I caught anti-racism activist Scot Nakagawa’s online action at Tumblr when an excerpt of his post, “Why I, An Asian Man, Fight Anti-black Racism,” cross-posted at Dominion of New York from his own blog, Racefiles, was getting reblogged and liked all throughout that scene. (N.B. The title also changed. Same essay, though.)
I’m often asked why I’ve focused so much more on anti-black racism than on Asians over the years. Some suggest I suffer from internalized racism.
That might well be true since who doesn’t suffer from internalized racism? I mean, even white people internalize racism. The difference is that white people’s internalized racism is against people of color, and it’s backed up by those who control societal institutions and capital.
But some folk have more on their minds. They say that focusing on black and white reinforces a false racial binary that marginalizes the experiences of non-black people of color. No argument here. But I also think that trying to mix things up by putting non-black people of color in the middle is a problem because there’s no “middle.”
So there’s most of my answer. I’m sure I do suffer from internalized racism, but I don’t think that racism is defined only in terms of black and white. I also don’t think white supremacy is a simple vertical hierarchy with whites on top, black people on the bottom, and the rest of us in the middle.
So why do I expend so much effort on lifting up the oppression of black people? Because anti-black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.
With thoughts like that–and, let me be real, a face and headgear like that–I had to know who this man is. So, being me, I interviewed him. In it, he talks about the reaction to his essay, along with other ideas and things that make him totally crushable in my estimation.
Scot, let me be real with you: I think you’re totally hot. Now that I’ve gotten that out the way, tell me…how did you become involved with anti-racism?
I love the compliment. At 50, “totally hot” is not something I hear often, if ever.
I’ve been involved in some sort of anti-racism work since my late teens. Starting around 18 I tutored people in literacy classes and managed youth and family programs and an emergency shelter in my community in Hawaii. My education was gained in the field, working with low-income people of color. I saw the way racism served to exclude us from economic opportunities and political power. The solutions to our problems as a community seemed obvious to me, but winning support for those solutions from the political system was a lot tougher. That got me involved in community organizing.
The first time my work addressed racism specifically and not as part of delivering services to people of color was in the 80s. I worked with a group in Portland, Oregon called the Coalition for Human Dignity. That group formed in response to the murder of an Ethiopian student named Mulugeta Seraw who was beaten to death by neo-Nazi skinheads. The Coalition monitored vigilante white supremacist groups and organized the community to respond to violent bigotry at a time when violence and membership in white supremacist groups was on the rise. The Coalition eventually become a regional organization. Ever since then, keeping an eye on the racist right has been an obsession of mine.
Where do you think are the gaps in conversations about and within anti-racism?
I think there are lots of gaps in the discussion of anti-racism, not least of which is the absence of any discussion of race at all in many liberal quarters where folks believe we’re post-racial. The degree to which privilege blinds white people to racism never ceases to surprise me. It’s also a lesson to stay vigilant about our own biases.
Among progressives, especially white progressives, many locate our problems with inequity and oppression in class exploitation. They think of racism as something that divides us and diminishes our ability to address class, which they say is the fundamental issue. I disagree with that. I think that racism is an integral part of the class system in the U.S. I started my blog, at least in part, to promote that belief.The blog is also a response to the lack of discussion of anti-racism in general in the community, even among leaders of communities of color. Folks of color organizing for justice understand that racism is at the root of many of the problems communities are facing, but feel pinched for space, both intellectual and social, to discuss issues of race and racism. They’re just struggling to keep their organizations afloat and with life and death issues faced by communities who were already living in depression conditions long before the economic recession hit middle class America.
For that reason, a lot of the discussion of racism that happens is hosted by folks who are outside of the community organizations and groups dealing with those most directly affected by racism. That makes a lot of those discussions kind of academic. So I use metaphors and tell stories that bring the issues down to earth and hope that folks will use the blog as a place to start in discussion, even if those discussions end up with folks disagreeing with some of my ideas.
BTW, I read Racialicious because it hosts anti-racist discussion that open up space–you address things that are in our experience and our popular culture and not just in books. I think that’s really important.
Awwww, thanks for the R love, Scot! Let me switch the topic a bit: is it me, or do you think that there’s been an upswing of anti-Asian American racism lately?
It’s not just you. There is definitely an upswing of anti-Asian racism and of racism in general lately. The Southern Poverty Law Center reported recently that white nationalist Patriot groups have increased almost ten fold since 2008. I’ve always believed that vigilante white supremacist groups are a barometer of racism in the U.S.
Asians seem particularly targeted lately because of a combination of things. China-bashing is for sure one reason. You know how folks think we all look alike, right? The rise of China-bashing means that to lots of folks all east Asians in the U.S. are now Chinese.The combination of the model minority stereotype–the belief that we’re all rich and well-educated–combined with our terrible economy has caused bullying to increase on campuses and a general rise in resentment everywhere else.
But the rise in anti-Asian sentiment is just one part of a bigger problem of rising racism in general. White anxiety over the prospect of losing social and political advantages as people of color rise to majority status seems to be the driver.
Your post on anti-black racism being the fulcrum of white supremacy received a lot of attention, and rightly so. (Congrats on that!) What reactions have you received since its initial posting? Looking back on it, is there anything you’d revise about it (I call this “writer’s regret” when you think of that one point all after the post goes up that would’ve added nuance to what you said…)
Yeah, that one was really popular. It kind of took me by surprise. There are always things I wish I could add to all my posts, and that one is no exception. Lots of folks commented on the blog and to me personally about the centrality of oppression of Native Americans to the American experience and in building the U.S. economy. I don’t disagree with that assessment. But I still believe that anti-black racism, not just as a historical keystone in building our political and economic system, but as a cultural norm in the U.S., is the fulcrum of white supremacy, with white privilege as the lever, if you will.
But I get that my take is not the most nuanced or comprehensive. I’m committed to keeping my posts short, readable and repeatable. Again, I want to avoid taking an academic approach to the subject of racism where getting to the perfect analysis is the goal. My goal is to give people the language and the concepts to use to tell their own stories about racism. You know, you can give a person a fish and she’ll eat for a day, but teach a person to fish and…you get the picture. I’m trying to draw on my past experiences as a literacy teacher and popular educator to provide folks with the tools to tell their own stories or to tell me off, differ with my analysis, and muddy the waters. To me, the more voices and points of view promoting an understanding of racism as an organizing principle and force in our country the better.
On a side note, the best thing that came out of that post for me is the stories folks have shared with me and the “friends” I’ve made. I put “friends” in quotes because they are people I only interact with online. Many of them are black–some from the U.S. but also a handful in Europe. For them, the post made an emotional impression. I think that black people have been so targeted, so viciously maligned, that it meant something to those who reached out to me that someone who is not black had something to say about that experience.
Your writing is the definition of “intersectional.” What connections/points of solidarity do you think anti-racism is solid on and where can we improve?
What a kind thing to say! I think that anti-racism is on solid ground when it makes the connection between the local and the global, and when racial justice advocates work in the intersection of related issues like gender, class, sexuality, ethnicity, and race. Looking at the international context is the direction I’m slowly moving in, but I need some help with it. I invite folks to send me resources or even recommend books to read, people to talk to, or organizations to visit.
Among many gaps is, I believe, the lack of understanding of that international context I just referred to. For instance, in the immigration debate, we talk about the U.S. as a magnet for immigration, but rarely address the factors that are pushing people to leave their home countries like war, poverty, global economic inequality. We also fail to see that migration is a global issue, and all highly industrialized countries are feeling the pressure of increasing numbers of people from resource exploited regions of the global south arriving at their borders, seeking a safe haven. Some, maybe, even consciously going to those places that have historically exploited their home nations, recognizing that there’s relative wealth and opportunity there.
If you didn’t answer this in the first question, would you mind giving a bit of personal background: where you grew up, family, education, where you get your fly caps at?
Okay, first the most important info. The cap. It’s a Brixton cap and you can get it at any one of many stores on the Fulton Mall (at least for Brooklynites). Any other fashion challenged folks can find it online at swell.com. I was a surfer once upon a time in a place far, far away, so I still buy from surf shops that support the Surfrider Foundation.
My background is that I grew up in Hawaii in the 60s and 70s in a very rural, very working-class former plantation community. I’m mostly self-educated. I dropped in and out of high school and have been homeless, which is an experience that disproportionately affects LGBT people. My family has always been involved in community politics and I guess I picked up some of my passion for racial justice from them.
I also spent a year at Lewis and Clark College in Portland, OR. That was a really important experience to me because it introduced me to some really great people who were part of the first serious political work I did in Oregon.
But mostly my politics is rooted in my personal experiences and the stories that thousands of people have shared with me in a career of over 30 years now as a teacher and community organizer.
I came of age during the AIDS crisis of the 80s and joined the LGBT movement through ACT-UP. I spent a couple of years working for the National Gay and Lesbian Task Force where I helped to create a project called Fight the Right. More recently, I spent some time at the Highlander Center in rural Tennessee where I helped to coordinate the education program reaching out to Appalachia and the Deep South. Earlier this century I spent some time working with incarcerated people and their families out west, fighting for criminal justice reform.
Check out the rest of the interview at the R’s Tumblr!