by Kathya Alexander
The Atlanta mass shooting that killed eight people, six of them Asian women, along with the increase in violent attacks since Trump named COVID “the China virus” have heightened calls for solidarity between the Asian and African American communities. Coming less than a year after the worldwide protests following the murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, this is a time when the shared interests of both communities have never been greater or more clear. And the relationship between the two communities and how their civil rights movements can interact and strengthen each other are more important than ever. Equitable solutions to their shared interests would seem to naturally include sharing the considerable talents and gifts among the two groups.
Be Culture helps leaders mobilize people and organizations to develop the culture they want to achieve. African American co-founder James Whitfield, along with his wife, co-founder Kristen Whitfield, serve Seattle clients that include several businesses in the Chinatown-International District. They also work with larger companies with Asian, African American, and other employees of color. “When we’re talking about clients in the CID, they are predominately People of Color,” James said. “And when we’re in other organizations — the ones that have POC, the larger ones — we focus and try to center the People of Color in the work that we do,” Kristen added. “And, because we are in the Pacific Northwest, the People of Color that are being centered in those spaces are more likely to be of Asian descent than Black.”
Be Culture’s #1 value in their work is love. Launched on Valentine’s Day in 2020, the framework that Be Culture uses is rooted in the system change and equity tenets of adaptive leadership and Beloved Community. Adaptive leadership is based on the idea that difficult problems are best solved with input from the entire company or community. Martin Luther King envisioned Beloved Community as a society based on justice, equal opportunity, and love of one’s fellow human beings. Adaptive leadership is the means; Beloved Community is the goal. “If you leave out the love, nothing else works,” Kristen stated.
“Everyone always deserves to be loved,” James said. “This is one of the things that is brilliant about adaptive leadership and MLK’s approach to Beloved Community. When he says ‘hate can’t get us there’ what he’s talking about is that the end state has to include all of us — it has to include a state of love among all of us. That’s why the relationship piece is so important. It has to be building bondedness and relationship as part of the work itself.”
Kristen is a former small business owner and sales lead with experience in business development and customer service in both wholesale and retail environments. In addition to providing project oversight, logistics, and operations management for Be Culture, she specializes in designing retreats and interactive participant experiences. James has experience on boards in the business, non-profit, and government sectors, including studying healthcare policy at Harvard and having been appointed by the White House as the Regional Director of Health and Human Services for the Pacific Northwest. He has held positions on numerous local, statewide, and national boards of directors — including Leadership Eastside where he served as CEO and helped develop a Masters Degree in Executive and Civic Leadership.
“Unfortunately, the fastest way to get solidarity between two factions is to create enmity against a different faction,” James said. “The concept of building solidarity among Blacks and Asians — that’s awesome. It’s just that the whole system has to be taken into account as we’re doing the work. The goal of Beloved Community is an end state that requires all of us to be loving and bonded and in righteous or right relationship with one another. Taking down white oppression clearly is an important thing. But however we do that work has to take into account ‘how do we do that in a way that ultimately ends up with Beloved Community as an end state?’ In building mutual support for one another, the Black community and Asian community will need to see one another authentically — the way each of these communities want to be seen.”
Solidarity, in this case, means unifying around the violence against both the Black and Asian communities. For years, Black Lives Matter has demanded an end to police brutality and racially motivated attacks against Black people. Discrimination in the Asian community is not new, but Asians from different walks of life are now finding themselves having an experience common to African Americans due to the violence they are experiencing since the pandemic. Now, since they both are facing this process of racial profiling, the Asian and African American communities are finding ways to come together to fight the violence and show greater empathy toward each other.
“My tendency when I hear things like solidarity between Black and Asian people is [to imagine] a reshuffling of the factions that are at battle with one another,” James said. “And the battle and war analogy doesn’t work towards getting to Beloved Community. Our hesitation around that language is that it is inconsistent with the idea that we ultimately need to find a way to share ownership and love one another to get to the end state. It isn’t just that we reshuffle the existing battle lines. You can’t have an end state of love and bond and connectedness that is brought about through means that are inconsistent with that. Adaptive leadership is mobilizing people to tackle tough challenges and thrive. Beloved Community is the way Martin Luther King described the end goal of his work. Non-violent direct action was a means for mutually self-determined justice.”
According to Dr. King, Beloved Community is not devoid of conflict. Instead he recognized that conflict is an inevitable part of human experience. But he believed that conflicts could be resolved peacefully and could be reconciled through a mutual, determined commitment to nonviolence. All conflicts in the Beloved Community should end with reconciliation and cooperating together in a spirit of friendship and goodwill.
“Black people should certainly work to Stop Asian Hate,” James said. “But if we want to build Beloved Community with Asian people, we also need to see and appreciate the regional and historical differences that have been conflated by racializing such a broad group of people under a single umbrella term. The complexity is to address the outside/in anti-Asian racism that white people use to conflate many groups of peoples into one — making it easier to categorize as well as to hate all at the same time — while addressing the inside/out desire to see the true diversity of the many heritages that are too frequently erased by addressing the whole as ‘Asian.’ This is akin to the need for Asian people to understand the historical and institutional nature of anti-Black, systemic racism. Within the context of our work, we ask people to define themselves. And we ask them to collectively define success and what it will take to get there.”
Seattle has a history of Blacks and Asians working together. Seattle’s Gang of Four — Bernie Whitebear, Roberto Maestas, Bob Santos, and Larry Gossett — were leaders from the Indigenous, African American, Mexican American, and Asian communities. They came together in the 1960s, 70s, and 80s to bring about change around employment discrimination, equal education, exclusionary private “whites-only” clubs, and neighborhood preservation. And recent articles in this publication have focused on Asian-led collaborations with Seattle’s Black Lives Matter movement.
According to James, “Be Culture’s 2nd highest value is equity, which we define as shared self-determination. We want individuals to thrive, which means elevating individuals and shared purpose and talents and gifts. So how do we nurture those things and then create systemic solutions? Systems are made up of individuals, relationships, and rules. Racism is systemic. It involves individuals and relationships, but it also involves the rules and structures that perpetuate disproportionately negative outcomes for People of Color relative to white people.”
“Nothing really changes unless you are explicitly changing what the relationships are going to look like and then the rules that need to be followed,” Kristen adds. “Organizations will say ‘we want more diversity or we want people to feel included.’ Well, how are they going to feel included if you haven’t done any of the other things, and why would they want to be here?”
“Our experience is that people want to be seen,” James continues. “Some may want to be seen totally as individuals. But they frequently want to also have their heritage seen. As an example, we see that people who have an ethnic historical connection to those who were interned in the U.S. want others to understand the long history that led to families being put in concentration camps. And the ongoing implications of having land and property stolen from them and their ancestors.”
African Americans have that same need. To have the ongoing implications of slavery, post-Reconstruction, and Jim Crow — having land and property stolen from their ancestors — to be recognized and acknowledged as well. The need to be seen as human and loving and not perceived, first and foremost, always as a threat.
Seeing each other, acknowledging each other and our histories, is how Beloved Community begins.
Kathya Alexander is a writer, actor, storyteller, and teaching artist. Her writing has appeared in various publications like ColorsNW Magazine and Arkana Magazine. She has won multiple awards including the Jack Straw Artist Support Program Award. Her collection of short stories, Angel In The Outhouse, is available on Amazon.
📸 Featured Image: Photo courtesy of Be Culture.
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