Twenty-year-old Eileen Huang is an English major at Yale University. Growing up in a Chinese immigrant family in a small town in New Jersey, racism in the United States was a topic she rarely discussed with her parents.
But earlier this month, her open letter, "A Letter from a Yale student to the Chinese American Community” provoked a rare debate in the Chinese community in the U.S. and on Chinese social media.
Since George Floyd, a 46-year-old African American, died in police custody in late May, protests against racism have spread across communities throughout the United States, changing attitudes among millions of Americans about the legacy of slavery and discrimination that still impacts Black Americans.
According to a recent survey by the Pew Research Center, nearly 70% of Americans now support the Black Lives Matter movement and 69% of respondents said they had spoken to others about race in the past month.
Both political parties in Congress have also introduced bills aimed at reforming the police system.
For many first-generation Chinese immigrant families and Asian immigrant families, racism in the U.S. was not something that was regularly discussed, according to some Chinese American activists. But that has been changing recently.
A younger generation of Chinese Americans like Huang has started to talk about racism with their immigrant parents. Huang was one of the first ones who spoke up publicly.
“I really couldn’t get that image out of my mind,” Huang said, referring to Floyd’s death after a police officer kneeled on his neck for nearly nine minutes. “So I was just moved to write this letter. I really couldn’t stay silent about these protests.”
In her open letter, she expressed her disappointment at the indifference shown by the Chinese community after Floyd's death and encouraged people to actively understand the history of minorities in the U.S. The letter was signed by more than 20 Chinese and Asian students.
In the letter she wrote: “What has happened to George Floyd has happened to Chinese miners in the 1800s and Vincent Chin, and will continue to happen to us and all minorities unless we let go of our silence, which has never protected us, and never will.”
Vincent Chin was the victim of a racial hate crime in the 1980s. At that time, the auto industry in Detroit, America’s Motor City, was struggling in the face of competition from Japan.
On June 19, 1982, a white father and son killed Chinese American Vincent Chin with a baseball bat in a parking lot, claiming that someone like him had caused the father and son to lose their jobs. In the end, the father and son were fined $3,000 but spent no time in jail.
Huang’s parents came to the U.S. as PhD and master's students in the early 1990s. At the time, the couple encountered episodes of discrimination, but didn't show much concern as their top priority was to create a good living environment for their children.
"In fact, we don’t have the knowledge that our children have about the history of Chinese Americans, African Americans in the U.S. We didn’t pay much attention to it,” said Huang’s mother, who didn’t want to reveal her name. “A lot of parents should really look at the history of the country that they emigrated to, some things about society."
Huang hopes her action in writing the letter will spur a discussion that will help Chinese immigrants to fill that gap.
Huang's open letter received a lot of support but also provoked a heated online debate within the Chinese community. Some argued that Chinese Americans are not as indifferent as Huang described because they also participated in the civil rights movement fighting for equality. Others insisted that differences between African Americans and Chinese Americans — both economically and socially — were due to behavioral differences — arguing that African Americans don’t work as hard.
One of Huang’s supporters — Kalos Chu, a student at Harvard University — argued that such claims are narrow minded.
“As hard-working as Chinese Americans are, I think it would be presumptuous to claim hard work as an exclusively Chinese cultural value,” Chu wrote in a response to Huang’s letter. “I think it would be narrow-minded to think that Black people don’t want to send their kids to good schools, don’t want good lives for their families, or don’t want to be self-reliant as well.”
After Huang’s open letter was published, she and her parents had more conversations about racism, and together they discussed their previous anti-Black sentiments and began to read more to make up for their lack of knowledge.
Not long ago, Huang’s parents joined her and participated in a protest against police violence. Her father said, “The vast majority of the protesters were peaceful. The protesters were composed of people of all races... The reaction of the mainstream society really surprised me.”
Huang also has started writing articles about social issues in the U.S. including stories about police and the justice system as well as affirmative action.
“I just think it’s really important for elders and older generations to hear from the people they’ve raised,” she said.
Adrianna Zhang contributed to this report.