My post yesterday about Asian privilege got me thinking about the complexities of being Asian American. Blog length articles just don’t cut it when it comes to trying to tackle that subject matter. There are always ideas that just don’t fit within my self-imposed 850 (more or less) word limit.
For instance, while I believe Asian privilege is a real thing, it certainly didn’t protect the seven people murdered when a racist opened fire on members of a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin last August. In fact, post-9/11 Islamophobia has imposed an experience of racism on South Asians in the U.S. that is quite distinct from that experienced by other Asian Americans. Increasingly, South Asian Americans are profiled less as model minorities than as terrorist threats.
And for Laotian Americans, privilege must feel like like a foreign concept. Almost all of them were driven out of their homeland and into the this country since 1973 by a now-exposed secret war waged by the U.S. The American war strategy included running 580,000 bombing raids. This is the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years over a country about the size of Utah. The detonations were bad enough, but so much unexploded ordinance is left behind that one third of Laos is considered contaminated.
The experience of Laotian Americans is mirrored in many ways by that of immigrants who came to the U.S. from places like Burma, Vietnam, and Cambodia to flee war and political repression. They know horrors few American-born Asians can even begin to imagine.
Privilege is also a tough word to describe the situation of many Filipino immigrants in the U.S. Many were encouraged to migrate by the Philippine government because it is managing so much foreign debt that debt service is their single largest expense. The terms of the loans made from organizations like the International Monetary Fund have imposed austerity measures, including wage freezes, cuts to healthcare and education, and privatization of water and electrical service. Filipinos often leave to survive and to provide for their families abroad because the Philippine economy just can’t afford them.
And to the family of Vincent Chin and others who have been victimized by hate crimes perpetrated by those answering the call of Asia-bashing with violence, Asian privilege must seem small recompense. They know that even when the stereotypes are supposedly positive, they are nonetheless dehumanizing. And when you cast a person as something other than human, inhumane, even deadly, treatment is too often the response.
Yet, for some of us, the privileges, though conditional, are real. I recall growing up in Hawaii, profiled as Japanese American in a school system in which we were expected to succeed, and in which Japanese Americans were over-represented among authority figures. I surrounded myself with friends who didn’t share in the protection afforded me by my light skin and Japanese surname. We felt one another, but they suffered the kind of racism reserved for those profiled as problem minorities – Native Hawaiians, African Americans, and darker skinned immigrants from Polynesia and the Philippines.
I was every bit the person then that I am now – a guy who has organized literally dozens of protest actions and started a half dozen or so organizations because I am almost, maybe just am, arrogantly convinced of the rightness of my belief that no injustice should be accommodated without a fight. In my school days, if there was trouble being stirred up, I had my hand on the handle.
Yet when the time came to be held accountable, I almost always escaped the worst punishments. In spite of doing poorly in school, I was passed from grade to grade, even tracked into college prep classes. I was considered a troubled child with potential where my often much more talented but darker skinned friends were perceived to just be trouble.
Today, without the benefit of a college degree, I have twice been a foundation executive and now work for a think tank. Now, I’m not going to say I didn’t work as hard and try as mightily as the next person, but in order to try I had to first get through the door. Those doors remained open to me when they would likely have closed to others because I lived under the cover (and intense pressure and scrutiny, mind you) of model minority stereotyping.
Reflecting on all of this I realized, part what makes being Asian American so complicated is that Asian privilege is really white privilege, conferred conditionally on some of us in order to maintain white power. If that’s true, we’re being used. And if being used, even lightly, is what this is about, the question is, are we really in control of how and over what damage that use might do to us and to others?