Tou Thao also Murdered George Floyd
Along with three others, Tou Thao murdered George Floyd. For 8 minutes and 46 seconds, Thao watched and guarded Chauvin as he asphyxiated a pinned, choking, and finally non-responsive man, uncaring about the human life they were all grinding into dust. Nothing excuses Thao. Not his thoughts. Not his facial expressions. Not his unmarked knee. I almost feel betrayed when reflecting upon the fact that Thao is of Asian descent, but his participation in cold-blooded murder is just a particularly striking representation of the apathy and racial bigotry in many Asian communities.
I get the feeling that many of Asian immigrant origin believe themselves to be living in the interstices of history. After all, what is the desire to immigrate but the need to escape history, to flee theft, instability, domination, and war? In new lands, we try to craft new histories of hope to dispel the lifetimes of despair. Understandably, this desire conceals that not all can neglect history like we can, for the moment, encouraging us to keep only those stories that elevate our own experiences: determined, hard-working, law-abiding, deserving.
Nevertheless, we cannot remain outside of history’s relentless pursuit, no matter where we try to raise our children. Living in Canada means living on and benefiting from stolen Indigenous land, where our tax dollars and political consent permit the disproportionate state violence and neglect visited upon Black and Indigenous people. Canada has not eradicated oppression, despite the words wasted about why it is better than the United States. What comfort is it to the incarcerated, the surveilled, or the deprived that some statistics are different, that Canadians are less vocal about their racism, or that Canada has Justin Trudeau instead of Donald Trump?
We appeal to economic necessity both to shift responsibility and excuse inaction. As a child, I remember passing by a person who was homeless; my father scoffed at the sign requesting spare change, imperiously declaring both that employment at McDonald’s was easily had and that “freeloading” was the most unforgivable sin. I was not yet attuned enough to the guilt of my own country to respond that McDonald’s, let alone other places that employ “unskilled” labour, does not pay a living wage, even assuming that one could obtain a job with neither home nor transportation, even forgetting the discrimination, instability, and multitudinous mental and physical health challenges that many who are homeless face. None of these reasons registered for my father because of the belief that if I can make it in this country, then anybody else can, regardless of the uniqueness of social circumstance or of the caprice of individual fortune. If I can make it, then surely all of these Black and Indigenous folks can if they stop complaining, stop being lazy, and work harder. Surely the police would not violate your rights if you were more law-abiding and deferential.
Even once we have established ourselves firmly in new soil, we refuse to inherit and atone for the sins of our adopted country, despite particiating in spoils that are often themselves the product of theft. One reason for this reluctance is an attachment to a mindset of scarcity, developed to survive the onslaughts of material privation passed down through generations. I empathize with the mindset of scarcity for I also bear its imprints, notwithstanding the relative economic, educational, and citizenship privileges that I now hold. Indeed, many families still and will continue to live precariously, but let’s not kid ourselves that privilege and power are allocated uniformly. In spite of numerous economic and social hardships, many Asian immigrant families are prosperous members of the upper and middle classes, with the time and the resources to do something to correct injustice, be it education, donation, or political agitation. I include myself in this category, for I have not been innocent either.
This is not to say that the plague of racism does not mark Asian communities. I cannot extricate my appreciation for having grown up in Canada from the doubts cast about my identity, from the cultural shame that has disconnected me from a deeper relationship with my lineage, to the exclusion from a community of belonging that is my birthright. This is also not to forget the disparities within the umbrella term “Asian”: virulent, inter-Asian racism and colourism are alive and well, reenacting discrimination on our own stages and in our own languages. Yet, our own obstacles do not negate the obstacles of others, not to mention that many different struggles intersect at the nexus of white supremacy.
Even if fights do not perfectly align, a condition of living in a liberal democracy is a shared commitment to each other’s well-being. Without these webs of understanding, faction becomes fate as society unravels, straining to support the better angels of our nature until our common bonds snap. Considerations of only insular self-interest, especially in the context of mass violence and suffering, sow the resentment from which grows conflict. If there is no justice, there will be no peace.
Despite this consideration, I remember hearing a particular excuse for political apathy: things always seem to work out, so it doesn’t pay to care too much. If I am able to ignore this problem, then I should focus on other things and let others worry about it. If anything is freeloading, then this is it: the unearned benefit not only of the problem solved, but also of the harmony in society made possible by justice. Asian immigrant communities are not innocent of this debt, much as we like to boast about pulling ourselves up by our own bootstraps. Liberal immigration and citizenship laws were paid for by civil rights agitation. Without these crusades to shatter the gates of exclusion, it’s difficult to believe that Canada or the United States would have allowed many more people of colour to enter the orchards of opportunity, let alone to enjoy the fruits of citizenship. That we are here at all demands payment in kind to topple the oppressive systems bearing down on our Black and Indigenous kin.
One could also interpret this apathetic optimism to be a corruption of MLK’s idea that the arc of the moral universe bends eventually towards justice; we can forget that there is always somebody who forces the arc to bend, for rarely do those in power relinquish it without some form of protest. In either case, inaction in the face of injustice is the abdication of a role central for a just, peaceful society.
We are left with what can be done in opposition to injustice. I often hear that little or nothing can be achieved; ignorance is forgivable, but not laziness, all other things being equal. We can cast educated ballots, donate to civil liberties organizations, protest in public spaces, and demand action from politicians. The possibility of failure is no reason not to try; indeed, there is some evidence that we are already succeeding. In our own lines of work, we can correct bigoted language, smash arbitrary barriers to entry, and amplify the voices and stories of those who are marginalized. I am guilty of expecting better of people than apathy, and for wanting better for my home than the consistent denial of justice.
Thanks to Tony Basu, Rudra Patel, Kevin Wang, and Iara Santelices for comments on a draft of this piece.