Note: I use the term “Black History Month” rather than “African-American History Month” because a friend informed me that there are individuals who would not be considered African-American, but still very much are considered part of Black history, like Marcus Garvey and others. In general, I tend to use the terms "black" and "African-American" interchangeably, and I apologize in advance if anyone finds this offensive.

Every February is Black History Month. I have to admit that before a few years ago, I didn’t really celebrate it in any real way, besides some cursory acknowledgement. But now, I actively celebrate Black History Month, both in my personal life as well as in the life of the church. I don’t do so because it’s the right thing for an educated person to do, or in an attempt to pander to political correctness. Nor do I do this because I consider myself anything close to an expert on black history and culture. The reason I unapologetically celebrate Black History Month is because the past couple of years of my life have made me realize that, even as a Korean-American, it was only appropriate that I do so.

The first event that brought me to this realization was that whole “Make Me Asian” and "Make Me Indian" thing. Two years ago, there was an app on the Android market called “Make Me Asian”, which took photos from your phone or mobile device and digitally altered them. This seems benign enough, but the manner in which they altered them was that they made your skin tone yellow, your eyes slanted, slapped a fu-manchu mustache on your face, as well as a rice paddy hat on your head. Of if you wanted to pretend to be a Native American, it was war paint and red skin...because racism. In truth, the app was not really "Make Me Asian", but more exactly, “Make Me A Horribly Offensive and Dated Asian Stereotype”.

I made repeated requests to Google to take it down, but they refused. So I created a petition to ask Google to remove it, which garnered me a lot of flack of various sorts. I heard criticism from people who just could not understand what was offensive about the app. Others told me that the best way to address racism was to laugh it off, and argued that by bringing more attention to this app, I was only making the problem worse. In addition, there were others, the “digital freedom of information” types who believed that no digital content should be censored or restricted in any way. If it was offensive, then I shouldn’t download it, simple as that. I even received no small number of insults and threats along the way, from white supremacists, to supposed members of the Anonymous collective, although that is by its very nature difficult to verify.

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It would have been difficult, if not outright impossible, to argue against these criticisms on a purely personal level, simply by saying, “Well, this hurts my feelings.” As important as my feelings are, this would not be enough. I needed some kind of precedent to effectively argue that these kinds of portrayals were truly offensive and even harmful, not just to me, but to Asians as a whole. And fortunately, there was such a precedent: blackface.

Throughout much of the 19th and 20th century, white performers would often dress up as black people, including darkening their face, hence the term, "blackface". Blackface often took the form of a comedic portrayal of the happy-go-lucky negro on the plantation, but was also used to portray blacks in an even more negative and violent light, as the threatening dark-faced intruder, a bogeyman of sorts. At the time, no one saw any problem with black people being portrayed this way, and evidenced by the blackface's broad use in film, theater, print, and cartoons, even by such cultural icons as Shirley Temple and Bugs Bunny.

But by the mid-twentieth century, this started to change. There was a growing realization that blackface was not at all a benign and humorous portrayal of blacks, but nothing less than an insidious means of control. By portraying blacks in this way, whites could continue to dictate the way in which blacks were portrayed to the broader culture, perpetuating the abstraction that they were either servants who were perfectly content with their situation, or else intruders who were out to violate sanctity of home and person. Additionally, blackface subverted the creation of self identity by denying blacks the ability to determine for themselves how they were presented, what they found offensive, and what they did not.

There was a growing realization that blackface was not at all a benign and humorous portrayal of blacks, but nothing less than an insidious means of control.

And so African-Americans stood up and rejected such portrayals, often in the face of intense scorn. And their perseverance eventually won the day, as they were able to reverse the perception of blackface, to the point where most people today consider it offensive and inappropriate (although sadly, not everyone).

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Because the Android app was in essence a form of digital yellowface, this precedent became the bulwark of my defense. So sure, I was making a stand against the offensive characterization of Asians, but I was using the historical precedent that had been established by African-Americans. Like them, I did not want to allow others to dictate the portrayal of my race and ethnicity, and wanted the right to decide for myself what I found offensive, and that included this app. And because my argument was not simply personal in nature, but was formed from this storied precedent, other people could resonate with it, and understand its importance. In the end, nearly 15,000 people signed two petitions, including many blacks, whites and other non-asians.

So when Google did eventually take down the app, I was under no misapprehension as to what was the cause. It wasn't because of my snarky tweets and outraged emails. It was because the ideological foundation and historical precedent against yellowface had been well established decades before in the fight against blackface. And without that, I would not have had a a leg to stand on.

The second event that convinced me that I should celebrate the history and contributions of African Americans was when I moved into this community, nearly 5 years ago. I know that most of the time on this blog, I talk about the harder aspects of living in the city. But I should also point out that the very reason that I am able to live here and blog about these events is because African Americans fought hard for that right.

It wasn't always the case that a person could live anywhere they wanted in the city. There used to be a policy in DC called Racially Restrictive Covenants. Basically, associations around the city would draft legal documents that restricted home ownership to people of specific races or religions, to make sure that their neighborhood remained the way that they wanted them to be. But in the 1940’s, African Americans began to challenge the legality of such covenants, and worked towards getting them overturned. They eventually succeeded, challenging the legal basis of these agreements. But even then, when blacks began to move into historically white neighborhoods like Mt. Pleasant and Bloomingdale, the local residents were openly hostile to African-American families, shunning them, or worse. Despite this, blacks persevered in these neighborhoods, until it no longer became a strange sight to see a black family in every corner of the city.

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Now fast forward over half a century later, to my own life and situation. I never had to worry about these kinds of issues. When I moved into this neighborhood, I didn’t have to put any thought into whether I was legally allowed to. And my neighbors, Annette, Vanessa, Tyrone, William, they didn’t shun me because of my race – they all warmly welcomed me and my (growing) horde of children. So clearly, I enjoy the right to live where I want, and not face legal nor cultural persecution as a result – but I did not fight for this right. That fight had been fought and won by African-Americans, and I am just a beneficiary of their difficult struggle.

At this point, an especially pessimistic person might argue that blacks weren't exactly fighting this battle on my behalf. The fight against blackface and racially restrictive covenants was fought primarily on behalf of black people, and Asian Americans like myself were just unintentional beneficiaries of their efforts. But I don’t think that’s true. For instance, after the successful bus boycott of Montgomery, black leaders penned a letter with instructions that included this:

“Remember that this is not a victory for Negroes alone, but for all Montgomery and the south. Do not boast. Do not brag.”

“Remember that this is not a victory for Negroes alone, but for all Montgomery and the south. Do not boast. Do not brag.”

So no, they might not have specifically known that one day a Korean-American like me would benefit greatly from their efforts, but they always knew their fight went far beyond their own community, and was a fight for universal human dignity and equality.

These are scarcely the only examples in which the black Civil Rights movement lays a foundation for the rights of all minorities – these are only the examples that affect me most recently. And so, even though I am a proud Korean-American who is by no means an authority on black history or culture, I actively celebrate Black History Month because I actively benefit from the efforts and sacrifice of black people. So have all minorities, and in truth, all Americans. Black history is something that we should all take time to learn about and celebrate, because some of the broadest shoulders that our nation stands upon trace their roots not to the continent of Europe, but Africa.

Third Culture
Third Culture looks at matters of faith from the multicultural and minority perspective.
Peter Chin
Peter W. Chin is the pastor of Rainier Avenue Church and author of Blindsided By God. His advocacy work for racial reconciliation has been featured on CBS Sunday Morning, NPR, and the Washington Post.
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