Sangay Taythi, who helps organize an collective called Tibetans for Black Lives, visits the site where Minneapolis police killed George Floyd. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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After George Floyd was killed by Minneapolis police, Sangay Taythi headed to south Minneapolis to join the protests. He placed a khatak, a Tibetan scarf offered during religious ceremonies, at the site of Floyd’s death. He snapped a photo of the scene and uploaded it to social media.

The photo, Taythi said, sparked an “uproar” of social media commentary. Taythi’s generation of younger Tibetans, commenting in English, was overwhelmingly supportive. But he faced a backlash from elders, writing comments and posting videos in Tibetan. Some wanted to know why he would get involved in this struggle when Tibetans already had their own. 

Taythi and a handful of fellow Tibetan activists from Boston, California, and the United Kingdom began to put together a collective they called Tibetans for Black Lives. Together, they planned to lift up Black voices–and also confront what they perceive as anti-Black attitudes in their own community.

They would do it, Taythi said, “Not by being a jerk, saying ‘you guys suck, and you guys are racists,’ but actually with some empathy and with compassion.”

As the protest movement sparked by the police killing of George Floyd ripples throughout the world, it’s also reverberating in Minnesota’s Asian immigrant communities, including Tibetans in exile, Cambodian genocide survivors, and the country’s largest Hmong population. Activists are hosting online workshops, creating videos, and facilitating intergenerational conversations about George Floyd and anti-Black racism, encouraging their communities to stand up for justice for Black lives.

For some Asian Minnesotans, taking such an active role is an important part of defying the “model minority” myth that often pits Black and Asian Americans against each other. It’s also about fighting a policing system that deports Asian immigrants and entrenched racism that led to an uptick in anti-Asian violence at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic.

Minnesota’s Asian American solidarity with the George Floyd protests is part of a national trend. A Gallup poll released in late July showed that one in five Asian Americans nationally had participated in a protest in the last 30 days, more than any other racial group. Asian Americans were also more likely than any other group to say the protests had changed their views on racial justice.

Taythi and his nascent youth collective realized they would have to translate their activities into Tibetan to reach the older generation. They organized an online town hall meeting and a panel discussion in Tibetan, and translated a letter explaining why they were standing up for Black lives.

“The conversation overnight flipped,” Taythi said. “People were coming out saying these youths are right.”

Taythi, who came to Minnesota from a Tibetan refugee camp in India as a teenager in 1998, learned at Richfield High School about America’s long history of oppressing Black people. His parents’ generation didn’t have the privilege of attending American schools, he said. So it’s up to his generation to teach them.

The khatak at the site of Floyd’s killing. Credit: Sangay Taythi

“Our struggle is for truth and justice. So is the Black lives movement.”

Taythi comes to his activism through his Tibetan identity. An internal organizer with SEIU Healthcare, Taythi believes every Tibetan is born into the struggle for their country’s freedom and identity. But he didn’t become formally involved in Tibetan activism until college.

As a student at the University of Minnesota in the 2000s, Taythi became active in the fight for Tibetan independence from China through Students for a Free Tibet and the Tibetan Youth Congress. He ran campaigns for two aspiring prime ministers of the exiled Tibetan government. And through the Tibetan American Foundation of Minnesota, he helped organize language classes and cultural events. The Tibetan movement, he says, is the struggle for an identity.

For his parents’ generation, which fought to get green cards and come to the United States, it can be difficult to see the injustices that exist here, he said. And some people think that young Tibetans should focus on the Tibetan struggle rather than get involved in other movements.

But Taythi and many other young Tibetans argue that they can’t isolate themselves and their struggle. “If we want our movement to rise, we need to at the same time reach out to other movements,” he said.

Taythi’s role in Tibetans for Black Lives is event planning. In their first Zoom town hall, they had more than 100 participants from around the country and world offering to contribute time and skills. An online panel discussion, in which participants were required to speak in Tibetan, garnered thousands of views.

As a result of their work, Tibetan scholars and authors began to speak out. Other Tibetan groups have started putting out materials about the movement for Black lives in Tibetan. Students have released podcasts on the issue. And online conversations have started to change.

For Taythi, there are clear parallels between the treatment of Black Americans over hundreds of years and the treatment of Tibetans under Chinese rule–and the harsh tactics against both groups protesting the government.

“Our struggle is for truth and justice,” he said. “So is the Black lives movement.”

“If you don’t do something now, what happened to George Floyd can become what happened in Cambodia.”

Kosol Sek, 46, believes in tracing history. A licensed real estate broker by day, he volunteers as the managing director of IKARE, the International Khmer Assembly, and the National Khmer Legacy Museum, which stores many of its materials in the Cambodian Church of the Nazarene in Crystal. It’s the only museum outside Cambodia focused on the contributions of the Khmer people, the majority ethnic group in Cambodia.

He explains how the word Khmer dates from the Roman empire; how the Angkor Wat temple in Cambodia is the largest religious monument in the world; how mathematicians recently discovered the first use of the number zero on a Khmer tablet in Cambodia.

Remembering this history is so important to him because the Khmer are a people interrupted. During the late 1970s, Pol Pot’s Khmer Rouge killed around 2 million Cambodians–a quarter of the population–through mass executions, forced labor and starvation. The regime targeted educators, students, and doctors. Many of those who had an education were killed; many of those who survived spent more than a decade in refugee camps and never got an education.

Sek’s work focuses on reminding the Khmer people that there is more to their history than being genocide survivors, that they “are a people with a rich history and tradition and arts and culture,” he said.

It’s hard for most Americans who haven’t lived through a genocide to understand the Khmer perspective, Sek said. But when Minneapolis police killed George Floyd, and unrest broke out, it sent shock waves of trauma through the community. The fires reminded people of some of the events that led up to the genocide.

Sek took to Facebook to make a video in the Khmer language explaining what was happening. “What we don’t want is people to think America is burning, that this is Cambodia number two,” he said.

In the video, he explained that both peaceful and non-peaceful protesters were in the crowds. He also pointed out that white supremacists came to take advantage of the unrest, the same way some soldiers were taken advantage of in Cambodia. And he explained the importance of not disregarding other individuals and speaking up for justice. More than 15,000 people watched the video.

While Sek sought to reassure his community that they weren’t reliving the events of the 1970s, he found Floyd’s killing deeply troubling.

“The George Floyd story has touched me in a different way from others in a sense that I really saw a real life broadcast of a human being discounting another human being. And that’s what happened in the Cambodian genocide,” Sek said. “If you don’t do something now, what happened to George Floyd can become what happened in Cambodia. So we have to do whatever we can.”

Racism often stems from ignorance, Sek says, and just as members of the Khmer community often don’t know their own history, they also don’t know others’ history. In America, so much emphasis is on slavery, rather than portraying Black people in a positive light. “A lot of people don’t realize that Black people have had a great civilization for hundreds of years,” he said.

Kosol Sek points out the first identified number zero on a replica of an ancient Khmer tablet found in Cambodia. For Sek, learning a culture’s history is an essential part of honoring human dignity. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

“We cannot be silent.”

For some Asian Minnesotans, watching Minneapolis police officer Tou Thao stand by without intervening as fellow officer Derek Chauvin knelt on George Floyd’s neck, was a painful call to take action in their communities.

“To watch one of our own to stand by as George Floyd was dying means that we make choices to participate in these systems,” said Bo Thao-Urabe, executive and network director of the St. Paul-based Coalition of Asian-American Leaders, or CAAL. “It’s yet another reason for us to recognize that we cannot be silent in the face of anti-Black racism.”

Days after Floyd was killed, CAAL wrote and passed around a letter supporting the demands of Floyd’s family and the movement for Black lives. More than 30 Asian Minnesotan organizations signed, as well as 300 more from outside the state.

The letter grew out of the Asian Minnesotan Alliance for Justice, a CAAL initiative formed to address the rise in anti-Asian violence at the beginning of the coronavirus pandemic. Floyd was killed as these groups had already begun to convene to confront racism and xenophobia.

To Thao-Urabe, building solidarity across Black and Asian communities is critical to fighting racism. “Asian Americans have continuously been used as a wedge community in the work of white supremacy,” she said. For example, the “model minority” myth came to prominence in the 1960s as an excuse for political leaders to deny Black demands. It’s “part of the scaffolding of white supremacy that pits our communities against each other.”

CAAL has created and gathered resources–including conversation guides, curriculum, art, and letters in many languages–for Asian Americans hoping to discuss anti-Black racism in their communities. They’ve also been engaging community members in Minneapolis and St. Paul in the conversation about the future of policing and community safety.

CAAL’s resources have helped Vinicius Taguchi, 26, a civil engineering Ph.D. student at the University of Minnesota who serves on the board of the Twin Cities chapter of the Japanese American Citizens League. 

After signing CAAL’s letter, Taguchi authored an open letter from JACL to Mayor Jacob Frey and police Chief Medaria Arradondo. “Japanese Americans have known what it is like to be unfairly persecuted by authorities on the basis of their appearance, as was the case during World War II,” the letter said. It demanded more accountability and oversight for the Minneapolis police.

The response to the letter from Japanese American communities all over the country was “overwhelming,” Taguchi said. Many people wanted to know how they could get involved as a next step. So the chapter decided to host a series of workshops–co-facilitated by Taguchi–on anti-Blackness in Japanese American communities. 

The “model minority” stereotype has sometimes led Japanese Americans to perpetuate anti-Black racism, Taguchi said. The first workshop, in late July, attracted 30 attendees from seven states. “People felt like they could be vulnerable and talk about things we try not to think about,” he said.

A spiritual connection

On a recent August morning, Sangay Taythi noticed several new khataks adorning the George Floyd memorial site. His was the first; now they’re multiplying.

Offering the khatak there evokes an earlier spiritual connection between the Tibetan community and the fight for Black liberation.

Years earlier, the Dalai Lama, the Tibetan spiritual leader, visited the Memphis motel where an assassin fatally shot Martin Luther King, Jr. He draped a khatak on the balcony where King last stood. 

While in the United States, King is considered a leader of the civil rights movement, Taythi said, he also holds international significance as a champion of nonviolence.

“He’s not just known as the champion of the Black struggle, but also seen as a leader of a nonviolent movement,” Taythi said. “In the Tibetan context, it’s the Dalai Lama who has since the beginning consistently advocated for nonviolent resolution of the Tibetan cause.”

Now, Taythi hopes the Tibetan struggle can learn from the new civil rights movement. In an increasingly interconnected world, he says it’s critical to learn from each other. Organizing Tibetan solidarity for George Floyd has taught him new ways to mobilize people–skills he can apply to the Tibetan movement. Seeing this movement shake the country and world has inspired him to think about how to grow the movement for a free Tibet.

“For me as a Tibetan activist,” he said, “why wouldn’t I be a part of this?”

In early August, a new khatak adorned the George Floyd memorial site. Credit: Jaida Grey Eagle | Sahan Journal

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Becky Z. Dernbach is a corps member with Report for America, a national service program that places journalists into local newsrooms.