This piece was written by a student in the Madison365 Academy. To learn more and support our educational programs visit madison365.org/academy.
The aftermath of the election brought on many discussions about race, immigration, the effect of Trump’s harmful rhetoric on people of color and other marginalized groups, and ultimately, disunity. Trump has targeted Mexican immigrants and said that they bring their rapists and should be kept out by building a wall. Trump wants to ban Muslim immigrants from coming to the U.S. due to the rise in terrorist attacks, even though 94% of terrorist attacks in the U.S. are carried out by non-Muslim people. He openly opposed marriage equality for the LGBTQ community and recently signed an executive order defunding Planned Parenthood. Trump said that the supporters of the Black Lives Matter movement were “looking for trouble” and countered the movement with “All Lives Matter.”
During and after this campaign, there was one large demographic that was excluded from this conversation about race from Trump, Clinton, and the media: Asian Americans. Where did Asian Americans fit in this racial binary? Did they or is there a deeper explanation for why they were not included in this conversation about race? Could it be a lack of political participation as a whole on the part of Asian Americans?
A lot of the hesitation that Asian Americans face when talking about race with their peers of color is “Asian guilt.” Asian guilt is the idea that since Asian Americans have higher rates of educational attainment and tend to be more well-off than other minority racial or ethnic groups, Asian Americans feel like they cannot speak on their stories of racism or have a voice because we are, in some ways, privileged through “positive stereotypes” and socioeconomically. But Asian Americans were conspicuous in their absence from the political dialog and the campaign rhetoric of both major party candidates.
There is a huge issue on this perception that all Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) households exceed other minorities and the white population in terms of income and education completion. This stems from what Professor of History and Asian American Studies at the University of Wisconsin – Madison, Cindy I-Fen Cheng, describes in an interview with Madison365 as “East Asian privilege.” The AAPI community ethnically includes a large number of diverse Asian ethnicities, including Chinese, Korean, and Japanese or East Asian, and Vietnamese, Laotian, Cambodian, Indian, and Hmong or Southeast Asian. Within that umbrella, Southeast Asians have much lower rates of completion of high school, particularly native-born Hmong, Laotians, and Cambodians. In fact, these three groups have lower rates of high school completion than African Americans and Hispanics according to a report done on registered Asian American voters in this past election. Because many often do not consider Southeast Asians exhibiting higher rates of poverty, this “East Asian privilege” often overshadows the poverty in the AAPI community.
Another important and commonly forgotten notion is that Asian Americans experienced their own history of exclusion when they first came to the U.S. “Electoral politics should not be the only measure of political participation or social avenue for change. In the 60s and 70s, Asians were on the forefront practicing civil disobedience and protesting,” Cheng said. In the 1880’s, the Chinese Exclusion Act was signed and effectively restricted Chinese immigrant laborers from coming to the U.S. and was only repealed 70 years ago in 1943. During WWII the U.S. turned their backs on Japanese Americans and imprisoned them in the infamous Japanese internment camps.
The “positive stereotypes” about Asians, like being smart and good at math, feeds into this Asian guilt, which is often where people believe that Asian Americans don’t face racism or face mild forms of racism compared to other racial groups such as black people or Latinx people. This brings the problem of the “Oppression Olympics” and a central reason for why Asians feel like they should not speak. We live in a time where police brutality and stigmatizing Mexican immigrants are important and sensitive topics. Asians often feel like telling their stories about racism and having a voice will take away from the dialogue about race; however, it is a larger problem when Asian Americans do not speak at all. As it is we are not represented in media, just like many people of color. Aziz Ansari’s “Master of None” scene where he auditions for the taxi driver part and is asked to do an Indian accent embodies the problem that Asians are caricatured in exaggerated stereotypes in the media. Asians still confront the question “Where are you really from?” or perceived as the “perpetual foreigner.” Cheng describes this as Asians feeling like they will never really belong in America or that they will always be alienated and considered a foreigner, regardless of how many generations have been in the U.S. and if you speak good English.
Cheng explains that each minority group faces different types of racism, Asians confronting the “perpetual foreigner” stereotype. She believes that it is not necessarily a priority for Asians to be mentioned in the political sphere or in this black and white dialogue of race, but it is essential for AAPI’s to be in solidarity with Muslims, Mexican immigrants, the Black Lives Matter Movement, and the LGBTQ community because any of the issues that these groups face could happen to Asian Americans and have happened to AAPI’s in the past.
While I agree with the importance of being in solidarity with other racial groups and supporting my peers of color, I encourage my Asian brothers, sisters, and peers not to be afraid to have a voice. It is important for AAPI’s to confront the issues in our community, especially anti-blackness and poverty, and to support other minority communities but do not feel like your experiences are invalid because we don’t face the same racism other groups do. Asian Americans still face racism, and still feel like they don’t belong in America, just like other people of color. It is important for us to support others and to find power in our own voice.