On the night of January 23, a screenshot of an Instagram story of a White Tufts student in blackface was shared on “POC Jumbos,” a Facebook affinity group for students of color on Tufts campus. By the next morning, the post had spread across campus and although it was deleted on class pages, it remains posted in the POC Jumbos group. It both serves as a glaring reminder of how racism manifests on our campus, and beyond that, provides an example of where advocacy falls short. The post was shared by an Asian male student, and a Black female student commented, “Posting this here was a little irresponsible. Black folks really shouldn’t have to be seeing this.”
Asian Americans have always teetered on thin racial boundaries in this country, often finding ourselves in a grey space between Blacks and Whites. This struggle leads to anti-Blackness in our communities, as we’re forced to either whitewash ourselves or appropriate Black culture. This identity crisis is shared by many, myself included, but it especially impacts those of us who have sought out roles in advocacy work. As Asian Americans, we must actively work to undo our internalized racism in order to become better advocates for ourselves, and for our Black and Brown peers.
This specific disconnect in the POC Jumbos’ post reveals a larger issue: there is often a lack of vocabulary and understanding in our advocacy, and this can hinder its effectiveness and appearance of sincerity. In many ways, the post can be interpreted as a performative action—why do we feel the need to share imagery depicting Black violence on social media? To show that these atrocities exist in an echo-chamber? To make our privileged friends feel better about themselves for not being racist? Or to prove to our other minority friends that we “understand” their struggle?
As the thread continued, I became distinctly aware of how Black women in particular were being tone-policed by a non-Black POC on the thread—a trend that has played out for centuries and on many platforms. Black people––and more specifically, Black women––have consistently been at the forefront of anti-racist organizing, despite the emotional trauma and physical violence it imposes upon them. A central component of advocacy is listening to others rather than undermining or questioning their experience just because you think differently.
By posting this photo in a group that has a significant Black membership, the poster not only exposed Black students to one of the many forms of racism they regularly face, but also inadvertently called for an explanation of why it was inappropriate to post in the first place.
As Asian Americans, advocacy for ourselves and for others works best when supporting other people of color; this support comes in many forms, a vital part of which is creating a supportive space in light of situations that subconsciously demand emotional labor from our Black peers. Fighting anti-blackness must begin with understanding that while our experiences share similarities, the differences are monumental. Our advocacy starts with unpacking anti-Blackness within our own community, and helping our peers learn the nuances of intra-racial advocacy.
In other words, Black people have been systematically oppressed in ways that fundamentally differ from Asian Americans. This difference must be acknowledged both in and out of our communities—more specifically, the Asian American community is full of people of different skin colors, socioeconomic classes, education levels, and more. Our identities are intersectional and unique, and must be treated as such.
The discomfort I felt with how the Black woman was treated spoke to the discomfort I felt from my own previous experiences with “mansplaining;” a sentiment many women can likely relate to. Initially, I typed my own response to the post without much of a second thought. When I think back to myself two years ago, not knowing as much about the issues other minority groups faced, I thought about whether or not I would have responded. I don’t think my younger self would have jumped in—even if I had a gut feeling of discomfort. Not only would I have feared confrontation on a widely visible internet post, I would have been unsure of how to even articulate what I thought was wrong about the interaction.
With time, I learned that awareness is one of the most important parts of advocacy––it enables us to back up the gut feeling we have when something racist happens. Beyond this, intra-community discussion plays an important part in ensuring that we all have the tools necessary to support our peers of color when issues like Blackface posts occur within our communities. Ultimately, silence costs much more than discomfort. In an ideal situation, a Black student wouldn’t have had to even express their disapproval of the post—any Asian American student would have recognized how the post would be harmful.
An alternative would have been to not post the screenshot at all, but rather a description of the racist incident and create a plan for how to involve administration in getting the student appropriately reprimanded. The intricacies of activism fall in understanding nuances and opportunities to stop unnecessary emotional labor, even if it isn’t obvious at first that labor is being demanded. Through my own personal experiences, I’ve learned that there is an internal struggle between getting others to understand racial issues and rehashing trauma. Growing past our preconceived notions and ignorance is the first step towards furthering our own awareness. We must be aware of the thresholds we contain so as not to force others to overexert themselves—everyone is on their own unique path in engaging with different levels of discourse. We must attempt to understand our differences, and provide educated support with issues like blackface in hopes of continued solidarity.