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Are Asians people of color?

In an age where liberals have begun the process of reclaiming the words “Black” and “Brown,” there is no mass movement to don the color “Yellow.” The truth is that the Asian American community has, and will continue to experience an identity crisis. Our complexities are only further exacerbated by the lack of discussion about our own place in this country. We as people have the right to own our identities and recognize where Asians and Asian-Americans stand on race issues. Because right now, it feels like we don’t stand anywhere. And as Americans, that is disappointing. 

We as Asians and Asian-Americans are often irrevocably intertwined with the immigrant narrative. For many of us Duke students, we stepped on campus as first or second-generation immigrants from Asian nations. This means that we arrived in a nation only the fraction of the age of our motherlands. The US is only approximately 240 years old, still very much struggling to get a foothold of its own identity. While this nation has made some strides, color still matters.

The phrase “people of color,” or POC, has its literal meaning. Historically, Asian immigrants have been persecuted and discriminated because they were not white. History classes curiously skirt around the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the Asiatic Barred Zone within the Immigration Act of 1924 and persecutions of Chinese immigrants in the 19th century. This is on top of Japanese Internment in WWII and the death of Vincent Chin.

American history has shown that Asians have been seen as the “others,” “aliens,” and “non-Americans” because of the color of our skin. Asians have been frequently labeled as POC.

But let’s not be presumptuous. As a minority group in this nation, we Asians have been bestowed significant amount of advantages. Desegregation and enfranchisement of African-Americans and other POC in this nation had long been rolling when many of our family members first came to the US. During the Civil Rights movement, people were beaten and killed protesting for equality. I have never been forced to attend a different university from my white peers, never had to drink from a different water fountain, have never been prevented from voting for elected officials as an American citizen. Asians and Asian Americans ought to recognize how any abatement of racism in the US came because of those who came before us—most of whom were people of a different color. 

So what does this mean for the hundreds of us, milling around on campus, going about our daily lives on this bubble of a campus?

I think of Michael Brown. I think of Sandra Bland. I think of Tamir Rice. I think of a sense of justice that I wish would transcend above racial lines. But that’s not the reality of the situation. 

As an Asian, especially with my East-Asian background, I have been taught to be humble, speak only words that need to be spoken, not stick my head into trouble. I am not the only one raised this way. These are qualities I admire greatly among my peers, and something I truly believe many in this country can learn from our cultures. 

But it’s also wrong. Asians are not inherently quiet. There is nothing intrinsic about our inability to shout from the heavens, stand on a soapbox, and write about race in this nation. Asians are not un-opinionated, Asians care about things, and Asians deserve to be heard. The history of Asian nations in this world is not plagued by constant pacifism and reticence. 

Asians-Americans make up more than 20 percent of Duke’s undergraduate body, and are the fastest growing immigrant population in the US. If people are actually afraid of an influx of “aliens” in this country, maybe they should look west and not south. While this country is far from perfect, all of us have so many people to thank for making it a land of opportunity, of the free, and of the brave. And that list is absolutely saturated by other minorities who have helped paved the way for us as POC to find the means to succeed. 

I understand we have our differences. Being a “minority” doesn’t mean we all can all inhabit one happy home – our intricacies and complexities define us as individuals, even within our ethnic groups or our countries of origins.

We as a community can unify and mourn so deeply over the tragic death of graduate student Yingying Zhang and remain horrified about Dr. David Dao’s limp body being dragged off a United flight. But then we use our powers to go into a head-on legal battle over discrimination at Harvard, or riot over an “unjust” sentencing of Peter Liang. The latter two are examples where Asians consciously and directly pit ourselves against other minorities for our own communal gain, fighting directly against some of the people who helped establish our rights in court and elite universities to begin with.

Asians should take some time to recognize a level of privilege we are offered as Asians and Asian-Americans. There are others who are going through similar, if not worse than we are, to no real fault of their own. 

The history of discrimination in this country is fraught with the faces of brown, POC, non-white people in this nation. I hope we can learn to use our voices, however many there may be, when we hear politicians speaking ill of POC taking away jobs and limiting the immigration from unwanted nations. When we witness the murders of dark-skinned people, we should remember that we too once were the ones blamed for taking away white people’s jobs, prevented from immigrating, and being murdered on the streets solely for the color of our skin.

The truth is, that we are not white. As a national demographic, especially in combination of Duke culture, we may make more money, we may be more educated, and we may experience less hate crime, but we are not white. It’s time to recognize that we did not get here alone. It’s time for us to open our eyes and stand in solidarity with someone besides ourselves for once.

Amy Wang

Amy Wang is a Trinity senior. Her column runs on alternate Thursdays.


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