I want to tell you that our racial identity means something even on this liberal arts campus that has tokenized students of color, collapsed multiculturalism into an empty catchphrase and reduced diversity to glossy half-pages in admissions brochures. At this college with no Asian American Studies courses and few Asian American faculty members or staff, our history has been largely obscured. We are taught that assimilation is desirable, upward mobility into corporate America is enviable and success entails leaving our communities behind. Somewhere along all these years of “education” premised on numerical markers of achievement and whitewashed narratives of the past, we have attained precarious acceptance in the status quo, but in that long hard process, lost ourselves.
We are encouraged to be proud of our model minority status and forget that 12.6 percent of Asian Pacific Islanders still live in poverty (including 37 percent of Hmong Americans and 29.3 percent of Cambodian Americans), that Asians continue to be targeted for violent hate crimes and that working-class Asian immigrant families in urban enclaves are constantly denied the labor rights and fair wages they deserve. We are told to value material accomplishments over carving that niche where we can most effectively work for the well-being of people and discover a sense of purpose and fulfillment.
When it was originally coined in the 1960s, the term “Asian American” automatically denoted solidarity with other people of color in anti-racist and anti-imperialist struggles. The radical Asian American Movement was inspired by calls for Black Power and blatantly rejected exoticism and orientalism. Asian American community and youth activists had fought against residential discrimination, labor exploitation, and the gentrification of historic Asian neighborhoods in the inner city. Asian American students constituted an important part of the Third World Liberation Front that created the first ethnic studies department at San Francisco State Univ. and countless campaigns for racial and economic justice across the country. This is the rich legacy we inherit and build upon.
From health disparities to the criminalization of undocumented immigrants, the problems Asian American communities confront today are no less urgent or significant than those that we faced four decades ago. As people of color who have benefited so much from the civil rights movement and African American activism, we are also necessarily implicated in the broader struggle for racial equity and dignity. We need to dismantle the prison-industrial complex and end the mass incarceration of black and brown men. We need to expand both access to education for low-income students and students of color, and their investment in learning. We need to look deep within our own communities to root out the vestiges of homophobia and patriarchy. There is too much work to be done and that is why I implore you to remember who we are.
I am not arguing for us to fall into the trap of identity politics because in essence, our struggles are grounded in the uneven distribution of economic resources over the world and the ravages of corporate globalization. Nor do I propose that we simply insert ourselves into working-class communities to which we have never really belonged because, certainly, we should be cognizant of our class and educational privileges and support grassroots campaigns alongside local leaders. Instead, my hope is that we understand the critical ways in which race figures into that equation and the socio-political implications of being Asian American in a colorblind society.
I leave you with a quote from Japanese American lesbian activist Michiyo Cornell from her 1979 speech at the Washington Monument: “To our Third World sisters and brothers, gay and straight, I would like to say we all share the same oppression as Third World people, and for that reason we must stand together or be hanged separately by what Audre Lorde calls the noose of conformity.” It is up to us where we go from here.