Sarah Thankam Mathews
July 23, 2020
“Mom, Dad, Uncle, Auntie, Grandfather, Grandmother,” the letter begins, “we need to talk.”
During the Black Lives Matter uprising this summer, millions took their bodies to the streets, participating in the largest movement ever seen in the United States. Each morning arrived with a well-shaken cocktail of horror and hope; each night exploded with protester arrests, defiance, and fireworks. Amid daily protests and chilling news reports, I noticed young South Asian Americans mobilizing, not just in the streets but online. People created Zoom reading groups to discuss casteism and anti-Blackness, made aunty-friendly WhatsApp memes on police brutality, and began circulating a new and updated version of Letters for Black Lives.
Letters for Black Lives is an open-letter translation project that aims to challenge and erode intra-community anti-Blackness. The letter is a heartfelt plea from progressive, mostly younger Asian Americans to community elders to reconsider their commitments to Black people. It has been translated in over 40 languages, from Sylheti to Malayalam, Nepali to Khmer, and expanded beyond Asian America. The Letters for Black Lives collective states that their goal is to “start a conversation with loved ones about the unique struggles that the Black community faces.”
The letters are short, clear, and direct. They often anticipate the listener’s viewpoint. “You might be thinking: We are also a minority. We’ve managed to come to America with nothing and built good lives for ourselves despite discrimination, so why can’t they?” The English letter continues:
“I want to share with you how I see things. I am telling you this out of love, because I want all of us, including myself, to do better. For the most part, when we walk down the street, people do not view us as a threat. We do not leave our homes, wondering whether or not we will return that day. We don’t fear that we may die if we’re pulled over by the police. This is not the case for our Black friends.”
Letters for Black Lives was, in the words of its founder, born out of some “reckless tweeting.” In July 2016, Christina Xu, a Chinese American technology researcher, felt sickened watching the reports of the back-to-back police murders of Philando Castile and Alton Sterling. Early rumors — eventually proven false — were circulating that the police officer who killed Castile was Asian American. Xu felt the urgency of the moment deeply. She was afraid that this would turn out to be a redux of the Peter Liang protests, when thousands of Chinese Americans protested in defense of the Asian American cop who was convicted for his role in the 2014 shooting of Akai Gurley.