I can’t recall any time in my life when Asian Americans were centered in public conversation as much as we are right now.
Since the March 16 killings of eight people — including six Asian American women — in the Atlanta area, it’s been like the whole country woke up and suddenly discovered Asian America exists.
There have been countless think pieces, podcasts, webinars, task forces, panels, rallies, concerned statements — dubbed in the aggregate as #StopAsianHate — all trying to tackle how to stop the series of attacks on Asian American people. The efforts have ranged in tone from the pleading “we belong here,” to the defiant “stop white supremacy.”
Yet while I was grateful to see attention finally begin to focus on the wildly diverse, fastest growing segment of our population, I also felt uneasy.
I was raised with the ethos of cross-racial solidarity, of always examining my complicity in oppressive systems and dedicating my efforts to the greatest needs and the most grievous harms. Would focusing on the attacks on Asian Americans distract from the anti-Blackness that led to the killing of George Floyd and the subsequent national reckoning around race and policing? Would Asian Americans once again be used as a cudgel to justify a law-and-order response to the attacks that would disproportionately hurt Black and brown people? Would these attacks allow Asian Americans to skirt our own desperately needed reckoning around anti-Blackness in our own communities?
Struggling with these questions, at the recommendation of Elliott Bay Books’ Karen Maeda Allman, I finally picked up my copy of poet, writer and scholar Cathy Park Hong’s 2020 book “Minor Feelings,” which like most things about Asian Americans, I had put on the shelf, unread, for many months, in favor of books on what seemed like “more important” issues, like mass incarceration and police brutality.
Almost immediately upon reading, I experienced what Hong calls a “shock of recognition.” For the first time in my life, I read thoughts that acknowledged and reflected back the unease I felt.
“My shame is not cultural but political,” she writes. “It is being painfully aware of the power dynamic that pulls at the levers of social interactions and the cringing indignity of where I am in that order either as the afflicted — or as the afflicter.”
While written before the pandemic, Hong’s words could not be more salient today. She put to paper what I have long been thinking but didn’t know the words to say.
Asian Americans inhabit a “vague purgatorial status” she writes in her book. “Not white enough nor black enough; distrusted by African Americans, ignored by whites, unless we’re being used by whites to keep the black man down.”
Even the concept of Asian American, as an identity, often sits on our shoulders like an ill-fitting suit. Crafted during the late 1960s as a critical political tool to unite disparate groups and build power, the term “Asian American” grouped people that colonialism and imperialism had pitched against each other into one body.
As Hong, the Los Angeles-born daughter of Korean American immigrants, said in her book, “The paint on the Asian American label has not dried. The term is unwieldy, cumbersome, perched awkwardly upon my being.”
What does a Cambodian refugee facing deportation in the U.S. have in common with a third-generation Japanese American like myself? What do I still need to learn about South Asians, Southeast Asians, Korean Americans, for example, that “Asian American” obscures from my view?
As Hong said in an interview in Vox, we are not a country that is too interested in this history (or, I would add, our country’s role in the wars that drive displacement and migration). “My parents, for instance, experienced the Korean War where 20 percent of the peninsula died,” Hong said. “But then you come to this country and no one remembers it. No one cares about it. No one has any understanding of it. It’s that same idea of your reality or your history being just completely unacknowledged.”
Part of the reason for this is that our lives, experiences and histories are not taught in schools and, as Hong writes, “Although it’s now slowly changing, we have been mostly nonexistent in politics, entertainment, and the media, and barely represented in the arts.”
To change this, we must stop taking up, as Hong calls it, “apologetic” and “conditional” space, where belonging is “always promised and just out of reach so that we behave, whether it’s the insatiable acquisition of material belongings or belonging as a peace of mind where we are absorbed into mainstream society.”
I yearn for a future where we can learn and struggle alongside one another, in solidarity with one another, challenging our own complicity and refusing to become a tool for those who don’t believe we have a right to be here.
“Whiteness has already recruited us to become their junior partners in genocidal wars; conscripted us to be antiblack and colorist; to work for, and even head, corporations that scythe off immigrant jobs like heads of wheat,” Hong writes. “Conscription is every day and unconscious. It is the default way of life among those of us who live in relative comfort, unless we make an effort to choose otherwise.”
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