Courtesy of Eileen Huang
I met Eileen as I meet almost everyone these days: through the screen of a Zoom call, framed by the green-painted walls of her room in New Jersey. Eileen, who uses both she/her and they/them pronouns, said her fall has been going well. She’s on a gap semester that “really might turn into a whole gap year,” and while she misses campus, she’s enjoyed spending time with family and exploring her home state — driving to new places to run, going thrifting and searching for a good New Jersey bagel. Eileen is also doing remote work for a part-time internship with a Chinese American history museum, which she said has been rewarding and fun: “It’s been a really valuable time for me to spend time on Asian American advocacy and also on the preservation of Asian American history.”
Over the summer, in this same bedroom, that same pull towards her Asian American community pushed Eileen into her anti-racist advocacy work. She wrote an open letter to the Chinese American community confronting anti-Blackness that quickly went viral on the Chinese social media app WeChat. A family friend who wrote for the WeChat microblog “Chinese Americans” had asked her to write something — something creative, maybe a poem — in response to the release of PBS’s “Asian Americans,” a documentary series detailing the history of the Asian diaspora in the United States. This was at the end of May, after George Floyd was murdered by a white police officer in Minneapolis and protests in defense of Black lives swept the nation. It felt inappropriate to Eileen to reflect on Asian American history and civil rights victories without acknowledging the role of Black activism in these victories, as well as the entrenched anti-Blackness she’d experienced in the Asian American community. She’d heard comments reinforcing anti-Black narratives or criticizing Black Lives Matter which stood in stark contrast to historical events like the 1965 abolition of racist immigration quotas at the height of the Civil Rights Movement, allowing a new wave of Asian immigrants into the United States. That wave is the generation of Eileen’s parents — the generation of many WeChat users — and a generation that may not be aware of these legacies of Black and Asian solidarity. Eileen’s letter explicitly called out this failure to connect Black and Asian oppression, and urged readers to act to support the Black community. She never anticipated the response it would receive.
Clearly she’d struck a nerve. Eileen estimated that her article has been read around 260,000 times and shared another 15,000 more. Through the power of technology, her words reverberated out to an enormous audience, whose attention then focused back to her. Notifications streamed in from all sides: emails, DMs, response after response uploaded to WeChat. Soon, larger media outlets came calling. Her story has been featured in the Associated Press and the South China Morning Post, even hyperlinked by the New York Times. People’s responses ranged from supportive and grateful to dismissive, even furious. “I guess I expected it to be maybe a bit polarizing,” she said, noting her use of the phrase “rampant” to describe anti-Blackness in Asian communities as a potential flashpoint, but the intensity of some responses was shocking.
“Yeah, so one crazy thing about my summer was, actually, I was doxxed after my piece came out,” Eileen mentioned, her statement much calmer than my reaction to the words. Doxxing to me registers as the modern-day horror story of strangers on the internet tracking down and releasing your identifying information, but Eileen, having lived through it, seemed used to the idea. Newly created spam accounts trawled her Twitter for offensive tweets. People contacted Yale and her internship, hoping to get her expelled or fired. When the letter spread to Eileen’s town, some residents talked about filing a lawsuit against her for defamation. Someone even found and posted her mother’s personal cellphone number, encouraging others to call it. “At one point, it was just really jarring and sad to watch my dad have to install a security camera on our house just in case things got really out of hand. That was kind of a hard part,” she admitted.
This dark side of the response to Eileen’s letter is at least partially connected to the platform it was published on. WeChat is a Chinese app with a wide array of functions, including messaging and blogging, and is one of the only apps of its kind that is functional in both the U.S. and China. For many Chinese Americans, WeChat blogs offer media that is not only more accessible in terms of language, but that represents the community and its interests in a way that mainstream U.S. news outlets often do not. However, WeChat, like parts of Facebook or other social media sites, has begun circulating increasingly conservative perspectives over the past few years, with all the accompanying misinformation and echo-chamber formation that social media news generates. As Eileen put it, WeChat “allows people to publish articles or blogs — kind of like I did — but a lot of them go really unfactchecked and a lot of them are just like, transphobic, xenophobic, racist, anti-Black, all these sorts of things.”
These ideas have real-world consequences. WeChat has been a major organizing source for political activity in the Chinese American community, notably for many people opposing affirmative action on the grounds that it discriminates against Asian students. Users have also mobilized to elect conservative or pro-business politicians, including Donald Trump. Eileen shared that many Asian American progressive groups who reached out to her in the aftermath of her letter highlighted WeChat as a major obstacle to their advocacy, telling her they’d been similarly doxxed while fighting for affirmative action, and that she thinks doxxing is “just a reality of how extreme some WeChat groups or some WeChat activists have become.”
Part of what has facilitated this polarization on WeChat is its U.S. user base, made up of primarily first-generation Chinese immigrants. Before this summer, Eileen, too, thought of WeChat as something more for “my parents, or my parents’ friends.” The relative absence of the second generation is a major factor in the platform’s lack of progressive voices, as this generation, raised in the United States, often has more access to information about issues like structural racism that inform progressive politics.
This generational political divide appeared in many of the negative responses to Eileen’s letter. One widely circulated letter (notably retweeted by Senator Ted Cruz) accused Eileen of being “brainwashed by leftist ideology” and took a generationally confrontational attitude, addressing her throughout with the sweetly smothering epithet “child,” and emphasizing the struggles of the author’s generation as a way to suppress the urgency of responding to anti-Black racism. Other responses denied anti-Blackness in the Asian American community or made inaccurate, anti-Black claims such as labeling Black Lives Matter a “terrorist organization.”
These were not the only contradictions that emerged. Many responses promoted a post-racial, meritocratic view of American society, citing the model minority myth, which asserts that Asian Americans have achieved high levels of education or socioeconomic success by highly valuing hard work. This myth is then weaponized against other marginalized groups to conclude that any failure to achieve success is due to character faults, ignoring both the broad diversity within the label “Asian American” and the histories of genocide and slavery underlying the treatment of Black and Indigenous people in the United States. At the same time, many responses contended that racism against Asian Americans is real and serious, claiming Eileen didn’t care about Asians or was racist for pointing out anti-Blackness within a community that also faces oppression. Anti-Asian racism is indeed real: The COVID-19 pandemic alone has provided an abundance of examples, especially for Chinese Americans. In response to the idea that she doesn’t care about anti-Asian racism, Eileen noted that she is involved in those issues: “It’s not like you can only pick one movement to really fight in.” But, she pointed out, the preferential separation of anti-Asian racism from anti-Black racism “demonstrates a lack of understanding of how actually both are … the results of white supremacy and systemic racism against all people of color.”
“What the Black Lives Matter movement is doing is pointing up at systems of white supremacy that are enabling police brutality against the Black community, and enabling the prison industrial complex, and all these symptoms of racism,” she continued. “Instead of pointing out those larger structures of oppression, I think conservatives on WeChat and conservative Chinese Americans often scapegoat Black and brown people or Indigenous people for all of the racist trauma that Chinese Americans have experienced, which is just very harmful and absolutely false.” This could explain the extreme reaction of many in the WeChat community to the idea of supporting BLM: It poses an ideological threat. Without scapegoating Black and Indigenous people, how can you promote American society as a paragon of equality while knowing so intimately the ways in which it is not?
While this may not seem like grounds for hope, Eileen has been encouraged by the responses from all sides, since each message represents a person now engaged in a much-needed conversation. It also hasn’t prevented her from seeing the good in WeChat as a source of community. Despite the app’s problems, “It’s also been a source of mutual aid for a lot of Chinese American communities,” Eileen said, noting that when the pandemic began, her mother used WeChat to set up shared grocery runs, where one family would buy groceries for many others to minimize potential exposure to the virus. And for Eileen, like many Chinese Americans, it’s a critical way to keep in touch with relatives in China.
This belief in the strength of the WeChat community inspired Eileen to use the platform she had gained to continue these conversations and bridge the app’s generational divide. After her letter went viral, other second-generation Chinese Americans reached out to support her, saying they also worried about their parents falling into “this alt-right or right-wing rabbit hole on WeChat,” Eileen said. Many worried it was hopeless to communicate with them. Many others said the letters had encouraged them to talk to their parents about racism and BLM. “But also, I got emails from older people like parents, first-gen immigrants, telling me the article changed their mind, or changed their perspective,” Eileen said. There were opinions in the middle. There was even pushback to the pushback: Students she didn’t know, as well as older immigrants, wrote WeChat articles defending her in response to popular criticisms like the one mentioned above. Finally, people were engaging in an open dialogue.
Eileen’s hopes for change also drew from her experiences with her own parents, with whom she has had frustrating conversations in the past about supporting BLM, but who are also people that she loves and cares about, and who love and care about her. “Sometimes I just felt it was hard to communicate with them,” she said, remembering past conversations about the need to stand in solidarity with BLM. “But generally they’ve been really supportive of everything. When I was getting a lot of criticism on WeChat, they really stepped up to shield me from it and totally stand by everything I said. They were like, ‘I’m not ashamed that this is my child getting criticized.’”
With that hope in mind, she reached out to many of the second-generation students who had contacted her, as well as students involved with Asian American activism at Yale, with the proposal for The WeChat Project. The current team, mostly progressive Asian American students, works on a volunteer basis to write and translate articles for the WeChat audience describing progressive views on subjects like affirmative action, the 2020 election, policing and prison abolition, sexuality and the myth of the American meritocracy. Each article is posted in English and simplified Chinese to the program’s website and to “Chinese Americans,” one of the few progressive WeChat microblogs with a robust following. The aim, Eileen emphasizes, is to reach those who may have never heard about these issues before in a way that relates to their experience. “We’re not sending these articles off into WeChat trying to talk down to people and be like, ‘Oh, we’re so educated, we have great information, we have better perspectives,’” she said. Instead, her approach comes from “car[ing] deeply about this community, because it’s my community and I want the best for it. We are your children,” she said, referring to first-generation immigrant WeChat users. “We hope that you listen to us.” she continued. “The Chinese translation for the WeChat Project is 心声, which means voices from our hearts.” That sincerity is the foundation for the conversations the group hopes to inspire.
Throughout our interview, I was struck by the strength that Eileen found in community. Her New Jersey hometown is “a very white part of New Jersey — it’s actually the only Republican, like solidly red, Republican, county,” she said. “Growing up, I was always struggling with my identity as a queer Asian American woman,” she continued, but she never quite had the words to articulate her experiences before coming to Yale and getting involved with Asian American history and activism. Eileen highlighted the communities she’s found at Yale, including her Asian American history classes, the Asian American Students’ Association and the AACC and the Asian American spoken word poetry group Jook Songs, which she helps run. These were the communities that supported her through the backlash to her letter, along with outside advocates who reached out to her, such as Asian American civil rights lawyers and activists, and advocacy organizations like Asian Americans Advancing Justice.
Through Chinese community potlucks and meals growing up, as well as connecting with activists this summer, Eileen has also found sources of community within New Jersey. “I was able to connect with other people in my hometown who felt similarly frustrated with the politics in my conservative county,” Eileen said, describing the bond they formed through organizing a rally and helping each other find local BLM protests. Additionally, Eileen described collecting signatures for a petition for rent-stabilized housing with a Black activist in a nearby city: “It was really amazing to see an activist like her literally know the names of the people on the streets that we ran into, and just be able to have a conversation with everyone. Being involved in local organizing and witnessing Black leaders at the local level was really inspiring, and it’s something that I want to emulate as a leader of my own projects.” As a leader, while she is not afraid to confront issues of race and racism, Eileen was quick to point out her own faults and past mistakes and to continue to highlight the work of others. She recognized that class privilege and the prestige associated with Yale affected the weight readers gave to her letter, and she doesn’t claim the term activist for herself, wanting to ensure that it continues to belong to BIPOC doing highly committed community organization work.
This emphasis on relationships is what stood out to me the most about Eileen. All the connections she’d created this summer wove through every aspect of our conversation, and stood out even more when I considered the pandemic they were formed in. Through online organizing, Eileen was able to connect with people she never would have met in person. “Somebody I know reached out to me saying that their very elderly grandmother, who doesn’t speak English and lives in China, had read my letter, and then she was sharing it with all of her friends in China on WeChat, and I was like, ‘Okay, that’s a story that will keep me going,’” she said, highlighting one of her favorite responses. Through her letter, and every personal interaction afterwards, Eileen created a wide-reaching community during a period that can feel so insurmountably isolating. Instead of being an inferior substitute for in-person interaction, digital connection held an incredible amount of possibility.
Eileen’s poetry background is evident in her efforts to advocate for new connections and ways of thinking. “I think poetry serves as a really great way to imagine futures of abolition and liberation, just because creative language accomplishes something that most language cannot,” Eileen said. “There’s something very liberating about expressing myself creatively and using creative work to advocate for change.” The WeChat project carries this mission forward: Every new opportunity for a conversation marks a step in the right direction.
In the face of the struggle to communicate across generational and political divides, or in the face of problems as entrenched as racism and anti-Blackness in the United States — all forms of our deeply broken connections — it can be hard to see a clear path forward. Eileen acknowledged both the progress she’s seen and that there’s a long way to go. Her future hope for WeChat and the broader online Chinese American community is that there will be more open dialogue, where white supremacist messaging no longer dominates. As she said, “I know there is a really strong community here, and it can definitely do better together.” Eileen’s story highlights how powerfully our communities shape us and the power we have to shape them in return. So to move forward, remember: Connections often form in unexpected ways. If you care, reach out. When you do — even through a screen — you may find more people waiting for your words than you think.
Gemma Yoo | firstname.lastname@example.org