Oppression and Resistance : What it means to be Asian and Asian American

A couple of sociologist friends (Dr. Min Li and Dr. Yiqing Yang) and I wrote a short piece for AAPI Heritage month in the Asheville Citizen Times. We had a longer piece. Thought it might be a good place to share it here!

This May, as we commemorate another Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) Heritage Month, we need to acknowledge that this year feels different. The prolonged COVID-19 pandemic has led to the escalating scapegoating of Asian Americans, surfacing long-simmering racial tensions. Anti-Asian hate incidents nearly doubled in March. When a white man in Atlanta killed six Asian women to “eliminate his temptation,” it was not just an individual act of hate, but a manifestation of a long history of institutionalized anti-Asian racism in the United States.

One of the earliest legislations that planted the seed of anti-Asian mentality is the Page act of 1875, a federal immigration law that prohibited the entry of Chinese women. Terms such as “immoral” and “undesirable” were thrown around in this legislation. Seven years later, the federal government put in place the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, attempting to stop all Chinese immigration and prevent Chinese from becoming citizens. It was the first time that a group of people was explicitly named to be excluded. This legislation, which first used the concept of “illegal alien”, remained in the books for 61 years. The Immigration Act in 1917 extended the exclusion of Chinese to all Asians.

Then came the wars. During World War II, when the United States was at war with Japan, Japanese Americans were forcibly relocated and incarcerated into concentration camps by an executive order from President Roosevelt in 1942. Of those internees, 62% were US citizens. The same happened during the Vietnam war. Not only were Vietnamese people dying in Vietnam, but Asian Americans also experienced heightened anti-Asian racism. Similarly, hate crimes against Muslims increased in the United States during the Iraq War period. This time, Brown people, including South Asians, experienced hate crimes because the “enemy” was now anyone who was perceived to be Muslim. As recent as 2017, President Trump signed an executive order banning the entry of people from seven Muslim majority countries. During his presidency, Trump launched the trade war with China and called the coronavirus the “Chinese virus,” fueling an environment of hatred against Asian Americans. Sounds familiar? Every time the United States is at war with a country, an image of an enemy is created. And that face is usually that of an Asian.

Too often, the ruling class have used racist ideology to pitch working people against one another to prevent any rebellion against their exploitation. The othering of Asian people is implicated in the white supremacist war machine, the immigration system, and American capitalism. We must recognize that Asian Americans belong here in the United States, have fought for their own rights, and stood in solidarity with the oppressed. Many Asian activists were deeply influenced by the radical politics of Black liberation. White supremacy wins when we believe the stereotypes about Asians as submissive, apolitical, and separate from other minority groups. History tells us nothing could be far from the truth.

Chinese workers, instrumental in building railroads in the American west, were paid much less than White American workers, a tactic meant to create racial hostility. Yet Chinese workers went on strike in 1867 to demand equal wages. Wong Kim Ark, born in San Francisco to Chinese immigrants who were barred under the Chinese Exclusion Act from ever becoming US citizens, won the citizenship case in US vs Wong Kim Ark 1898, when the Supreme Court ruled that citizenship belonged to everyone born on US soil. His resistance and victory helped pave the way for America to be a more diverse country.

In 1968, anti-Vietnam War Asian activists, deeply influenced by the radical politics of Black liberation, organized as the Asian American Political Alliance under the umbrella term “Asian American” to unite Asian subgroups and bring attention not only to American lives but also to the loss of Asian lives in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos. Likewise, when Vincent Chin was murdered in 1982 by white workers upset at their job losses, Asian Americans rose in protest throughout the country. As the pandemic disrupts life in the United States, Asian Americans, amid rising instances of bigotry against Asian communities, raise monetary and personal protective equipment (PPE) donations for essential institutions. Today, Asian Americans are the fastest-growing group in the American electorate. They surge into public life to voice their needs, turning out to vote and running for office in record numbers. This too is what it means to be Asian.

The Asian community’s oppression and resistance is engraved in American history along with many other struggles. Every time African Americans, Latinx people, Asian Americans, and Native Americans fight for their life and dignity, we make the world a better place. That is why our liberation lies in solidarity.

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