Five things you should know about Asian Americans

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. In honor of the occasion, here are five things that I think you should know about Asian Americans.*

1. We Don’t All Look Alike. In fact, most of us aren’t alike at all. When many non-Asians conjure a picture of “Asian American” in their minds, they see an East Asian person — someone whose roots can be traced to China, Korea, or Japan. But Asian America includes dozens of distinct and linguistically diverse ethnic groups originating from a region that encompasses much more than the Far East.

Moreover, we are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants who came to the U.S. for wildly different reasons, at different times, and under vastly different circumstances. While some Asian immigrants first arrived in the U.S. as sojourners seeking economic opportunity (and not a few of us because the economies of our home countries are devastated by global economic pressures), others are in the U.S. as legacies of war. Still others entered the U.S. with special visas in order to fulfill business needs for investment capital or highly skilled workers.

And, Asian Americans generally don’t identify as Asian American, which after all is an American term invented in the 1960s, before the largest waves of migration from Asia post-1968. Instead, most of us identify by ethnicity.

2. We Aren’t Halfway Between Black and White. In fact, this way of thinking of Asians overlooks the peculiar role anti-Asian racism plays in strengthening the American racial hierarchy. Rather than be profiled into traditional categories of black, white, or indigenous, Asians, like many Latinos, are raced as “forever foreign,” even if we may have been in the U.S. for generations. Whether we’re profiled as sub- or super-human, we are always exotic, and anti-Asian stereotypes are manipulated in a way that strengthens the oppressive power of all other racial categories, from white as normative, to black as problematic and dangerous.

Some version of this has been true since the first Asian immigrants came to the U.S. Because of perceived over competition for economic opportunity and white anxiety over loss of cultural and political control, the reaction to the arrival of Asians made the connection between “American” and “white,” and “race” and “nation,” stronger than ever.

3. We’re Not Your Model Minority. We aren’t all privileged by high incomes and higher levels of education. That’s not to say there isn’t some privilege associated with being stereotyped as exceptional, but that privilege is conditional, based on our usefulness in maintaining a racial hierarchy in which there are model minorities and “problem minorities.” As long as we can be profiled as a model minority who quietly pulled ourselves up by our boot straps, that stereotype can continue to be used as the exception to American racism that strengthens the myth of American social mobility across the color line, with terrible implications for other people of color.

And, word to the wise, the point of drawing attention to those Asian ethnic groups who don’t benefit from the stereotype is, in part, to remind those of us who do that our privilege should be balanced by the obligation to raise the visibility of those among us who continue to suffer from poverty and/or anti-terrorist racial profiling. When we dodge this responsibility, we make ourselves vulnerable to changes in the political climate that might turn the stereotype over onto its flip side, which casts us as disloyal, dangerous perpetual foreigners.

4. We Aren’t “Naturally” Conservative. While it’s a perilous jump from Asian American voters to a whole community that includes so many non-voters, most of us who vote aren’t conservative at all. That doesn’t mean we’re progressive, exactly. Instead, it means we tend to side with liberals on issues like health care, affirmative action, immigration and social security. That’s probably why well over 70 percent of us voted for Obama. And as we are also less likely to be Christians, as long as the GOP continues to side with conservative evangelicals, many Asian voters will lean toward Democratic candidates.

5. Asian Americans are Human Beings. That may seem awfully obvious, but studies demonstrate that when many of us, especially whites, respond to images of white people, we describe people without race. We may use other adjectives, but white isn’t often among them. That is, until images of non-whites are introduced. And when non-white images are presented first, race is almost always noted.

But, we are all just human beings upon whom race has been imposed. Race is neither cultural nor biological. Instead, it’s a political system, invented to subjugate and exploit non-whites, and to keep those raced as different apart from one another, I’m guessing so we can’t figure out that we’re all just human.

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, this bears repeating. Even as we address racism, and celebrate our many cultures, we Asians should remember that race, as opposed to culture or ethnicity, is a political invention imposed upon us in order to fit us into categories according to which power has historically been organized in the U.S. Forgetting this may well strengthen those oppressive categories, even when our true interests lie in holding them up and making them visible to ourselves and others in order to destroy them.

*Often when Asians use the term “Asian-Pacific American,” they really just mean Asians, though certainly with the intent if not always the effective of being inclusive, rather than to marginalize Pacific Islanders. I make a distinction between these groups. Addressing the needs of Pacific Islanders requires us to address the different ways in which Pacific Islanders are profiled in the U.S., and the legacy of U.S., European and Japanese colonialism in the Pacific. Those differences in profiling and historical legacy point to different public policy solutions for Pacific Islanders, including to Native Hawaiians whose struggle for recognition as a colonized people should not go without notice in a blog about race.

Scot Nakagawa is senior partner at ChangeLab and has over 30 years of experience in progressive social change work as a social movement analyst with a particular emphasis on analyzing and creating strategies to counter rightwing movements. His current blog, RaceFiles, addresses race and racism in U.S. politics and culture. The views in the preceding commentary are not necessarily those of the Nichi Bei Weekly.

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