Forward Together at 25: Black-Asian Collaboration and Interracial Solidarity

Friday, September 12, 2014

This post is part of our 25th Anniversary blog series and is written by Echoing Ida's Cynthia R. Greenlee.

When I first joined the black women's writing collective Echoing Ida, I wondered why an organization such as Forward Together (which started as Asian Communities for Reproductive Justice) would start a program to amplify black women's voices in media. Much to my chagrin, though I often write about intersectionality, my questions about black-Asian collaboration showed the limits of my ideas about interracial solidarity.

I didn’t spend a lot of time wrestling with this question but I started to make mental notes about convergences between black and Asian communities. I knew that, in the last decades of slavery in the United States, some Americans thought that immigrant Asian workers would be the best replacements for the enslaved once the "peculiar institution" ended. I knew that Asian-Americans and African-Americans alike fought segregated schools despite their different vantage points in a race-obsessed nation. The 1927 U.S. Supreme Court case, Gong Lum v. Rice, which upheld a Mississippi court's decision that a young girl of Chinese descent could not attend a white school, was important for reinforcing the segregation that so harmed African-Americans. Throughout the twentieth century, blacks and Asians faced restrictive covenants that determined where they lived and their very mobility. And I knew that Asian-American activists like Richard Aoki, Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama bridged gaps between our communities, though their stories have often been drowned out among stories that foreground black-Asian conflict.

Knowing all these things, I somehow still thought of Asian-American and African-American freedom organizing as entirely discrete movements. But working with Forward Together — and observing the countless Twitter debates about #antiblackness and the ways in which communities of color often haven't helped each other — I made a point of discussing black-Asian convergences and differences in the classroom with my students.

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In a seminar called “Race, History and Television,” my students watched early film and television that used blackface and relied on hateful stereotypes of black Americans. My students — mostly black and Latino students whose parents emigrated from Cuba, Eritrea, Jamaica, and Barbados — were shocked at the unvarnished racism of “The Birth of a Nation,” “Amos and Andy,” and even those playful Little Rascals. But they weren’t surprised; they understood how central anti-black racism and rhetoric are to the American story, though some believed such blatant on-screen white supremacy was a relic from past ages.

But what they found much harder to understand was that media racism is a many-headed hydra — and a beast that is alive and well. Soon after we discussed blackface minstrelry, the CBS sitcom “How I Met Your Mother” drew fierce criticism for outfitting characters in “yellowface” (including Fu Manchu moustaches) as well as portraying Asians as martial arts masters, enigmatic sensei and geisha. I asked Asian-American Twitter activist, Suey Park, to Skype into class to talk about why she led the critique of CBS, and the students peppered her with questions about the lines between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, humor and mockery, and growing up Asian-American where there were few people on TV who looked like you.

I turned the class back to this question: Did they see any similarity between controversies over blackface in the early twentieth century and this latest fracas over yellowface? There were a few moments of silence before students began to cautiously discuss how black and Asian Americans are both “others” sidelined in beauty norms and media representations, albeit different kind of “others.” As my students talked out their thoughts, I thought back to what had once seemed incongruous: Forward Together’s broad and inclusive mission of reproductive justice. Finally, my students filed out and I heard one say to another pupil: “I had never thought about black people and Asians at the same time. Imma have to think on that.”

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Although Forward Together started working primarily in Asian communities 25 years ago, I'm thankful it's expanding to cover more issues at the intersection of race, gender and sexuality. I'm especially glad to be part of the Echoing Ida project, which has given many of us writers, thinkers and activists a larger platform to tell our stories. Please help us continue cultivating our voices and connecting our communities for stronger families.

Cynthia R. Greenlee is a historian and writer. Follow her on Twitter @CynthiaGreenlee.


  1. Thanks for the article. Divide and conquer is so real and a lot hindrance to many movements. Erasure and revisionism in education only helps further this divide.

    By the way, it's Richard Aoki