I’ve had the pleasure of interviewing some impressive people as part of our research at ChangeLab. The breadth and depth of these conversations have revealed how complex Asian American racial identity is, and how few spaces we have to talk about it meaningfully. They’ve also revealed a deep desire to approach the subject with an eye toward resistance and action, to contest white supremacy from diverse and authentic Asian American experiences.
With the recent online debate over Asian American privilege, I’ve been thinking about how the quandary of facing both conditional race privilege and racial subjugation plays out in the hearts and minds of Asian American racial justice organizers. Recently, I looked back at some of the interviews I did, and realized that this quandary may in fact be useful, not only for individual organizers, but for the overall movement.
Bear with me and I’ll explain.
Among the people I interviewed were several spoken word artists, hip hop musicians, and writers. One person offered his take on the role of Asian American racial justice organizers. Far beyond the need for demographic representation, he argued that the politics of these organizers shaped a specific kind of movement-building approach. He gave examples of several prominent Asian American organizers leading fights for environmental justice, low-wage workers’ rights, and other issues, where Asian Americans did not make up the majority of the base, but instead were part of a multiracial constituency. He hinted that there was something about Asian American identity formation that led these organizers to grasp and act on the need for expansive and transformative politics:
There are particular types of strategies and projects that emanate only from our experience as Asian Americans, but that are effective because they become larger than that… That’s sort of my theory of how Asian Americans fit into progressive, radical movements. We bring our unique experience and move it… in a direction that brings everybody into it.
In his own work, he lamented getting asked repeatedly, by both whites and Asian Americans, why he, “a nice Asian American”, was part of the hip hop movement. The belief that hip hop, a black-originated artistic vehicle for personal storytelling and political critique, precluded Asian American experiences, exposed the potency of the model minority myth within both white and Asian American imaginations. In reality, he said:
It’s because I’m Asian American, it’s because I’m Pacific Islander… coming from a little island in the middle of the sea, moving to the continental U.S., and beginning to understand racism and also understanding classism and hierarchy within the Asian American communities… that I [understand] Kool Herc’s story not as this mythical guy who descends from a mountain in Jamaica, but as an immigrant who comes to the Bronx, is teased for the way he dresses and the way he talks, and decides that the way he is going to overcome that is to become the dopest DJ that anybody has ever met.
Are there unique aspects to Asian American organizing approaches? If so, what are they? There’s an essay in Racial Formation in the 21st Century by James Kyung-Jin Lee, on Asian American literature. In it he describes an “ambivalence” in Asian American culture, due largely to half a century of model minority racialization. In the end he argues that this ambivalence, at its best, leads to “the commitment to discover relentlessly, both in our present, though our pasts, and into a dim future… what it means to become Asian American rather than simply to be called one.” This interrogation, he says, is a powerful basis for imagining “a racial future worth securing.”
Ambivalence doesn’t necessarily mean uncertainty. It means having simultaneously conflicting ideas or feelings. In many of the interviews I did, I heard, often in the same breath, arguments for organizing around Asian American identity, and cautions against the pitfalls of doing so. I heard both frustration and hope about how the model minority myth powerfully positioned antiracist Asian Americans to critique post-racialism and the limited logic of multiculturalism. On the hopeful side, one person said:
There’s the justice piece of it, which I think is… moving away from a rights-based and equality model of, “We just want what you all have. We… want to just expand the ranks of the privileged.” …A racial justice model… would be actually be talking about dismantling the whole system and saying, “We don’t want to join the ranks of the privileged few… We’re not trying to assimilate and be like white people.”
Maybe Asian Americans who have faced the racial bribe of model minority status, and then flatly refused it — or have had it torn away from them — are able to discern the guiles of white supremacy in a particular way. Maybe the exercise of puzzling over what it means, politically, to “become” Asian American rather than to be “called” one leads to a profound skepticism of individualism, one that sees through the divide-and-conquer pitfalls in the world of political organizing. Maybe this is one kind of Asian American nuance to the veil and double-consciousness that W.E.B. DuBois famously described in The Souls of Black Folk.
The flipside of conditional privilege is resistance and struggle. And contrary to the view of white political pundits, as race gets made and remade, Asian American political involvement has more to contribute to the fight for justice than sheer numbers. At its best, it offers lessons to share – about the perils of blindly accepting the conditional privileges meted out by white supremacy, the quickness with which those privileges can be lost, and the power of resisting them.