Jeannie Yoon

Some Thoughts on Asian-American Political Consciousness in the Time of Trump


ISSUE 70 | SAFE | DEC 2016

This is a start: the idea of Asian American political resistance. The question of its preconditions, perhaps even its existence. Dithering over this beginning because I am unsure of whether I believe that it does exist beyond incipience, this consciousness—which is also to say that I am coming into it, and that I reckon I may only see to the extent of my own engagement with it.

*

Calls to solidarity and to action towards racial justice, directed judiciously towards ends such as reparations, the recrimination of widespread racialized police brutality and the prison-industrial complex, and immigration reform, address less and less the Asian and Pacific Islander communities. Why is this?

The Saturday following the election, at a public gathering downtown of the Rust belt city where I’ve been living for three months (a “Rally for an Inclusive South Bend”) a man stands before the crowd and calls into a microphone for the need to raise up and support the voices and communities of “blacks, hispanics, Native Americans, and LGBTQ people everywhere.”

Later, I remark on the exclusion of Asians and Pacific Islanders in his pronouncement to a friend who was with me; she also noticed it. She then tells me of a post she saw shared, somewhere, on social media—an Asian American professor, called out for his non-engagement with the protests and community actions happening at his university of work, responded with something like, “don’t blame me for just trying to go on with my life!”

*

On the night of election day, I text message my father, who lives in Seoul, expressing my shock and horror over what is at that point surely Trump’s capture of the presidency at 1 a.m. EST (verbatim: “Appa / I am shocked and horrified”). He replies: “There will be another day”

I reply: “Actually that’s not something we or many people I care about can take for granted anymore”

He replies: “Let’s just hope”

*

A joke: what’s neither black nor white nor brown?

*

“ABSORBENT AND YELLOW AND POROUS IS HE”

*

As my friend Michael put it: “I’d learned early on that compartmentalization and internalization was a reasonably effective strategy for moving through this world. It’s easier not to rock the boat when it appears to be heading where you want it to go. After all, it wasn’t an Asian teenager who was shot to death almost exactly a year earlier, just for wearing a hoodie while walking by a vigilante’s house.”

*

We were raised not to speak up or out or really at all unless spoken to. We were to be docile, good-natured, hard-working. Have respect (or at least a programmatic acquiescence) for authority. There when you needed us and never otherwise.

We were brought here on the understanding that our success was contingent on and proportional to our industry. This was our integrity. This was our measure of relative privilege. We studied hard and made few demands and accepted what we got on the assumption that what was given was deserved.

We were bought with a perfunctory measure of economic security for our political complicity.

We were cast as the therapist, the assistant, the laconic neutered sidekick. We were exoticized and hypersexualized, painted demure and alluring, pliant and enticing. We were emasculated and ridiculous, histrionic and feminized, bucktoothed and gullible or wily and conniving. We were too passive until we were too angry, tigerlike, porcelain, unreadable, illegible, eaters of cats and rats and dogfish. Piece by feature, we were detoothed, declawed, and disarmed.

We went to Ivy League schools and got our Ph.Ds and managed teams of tens of junior researchers who made open jokes about not being able to tell us apart.

We laughed along, sometimes genuinely, we thought, with some confusion.

We spelled out our names a million times and pronounced them slowly, phoneme by phoneme. We eventually changed them to Anthony, Anna, Edward, Katie. Still you leaned down, once everyone was buckled in, to hiss in my mother’s ear, unprovoked, before the plane took off, after she asked for a cup of water to take her medication, your English is really horrible, do you know that, I can’t even understand a word you’re saying.

*

The idea that the model minority myth and its derivatives—from media stereotypes to pay gaps, fetishizations and false competitions—serves to bolster the propaganda that black and brown Americans could also—if only—why don’t they—try harder.

Having become masters of the compromise, of compartmentalization, of putting blinders on our vision, we emphasized the “model” in model minority and painstakingly raised it to a precarious compliment. At first we didn’t realize what exactly you were holding us up like that for.

*

We were encouraged to excel if only to show how benevolent and egalitarian your system. This allowed us the pretense of distance, dissociation, we weren’t the bad or dangerous ones. We weren’t forcibly removed from our homelands en masse and imported to the white settlement as literal chattel, salable goods. Not most of us, anyway.

*

But for the internment of Japanese Americans and the bombing of Hiroshima and Nagasaki. But for the mass importation and exploitation of Chinese laborers to construct the railroads. Korea. Tibet. Vietnam. No one singular travesty forges a common discourse of suffering in and at the hands of the USA among differing ethnic Asian populations; no one singular trauma severed our genealogical contiguity to the homeland. No one singular thing, but a litany of interventions, occupations, invasions, detonations, missions, swindles. We were divided and bombed, interned, put to hard labor, plundered and raped, offshored, disfigured, extinguished of language, driven to kill each other, ourselves. To do so quietly.

*

The idea that Asian and Pacific Islander Americans have been barred—by a complex of erasures, obfuscations, exaggerations, strategic taxonomies, not to mention good old gaslighting—the self-determination of a coherent group identity, allowed instead only the one that the exigencies of the white supremacist capitalist […] patriarchy demands we display only when necessary and advantageous to its political and economic ends, such as in situations to procure the further systemic economic and political oppression and exploitation of black and brown people.

The idea that when this movement does come into being, it will necessarily look and sound and emerge as a movement quite different in aspect and ground from that of the struggle for prison abolition, for access to clean water and education, for immigration reform, for land rights, for reparations for slavery. And yet it must and will also lead to these justices, once Asian-Americans begin to come into political consciousness.

The idea that I am coming into political consciousness and I am an Asian-American. That is, I am coming into political consciousness as an Asian-American as such—that this category of identity and my belonging to it both inform and color my incipient political consciousness, limn particular obstacles in my awakening to it, and that these experiences will inform the content and delivery of my resistance. Which I will deliver—I am facing down the false blankness of what has so long gone unsaid. It has taken so long, and for this I feel grief, and for this I feel fucked, and by this I feel fueled. And this is a start.

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