One Korean American's Reckoning : Code Switch 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.

One Korean American's Reckoning

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SHEREEN MARISOL MERAJI, HOST:

Just a warning, this episode contains language that some people may find offensive.

GENE DEMBY, HOST:

That seems to be a pattern lately.

EDMOND HONG: My dad and my mom raised me to be racist. I grew up in the South. I chose to assimilate with white people for my own self-preservation. I didn't speak up against racism 'cause I was scared. My parents told me not to speak up because they were scared. I'm tired of this.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby. And this is CODE SWITCH from NPR.

MERAJI: And that other voice you just heard belongs to Edmond Hong. Here he is again.

HONG: I was raised conservative in the white South. I thought I was white the entire time. I played football. I wrestled. But I loved Black culture, but I couldn't stand up for my Black brothers.

MERAJI: Edmond Hong is Korean American, and what you're hearing is a speech he made at a protest in the heart of LA's Koreatown.

DEMBY: That rally happened about six weeks ago at the start of June, when protests were erupting all over the country.

HONG: I went to Black Lives Matter as a skeptical observer, as a silent Asian American. And I went there, and my heart was broken. And my conservative bubble and worldview was shattered, and it sent me on this long journey to figure out what the fuck was I believing my entire life.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

DEMBY: Believing that injustice against Black people isn't worth fighting for or just isn't your fight, ignoring your own relative privilege, Edmond said, speaking to the many Asian American people in the crowd in front of him, that ain't going to cut it no more.

HONG: ...Asian minority is a sleeping giant. There are so many...

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

HONG: ...Americans, and we're sleeping and we're silent and we're complacent and we're content. Even right now, I've been to a handful of rallies, as many as I can without trying to get my ass kicked.

(LAUGHTER)

HONG: It's real. I'm done with masking it up. It's hot as hell out here. Here, it's a little different. I'm not going to lie; it's a little different here. The energy's a little quiet. This Asian American spirit is still here. And we're complacent.

DEMBY: Edmond says when he and his fellow Asian Americans lead rallies, when they lead protests, they can just go home. In his case, he said he goes home to his gated house and to his white roommates.

HONG: But now, when the Black brothers and sisters are asking for assistance and for help and solidarity, we're still at home. We as Asian Americans have another role. We have to talk to our friends, have uncomfortable conversations. Keep blasting (ph) social media. Don't be complacent. Talk to these things.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: Gene, you know Edmond 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.

DEMBY: Yeah, you can hear in his voice, like, he was moved by the spirit.

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: 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.

MERAJI: So today on the show, we're going to hear more from Edmond Hong about the issues he's grappling with right now. What role do Asian Americans play in fighting anti-Black racism? - which makes me think of that cliche, you got to know your past to understand your future. So we're going to hear from a historian who reminds us that, as usual, none of this is new.

KIM TRAN: Asian American organizing and activism goes back a really long way.

DEMBY: All of that is after the break.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: Gene.

MERAJI: Shereen.

DEMBY: CODE SWITCH.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: One of our producers, Alyssa Jeong Perry, was at that rally where Edmond Hong gave that passionate speech. And she tracked him down because she had to know what made Edmond grab the mic that day and just, you know, start telling people, stop being complacent; do something. And Alyssa's here with us. Hey, Alyssa.

ALYSSA JEONG PERRY, BYLINE: Hey, Shereen. Hey, Gene. Yeah, I was there. The crowd was basically made up of Asian Americans ranging from Koreans, Chinese Americans, brown folks. There were a lot of Asians for Black Lives signs, Yellow Peril for Black Lives. And Korean drummers were out there. It was pretty remarkable to see this guy run up there and pump this speech literally out of nowhere.

HONG: Talk to these things.

(SOUNDBITE OF DRUMMING)

HONG: Thank you.

(CHEERING)

PERRY: It was clear from the crowd's reaction that what he said resonated with a ton of people.

MERAJI: So who is Edmond Hong?

PERRY: So Edmond is 28. 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.

HONG: I think I was pretty ashamed to be Korean most of the time. I think I always knew I was Korean, but I just hated being Korean. And then I tried to be - I think mostly subconsciously tried to be as white as possible and just kind of...

PERRY: By the way, I totally relate because I, too, grew up thinking I was white.

DEMBY: Yeah. So for people who don't know this - they wouldn't know this because this is the first time you've been on the podcast. But you are, in fact, yourself Korean American.

PERRY: True, but I was raised by white parents. Edmond's parents are Korean immigrants. He says as an adult, he now looks back and realizes the ways that his family was racist. Sometimes it came from his dad.

HONG: I remember distinctly, like, in high school, he would just be like, Edmond, you can date any kind of girl you want as long 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...

MERAJI: I guess he's not dating us, Gene.

DEMBY: Guess not. You missed out, Ed. You could've got this good CODE SWITCH loving. Anyway, it's your loss, bro. Sorry, digression.

PERRY: Right. Those kind of offhand comments persisted all throughout grade school. After that, Edmond went to college for a little bit. He dropped out of his sophomore year and joined a Southern Baptist missionary group, which he said was really conservative and all white.

MERAJI: 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.

PERRY: Pretty much. But then came 2016.

(SOUNDBITE OF MONTAGE)

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #1: Donald J. Trump will become the 45th president of the United States.

UNIDENTIFIED REPORTER #2: Donald Trump is the president of the United States.

PERRY: Like with so many people, that election was a turning point for Edmond.

HONG: 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 in a lot of ways.

DEMBY: Did he explain what he meant by self-preservation?

PERRY: Yeah. So I think to him, it means making decisions and having political beliefs that are individualized rather than communal.

DEMBY: 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 Edmond to this point?

PERRY: 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.

HONG: 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 - and seeing how, like, how policing actually happens in, like, low-income and Black neighborhoods and...

MERAJI: All this newfound knowledge is changing his worldview. And in that speech, we heard him tell the crowd, don't be complacent; have uncomfortable conversations. So has he practiced what he's preached? Has Edmond 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?

PERRY: You know what? Yes, he has. Edmond's mom follows him on IG.

DEMBY: Oh, parents following on the socials - come on; that's just living dangerously. Why? Why? Why?

MERAJI: I agree.

PERRY: Oh, I totally agree. Mine is private for that reason. Anyway, he said his mom saw him posting about Black Lives Matter and different protests that he's been attending, and she's definitely had some things to say.

HONG: The most recent time we talked about it, she was like, love that you're doing this, but she was like, what about Asians? Like, what about our rights and all these different things?

MERAJI: Did Edmond have a response to that?

HONG: We immigrated into a storyline 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.

MERAJI: Alyssa, I heard Edmond's full speech, and I was moved 'cause you could really feel that emotion in his voice, and it's hard not to be moved. But the one thing I couldn't shake was how he kept categorizing Asian Americans as quiet. He used words like complacent and silent and quiet and content. And as we all know, these are age-old stereotypes.

DEMBY: Yes, Shereen. He was definitely splashing around in some problematic waters there. What's that about?

PERRY: Oh, definitely. Even after the speech, he doubled down on that idea.

HONG: I've always noticed how Asian Americans are super - we're just very quiet, and 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.

DEMBY: 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?

PERRY: 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...

DEMBY: Right.

PERRY: ...Questioning everything he believed before and looking at some of the qualities that he saw in himself and then suddenly seeing them not as neutral but part of this bigger communal, systemic problem.

MERAJI: I hear that. I do hear that. But I can also imagine some people listening going, sounds like you just discovered racism, and now you're lecturing me about being too quiet. Who are you again?

DEMBY: Yeah. You just got here, bro. And that seems like a big theme in this moment. It's like they say, there's no one more pious than the newly converted.

PERRY: Which is exactly why I spoke to Kim Tran.

TRAN: I am an anti-racist consultant, and I'm writing a book about solidarity across race.

PERRY: She says Asians have been organizing since they got here in the 1800s, 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.

TRAN: 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.

PERRY: And she says there's something kind of unique about Asian American organizing.

TRAN: Asian American organizing is differentiated from other racial groups, like Indigenous or Native organizing or Chicanx, Chicano organizing and Black American civil rights struggles, by the fact that it's always been really coalitionary-based. Asian American organizing has always been really multiracial.

PERRY: That's one of the reasons that 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...

MERAJI: Like Japanese Americans fighting for recognition of their incarceration during World War II as more than, quote-unquote, "internment," fighting for reparations, fighting for official apologies for what happened.

DEMBY: Right. And, of course, Vincent Chin's murder in Detroit was an inflection point. Guess we got to do an explanatory comment 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.

PERRY: And the Yellow Power movement in the '70s and '80s. But a lot of the organizing has actually been integrated into other movements, like the movement for Black liberation.

TRAN: One of the things that I think about often is that Yuri Kochiyama, as a Japanese American, was the person who was holding Malcolm X after he had been shot numerous times and as he lay dying. 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.

MERAJI: Where Filipino and Mexican farmworkers organized together in California. And Filipino organizers started the grape boycott in the '60s that Cesar Chavez usually gets all the credit for.

PERRY: 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.

TRAN: 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. 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.

DEMBY: Which is exactly the way Edmond was characterizing Asian Americans.

MERAJI: Exactly.

PERRY: 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 group 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 that 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, but Kim says it's also a stereotype that many of us have leaned into and found useful.

TRAN: The model minority is a way that we defined ourselves as definitively not Black, and that is anti-Blackness within our community.

PERRY: She says, actually, anti-Blackness is a way that Asian racial identity gets formed in a lot of different ways.

TRAN: 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.

MERAJI: Which is something that we've been talking about a lot lately, Gene. We just mentioned Latasha Harlins on the show last week. She was 15 years old and walked into a convenience store in South Central LA to buy some orange juice and was shot in the back of the head by the store owner, who is a Korean immigrant named Soon Ja Du.

DEMBY: Yup, and just like in the Vincent Chin case, the judge in that case only gave Soon Ja Du fines and probation.

PERRY: Yeah, so we can 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.

TRAN: 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, 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. And some folks are really comforted by that because it's, you know, this white supremacist idea that you could climb the racial ladder.

MERAJI: And that's what happens with so many different groups, right? Certain communities have more opportunities to saddle up right next to whiteness, aka 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 psych (ph). Shoutout to all my Iranians.

DEMBY: 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 gears of white supremacy work against everybody, whether we're talking about barriers to the ballot and unequal education...

MERAJI: Yes.

DEMBY: ...Or unchecked policing power - you name it.

PERRY: 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.

TRAN: 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.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

PERRY: So as our country moves forward, Kim wants folks like Edmond to recognize that Asian Americans are deeply political and have been part of major milestones in America.

TRAN: 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. So, you know, we're doing this with history at our backs, and that's really exciting.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

MERAJI: It's been more than a month since Edmond Hong gave that speech here in LA's Koreatown and since you first spoke with him, Alyssa, 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?

PERRY: Yeah, I have. So our first conversation left off with him telling me that he was eager to keep going out there in the streets, learning more about systemic racism and all that. But when we recently talked, he says he's been more introspective.

HONG: I think for the first month or so, I was very - like, there was just so many things wrong, and 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 - et cetera. 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.

PERRY: Yeah, he told me he stopped going out to protests and rallies. The one he was at in June happens every first Saturday of the month, and this past July, he didn't go, partly because of the pandemic - numbers are getting pretty bad here in LA - partly because he's cooking again - so he's running a pizza pop-up - and partly because...

HONG: Frankly, it feels pretty hopeless in a lot of ways, like, in the sense of, like, it just seems aimless, almost, sometimes to see constant posts about how Breonna Taylor's killers are still out and free and all like...

MERAJI: 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.

DEMBY: And it's one of the reasons that you need to be in a community with people, right? Like, so they can hold you accountable, so they can have your back, so they can support you.

MERAJI: Yeah, so they can give you that energy when you don't have it.

DEMBY: Exactly.

MERAJI: 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. And, also, if you're not as affected by all of these things directly, if you have the luxury of going to your, as Edmond 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 Edmond thought he was going to be doing.

HONG: For me, I think 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, went to these protests and still 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...

PERRY: It's hard to examine your own privilege, and it can be shocking at times. It's one thing to say, stand up to people; have uncomfortable conversations, and it's another thing to do it consistently. 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.

HONG: 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 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, literally right in front of me...

MERAJI: Yeah, this is lifelong work, and it's not easy.

PERRY: Totally. You start wanting to change the system and quickly realize it's not a sprint; it's a marathon.

DEMBY: The problem with the marathon analogy is that it presumes an end.

PERRY: Totally. So I asked Edmond if he understood what he's doing isn't new. We talked about many of the things Kim mentioned - the civil rights movement, the Filipino grape workers, the long history of Asian American activism, that other Asian Americans have been running this race for a long time.

HONG: Yeah, the power of, like, freaking knowing, I guess, or understanding, 'cause it's like, I think - at least for me - I don't know - I had no idea about that at all.

PERRY: How does it make you feel when you hear that?

HONG: It's pretty empowering, to be honest. It kind of makes me want to dig a lot more and understand more and see kind of what their lifestyle was in a lot of ways.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

DEMBY: And that's our show, y'all. It was edited by Leah Donnella and produced by Alyssa Jeong Perry.

MERAJI: Shoutout to the rest of the CODE SWITCH team - Kumari Devarajan, Natalie Escobar, Jess Kung, Steve Drummond and LA Johnson.

DEMBY: You can follow us on Twitter. I'm @GeeDee215. That's @GeeDee215. Shereen is @RadioMirage. And Alyssa is @alyssajperry.

MERAJI: We always want to hear from you. Email us at codeswitch@npr.org and subscribe to our newsletter, which you can do by going to npr.org/newsletters, with an S at the end.

DEMBY: I'm Gene Demby.

MERAJI: I'm Shereen Marisol Meraji.

PERRY: And I'm Alyssa Jeong Perry.

DEMBY: Be easy, y'all.

MERAJI: Peace.

(SOUNDBITE OF MUSIC)

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