I hadn’t heard of them before because racism isolates us, weakens us and erases our history. One solution is to find more and discover the strength of our stories and our numbers. In high school, my Asian friends and I jokingly called each other “the Asian invasion” because that was all the language we had. In college, I joined the Asian American Political Alliance. There, I learned that the term “Asian American” had been coined in California by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee when they formed the Asian American Political Alliance in 1968 at UC Berkeley.
“Asian American” was a creation – and those who say there are no “Asians” in Asia are right. But neither is there an “Orient” or “Orientals” – those fantastic products of the Western imagination, as Edward Said argued. Against this racist and sexist fiction of the Oriental, we have built the anti-racist and anti-sexist fiction of the Asian American. We wanted each other, but like any other act of American self-evocation, we became marked by a contradiction between American aspiration and American reality.
On the one hand, Asian Americans have long insisted that we are patriotic and productive Americans. This self-defense is often based on the myth of the “model minority” and the idea that Asian Americans have succeeded in fields such as medicine and technology because we immigrated with degrees and we are raising our children to work hard. But Asian Americans also remind us of the wars that killed millions of people and generated many refugees. And Asian Americans have come to satisfy America’s need for cheap, exploitable labor – from railroad work to pedicures. We were and are seen as competitors in a capitalist economy fractured by racial, gender and class divisions, and the ever-growing inequality gap that affects all Americans.
These roles that we play and the contradictions they represent are not going anywhere. As long as the United States remains committed to aggressive capitalism at the national level and aggressive militarism at the international level, Asians and Asian Americans will continue to be scapegoats who embody threat and aspiration, a “peril. yellow ”inhuman and a model superhuman minority.
No claim to American membership will end the vulnerability of Asian Americans to racism and cyclical convulsions of violence. And what does it even mean to claim membership in the United States? If we belong to this country, then this country belongs to us, in all its parts, including its systemic racism against blacks and its colonization of indigenous peoples and lands. Like wave after wave of newcomers to this country before, Asian immigrants and refugees have learned that the absorption and repetition of anti-black racism contributes to the process of assimilation. And like European settlers, Asian immigrants and refugees yearn for the American Dream, whose tale of self-sufficiency, success and accumulation of property rests on the theft of land from Indigenous peoples.