Dear Asian Americans,
I've been thinking a lot lately about the question of audience and who I am trying to reach. A lot of the time, too much of the time, I think that my activism is targeted towards white people. Audre Lorde writes, "women of today are still being called upon to stretch across the gap of male ignorance, and to educate men as to our existence and our needs. This is an old and primary tool of all oppressors to keep the oppressed occupied with the master's concerns." In "Garments for Garner," I targeted my (predominantly white) high school to raise money; my (maga)zines are targeted towards hegemonic thought. And while I do think educational outreach is important, especially in shifting public opinion, I don't want to be the dominant group to be what I mostly focus on. So this post is a message for Asian Americans, the beginning of a new tag/column called "Dear Asian Americans."
I want to start with a comment I read on Yik Yak earlier this year. I feel like most of the hate (and probably generalized content) on Yik Yak doesn't really deserve a response, but this one has a good takeaway to it.
So, there has been hate on Yik Yak before about me and the White Ally Zine I created, but I didn't really care about any of it. The hate showed me that there are people who are frightened by unapologetic women of color who threaten social norms. Yet this particular comment on Yik Yak struck me in a different way -- it attacked the nature of my East-Asianness, dismissing any form of racial oppression faced by Asian Americans.
Despite the rhetoric out there that claims that Asian Americans have some sort of "advantage" (yes, I'm looking at Kristof and his semi-recent NY Times Article), let's get this straight: Asian Americans are people of color - discriminated against, marginalized, silenced. This infographic by the Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics (LEAP) speaks for itself:
That being said, Asian Americans (particularly those from East-Asia, like myself) undoubtedly have privileges that other people of color do not. Though there is still a larger percentage of Asian Americans who live in poverty than there are white people, Asian Americans have been able to enjoy a relative amount of economic progress and educational degrees. Yet any Asian American who thinks that it was solely their hard work that allowed them to succeed in America needs to think again. To quote Amy Uyematsu's The Emergence of Yellow Power in America, "the white power structure allowed Asian Americans to succeed through their own efforts while the same institutions persist in denying these opportunities to black Americans."
The notion of the model minority myth was conceptualized around fifty years ago for the sole purpose of perpetuating anti-Blackness. This myth commenced the idea that if Asian Americans were able to "get over their oppression and succeed in America," then Black people should be able to as well. Published by the U.S. News and World Report in the 1960's, "Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S" makes anti-Blackness in the model minority myth incredibly obvious: "It must be recognized that the Chinese and other Orientals in California were faced with even more prejudice than faces the Negro today. We haven't stuck Negros in concentration camps, for instance, as we did the Japanese in World War II. The Orientals came back, and today they have established themselves as strong contributors to the health of the whole community" (163). The myth of the model minority was established by white people for the purpose of shifting the blame of racial issues away from the institution and on to Black individuals.
And this model minority myth has been internalized by Asian Americans everywhere, who actually believe that "Black people could succeed if they tried" and ignore the institutional obstacles they face. When we accept the model minority stereotype that is enforced on us, we are perpetuating white supremacy.
And for the large part, we appear to have been silent; we seem to have accepted the stereotype that Asian Americans are passive. (Of course, this is not true for all Asian Americans; outspoken Asian activists tend to get swept out of the public eye, which is a later discusssion.) It certainly makes sense to me why Asian Americans have become silenced, and I agree with Uyematsu when she says that it's because we are scared. Asian Americans were scared when they first immigrated here in the mid 1880's, amid anti-Chinese mob action, and thus learned that complacency and silence were a means to safety. Today, we are still scared. We are scared of being marginalized, made fun of and "othered." We have seen how our institutions can work to subordinate darker-skinned people of color, and we are scared that they will turn to work against us. We fall quiet, keeping public attention not on ourselves but on Black people.
Yet while we remain silent, we will remain complicit. When we do not speak out about the racism we face, excusing racism in order to obtain white acceptance, we are perpetuating white supremacy and thus anti-Blackness. We, too, have a voice, and we must use it.
- "The Emergence of Yellow Power in America," Amy Uyematsu
- "Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S," U.S. News and World Report (1960)
- "The 'Asian Advantage' is a myth. Plain and simple," Christopher Kang