Movement-Building, Asian Americans, and the Struggle for Racial Justice


This piece was published in the 30th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.

The problems that impact Black people are the same structures that also oppress Asian Americans. This whole pact that certain Asian Americans believe will set them free, that this proximity and getting closer to Whiteness and by playing by the rules is not actually going to get them free at all. It’s only going to lift the 1-5% of Asian Americans, and they are going to be complicit in the larger program, which this White supremacist country has always been a part of, which is oppressing people of color.


FRANCIS: I was born and raised in Seattle, Washington which is on the West Coast. There’s a concentration of Asian Americans in Seattle, so my entire friend group growing up was Asian and Black. Who I am as a person was very much shaped by this. I had a very strong mom who is Chinese American and then I had a dad who is Jamaican American, and very strong cultures from both sides. My mothers’ parents were also in Seattle so my Chinese grandparents were very much around, but I always knew in terms of who I was, that early identity for me, was very much that I was Chinese and I was Jamaican. There’s no way that I’m walking down the street and someone goes, “Oh, look at that Asian girl.” I have curly hair and brown skin, and it’s not like light-light. I’m like medium brown, and a lot of Asian Americans are very colorist.

But growing up in Seattle was interesting at that time, especially if I think about my high school experience there. I had a lot of Asian friends who very much understood issues around race, understood issues around class and colorism in their families and in the Asian communities and actively worked to build bridges. There were Chinese and Japanese American students – friends of mine – actively working to build bridges with Filipinos and Cambodians because there were all of these groups in Seattle at that time.

For me, growing up in Seattle and especially coming of age in my teenage years I was very much used to and was familiar with  – and I don’t know the perfect word here even though I should – cross-Asian organizing. I went to a public inner-city school, and you weren’t at that school if you didn’t understand issues around poverty and inequality. That was always just kind of how it was. I say all that – a little bit of background in terms of my family as well as my friend group growing up – because that’s what shaped me. White people weren’t really in my life. I know that’s different for a lot of people. Coming out of high school, I didn’t have any close White friends. I had close Asian friends and close Black friends. Obviously, that changed once I went to college.

AAPR: I was going to ask – was there a culture shock moment?

FRANCIS: Yes! Absolutely! When I went to college I was like, “Who are these Asians?” and also a little bit about who these Black people are. It was also because I grew up in Seattle, in an environment in which, especially, you had Filipinos and Cambodians kicking it with Black people all the time. In my community at that time, especially in the Black community, it wasn’t like this big bridge and there’s Asians over there. We did things, we hung out at each other’s’ houses, so there wasn’t a huge divide. Then, obviously, I went to college and I was like, “Woah”. My roommate my first year was Chinese American from a well-to-do family in Houston, Texas and grew up totally around Chinese. Again, I read as Black. She wasn’t used to Black people, and I, at the time, raised on the West Coast, listened to West Coast hip-hop. High school in the 90s, right? It was definitely 2Pac and Dre. And she was like, “Woah, what is this?”, and I’m like “Why are you tripping? None of my Asian friends back in Seattle trip?”.

It’s interesting for me, especially reflecting back upon things, because I just was in Asian spaces and I didn’t really think about it. When I went to the Asian student club at Rice University where I did my undergrad, they were surprised to see me. And their concerns weren’t about concerns that I’m used to, like thinking about coalition building and solidarity, but about food and having those cultural dinners that student groups hold. My response was like, “Ehhhh.” It just felt that my concerns were very different. Especially at Rice University, there were a lot of Chinese ­­– not even a lot of Japanese – but just a lot of Chinese. In terms of Southeast Asians, I was like, “Where’d they all go?”, but that response is, again, I feel like, a very West Coast thing. We have a lot of Filipinos, a lot of Cambodians, a lot of Laotians in terms of different population groups. For me, it felt like there was a divide that I didn’t know that was actually there. It increased my awareness about the way that I had been raised and increased my awareness of my Blackness in Asian spaces.

Getting back to this question about identity – for me in undergrad, who I am has always played a huge role in terms of what I actually think is important and has shaped me. I gave a lot of background around me in high school and these different groups because a lot of people say that their undergrad years tend to be the most formative in terms of who they are and what they care about and shape their orientation about how they encounter different things for the rest of their lives, but for me in terms of socialization, it was really these early years in the high school period. So, for me now coming into undergrad and to figure out what I actually want to do for the rest of my life, I decided that I wanted to do economics and political science. That’s because those two majors at that time helped me understand the world around me better.

Political science classes at that time helped me understand the way that political systems operated and helped me understand the way that the government treats different groups and the way groups see themselves because of policies and laws. I was able to understand the interior of my life, my parents’ journey in terms of them both being immigrants in this country, as well as my experience growing up, and my experience in undergrad as well as understanding that my experience growing up was actually a very unique type of experience. Most mixed kids like me do not have that experience at all. I still have all these Asian friends and all these Black friends in Seattle, and that’s where my actual university is.

Since I’ve left high school, most of the friends I have are Black. They are people who have grown up in the South and the East Coast, and most of them do not have Asian friends. They grew up in very separate circles. Especially at Rice University, most of my Asian friends would come visit, and my Black friends would be like, “You kick it with Asian people?”. I’d be like, “Yeah, they’re cool,” but my Black friends hadn’t really been around or had familiarity with Asians who understood a part of their struggle. Their experience with Asian Americans in their community, in their high school, in their family was perhaps very different than mine. My first high school dance was with an Asian guy, so I really didn’t understand all the borders until I arrived.

Going back to before, political science helped me understand the politics that informed my life growing up as well as my life in general. I was like, “Oh, my God. Things make sense.” Then economics really helped me understand the way so many people I grew up with lived in poverty and would not get out of poverty and why so many people that I also knew did really, really well. You know, you’re kicking with your friends and then people go their different ways. There is a reason why that happens because of the way in which structures are actually set up. The political science and economics undergrad majors helped me piece that together so much more. So for me, who I am really shaped the majors that I decided to actually do in undergrad.

And then I went to graduate school at Princeton University. In terms of my Ph.D., I was really interested in the criminal punishment system, hyper-incarceration and my experience in the American South definitely led me face to face – more than Seattle ever did­ – with stark inequality, White supremacy, and racism and especially what African Americans experience in this country and the role of the carceral state in that. And I’ve always been driven by a quest to understand inequality and at the very basic level how it impacts good people and why people can’t get out of it. I went to graduate school with an interest in studying the carceral state in the United States. That was Princeton, and that’s actually where my two White friends come from because my entire group was White. Through that experience, I’ve lived in Princeton, I’ve lived in Philly, I’ve lived in Brooklyn, New York. I think for me growing up in this post-undergraduate six years of graduate school getting my M.A. and Ph.D., I can’t even think outside of identity because to me, it’s everything. It informs the most important things to me.

Focusing on the carceral state is what I decided to do. My dissertation focused on the NAACP’s campaign against racial violence and a quest on how Black people get free and how we can mobilize in communities and what lessons we can take away from early mobilization in terms of contemporary efforts today.

At the same time, in terms of how does my Asian American identity impacts who I am and my work today? That identity from an early age in terms of high school has never left, and my research is still very much on Black people today, on the ways in which American political and legal institutions oppress communities of color and especially Black people. But it is also, in terms of my work, a question about how can people mobilize and not just on how Black people can mobilize. It’s a question of how can Asian Americans also mobilize, because the problems that impact Black people do not just impact Black people. The problems that impact Black people are the same structures that also oppress Asian Americans. This whole pact that certain Asian Americans believe will set them free, that this proximity and getting closer to Whiteness and by playing by the rules is not actually going to get them free at all. It’s only going to lift the 1-5% of Asian Americans, and they are going to be complicit in the larger program, which this White supremacist country has always been a part of, which is oppressing people of color. Still today, in thinking about mobilization, about groups it is about thinking about ways that we can build coalitions that different groups can build power. I think, naturally because I’m a political scientist and I focus on race and politics, you always wonder what does Black and Brown coalition-building looks like, but because of my identity and because it’s always been real to me, because I’ve seen it possible, I’m always thinking about what does Black and Asian coalition-building actually look like.

Also, I think one of the other things in this post 9/11 era that has fascinated me and horrified me is the way in which laws have constricted and have focused, especially on Arab and Muslim communities, in the ways that immigration policies don’t just affect urban Muslims or don’t just affect the southern border, but very much also affect Asian American populations as well in terms of relatives that come here, in terms of our work visas, in terms of our star student visas as well. Part of my whole interest is how do we continue to smash the door in on White supremacy. And that’s going to take more than Black mobilizing. So for me, one of the things that’s been really exciting for me, and another shout out to the West Coast, but I’ve seen really great Asian American mobilizers and organizations on the West coast that are trying to actively do that work. Obviously I am not privy to, but I know there’s amazing organizations, especially in New York — no, I’m assuming all up and down these coasts and perhaps, maybe the South. I’m not sure, but I think that is there.

When I talk to some of my Asian American friends who care a lot about these issues, I think they feel a little bit intimidated to come into these spaces and writing, to be wrong. I think that is a very real fear. They’ll say things to me because they’re like, “You’re Asian, but you’re Black right?”. They’ll express these things to me. And in terms of all the craziness from the Trump administration, so many Asian Americans that I know are horrified about what’s going to happen, but also feeling a little bit frozen about what to do. They always thought their golden ticket was always their proximity to Whiteness, being quiet, and playing by the rules. Now do they need to be louder and form coalitions with Black and Brown folks? Because, especially in terms of the older generation, that’s not the path that they signed up for. That’s not the logic that they have operated on. That’s not the logic they’ve built their business on. That’s not the logic they’ve built their restaurants on. And so there’s this new question about what to actually do. And I’m like, “get in there!” because what we know about the system is it will continue to oppress groups of color. Even if you’re not right now the target of its entrapment, it will absolutely come for you.

AAPR: I appreciate so much of what you said. I’ve been noticing a lot of Asian Americans, realizing that they’ve been choosing White supremacy by not choosing to be with people of color, who are facing this issue of also not knowing how to do this though. They don’t know where they fit in because they have benefited from these policies, and there’s also almost this imposter syndrome of “Who am I to walk into these spaces?” because there’s also so much history of animosity between groups. It’s not just that there is a lot of racism amongst Asian Americans against Brown and Black people, but it’s also the opposite way. So I think that’s an interesting area that our generation is starting to grapple with.

FRANCIS: I think Black and Brown people have skepticism of Asian Americans in these spaces. Let’s say that I didn’t know you, Emily, and I didn’t know your politics, but you were like, “Hey, I’m really interested in these issues.” You may walk into the [Black Student Union] or the Equity Coalition, etc., and people might look at you skeptically because it has not been the experience in a lot of Black circles of Asian Americans giving a damn. It’s been Asian Americans profiting from their closeness and their proximity to Whiteness. So in terms of how to be in these spaces and how to make space as well means to do all the homework and to be okay with feeling uncomfortable. And I think that’s hard, to listen much more and to do the work. Asian Americans know how to work, like they know how to work, but I think it’s just unfamiliar work. But it’s about knowing that it can be done. I’ve legit seen it my entire life, so of course it can be done.

AAPR: I think there are people who are starting to get it, who are doing the work. If we take a few steps backwards, you talked about how because of the way you grew up, you saw these communities and it naturally existing already, a lot because of geography. I grew up with some Black folks as well when I was younger, which is why I think to me it was a little bit easier. But when you talk about your roommate, for example, who grew up in a Chinese American neighborhood and never had exposure to that, how do we start to reach those people? Because I think we feel that these are people in our community, so we’re the ones who have to do the work to get them there where they realize that they have to do the homework and learn about racism in our history. They’ve grown up in these isolated communities where they’re like, “Wait, race isn’t a thing. Like I’m Asian American, but that doesn’t mean anything. That’s neutral.” How do we get them there when they haven’t had the childhood experiences that you’ve had?

FRANCIS: That’s tough. That’s a good question. When you were talking, I was actually thinking about two of my close friends, Stan and Mia who do this work but are not the most active people. When I say active, I mean that it’s not their job to recruit. Both have their friend groups ­– one’s mostly Japanese American and another one is mostly Chinese American – and they express, especially Stan, frustrations to me about, let’s say, about the caging of the kids. And what he’ll do is, as uncomfortable as it is ­– he doesn’t care – he’ll bring things up at dinner or even online and not necessarily like “I want to challenge you on this,” but like “did you see the news article about the caging of the kids? What do you think about that? Let’s talk about this.”

Asian Americans also have a lot of political views, but sometimes they’re not well informed. Oftentimes they’ll talk about issues around race and inequality and sometimes even issues that don’t seem to be focused on race. And then from their perspective, they’ll give their personal insight about why they think that something is unjust or bad. And I don’t think it’s necessarily important always, but sometimes they’ll bring it back in terms of the longer history of Asian Americans in this country. Sometimes that’s what they do. I know for Stan that’s been useful in terms of like, “you’re okay with this now, but you know that this type of targeting happened to Asian Americans when they got here and it continued to happen like X, Y, and Z.” So, that’s some of the individual work that they’ve been doing. But I do think there’s this group of what I call ”down ass Asian Americans” who’ve been down ass for a long time. Then there’s this other group who want to get involved and are already there. And then there’s this larger group who have taken the compromise or just don’t think about things that much. The question is how do we reach this other group of people.

To me, one of the benefits of how crazy shit is right now is that everything is out in the open and I think that there’s a lot of reasons to be outraged. And I think that once you talk about some of the stuff that’s been going on in contemporary American politics, it’s hard to be like, “Oh, that’s cool”. When kind of crazy things happened under Obama, people were like “ehhh”. Now it’s like, “Wow, that’s really messed up.” And then it’s like “shouldn’t we do something about it?” The focus is now on immigration. And there’s ways in which these immigration laws will definitely impact our communities that we shouldn’t just be okay with it. With the new Trump tax cuts, somehow it’s going to impact us. I don’t have the best answer for that one. It’s a really important question and it’s tough. What do you think, how would you answer this?

AAPR: I’ve been thinking a lot about coalition-building and rediscovering our history and realizing that we have more in common than we think we do. I think especially for new immigrants. So I’m 1.5/2-ish generations. And so when they came, it was like, “we’re just surviving” and it does feel zero sum. My parents grew up in East San Jose, which is a lot of Vietnamese and Latinx folks. It was this weird mixture of Asians and Latinos. And so they just grew up accepting that it’s a division and it’s us against them. Who’s going to go to college and who is not? They never really had a point where they decided. They came here and that’s how it was. So, how do you go backwards and say, “no, wait, we have so much in common.”? We’ve talked a little bit about immigration.

FRANCIS: No, I think that’s good. Now that you reminded me of the Japanese organization that does the most interesting work on this, Densho. And really it’s a celebration of and also a revisiting of the history of Japanese Americans in this country. It’s funded by very well-to-do Japanese Americans. It’s all about talking about the history of Japanese Americans and reminding Japanese Americans about their history and never forgetting it. Because we know this history and we know the way in which the state operated and we know the way in which it targeted us, that we should always be aware of the way in which this state targets specific groups and cages specific groups, which is what allowed them to support activism around Muslim and Arab communities. And also now to support activism around mostly Latinx and mostly Mexican American communities at the border. If we had just asked how might we reach Japanese Americans: “Why should I be concerned about post 9/11 surveillance policies around Muslims?” You might get concerned about them once you understand the longer history.

I think the same thing can be said in terms of like Chinese Americans whether those are in terms of workers who worked on the railroads, the ways in which their wages were taken, the ways that they were forced to carry permit cards with them, and how they were always questioned about their citizenship; whether it’s about like terrible laundromat rules in San Francisco; and on and on and on. These things never just sit in the past. But I think oftentimes, and this is one of the things of course growing up in a Chinese American home is that all the bad things – let’s not talk about them. Let’s not talk about all the bad things. Let’s just focus on working really hard and on this figment of the American dream and studying really hard and getting good grades and doing really well and then owning a home. But really bad things happened. In my Chinese American home, all these crazy things happened in order to get mom and her parents to come to the United States. She was not born here, and so to get her to come here was a whole lot, but that was all like: let’s just not talk about that and let’s not talk about once we got here the ways that we were treated. It’s just that you overcome it.

AAPR: I think that’s part of it. We don’t like talking about our pain or our shame and so there’s no space for us to share similarities with other groups if we ourselves are not even willing to acknowledge our own pain.

FRANCIS: I feel like in a lot of Chinese American homes if you don’t speak about the way in which the government acted towards your community, it didn’t happen. Speaking about it somehow for some families, it makes the borders or the boundaries exist. And it doesn’t disappear them, but if you don’t talk about it, they can be disappeared. But if you do talk about them, it makes it so real. We live in the mythology, in the lies, and the stories that we tell each other, tell ourselves, but it’s what the Black communities do too. So many times, what immigrant families do in order to survive in this country is that they have to lie to themselves about the way in which the American political system works, because if we think about it for too long, it’s terrible. It is debilitating in some ways. And so, I think that there is a bit of mythmaking that has been going on about the way that White supremacy works, the oppressiveness of these institutions. and unfortunately, that mythmaking has allowed us to operate in this space that is unreal. Some Asian Americans are an exception to the rule right. When Trump or political figures who are racist talk about “those people ” – like those people who talk about immigrants – like we aren’t part of that group. Like we’re the good immigrants. Again, this secret pact that we often times unknowingly make.

AAPR: If we talk about it, it can be taken away so just don’t take it away.

FRANCIS: Right, just don’t talk about it. If you talk about it, then you won’t be able to do what we think you can do. You won’t go to Harvard. You won’t become the CEO of this organization. No, to me you can go to Harvard and you can be the CEO, but it can also expand your understanding of your responsibilities to your family, to your community, to your fellow citizens. I think that’s worthy.

AAPR: Right. I’ve been thinking a lot about how for better or worse – for worse, really – in the status quo there are a lot of situations that do feel zero sum. In our community, in our activism, we have to choose whether we talk about and promote or push for our communities and the oppression and pain that we have faced or do we align and follow what other POC groups are doing. It shouldn’t be mutually exclusive, but there are a lot of instances where it does feel mutually exclusive. I guess practically how do groups and students navigate that? I think we saw that a lot with the affirmative action case. Like some of us, our instinct was like of course we’re pro-affirmative action. Of course we don’t want to hurt other minorities. But there was also a lot of pain that was being triggered by this case like, yeah, we are being discriminated against. Yeah, we don’t get these things we are entitled to. There has been a racist past at Harvard that we don’t talk about because like we’re Asian American. We’re doing fine, no one sees as a problem area that needs to be fixed. Any thoughts on how we handle that?

I think about that with the media thing too. Like with representation and how we are fighting for AAPI representation in media. But when I also think about it from a numbers perspective we’re doing fine. We’re doing great.

FRANCIS: Right, but I think it’s important to make the case that a lot of these universities, a lot of these spaces and corporations can do much better on this issue. I think often times it can feel like zero sum but I don’t think it should. In terms of what I think it should look like versus what it feels like are obviously two different things that I want to be careful about and acknowledge. At the same time, I face this at the university in terms of recruitment of students.

At the University of Washington, it’s 30% Asian American, but just because we have 30% Asian American students doesn’t mean there’s not a case to be made that needs to be pushed to the university and the administration. I think there is a case to be made, especially if we open up that group of students. I know for sure at the University of Washington, if we pull out that group, it’s like, oh we have this many Asian Americans but we have zero Laotians, zero Filipino, zero Hmong. What’s going on in terms of these groups as well? Like pushing the administration in terms of that as well. Those perspectives to me are really valuable in a conversation because it changes the way an administration, as well as students, understand who Asian Americans really are. Most people understand Asian Americans as Chinese and Japanese and Korean. That’s it. It’s like, “Oh and then there’s people from India, right?” I think that’s also really important. But I do think in terms of like we’re 44 different groups, I think it’s important to push that and also to be a part of other efforts as well. This is important if the concern is an antiracist type of agenda or just a more inclusive agenda, especially in some of these institutions. So also work hard in different areas as well.

I’m thinking back a little bit… so my two best friends growing up are my cousin who I’ve known my entire life and she’s Black and then my best friend since I was 15 years old is an Asian, a Chinese American woman who’s like one of the most down ass organizers I know. She actually became a professor. She’s a professor of Asian American studies at UCLA, and she is all the time going hard on Asian American issues, especially on immigrant Asian American women issues and going really, really hard on like Black women issues as well. And not to say that like everybody can be her, but for her in terms of her politics, it’s really important for her to make space for Black women. In terms of the recruitment, the mentorship of Black women as well as going to events featuring Black women. Because the way that she understands her role, I mean, we’re different but her focus is on women of color and, really, her primary focus is, again, on immigrant women from Asia and Asian American women. For her to understand specifically the legal rights around this group of women means to understand the struggles of Black women. So for her, one cannot be done without the other. So when I talk to students at the University of Washington, in order to push for and make a case for why the university administration should do better work around especially underrepresented Asian American groups, part of that logic is fueling why we need to have more students who are Latinx and Black. Sometimes I think that it’s easy to be like, these are all separate struggles. But they are all part of a larger struggle that’s connected to this like neoliberal university, and how do we add some level of like supplant or move away from these predominantly White institutions and how do we diversify the university and how do we diversify corporations.

Oftentimes, when we go out there, the work is so hard. It’s so time consuming and seemingly it’s from on high that they try to divide us and oftentimes our work is siphoned to focus on specific groups. But I think that the work, even if the main focus is on a specific group, whether it is in terms of Filipinos or Black students or Latinx students, for example, at the university level, that is made stronger by the larger push. I think that and I know that work is difficult. I think it’s important. So, yeah, that was a roundabout answer but I got there finally.

AAPR: That was very good. I think it does lie in the shared experience. First you have to discover that and care enough about that. I think a lot of Asian Americans that I meet, because that’s part of our past in some ways it’s like, Oh well we made it so why do we need to dig that up when we’ve overcome that?

FRANCIS: We worked really hard and there was part of that logic also is like we worked really hard, a lot of people don’t work as hard. You’ve just got to work as hard and people have bought into that.

AAPR: I thought a lot about coalition building and intersection of identity when Kamala Harris was running for president and I wrote this like angry op-ed about it – I ended up not publishing and this is partly why – but I felt personally hurt by her unwillingness to identify as AAPI. She would be like, “Oh, my mom came from India”, but she would never be like I’m Asian. As a Californian, there were so many Californians who are very smart, well-informed – they’re students at the Kennedy school – who don’t know she’s half Indian, you know, because she went all in on the “I’m a Black woman.” And I understand the politics around that. People are questioning her Blackness. People were like, you’re police. So she had to go all in on that.

And from a political strategy prospective there was nothing to gain by owning her Asian identity, but I was like, “Oh my gosh, I’m personally offended by this”. Why is that? I thought a lot about how, to me, it did feel like she was choosing her Black identity over her Asian identity because that’s what society values or likes more. And the message that she was sending folks like me is, you know, when you think like, “Oh, being Asian is boring” or you’re ignored or you don’t matter.

FRANCIS: All that’s true because I’m half Asian and I talk about how influential my mother was all the time, but I refuse to call myself Asian. I think part of this though is also the way in which Black people are treated by the Asian American community, and by the way in which people are raised, right? Like oftentimes I say that I’m Black. Oftentimes I don’t say that I’m half Black and half Asian. If you ask me, I will say that I’m half Black and I’m half Asian. But that is in large part because again, I grew up in an environment in which that was okay. And that was part of who I am. I feel like a number of Black and Asian kids that I know grew up in environments in which Asian kids and Asian families were like, no, you can’t go to prom, you can’t date my child. You are far too dark. No one even considers that I am Chinese, or Japanese, or Korean. So I’m Black. I think that’s in part because of how color-struck our society and the way in which Blackness also operates and it’s so overwhelming, right? Being somebody who is Black and Asian and having that as an identifier, it’s just been like, especially in the South, this just doesn’t exist. Everybody would just be like, “what?”. No one, even with my eyes and the way they look the way that they do. No one would even think for a second.

It gets exhausting but I think it’s something clearly different. As a complete aside, I think Kamala’s best moment on the campaign came at the end when she actually embraced that. Like she did the thing with Mindy Kaling talking about growing up in an Indian household and what it meant to grow up Indian in terms of making dosa. That was one of her most genuine and realest moments. It does touch on for a number of people who are half. For some who are half White and half Asian who often times read Asian. For some of us who are Black and Asian who don’t read Asian and read Black in terms of in what ways should they acknowledge or might they not acknowledge their Asian heritage and background.

AAPR: I think that’s all super interesting to hear from someone because for me, from the outside, I think it felt very like almost like a personal attack really. I felt like I had to dig into that. Yeah, why am I so offended by this?

FRANCIS: I read it completely differently. I read it as that’s what society sees. That’s how she’s been raised. No one is looking at her and being like, “Oh, look at this Indian woman”. Everybody’s looking at her like she’s a Black woman. So if she was like “And I’m Asian”, then people would be like, “Why are you trying to fight so hard for the Asian people, you’re a Black girl”.

I think that says more about us as a society than it actually says about her, right? That she would even feel that she couldn’t be fully comfortable, and it’s clear that she is comfortable being Indian. I mean all the stories, right? I think a number of children from mixed backgrounds have trouble, like I did, and at some point they have identity issues. I was very lucky. I think my brothers did. I know a number of my friends did as well. I think it goes partially back to the friends that I met at a specific time and the area that I was raised in. Most people who I know who have mixed backgrounds struggle with that.

Especially those who are mixed in terms of Asian. What does that actually mean in terms of who I am and what I should care about? I joked with my Black friends like, “Yo, I had rice every day. I thought y’all were crazy off potatoes and cornbread, what is that?”. I was like no, that’s mad normal. My partner right now, he’s Black. When we first started dating many, many, years ago, he was like, “why do you have a rice cooker?” And I was like, “how do you make rice? You make rice on the pot? No. Who would ever do that.”

I feel like some people would actually have to try to like hide parts of who they are and then they go to college and then now we’re out here in the world and they have families and like, what does that actually mean and what compromise did we actually make? There was no compromise that I made, but again that comes from a place of a different type of privilege, right? That comes from a privilege of growing up in an environment in which it was totally fine to be me. I know that’s a privilege. I know that’s very unique. Now I roll up to Asian spaces and it’d be like, hey guys. But like, my Chinese is terrible.


Megan Ming Francis is a Visiting Associate Professor of Public Policy at the Harvard Kennedy School and Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of Washington. Francis specializes in the study of American politics, with broad interests in criminal punishment, black political activism, philanthropy, and the post-civil war South.

She is the author of the award-winning book, Civil Rights and the Making of the Modern American State (2014). This book tells the story of how the early campaign against state sanctioned racial violence of the National Association for the Advancement of Colored People (NAACP) shaped the modern civil rights movement. Francis marshals an extensive archival analysis to show that the battle against lynching and mob violence in the first quarter of the 20th century was pivotal to the development of civil rights and the growth of federal court power. Francis is currently at work on a second book project that examines the role of convict leasing in the rebuilding of southern political power and modern capitalism after the Civil War.

Francis is a proud alumnus of Seattle Public Schools, Rice University in Houston, and Princeton University where she received her M.A. and Ph.D. in Politics.

Emily Chi was born and raised in the San Francisco Bay Area by immigrant parents from Seoul, South Korea. She is a master in public policy candidate at the John F. Kennedy School of Government at Harvard University, where she is involved in the Pan-Asian Graduate Student Alliance and the Asian American Pacific Islander Caucus. Emily studies and works on issues at the intersection of technology, racial justice, and equity.