Nail Salon Brawls & Boycotts: Unpacking The Black-Asian Conflict In America

As early as I can remember, my dad, an immigrant from Taiwan, would nonchalantly use the term 黑鬼 (hēi guǐ), Mandarin for “black ghost” and essentially the Chinese equivalent of the n-word, to refer to Black people.

From a young age, I understood that the racial discrimination perpetuated against Black people in this country was mirrored in the sentiments of members of my community — a community that also faces intolerance in this country.

There have been ways in which this racial divide has been represented by the victimization of Asians, from coverage of the 1992 Los Angeles riots to reports of targeted attacks against Asians by Black people. It could be argued that the violence is mutual, but in reality, the Asian community and Asian-owned businesses have much responsibility to bear when it comes to anti-Black violence.

PHOTO: DOUGLAS BURROWS/LIAISON. A beauty supply store set on fire during the Los Angeles Riots.

On Friday, August 3, a dispute over an eyebrow wax became physical at New Red Apple Nails on Nostrand Avenue in East Flatbush, NY. According to a report in the New York Post, customer Christina Thomas was at the nail salon with her sister and grandmother when she received an unsatisfactory eyebrow waxing and refused to pay for the service.

The staff ended up getting violent with the three Black women, with employees hitting them with broomsticks, dustpans, and their hands. A Facebook video of the brawl went viral, which led to protesters trying to shut the down the salon, as well as other Asian-owned nail salons. It also led to a movement amongst Black women to patronize Black-owned businesses.

The New York Healthy Nail Salon Coalition was quick to condemn the violence of New Red Apple Nails’ employees, stating that “at no point, is any level of violence needed or justified,” while Asian American community organizations banded together to call out our complicity to Black oppression. “White supremacy is upheld when Asian American workers who are sometimes exploited with long days and low pay may unjustly take their frustration out with Black customers,” the statement read.

PHOTO: GARY LEONARD/CORBIS/GETTY IMAGES. A row of destroyed businesses after the Los Angeles Riots.

This incident does not stand alone. In fact, there is a long history of Black-Asian conflict in America, and tensions were especially high in the early 1990s in New York and Los Angeles. In 1990, the Flatbush boycott, also known as the Family Red Apple boycott, broke out following the assault of a Haitian woman by employees of the Korean-owned grocery in Brooklyn’s predominately-Black Flatbush neighborhood.

Black protestors called for the boycott of all Korean-owned stores. In 1991, convenience store owner Soon Ja Du shot and killed 15-year-old Latasha Harlins after she wrongly accused Harlins of trying to shoplift a bottle of orange juice from her South Los Angeles store; a security camera video showed the girl had money in her hand to pay for it. Du didn’t serve any jail time.

Harlins’ death is cited as a catalyst to the 1992 Los Angeles riots, in which Korean-owned stores were targeted, looted, and destroyed. Fast-forward to March last year, when Black community members in Charlotte, NC protested Missha Beauty store after owner Sung Ho Lim was filmed choking a Black female customer he suspected of stealing. These infamous incidents have become emblematic of Black-Korean conflict, which has been widely documented and researched.

“Although ‘Black-Korean conflict’ may have largely disappeared from front page headline news, the reality of racially-distinct immigrant small business entrepreneurs operating in poor, underserved minority neighborhoods persists as a formula for potential conflict,” wrote author Miliann Kang in The Managed Hand: Race, Gender, and the Body in Beauty Service Work. “The potential for misunderstandings and dissatisfaction remains high in service exchanges involving emotional and embodied dimensions across various social divisions.”

Each publicized incident called into question the anti-Black biases of Asian immigrants and Asian Americans. But the boycotts that followed were often xenophobia-tinged retaliations, depicting a sort of tit-for-tat cycle between communities. In the protests following the August 3 incident at New Red Apple Nails, “Where’s ICE?” was heard among the chants outside of a second salon blocks away, Beautiful Red Apple Nails, according to New York Post. An employee at Beautiful Red Apple Nails told the New York Times that the two similarly-named businesses are not owned by the same people.

In 1990, the Haitian woman involved in the scuffle that began the Flatbush boycott allegedly told the cashier, “Yon Chinese, Korean motherfucker. Go back to your country,” according to a report from The New Republic. During the ensuing protests, a Black teen bashed the skull of a Vietnamese resident with a hammer, as his accomplices yelled “Koreans go home.”

These sentiments mirror the xenophobic rhetoric often experienced by non-white immigrants, and call to mind, for Asian Americans, the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese man who was murdered by two white men who mistook him for Japanese. People of color often adopt the same an anti-immigrant mentality and buy into the fear of Yellow Peril created by white supremacy and nationalism — systems that make everybody complicit to them, including the oppressed.

Sociologist Tamara K. Nopper argued against depicting these Black-Asian conflicts as “mutual misunderstanding” in a 2015 article. “The use of ‘mutual’ misunderstanding suggests shared status or power, with each group contributing to each other’s vulnerability and suffering,” Nopper wrote. “The employment of the mutual misunderstanding framework suggests Asian store owners desire identification with and from Black customers across class and race lines. Yet many studies of Asian immigrant storeowners show they hold racist views of Black people and associate them with negative qualities purportedly absent among Asians.”

Asian Americans must admit and rectify the ways we uphold white supremacy, namely our anti-Blackness. Much like the U.S., Asian countries suffer from colorism and caste systems within their own societies. “Anti-Blackness is foundational to the creation of America,” said Diane Wong, an assistant professor and faculty fellow at NYU Gallatin, whose research has focused on the gentrification of Chinatowns and Afro-Asian solidarities. “It’s no secret then that anti-Blackness is reflected in Asian immigrant families, businesses, institutions and interpersonal relationships on a frequent basis.”

As a society, we have “progressed” from lynchings to viral videos of violence against Black people, from police killings and brutality to baseless accusations of criminality. In retail spaces, Black people continue to experience racism and antagonization. When Asians internalize and perpetuate anti-Black racism and violence, we are reifying our complicity and driving a deeper wedge between the minority groups.

It’s important to note that two groups are not equally positioned in larger structures of power, especially when one racial group is profiting off the other, which is oftentimes the case in these violent clashes between Black people and Asians.

“Race is certainly a factor, but it is not the only factor,” Kang, an associate professor at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst, said in an interview. Kang’s research has focused on Asian-owned nail salons and their racially diverse customers. “Many nail salon workers are under pressure to work quickly and keep costs down, which does not create the best environment for building customer relations.

The potential for tensions is heightened by the intimacy of the service, which involves direct physical contact, and the fact that many of the workers and owners are immigrants who do not speak the language or understand the culture of their customers.” In these scenarios, the tension is stoked by economic stress: the salon workers who often work for low wages under poor conditions, and the mostly working class clientele who cannot afford to waste money on subpar service.

Kang stressed the importance of putting these largely publicized conflicts in context. “I have observed hundreds of interactions in salons in this neighborhood that were very cordial and where workers and customers were very respectful and appreciative of each other,” she said.

Our perspectives are largely shaped by the way Black-Asian conflict is covered in media. “There is a lot of misinformation when it comes to reporting on salient issues that affect both Black and Asian communities,” Wong said. However, when videos of Asian business owners and workers inflicting violence on Black customers go viral, when Asian American activists protest in support for Peter Liang, an NYPD officer who shot an unarmed Black man in a stairwell, the message received by the public is that Asians do not care about Black lives.

These acts of violence are only a microcosm of the conflict between the minority groups, moments when the tension bubbles up to the surface and pops. There have been many ways statistics about Asian American achievement and the “model minority” myth have been used as a wedge between Asians and other minority groups, most notably through Ed Blum’s anti-affirmative action lawsuit against Harvard.

Many Asian Americans have thrown their support behind ending affirmative action and in support of standardized testing in school admission, placing their own concerns ahead of the communities marginalized by these systems, namely Black, Brown, and indigenous peoples.

As a kid, I used to cringe when my dad, a self-proclaimed Democrat, would use slurs to refer to Black people, sometimes rolling my eyes and shouting “Daddy!” at him. Now, I realize that I must do more than just cringe. It is my generation’s job to undo the legacy of anti-Black racism within our communities and to resist complicity with white supremacy — and it starts with talking about it.

How Black People Can Be Strong Allies to Asian Americans Right Now

Thousands of hate incidents against Asian people across the country have been documented by advocacy groups in the last year, ranging in severity from spittingto the unprovoked push of an 84-year-old Thai American man in San Francisco who died of his injuries a few days later. These incidents have prompted the renewal of conversations about security in Asian American neighborhoods, privilege, solidarity and even anti-Blackness in response to the violence.

That last element, activists say, devalues the decades of coalition building and allyship between Asian American and Black communities. But Russell Jeung, a professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University and co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, notes that efforts to create a racial wedge between such groups only empowers the white supremacy that makes racist violence possible.

“The racism overall against Asian Americans is another form of white supremacy. As Asian Americans dismantle the racism directed toward us as outsiders, we’re partnering with African Americans in dismantling how they’re racialized and oppressed,” Jeung said. “In a lot of Asian American issues, we become the wedge group to divide and conquer people of color rather than focusing on our unity and trying to dismantle the overall system. We need to dismantle white supremacy together.”

This is not lost on organizers and activists who have worked to combat this narrative for decades. With that, here are a few ways for people to practice solidarity and allyship with Asian American communities.

The End The Violence Towards Asians rally in Washington Square Park on Feb. 20, 2021 in New York.Dia Dipasupil / Getty Images file


Education Is Key

It’s important to recognize how acts of hate rely on a group’s history of neglect, oppression or violence, organizers said. Through education it becomes easier to recognize bigotry as linked to a larger history of violence, said Alvina Wong, of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network.

Education is also key to resisting the “model minority” myth, and cuts down on the idea that Asian American communities are monolithic, experts point out. There are a host of disparities within these communities. For instance, Vietnamese Americans have a much higher poverty rate than Japanese Americans, according to a 2017 report.

“Try to learn history and learn about Asian American histories and cultures, the migration patterns of immigrants and refugees, and why we have an Asian population in the U.S. to begin with,” Wong said. “From there, look at the history of Asian and Black solidarity and joint struggle … the civil rights era and even the early joint labor movements. I think people could do their due diligence to seeking it out and learning it up.”

Mutual Aid

Mutual aid is a centuries-old radical political practice that emphasizes solidarity and interdependence to meet people’s basic needs. Mutual aid happens when everyday people come together to meet one another’s needs, like providing food and domestic violence resources, without relying on government power structures.

“Mutual aid is really beautiful in that it really recognizes that if I have something I can give, someone who needs it can benefit and we can all be in community together,” Wong said. “Last year, through the pandemic was a really big showing of how mutual aid is so effective, especially when our government isn’t taking care of us or investing in us and the resources that we need.”

Several mutual aid efforts have popped up across the country in response to anti-Asian sentiment and Covid-19’s devastating impact on Asian American communities. In Oakland, California, hundreds of people have volunteered to escort fearful elders on walks and errands around Chinatown. Asian and Black creatives have raised more than $150,000 for Asian American advocacy groups in California that serve several Asian American communities through everything from food delivery to legal help. In New York, a coalition of activists have filled refrigerators with food in Manhattan’s Chinatown.

“Mutual aid, at its core, is really a form of political participation. It necessitates everybody taking responsibility to care for one another. So you see a reciprocal exchange of resources and services,” said Senti Sojwal, of New York’s Asian American Feminist Collective, which has launched its Black and Asian Feminist Solidarities project. “Mutual aid is such a beautiful concept because it’s so huge.”


Get Active in Organizations

Organizing has always been key to liberation efforts for several oppressed groups, whether it be through planning solidarity marches, mutual aid efforts, or even approaching government leaders. There are several groups doing this work in Asian-American communities including the AAFC, Stop AAPI Hate, the APEN, the Chinese Progressive AssociationWomankindFilipino Cultural Center, the Southeast Asian Community Alliance, and others. Lai Wa Wu of the Chinese Progressive Association said that participating in such groups is a great way to be an active ally to Asian American communities.

“Join, support and donate to organizations that are working on the ground to build cross-racial healing and racial justice work,” Wu said, as well as “restorative practices, and for long-term economic and racial justice that lifts up all communities, especially working class communities of color, even after media attention has died down.”

Joining organizations isn’t just about the work being done, Sojwal added. It is an opportunity to be in community and build genuine relationships with the groups you’re hoping to stand with.

“You can’t love what you don’t know,” Sojwal said. “If you aren’t actually diversifying the things that you’re reading, the organizations you’re supporting, the friends you surround yourself with … you’re really doing a disservice for your own ability to expand how much you care and what you know.”

Even if becoming an official member of a group isn’t possible, Wong said providing funds and resources goes a long way. “A big part of how to be allies in this moment is advocating with us,” Wong said. This could mean helping to fund culturally competent resource centers, programs and services, Wong added.

Know That Police Aren’t Always the Answer

Experts have noted that the recent violence against Asian Americans has led to calls for increased policing. But organizers note that more state control isn’t always the answer, because further empowering police in these moments could do more harm than good.

“At these moments a lot of people’s natural reaction is to revert back to the institutions and systems they think they know and can rely on because, in many ways, they are socialized to believe it is the only way,” Wu said. “We need to redefine accountability and safety that’s rooted in empathy for ourselves and for others.”

As news of the attacks on Asian Americans made headlines, actors Daniel Dae Kim and Daniel Wu donated thousands to a reward to find the suspect in one such attack. At first glance, this may seem like a helpful move but, activists said, such rewards only affirm police power and presence and ignore the long history of violence Asian Americans have faced at the hands of police.

“Our feminism is a feminism that is against police and prisons, and we do not want to see any initiative that scapegoats Asian American communities in order to create a larger police presence,” Sojwal said. “We have seen this time and time again, South Asian and Muslim communities experience racial and religious profiling and surveillance. Police have continued to harass Asian immigrant workers … police target Asian sex workers and asylum-seekers.”

Sojwal pointed out that some celebrities calling out such violence are also co-opting “the language of anti-racist organizing to increase policing in our communities. And that’s not the future that we want to see. Our feminist response … is saying, ‘How can we amplify community care and the work our communities are already doing to keep us safe?’ “

Be a Good Bystander

“Bystander support and intervention is so important because it helps us shift our responsibility for each other towards the collective community,” Wu said. “We need people to call in strangers, community and family members on racism, slurs and stereotypes. When something happens, check in on each other as you would your own loved one. Help guide them through what they need, be there to show you care and that you are with them.”

Bystander intervention describes a situation in which a person not directly involved in an incident steps in to change the outcome. The term is largely used when discussing sexual violence, but organizers say the practice can be used in any context. Sojwal said it is also critical for bystanders to ask themselves, “What can I do instead of calling the police?”

“I think that one really important thing to do, is to respond and de-escalate instances of racism or violent attacks,” Sojwal added. “There are a lot of places that you can go to take a bystander intervention training, and actually learn the words to say, or how to get somebody to safety. And I think that’s something that we can all equip ourselves with.”

All of these efforts are part of what organizers call “political solidarity.” Sojwal said it is important to listen and see the nuance in people’s struggles while understanding that all oppression is connected.

“Solidarity depends on how we come together and is defined by how we understand and enact our responsibilities to one another,” Sojwal added. “No one says it better than Audre Lorde who says, none of us are free until all of us are free. Political solidarity also means that we are not equally affected by injustice, but what can we do together to create a world where all of our communities can thrive?”