About two weeks ago, amid a rise in hate crimes against Asian communities, I reached out to a few friends in fashion and entertainment to discuss ways we could stand together in solidarity. Then, last Tuesday, six Asian women were murdered in a horrific hate crime in Georgia. The surge of anti-Asian violence is undeniable, with coalitions like Stop AAPI Hate reporting at least 3,800 instances of discrimination against Asians in the past year. And all of this is occurring after a summer of anti-racism protests in support of George Floyd and Breonna Taylor that have sparked a social-justice reckoning the likes of which our generation has never seen before.
This moment has led to discussions about activism and allyship between communities of color but it has also brought to light tensions that typically lie under the surface, including a lack of intersectionality between racial justice movements. White supremacy has a history of trying to pit Asian and Black communities against each other. Headlines like “How Black People Can Be Strong Allies to Asian Americans Right Now” have only encouraged a transactional relationship between communities, instead of one rooted in the most important thing: dismantling racist systems. Just nine days ago, I interviewed Breonna Taylor’s mother and sister on the one-year anniversary of her murder, and as the organizer and mayoral campaign manager Whitney Hu put it, “It’s not lost on me that a white man can murder six Asian women and be arrested alive, but Breonna Taylor was killed by police while she was sleeping.”
So instead of making this conversation about our differences, I decided to sit and talk with a group of friends who work in fashion, activism, and media to discuss how we can start the healing and reform. This problem extends much further than fashion or entertainment, but too often, activism becomes a trend on social media, transforming our traumas into hashtags and allowing brands and influencers doing the bare minimum to say they care. There’s a clear pattern of companies and celebrities making surface-level changes for public-relations purposes instead of making the significant institutional commitments that would bring about a more inclusive industry.
Below is an edited transcript of my conversation with designers Phillip Lim and Prabal Gurung, activists Hannah Stoudemire and Ali Richmond from the Fashion for All Foundation, Refinery 29 executive editor Connie Wang, and actress Olivia Munn. What unfolded in this conversation was the same realization that Martin Luther King Jr. had decades before us: “Injustice anywhere is a threat to justice everywhere.”
Lindsay Peoples Wagner: I’m interested in how communities of color can work against white supremacy, specifically Black and Asian communities in this moment where Black Lives Matter and Stop Asian Hate have been pitted against each other. How do you think the “model minority” myth plays into this moment and heightens the level of polarization between communities of color?
Connie Wang, Refinery 29 executive editor: The model minority myth supposes that all Asians are highly educated, high earners, and obedient. It came about to describe people like my parents, who immigrated from mainland China in the late ’80s. As the country started opening up to the West for the first time since the Cultural Revolution, the government selected some of their brightest STEM-driven young people to study abroad in the United States. And after Tiananmen Square, a lot of them got stuck, including my parents. These people were selected because they were extra educated, extra patriotic, and extra terrified of getting in trouble, in part because they knew that getting in trouble with the government had dire consequences. The model minority myth really grew out of this little tiny Asian American subsection. It’s used to denigrate a lot of other Asian people, and it’s used as a wedge between the Chinese American community and every other minority group, especially Black communities.
The only bits of American culture that my parents knew about when they came here were Michael Jackson, Madonna, and Michael Jordan. And yet they knew enough to say, “I don’t know if I can trust American institutions because they treat American citizens who speak the language, who know the culture, with such discrimination and oppression, so what chance do we have as immigrants?”
For many first and second generation Asian immigrants, it felt like disaster was always around the corner. And the strategy for avoiding disaster is to isolate, to only build community around people who look exactly like you and not to reach out for solidarity. I’m grateful that my parents have broken out of this system, but it is a knee-jerk reaction to a very specific immigration experience.
Philip Lim, fashion designer: The majority of Asian-Americans are first and second generation. And so you come here and you see the media portraying structural racism as if Black communities are at the bottom. And it’s almost like you’re conditioned to think, “If we don’t want to be at the bottom, what do we do?”
My parents arrived from Thailand in ’75. We were sponsored by a Christian family to Southern California. Where we settled, there was a range of minorities, but at the same time, my parents would be like, “You have to make sure you get good grades. You have to make sure that you stay quiet. You have to make sure that you are not part of the conversation.” But luckily for me, I knew that that wasn’t right. I see both sides of how this model minority myth works. It is a myth, and it is also a real thing that’s conditioned by structural racism, structural supremacy. And now here we are.
LPW: A huge problem I’ve been seeing is that people assume that activism is transactional. It’s like, “If you supported that moment, you need to show up for this moment.” How do we make this conversation intersectional instead, because it really is white supremacy that is trying to keep us from supporting one another?
Hannah Stoudemire, co-founder, Fashion for All Foundation: We take a really strong stance against white supremacy. Whether it’s anti-Black violence, whether it’s anti-Asian violence, whether it’s against Muslim, LGBTQ+, whatever the minority communities are, if we aren’t sticking together, then any one of us at any point is subject to this carousel of racism coming back around to attack us.
We spoke out about Stop Asian Hate during Black History Month, and we got a lot of messages from people all over, but especially in the Black community, saying, “Why are you talking about this? It’s our month.” But we’ve always felt that an injustice of any kind should be called out.
Ali Richmond, co-founder, Fashion for All Foundation: And in addition to that, I think a lot of people are miseducated when it comes to activism. I remember Bruce Lee being a hero and symbol of solidarity in the Black community, thanks to the work he did with the Black Power movement and the different alliances he formed. Or look at Wu Tang Clan — it’s not about cultural appropriation but about embracing the way Black people were embraced in China, Korea, and especially in Japan, going back, from a hip-hop perspective. And then I look at Yuri Kochiyama, a civil-rights activist who worked with Malcom X. There’s a long history there of the Black and Asian communities working together.
Connie Wang: Most Asian Americans came after all of those things that you just mentioned, Ali. My parents, if you ask them who Wu-Tang Clan is, I’m not sure they could tell you. They watched Bruce Lee movies, but they don’t feel an affinity for him because he did not speak Mandarin. One of the big problems with Asian American identity is that it is incredibly fractured. It is a project of hundreds of different types of geopolitical movements. We come from so many different countries, we don’t speak the same language, and frankly, many of these nations have a deep-seated hatred for one another.
That carried over when we immigrated to the United States. And so the long history of Black and Asian solidarity in the United States is real, but it is not learned, and it’s not taught in schools. If you’re a new immigrant, this isn’t something you’re aware of. You kind of have to start over fresh every single time.
Prabal Gurung, fashion designer: Before we form any kind of alignment, we need to take accountability for the history. While there’s a history of solidarity, there’s also a history of racism, inherent racism within the Asian community, with each other, and towards the Black community. There’s no denying that. I believe it was Hannah Nikole Jones who talked about the fact that anti-Blackness is an Americanization process for Asian families when they come to America. It’s done because the powers that be, the colonists, and the white people, and the white supremacists, want to stay in power by pitting two minorities against each other.
The media is not talking about Stop Asian Hate enough at all. I think to a lot of people it seems like an Instagram hashtag situation. So people are not educated. Whenever I have this conversation, I say, “Yes, we have that history, right? That was the generation before us. This generation onward, we’re going to stop it.” Everyone here has shown up in every possible way, consistently. And we’re committed to acknowledging what went wrong, try to undo the past, and move forward.
Olivia, Philip, and I were just having this conversation. We understand the responsibility that comes with the platform, the quasi-fame that we have, and we speak up because for the next generation, we want to make sure that they don’t go through the things that we went through.
Philip Lim: I saw something on social media the other day about how if you don’t see Asian solidarity with the Black Movement and vice versa, then you’re not looking. There has to be an acknowledgment of the history. There is a history of solidarity. There’s a history of tension. There’s a history of fighting for one space, a singular small space. But there’s also now the reality of how it stops, with our generation having these kinds of conversations so that things can move forward.
Olivia Munn, actress: This comes up a lot in the group chat that Phillip and Prabal and I are in. I think it’s important to acknowledge which generations are being quieter, especially during the BLM movement. When you look at it, it’s the older generations: our parents and grandparents.
But it’s really important to understand that the myth was created by white people to pit us against each other, because the more that we fight against each other, the less we’re looking at them, and that’s exactly what they want. You look back to the model minority myth, and they were doing it so that when Black people were protesting for their civil rights, they could say, “Black people are disruptive, but Asians, you guys, you’re the model minority, you’re doing a really good job.” They did it to pit us against each other.
It’s important also to say that we cannot compare our experience to other minority experiences, but we can all say that we have all suffered under the same paradigm in this country. And the more we talk about the battles between each other, the less we’re getting other bigger issues taken care of.
Connie Wang: I think one of the really complicated things about the “I scratch your back, you scratch mine” mindset is that we’re not comparing the same things at all. Anti-Black institutional violence is profound. What has happened to Asians in the past couple of years is devastating, but there’s a couple of different things that are happening right now. Like one, there’s undeniably an anti-Asian sentiment that came out of the coronavirus, right? Two, there’s a huge increase in crime. And that is happening as people are facing financial insecurity, they’re desperate, poor communities are getting poorer. Those two things are happening in tandem.
So, when people are criticizing brands and individuals for not speaking up about this, like, “I supported Black Lives Matter, how come we’re not seeing the same kind of support?” they’re conflating two very different kinds of things. Because any sort of solution that doesn’t factor in a criticism of our institutions and our state, it’s an incomplete response, right? Showing up for our fellow person, amazing. Having retailers come out to reject anti-Asian sentiments, Okay, fine. Promoting already privileged Asians into executive positions, Okay. But these are solutions that ignore, and kind of distract from, the real evil happening right now, which is that the most vulnerable communities are desperate. The solutions need to address that exact problem — it’s not just asking people to speak out on social media. What can happen is that the most privileged among us gets to benefit from anti-Asian sentiments, and that’s a really weird irony.
Philip Lim: To go back to the Black History Month example: Celebrating or speaking up for one community doesn’t take away from another community. If anything, people should see it as a uniting thread that makes us stronger.
Ali Richmond: This whole thing is rooted in deficit and fear. If you go back to slavery and Reconstruction, we were told, “You have to assimilate..” And that birthed the double consciousness amongst Black people, meaning: at work, there’s one way you speak, and then at home, you speak another way. The same rhetoric has been given to many marginalized communities, alongside this narrative of a deficit, with thinking like, “Your jobs are being taken. Your opportunities are being taken.” So it continues to pit us against each other. Like Chris Rock said, “Ain’t no money in the cure.” If poor white people in the United States understood what was going on, they wouldn’t be so anti of minorities because we are not the enemy. The entire concept of “race” was created to divide and conquer.
Connie Wang: One of the biggest manifestations of anti-Blackness within the Asian community I’ve seen is this knee-jerk belief that the solution to national violence is more police on the street. It’s further entrenching already vulnerable communities in incarcerate institutions that we know are anti-Black. (I also see a lot of really righteous and well-founded arguments against this from the Black community and the Asian community.)
If you’ve ever wanted any insight into what Chinese Americans are doing in the United States, learn how to read Mandarin and go on WeChat. My parents are on it, and my Mandarin skills aren’t that great, so they translate for me. And my dad has been seeing a lot of discussions in very, very wealthy neighborhoods, especially in Southern California, that the correct response is to buy guns, to arm your communities against potential threats. And who do they think is the enemy? It’s not white people.
I’m afraid that the more outraged we get, the less we stop to think about what the root causes of these issues are, the more we retaliate against one another. Think about that image of the Rodney King riots; you have Korean Americans standing on the roofs of their stores with guns. If that’s the future of America and how minorities protect themselves, that’s a really dismal future.
Prabal Gurung: I think because of the people I’m interacting with on a daily basis, my fear is that they’re not taking these movements seriously. I know everyone on this call is committed to change, but these performative allies, some of them are within my acquaintances and social circle. I won’t name names, but when I reached out to a lot of publications like, hey, this is what’s going on, please support Stop Asian Hate, their reply was “Give me an angle of why we should be covering this.” And it’s maddening!
LPW: The fashion industry is full of performative allies! The number of people who will post out of guilt or the fact that they don’t want to be called out, but then in meetings or at work they’re silent … I’m confused as to when people thought allyship could be silent, it has to be active and loud.
Olivia Munn: This is a story I haven’t told publicly, but let’s go back to 2017, the Me Too movement. I was involved with Time’s Up early on. I thought that I was brought in because I was a silence-breaker. But I’m in the first meeting, and there are so many famous people there, people that I’m just in awe of. And then the person who brought me in, said, “So we brought you in because we were discussing that we needed more minorities in the group.” I was like, “Do they not know what I have done and what I’ve experienced?”
There was this huge Whats App thread for Time’s Up, and it was crazy, the number of well-known people in these group chats. I ended up discussing with one of my girlfriends who is a Black woman, that when the people of color, and more often than not Black women, were speaking up about their experiences on this group’s threads, quickly one of the white people would say, “Why don’t we open a new thread for people of color? And then you guys can have those conversations there?” It was so jarring, like our experiences as women of color were treated so differently because we were the minority. And it’s even more intense because people think that our voices are worthless.
That’s something I’ve noticed even in big, huge cultural shifts: it’s always so performative. The thing about Hollywood is that we’re really great with symbolism and really crappy with change. So it’s not a surprise that we’re experiencing this now. To see the silence from people, you just realize how performative it has been. It’s such a hollow feeling.
Hannah Stoudemire: I’ve just been calling it digital blackface at this point because people will use people of color and Black people for clickbait to sell their magazines. When one of the biggest publications never says “Happy Black History Month,” but they wish Harry Styles a happy birthday, that’s a problem. To your point, the accountability culture that we’re after is going to take all of us sticking together and standing up to those institutions. Right now it’s a lot of talking, but it’s not a lot of action, and change takes place in action, not in talking.
LPW: We all know cancel culture can be so toxic, but how do we find a way to turn all of this into a restorative, transparent accountability culture?
Connie Wang: The anti-racist writer Ibram X. Kendi’s first book, Stamped from the Beginning, had this really powerful idea in it that racism is the manifestation of racist institutions. There’s this idea that racism happens to ignorant people who have bad motivations, and that’s not necessarily the case. It’s institutions that help a very select few people hold onto their power. When I think about performative allyship or performative activism, it’s almost like fixating on that is distracting from actually fixing racism.
Changing people’s minds is important, especially within your own family and your own immediate support systems. But if your activism isn’t concentrated on the root causes of racism, in my opinion — on lack of healthcare, economic injustice, disenfranchisement, lack of childcare, unemployment — it is performative in some way. I don’t think that performative allyship is necessarily a terrible thing; I just think that we should not focus our energies on combating it as much as we focus our energies on correcting racist institutions.
Philip Lim: Somehow it’s very frustrating to realize that people are not showing up within the community. It’s almost like they’re hiding behind those of us who are speaking out.
I don’t know how to do this. I don’t have a rule book. I just know what’s wrong. And I’m just leaning into it.I’m trying to figure out how to use my platform and my position to influence other people. If I could encourage five people to speak up, that’s five more people to hopefully activate themselves. Each day I have to remind myself, just allow people to just start where they are, come to the table. Everyone will have a different comfort level, but as long as we’re consistent, something will change.
Ali Richmond: The difference here is all in intentions. What would be great is if we could take activism and community and really caring, and make that the trend for real. If doing the work became the trend, if the blood, sweat, and tears became the trend.
We had this behind-the-door meeting in fashion recently, and someone called Hannah and me radical. I said, we’re radical? If being radical is talking about love, if being radical is talking about unity, and being radical is talking about justice and the pursuit of happiness and liberty, then I guess we’re radical because that’s all we talk about. But you have to understand just like with the police, just like with the war on drugs, there’s money being made, and that is threatened by all of this talk around diversity. We almost have to put the pill inside of the McDonald’s cheeseburger, because no one wants to go vegan.
Hannah Stoudemire: That’s why social justice is so important in fashion because you have the power Prabal, Phillip, to change the stigma in campaigns, in shows, on social media. It’s really important for us in the fashion industry to continue to fight for representation, inclusivity, and diversity, to change this age-old narrative of one standard of beauty.
In the 1940s, psychologists showed little Black kids two dolls, one Black and one white. They asked “what’s more beautiful?” and the Black kids famously pointed to the white baby doll because they were trained and conditioned to think Black meant bad. But they also asked “Who do you trust?” and the Black kids pointed to the Black baby doll. We don’t talk about that enough.
Ali Richmond: My issue personally is with what my 12th grade Black studies teacher in high school would call ‘cultural pimps’. You have people of color profiting off the struggle. It’s cool to be conscious, but it’s all performative. And in the name of diversity and inclusion, white people will hire people of color who are palatable to a white experience. They would rather put somebody in a position that’s not going to call out homophobia or racism, let alone bust a grape.
LPW: I think a lot of the tension around performative allyship was reignited because of the murder of George Floyd. Police officer Tou Thao, a Hmong American, stood with his back turned as police officers murdered George on camera with witnesses. There was this feeling of, “we’re both minorities, why don’t you see this is a problem?”
Connie Wang: I’m from Minnesota. I know exactly what corner George Floyd died on. I don’t think that the majority of Americans have ever met someone who was Hmong before. That group comes from a horrible geopolitical event that the United States got involved in. They’re political refugees. Most of them immigrated in the ’70s and landed in Minnesota of all places and have been living, for the most part, in really destitute poverty.
Hmong people in Minneapolis, a quarter of them live in poverty, 60 percent of them are low income. I think that what Tou Thao did is unspeakable and disgusting. At the same time, it is a thing that someone does in order to self-preserve.
To go into law enforcement as a stable career choice, to give themselves and their family a sense of security, is something that very poor people do. They enlist in the military, they enlist in law enforcement – structures that they feel will give them an iota of power. I think one of the amazing things that happened after the George Floyd murder was that Hmong groups in Minneapolis and St. Paul really denounced what he did. I think Derek Chauvin’s ex-wife is also Hmong. They divorced.
But saying that Tou Thao is the same as the Korean shop owners in L.A. for Rodney King, is the same as the elderly people who have gotten killed and seriously injured, is not helpful. When we cast too wide a net and we generalize a little too much, the most privileged within a group are the only ones to benefit. That’s East Asians, like myself.
Prabal Gurung: I look at this moment, these attacks, and it’s like, “What am I to learn?” Besides all of us coming together, it has taught me vigilance.
Phillip Lim: I’ve always grown up with diversity, and this is making me realize the world is not always like that. I’ve realized what privilege is. It’s not like I didn’t do the hard work of earning my space. It’s almost like I was let in because I was novelty enough. I was interesting enough. Light enough. I was non-threatening enough. It was just all of these enoughs.
Hannah Stoudemire: People, I’m not so concerned about. People are people. But larger institutions do have a responsibility because they’re leaders. Breonna Taylor was on so many covers of magazines, and those same publications did not even acknowledge Black History Month. That’s a major slap in the face.
I keep bringing this up because that kind of acknowledgment leads to the celebration of Black people, all shades, all backgrounds. To me, this is lifesaving information. If you normalize Black, you won’t fear us when you approach us, or when you have a gun on you, or if you’re calling the police because a little boy is playing with a toy gun like Tamir Rice.
Ali Richmond: We can stop this now by holding institutions accountable. At the end of the day, it all comes back to normalizing and embracing differences — across the board.