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On Erasure: Asian Americans
and Social Justice

photo by Gabriel Ramos

From time to time, an Unmargin Collective member will ask a question pertaining to social justice and Asian Americans to fellow collective members, and we will publish their responses.  

The Question: It seems that much of Asian American experience is erased or dismissed in the current dialogues involving race and social justice. How does this make you feel? And what organizing strategies do you have to counter this pervasive notion that Asians don't endure racism?

[response from Q]

This is one of the things that gets me riled up and ready for action, but honestly, it can be exhausting! I regularly encounter this at work and in my personal life. It’s insidious: it comes up when I’m sitting in meetings, engaged in casual conversations with friends or colleagues, or collaborating on academic projects or papers. I usually have to take a deep breath and then decide whether I have the time, energy, and social capital to engage with this or not.

Because it’s such a common perception among people I encounter, I decided when I became a university faculty member to make it part of my lessons on racial oppression. As an educator, this is my way of changing the conversation and including Asian Americans in dialogues on race and social justice. I find that once we bring Asian Americans (and other racialized minority groups) into the conversation, students see the systemic nature of racial oppression much more clearly. For example, we can connect racist social practices and institutions leading to stereotypes that African Americans are “lazy” and “unintelligent” (stemming from the need to dehumanize and control African slaves) while also leading to stereotypes that Asian Americans are “hard-working” and “smart” (stemming from hyper-selective immigration policies targeting mostly highly-educated Asians).

Another way in which this issue comes up in my work is through the data (un)available to me regarding various ethnic and racial groups. For example, my institution, like most other institutions of higher education, aggregate data on Asian Americans. In other words, Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders are often grouped with other Asian groups that have extremely different migration histories, educational backgrounds, socioeconomic status, and so forth. Even when I ask for de-aggregated data, they are usually not available because researchers and administrators simply do not collect that information, or folks are sometimes unwilling to de-aggregate because they don’t see the importance of doing so. This is why I’m grateful for organizations like the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC), which not only advocates for our communities at the various levels of government but also provides a lot educational materials and reports on Southeast Asians. I cite their resources often when I’m trying to convince a co-author or colleague to consider Asian Americans when they write about race or social justice. As a social scientist, I find that folks who are motivated to be rational in their work are often moved when they have access to a good report or resource such as those from SEARAC.

I think once more folks in position of power consider Asian Americans (as an extremely diverse community) in conversations on race and social justice, then we can turn the tide on this issue. I’m mindful that although my work is mostly targeting individuals (in educational and academic contexts), my goal is ultimately to change the cultural perception that Asian Americans are somehow more privileged than other racialized minority groups, untouched by America’s long-standing racist structures.



[response from Parag]

I feel invisible and invisibilized.

I am made to feel that our individual and collective stories do not matter. And sometimes, I’m made to feel that way by Asian Americans, themselves, performing allyship in the white-black binary of mainstream U.S. race dialogues. The Model Minority Myth suggested Asians were trying to be or appease white people. I would argue that the Model Minority Ally might be trying to be or appease “Black people” (while potentially doing just as much harm by assuming there is just one perspective that all Black people share about anything, including anti-Blackness). Sometimes it feels like we are being asked again and again to be Model Minority Martyrs.

When do we, again, sing a song for ourselves, as Chris Iijima, Nobuko Miyamoto, and Charlie Chin suggested to us during the Asian American Movement?

Much of the erasure and dismissal makes me feel like the language and mainstream framework of “racial justice” in the United States are the colonizer’s tools that we must be wary of every time they are used to essentialize many diverse peoples’ struggles into hashtag reactions of “with” or “against” one facet of U.S. racial justice work. Which isn’t true to many solidarity movements in the 60s and 70s, where people learned of and supported one another’s’ struggles as a matter of co-liberation, not oppression olympics or blanket condemnations against anyone who raises concerns about the lack of nuance or solidarity in some “racial justice” spaces.

My strategies boil down to showing up as my whole self and sharing stories. I support co-liberation in my paid and volunteer work as a solidarity economies lawyer and teacher, and often find myself in spaces as the only Asian American in a “POC” or “Black” space. I try not to take up space that isn’t mine to take, and I also try not to invisibilize myself, either. I try to open the dialogue broader than the white-black paradigm and problematize analyses that stop there. I try to explore how xenophobia, nativism, endless war, colonialism, and capitalism are all forms of white supremacy that act out on our bodies, our (m)otherlands, even the way that we remember and speak about ourselves.

Sometimes, to address collapse, linearity, and stifling tunnel vision in “racial justice” spaces, I bring up class. Sometimes, borrowing from Dr. Jaideep Singh’s work in the area, I bring up Christian Supremacy in the U.S. to change the frame, reorient a room, and show a different look at systemic racism in the U.S., but not in the way that people are used to. That usually breaks up any suggestion that struggles are the same, and can also open up ways to discuss how struggles are parallel or related. In these examples, I try to explore how erasure and invisibility are ways to subjugate and dominate, which are also functions of white supremacy.

And you can’t just like me. You will need to know my stories, and my people, if we’re all to get free together. Because no one is free if anyone is caged, and if people don’t even acknowledge that Asian Americans are imprisoned by our own forms of systemic racism (I was thinking about the immigration system, xenophobia, and militarized/economic colonialism but I am also including our limited knowledge of self/stories of shared struggle with others, as well as our participation in systems created by white supremacy), we’re not talking about co-liberation at all.

[Response from Catherine Fung]

As a professor-turned-high school teacher, I definitely see this erasure impact my students. I work at an elite private school in San Francisco that has a social justice-centered mission. We make a lot of efforts to decolonize our curriculum and create programming that serves our students of color, and in a lot of ways, we succeed. There are affinity group spaces. We we have history classes on topics like constructions of whiteness and the prison industrial complex. I created an Ethnic Studies course and a course on mixed race literature. As far as “progressive” education goes, I think we’re doing as well as a private school with a high price tag can do. (Because let’s face it-- Pprivate schools are institutions that perpetuate inequity rather than solve it.)  

Like many schools in SF, Asian American students make up the largest non-white student demographic. And yet, I feel there is still some struggle in figuring out curriculum and program geared towards their identity development. My APIDA (Asian/Pacific Islander/Desi American) students will say things like, “I’m not sure when people say ‘“people of color’” that they are including me,” or “Where do we fit in the black-white binary?” They are told that they have “privilege,” and they understand that they don’t deal with the kind of racism that their black peers do, but they also don’t quite have the vocabulary to talk about the particular ways that they are racialized. My APIDA students don’t feel that they are aligned with whiteness. They understand enough to see that there is a conversation about racial justice to be had; they’re just not sure where they fit in it.

Of course, the “easy” solution to this problem is Asian American Studies! And certainly, as an Asian American Studies scholar who used to teach Asian American Studies at the college level, I try to bring in my expertise and skill set to my current job. But frankly, it’s been hard. I have to sometimes make Asian American Studies legible to even my APIDA colleagues and convince them that there’s a need for it. The Model Minority Myth, which is all about aligning Asians with whiteness, persists in these educational spaces because, indeed, based on their grades, it does look like the APIDA kids are doing alright and don’t need more support.

I don’t blame my colleagues for the Asian American Studies education that they themselves never received. With the exception of small mentions about the railroads and internment, my own education has lacked Asian American-focused curriculum. I didn’t get to dive deep into Asian American history until I TA-ed for the Asian American Studies department at UC Davis as a graduate student. As an undergraduate at UCLA, home of perhaps the largest Asian American Studies department in the country, it didn’t occur to me to take those classes because I hadn’t been taught to even recognize that there was such a thing as Asian American Studies. Moreover, I remember the dismissive jokes some of my peers would say about Ethnic Studies classes as being “easy-A” classes and “diversity checkoffs” for our GE spread. So we can imagine how many APIDA kids become adults who never learned their own history. And when those adults become educators, even entirely well-meaning and highly skilled ones, we can see how that erasure is replicated.

Because most K-12 schools will feature some African American history, literature, and experience in their curriculum, most people will recognize, to some degree, that as part of understanding America. I think it’s safe to say that any kid graduating from an American high school will know something about Martin Luther King, Jr. and Rosa Parks. Kids in California likely also learned about Chicano leaders like Céesar Cháavez and Dolores Huerta. But hardly any kids in my school learn about Larry Itliong, Fred Korematsu, or Yuri Kochiyama. In this way, when it comes to Asian American-centered curriculum, I don’t necessarily see that that many strides have been taken since I was a high school student more than twenty years ago.  I think of an article that Timothy Yu wrote sometime ago that posed the question, “Has Asian American Studies Failed?” When I look at how the discipline hasn’t yet trickled to the K-12 arena, my answer is, yes, absolutely.

It’s not just a matter of representation, though that is powerful. Upon reading Brian Ascalon Roley’s American Son this semester, a couple of my students, both mixed Pinoy kids, commented, “This is the first time I’ve read anything featuring my people!” So representation is the first step. What I’m working on is developing curriculum that centers Asian Asian American history and experience in a way that reframes all of American history and experience. It is dismaying to me how few students and teachers realize that the very definition of whiteness, which codified this country’s immigration and naturalization policies, was mobilized by Asian racialization and exclusion. Hardly anyone I work with knows about Wong Kim Ark, the Takao Ozawa and Bhagat Singh Thind Supreme Court cases, or even local Asian American history that directly impacted them like Lau v. Nichols. Angel Island is right in their backyard, and yet hardly any of them know its history as an immigration port where Chinese immigrants were detained during the period of Chinese exclusion. It is also disturbing to me how many educators in San Francisco aren’t aware of the TWLF Strikes that inaugurated Ethnic Studies and changed the landscape of education, and that occurred right in their hometown. We have to understand African American, Native American, Chicano/a, and yes, Asian American history, culture, and experience AS American history, culture, and experience, and we have to learn how to teach our students that understanding. Anything less just upholds white supremacy.

So my goal now as an educator and social justice practitioner is to create a generational shift: I want to cultivate a generation of APIDA youth who are politicized, who will demand Asian American Studies in their K-12 schools. I want their Ethnic Studies classes in college to serve as more than a place where they accidentally “discover” themselves, but as a place where they can acquire the tools to change the white supremacist society that we live in. I want them to replicate cycles of liberation rather than erasure.


[response from Leah]

When I see something like this playing out within BIPOC communities currently, my first response is to be like, I don’t think most of the BIPOC folks I see doing it are doing it from a place of wanting to harm anyone. I think people are fumbling around and trying things out, to address  something I witnessed happening in the 2000s, where the rise of formations like “QTPOC” (which I definitely helped contribute to!) that were designed with the intention of bringing together Black and brown folks and disrupting overarchingly white cultural and political spaces, worked in a lot of ways- but also created spaces where many Black and Indigenous folks were like, hey, we’re all not just the same kind of brown and our specific experiences of racism are being erased. Especially as the Obama era rolled out, it often felt that light brown people were the ones who got lifted up in leadership, and that sometimes some APIA folks got seen as more palatable to white folks and given leadership and cookies- which is a sometimes-tokenization that’s been part of our histories of oppression for a long time-  and we needed to pull that apart and question it. And then there were some incidents of young Asians appropriating Black culture and language in spaces I was in, and we needed to be accountable for that too. So there’s some pain and harm that happened that needs to be addressed.

I am 1000%  in support of Black and Indigenous folks calling out the specific ways they face racism and specificities of cultural and political work. I want Asian folks to be able to do the same thing, and seen as doing the same thing. The thing I see happening now is that often you’ve got Asians viewing ourselves as the kind of “lesser” POC in that formulation- like you’ve got Black and Indigenous, and then “POC” is kind of like junior white people.  And then there’s this dynamic happening where a lot a lot of working class APIA histories- both the other ones from the 18th-20th century, that we as working class APIA activists worked to lift up in the 1990s and 2000s, and also this more recent formation of pretty working class and poor APIA activists and cultural workers of the 1990s and 2000s doing that work, and also the struggles of APIA and SWANA folks now, are not being spoken of or remembered. Struggles that are Asian struggles- like those of Asian migrant sex workers, or Punjabi farm workers, or desis and Cambodians and Chinese people being deported, or Syrian and Kurdish people getting bombed in Syria, or police violence against Hmong or Tamil folks, or hell, everyone getting fucked with in Sri Lanka right now- aren’t often seen right now as Asian political struggles.  Or there’s the “interesting” fact that so many disability justice organizers and originators of DJ organizing are disabled Asian femmes (hi Patti, Mia, Akemi, Sandi, Lydia, Alice, Ronak, Kiyaan, Stacey and me, among many others!) There’s a lot of places where there’s not space for APIA leadership to be looked at and talked about. I want us to both be curious about both the why of that, and also strategize to turn it around.   

I think some of why that is happening because of the very working-class ness of that cultural and political work- the shit a lot of us radical Asians did in the 1990s and early 2000s is in old internet platforms that didn’t get updated, or it’s not online at all, or it’s not in English. But  also, when I see the erasure of discussion of both anti APIA racism and radical APIA histories, including recent ones, I’m like, of course, that’s how anti Asian racism happens- we’re either hyper visible or both our existence and oppression are erased. Out of that, I see a lot of gaps where APIA folks, especially some people who are just coming into activism, not knowing or having a lot of models for being Asian and radical besides being apologetic. And I don’t think being apologetic is  a strong organizing strategy. I also think it also erases a lot of our complex and real experiences that can be strong places to organize from. I want us to both deal with anti Black and anti Indigenous racism in our communities, and talk about the forms of oppression we face and the resistance we do.  

And then there’s the fact that white supremacist capitalist colonial ableist patriarchy is still not lifting up or rewarding - or just seeing- the Hmong domestic violence worker, or the Tamil playwright, or the Chinese sex worker, or the Samoan kid who’s in youth lockup, or the Afghani teen in a psych ward, or the brown folks in Guantanamo,  so there you go.