A Case of “The Others” – Asian-owned Businesses in Black Neighborhoods

Why are so many dry cleaners owned by Koreans?

Why are so many nail shops owned by Thai or Vietnamese?

Why are so many donut shops/convenience shops owned by Indians?

Why do Asians and Asian Americans own businesses in Black neighborhoods?

Why are they taking our money?

Why are foreigners who don’t speak our language and disrespect us take our money out of our communities?

Are these stereotypes or archetypes?

I’ve heard all of those questions posed in various ways, most recently from Marion Barry, former mayor of D.C. and recent victorious incumbent in Democratic primary race for the D.C. council seat he has held since 2005. He celebrated as cameras rolled by saying,

“We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”We’ve got to do something about these Asians coming in, opening up businesses, those dirty shops. They ought to go, I’ll just say that right now, you know. But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

You can take a look at Barry’s twitter feed  and read the WP article to get a sense of how things unfolded. It’s typical. A politician/public figure says something offensive, people offended speak up, figure claims it’s taken out of context and apologizes (in this case Barry actually says, “I’m sorry.), tries to do what he/she should’ve done in the first place and put things into context.

But the context is complicated and entrenched in broken systems run by broken people and then communicated to the masses by more broken people (myself included) who are missing each other because, in some cases, they aren’t even talking with and being heard by one another. Creating “simple” dichotomies makes it easier – us against them, respect versus disrespect, rights and entitlements, etc.

I know this because as a newspaper reporter in Milwaukee I reported this story. A Korean American owned beauty supply store in a predominantly Black neighborhood became the target of a protest. Black community leaders wanted to know why Asian store owners were rude, didn’t employ anyone from the community, didn’t contribute to the community. Store owners didn’t want to talk.

But I understood why they didn’t want to talk. Why they didn’t hire anyone from the community. Why they didn’t contribute.

My parents owned a dry cleaning business for years. My parents, who hold degrees in engineering and accounting, turned to small business ownership to help pay for college and weddings and to provide so much more. They didn’t hire anyone from the community. Why pay someone when my sister and I could work for free and my parents were willing to be there everyday (except for the two days off I remember they took for our weddings!).

A significant difference for our experience was that the dry cleaners was in the suburbs, but my parents experienced many cultural clashes in an effort to make a living and provide a service that was in demand.

Most customers were fine – pleasantries exchanged and business as usual, but there were plenty of customers who looked down on my parents as if they were uneducated foreigners. Few of them ever had to say anything because those of us who learn to be invisible, blend in, assimilate learn to read the looks, the tone, the small gestures because we learned to “speak” American even though we continue to be questioned about actually being “American”.

So I took that experience as the child of one of those Asian store owners first to my White editors and then to the Korean-American beauty supply store owners. The readers, the editors, the community leaders, the store owners and I all learned from one another.

We learned that we all considered each other as “the other”. We learned about how exchanging money – one-handed, two-handed, eye contact, a nod or a look – can be rude to one and normal to another. We learned that the owners were Americans, just not American-born. We learned that there was great pain and suffering in the community, and community leaders wanted participation, not handouts. We learned about cultural differences and expectations. We learned about prejudice, misunderstandings and misinformation.

I can only hope that Barry will take the time to learn that he didn’t just offend Asian who own dirty stores but offended Americans, some of us who happen to be Asian Americans. I hope we stop to learn about the corrupt, broken and racist systems and policies that limit Black entrepreneurship.

I hope we learn that life is more than Black and White and that we all need to develop cross-cultural competencies. All of us.


  1. magnuslover April 5, 2012

    Reblogged this on magnuslover and commented:
    A very well articulated response to the racist and ignorant ramblings of D.C mayor Barry regarding Asian owned businesses.

  2. eahara April 6, 2012

    Coke headed Marion Barry ought to have duct tape permanently sealed over his bigoted mouth

  3. magnuslover April 6, 2012

    Couldn’t agree with you more! What a moron.

  4. MaSir Jones April 10, 2012

    Wow. This hits home. I too worked for my parents’ Dry Cleaning business growing up and to be honest, my parents only employed people outside of the family who were very hard working. The color of the person didn’t matter, but to be quite honest, nobody worked harder than my mother, sister and I did sacrificing our nights, weekends, summers, spring and winter breaks. It was very tough for all of us, but we did it solely to keep costs low and maximize the bottom line – like any lean running business should.

    At some point, if you want to grow and scale, you have to hire additional resources, but if you’re not looking to grow into a global enterprise, then hiring family members makes perfect business sense (most of the time until it becomes abusive or cheating).

    “But we need African-American businesspeople to be able to take their places, too.”

    I think Barry should’ve started off his rant with this and only this. It’s appalling that he used Asian-Americans as a scapegoat. What a poor excuse. What about all the white or latino owned businesses? Why single out Asian-owned businesses? What about all the Indians who’ve dominated the IT sector for the past decade? How come Barry doesn’t complain about how the black community needs to be provided with more software engineering opportunities? What about blacks who’ve dominated American sports the past several decades creating an underlying racial barrier preventing Asian-American athletes a chance to prove themselves AKA Jeremy Lin?

    My questions are not to be taken seriously, but to demonstrate the absurdity of his arguments. Let’s be clear about one thing that everyone seems to forget. The American power structure is not defined by Asian-Americans. We are also minorities who face our own set of obstacles in dealing with racial inequality, and sadly, Asian-Americans have to hustle 10x harder than the average black/white American to gain any kind of exposure or recognition. If you’ve forgotten, Asian-Americans have to score almost a standard deviation higher than their white/black counterparts to get into the same top notch universities.

    So who’s the group really at a disadvantage here? I think we all are.

  5. Drita April 15, 2012

    Somehow I missed this one. This is exactly the type of issue I think is critical for those of us committed to reconciliation should discuss with all of its complexity. I think this would be a great case study to surface some of the dynamics at play in inter-minority relationships and assumptions (as well as fears). As a latina working on the west-side it has been interesting to have the different perspectives processed with me. I loved your post and would love to bring the original article, your post, and an hour of discussion into our Urban Programs with diverse teams. This was also some of what we tried to cover when the AA leaders on justice began a dialogue. (Of course now I am Urbana worship, so this is all off duty :))
    Thanks for writing.

    • Kathy Khang April 16, 2012

      “Somehow I missed this one.”
      Maybe because you have been so busy 🙂

      Yes, this is a complex issue worth more than a few soundbites on tv. It would be interesting to take it even further as Barry used the power of media (traditional and social media) to push his message and misinformation further without face-to-face dialogue. That is where experiential learning like Urban Programs have such an important role to play.

  6. jessica barkett July 23, 2012

    when did the asian americans first start beauty supply stores and wig shop in the united states, and how and why do they not put thier stores in white communties/ suburbs too ?how do they know to get most of the hair products that they know that africian americansneed , and do they get any help from the federal government , such as tax breaks. who helps them to finance thier business, and last, when did the asian beauty supply become so overwhelming and have such good business across the u. s. a.?

    • Kathy Khang July 25, 2012

      All great questions! I can’t answer them with any degree of authority or personal experience in that my parents never owned a beauty supply/wig store, etc. I will say that the answers will depend on the individual store owners. There are no blanket tax breaks that I know of that cover Asian American-owned businesses in urban areas and how people can finance businesses depends as well. Most immigrant small business owners I know did not go through bank financing to get the money. Families often pool together resources, which is also why some stores don’t hire from the community but employee family members. And I would love to know what kind of numbers you have come across that would support your statement that Asian-owned beauty supply stores have been overwhelming successful. As for how owners know what products to get what their customer base needs/wants, business owners will use both word-of-mouth, trade shows, community input, etc. and with the amount of information on the internet now it just takes a few keystrokes for anyone to find that kind of information.

      • MaSir Jones July 25, 2012

        Asians, more specifically Koreans and Japanese, focus on fashion and beauty products like crazy (side note: I think American fashion is pretty goddamn terrible and about 3 years behind Europe and Asia). Also, black people are more fashionable than whites IMHO so it also makes sense to start businesses in African-American communities. Additionally, Koreans don’t start stores in white communities, because the economic barrier to entry is higher so they take a huge risk by starting businesses in black neighborhoods which are usually less affluent. This is partially why they began with so many liquor stores back in the day because it was the cheapest and surefire way to get started in owning a business. Koreans of course have moved up the economic ladder and have started to branch out their business savvy to other industries besides liquor and beauty supply shops. 🙂

        Hence, look at Forever 21 (yet another example how stagnant American fashion is). Who knew that one of the largest clothing chains in America would be started and ran by a Korean couple? And then there’s Pinkberry. The ones who started the whole yogurt craze – another Korean.

        Speaking of which, mad props and shout outs to the Koreans out there that are hustlin’ and livin’ out the American dream. I ain’t easy to do period…especially as a minority.

      • Reed Elam March 5, 2017

        I know this post is years old, but I Just Came Upon it and I had to comment. This is a damn lie! You know full well that there are certain set of sides and benefits to immigrant potential business owners that Americans know nothing about, and most likely don’t even qualify for. A group of family members in Bangladesh didn’t pool their money together to buy an Arco franchise! There’s more to the damn story, and that’s the thing that is upsetting people of African descent in this country!

    • apple March 6, 2013

      because there is undying market demand for african american hair products and fake hair. walmart doesn’t sell all the black products nor do they sell fake, even though asians can be very rude at their hair stores it won’t matter because its not like blacks can go many other places to find what they are looking for. whites/every other race can buy theirhair products anywhere and if someones being rude to them they can easily move somewhere else

  7. MaSir Jones July 25, 2012

    “It ain’t easy to do period…”

  8. Dylan December 14, 2013

    This was very well written and answered a lot of questions. Great work!

  9. King Ru June 20, 2015

    I think the real issue is that a lot of these black communities feel isolated and left behind. There are basically no black families that pull together to open businesses. Black people have been divided by religion and cannot see that we are often our own worst enemies. The government of America will not save us. We must provide our own solutions, for ourselves.

    I say, if you disagree with an Asian business then don’t shop there and convince others to do the same.

  10. BlackXPanther October 18, 2016

    Fair enough but why come set up the black neighborhoods? Why not choose a Latino or White neighborhoods instead?

    • Reed Elam March 5, 2017

      Why would they set up hair and wig shops in white or Latino neighborhoods? Whites and Latinos are happy with their hair. Blacks are the only people who hate themselves to the extent that some other race can come in and make millions of dollars off of their self-loathing! Why the heck would you set up a wig shop in a Mexican neighborhood, when their hair grows like weeds? You know, it isn’t even so much the fact that Asian Americans own businesses, and blacks don’t for the most part. It’s the rude behavior and disposition Asian seem to show blacks in their everyday dealings with them that brings about dislike.

      • Kiwi January 21, 2018

        If Blacks don’t like Asians that are rude to them, then they should stop shopping at their stores. Simple as that. If what you say is true, which I really doubt due to cultural differences, then it says more about Blacks than it does about Asians when Blacks willingly subject themselves to undesired treatment. Most likely, most Blacks are not as stupid or paranoid as you and understand that the so-called “rude” behavior is actually just a cultural difference.

  11. Derek Emmons February 24, 2018

    My great-grandparents were a generation of Cantonese in Augusta, Georgia that unconsciously filled the niche of ethnic merchants in impoverished black neighborhoods…. I found this read ‘EverybodyWasKungFuFighting:Afro-Asian Connections and the Myth of Cultural Purity’ an illuminating one that has discusses the systems that cause our people to compete or converge together.

  12. Ash K August 18, 2022

    Not all the white/racist people being mad in the comments and pretending white people don’t wear fake hair (extensions, wigs) and are sooo happy with themselves when everything they do & their entire existence is based on emulating black people. Y’all can never have a conversation without your envy & racism showing. Yes, we hate ourselves so much that we want to be white & have stringy, thin hair that falls out easily (not).


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