ghostly Matters: Haunting and the Sociological Imagination (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 2008) — A (denser) theoretical account of how the (white) imaginary is “haunted” by the ghosts of its violent past.
- Sara Ahmed, Strange Encounters: Embodied Others in Post-Coloniality (London: Routledge, 2000) — A fascinating theoretical description of how the figure of the stranger is cast to shape who properly “belongs.”
- Claire Jean Kim, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” Politics & Society 27, no.1 (March 1999): 105-138 — An analysis of racialization that focuses on a particular point of connection between racial dynamics: the triangulation of Asian, Black, and white people in the U.S. through “relative valorization” (the use of the model minority myth to undermine other racialized groups).