I rarely remember the specifics from family gatherings. There have just been so many over the years with at least 10 people, laughing loudly or shouting to be heard over the noise. It’s hard to hear your own thoughts with that many people around, much less remember them later. But I do remember one specific moment from a gathering a few summers ago when my teenage cousins and I were talking and one of our youngest cousins wandered over. I don’t remember what we were talking about — maybe beauty standards or our favorite actresses — but I remember feeling horrified when he interjected with his opinion.
“She’s Black, not beautiful,” he said.
He was six years old.
It’s an open secret that Asian communities — including the South Asian community I belong to — have an anti-Blackness problem, stemming from colorism issues caused by white colonization of Asian countries. In some Asian countries, the idea of lighter skin being more desirable existed before colonization. India is a prime example since its caste system glorified Aryans (white foreigners) as early as 1500 BC. Colonization by Europeans compounded these values, shaping them into the pervasive biases we see today. These white imperialists had a higher social status than the Asians they subjected to their rule, which, University of San Francisco professor Monisha Bajaj notes, led to “notions of beauty and worth attached to skin color” flourishing among Asians.
First-generation Asian Americans often aren’t even aware that anti-Black values are a problem because these beliefs are generational and deeply rooted. However, this isn’t a problem exclusive to the first generation: It affects their kids as well. Asian children like my cousin grow up internalizing anti-Black and colorist rhetoric from the time they’re born. Without any intervention, they continue the cycle started by their parents by perpetrating anti-Black values.
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To break the cycle, Asian youth face the challenging task of explaining to older generations why their beliefs are discriminatory against Black people and should be discarded. The Letters for Black Lives project aims to help Asian Americans do just that.
Started on July 7, 2016, this project aims to equip the younger generation with the words they need to speak to elder family members about anti-Black sentiments within their communities. Christina Xu, the founder of the project, came up with the idea of writing a letter because she wanted to convince her parents and other Chinese Americans to support the Black Lives Matter movement, a mission that took on increased urgency after the back-to-back deaths of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling in July 2016.
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The first letter was published in English on July 11, after dozens of contributors worked together to draft it on a Google Doc. Since then, the letter has passed through the hands of hundreds of people who have helped translate it into more than 50 languages, including Hindi, Bengali, Tamil, and other Indian languages.
“The original intent of this letter was to serve as a multilingual resource for Asian Americans who wanted to talk to their immigrant parents about anti-Blackness and police violence, but the project has since expanded to include messaging for Latinx and African immigrants as well as people living in Canada and Europe,” the project’s writers said.
What started as a way to help Asian Americans have important conversations with their elders has taken on an international significance, equipping people across various cultures and borders with the words they need to open dialogues about racism in their communities.
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A second version of the letter was created in 2020, following the death of George Floyd, to facilitate discussion of the subsequent Black Lives Matter protests. During that time, protesters were peddled as violent by some news outlets despite over 90% of BLM protests being peaceful. Close to 30% of Asian Americans don’t support BLM, likely caused in part by this warped view. The second letter discusses the unfair reality of police violence that Black Americans experience to help readers understand why the protests happened and why protestors deserved support.
“Part of that support means speaking up when I see people in my community — even my own family — say or do things that diminish the humanity of Black people,” the letter states. “Our silence has a cost and we need to talk about it.”
Both letters have been dedicated to the public domain by the writers for people to adapt and use as they please. By doing this, the project’s writers hoped to encourage people to build off the letters and create resources to supplement the ideas introduced in them.
Ultimately, that’s what these letters are: conversation starters. Anti-Blackness has historical roots in Asian communities and it can’t be uprooted overnight. It takes a continued commitment and multiple conversations to make headway, but change is possible – we just need to keep working at it.