“Rayshard Brooks. Robert Fuller. Dominique ‘Rem’mie’ Fells. Riah Milton … We just wanted to start off the show saying black lives matter. Black trans lives matter,” cohost Joey Yang says at the top of the latest edition of Plum Radio, a weekly podcast that aired its eleventh episode three weeks after the police killing of George Floyd. “I know that folks have been out there doing their part for the last couple weeks, but this is only the beginning.”
Later in the episode, cohost Dolly Li interviews Chinese American rapper Bohan Phoenix and his collaborator Jachary, a black American singer who has toured China with Phoenix, about the debt Asian American hip-hop artists owe to black Americans. Yang and Li also discuss how the music industry could become more inclusive, before ending with a segment in which Li asks, “Cultural Appropriation or Not?” At times the conversation is uncomfortable, but it’s a necessary and nuanced way of understanding how race plays into pop culture.
Li and Yang, who’ve been friends since attending Rice University together, started Plum Radio after realizing there weren’t many media platforms for Asian American news and culture. Li is a freelance video journalist who previously worked at Al Jazeera, and Yang is a UX designer and musician. In April they released their first episode: a conversation with Dr. Calvin Sun, an ER doctor in New York who shared his experience working in the epicenter of the coronavirus outbreak.
More recently, they’ve been focusing on the Black Lives Matter movement by talking about how Asian Americans can dismantle antiblack racism within their own communities. Texas Monthly spoke with Li and Yang about how to discuss race with Asian American family members and friends, the model minority myth, and more.
Texas Monthly: What is Plum Radio, and why is it important for Asian communities to discuss antiblack racism?
Dolly Li: We talk about news, pop culture, and politics from the lens of an Asian perspective. I think first and foremost, by existing as a publication that acknowledges race, then you are acknowledging that you live in a racialized experience in the U.S. And by acknowledging a racialized existence, then you have to acknowledge that there is oppression. At the core of oppression is an understanding that so much of this country is based on the struggle of enslaved people, of black Americans, and everything from the civil rights movement to even Brown v. Board of Education—these things that so many of our Asian American communities and immigrant communities hold near and dear. The opportunity for education. The opportunity to open a business. The opportunity to attend school. These are all things that a lot of immigrant families arrive in this country and don’t realize that they weren’t rights that they have always had.
Chinese exclusion, for example, is legislation that barred Chinese immigrants and Asian immigrants from coming to the U.S. until the 1900s. The civil rights movement and World War II were part of this era of undoing some of those exclusionary laws. So, first and foremost, I think we must acknowledge that our struggle is intertwined with the struggle of black Americans.
Anti-blackness is a topic that we must talk about because it’s so prevalent in our society right now. It’s so prevalent in communities of color. And by being a publication that acknowledges race, you also acknowledge that there is a united force to overcome white supremacy. And the more communities of color can work together to understand one another and to address the anti-blackness in our communities, the stronger we are as a force to tackle the bigger issues of police violence, discrimination, and white supremacy.
Joey Yang: To Dolly’s point about the civil rights movement, after the Chinese Exclusion Act, that was the first piece of legislation that barred a group from entering the U.S. based on race or nationality. My parents, who came here in the eighties, wouldn’t be here if it weren’t for the civil rights movement, which lifted the Chinese exclusion as part of larger immigration reform.
But the extent to which I understood both the struggle of Chinese immigrants and black Americans and the extent to which I was taught that in school—I had a hard time learning about that in the American education system as someone who was born here and grew up here. I can imagine how difficult it must be for my parents to get this context while they’re trying to have a family, while they’re trying to make it on their own.
TM: Can you talk about the model minority myth and how to dismantle that?
DL: The model minority myth is the idea that there are minorities who are not black, who can be used as an example of being “well-behaved.” This is often attributed to East Asians, specifically Chinese and Japanese immigrants who are coming to the U.S. in the seventies and eighties after the exclusion laws were lifted. Immigrants from Japanese and Chinese descent were often wealthier and more educated. So the idea of the model minority was then created to essentially use the Asian American community as a wedge to divide people of color, to show other communities of color, specifically black and brown communities, that they should be doing better, that they should be “better behaved,” that they should “be more subservient.” They should “follow the rules.”
But what it erases is the context of these groups. The context of immigrating because you had money and a PhD, versus black Americans, [many of whom] did not get to immigrate. They are descended from slaves. And this model minority idea that a lot of Asian Americans may have bought into over the last few decades is a ploy that doesn’t benefit either Asians or black folks.
JY: And part of it is understanding how a couple hundred years of slavery, segregation, and Jim Crow have contributed to this as well. So I think a lot of it is the part of educating our communities on that history, because a lot of folks don’t understand there’s no great way for folks to learn.
And also a slight clarification on the earlier point. My understanding of model minority is that it was originally introduced as a way to separate Chinese and Japanese people as well. Like, I think my understanding was it was introduced after World War II, when you had the background of Japanese internment and all the violence that Japanese people faced as a result. So to then take Chinese people and hold them up and say, “Chinese people are doing fine.”
DL: I think the point of the model minority myth is that it does evolve. Like Joey says, at some point, it’s used to paint Japanese people in a negative way. At another point, it’s used to paint black people in a negative way.
It’s something that people of color who are not black need to be aware of. Why create this juxtaposition between these two groups where one can be viewed as exemplary and another is not? It’s going to continue to evolve where whoever is the perceived enemy of the state will then be told, Why can’t you behave better like these other minorities? It’s something that will perpetuate for as long as we have white supremacy. And it’s just something that we have to continue educating our community about—about how it damages us and how in the long run, it doesn’t benefit any community of color.
TM: Have y’all had these conversations with Asian American friends and family members? How have you approached those conversations?
DL: Yes, definitely. A lot of our followers and our listeners and our Patreon subscribers have reached out to us personally to talk about these issues and to think of a collective response. A lot of our parents are people who often have left trauma or war or famine back in their home countries. To that generation there’s nothing more valuable than living a stable life, because they have such a traumatized past. And that’s a very different lens to talking to your family about anti-blackness than, say, a white lens. We have to talk to our friends and family through acknowledging that their experience and struggle is so different than the mainstream.
We do these weekly virtual viewing parties with our Patreon subscribers every Friday where we watch films such as Ava DuVernay’s 13th on Netflix. This week we’re watching Do the Right Thing, a Spike Lee movie. And after each one, we have a conversation unpacking what we’ve learned and then talking about our struggles with our families and our friends about these topics. For me, it’s been an everyday thing. Everything from talking to my family on WeChat—my family in China—to then consulting with my girlfriends on, like, how do we respond to our aunt after she’s made this racist comment?
TM: It seems that providing support and discussion for your listeners is necessary to keep these conversations going.
JY: Yeah. We really acknowledge that these conversations are difficult. We’re dealing with our parents and our families who might have, at this point, a very set perspective. But I think the exercise of finding common ground just still is so helpful. I think that there’s a lot of ways that we can connect the injustices that we’re seeing to the injustice that our parents or families have faced.
DL: A lot of the Asian community has felt more galvanized to talk about race since COVID-19, which is another thing that Joey and I think about. There is an opportunity right now where people want to learn. There’s a desire to understand oppression. There is a desire to understand why when coronavirus hit, Asian Americans felt the racial sting and the backlash so strongly. And why, as a group, we didn’t have a stronger way to respond.
TM: I think that accountability is a huge factor here to keep this going forward. In addition to having these conversations and participating right now, what are ways we can keep our Asian American community accountable?
DL: Yeah, this is definitely one of the biggest future issues. Right now, people feel galvanized because of the racism that they experienced in COVID-19. They’re galvanized because of the Black Lives Matter protests. And this is something I think about even from 2014 when I first started covering Ferguson and Black Lives Matter. How do we keep this conversation alive when the social media hashtags have stopped trending?
And that’s why we have this publication. These are the conversations we want to keep alive for all of our interviews and the future stories that we tell. To me, being aware of how black Americans are impacted by their history—by America’s history—is so intertwined with the immigrant experience and with our concepts of what we believe is the American dream. Creating this publication is a way to continue to funnel these histories and these stories about how to build intersectionality and solidarity in the conversation. Because, I mean, frankly, the New York Times isn’t going to do it. They don’t care about black and Asian solidarity. But having a publication that does focus on issues that are more from the Asian lens is something that we care about. And that’s why I think having more independent media led by people of color is so important.
JY: I am a really big believer in the fact that the revolution starts at home. In the words of Lauryn Hill, “How you gonna win if you ain’t right within?”
When I think about where I can make the most impact, the answer is with me and with people in my community and the people who are close to me. So that’s having conversations with people or starting a book club to read about Asians for black lives. A lot of these conversations are very uncomfortable and make a commitment to continue putting ourselves outside of our comfort zone so that we are growing. We are growing in our understanding, growing our capacity to help and organize. I think that starts with holding ourselves accountable.
This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.