Saturday, December 11, 2010

More questions about Asians in America -- who are we?

Another set of questions (and my attempted answers) to the excellent questions posed by Private U. students at a workshop I ran a month ago (click here for the original post and set of questions). Here goes!


*How do Asian Americans solve the "perpetual foreigner" problem?


So I'm going to do the teacherly thing and spin the question around a bit--namely, just who is responsible for solving the stereotype of Asian Americans as "perpetual foreigner"? While I'm sure there are Asian Americans who engage in stereotyping of Asian Americans and/or are invested in ethnic self-hatred as a defensive posture or perhaps simply out of ignorance, in my opinion it's mainly non-Asian Americans (largely white Americans, although other minority races do it too) who believe that Asian Americans aren't "real" Americans and are simply this mass of foreign-born, pidgin-speaking, immigrants.

The truth is, there are many Asians in America who were not born and raised here, and who speak English with an Asian accent. But the belief that ALL Asian Americans or Asians in America are foreign have a lot to do with the investment that mainstream America has in perpetuating this stereotype. Some of it is just pure laziness. Some of it is based on yellow peril stereotypes. Much of it, I suspect, has to do with the idea of America being a place, first and foremost, for white Americans -- that it is white Americans who "founded" this nation and white Americans who "count" as "authentic" American -- whose ancestors worked hard to make this a great country.

Now, I don't think most people consciously think the above (at least non-tea party folks), but the idea that everyone but white Americans are generally "hyphenated" or noted as being American-PLUS (as in African American, Native American, Asian American), is a sign of white privilege and a sign of white supremacist thinking (and I don't mean the KKK or men in white sheets, I mean the ways in which our history and society is formed around promoting the history of white Americans, often at the expense of ignoring or marginalizing or silencing the history of non-white Americans--this contributes to white supremacist thinking--and it's not just white people who engage in this, almost every single person in the U.S. is subject to white supremacist thinking--we just can't help it, it's everywhere and you have to actively work to undue years of an ingrained way of thinking about the world--I suppose I should also say that Gramsci would just say this is all hegemony).

So what can Asian Americans do?

We can resist and remind. We can resist white supremacist thinking and educate people and correct them, in whatever way we're comfortable, with anger, humor, self-denigration, condescension, pragmatism, or any other tactic that gets across that the person making a comment/conjecture/observation that perpetuates the stereotype of Asian Americans as foreign is simply wrong and not true. We can be spokespeople for ourselves--by refusing to answer the question "What are you?" or "Where are you from?" by turning it around and asking others "What are you?" or "Where are you from?" For those of us who identify as Americans, we can simply give this as an answer when people ask us for our nationality. We can ask our questioners why they are asking about our race/ethnicity/culture--why do they want to know? And we can turn it around and ask about their race/ethnicity/culture. By doing all of this, we remind others that we are not the compliant Asian subject that they want us to be. We are loud and proud Asian Americans.

*We're in this racial middle as Asian Americans, what do you see as the future for Asian/Americans in the U.S. (politically & socially)?

Hmmmm...very intriguing question. I guess the first thing I'd say is that while the term "racial middle" does resonate and make sense as a descriptor for Asian Americans, it is also perhaps not where we should aspire to be or that we should work against thinking of race in terms of space or hierarchies. There is a temptation to do this--to see Asian Americans as neither black nor white--to be in the middle of a linear scale of racial privilege (on the one end) and racial abjection (on the other).

But I think in terms of thinking of what the place of Asian Americans is in terms of U.S. politics and society...well, I would hope it means increased visibility--which links back to the above question about being a perpetual foreigner. The more Asian Americans take part in civic society--by running for political office or taking on leadership positions in education, business, the military, entertainment--the more visible we can be in American society and thus be recognized as fully enfranchised American citizens.

However, I also think another way of thinking of this question, because of its emphasis on race, is to think how Asian Americans can work with other groups to end social oppression--because it's not just about ending racial oppression, it's understanding how race intersects with gender/sexuality/ability/region/religion/class/education and so many other factors. So it means Asian Americans not just speaking as/for/about Asian Americans but as allies and leaders for other groups that they are either part of or are allies of.

And in this way I think Asian Americans get to contribute like everyone else in making this country to be a nation that is inclusive of all, or in the words of the pledge of allegiance, pre-1954: "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL."

3 comments:

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Greg said...

Excellent post. There are a few things I'd like to add to, if it's alright:

1) I see a potential analogy in the "Asian-Americans as (perpetual) foreigners" meme to the "Obama as Muslim" meme (let's call the structure "A as B"). Namely, that the statement may be construed as (or intended to be) some sort of put-down; if this is the case, it is based on the implicit assumption that B is bad. Of course, there are major differences in how these memes function and are manifested, but I feel it's necessary to point out that in addition to reinforcing stereotypes of Asians, the meme also attacks "foreignness". By simply refuting the statement, the speaker reinforces that B is bad (or at least that it's less valued than a more "standard" counterpart): Obama is not Muslim; he is Christian. A given Asian-American is not foreign; she is American. (Muslim < Christian; foreign < American.)

2) I see a potential danger in American-born, "standard English" speaking Asian-Americans so strongly separating themselves from "foreign-born, pidgin-speaking, immigrants". Of course, I understand your intention to illustrate the stereotype here (from the POV of the person holding this stereotype), but American-born and raised people who are native speakers of Standard American English wield a significant amount of privilege, even those of Asian descent. This sort of privilege should also be recognized and called into question; Asian-Americans so vehemently separating themselves from foreign-born Asians is essentially endorsing that privilege.

At the same time, I recognize that the primary function of refuting the "Asian-Americans as (perpetual) foreigners" meme is to call out the stereotyping. I also recognize that it is a fine line to walk: how to claim an identity that is both "Asian" and "American" seems like it might be the crux of Asian-American identity politics. A wild thought (and entirely separate debate), but I wonder if this problem might be addressed by claiming an identity that is framed as neither of those.

3) Another extended analogy (that, again, has many major differences) is a fissure in the LGBT community. I'm not sure how common this practice is anymore, but back when I was single, I can't tell you how many times I read gay dating ads where men portrayed themselves as "straight-acting" -- and how infuriating that was to me. This can be traced to the meme of "Gay people as feminine-acting/flamboyant" (again, A as B, where the implicit assumption is that B is bad). There are many gay people who can easily pass as straight, which, in itself is not a bad thing, but (especially preemptively) claiming a "straight-acting" identity is endorsing the privilege of socially constructed gender-compliant behavior. In my mind, this is very similar to the scenarios above.

4) I also wanted to point out another (potentially more subtle) way that white supremacy manifests. My partner recently told me about a Kaiser ad he had seen (a copy can be seen here: http://www2.gloriousgaydays.com/uploaded_images/KP-stick-around-things-get-interesting-799793.jpg). Here, though "minority status" people are represented, heteronormative whiteness functions as the pivot point (the older straight white couple in front) -- it is the standard that all other periphery existence is compared to and judged by.

That's all. Open to further discussion, of course.

Greg said...

Excellent post. There are a few things I'd like to add to, if it's alright:

1) I see a potential analogy in the "Asian-Americans as (perpetual) foreigners" meme to the "Obama as Muslim" meme (let's call the structure "A as B"). Namely, that the statement may be construed as (or intended to be) some sort of put-down; if this is the case, it is based on the implicit assumption that B is bad. Of course, there are major differences in how these memes function and are manifested, but I feel it's necessary to point out that in addition to reinforcing stereotypes of Asians, the meme also attacks "foreignness". By simply refuting the statement, the speaker reinforces that B is bad (or at least that it's less valued than a more "standard" counterpart): Obama is not Muslim; he is Christian. A given Asian-American is not foreign; she is American. (Muslim < Christian; foreign < American.)

2) I see a potential danger in American-born, "standard English" speaking Asian-Americans so strongly separating themselves from "foreign-born, pidgin-speaking, immigrants". Of course, I understand your intention to illustrate the stereotype here (from the POV of the person holding this stereotype), but American-born and raised people who are native speakers of Standard American English wield a significant amount of privilege, even those of Asian descent. This sort of privilege should also be recognized and called into question; Asian-Americans so vehemently separating themselves from foreign-born Asians is essentially endorsing that privilege.

At the same time, I recognize that the primary function of refuting the "Asian-Americans as (perpetual) foreigners" meme is to call out the stereotyping. I also recognize that it is a fine line to walk: how to claim an identity that is both "Asian" and "American" seems like it might be the crux of Asian-American identity politics. A wild thought (and entirely separate debate), but I wonder if this problem might be addressed by claiming an identity that is framed as neither of those.

3) Another extended analogy (that, again, has many major differences) is a fissure in the LGBT community. I'm not sure how common this practice is anymore, but back when I was single, I can't tell you how many times I read gay dating ads where men portrayed themselves as "straight-acting" -- and how infuriating that was to me. This can be traced to the meme of "Gay people as feminine-acting/flamboyant" (again, A as B, where the implicit assumption is that B is bad). There are many gay people who can easily pass as straight, which, in itself is not a bad thing, but (especially preemptively) claiming a "straight-acting" identity is endorsing the privilege of socially constructed gender-compliant behavior. In my mind, this is very similar to the scenarios above.

4) I also wanted to point out another (potentially more subtle) way that white supremacy manifests. My partner recently told me about a Kaiser ad he had seen (a copy can be seen here: http://www2.gloriousgaydays.com/uploaded_images/KP-stick-around-things-get-interesting-799793.jpg). Here, though "minority status" people are represented, heteronormative whiteness functions as the pivot point (the older straight white couple in front) -- it is the standard that all other periphery existence is compared to and judged by.

That's all. Open to further discussion, of course.