Recently, I had an interesting conversation with my friend Jay Jayakrishna. I was curious about how Hindu Americans of South Asian descent felt about mainly being politically relevant as “Muslims.” Since “Muslim” is popularly used as a racial/ethnic marker, our attitudes towards Muslims have a direct impact on South Asian Americans no matter what their religion is. As seen in the Oak Creek Sikh temple murders, one only has to be Muslim-looking in order to be treated as one.
But Hindu (and Christian, Buddhist, Jain, etc.) South Asian Americans are not actually Muslims. I wondered if they felt any conflicts in the fact they had to assume an imposed identity in order to matter. Because when’s the last time you saw any attention given to the Hindu, Christian, Buddhist, or Jain South Asian community? In the 2016 election, the only time I heard about Hindu Americans was when Trump said he was a “big fan of Hindu.” Without the Muslim label, they’d just be… Asian. Just like East and Southeast Asians (aka Yellow Asian Americans aka chinks/gooks). In other words, politically irrelevant.
Presidential candidate Andrew Yang bluntly acknowledged existence of politically irrelevant racial identities and the consequent dangers of belonging to one. At a recent event, he directly addressed some warnings. First, he said that historically speaking, dominant demographics rarely cede power peacefully. Second, he pointed to China as America’s greatest rival for the next couple of decades, thus making Chinese (and Chinese-looking) people a likely target of violence and hatred. Chillingly, he said that we are just “one generation away” from Yellow Asian Americans being gunned down.
The designated role of the Asian American is to provide moral relief to the guilty American conscience. Our contractual obligation is to provide a counterbalance to all the acknowledged national crimes against other minority groups. So the American national conscience is able to look in the face of Native American genocide, black slavery, etc. and find some relief in the supposed fact that at least with the Asians, they did all right. Thus, on the seventh day, America rested.
This social contract between Asian Americans and the rest of the country means that wrongdoings, even violence, against Asian Americans is difficult to acknowledge. But you don’t have to look far into the past to recognize just how precarious the position of Yellow Asian Americans are. Never mind the historical stuff like the murders of Chinese “coolie” laborers, the Watsonville Riots, and the century of wars in Asia where the image of non-Asians killing Asians was relentlessly celebrated as American patriotism. Just look at what happened in Brooklyn a couple of months ago, when a white man murdered 3 Asian men in order to protect Asian women (a common type of rationale used to justify war and domination of non-white peoples). Despite having a higher death toll than the now-infamous Vincent Chin murder, this was a non-event for most people, even Asian Americans in the media. In another instance, the murder of Chinese international student Yingying Zhang was deracialized, even though there’s a clear pattern of Asian women being racially targeted due to stereotypes of weakness and submissiveness.
The ugly truth is that “Asian American” is an identity with little political value in American society, at least in how it’s been constructed so far. Even though Trump frequently demonized China during his presidential campaign, there was no sympathy shown to China, Chinese people, or Chinese-looking people as part of the coalition of the unfairly denigrated. At least partially, it’s because liberals and leftists also share an uneasiness with Chinese-looking people and what we represent. Corporate Democrats like Chuck Schumer talk openly about getting “tough on China” while white labor movements have an ugly history themselves when it comes to Asians (e.g. Samuel Gompers, murder of Vincent Chin). And clearly, the white-nationalist right has no genuine space for Asians, except for waifu avatars and mail-order brides. Any confused and isolated Asian American who drifts to the white-nationalist right needs a serious intervention.
For Yellow Asian Americans, the “burden” of China is how inescapable it is. America has never bothered to distinguish much between Yellow Asian ethnicities or between American-born vs. foreign-born Asians. When I was growing up in Vancouver, I knew I could escape some of the most negative anti-Asian stereotypes by saying that I was Korean, not Chinese. That put me a few mini-rungs higher on the ladder because Chineseness was Asianness at its most undiluted and undesirable form. But no matter what we do, Yellow Asian Americans are in some way bound to the fate of China, the same way South Asian Americans are bound to the fate of Islam. Nobody said American racism was sophisticated or fair.
Yang’s call to action is that Yellow Asian Americans need to become more politically active to have some power in the face of inevitable danger. But before that can happen, there has to be some realization of a common Yellow Asian American understanding, community, and political outlook. Since most of our demographic is foreign-born, it’s not surprising that a collective American political consciousness has not formed yet. At Plan A, we’ve tried to articulate a leftist outlook with a uniquely Asian American perspective, as evident in our articles and podcasts (link to ep. 67 below). American conservatism looks lost to white nationalism for the foreseeable future and mainstream Democratic liberalism is rife with imperialist interventionism. Those are two no-go zones.
But the political space is vast. One of the few good things to come out of the 2016 election was to show just how expansive this space was and how many blind spots that the dominant ideologies, as espoused by the mainstream factions of the two major parties, had. Yellow Asian Americans would hardly be the only ones doing some political soul-searching in these times. Everything’s been scrambled and that’s a good thing.
Finding a more cohesive political identity and increasing political participation won’t necessarily lead to political relevance. But it will at least result in a better sense of self. Right now, too many Yellow Asian Americans are naively disengaged (foolishly adhering to some “ignorance is bliss” mindset and clinging to a very parochial outlook) or cynically engaged (merely acting as sidekicks to more established groups and attacking other Asians to extricate themselves out of irrelevance). These are examples of hyper-individualized survivor mentalities at their worst. The irony is that while Asians are stereotyped as a mindless collective horde, Asian Americans are one of the most siloed and individualistic beings in the country.
Despite generating lots of internet buzz lately, Andrew Yang is still mostly regarded as a single-issue candidate whose primary goal is to popularize the concept of UBI in the American political consciousness. But for Yellow Asian Americans, he may introduce another big idea: that we can’t afford to be politically irrelevant anymore. More important than merely the optics of a Yellow Asian face in office is the formation of a genuine political identity. This will require deeper dives into history, philosophy, literature, etc. Yellow Asian Americans are stereotyped as smart but not intellectual, and that must change if this consciousness is to be achieved. There has to be a willingness to forego the metrics of value that society has allowed us to have — namely education and income — and create our own markers of self-worth. Lastly, there has to be the will to cause some discontent by refusing to just be a sidekick, but rather a protagonist of our own political narrative.
- Jay has been on Escape From Plan A podcast episodes 54 and 61 (Twitter: @lithiummano)