By: Chandarith Moeun
Chandarith Moeun, a Cambodian American who grew up in Mexico, Maine and helped found the Mountain Valley High School Civil Rights Team, is an illustrator and voice actor. We've divided his narrative into five sections and we'll be sharing them daily for the next five days. We hope you'll join us as we listen to Chandarith speak his truth. And follow him on Twitter @chadouken and IG @chad0uken! Throughout this series, Chandarith has embedded links within the narrative to provide readers with more information. Please use them! Please note this piece contains triggering content, including racial violence and language. Scroll down to read pts. 1 - 3.
Illustration by Chandarith Moeun
It’s complicated. Asian Americans have long been used as a racially divisive tool in America. We were labeled 'Model Minorities' to paint other minorities as problematic, and a lot of Asian immigrants leaned into it because it framed Asian Americans as hard-working and high achieving. It made it easy to show off Asian excellence, but ignored problems like Asian poverty. The label built harmful stereotypes into the minds of the American public, and minimized the inequality of Asian Americans. This idea has a past of using Asian people and discarding them when no longer needed. Here’s some really watered down history: to build America’s railways, in the 1800’s, the Central Pacific Railroad hired scores of Chinese laborers that came to the US amid California’s gold rush. They were hired, mostly in part because white workers didn’t want to sign up, and were then forced to do the more dangerous and grueling work, for less pay. Resentment, violence, and racism against the Chinese brewed, so naturally, the US government passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. This banned all Chinese laborers from entering the country, despite all the work they had done for America’s infrastructure. Then, in the 1940’s, when fears that the US/Chinese alliance against Japan was in danger because of their earlier Exclusion act, the American government opted to repeal it. This took some work, as they had to allay fears of Yellow Peril, so they strategically put out materials to portray Chinese people as “law-abiding, peace-loving, courteous people living quietly among us.” Around that same time, Japanese Americans were unjustly put in internment camps. This was supposedly due to fears of espionage, but it was really so white farmers could seize their land. Japanese American soldiers fought some of the most dangerous battles for the US, while their families lost everything. Time and time again, Asian people are lifted up or tasked with service for this country, and then routinely cast aside when we’re politically convenient scapegoats. It’s almost like a brutal reminder for Asian people that like to align themselves as white-adjacent. As a Southeast Asian man, I’ve been on the other end of the model minority myth. I’ve experienced colorism from East Asian people, who looked down on me because of the color of my skin. When I heard of Black people facing discrimation from Asians, I instantly understood it on a personal level. From what I can tell, many Asian immigrants have had some difficulty fully understanding the context of these race relations. They didn’t grow up learning about the racial strife in this country, and as such, it’s led to bad outcomes. In the events preceding the 1992 LA riots, there was a lot of bad blood between the Black and Asian communities. Korean immigrants opened up shop in black neighborhoods during a time of economic hardship. While they were willing to accept the community’s money, the Black community felt that Koreans weren’t willing or didn’t think to invest that money back into the neighborhood. This caused resentment, and as such, Asian shops were seen as easy and frequent targets for robberies. Many Asian people grew to fear and hate Black people, and the tensions escalated. This eventually led to the murder of Latasha Harlins, a 15 year old black girl. During the LA riots, both Asian and Black people were abandoned by the LAPD. $1 Billion worth of property damage. 7,000 fires. 53 people dead. It took time, Kobe Bryant, and real community outreach from both sides for things to get better. Communication and advocacy. Not guns. Not assaults. Not insults. Unity. When I read about African American history, it really hit home just how much of our struggles overlapped. We both suffer from systemic inequality. We both struggle for representation. We both have incredibly deep, beautiful cultures, and we both have felt that this country that we love and sacrifice so much for, does not love us back in return. to be continued...