Authors: Ijeoma Oluo
Common struggle with other people of color.
“Why can’t you be like the Asians? They come here with nothing and work hard and make themselves into a great success. You aren’t oppressed, you’re just lazy.” This is a common refrain that many non-Asian people of color hear from white people when they try to address systemic racism
in America. The model minority myth is often used to separate Asian Americans from other people of color by using their perceived socioeconomic and academic success and docile nature to compare and contrast with black Americans, Hispanic Americans, and Native Americans. This divide-and-conquer technique serves to redirect struggle against oppressive White Supremacy to competition between Asian Americans
and other people of color. The real animosity between some Asian Americans and other people of color that has been manufactured by the model minority myth prevents Asian Americans and non-Asian people of color from recognizing and organizing around shared experiences of labor exploitation, lack of government representation, lack of pop culture representation, cultural appropriation, and much
This is just a small sample of the many ways in which the racist model minority myth harms Asian Americans. The model minority myth is not a myth designed to benefit Asian Americans, it was designed to benefit White Supremacy through the exploitation of Asian American labor, the neglect of poor and disenfranchised Asian Americans, the exotification of Asian American culture, the exclusion
of Asian Americans from systems of power, the sexual exploitation of Asian American women, and the comparison of the model minority status of Asian Americans to other racial minorities in order to delegitimize the claims of oppression and the struggles of black and Hispanic Americans.
If you want to fight racism in America, you have to fight the model minority myth. Far too often, this wide-reaching
form of racism is left out of our discussions on issues of racial oppression and discrimination. Far too often our Asian American friends and neighbors are not offered a seat at the equality and anti-racism table, and far too often their own efforts at combating anti-Asian racism are ignored by the broader social justice community. Non-Asians must try to prioritize Asian American issues and
voices just as we should prioritize the issues and voices of other racial minorities in not only our social justice efforts, but also our government, our board rooms, and our film and television screens. We must be willing to listen and learn when we are called out for our anti-Asian microaggressions and our complicity in the model minority myth. We must be willing to fight the white supremacist
narrative designed to divide Asian Americans from other racial and ethnic groups in the US and to fight for their freedom and equality as we do our own. And finally, Asian and non-Asian people of color must stop believing the hype: we are not in competition for the biggest slice of the white supremacist pie. We will never be free until we are all seen and valued for our unique culture, history, talents,
and challenges. We cannot win this battle against racism if we do not realize that there is no set of racial or ethnic stereotypes that will set us free, no matter how appealing they seem on the surface.
WAS A KID
Jr. and I did not like Malcolm X. Those two thoughts were always linked for me. There were two sides to the fight for racial justice: MLK was on one, Malcolm was on the other. Malcolm and Martin had always been presented in this dichotomy to me and to many other Americans. Martin was on the side of love and
equality; Malcolm was on the side of anger and separation.
This was taught in school and in popular culture and even at home. “Martin Luther King wanted a world without color” people would also say. “Malcolm X hated white people,” they would also say. We learned all about Martin Luther King, the pacifist who loved America into racial harmony. We heard cherry-picked segments of his speeches, talking
about little black and white children living in peace. We saw King walk side by side with white people on the path to a post-race America.
Malcolm we saw as the cautionary tale, what could happen if you let your bitterness at racial oppression get to you. We saw Malcolm as a man corrupted by hate that made him no better than his oppressors. Whereas Martin’s death was seen as the martyrdom of
a legend, Malcolm’s death was no more than a natural consequence of being black and angry.
This same Martin/Malcolm dichotomy is applied to all people of color, and especially black people, who fight for racial justice. A few of us are good and worthy of support. Those of us who manage to say “not all white people” enough, who manage to say please, who never talk of anger, who avoid words like
“justice,” who keep our indictments abstract and never specific—we are the Martins. Those of us who shout, who inconvenience your day, who call out your specific behavior, who say “black” loudly and proudly—we are the Malcolms.
And while the image of Malcolm X has been swapped out for the image of Al Sharpton, or Jesse Jackson, the impact of being labeled as such is the same—you are not worthy
of support, your cause is corrupt, you are why people will not fight for you.
This is a message I receive on a regular basis. I receive Facebook comments, Twitter DMs, and emails telling me that “people like me” are the reason why race relations are as bad as they are. My insistence on voicing my anger, on using terms like “White Supremacy” and “racist” to define White Supremacy and things that
are racist, my insistence on being seen and acknowledged as black—that is the real issue. White people would love to join me in my fight for freedom and justice, but I’ve made it too unpleasant for them.
These comments used to sting, they used to take me aback. They called to all of the messaging that I and so many other black people had been inundated with their entire lives—there are black
people who deserve equality, and black people who don’t—and if you don’t, you have nobody to blame but yourself. I would second-guess myself, check my language, quiet my voice. But a quieter, gentler voice did not bring a quieter, gentler world. All it did was give people the impression that I was okay with living like a second-class citizen. All it did was increase my burden.
But here’s the
thing: Martin Luther King was not the “MLK” of his time, not the “MLK” of legend. Martin Luther King was public enemy number one. Seen as an even greater threat by our government, and a large portion of society, than Malcolm X was. Because what Martin Luther King Jr and Malcolm X fought for was the same: freedom from oppression. At times they used different words and different tactics, but it was
their goal that was the threat. Their goal of freedom from racial oppression was and is a direct threat to the system of White Supremacy. And for all of Martin’s actions of peace and love, he was targeted with violence, harassed, arrested, blackmailed, followed by the FBI, and eventually murdered. For all of the pedestals MLK is now put on, far above the reach of ordinary black Americans, Martin was
in his life viewed as the most dangerous man in America. Martin was the black man who asked for too much, too loudly. Martin was why white America couldn’t support equality. Because no matter what we ask for, if it threatens the system of White Supremacy, it will always be seen as too much.
When we were slaves nursing their babies, we were not nice enough. When we were maids cleaning their homes
we were not nice enough. When we were porters shining their shoes we were not nice enough. And when we danced and sang for their entertainment we were not nice enough.
For hundreds of years we have been told that the path to freedom from racial oppression lies in our virtue, that our humanity must be earned. We simply don’t
So when people say that they don’t like my tone,
or when they say they can’t support the “militancy” of Black Lives Matter, or when they say that it would be easier if we just didn’t talk about race all the time—I ask one question:
Do you believe in justice and equality?
Because if you believe in justice and equality you believe in it all of the time, for all people. You believe in it for newborn babies, you believe in it for single mothers,
you believe in it for kids in the street, you believe in justice and equality for people you like and people you don’t. You believe in it for people who don’t say please.
And if there was anything I could say or do that would convince someone that I or people like me don’t deserve justice or equality, then they never believed in justice and equality in the first place.
Yes, I am a Malcolm. And
Martin, and Angela, Marcus, Rosa, Biko, Baldwin, Assata, Harriet, and Nina. I’m fighting for liberation. I’m filled with righteous anger and love. I’m shouting, as all before me have in their way. And I’m a human being who was born deserving justice and equality, and that is all you should need to know in order to stand by my side.
E WILL NEVER GET ANYWHERE IF YOU ARE GOING TO
resort to insults.”
“This is why nobody wants to help you.”
“If you want white people to help you, you should be nicer to them.”
“Why are they so angry? It makes it hard for people to support them.”
Let’s talk about tone policing. If you’ve had conversations about social justice on the Internet you’ve likely heard this term. When I talk about tone policing with people online or in person, I find that many people
don’t fully understand what it means, they just know that it’s not something they want to be accused of.
Maybe tone policing is something you’ve been accused of yourself. You were having a conversation about race and things started to get heated. You were just trying to keep things calm and civil and BAM!—you’ve been found guilty of “tone policing.”
You’ve been found guilty, and you aren’t quite
sure how, but suddenly you have been deemed “the problem.” What gives?
“Tone policing” is an important term to understand if you want to have productive conversations about race and if you have been tone policing, you’ve been doing something harmful—whether you mean to or not.
So what is tone policing? Tone policing is when someone (usually the privileged person) in a conversation or situation
about oppression shifts the focus of the conversation from the oppression being discussed to the
it is being discussed. Tone policing prioritizes the comfort of the privileged person in the situation over the oppression of the disadvantaged person. This is something that can happen in a conversation, but can also apply to critiques of entire civil rights organizations and movements.
damagingly, tone policing places prerequisites on being heard and being helped.
You may be reading the above and thinking, “well, that sounds like a healthy way to avoid stressful and harmful conversations. Isn’t that how we’re taught to handle people who are treating us with disrespect? Aren’t we supposed to stand up for ourselves if people are being mean or rude?” First, let me be clear that
accusations of tone policing don’t apply to actual abuse—threats and violence are not okay. Neither is bringing more oppression into the conversation as a weapon against oppressors (say, using ableist slurs in response to racism). But hurt feelings and rudeness are not oppression, and will always come second to the oppression being discussed. For a simple disagreement about, say, who should take
the garbage out, it would be reasonable to insist that people don’t start shouting. But conversations on race and systemic oppression are never that simple.
This isn’t your typical household or workplace argument. No discussion about racism is just about one incident for people of color, because we cannot divorce ourselves from the past pain of systemic racism, or the future repercussions of
current abuse. When people of color talk about systemic racism, far more than feelings have been hurt and far more than feelings are at stake. When people of color are talking about racism, no matter the immediate subject, they are also always talking about lifelong abuse at the hands of society.
When I talk about police brutality, I am talking about the pain of seeing black men and women shot
like dogs in the street, the fear for myself and my brothers and sons, the rage that we won’t see justice. When you talk about oppression with oppressed people, you are talking with hurt, scared, angry, and grieving people.
If you’ve been privileged enough to not suffer from the cumulative effects of systemic racism and are therefore able to look at racially charged situations one at a time,
and then let it go, please recognize that very few people of color are able to enter into discussions on racism with the same freedom.
When people of color speak out about systemic racism, they are opening up all of that pain and fear and anger to you. They are not doing this because they enjoy it; it is an incredibly painful and vulnerable experience. We do this because we have to, because systemic
racism is killing us. And yes, that pain and fear and anger will sometimes show in our words and our actions. But to see all that pain, and how we fight still after entire lifetimes of struggle—and then to tell us to be more polite is just plain cruel.
To refuse to listen to someone’s cries for justice and equality until the request comes in a language you feel comfortable with is a way of asserting
your dominance over them in the situation. The oppressed person reaching out to you is already disadvantaged by the oppression they are trying to address. By tone policing, you are increasing that disadvantage by insisting that you get to determine if their grievances are valid and will only decide they are so if, on top of everything they are already enduring, they make the effort to prioritize
your comfort. Whether you are consciously meaning to do this or not, this is the effect tone policing has on people of color.
There will always be people within movements that you do not like. There will always be actions that people within movements take that you will not agree with. And you certainly do not have to blindly follow a movement just because you believe in the cause—in fact, it’s
very important that you always keep your eyes open and stay true to your morals.
But do not let your feelings about a person within the movement become the focus of your work toward fighting racial oppression. Even if you do not agree with the way in which someone is going about their fight for racial justice, recognize when they are indeed fighting for it, and that you do have the same goals.
When you instead shift your focus to getting people of color to fight oppression in a way in which you approve, racial justice is no longer your main goal—your approval is. Find areas of the movement for equality with which you feel confident that the main goal is equality and within which you do not feel that you are violating your principles. Do work there, and where that work coincides with the
work of others, join hands. Remember, this isn’t about you, and it isn’t about the person in the movement that you do not like.
Work will be, and constantly is, done within movements to make them more effective. Critique already exists from within, rest assured. Movements grow and change. Do not think that there is a complaint against a member of the racial justice movement that you could lodge
that has not already being debated. But know that if you are a privileged person trying to impose your wishes on social justice movements,
you are trying to remake that movement in your image, which is exactly what social justice movements are fighting against.
F YOU ARE A WHITE PERSON CONCERNED WITH FIGHTING
racial oppression, and you want to avoid this sort of tone policing behavior and stay
focused on being a true ally in the battle against racism, here are some things to remember:
Be aware of the limits of your empathy.
Your privilege will keep you from fully understanding the pain caused to people of color by systemic racism, but just because you cannot understand it, that does not make it any less real.
Don’t distract or deflect.
The core issue
in discussions of racism and systemic oppression will always be racism and systemic oppression.
Remember your goal.
Your main goal, if you consider yourself an ally, should always be to end systemic racism.
Drop the prerequisites.
That goal should not have any preconditions on it. You are fighting systemic racism because it is your moral obligation, and that obligation
is yours as long as systemic racism exists, pure and simple.
Walk away if you must, but don’t give up.
If you simply cannot abide an oppressed person or group’s language or methods, step aside and find where you can help elsewhere.
Build a tolerance for discomfort.
You must get used to being uncomfortable and get used to this not being about your feelings if you
plan to help and not hinder people of color in their efforts for racial justice.
You are not doing any favors, you are doing what is right.
If you are white, remember that White Supremacy is a system you benefit from and that your privilege has helped to uphold. Your efforts to dismantle White Supremacy are expected of decent people who believe in justice. You are not owed gratitude
or friendship from people of color for your efforts. We are not thanked for cleaning our own houses.