Nail Salon Brawls & Boycotts: Unpacking The Black-Asian Conflict In America
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.
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.
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.
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.
When Asians internalize and perpetuate anti-Black racism and violence, we are reifying our complicity and driving a deeper wedge between the minority groups.
Tiffany Diane Tso
“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.