Asians coded as black by black activists

From the early-century work of Marcus Garvey, to the anti-imperialist political organizations of the U.S. 1960s like the Revolutionary Action Movement, African American political writers like Robert F. Williams, Max Stanford, and James Boggs would come to use “black” to describe not just all peoples of color across Africa, Latin America, and Asia but the vanguard class of world revolution. This logic of equivalence, or relationality, derived from intellectual linkages between racial (or national) and class-based theories of analysis that necessarily bridged the hemispheres of struggle. This reconciliation became its own dialectical movement within Western Enlightenment discourse — not identity or hybridity movements, though they have been transformed at times into such, but a movement to reimagine black and Asian people as handholding grave diggers of Western capitalist modernity. 

— Bill Mullens, Afro-Orientalism, xxv. 

Half a year ago or so on Tumblr, I remember there being a rather vicious argument between some folks on Tumblr and an Asian American blogger who pointed out the history of Asians coded as black. I believe the focus was on South Asians who were, according to British officials, black. Naturally, such a historical fact was deemed unacceptable to those who want to believe that blackness is somehow a historically exceptional experience, and that anyone who is even a little yellow or brown cannot possibly have experienced legally institutionalized forms of “blackening” by white supremacists. 

What few people actually know or recognize is that even black activists during the 1960s, as exemplified by the opening quote, took the gesture to code Asians as black. W.E.B. Du Bois, in recognizing China’s “darkness” and potential as an anticolonial power, even believed that China could somehow “save” Africa, and wrote numerous articles, gave talks, and even a poem, on this: 

Until the Devil rose and ruled in Europe and America,
Worshipping Greed, proclaiming God, enchaining his
Preaching freedom, practicing Slavery
Making Africans the Niggers of the World.

To be mocked and spit upon,
To be crucified! Dead and buried!
But Africa is not dead; she never died, she never
She writes in sleep; the century of her degradation
She struggles to awake.

Help her China!
Help her, Dark People, who half-shared her slavery;
Who know the depths of her sorrow and humiliation;
Help her, not in Charity,

But in glorious resurrection of that day to be,
When the Black Man lives again
And sings the Songs of the Ages!

— Excerpt from W.E.B. Du Bois, “I Sing to China”

China rendered as “dark” by Du Bois is important to consider. Why would one of the most important African American intellectuals in history intentionally use the language of darkness to describe China? What most people do not know is that the reason why many black activists during the early and mid-20th century considered Asia as dark or even “black” was due to the historical “negrification” (which is a term used by black and Asian American scholars alike) of Asian immigrants which began during the mid-1800s. As Hazel McFerson points out:

The first waves of Chinese immigrants in America were stigmatized by a process of negrifying their socio-racial status, in which they, along with Filipinos in the American-colonized Philippines, were deemed as akin to Negroes. Chinese immigrants, arriving in the mid-eighteen hundreds, were perceived by whites as a “black,” marginalized, “other” comparable to African Americans in the racial imagination of white society….Chinese immigrants found that racial qualities previously assigned to blacks quickly became ‘Chinese’ characteristics. White workers referred to the Chinese as “nagurs,” and a magazine cartoon depicted the Chinese as a blood-sucking vampire with slanted eyes, a pigtail, dark skin, and thick lips. Like blacks, the Chinese were described as heathen, morally inferior, savage, childlike, and lustful. Chinese women were condemned as a “depraved class,” and their depravity was associated with their physical appearance…Chinese men were seen as sensuous creatures, especially interested in white women, echoing the myth of the sexually-powerful black man. 

— Excerpt from Hazel McFerson, “Asians and African Americans in Historical Perspective” 

What is also important to understand is that South Asians and South East Asians (such as Indians and Filipinos) were racially coded as straight up black. This was not a metaphorical blackening, but a historically and legally institutionalized form of race coding. This racial coding/positioning of Asians as black is just one reason for historical Afro-Asian alliances that began as early as 1869, when Fredrick Douglass declared, “I want a home here to only for the negro, the mulatto, and the Latin races, but I want the Asiatic to find a home here in the United States, and feel at home here, both for his sake and for ours….Contact with these yellow children of the Celestial Empire would convince us that the points of human difference, great as they, upon first sight, seem, are as nothing compared with the points of human agreement. Such contact would remove mountains of prejudice.” 

It is astounding to take a step back and see just how much Afro-Asian alliances have frayed since its heyday in the 1960s and 1970s, to the degree that Asian Americans who point out the historical positioning of Asians as legally and institutionally black are charged as antiblack and white-identifying for giving a factually-correct gloss of Asian history, and non-Asian POCs think it’s okay to claim that Asians are not POC, did not stand in solidarity with blacks during the Black Power Movement, and somehow have had such a better experience than other POCs in general. (Oh, and, Green Onion, if you’re reading this — it just occurred to me that you were stupid enough to try and say Asians did nothing when Native Americans were being scalped. Did you know that Chinese men were targeted for their queues which were forcibly cut off, and usually resulted in their deaths? Their queues, which, by the way, were connected to their scalps? Maybe the reason why Asians “did nothing” about Native Americans being scalped is because they were too busy being scalped, lynched, and murdered.)

What is also extremely disappointing is realizing how little people actually know, not only about Asian American history (which people tend to know little to absolutely nothing about), but also about Afro-Asian alliances and the Black and Yellow Power Movements as a whole. 

I encourage those of you who claim to be antiracist activists to look into history to understand how we got here. 

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