“The False Fealty of the Model Minority” is the final part of Lauren Yanase’s three-part series on identity, Full Half: Lessons for a Biracial Asian American.
The sugar high of watching the first Black, Indian (Asian) American woman sworn in as Vice President in January soured the next February when, in the face of rising anti-Asian violence and hate, the Biden-Harris Administration failed to nominate and install any Cabinet member of Asian or Pacific Islander descent.
In a cosmopolitan era of progressive politics, this discrepancy was sharpened in March by the highly publicized tragedy in Atlanta, Georgia, where a young white man murdered eight people, most of whom were Asian American women. Pastel infographics and yellow solidarity squares dominated my social media feed, notably, primarily by well-meaning, “woke” non-AAPI acquaintances and friends. High-profile politicians and celebrities railed against the incident, decried the sexual violence women of (particularly) East Asian descent face, and bemoaned the “unprecedented” rise in anti-Asian hate and rhetoric.
The dominating narrative (already fading from the public’s short-term memory) was of the victims as not only the targets of racial violence, but of sex trafficking as well (an uncorroborated and unsubstantiated rumor, itself founded on exploitative stereotypes from exoticism). “Stop AAPI Hate,” and “Protect Asian Women,” and other low caloric, substance-less hashtags are making their final rounds on Twitter. I predict they will wear themselves out by June.
And yet, aside from the nominal AAPI celebrity or politician, the narrative of anti-AAPI has been largely drafted and told by people not of AAPI descent, but by well-meaning–if frequently misinformed–persons who don’t claim an AAPI identity. Unfortunately, when AAPI people are not at the forefront of a movement supposedly for them, the diaspora of the Asian continent gets reduced to the stereotype of helpless, hapless East Asian women sex workers or somebody’s old auntie or uncle.
To understand why our representation is tied to our civic power, I turned to the history of Asian American civic engagement: why is the fastest-growing ethnic group so poorly understood by the non-AAPI public and its representatives? In doing so, I acknowledge my own background and subsequent focus on and as a Japanese (East Asian) American, and that my own understanding is incomplete without the broader experience.
The History of Asian American Power
The fractious nature of the Asian American community is not a recent development of the younger generation’s sometimes derisively dismissed “woke” culture. Despite the misconception of sameness that white Americans projected onto migrants from the expansive continent, those arriving did not attach their identity to the continental land, but rather their home country or kingdoms.
Notably, waves and crests of anti-Asian sentiment in the United States follow trends of economic insecurity of white Americans. As early as 1886, state legislations were drafting and passing bills designed to block Asian immigrants and their descendants from owning land.
In the twenties, Congress passed the Immigration Act of 1921, effectively barring non-white immigration to the U.S. for forty years. Many versions of both these policies would be reviewed and upheld into the 1940’s and the 1960’s.
At the end of the 19th century, Japanese immigrants and Chinese immigrants were often at odds, stemming both from disputes between their homelands, and the competitive and frequently hostile environment in which they found themselves in their new country.
Enacted legislation often reinforced these faultlines along nationality: the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 (and the subsequent Geary Act) embittered the Chinese communities against the flush of Japanese migrants, who, unlike the Chinese, enjoyed the privileges of the Gentlemen’s Agreement into the early 20th century.
Economic competition between the (at the time) two largest Asian migrant populations was amplified by racial discrimination in the late 19th/early 20th century. The bump in Asian immigration was referred to as the “Yellow Peril,” and the resulting hate and violence led to further division between the two communities.
Following the bombing of Pearl Harbor, Korean and Chinese Americans worked to distinguish themselves from their Japanese peers, often visibly with buttons and tags announcing their ancestry.
During the auto industry crisis in the 1980’s, Chinese American Vincent Chin was beaten to death, having been mistaken as being of Japanese descent. This was during a time of growth for Japanese auto industries in the U.S., and blame was pointed towards the Japanese American communities for “American” auto jobs.
This list is by no means a comprehensive list (and is limited primarily to East Asian American experiences), but demonstrates the intersectionality of violence against Asians in the United States, and the history of pitting one nationality against another to the benefit of neither.
Modern Political Capital
The long and tragic history of Asian migrant populations trying to differentiate themselves from their peers of other nationalities was often spurred on by the (predominately White) American public opinion and U.S. Government immigration legislation. Perhaps that is why, while Asians are projected to make up the United States’ largest immigrant group, and currently, almost two-thirds of Asians in America are immigrants (Pew Research), as a collective we hold minimal power in public office and the private sector.
Even as we elected the first Asian American woman to the Vice Presidency, the make-up of President Biden’s cabinet is, well, infuriatingly devoid of any senior officials of Asian descent. Even when President Biden was rewarding several of his former opponents from the Democratic Primary, from Kamala Harris with the Vice Presidency to Mayor Pete Buttigieg as the Transportation Secretary, one person notably overlooked was former Democratic candidate Andrew Yang.
The thing is, it didn’t go unnoticed. The Japanese American Citizens’ League (one of the oldest civil rights groups in the country) condemned this oversight (JACL), as did Congress-persons Mark Takano (D-CA) (PBS), and Judy Chu (D-CA) (Vox), along with many others in the Asian Pacific Islander Caucus. Beyond outrage and frustration, however, there is little they can do beyond calling for more representation.
Which brings me back to my question: Why? Why, in the year 2021, almost 150 years after the Chinese Exclusion Act, and just over 100 years after the Alien Land Law, are we struggling as Asian Americans to gain meaningful traction in the public sphere?
Some might argue that I am focusing too much on ‘identity politics,’ and to that I will say: I am focusing on identity. Because, despite being one of the highest educated, and economically successful ethnic groups in the country, we have one of the lowest civic engagement numbers by self-identified ethnicity.
Another anomaly of the Asian identity politick is the generalization of voting habits and political identity. While pollsters can usually predict with some degree of certainty as to other ethnic minorities’ voting patterns as a collective, the same confidence is not afforded to Asian voters. In fact, our voting habits tend to follow the same trends as non BIPOC voters (i.e. white); depending more on education and age than racial factors. This can perhaps be attributed to the enormous diversity within the Asian American diaspora: no single nationality holds a majority in our ethnic group, and some twenty-five nationalities make up our growing American body. Subsequently, there are few universal hallmarks of the Asian American experience aside, perhaps, from a worrisome wave of hate crimes and discrimination.
Without a cohesive and robust activist body that other ethnic identities have leveraged for their interests, Asian Americans fall back on ancestral, national identities over our larger demographic.
Not surprisingly, this has severe consequences for the Asian American as a collective and individually. A school district in Washington State scrubbed Asian Americans off their list of recognized persons of color, thus depriving them of civil rights protections (The Ticker). Washington also has consistently voted down Affirmative Action policies that would protect Asian American students in pursuing quality higher education (NBC News). In New York City, hate crimes against Asian Americans have risen by a staggering 1900% (yes, you read that right) since the start of the COVID-19 pandemic (Stop AAPI Hate). An 84 year old San Francisco man died from injuries sustained by a racially motivated attack by a teenage boy.
And yet, these tragedies and transgressions are most often marked by the mainstream media as isolated, unconnected events, failing to recognize them as an endemic of racism and erasure towards our community.
Unlike other BIPOC, Asian Americans are asked to set aside their racial identities in exchange for having individual influence instead of the collective. Few of us would ever say “As an AAPI, I am casting my vote for the candidate that best represents AAPI interests”. Instead, we say, “As a business owner/parent/queer person/religious person/–even as another racial minority, if applicable–, I am casting my vote for the candidate that best represents those interests.”
In the same stroke when President Biden signs an executive order condemning racism against Asian American Pacific Islanders (AAPI), his is the first cabinet with no Asian American appointed to lead an executive department. The most politically partisan Congress in modern history passed the COVID-19 Hate Crimes Act with a sweeping 364-62 and 94-1 majority in the same session where President Biden quashed a rebellion by the only two Asian American U.S. Senators, Tammy Duckworth (D-Il) and Mazie Hirono (D-HI) for the lack of representation in his cabinet. The two senators backed down on their pledge to block future nominees after the President promised the presence of a “Senior Liaison” to the AAPI community.
We are asked to pledge our support, our dollars, our votes, to candidates and parties, and in exchange, are told to be content with what we receive. In exchange we get an occasional pat on the head and the empty hashtag. The message is clear: we are not welcomed at the table we helped set. All the while, the Asian diaspora of 23 million people in the United States faces extraordinary struggles, sectioned off by our respective national heritage.
As I move out of the bubble of my youth and into my identity as an adult, I’ve had to reckon with the painful history and current trauma of my Asian heritage while seeing the anemic political force my community holds at a crucial crossroads in the fight for our liberation. Our self-partitioning and delineating into cultural (country-of-origin) identifying was a self-inflicted emasculation; the oppression and violence against our American bodies was not.
Moving through the 21st-century landscape where social justice and internet activism is in vogue, the work we must do is tangible: making inroads to other cultural communities–not diminishing the dignity or experience of either, but uniting around the values of both.
Lauren Yanase is a first-year student with a passion for strong coffee and environmental education. When not playing in the woods, Lauren enjoys studying the interplay between history and storytelling through a multi-medium platform. Her award-winning documentary, Shikata Ga Nai: An Inconvenient American has been shown at cultural and historical events, awareness seminars, and in classrooms across the West Coast.
Section Editor of Beyond Bennington