Tuesday, June 26, 2012

The legacy of Vincent Chin and what it means to be Asian American

This past Saturday, June 23, 2012, marked the 30th anniversary of Vincent Chin's death.  For those of you who aren't familiar with who Vincent Chin is, let me direct you to this article, which also has a link to a fantastic Op-Ed piece in the New York Times by Frank Wu.

30 years is both a blink of an eye (in terms of the age of the earth/how long humans have been in existence) and a long stretch of time (1982 means an era before the internet, before cell phones, before the phrase "google" or "blog" and when "twitter" was something that birds did).  30 years ago Asian Americans weren't Asian Americans so much as they were Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Pakistani, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Filipino...you get my drift.  They were also Oriental in many places, including how they self-identified.  Asian American studies was something happening on the West coast, specifically SF and LA, but not so much in the East or the Midwest (and forget about the South). 

And then Vincent Chin's murder galvanized Asian-ethnic groups across the nation, across ethnic and class and religious divides.  There was a realization about what it meant to have an Asian face in this country and what it meant to be racialized as Asian American, namely that violence and oppression happened because of one's race rather than one's ethnicity--Chin was targeted not because he was Chinese American but because the two Detroit autoworkers in the bar who attacked him were angry at Japan's auto industry and took out their frustration in a racist way--meaning, they scapegoated Chin as someone they thought "looked" like or could stand in for the Japanese.

There were many 30th anniversary events happening on June 23.  Unfortunately I couldn't make any of them because I was high on vicodin and swelled up like a chipmunk due to oral surgery the day before.  However, if anyone is interested in the video footage from APA for Progress, I will embed it at the bottom of this post.

[Aside: The reason I didn't write this post on June 23 was also because I was high on vicodin and rocking the chipmunk look/not feeling well--I find it's best not to write things in a public forum when you're under the influence...although perhaps it would have been amusing to read my rambling thoughts about race while drugged up]

I've been thinking a lot about how far we've come as a community and how far we have to go in light of the 30th anniversary of Chin's death, since this is the moment that many scholars and activist note is a turning point in pan-ethnic Asian American coalition building.  And I should add that it wasn't just Asian Americans who were outraged--black allies especially came out and decried this injustice.  And there were allies of all racial makeups who marched and protested and rallied alongside Asian Americans of all ethnic persuasions.

If we are to believe the recent Pew report that came out, "The Rise of Asian Americans," then we would think that we have, indeed, not only come a long way from 1982 but overcome hurdles that continue to plague other people of color and have achieved even beyond the standard of white Americans.  We are the most educated, happiest, and well adjusted of racial groups in this nation.  We have high median household incomes.  We also tend to vote democrat, and most of us don't actually identify with the label "Asian American," preferring our ethnic ancestries over a politically racial label.

What you may be hearing are echoes of the Model Minority Myth (MMM)--that tricky stereotype that says Asian Americans are high achieving and are outpacing all other minority groups in the US.  There are 3 dark underbellies to the MMM:

(1) It obscures the actual history of racialization and oppression that Asians in the US have been subject to, making it seem as if there is some kind of essentialized trait that makes them succeed instead of looking at the institutional and historic factors that have caused their subjugation--in other words, it's all happy news instead of looking at the more nuanced and complex history of Asians in the United States.

(2) Not all Asian Americans groups are succeeding.  To be fair, the Pew Report does mention Southeast Asian groups as among the lowest achieving in terms of education and household income--this SF Gate article was actually much more circumspect about the report and/or more nuanced in terms of understanding the diversity of Asian-ethnicities that comprise Asian Americans.  The MMM flattens ethnic differences and makes it seem as if ALL Asian Americans are succeeding at equal rates--it obscures the different histories and circumstances of immigration (see #1).

(3) It pits Asian Americans against other racial minorities.  The MMM basically says to Latino, American Indians, and African Americans, "Hey, why can't YOU be like these hard working/over-achieving/GOOD Asians."  It sets up a hierarchy of racial groups that continues to villify certain races by pointing to the success and achievement of others, again without thinking about the different sets of historic circumstances and racializations that have happened as a result of the greater social and cultural values that privilege whiteness.

Many Asian American scholars and activists have come out with statements against the Pew Report, such as the Asian American and Pacific Islander Policy and Research Consortium (click here for their letter) and the Asian American Center for Advancing Justice (click here for their response).  I won't repeat what they've written, but I do want to add one final thought (to which I'll elaborate later in a future blog post) and that is that increasingly I think we need a new definition for what it means to be Asian American--for what it means to self-consciously decide that you identify as an ASIAN AMERICAN.

Because for me, to be Asian American means understanding that this is a political category--that all racial categories are political categories, ones that were created to uphold certain ideologies (in the U.S. this has meant the belief in whiteness as supreme--aka "white supremacy," which shouldn't be confused with the guys in white sheets, although they are a manifestation of this ideology).  Being Asian American means that I understand the history of racial oppression that Asians in the U.S. have been subject to.  It means I understand the intersectional identities of Asian Americans--that they are also oppressed and privileged depending on their sexual, gendered, religious, able-bodied, regional, educational, and class status.  And finally, it means that to be Asian American I believe that all people are equal--that I support issues that, for lack of a better word, are social justice issues.  I support marriage equality.  I support overturning racist laws that primarily target Latino people in Arizona.  I support access to physical spaces for people of various abilities.

Being Asian American, to me, means that I want to end oppression and be an ally--wouldn't it be wonderful if more people wanted to be Asian American?

 [30th Anniversary event of APA for Progress]

Sunday, June 17, 2012

Living up to others' expectations

Today Rodney King passed away.  He was found dead in his swimming pool in southern California.  He was 47 years old.  For those of you who may not know, Rodney King was the catalyst (I think that's probably an accurate way of putting it) for one of the most massive and cataclysmic race riots/insurrections in recent memory.  In fact this past April marked the 20th anniversary of the LA Riots/Insurrection (click here for more information about this event--also Mike Davis has an excellent essay about why the April 1992 event should be referred to as an uprising or insurrection vs. riot--I can't find it on-line but here's a piece by him in the LA Review of Books that's worth looking at).

In the New York Times article about his passing, King is quoted as saying:
“People look at me like I should have been like Malcolm X or Martin Luther King or Rosa Parks,” he told The Los Angeles Times in April. “I should have seen life like that and stay out of trouble, and don’t do this and don’t do that. But it’s hard to live up to some people’s expectations.”
It's hard to live up to the expectations that others have of us.  Especially, in King's case, when he found himself catapulted into a national and international spotlight.  Especially when we want people to be role models and to take on the causes for important social justice movements or to become the spokesperson who will speak truth to justice and do the right thing.

But Rodney King was human.  Which meant he made mistakes.  He was flawed.  He didn't live his life perfectly (how many of us do?).  And yet from this quote, it seems as if others, perhaps including King himself, thought he should have been something more than he was.  And trying to live up to the expectations of others is probably one of the hardest things that any of us could ever encounter.  And if you're Rodney King, imagine how much harder those expectations would rest on your shoulder.

Rodney King's name will forever be linked to the LA Riots/Uprisings.  And his name will forever be associated with the worst of police brutality.  But I also hope he will be remembered as someone who also inspired people to want a different vision of racial justice and who also, in the heat of violence, pleaded with people by somewhat helplessly asking, "Can't we all just get along?"

Can't we all just get along.

It seems like such a simple request.  But just like expectations, it can be hard to live up to.