Code Switch

One Korean American's Reckoning

At a Black Lives Matter protest in Los Angeles, a young Korean American man named Edmond Hong decided to grab a megaphone. Addressing other Asian Americans in the crowd, he described the need to stop being quiet and complacent in the fight against racism. On this episode, we talk to Edmond about why he decided to speak out. And we check in with a historian about why so many people mistakenly believe that Asian Americans aren't political.

00:00:00
Just a warning, this episode contains language that some people may find offensive that seems to be a pattern lately. My dad and my mom raised me to be racist. I grew up in the South. I chose to assimilate with white people from my own self-preservation.
00:00:23
I did speak up against racism because I was scared. My parents told me not to speak up because they were scared. I'm part of this, I'm Shereen Marisol Merici, I'm Gene Demby, and this is Code Switch from NPR. And that other voice you just heard belongs to Edmond. Here he is again. I was in the White Sox. I thought I was white the entire time I played football. Russell, but I love pop culture back instead of my black brothers.
00:01:02
Edwin Hong is Korean American. And what you're hearing is a speech he made at a protest in the heart of LA's Koreatown. That rally happened about six weeks ago at the start of June when protests were erupting all over the country with Black Lives Matter.
00:01:17
As a skeptical observer, as a South Asian American. And I was there. My heart was broken and my conservative Bible and world view were shattered. And it sent me on this long trying to figure out what the fuck was, I believe, in my entire life.
00:01:40
Believing that injustice against black people isn't worth fighting for or just isn't your fight ignoring your own relative privilege, Evans said, speaking to the many Asian-American people in the crowd in front of him that England could Asian minority is a sleeping giant. I said, I want to it right now. I'm going to have more rallies as many as I can without changing my sick. Well, I'm not asking enough of you.
00:02:27
Here, it's a little different. I'm not going to I'm not going to lie, it's a little different and just a little quiet.
00:02:35
Asian Americans still have a choice, Evans says when he and his fellow Asian-Americans leave rallies when protest, they can just go home. In his case, he said, he goes home to his gated house and to his wife.
00:02:51
It's with the brothers to ask for assistance and for all the solidarity with the home where we as Asian-Americans have another role, we have to talk to our friends, have uncomfortable conversations, cheap plastic social media.
00:03:10
Don't be complacent up to these things. Jeanne, you know, Edmund never planned to make that speech. It wasn't written down ahead of time. And when he got to the rally, he says he was just overcome with all these thoughts and all these emotions and he just had to say something.
00:03:37
You can hear his voice like he was moved by the spirit. Yes.
00:03:41
And we've been talking about this a lot on the show recently because a lot of people are feeling all this urgency to talk and to think about anti blackness specifically.
00:03:51
So today on the show, we're going to hear more from Edmond Hoong about the issues he's grappling with right now. What role do Asian-Americans play in fighting antiblack racism? Which makes me think of that cliche. You got to know your past to understand your future.
00:04:06
So we're going to hear from a historian who reminds us that, as usual, none of this is new. Asian-American organizing and activism goes back a really long way.
00:04:16
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00:04:56
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00:05:21
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00:05:26
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00:05:30
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00:05:42
Jeanne Shaheen, Code Switch.
00:05:48
One of our producers, Elizabeth Young Perry, was at that rally where Edmonton gave that passionate speech and she tracked him down because she had to know what made Edmund grabbed the mic that day and just, you know, start telling people, stop being complacent, do something. And Alice is here with us.
00:06:06
Hey, listen, history and hey, Jean. Yeah, I was there.
00:06:10
The crowd was basically made up of Asian-Americans ranging from Koreans, Chinese, Americans, Brown folks. There were a lot of Asians for black life signs, young apparel for black lives and Korean drummers were out there. It was pretty remarkable to see this guy run up there and pumped the speech literally out of nowhere to these.
00:06:34
Thank you. It was clear from the crowd's reaction that what he said resonated with a ton of people.
00:06:45
So who is Edmund Hung? So admin's 28.
00:06:48
He's a chef and he lives in Los Angeles. But he actually grew up in the suburbs of Atlanta, which he said was pretty white. His parents are Korean immigrants.
00:06:57
I think it was pretty ashamed to be Korean. Most of the time think I I always knew I was Korean, but I just hated being green. And then I tried to be, I think, mostly subconsciously tried to be as white as possible.
00:07:11
And just kind of by the way, I totally relate because I too grew up thinking I was white.
00:07:17
Yeah. So for people who don't know this, they wouldn't know this because the first time you went on the podcast, but you are in fact yourself a Korean American. True.
00:07:24
But I was raised by white parents. Admin's parents are Korean immigrants. He says as an adult, he now looks back and realizes the ways that his family was racist, sometimes came from his dad.
00:07:36
I remember distinctly like in high school, he would just be like, I mean, you could date any kind of girl you want as long as it's not like black or Latino. It was like those kinds of comments. And then I would just brush it off as a kid. But then growing up, it just kind of seared in my head in a way. And then I guess he's now dating us, Jean.
00:07:56
I guess not. You missed out, Ed. You could have got this good close with loving. Anyway, that's your last breath. Sorry, the question.
00:08:05
Right. Those kind of offhand comments persisted all throughout grade school after that admission to college for a little bit. He dropped out of his sophomore year and joined Southern Baptist Missionary Group, which he said was really conservative and all white.
00:08:21
I'm just going to assume here he wasn't getting any counterprogramming, which, you know, often happens when you're in college. But then he left college and he joined this missionary group, which sounds just as conservative as the household he grew up in pretty much.
00:08:34
But then came 2016, Donald J.
00:08:37
Trump will become the 44th president of the United States. Donald Trump is the president of the United States.
00:08:45
Like with so many people, that election was a turning point for Edmund made me a little more self-aware of like what it means to be a conservative in America and what it means to be more quote unquote liberal, I guess. And I just realized a lot of conservative values were just very like it just felt like self-preservation and a lot of ways like the exploring what he meant by self-preservation. Yeah.
00:09:09
So I think to him it means making decisions and having political beliefs that are individualized rather than communal.
00:09:17
OK, so Trump is elected and he starts to rethink a bunch of stuff, but there's still a big jump from that and grabbing a megaphone and taking the stage at a Black Lives Matter rally. So what happened to get em into this point?
00:09:31
So he told me he started talking to his more liberal friends and some of them took him to his first BLM protest in Atlanta, probably around 2015, 2016. And over time, those conversations started to challenge what he described as his conservative Christian beliefs.
00:09:48
You know, I just felt like more and more like I just was consuming so much of that and just seeing, like, how jacked up our prison system is. Like the for profit prison system is seeing how like how policing actually happens in like low income and black neighborhoods.
00:10:04
And all this newfound knowledge is changing his world view. And in that speech, we heard him tell the crowd, don't be complacent, have uncomfortable conversations. So has you practice what you preach has been had any of these uncomfortable conversations with his friends or his family about what he's learned over his lifetime or, you know, what he's had to unlearn because of them?
00:10:28
You know, yes, he has. Edmans mom follows him on IGY parents following in the Sociales.
00:10:34
Come on. That's just living dangerously. Y y y I agree.
00:10:39
Oh, I totally agree. Mine is private for that reason. And anyway, he said his mom's on posting about Black Lives Matter and different protests that he's been attending. And she's definitely had some things to say.
00:10:52
The most recent time we talked about it, she was like, I love that you're doing this. But she's like, what about Asians? Like, what about our rights and all these different things?
00:11:02
Did I even have a response to that?
00:11:04
We immigrated into a storyline that that is so much bigger than us kind of thing. And just telling her that I think when you elevate and when you support black communities, it will help every minority. Elyssa, I heard Admin's full speech and I was moved because you could really feel that emotion in his voice and it's hard not to be moved.
00:11:30
But the one thing I couldn't shake was how he kept categorizing Asian-Americans as quiet. He used words like complaisant and silent and quiet and content. And as we all know, these are age old stereotypes.
00:11:48
Yes, Cherine, he was definitely splashing around in some problematic waters. What's that about?
00:11:54
Oh, definitely. Even after the speech, he doubled down on that idea.
00:11:59
I've always noticed how Asian-Americans are super. We're just very quiet. And we're don't we don't like to stir the pot a lot. It just felt like everybody wanted to be there, but they didn't really want to fully participate kind of thing.
00:12:10
I mean, OK, so that just strikes me as the kind of thing you say if you don't know a lot of Asian-American people or if your experiences with Asian-American people have been mediated by white people in some way, you know what I mean?
00:12:23
Totally. And I think this is also part of his own reckoning with himself as an Asian-American and his place in the United States. Right. Questioning everything he believed before and looking at some of the qualities that he saw himself and then suddenly seeing that I'm not as neutral, but part of this bigger communal, systemic problem. I hear that.
00:12:44
I do hear that. But I can also imagine some people listening, going, hmm, sounds like you just discovered racism and now you're lecturing me about being too quiet. Who are you again? Yeah, you just got Houbara, and that seems like a big theme at this moment and it's like they say, there's no one more pious than the newly converted, which is exactly why I spoke to Kim Trun.
00:13:11
I am an anti-racist consultant and I'm writing a book about solidarity across race.
00:13:20
She says Asians have been organizing since they got here in the hundreds with Chinese, Punjabi, Sikh folks pushing against racism. And there have been movements ever since then. But the start of the kind of organizing we see today out on the streets began much more recently.
00:13:38
The roots of what we know today as Asian-American activism begins around the same time as the black American civil rights movement in like the 60s. Right. That's when we see it gain a lot of traction.
00:13:52
And she says there's something kind of unique about Asian-American organizing. Asian-American organizing is differentiated from other racial groups like indigenous or native organizing or Chicano Chicano organizing and black American civil rights struggles by the fact that it's always been really coalition based. Asian-American organizing has always been really multiracial.
00:14:17
That's one of the reasons the Asian-American organizing history might be less well known, because while there have been obviously specific moments where Asian-Americans were organizing for an Asian-American cause, like Japanese Americans fighting for recognition of their incarceration during World War Two as more than, quote unquote internment, fighting for reparations, fighting for official apologies for what happened.
00:14:40
Right. And, of course, Vincent Chin's murder in Detroit was an inflection point because guess got to do explanatory comma here. Vincent Chin was killed in a racist attack by two white men in Detroit in 1982. Those two white men, by the way, only had to pay some fines and got probation after a white judge said that these are not the type of men who belong in jail and the yellow power movement in the 70s and 80s.
00:15:02
But a lot of the organizing has actually been integrated into other movements like the Movement for Black Liberation.
00:15:09
One of the things that I think about often is that Yuri Koochie YAAMA as a Japanese American was the person who was holding Malcolm X after he had been shot numerous times and as he lay dying.
00:15:23
But we don't actually see that in a lot of, you know, the visual imagery of this moment in films. It's not memorialized anywhere. And that's kind of also what we saw with the Delano Grape Strike and Cesar Chavez, where Filipino and Mexican farm workers organize together in California.
00:15:45
And Filipino organizers started the great boycott in the 60s that Cesar Chavez usually gets all the credit for.
00:15:53
Yeah, I didn't really know about that history either. And Kim says it's no accident that many of us aren't taught these things.
00:16:01
There's a whole part of Asian-American organizing here, of participation in these boycotts and these marches and this nonviolent resistance. But we don't talk about Asian-American involvement.
00:16:14
And so the thing that we're left with is that Asian-Americans aren't politicized, that Asian-Americans don't fight and that Asian-Americans are apathetic, which is exactly the way Edman was characterizing Asian-Americans.
00:16:29
Exactly.
00:16:30
It's interesting because a recent Gallup poll just found that Asian-Americans are more likely to say they support and feel connected to the recent protests than any other ethnic groups besides black people. And after black folks, Asian-Americans were also the most likely to say that the protests have changed their views on racial justice a lot. So all of those perceptions are Edmond mentioned, they're not necessarily supported by this data. But Kim says those perceptions are related to the model minority myth that Asians are quiet and hardworking and not troublemakers, which is something that has been placed on Asian-Americans from the outside.
00:17:09
But Kim says it's also a stereotype that many of us have leaned into and found useful.
00:17:15
The model minority is a way that we defined ourselves as definitively not black, and that is anti blackness within our community, she says.
00:17:27
Actually, anti blackness is a way that Asian racial identity gets formed in a lot of different ways.
00:17:34
What kind of bolsters that idea is that there has been actual, real, tremendous harm that Asian-Americans have committed. So I'm thinking here of the death of Latasha Harlins, which is something that we've been talking about a lot lately.
00:17:51
Jeanne, we just mentioned Latasha Harlins on the show last week.
00:17:55
She was. Years old and walked into a convenience store in south central L.A. to buy some orange juice and was shot in the back of the head by the store owner, who is a Korean immigrant named Susan Yaddo.
00:18:09
Yep. And just like in the recent case, the judge in that case only gave Sunjammer to fines and probation. Yeah.
00:18:15
So can I use that example to show how Asian-Americans have adopted this country's disdain of black people? You know, it's a deeply American idea that black people are bad, they're scary. And to be truly American, you need to think that, too.
00:18:30
There are some realities to being Asian-American, and that is that we are perpetual foreigners in this country and that aspirational whiteness is granted to a lot of East and Northeast Asians.
00:18:43
Right. So it seems like what's available to us, at least it did before the coronavirus really took place. It seems like whiteness was accessible, was possible for a lot of us.
00:18:56
And some folks are really comforted by that because it's, you know, this white supremacist idea that you could claim the racial ladder.
00:19:06
And that's what happens with so many different groups. Right. Certain communities have more opportunities to saddle up right next to whiteness, a.k.a. Americanness. But as soon as something goes down, the economy, tanks or there's any sort of threat, it's like, oops, you thought you were white, but like, shout out to all my Iranians.
00:19:28
Right. Like you thought. And for people who realize that they can never really be folded into whiteness, you know, it makes sense that they might eventually organize around anti blackness, one, because blackness is the thing that sort of defines the boundaries of whiteness, but also because anti blackness is the logic that makes the use of white supremacy work against everybody. Well, there were some barriers to the ballot, unequal education or unchecked policing power, you name it.
00:19:56
And Kim says one of the really special and kind of newer things that's happening now is that Asian-American organizers are really focusing on anti blackness specifically.
00:20:06
It's not about us experiencing the same things. It's actually about us experiencing uniquely different things and having for Asian-Americans putting a stake in the ground and saying this matters, we're fighting and we're fighting for it. And it's about liberation for black folks.
00:20:23
So as our country moves forward, Kim wants folks like Edman to recognize that Asian Americans are deeply political and have been part of major milestones in America, this moment, as hard as it may seem and as new as it may seem for some, is actually connected to a much longer legacy.
00:20:44
So, you know, we're doing this with history at our backs, and that's really exciting.
00:20:56
It's been more than a month since Edwin Hong gave that speech here in L.A., Koreatown, and since you first spoke with him, Melissa, about this newfound passion he has for social justice and how he really wants to learn how to be an anti-racist. Have you checked in with him since? Yeah, I have.
00:21:12
So our first conversation left off with him telling me that he was eager to keep going out there on the streets, learning more about systemic racism and all that. But when we recently talked, he says he's been more introspective.
00:21:25
I think for I think for the first month or so is very like. There are just so many things wrong, you're just like pointing fingers and you're just like, this is wrong, this is fucked up, this is going on, this person's this way, this, etc.. Now I'm like, OK, like, yes, all those things are valid, but it's still there's a lot of shit internally in me kind of thing that I'm still that I need to deal with kind of thing.
00:21:49
Hmm.
00:21:50
Yeah. He told me he stopped going out to protest and rallies. The one he was out in June happens every society of the month and this past July he didn't go partly because of the pandemic. Numbers are getting pretty bad here in L.A., probably because he's cooking again. So he's running a pizza pop up and partly because, frankly, it feels pretty hopeless.
00:22:12
And a lot of ways, like in the sense of like it just seems aimless almost sometimes to see constant posts about how Briona Taylor's killers are still out and free and all like and we've said this before, it's not easy to sustain the kind of outrage and anger and passion that you need to keep going out there and to keep marching.
00:22:35
And it's one of the reasons that you need to be in community with people. Right. Like so they can hold you accountable so they can have your back so they can support you.
00:22:43
Yes, they can give you that energy when you don't have it.
00:22:46
And I know it can be really disheartening to feel like there's no movement when there was maybe so much momentum just a couple of months ago.
00:22:54
And also, if you're not as affected by all of these things directly, if you have the luxury of going to your as Edmund said in his speech, gated home with your white roommates, I can also see how that can, you know, change your relationship to the kind of social justice work that Edmund thought he was going to be doing for me.
00:23:15
I think that's that's something that I'm wrestling with. It's like I feel like I live in a bubble of privilege still as an Asian-American and still even though I go, you know, one of these protests and so trying to be more empathetic and understanding of these, I still feel like I still there's still a bubble of that, you know, and like I think it's hard to examine your own privilege and it can be shocking at times.
00:23:37
It's one thing to say stand up to people, have uncomfortable conversations and it's another thing to do it consistently.
00:23:46
So I have a lot of white friends and I still find it hard at times, even now, to stand up when they say stuff that's racist. I really need to work on checking myself still all the time, which is something Edmond says he's doing often, too.
00:24:00
I was wearing a shirt that says no justice, no peace. And then a black homeless person came up and asked for cash. And I didn't have anything. I didn't I didn't even like really. I was back to my normal self, just like I didn't give him the time of day, you know? And so it was just kind of like literally right after I just felt like shit. And I was like, oh, man, what am I really do I really care about everything that I'm saying when it's like living in front of me?
00:24:23
This is lifelong work and it's not easy. Totally. You start wanting to change the system and quickly realize it's not a sprint, it's a marathon.
00:24:32
The problem with the marathon analogy is that it presumes and totally so.
00:24:38
I asked Edmund if he understood what he's doing. Is it new? We talked about many of the things can mention the civil rights movement, the Filipino grape workers, the long history of Asian-American activism. The other Asian-Americans have been running this race for a long time.
00:24:56
Yeah, the power of, like, freaking knowing. I guess they're understanding because it's like I think at least for me, I don't know. I don't I had no idea about that at all. You know, when you hear that, it's pretty empowering, to be honest. It's kind of makes me want to dig a lot more and understand more and see kind of what their lifestyle was in a lot and a lot of ways. And that's our show.
00:25:35
Oh, it was edited by Lee Danila and produced by Melissa John Perry, shout out to the rest of the Code Switch team Kumara Devarajan, Natalie Escobar, just come. Steve Drummond and Ella Johnson. You can follow us on Twitter GCT two one five. That's twenty five. Cherine, is that Radio Mirage and Melissa, is that Alissa J. Perry, we always want to hear from you.
00:25:58
Email us at Code Switch at NPR Dog and subscribe to our newsletter, which you can do by going to NPR again newsletters with an S at the end.
00:26:09
I'm Gene Demby. I'm Shereen Marisol Merici. And I'm Melissa Young.
00:26:13
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