Rohan Zhou-Lee, a Black Asian nonbinary person in gray spandex shorts, leather harness, and red short cape, leads a diverse group of people in a march while holding a microphone.
Rohan Zhou-Lee (center with microphone) at the Blasian March Pride rally in New York, June 5, 2021 Credit: Lucy Baptiste

On plantations in the 1800s, plantation owners used diversity as a means of division. “We lay great stress on the necessity of having our labor mixed. By employing different nationalities, there is less danger of collusion among laborers,” reports an 1883 Planters Monthly article. Sowing division was essential to maintaining the oppression of the working class and people of color: When Chinese railroad builders began a strike for better wages and working conditions, white managers threatened to import Black workers to break the strike. “There are few, if any, cases of Japs, Chinese, and Portuguese entering into a strike as a unit,” wrote one plantation manager. To this day, Black and Asian communities often remain divided, thanks to a model minority stereotype that uses the example of limited upward mobility to deny the existence of discrimination generally.

Yet in parallel with division, American history includes stories of solidarity and progress: Frederick Douglass advocated for Chinese immigration in 1869, decades in advance of the Chinese Exclusion Act. Black soldiers opposed the colonization of the Philippines. Asian American activists Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama worked for social justice and civil rights alongside Angela Davis, Malcolm X, and others. Filipino and Mexican farmworkers first united during the Delano grape strike, which resulted in the formation of the United Farm Workers. And the Asian American movement began in the late 1960s, modeled upon and inspired by the Black Power movement that preceded it. 

On July 30 at noon in Federal Plaza, Blasian March continues the work of solidarity when it manifests in Chicago for the first time. Founded by Northwestern graduate and onetime Chicago-based activist, dancer, writer, and musician Rohan Zhou-Lee in 2020 in New York, Blasian March is an action for solidarity among Black, Asian, and Blasian communities, with an emphasis on women, people with disabilities, the LGBTQ+ community, and intersectionality. In addition to New York, Blasian marches have occurred in New Haven and Los Angeles. 

In Chicago, the Blasian March is organized with Columbia College’s Asian Student Organization, a collaboration initiated by their president, Kaitlyn Venturina. “I’ve always wanted to start some kind of action where it’s not just our communities, marginalized communities in their own spaces, but rather folks coming together from different points of view and backgrounds and understanding one another,” says Venturina. “The Blasian March is such a great idea because of the tension we’ve had throughout generations—we also have a lot of intersectionality and stories behind what our communities have done to come together and fight for what’s right.” Announced speakers for the Chicago Blasian March include Venturina; Faith Phillips, a Black Indigenous trans activist and owner of Wish Me Luck Tattoo; and Chipo C. Nyambuya, director of experiential programming and professional development for Loyola University School of Law.

In the following interview, Zhou-Lee describes how the seeds of the Blasian March were planted by their search for identity and their experiences with Chicago activism.

We had our first rally on October 11, 2020. It was in the middle of lockdown, the latest surge in the Black Lives Matter movement, and what we now know as the beginnings of the Stop Asian Hate movement. The previous summer, I was organizing a lot within Asian American communities, specifically the Chinese community, as well as showing up to the Black Lives Matter marches where folks were more marginalized. In New York there were so many offshoots of movements—there were Black women’s marches, a Black Disabled Lives Matter march, Stonewall protests that were obliquely to celebrate Black LGBT people. At the time there really wasn’t space to uplift Black Asians like myself or space to give Asians room to be seen and heard. I had noticed so many times at a Black Lives Matter rally you would have a lot of Asian organizers in the background doing safety but you would hear speakers on the mike only thank white people for showing up. I was like, why are we being rendered invisible in this space? That’s not OK. 

While I was still living in Chicago, I was attending rallies by [Filipino student and youth organization] Anakbayan, [LGBTQ+ Asian Pacific Islander organization] Invisible to Invincible, [LGBTQ+ South Asian organization] Trikone, and the Chicago Black Gay Men’s Caucus. I wanted to give a nod to all the queer Asian organizers I’ve worked with in Chicago—a lot of their intersectional organizing definitely inspired the Blasian March. Even though it’s never come to Chicago before now, it has roots in Chicago activism. 

I am the third generation of Blasian in my family—my grandparents on both sides were mixed Black and Asian. Everyone’s like, ‘This is a new thing!’ And I’m like, “Mmm . . . come to the Caribbean. We’re everywhere.” We grew up being very proud to be Chinese. In high school, I started asking my grandparents where we were from. I was like, are we Indian? This is what happens when colonizers erase our history so well. We discovered by accident on my mom’s side that there’s some Filipino in our background. That caused me to join the Filipino student club in college, learn about the Philippines, incorporate that into my choreography. 

Around the time that Alicia Garza, Patrisse Cullors, and Opal Tometi [now known as Ayọ Tometi] started the Black Lives Matter movement during the Obama era, I had recently graduated and felt uncomfortable going to a protest. I had gone to a couple in college, but in the “real world” I was not comfortable or ready. At a Filipino alumni party, I got a copy of Carlos Bulosan’s America Is in the Heart. In the book he speaks about his diasporic experience in California and Alaska, and he speaks of the lynchings of Filipinos. I realized: if my Black and Asian ancestors have undergone this, why am I sitting here? I take a lot of pride in knowing that my self-discovery, my exploration of my Asian roots, catapulted me into the movement for Black lives: Filipino literature inspired me to join the BLM movement. That idea or experience of intersectional power exchange, that continued and kept in me and manifested in the Blasian March.

Blasian March
Sat 7/30, noon, Federal Plaza, 219 S. Dearborn, free. Learn more at https://linktr.ee/blasianmarchchicago

We folks of color struggle a lot with the dichotomy of pride and shame. We were raised proud to be Chinese, we were raised proud to be Black, but when you exit that space of giving your Black and Asian roots equal value, you enter monoracial spaces where you are othered for being the other. When I speak on Asian pride, I feel shame in Black spaces or vice versa. In Asian spaces, we are familiar with anti-Blackness, but when you’re a Black Asian, you experience anti-Asianness in Black spaces. It becomes very complicated. 

Solidarity stories are essentially pushed out of our education. Asian American studies, when we were in college, was only something that was in college. It wasn’t a standard part of our education, so in college we’re starting over and relearning, “Who are we? What is our story on this land?” When I began to learn about Grace Lee Boggs, Yuri Kochiyama, Kiyoshi Kuromiya, I was like, Oh my God! The Asian American contribution to civil rights is massive, but we don’t know anything about it! Simultaneously with Black history, it’s so censored and so whitewashed. I grew up in the South and we basically were taught that Black Panthers were terrorists. I’m now reading Not Yo’ Butterfly by Nobuko Miyamoto. She’s a Japanese American activist; she writes about what she was doing with the Black Panthers, and the food programs and the literacy programs. I was like, “How is giving food to the people an act of terror?” 

When we talk about the stereotypes our society relies on, we rely on Asians being the model minority. But any alignment with whiteness or adjacency with whiteness means you have to give up your culture and history. So many people are like, “We built these railroads—we’re proud to build these railroads.” But they were lynching us, they were massacring us, they were cheating us out of money, they deported us back to China, and in the photos, they pushed us out. How can we be proud of our own oppression that assisted in the oppression of Indigenous and other people of color? Where is the pride in that? I feel sadness. I feel rage. 

At the Blasian March in New York City, October 11, 2020 Courtesy Cindy Trinh

The division is sewn into the white mythology that white adjacency will serve us. Or any sort of competition for power will serve us. We’re taught about privilege, which is a system of hierarchy. It is so ingrained in how we perceive each other. We’re always in a scarcity mentality, in competition for power. In solidarity conversations with Black community members, I understand that the way we’ve been treated is not OK, but that does not mean we should compete for a space where we now have control over Asian communities. That’s not solidarity; that is still control and power over. One of my colleagues, Kala Mendoza, always talks about “power with, not power over.” That can be a tough conversation when we’re so traumatized that all we know are structures of power and hierarchy. 

So I start with history—our stories. That’s what’s helped me in my decolonization process, my liberation process. If we can offer the history of what happened to the Chinese in the 1800s, when we think about anti-Asian racism today, and how all of it is a copy-paste from the 1800s, we’ve not progressed much as a society. Often in Black and Asian communities, we don’t know our trauma. We don’t know how to move forward. We don’t know how to heal if we can’t name what has happened to us. So I start with history. 

One thing I really hope with the Blasian March is to create a new story. Being a writer, being an artist, I’m always like, “What is the story we want to tell?” If in our pride rally or our book fair, we can create in that pocket of time a story of joy or a moment of celebration between people who would never typically meet each other, I think we can plant seeds for long-term solidarity. Because now not only are we countering the narrative of stereotypes about division, but we’re also helping communities to anchor themselves in these pockets of joy. Our Pride rally this year was centered on immigration justice, and we had speakers speak about their torture experiences with ICE. We were still going to turn this into a celebration of, “We are here. We are still alive. Our existence is resistance.” We can still hold trauma and celebration at the same time. I find that healing for people because, even though I still have this trauma, I can now navigate it with this radical joy that is specifically built in contrast to the expectation of society that we as people of color should always be suffering. 

Kait Venturina, a student at Columbia College, reached out to me and said, “I want to bring the Blasian March to Chicago.” It’s amazing that local folks are doing this. That makes this work more sustainable. That’s how it’s happened in other cities: It’s been local organizers, local voices. I love that. That reminds me of Grace Lee Boggs’s “Think Globally, Act Locally.” Even though we are working on something that has potential for a global reimagining of Afro-Asian community, every single action in each city has been hyper local. That’s so beautiful. 

At the Black, Asian, Trans Power Rally in New York City, October 16, 2021 Courtesy Ramon Rodriguez/Blasian March

I’m still in touch with many of the activists I marched with in Chicago, and we’re tapping into our networks. There will be speakers. Performance art and art that can be participatory are a big part of Blasian March, as well. I’m excited to have local artists come through. Another thing I harp on is free food at the marches. If we have free food, if we have free resources, it’s another way to offer people a way to reimagine what our world could be. Every action, every book fair, every rally, every community fridge filling, needs to be a snapshot of the world I believe in, the world I want to see. 

For Chicago folks, I hope that this rally will help bring a little light in these very dark times in this country, with all the decisions by SCOTUS, with more policing, with the stark increase in gun violence. I hope it will bring folks some hope and help folks build community for more long-term safety. Safety is really grounded in community, so we have to build community. I’m excited to bring my baby home. This is something that has so many roots in Chicago. This is what’s come out of my time in this city.