Someone in my life recently shared their experience of living in fear over the last year because of the rise of attacks on Asian Americans. Hearing about their experience reminded me of the privilege I have as a person of Asian descent who is able to “pass” as white. Yet, my father’s experience in the Japanese internment camps during WWII and the systematic racism that my family has experienced in America is what inspired me to major in Asian American Studies in college. I was so passionate about how stereotypes influence the lives of Asian Americans that I once dreamed of getting my Ph. D. and becoming a professor in Asian American Studies. It has been over a decade now since I gave up on that dream and slowly lost touch with my Asian American identity.
This weekend I woke up feeling motivated to take action. I made a donation to AAPI Women Lead and texted my friend who is a sociology professor and teaches about race and ethnicity. I asked what they thought I could be doing to be of service right now. They said I should write about my experience because representation matters. This was not the answer I was hoping for. Keenly aware that I do not have the same experiences of racism because I look phenotypically white, I was resistant to share my experience because of my position of privilege. Not to mention I’m further disconnected from the Asian American community while living in London.
Rummaging through my filing box, I found the folder labeled “Grad School”. I wanted to remember why I was so passionate about Asian American Studies that I wanted to pursue a doctoral degree. Tears came to my eyes as I read my Statement of Purpose:
“Once I became cognizant of how socially constructed stereotypes have been used to fuel racist ideology and the internal colonization that people of color have struggled with since their arrival in the U.S., I knew I wanted to dedicate my life to furthering progress for Asian Americans by becoming an active contributor of new knowledge.”
Oh yeah. I wanted to pursue that path to be a positive force for change in the world.
I continued to read my midterm papers and essays that detailed how Asian Americans were cast by the media as the “model minority” at the height of the Civil Rights movement. This conveniently coincided with changes to immigration laws that allowed many highly skilled Asians to enter the U.S. Asian Americans were deemed the model minority to contrast those that were seen as “problematic” minorities, those speaking out and demanding basic human rights. Model minorities don’t speak out about injustices.
Minorities have been pitted against each other and immigration laws have been used to socially engineer an environment that further reinforces these stereotypes. The representation of each minority group changes over time to serve different political agendas. Look at how quickly perceptions of Asians in America have shifted in a year. If we only pay attention to what’s happening to one individual minority group we risk losing sight of this bigger picture. If the system has been built to reinforce our differences and keep us apart, we need to come together to build a better and more inclusive future. This extends to everyone, not just the minorities who are directly impacted.
As my friend reminded me, representation matters. While the model minority myth has benefited some Asian Americans, its goal was to keep us silent and tame while trying to manipulate other groups to follow suit. Unlike previous generations, we have access to new forms of media like YouTube, Medium, and social media platforms that allow us to share our authentic experience to counter politically motivated representations. I’m inspired by the brave Asian and Asian Americans that are speaking out and sharing new stories that highlight our full humanity.
Let’s become mindful of the racist ideology that lives within us. We all have it. It’s part of the human condition. My most salient experiences of racism have come from fellow Asian Americans. We can’t turn a blind eye to the racism that exists within our own communities while working to build a more inclusive future. As we bring our subconscious beliefs into consciousness we can start to change them.
There are millions of people who live in fear that they will be a target of racism or a hate crime because of the way they look. One of the kindest things we can do that requires little effort is being a friendly and loving presence in the world. If someone shares their experiences of racism with you, hold space for them to share without trying to fix or change anything. Sometimes we just need to know that it’s okay to not be okay.
In my qigong class yesterday, my teacher spoke about how anger is useful when put into action for positive change. Anger is an emotion that I have suppressed, believing it was unladylike to feel this basic emotion. Similarly, Asian Americans have been praised for not vocalizing their anger like other minority groups. I like to imagine the systems of power that created these stereotypes that stigmatized anger among women and Asian Americans must have recognized the potency of an angry Asian American woman to change the world. As I have allowed myself to have access to anger, personal power and agency have flowed in as well. Let’s come together and skillfully direct our anger towards making a positive change in the world.