Foon Rhee

After Charlottesville, where do Asian Americans fit in the conversation on race?

Trump calls out KKK, neo-Nazis in condemning Charlottesville violence

President Trump calls out the KKK, neo-Nazis and other hate groups in condemning Saturday's violence in Charlottesville.
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President Trump calls out the KKK, neo-Nazis and other hate groups in condemning Saturday's violence in Charlottesville.

The idea of America as a post-racial society was always more a fantasy than reality. What happened in Charlottesville, Va., and the reaction since is proof positive that race still matters a lot – and that there are still racists among us.


I’ve been reluctant to write about this issue, especially since so much has been written already. But part of my caution is also because as an Asian American, I’m not always sure where to fit in when the debate focuses on the Civil War and white supremacists. Somehow, it doesn’t seem enough just to want America to embrace our precious diversity. It seems like an empty cliché to trust that most Americans believe in Martin Luther King Jr.’s plea that we all be judged by the content of our character, not our skin color.

I suspect other Asian Americans had a similar out-of-place feeling when they heard President Donald Trump’s latest rant on Charlottesville. He told supporters in Phoenix on Tuesday night that unlike what the fake news media had reported, he cares for all Americans: “I didn’t say I love you because you’re black, or I love you ’cause you’re white, or I love you because you’re from (long pause) from Japan.”

That leaves out the rest of the 20 million Asian Americans who weren’t born in Japan, including the one-third born in America, but, as we know, facts aren’t Trump’s strength.

Maybe Elaine Chao – who was born in Taiwan and is the only Asian American in Trump’s cabinet – was also feeling some of that awkwardness standing next to the president last week as he lumped neo-Nazis and peaceful protesters together and stood up for Confederate memorials. Since, Chao has been chastised by some Asian-American advocacy groups for not speaking out, but other groups defended her, saying that her “life and career are an inspiration to Asian Americans throughout our country.”

Sometimes, Asian Americans just get caught in the middle. Ask Robert Lee, who has the misfortune to share a name with the Confederate general. ESPN pulled him from announcing the University of Virginia’s first home football game of the season next month in Charlottesville. How ridiculous is that?

You’d hope that post-Charlottesville, there’d be more honest conversation about race – one that includes all ethnic groups. Then again, we always say that after these terrible incidents. Barack Obama, our first black president, tried to lead the discussion, but according to the polls, most American believe race relations worsened during his presidency.

Real progress seems even less likely when our president is someone like Trump. He is crusading against immigrants, both undocumented and legal, and says and tweets racially insensitive things as a matter of course.

Hearing Trump’s Phoenix quote again – satirized Thursday night on “Saturday Night Live Weekend Update” – helped me focus my thoughts on this issue. While I certainly don’t pretend, or want, to be a representative of other Asian Americans, I do think parts of my experience will be familiar to some.

Growing up, there were so few Asians in most places I lived that I was mostly a curiosity. Probably because of that, I had to deal with fewer racially tinged slights or incidents. I tried not to be too sensitive to being confused as Chinese or Japanese instead of Korean.

Because I wasn’t more outspoken advocating for Asian Americans, I’ve been accused more than once of being a “banana” – yellow on the outside, white on the inside.

In college, I focused on the 1960s civil rights movement and was the only Asian American in my African-American studies classes. When I covered civil rights events for my college newspaper, I was often the only Asian in the crowd. I wrote a series of articles about racial preferences in admissions – which I thought were sympathetic to black students – but I was denounced at a rally by the Black Student Alliance.

While I spent my entire career as a news reporter in the South, I’ve only directly confronted racism a few times. Thirty years later, I can still see clearly in my mind’s eye covering a Klan march in North Carolina where parents dressed up their little children in white robes, and being shocked when a man just convicted of burning a cross in the yard of an interracial couple spit at me and called me a “chink bastard.”

Those memories came back as I listened to a sermon this past Sunday that touched on Charlottesville and reminded us that we can hate the message, but not the messenger, and that our goal is not damnation, but redemption.

That is the Christian thing to do – and it’s what all Americans should do, whatever our race or ethnicity. But, Lord knows, sometimes it isn’t easy.

Foon Rhee: 916-321-1913, @foonrhee