In 2014, Vijay Iyer delivered the keynote speech at a reunion of Yale Asian American alumni. Addressing a room of people who may as well have been Asian Americans from Duke, he contemplated on what it means to be “Asian American.” Iyer argued that “to succeed in America, is somehow, to be complicit with the idea of America—which means that at some level you’ve made peace with its rather ugly past.”
When I was in high school, I started taking pride in being and actively identifying as Asian American. It was a label that felt empowering to me, a term that could embody a history of resistance and activism.
In fact, the category “Asian American” was one born explicitly out of the struggle for racial justice, anti-imperialism and solidarity. In the late 1960s and early 1970s, Asian Americans, who had previously been called “Orientals” aligned themselves in pan-Asian, multiracial coalitions and radical movements like the Third World Liberation Front and Vietnam War protests.
But rarely does “Asian American” invoke such a commitment to solidarity and resistance today as it did in the 1960s. When I call myself an Asian American in 2020 have I made peace with America’s ugly past? Its horrible present?
Whenever I fly, even domestically, I take my U.S. passport with me as identification. Whenever I brandish my passport at the airport to prove to everyone that, yes, I speak English, indeed, I am American, I too wield the blade that is this nation.
The concept of "America", the thing that I try to hide under for safety, is only possible through the detention of migrants in concentration camps, behind the same walls that interned Japanese Americans during World War II, under the same roof as Native American boarding schools.
What is America but the turning away of Jewish refugees at the shores fleeing the impending Holocaust, but the tortured prisoners at Guanatamo Bay, but the centuries of ongoing terror inflicted on Black people? What is America but the accumulation of harm from enslavement, genocide, racism, imperialism, dispossession, capitalism, ableism, homophobia, sexism and on and on?
Perhaps this is a reluctance to see the “good” parts of America, but I’d like to ask what the good parts are. Is it freedom? Is it human rights? Is it democracy? Freedom, human rights and democracy for whom? These are not rights extended to every American, much less everyone else in the world.
How many times have we been assured that America is just spreading democracy, but somehow that democracy comes in the shape of bombs and drones? How many times have we been told that we are “free” in America, but that freedom is limited to the freedom to work multiple jobs just to survive?
The underbelly of our yearning for acceptance in America that mar(k)s the Asian American psyche is our complicity in the idea of America. When I say I am also American, I beseech the "world's greatest purveyor of violence" for acknowledgement and protection, and I invoke the power of the deadliest empire today held up by crushed bones and battered bodies. The question becomes, why should I—or we—want to seek refuge in Americanness?
Is the Asian American Dream to ingratiate ourselves to the status quo enough to one day take the reins of the war machine that killed nearly 20% of the North Korean population during the Korean War, that wiped Hiroshima and Nagasaki off the map to terrorize the rest of the world into submission, that rained napalm bombs over civilians in Vietnam?
When do we know that we've "made it" as Americans? When Harvard is full of Asian Americans, reclaiming their "rightful" spots from Black and Latinx students? When Asian cops like Peter Liang can kill Black people like Akai Gurley with impunity, just like white cops? When we are proximate enough to reap the benefits of white Americanness, benefits that have always come at the expense of Black, Indigenous and people of color?
Perhaps a salient question for Asian people in America—and especially for Asian Americans who go to schools like Yale or Duke—to ask, when does the immigrant-refugee become the settler-gentrifier?
As an Asian person, it’s hard to ignore the anti-Asian hate crimes committed during this pandemic. These recent attacks on Asian Americans have been designated as a “crisis” in anti-Asian violence, and have made many (East) Asians aware of our vulnerabilty in a white supremacist society.
Yet, we East Asian Americans would do well to remember that our Southeast and South Asian American siblings have long been under siege, but the violence they suffer at the hands of America (whether that is ICE deportations or post-9/11 Islamophobia) is not considered a “crisis” of anti-Asian violence. We Asian Americans would also do well to remember that Black people are disproportionately at higher risk to COVID-19 because of structural racism and deep anti-Blackness—something we are also complicit in. These inequalities and injustices haven’t gone away, even if East Asians are particularly visible right now.
This moment is also a perfect demonstration of how racism is always connected to imperialism. By labeling COVID-19 as the “Chinese virus,” insisting that China is to blame for the pandemic and demanding that they pay the price, American imperialism translates into racist hate crimes in America. Now is the moment to realize that we are and have always been expendable to America, no matter how much we repudiate our homelands, no matter how much we buy into classism and anti-Blackness, no matter how much we are complicit in America.
What should Asian “Americans” do at this moment? The answer is not to reassert our “Americanness” or how much we deserve to have a slice of a bloody pie. Have we not tried for centuries to prove that we are “American” enough and still faced violence, discrimination and racism?
Now is the time to bite the hand that feeds. It is the time to recognize that being “Asian American” means complicity in America—a complicity we must acknowledge that we are a part of by virtue of living in the imperial core but a complicity that we must actively fight against. Now is the time to discard neoliberal dead-ends of Asian American media representation or breaking the “bamboo ceiling.” We must stand in solidarity with marginalized Asian Americans, other BIPOC, our siblings abroad and oppressed people the world over.
Now is the time to rekindle the legacy of the first Asian Americans of the 1960s who declared that “Yellow Peril supports Black Power,” who were not afraid to be militant revolutionaries, who recognized our fates are connected to fates of all colonized people.
Until then, perhaps Asian “American” is useless.
Annie Yang is a Trinity senior. Her column, “planting seeds,” typically runs on alternate Mondays.
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