By Viet Thanh Nguyen
The face of Tou Thao haunts me. The Hmong-American police officer stood with his back turned to Derek Chauvin, his partner, as Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck for 8 minutes and 46 seconds and murdered him.
In the video that I saw, Tou Thao is in the foreground and Chauvin is partly visible in the background, George Floyd’s head pressed to the ground. Bystanders beg Tou Thao to do something, because George Floyd was not moving, and as he himself said, he could not breathe.
The face of Tou Thao is like mine and not like mine, although the face of George Floyd is like mine and not like mine too. Racism makes us focus on the differences in our faces rather than our similarities, and in the alchemical experiment of the U.S., racial difference mixes with labor exploitation to produce an explosive mix of profit and atrocity. In response to endemic American racism, those of us who have been racially stigmatized cohere around our racial difference. We take what white people hate about us, and we convert stigmata into pride, community and power. So it is that Tou Thao and I are “Asian Americans,” because we are both “Asian,” which is better than being an “Oriental” or a “gook.” If being an Oriental gets us mocked and being a gook can get us killed, being an Asian American might save us. Our strength in numbers, in solidarity across our many differences of language, ethnicity, culture, religion, national ancestry and more, is the basis of being Asian American.
But in another reality, Tou Thao is Hmong and I am Vietnamese. He was a police officer and I am a professor. Does our being Asian bring us together across these ethnic and class divides? Does our being Southeast Asian, both our communities brought here by an American war in our countries, mean we see the world in the same way? Did Tou Thao experience the anti-Asian racism that makes us all Asian, whether we want to be or not?
Picture: Marcela McGreal / CC BY (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0)