Black and Asian solidarity: 20 artists explore America's complicated relationship with race
A KUOW producer received $10,000. She turned it into a nationwide multimedia project calling for the Stop Asian Hate and the BLM movements to come together.
Kristin Leong is KUOW's community engagement producer. This year she got an unexpected opportunity from TED — the organization behind the popular free speaker series TED Talks — to mark this moment.
In February, Leong found out that TED had selected her to be one of 300 people around the world to receive $10,000 as part of their "Mystery Experiment." There were no strings attached except that she had to spend all of the money within three months.
Leong decided she wanted to use those funds to give back to the community and address the surge in anti-Asian violence that has been gaining momentum since the onset of the Covid-19 outbreak. She ended up creating and leading a nationwide collaborative multimedia project with 20 artists of color called #AZNxBLM.
Leong is half-Chinese and half-white. She was born in Hawaii, and moved to Washington with her family when she was in elementary school. In the early days of the pandemic, Leong interviewed her Chinese father, who is in his 70s. She was surprised to learn that the "kung flu" and "Chinese coronavirus" rhetoric that was being amplified by national leaders at the time was affecting him. He told her about being anxious going to the grocery store, and that he was worried about her or himself being a target of violence.
A year after that conversation with her father, now with $10,000 from TED to spend, Leong took a walk in Seattle's International District and was inspired by a bold black and red mural of raised fists grasping chopsticks. The mural read in both English and Vietnamese, "Chopsticks In A Bundle Are Unbreakable." The piece turned out to be a collaboration by Vietnamese artist Tân Nguyễn, and Black Seattle artist Moses Sun. Sun told the South Seattle Emerald the mural was an ode to Black and Asian American solidarity, and also a nod to Sun’s dad, who served in the Vietnam War as a medic.
Leong was struck by the spirit of the collaboration and by the mural itself. She knew art could be a powerful conversation starter, especially for complex topics like race. This isn't Leong's first multimedia project exploring race and identity. In 2003 Leong created a portrait photography project featuring biracial and bicultural Americans. The project was nominated by USA Today for an Outstanding Academic and Intellectual Endeavor Award.
Merging her beliefs in the power of art, and the power of collaboration, #AZNxBLM was born. She decided to use her TED money to fund a cohort of creators to produce a series of work inspired by the possibility of Asian and Black solidarity. After The Slants Foundation came on board to support the project, the honorariums the artists received were doubled.
Leong ended up with 20 artists and writers of color, and 14 original projects that included music, a dance film, audio features, short films, and more, all shared throughout Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month through The Slants Foundation and her newsletter, ROCK PAPER RADIO. All of the projects can be explored at RockPaperRadio.com, Leong's website for her newsletter and the project's hub.
"Think about all that we have learned from the Black Lives Matter movement over their years and years of activism, which finally came to mainstream American dinner tables over this last year," Leong said.
"Finally," she says of 2020, "the world was waking up to the reality of racism that continues today, alive and well. And I was like, 'if we could just figure out how to work together...we could bring about some real change.'"
But that vision meant overcoming two particularly steep challenges: a lot of people still don't want to talk about race, and that there is long-standing tension between the Asian and Black communities, fueled by incidents such as the 1991 killing of Latasha Harlins. Harlins, who was Black, was just 15-years-old when she was shot and killed by Soon Ja Du, a Korean American convenience store-owner.
"I didn't want #AZNxBLM to be just a feel-good kind of infomercial selling some vague idea of cooperation," Leong says. "You know, the only [thing] that benefits from pitting marginalized groups against each other — and in particular, the Asian and Black communities — is white supremacy. And so, the sooner we can figure how to process this complicated and painful history and then come together for action, change will come."
Leong was one of the creators in her cohort of artists (as the project creator, she did not receive one of the honorariums). For her #AZNxBLM project, she teamed up with KUOW announcer and producer Diana Opong to produce an audio feature exploring the joys and challenges of mixed-race family life. Opong is from Ghana, West Africa. She and her husband are raising three biracial children.
'I didn't understand why I was being othered'
For Leong and Opong, the collaboration was an opportunity to connect not just about parenting children whose identities are still evolving, but also a chance to share their own experiences of their first memories of race.
For Leong, she was in third or fourth grade, learning about the internment of Japanese Americans in the U.S. during World War II, along with the discrimination that Asians of many backgrounds experienced during that time. She had recently moved from Hawaii and was still adjusting to her mostly-white new home. Concerned, she asked her teacher what would have happened to her and her family.
In their audio feature, Leong recalls the incident:
"I remember [my teacher] looking at me, confused, and I realize now... it was just registering to her, probably, that I was mixed. She told me, 'They never would have known.' And I remember thinking, 'But they would have known about my dad. They would have known about the whole other half of my family.'
Opong was in kindergarten for her first memory of race. She and her family had recently moved to the U.S. from Ghana, and she was looking to make new friends. During recess, she asked two boys to play. They told her, "No, get away from us, you African booty scratcher." And then they ran away.
"I knew I was from Africa. I knew that," Opong says. "But I didn't understand why I was being othered. They were calling out a difference in me and making it a bad thing."
As mothers, Leong and Opong have carried those experiences with them. After exploring their first memories of race and the complexities navigating multiple cultures in the naming of their children, their conversation ends with a nod to the best parts of being part of multicultural families.
For Opong, that meant a deeper understanding of the complexities of all people. For Leong, she says that it's been an unexpected gift to have had to have conversations about race and identity at home, long before this current civil rights reckoning went mainstream.
Boxed in by stereotypes
Artists Joe Kye and Austin Antoine also produced a candid audio feature for #AZNxBLM. Kye is a Korean American violinist-looper, composer and storyteller. Antoine is a Black performance artist who uses mixes music, poetry and theatrics.
In their conversation, they explore the power of the stage to combat their feelings of being boxed in by stereotypes in their everyday lives. For Antoine, he says performing on stage is the place where he feels free.
"It's not even that I feel invisible. It's that I try to be invisible," Antoine says about his everyday life as a Black man. "Because, heaven forbid, I actually stand out and have to suffer repercussions."
For Kye though, he shares that as an Asian man in America, the stage feels like the one place where he is not invisible.
"I think it's the perceptions of white supremacy that we're trying to counter in how we present ourselves [when we perform]," he said, pointing out that society paints Antoine as a constant threat while he feels erased and emasculated as an Asian man.
"In that sense," Kye said. "I really want to be seen. Like, all your misconceptions are bullshit."
Diana Opong participated in #AZNxBLM and is also an announcer and producer with KUOW. She is a 2020 AIR New Voices Scholar and has hosted episodes for NPR's Life Kit Podcast.