In this country, so many more things go to the person who doesn't acknowledge that there's a problem. We have taken to calling this "privilege." The ability to drive without fear of being pulled over for your skin color. The ability for the police killings of black men not to affect you. The ability to see a cop car without preparing for how to avoid being killed, for what might happen to your family if there is no accountability or justice.
Asian Americans have been taught to keep our heads down. That this is the way to succeed. We are taught this by white supremacy. Though many think of "submissiveness" as cultural, Asians have long histories of protest and demonstration. The nonviolent independence movement in India has been a model for similar independence movements worldwide. Protests in South Korea, where I was born, are frequent and frequently include tens of thousands of people. Author Frank Chin once called Asian Americans the "one success of white supremacy," as we have taken on the values of our oppression as values for success.
Asian Americans, the popular conception goes, do not protest. Or: do not "riot." Just as white college kids who burn cars do not "riot"; they "celebrate." In an April interview with NPR , writer Jay Caspian Kang (now a correspondent at VICE News) explained, "It's rare to see Asian Americans protest anything… We don't quite have a language of protest. There's no real written history of Asian American protest in the United States." Sometimes Asian Americans use this stereotype like a privilege. Despite a history of labor strikes (like the 1965 Delano Grape Strike) and protests (like the ones surrounding the Vincent Chin case in the 1980s), too often we ignore the situation at hand.
There is a clear advantage to ignoring a problem—someone else deals with it. Meanwhile you have more time and emotional energy to use toward your individual goals.
I used to organize a seminar series on inequality at the Harvard Kennedy School, and one of the talks that most stuck with me was by a scholar researching " priming," how just writing about a situation where you feel powerful then has quantifiable benefits on the job market.
Imagine you are faced with marginalization and oppression every day. This "primes" you for disempowerment. When someone calls you a chink on the bus, you are primed to fail your job interview. So what do you do? Do you say nothing and try to forget as quickly as possible, not let it affect you? Do you frame your marginalization as empowerment—if I put my head down I will show that I am not a threat but an asset?
How is it possible to convince people to confront social inequalities, to actively acknowledge and address them? The one place where I have found progress can be made is in the classroom. Not any classroom, though: a classroom with a significant participation grade.
There is an advantage to keeping our heads down. There is an advantage to working hard, ignoring other people's problems, fighting only for our own rights. But it's the same advantage that makes Asian Americans white supremacy's one success.
A participation grade incentivizes engaging over quietly studying for tests. My students have to address larger issues in order to get their grades. Naturally these issues become more urgent to them as they talk about them. They allow themselves to be passionate. Their engagement with one another makes them more passionate. If their grades had not depended on it, they might have gotten through class by doing their own work and keeping out of one another's business. I teach Asian American Studies at the University of Houston, where many students commute, where most students work and are goal-oriented, and where it is very diverse.
My students of color often come in engaged with issues in their communities, but it is harder to convince them that their issues connect to issues in other communities. Their knowledge of how race and difference affect them directly far exceeds their knowledge of why these problems exist. The question of why racism exists links Asian Americans to other minority groups, because it leads to white supremacy. The question of how Asian Americans are different sometimes ends up with students blaming their parents for the model minority stereotype, something that comes with a much more complex and systemic history.
"Model minority" is a term that came into use during the civil rights movement, first put forth by sociologist William Peterson to frame a comparison of "ethnic minorities," to divide and conquer. Asian Americans, it was said, kept their mouths shut, worked hard, and eventually succeeded, so why couldn't African Americans do so? Why did they have to keep fighting and bringing the focus back to race?
If Frank Chin has gotten one thing right, it's that Asian Americans themselves have internalized these claims. They are loath to get into the issue of race unless it affects their own community. Then they might turn out for their community alone, and directly or indirectly side against other communities of color—note the Peter Liang protests, where Asian Americans rallied for an Asian American police officer who killed an innocent, unarmed black man instead of seeing that the privileges police officers get are part of the same system of power that views black people as dangerous threats without privileges and creates the overarching racial hierarchy.
There is an advantage to keeping our heads down. There is an advantage to working hard, ignoring other people's problems, fighting only for our own rights. But it's the same advantage that makes Asian Americans white supremacy's one success. It's the advantage conceded in the dividing that enables conquering. It's advantage without equality. It's an A that's really an F. Asian Americans need to get more involved in the fight against disempowerment. Our disempowerment is not free or protected from the disempowerment of black lives—the link is white supremacy and our empowerment won't come by meeting white supremacy's demands. We must stand with the larger civil rights community that has fought for many of the rights we enjoy in the first place. Participation is mandatory.
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