Ninja Squads & Love: One Asian American Man’s Story from 2020
The following is a continuation of a speech I made from mid-October at my school. For the original speech, click here: speech.
My name is Henry Zhang, I’m a Chinese-American on the spectrum from NYC who is a doctoral student at Rutgers GSAPP in New Jersey. I continue to be a caretaker for my mother who is receiving treatment for stage 3 cancer for the second time. I run Timehacks, a tech startup that automates tech for school psychologists (with predominantly black customers) that funds my ability to run Dragon Combat Club (DCC) – a volunteer initiative originally started to combat violent Anti-Asian racism that I have run every day since April under the callsign “Darth Brazzers” . I’ve trained martial arts for over a decade (have competed in grappling & wrestling and also have trained in Boxing & Muay Thai) but I don’t consider myself a professional or an expert, just that I’ve had the green light from my instructors to run the program due to how bad things have gotten.
DCC Flyer: Winter 2020
At DCC, members are remotely trained in basic boxing (both Western and Thai style), wrestling & grappling, along with de-escalation /awareness tactics and use of improvised weapons along with methods to educate and empower their relatives and/or loved ones. I forced my fiancee to train after some dudes called her racial epithets (in the event she encounters something worse) and as a demonstration that even somebody unassuming with no competitive aspirations could throw hands. I ran this covertly from April to mid-October, where I would attend grad school class pretending as if people who looked like my family weren’t getting fucked up due to their race. We’ve recently interfaced with a few community based organizations to normalize our training methods and ideology amongst people who need it. I’ve accidentally referred to DCC in an interview as a modern-day ninja clan but I guess that wouldn’t be inaccurate either.
Having my fiancee demonstrate elbow strike to trainees at DCC
A series of events combined with some awfully dysfunctional features of Chinese American culture (and similar cultures) led to the point where my speech accidentally became the reason that thousands of people learned how bad violent anti-Asian racism has gotten after eight horrific months. If you’re wondering how the hell ninjas became a necessary solution to racism or why the Asians who engage in anti-racist activism said nothing, leaving it people like a brave rapper/ex-convict (not me) and an autistic guy who got his callsign from making hilariously lewd photoshop pranks on his gymmates (me) to let the world know how bad shit has gotten, you’re in the right place.
Obligatory content warning: While you’ll be hearing me talk about how I witnessed Asian Americans collectively and royally fuck things up due to gaslighting, anti-black racism, self-hate, assimilation and model-minority myth gone wrong, excessive proselytizing/virtue signaling, blatant inability to understand the nuances of privilege among other things, I’m just telling it so we can make things better not just for ourselves, not just for other minority groups, but for all of us. This is long and you’re entitled to your opinion, but only after you read every single word.
Back in February, COVID-19 hit the states. A bunch of overtly racist tweets from 45 calling it the Chinese virus put Asian Americans (specifically anyone who remotely looked Chinese) onto the long list of minority groups that he incited overt violent racist against during this time in office. For a reminder of how fucked up things got, please check the last article. Pretty much every other ethnic group started violently attacking us due to blaming us for the virus. Did that make any sense? Absolutely not. But it still happened.
MMA Class from the pre-pandemic era led by Coach Chad Vazquez. When was a hobby became a necessity.
Only Asian Americans seemed to know about this (from the online groups and Asian American media outlets like NextShark) and also the people who were beating the shit out of us but that’s not the point. Well you’d assume Asian Americans would find a way to mobilize right? Nope. At least not for a while. The dialogue in the Asian American community was extremely toxic.
As we were getting assaulted with increased frequency and severity, the media and institutions were silent. This forced Asian Americans to join online groups that monitored it.
The most vocal Asian Americans back then fell into two categories: the first group said some of the vilest shit about Black people I’ve ever heard (one high school classmate said it was as bad as a white pride parade and I can’t argue with him). The other group – their most vocal opponents, appeared to be the voice of reason, but were also some of the most callous motherfuckers on earth, lecturing us about our privilege and the sins of our own community instead of coming to our aid.
As someone who’s outspoken about how people downplay the racism we face, I myself still have no hesitation in acknowledging the very things people bring up to downplay anti-Asian racism, namely anti-blackness and our relative privilege. I say relative because the same people who keep talking about privilege forget that comparing one’s conditions to the very group that this country’s government has royally fucked over for four centuries would obviously be a low bar.
Asian Americans have been in this country since the 1800s, enduring their share of racism from exclusion, lynching and massacres that people seem to have forgotten about until the show “Warrior” came out. It was a while until America actually tried treating Asian Americans like actual human beings (temporarily at least, until the next war or major illness).
Many families including mine were fortunate enough to immigrate here after people including Martin Luther King and Malcolm X literally gave their lives in ending de jure segregation (keyword being de jure). Black Americans spent centuries not just fighting slavery but their right to an education that other minority groups such as ours have benefitted from.
Notice I said de jure segregation. There’s the obvious: If you count the years from the Civil Rights movement, you’ll figure out (even without taking current problems into context) that there are plenty of Black Americans alive today who didn’t have educational opportunities that would allow them to help their kids become successful.
There’s also the super obvious. Asian Americans are the most common ethnic group at DCC, followed by Black Americans, and an honest conversation about self-defense entails discussion about how police may act differently to what they carry based on the color of their skin.
I myself grew up with some negative stereotypes about Black people until meeting some violated my stereotypes of them. In high school, my mom letting a Black classmate into my house without complaining shocked my Asian friends because that was quite progressive for the standards of her cultural upbringing. If that makes mom “progressive,” what I mentioned a few paragraphs ago shouldn’t be a surprise to anyone.
If all this is true, what’s wrong with those people talking about anti-blackness and our own privilege during that time? Well, when people who look like us are getting the living shit beaten out of them, stabbed or set on fire for their race, why the fuck would anyone in their right mind think it’s the right time for that conversation? After all, these privileges do not protect our elders from being beaten and set on fire due to their ethnicity only to have people play cognitive gymnastics on whether that was racism to avoid acknowledging how fucked it was. These privileges do not protect Asians from being seen as easy targets no matter where they go. Maybe except for the fact that our attackers are civilians instead of the state but that just means people think that is okay. Those statements were used to invalidate our suffering and deny us of our humanity, instead of providing us with the empathy and solutions that we needed.
During the same time a group of people now pejoratively known as “boba liberals” lectured us on our privilege, the circumstances had me acquire a tactical flashlight as a force multiplier in the event that my 10 years of (on and off) martial arts training was insufficient. This is now the first force multiplier tool that is introduced at DCC and source of many jokes to ensure that trainees do not accidentally purchase the “flashlight with the e instead of the a”.
Those that were supposed to stand up to racism used their limited education to gaslight those who suffered, making others believe hatred was the only way they could have their suffering validated and the only way they could protect themselves. This “wokeness” and their failure to speak up for us perpetuated the very cycle they claimed they were fighting against. Their actions insinuated that our flaws made us unworthy of respect, justice and humanity.
These very people who talked about white supremacy ironically became quite complicit through their actions. Given these circumstances, I predicted back in March that if our community did not address this divide, that the next time the police murdered a Black American, the actions of both sides would only worsen the anti-blackness of our community while tearing it apart.
Every other day as I saw another defenseless person who looked like my family get beaten, the comments would merely be a pointless battle between toxic anti-blackness and fake wokeness, something I later realized were two sides of the same coin: white supremacy. In an attempt to preserve my own sanity, I cut myself from that community and created my own. We started with five and today we have over fifty.
This community started after a conversation where my best friend Ray and I were worried for our parents and friends’ safety because of people who could be our friend, mom or grandma getting beat merely for being Asian (due to Covid19) but nobody outside of the Asian American community said a word, including the very people we thought would be outspoken about this. I half joked “let’s just train ourselves and other people to fuck those racists up, make racists afraid again.”
Three of our five original members of what became known as DCC.
Yes, DCC kind of started off as a half-joke, even our original and unofficial name was “Darth Brazzers Death Squad.” I gathered my training partners from my home gym and friends I knew, mostly Asians as well as other Black and Latinx Americans. While my friends from the latter two groups suffered from their own forms of racism, they readily empathized with our struggles. I felt so refreshed that we created a community that was hilariously crude yet respectful and validating.
There was no proselytizing comparison of who had it the worst or pedantic conversations about privilege that we already had. It was very validating to hear from non-Asians training partners, “O wow that’s so fucked up, if I ever see that shit imma shove my foot up his ass.” In retrospect, I’ve come to realize this is what true solidarity sounds like.
Unfortunately, Ray passed away in may and we officially named our club Dragon Combat Club after his surname.
Two months went by. I got good at compartmentalizing. Going to practice, then attending grad school class like nothing happened. People assumed whatever was “off” about me was me dealing with the loss of my best friend. Even with all those talks I attended about “pandemic racism”, which were important to learn since as a professional, you should be helping people with struggles different than yours, it was super awkward not hearing anything about what I’ve been preparing people to face. I understood why it needed to be centered on others’ struggles, but I wished there was some acknowledgement on ours.
At the time, there were forces I did not yet comprehend that caused a divide between minorities. Standing up for what was right was no easy task. This became one of the reasons I introduced diaphragmatic breathing to DCC’s regimen.
Unfortunately, a man named George Floyd was brutally murdered and my prediction on how Asian Americans would collectively fuck it up came true: more anti-black racism and “what about me” versus more bullshit proselytizing. The time to help Black Americans was long overdue and at the same time people who looked like my family were still getting fucked up.
A bunch of Asian American students in my graduate program gathered together and they were struggling with dealing with anti-blackness in their relatives and figuring out what to do with the anti-Asian racism we were facing. In a room full of doctoral level students, the only solution anybody came up with for anti-Asian racists was simply getting proficient at beating the shit out of them (by yours truly), and that was the last time in months that topic was never brought up in school.
We did discuss this well-written letter that a Yale Student named Eileen Huang wrote that was controversial at the time and resulted in much unwarranted backlash and hatred (based on the letter alone):
Did I agree with many of the points she brought up in the letter? Absolutely.
Did it share it? No. There was something off about it in my gut that I never understood until many months later. I had no doubt in my mind that solidarity was important, but this was not what it felt like.
Less than a week later, two of my coaches immediately provided a list of small organizations to help Black American communities and donated their earnings for the next month to it. At the end of one of those training sessions, one of them (Coach Raquel Harris) said “some people don’t want to be political, but it is not political to speak up for your friends, or for your family. It is not political to fight for what is right.”
Raquel Harris was one of my striking coaches. I trained with her so I could learn how to better throw hands but her words influenced me more.
Those were true words. From knowing the feelings of my own struggles, I knew their struggles were unjust and it was time to help people including my training partners, coaches and many of the Timehacks’ customers that enabled me to run DCC. I echoed Coach Rocky’s words to my trainees because that was what solidarity felt like. In the meantime, I told them to research the organizations instead of blindly posting or donating to a big organization. My graduate school did not respond to the events until much later. While it was strange that a bunch of people who trained other people how to kill took more initiative than the very people who taught me how to heal, I promise this story will get stranger.
For the next two months or so, we saw Asians speaking up and marching for Black Lives Matter en masse, trying to have these conversations with their parents with varying levels of success. How much did that do? That’s really for other people to discuss.
Did all those Asians siding with the BLM movement mean that our anti-blackness went away? No. I lost count of the number of times people tried to play the fruitless game of “let’s see how we can use cognitive gymnastics to blame this on BLM.” I cut off ties with a former friend who went on a rant during an Anti-Asian hate crime about “the ghetto race” when the attacker was not even Black.
Did the show of solidarity from Asian Americans mean that the so called anti-racist Asians would magically stop using our anti-blackness to excuse what we were going through and its silence? Nope.
There were a few people outside of DCC who realized how everyone was missing the point: these people weren’t doing shit to protect the people we cared about or solve the problems we were facing.
Were we getting fucked up any less for being Asian? Nope, quite the opposite.
For example, an 89 year old got set on fire and cops didn’t do shit until those other people I mentioned decided to go on a march called “They Can’t Burn Us All” led by Asians (including China Mac, Will Lex Ham and Rob Chen) who realized that we needed to help ourselves as well. Almost nobody heard about that march though, although thousands would later on by accident.
Despite training MMA on and off for ten years, the events of 2020 made it necessary to further my studies, including the weapon-based combat art of Pekiti-Tirsia Kali. Logan Lo is a Kali Instructor at NYC Pekiti Tirsia at the Upper West Side.
In the beginning of October, eight dudes jumped and crippled a Japanese guy because they thought he was Chinese. I switched DCC from a MMA program to a self-defense program based on MMA. When my trainees inquired about the reason for these changes, including a new look in my eyes and telling them to normalize the idea of training their mother to stab their attacker with a pen, I told them: “Your president said Stand Back and Stand By, I’ve seen what happened when he called COVID-19 the China Virus, so I know exactly what the fuck this will lead to.”
Reviewing basic weapons of opportunity for situations where unarmed combat no longer suffice
One day I told another schoolmate about the life I lived while going to school pretending that it was normal. She was absolutely horrified at what I had normalized. This led me to telling more of my schoolmates in our support group who all told me it was unacceptable for the world to be silent about what we were facing. With their empathy, I realized that the life Asian Americans have been normalizing was anything but normal. At the very last minute, I requested that I give a speech about the life I led the last few months to my school, one that horrified everyone who heard it and resulted in more changes in days than anybody did in months. This started because my friend used her own struggles (racism rooted centuries deep in our country) to empathize with mine rather than compare. That classmate’s empathy did not just lead to a better future for Asian Americans, it taught me that being there for other marginalized groups when you are part of another one yourself should not require you to minimize your own struggles, but rather use your own struggles to feel the necessity of fighting for theirs.
Many people expressed solidarity as well as need for change after that day. My speech was spread across multiple universities. Some courses on multicultural studies have included my speech in their syllabus. At least five papers have been written on the topic of Anti-Asian racism in my school alone.
Celebrating the after-effects of my speech with the squad.
My classmate interviewed me for a student paper. That was the time I slipped by making the disclaimer that unlike many people, I don’t speak for the entire Asian American community, just my ninja clan. That’s how the term stuck.
While many non-Asians apologized, I repeatedly told them it was not their fault for they did not know. There was another group of people responsible for us suffering in silence other than mainstream media and institutions. Who were the ones that were responsible for the silence?
After my speech, many other Asian Americans came forward about how they were struggling to find out how to be open about their struggles while simultaneously aiding those who were even more marginalized. Many including myself, came forward talking about how they were gaslit by what I describe as “some of the most callous motherfuckers on earth.”
Remember Eileen Huang from earlier who wrote that letter in support of BLM which had many great points but felt off even though I could not put a finger on why?
In a tweet she recently shared, she claimed speaking out against the normalization of any racism other than anti-black racism is thinly veiled anti-blackness. Once that surfaced, many people deduced she was “motherfuckers”, or possibly the epitome of it. While she’s brought up many valid points about anti-blackness in the Asian community in the past, her recent actions has frightening implications on her actions, her influence and the many influential individuals that share her views.
As a Yale graduate with a large tiktok following and connections to an Asian student association there with a lot of influence, she wrote that if Asians complain about how normalized Anti-Asian racism is, they must be anti-black. We are already invisible to begin with and our racism has already been normalized. People like her claim they are fighting white supremacy with their words but create the narrative that you can only fight for one minority group at a time with their actions. People like her talk about the model minority myth as a method that white people use to elevate Asian Americans who are silent, docile and complicit over Black Americans, but then demand that other Asian Americans remain silent when we are concerned for the safety of our brothers, sisters and elders. People like her talk about whiteness all day but treat oppression as something they study in a book rather than the suffering of actual human beings. Unfortunately, there are many people that shared her beliefs that spent much time gaslighting fellow Asian Americans when they were expressing concerns about anti-Asian racism.
To date, she claims she is getting death threats for calling out anti-blackness but never acknowledged her own statement along with the tweet that she shared. Her platform, “Overachiever Magazine”, barely acknowledged it and claimed that it was a “joke” because she is Asian and has spoken out about anti-asian racism. Her silence when Asians were stabbed at Sam’s Club, crippled because people thought he was Chinese and set on fire for their ethnicity convinces me that it was not merely a joke, but representative of a deeper problem we have been facing that became why so few mobilized. Even before I heard of what Eileen Huang tweeted, my club has heard me say “Society has collectively fucked up so badly that we literally need ninjas now. This is why we exist.”
How many times has an Asian person brought up concerns about their safety or their family’s safety, only to be told by Asians like her that it’s not happening, that it’s not actually racism, or that maybe it did happen but to be silent because of the bigger picture? How many times have the same people preached about white supremacy, only for their actions to further perpetuate the divide between minorities? How many times have people like her played cognitive gymnastics with their own peoples’ suffering as our elders were beaten and set on fire? How many times have people like her who claim to care about black lives also scapegoat black peoples’ greater oppression as the justification of their own silence and their erasure of our problems?
You might say, “Hen, but people like her bring up some great points about how we can do better.” Look, I get it, collectively, we’re quite horrible in a lot of ways. We already discussed how many of us are anti-black.
Yes, many of us are horribly heterosexist and transphobic. I see comments attacking Eileen’s choice of pronouns and appearance even though that’s nobody’s business. While nothing excuses what she did, we don’t fight dehumanization with dehumanization.
Yes, many of us are horribly able-ist. Many of my own ostracized me because of my neurological condition and said I had no future because of it, even though I am fortunate that it comes with features that allow me to do what I do. Mental health and talking about feelings still continue to be taboo for many.
In 2012, some people in my life believed because of my neurological condition, that I would be a horrible role model, that I would have no future. I realized later that those difficulties led to thoughts that would have gotten me hospitalized or incarcerated had I ever verbalized or acted upon them. I had no money to pay for training. Fortunately, Brandon and Deirdre took notice of my editing skills and let me train there for many years for free in exchange for working on their YouTube channel. This would shape who I would become. Kru Brandon teaches at Evolution Muay Thai.
Yes, many of us are horribly classist with self-hate problems that screw us over. Never mind how so many have trouble understanding people who endure struggles that are not their own. How the fuck did we send people to Ivy Leagues who then they collectively decide to throw their own people under the bus when we suffer? People found out about anti-Asian hate crimes not because of the Asians that we elevate in the ivory tower that were supposed to speak up against racism, but because of outcasts who were amongst the first to break the silence: China Mac (rapper & ex-convict), Will Ham & Rob Chen (actors and musicians are frowned upon as a career amongst Chinese Americans).
It was ironically people who pursued careers that are typically shunned by Chinese American parents that played a role ensuring that society did not throw Asian Americans under the bus.
I don’t deny any of our shortcomings and fighting against anti-Asian racism does not require me to. Because at the end of the day, advocating for a group of people does not involve pretending that they are not fucked up, it involves believing that they are worthy of love, respect and justice because they are human (unless they’ve done some Jeffrey Epstein level shit). The amount of degrees, where you got those degrees or how articulate you sound does not change the fact that peoples’ humanity are not up for debate. Much of the country remains oblivious to our struggles because the very people who were supposed to speak up for us used their privilege to treat our own humanity as if it was up for debate. If we can’t even care for ourselves when we suffer, then how can we genuinely care for other people? If my friends and colleagues who endured racism rooted centuries deep in our national’s history beyond anything we will experience (including some who have experienced negative experiences with other Asian Americans themselves) can still find compassion in their heart to empathize with our suffering and understand that it must be dealt with unconditionally, then why the fuck can’t we do it for ourselves?
We need healthier conversations about privilege, one that is used to enlighten people about ways they can be helpful. Instead of telling somebody who is worried they might be beaten for their race they are privileged for not having to worry about the police as a way to shame them, we must validate them, use their experiences to help them imagine what it is like for those who suffer more or in different ways. The antidote to racism and hatred is not proslythesizing or pushing political talking points, it is love, it is empathy, it is about being perceptive to struggles that are not your own. No matter what ethnic minority group is suffering, Black, Asian, Brown, no matter how different such struggles may be, THIS is what solidarity should be like.
DCC was originally started to combat anti-Asian racism. Due to what I had foreseen after the first presidential debate, I realized there would be a day when our community would not be the only one that needed to normalize functional combat skills.
My fellow Asian Americans, it’s time to examine what hate and self-hate has done to us.
It’s time we stop using other ethnic minorities as the excuse why we are invisible.
It’s time we end the gaslighting and the threats as well. While we have every right to be angry at those who gaslit us, always remember where it comes from: integrity and concern for the safety of the people we care about.
It’s time to hold the right people accountable for their silence on our suffering, that will include yourselves, that might include somebody you may not be used to hearing your voice, because the well being of those like you depend on it. This is not all or nothing. We are merely asking for fair acknowledgement and representation.
Your humanity is not up for debate, but neither is your responsibility to examine how we turned out this way and how we can do better, not just for ourselves, not just for those who are more marginalized, but for all of us.
That’s what it will take for us to heal and be even better people.
“Hey hun, how long do you think I’ll need to do this for?”
“Running DCC? Years”
“But what if Biden wins?”
“Yeah, that’s if Biden wins”
“Just look at history. Racism is normalized, and soon it won’t just be us who will need it.”
So why me? How did someone who got his nickname from porn memes go so far with what started as a half joke? Because I’m just a guy who wanted to make the world a better place for people such as my fiancee, mom and grandma. Like one of my coaches told me, it is not political to speak up for your friends, and your family, or to fight for what is right. It was never political for me, but rather from a place of love. That’s what we need more of. Okay, probably ninjas too.