Author’s note: I want to give a huge thanks to my friends who took time out of their busy lives to read over my jumble of words. Your notes were much needed and appreciated; any failings in this piece are all mine! Much love and many thanks.
If you can, please take time to check out the links embedded into this piece that are bolded and underlined. I hope I’ve provided enough resources to help learn more!
My fellow non-black Asians — especially Indonesians — let’s talk about Rich Brian. I think it’s time we actually address the anti-blackness that is so common among us, and work on destroying it within all the communities we may be a part of.
I don’t remember how I first found out about Rich Brian, but I think I saw a tweet that said he was an Indonesian rapper. It didn’t mention his name. I was curious, because I remember, at least up until 2012 when I was back in Indo, hip hop was not very big there. So to hear about an Indonesian rapper in the U.S. was pretty remarkable.
Then, I read more about him…and saw his stage name.
It was also a shock to find out he had just grown up in Jakarta and had never been to the U.S. before. From his music videos, he reminded me of the non-black Asian-Americans I’d grown up with and had seen on YouTube. The rapping, the adopted AAVE, the casual dropping of the N word — we could’ve gone to the same school. In fact, he could’ve been my brother.
But instead, he was born and raised in Indonesia. And, he’s not black. Which made his stage name and his use of the N word all the more jarring.
He’s since apologized for saying the N word. And after a whole two years from when he first dropped “Dat $tick” under his ugly, anti-black name, he actually changed his name this year before the release of his debut album. As he wrote in a January Instagram post:
“Yes I now go by “Rich Brian”. I have been planning to do this forever and I’m so happy to finally do it. I was naive & I made a mistake. new year, new beginning, happy new years™️ “SEE ME” OUT NOW. LINK IN BIO.”
It was a very strategic move. But, he does nothing to actually address what he’s done wrong and doesn’t take any real responsibility for his actions. Rich Brian told XXL in a 2016 interview: “The name is something I came up with a long ass time ago and I didn’t know what I was doing.” But then, he also told The Fader in a 2016 interview, “I was talking to my friend about it back then like, ‘Damn. What should I name it?’ And my friend was like, ‘Let’s pick the most controversial shit ever.’”
So, it could very well be a mistake chalked up to youthful indiscretion. But, it also sounds like he knew what he was doing: He wanted a name that would get him the most attention and he chose an anti-black name to do the job.
Rich Brian is 18 now — he took on that name when he was around 16. And while it’s possible that he has actually started learning about anti-blackness, I think it’s still very important that he actually addresses what he did wrong and takes responsibility for it.
I think he’s starting to get it, to a point. He said in a 2017 Genius video: “I was basically just trying to make people kind of like less sensitive to the word and just taking the power out of that word. But then, I realized I’m totally not in a position to do that.”
But, let’s go further. Why aren’t we, as non-black Indonesians, in a position to “take the power out” of the N word?
Because as non-black Indonesians in America, we are stepping into histories, perceptions, discrimination, policies that are different than black people in America.
Rich Brian may not be familiar with the ins and outs of America’s racism since he grew up in Indonesia. But he spent enough time on the internet to learn English fluently, and for all that time he spent searching for Rubik’s cube videos, he could’ve also googled “what is racism in America” or “why can’t I say the N word if I’m not black?”
So he can’t go back in time to undo his anti-black actions. But, he can (hopefully) start seriously thinking and learning about anti-blackness in America and how we, as non-black Indonesians, have been racialized in this country as Asian and what that means when it comes to how we can be complicit in upholding violent power structures.
Indonesians aren’t well-represented in the U.S.: As of 2015, there are only about 113,000 of us here, and we don’t even make the top 10 of Asian country-of-origin groups. Our immigration to the U.S. is considerably recent compared to people from other Asian countries, such as China and the Philippines.
How I came to understand my racialization as a non-black Asian-American has been a wild journey. I was always aware of race as a younger child; my parents made sure I didn’t have any illusions about what it meant to be an immigrant of color in America. And as I realized that I was being coded as Asian, I had to learn more about the history I was stepping into when I get racialized as Asian.
Race is a big deal in America and the racial hierarchy that was constructed wasn’t built yesterday. Without getting into the entire history of the country, the racial hierarchy that exists here places whiteness at the very top and blackness at the very bottom.
And, while race is a social construct, that social construction has real world implications when it comes to who gets what in this country. That means things like who gets housing, who gets education, and even who gets to live are affected by race because there are real policies in place to decide that.
THEORY OF RACIAL TRIANGULATION
So, where do non-black Asians fit in? Somewhere “in the middle,” in a sense.
That sort of “middling” is better explained in professor Claire Jean Kim’s theory of racial triangulation. As she explains, Asians in America were not “racialized in a vacuum, isolated from other groups.” We were racialized “relative to and through interaction with” white and black people, and so our racializations in this country are deeply connected.
So, again, where do non-black Asians fit in? Well, as Kim explains it, “racial triangulation” for Asians in America happens in these ways: (1) the dominant group, white people, upholds Asian-Americans over black Americans in order to keep their power over both groups, but (2) white people also construct Asian-Americans as “immutably foreign and unassimilable” with white culture so that Asian-Americans are kept out of participating in politics and stay subordinate.
Racial categories aren’t stagnant: They can change, they can be region-specific, but they do exist. And Kim gives detailed historical examples of how the racialization of Asian folks, in part through Chinese immigration, was formed, contested and evolved. The racialization of Asian folks in the U.S. has always been a process, but it’s been a process relative to whiteness and blackness. And in that process, many times, Asian folks have chosen to be closer to whiteness.
As Kim writes, “If the Black struggle for advancement has historically rested upon appeals to racial equality, the Asian American struggle has at times rested upon appeals to be considered White (and to be granted the myriad privileges bundled with Whiteness).” (112 Kim, C.J.)
So, what does this all mean? For non-black Asian folks in America, we are stepping into a history and racial hierarchy that has existed long before we came. And what we face as non-black Asians in America is directly shaped by this long history.
MODEL MINORITY MYTH
Another aspect of being racialized as a non-black Asian person in America is also understanding the “model minority” myth.
For those who aren’t familiar with this term, it’s usually couched in phrases like, “Asians are just hard-working” or “Asians don’t make too much of a fuss.” That sort of essentializing of perceived Asian characteristics didn’t just come out of thin air: it stems from the post-World War II era, when Japanese-Americans seemed to be making “a comeback” after internment.
Then, as Asian-Americans started being upheld as this model minority, this good minority, the question that followed was, if Asian-Americans as a minority can be so successful, why can’t other minorities, especially black people? Racial inequality is then framed as an individual problem, a problem of personal determination, rather than a systemic issue that is supported by years and years of racist policies.
Some scholars, like Ellen Wu, have also argued that Asian-Americans were actively involved in constructing the model minority myth. Wu told The Washington Post in a 2016 interview, “The model minority myth as we see it today was mainly an unintended outcome of earlier attempts by Asian-Americans to be accepted and recognized as human beings. They wanted to be seen as American people who were worthy of respect and dignity.”
“So for Asian-Americans, one survival strategy was to portray themselves as ‘good Americans,’” Wu added.
By positioning Asians as the “good minority” and black people as the “bad minority,” Kim argues that it gave (white) lawmakers the chance to rollback civil rights and race-conscious policies while seeming “anti-racist.” This positioning shifts the focus away from very real structural impediments, like “institutionalized White dominance.”
THE AMERICAN DREAM
And yet another aspect of being racialized as Asian in America means understanding how we came to this country.
Because how many Asian-Americans came to this country vs. how many African-Americans came to this country is profoundly different. Professor Elaine H. Kim illustrates how U.S. immigration policies have favored middle-class Asian immigrants — foreign students, merchants, professionals (3 Kim, E.H.). And how Asians came to America has greatly affected how we view this country and what “America” means to us. Because, as Kim notes, for many Native Americans, America is stolen land, and for many African-Americans, America is built on a legacy of slavery.
But, for “a large number of Asian Americans, especially of the recent immigrant generation that escaped from war, political upheaval, colonization, and barriers to social and economic mobility in the homeland, America has meant ‘promised land’ or ‘dream country,’” Kim argues (ibid).
That’s an aspect Rich Brian and I connect with on a personal level. My parents brought me here because they thought I would have better opportunities in America than in Indonesia. Rich Brian has always dreamed of coming to America and admired “American culture,” mimicking the American rappers he came to learn about. Through the internet, he had his own vision of an American dream.
But as much as the internet facilitates globalization and cultural exchanges to a point, there’s also context and history that gets lost in that sharing.
“PERFORMANCES OF BLACKNESS”
So, for those non-black Indonesians who love hip hop and want to delve deeper into it like Rich Brian, I want you to consider the context and history around it. Black artists in America created hip hop, and many were and still often are vilified and criminalized for the art form they founded and pushed forward.
A lot of non-black Indonesians — and Asians, in general — want to explore themselves through hip hop. That’s understandable — it’s the most popular music genre in America today. And though a number of Asian-American artists have been involved in hip hop early on, they’ve flown largely under the radar or become brief flashes in the genre.
But, it’s also important to understand how, as non-black Asians, we may use hip hop — or other aspects of black culture — to build our own identities; how, as non-white people, we turn to blackness to find ourselves.
Maybe it’s to reject assimilation to whiteness; maybe it’s to build up a lost masculinity; maybe it’s to reject Asian stereotypes of obedience and being apolitical. Whatever the case, there’s a complex, underlying relationship that exists between non-black Asians in America and looking to blackness to build our own identities.
Professor Daryl J. Maeda unpacks this relationship by looking at aspects of the Asian-American movement of the ‘60s and ‘70s that owe a lot to the civil rights and black power movements. Organizations like the Chinese-American group Red Guard Party were directly influenced by the Black Panther Party. And Frank Chin’s 1971 play, “The Chickencoop Chinaman,” rebuilds Asian masculinity by looking to black masculinity.
Maeda writes, ”Performances of blackness catalyzed the formation of Asian American identity. Far from being mere mimics, however, Asian Americans who began to consider their own racial positioning through contemplations of blackness went on to forge a distinct identity of their own.” (119 Maeda)
Maeda goes on to detail how playwright Frank Chin even said that Asian-Americans in his time, the ‘60s and ‘70s, started to “appropriate ‘blackness'” by what they wore, how they walked and how they talked.
So, there’s a legacy of non-black Asians and Asian-Americans turning to blackness to construct or explore our own identities, reject assimilation to whiteness, and build coalitions. And there’s also a legacy of non-black Asians and Asian-Americans being anti-black.
Being anti-black is not just limited to white people; it’s pervasive in Asian communities in America. Example: Asian-American shop owners targeting black customers. Example: When non-black Asian-Americans cry, “But what about us?” whenever black people achieve something and expect black people to champion the issues of all people of color when plenty of non-black people of color would not do the same for black people. Example: We only care about black lives when they benefit us.
So, with all that I’ve laid out, I hope it’s clear(er) why, as non-black Asians, we don’t have any business using the N word. Our different histories, different racializations mean our relationship with that word is different from black people. It’s still used to dehumanize and diminish black people. Even when the N word is hurled at non-black Asians, like the old part of Rich Brian’s name, “ch***a,” or “sand n**”, it’s using blackness as an insult. And that’s rooted in anti-blackness.
Besides, the English language has a wealth of racial slurs for all races, even anti-Asian slurs (go*k, ch**k, etc.). Go ahead and use those if you want.
PLEASE, JUST WRAP IT UP!
OK, so, major takeaways:
- Although Indonesians are a fairly small and new demographic in the U.S., non-black Indonesians generally get racialized as Asian. That racialization is important to understand because of how America operates — race has very real social, political, and economic outcomes in this country.
- There’s a long, complex history behind the racialization of non-black Asians. America’s racial hierarchy places whiteness at the top and blackness at the bottom. Non-black Asians experience a sort of “triangulation”; we’re upheld by whiteness as the “model minority” as a way to disparage black people, but we will never be accepted into whiteness because we get constructed as “foreign” and “unassimilable.” How many of us came to this country vs. how African-Americans came to this country has also shaped our respective histories and racializations.
- Non-black Asians in America — and even abroad — have looked to blackness to shape our own identities, especially when we want to reject assimilation to whiteness, rebuild our masculinity, destroy stereotypes of obedience, of uncoolness, etc. Yet in appropriating aspects of black culture to build ourselves up, we still participate in anti-blackness. We don’t see black people as people, and we’re only interested in taking from black culture to get the social — and actual — capital.
In his debut album “Amen,” Rich Brian raps about bringing “a thousand Indonesian kids” with him, meaning his success is not just for himself.
For many non-black Asians and Asian-Americans, representation and visibility in music, film, TV, writing, politics, etc. is a major issue. Indonesians are especially starved for representation in the U.S. market, which is why Rich Brian has seen such devotion. As non-black Asians, we often masquerade our journey as “building Asian representation,” yet we rarely question our complicity within a country that systematically kills and marginalizes black people.
As a non-black Asian-American, I’m always in the process of fighting my own anti-blackness. I’m also always learning. Anti-blackness is pervasive, it’s global, and it has real effects on black people’s lives.
So, in our quest to put our communities on the map, are we willing to participate in anti-blackness to do it? Are we OK with just uncritically consuming and regurgitating aspects of black culture just so we can build our own identities and get ahead?
Or, are we willing to unlearn and explicitly address our anti-blackness so that we can unpack it, destroy it, and become committed to fighting anti-blackness within our respective Asian communities?