Khmer community – It is time for us to say Black Lives Matter

As Black Lives Matter protests gathers momentum globally, Deputy Director of the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association Joan Chun says the Khmer community must examine its own attitude to blackness and throw its support behind the movement

Joan Chun
June 15, 2020
Khmer community – It is time for us to say Black Lives Matter
Protesters take to the streets to demonstrate against police brutality as 'Black Lives Matter' actions continue in Los Angeles and Hollywood, California on 14 June. Photo: EPA-EFE/Etienne Laurent

Joan Chun is the Deputy Director of the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association, a Cambodian diaspora organisation that aims to preserve and enrich historical, social, spiritual, and cultural values for Cambodian communities around the world. Perspectives from CALAA members living across the US on the Black Lives Matter movement can be read here.

On June 12, Quincy Walters from NPR published an article entitled “Boston Mayor Declares Racism A Public Health Crisis”. My response to that? Declare it louder!

Mayor Walsh also cut three million dollars to be re-allocated to the public health department. Is cutting less than 1% from the police budget enough? No – but naming the problem is a good start.

Institutional racism in our government, schools, police system/unions, and society have been suffocating the Black community through its current policies entrenched deep in the roots of white supremacy. The policies written down usually look so “normal” that our own Khmer communities across the United States get blinded by the racism hidden in the spaces in between each word.

Not everyone in the Khmer diaspora is cut from the same sarong fabric. Some believe that the fight for justice for Black lives is not their issue. They think that the Black community can deal with it themselves and that the Khmer community should focus on their own struggles and show love for just Khmer lives.

This perspective boggles my mind because it makes me wonder – if the world had stayed silent forever while the Khmer Rouge genocide was happening, what would the outcome have been like? How many more families would have been separated? How many more people would have been killed?

Let me be clear – the Khmer experience does not compare to the struggle Black lives have endured for centuries in the US, but silence is deafening when one chooses to stay complicit and ignore the pain that a whole community is going through.

The division in the Khmer community is disheartening when history has shown us how much the Black community have sacrificed for all people of color in the United States to have basic rights and to have the ability to dream for better lives for their family and future generations.

The Civil Rights Movement paved the way for many of the rights that we have now. Through many trying situations, the Black community stood up to racist institutions like the education system (Brown v. Board of Education 1954) and the transportation system (Rosa Parks inspired the Montgomery Bus Boycott led by Martin Luther King Jr. in 1955). In 1960, four Black college students were refused service at Woolworth’s diner in Greensboro, North Carolina. After a peaceful sit in and with many supporting the protest, the lunch counter at Woolworth’s became desegregated. 

Furthermore, the Civil Rights Movement resulted in landmark decisions like the Civil Rights Act of 1964 that banned segregation in public spaces and the Immigration and Naturalization Act of 1965 expanded immigration from other countries other than Europe and Canada.

Recently, the Cambodian American Literary Arts Association hosted an online event, Community Dialogue: Documenting Solidarity, where Scholar and Artist Sokunthary Svay shares her experience in re-circulating the 1978 International Rescue Committee ad in The New York Times entitled “Black Americans Urge Admission of the Indochinese Refugees” which documents the support of major Black leaders for the admittance of Southeast Asian refugees into the United States. 

One of the biggest challenges for many is having that difficult conversation with loved ones and close friends about anti-blackness in our Khmer community. Many of us grew up with our mothers scrubbing our bodies with salt and lime ‘to get the darkness out’

If the Black community did not challenge the system in the past, would the schools, buses, restaurants, and other public spaces be open to all people the way it is now? Would Khmer people have been able to be admitted to the United States? They have shed actual blood, sweat, and tears to fight for equality – not just for themselves but for all people.

Those in support of the Black Lives Matter movement take the call to action seriously. One of the biggest challenges for many is taking the initiative to first have that difficult conversation with loved ones and close friends about anti-blackness in our Khmer community. Many of us grew up with our mothers scrubbing our bodies with salt and lime “to get the darkness out” and often we would get scolded for being in the sun for too long in fear of getting “too dark”. 

Many times, whitening creams are pushed onto young Khmer girls. The obsession with white skin tones and the lack of empathy for those in the Black community makes it harder to translate and say “Black Lives Matter” to the Khmer community who have taught their children to look down upon the melanin in their skin.

For those in the Khmer community who will not let anything stop them from doing the right thing, we must persist and continue the fight against systemic racism.

We must recognize the sacrifice that the Black community has made for us. We must reach out and support Black-owned businesses and organizations. We must join the nationwide – excuse me – global protests and conversations that stand up against racism and police brutality (in person or online). We must say to our Black brothers and sisters that their lives matter.

I love my Khmer community and I am also a supporter for the Black Lives Matter movement. I assure those in the Khmer community that we can do both. We can love and embrace our Khmer culture and people in its fullest and stand with the Black community in the fight for justice and equality in America. 

While they are suffering at the hands of police, we do not want to stand idly by like the three police partners of David Chauvin, who were smirking and being negligent while the murder of George Floyd was happening in front of their eyes. We have a chance to use our breath so that not one more Black life and breath is lost to a corrupt and racist police system.

To find a solution, we must first name the problem – Black lives are being murdered at the hands of corrupt police officers from a system rancid in racism. When one community can support another community in their struggle against injustice, we can only get stronger in the end to create a better tomorrow.  

This story is part of our ongoing The View From Southeast Asia series, tackling issues of identity, ethnicity, rights, discrimination and culture across Southeast Asia. If you have your own reflections to share, you can contact the Globe at

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