Black lives matter. Thoughts and wishes from one small business.
To the Pearl River Mart Community,
We may not get the exact words right, but we wanted to share what was in our hearts.
As a small multi-generational family-run business, we do not purport to be experts at what one should be doing or saying during these extraordinary times, where one should be donating or marching, what texts one should be reading or sharing, or who we should be lobbying or following.
What we can share are our experiences as people who think about family a lot; as minority small business owners who care deeply about our neighbors and communities; and as New Yorkers who feel proud of the diversity and resilience of our city.
The murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis at the hands of police — and those of Ahmaud Arbery, Breonna Taylor, Oscar Grant, Eric Garner, Philando Castile, Trayvon Martin, Michael Brown, and far too many before them — should be viscerally abhorrent to anyone capable of loving another person. Mr. Floyd was a son, father, brother, uncle, friend, neighbor, former teammate, community member. The fact that he cried out for his mother as he lay dying is a cruelly searing detail that particularly strikes at my heart.
The events of the past few days, sparked by Mr. Floyd’s death, have been overwhelming, scary, and infuriating, but also at the same time, inspiring and uplifting. We stand with the protesters and fully support the Black Lives Matter (BLM) movement because, well, why wouldn’t we? The protesters are striving for equality and justice and seek to dismantle the systemic racism that has brought our country to this boiling point. It is clear that our nation’s promise of “equal justice for all” is broken and has been broken from the very start. We are grateful to all those who have struggled and sacrificed to push the needle forward, especially from the Civil Rights Movement to today. This moment in time feels different and electric and hopeful too, like it might actually result in real institutional change.
This moment also happens to occur during a once-in-a-lifetime global pandemic. As a society we are all reeling from the impact of death and illness, fear of contagion, and financial devastation. It has become clear that COVID-19 has disproportionately affected Black and Brown people, further magnifying the many systemic inequalities that persist in this country. Over the last few months, the Asian American community has also disproportionately suffered, experiencing violence and racism due to xenophobia stemming from the coronavirus, or “the Chinese virus,” as President Trump likes to call it. Our community was, and still is, hurting and fearful.
In late April, during the height of this xenophobia, it meant so much to read this essay by W. Kamau Bell, African American socio-political comedian and commentator. In it, he spoke about his lifelong love for Bruce Lee and how the Black community had adopted Bruce as one of their own because they identified with his struggles, on screen and in real life, as an underdog and fighter.
Because of this love, he had always felt close in spirit to Chinese culture and was taken aback one day in San Francisco when he realized that despite these warm feelings of fellowship, old Chinese women on the bus or Bruce Lee fans at a documentary screening may not recognize him as a friend and ally. He realized that though Bruce was still his, he was more theirs, and that of course, that made sense.
Mr. Bell’s main point of the essay was to counter flak he had received on social media for defending Asian Americans against coronavirus-related racism when there was so much racism happening against Black and Brown communities at the same time. He made the point that he had “enough mad” to go around:
Being against racism means being against racism. And it means being against racism when it isn’t convenient, or easy, or fun, or even when the person you are trying to help doesn’t consider you one of their people, or one of their allies, or doesn’t even see you at all.
I’ll let that sink in a bit. Feel free to read it again. The fact that Mr. Bell took the time to speak up for a community that doesn’t view him as one of its own is a lesson that we can all learn from and aspire to. And having enough “mad” to go around is something that many of us can identify with right about now.
We are a cultural goods store born out of protest (read our history here), and as a result, we think about race all the time, mostly about being Asian. One of the things I’m proudest of though is that people from all races, ethnicities, socioeconomic backgrounds, ages, and geographic regions come to shop in our stores. This I attribute to our origins as a “friendship store” and the egalitarian (occasionally brusque, immigrant New York-y) atmosphere that my in-laws, Mr. and Mrs. Chen, have built over the last 49 years.
From what I can see, there is something special that unites our customers — a natural curiosity and openness to other people and cultures. Our Black customers are some of our most loyal and passionate; it always makes me smile to see my in-laws or our staffers engaged in animated conversations with them about yes Bruce Lee, or K-pop, or incense, or whether wearing a fly Mao-style jacket would be appropriate. There are language barriers sometimes, and then other employees or customers pipe in to help, and before you know it, there’s a full-on group conversation going on, which is wonderful.
I don’t mean to paint our store or team as some melting pot nirvana. We make mistakes. For example, do our existing prejudices make us sometimes look at a customer with suspicion? Yes. Do our cameras tell us that shoplifters come in all shapes, sizes, colors, and creeds? Scarily, yes. Can we continue to check ourselves and take responsibility for checking our teammates, including elders? Yes, we must.
Over the past week, many in the Asian American community have worked to express solidarity and serve as true allies to the BLM movement. We’re marching, donating, lobbying, educating ourselves, and translating key phrases into our parents’ and grandparents’ native languages in order to have conversations with them. It’s kind of like with Bruce: Black Lives Matter of course belongs to the Black community more than the Asian community, but we can definitely feel the struggle and injustice in our bones too.
We hope to recover and reopen as a small business. All small businesses, especially in retail and hospitality, are hurting now, both from the pandemic shutdown and the recent looting and property damage. (In typical Mr. Chen fashion, he wanted to stay in the store all night and reason with the looters; thankfully we plus the curfew finally convinced him not to do this.)
Luxury chains and department stores were affected but sadly mom-and-pop shops, Black- and Brown-owned businesses, and Asian-owned businesses were the ones that bore the brunt of the pain. We escaped significant damage thus far, but many of our friends and neighbors were not so lucky. Contrary to popular belief, insurance doesn’t always cover looting. And even if it does, businesses that people have poured their hearts and souls into cannot be replaced with just a check.
These issues are tough. And hard to talk about. Again, we will let those leading the movement tell you how to make a difference. But to our Black customers and friends, we want you to know we appreciate you and stand by you. You will always have a home at Pearl River, and if you ever want to chop it up about Bruce, or issues of race, or just want to escape from it all, we are here for it. To our fellow Asian Americans, let’s continue to do our best to check ourselves, to educate our elders and our youth, and to speak out, even when being against racism is, as Mr. Bell says, not convenient, or easy, or fun.
And to our entire Pearl River Mart community — thank you for your open-mindedness, which always gives us hope and makes us proud to be New Yorkers. One small ask from us: support Black-owned businesses too. There are so many out there! Please consider carefully where your money is going and how much you’ll miss authentic, diverse, neighborhood businesses if they aren’t able to make it back.
And maybe buy a little incense. You can never have too much.
With love and in solidarity,
Joanne Kwong, the Chens, and all of us at Pearl River Mart
[Image: "Black Lives Matter," calligraphy and photo by Vincent Chong]