"We Are Not The Same" & Pan-Ethnic Allyship: Writing from the "I"

Friday, May 29, 2020

San Francisco, CA, USA

Update: here's a piece I co-wrote with Christina Hu for TaiwaneseAmerican.org on the specific role of Taiwanese Americans in allyship with Black Americans (obviously borrows a lot from various other things I wrote because I'm tired.)

*A huge body of consideration in think pieces like this is the use of "we" and what that implies - am I being broadly inclusive (at the risk of erasing critical nuance)? Am I diminishing personal accountability? Am I trying to speak on behalf of others? While I figure out those questions, I've edited the following to replace "we" with "I" - even when I'm addressing my community (the parameters of which I'm still wrestling with).

I thought about the idea of pan-ethnic allyship a lot when Taiwanese Americans were trying to distance themselves from Chinese and Chinese Americans in order to deflect COVID-related racism. You can read my full "statement" here from TaiwaneseAmerican.org, but the point is this: comprehensive respect for the ways we are different - in immigration histories, in average socioeconomic status, in access to resources - creates accountability for us to do more for each other, to have more compassion and understanding. Evoking our differences does not give us permission to walk away.

I suggest, gently, that "Asian American solidarity" risks being performative when I am not actually leaning into hard, heartbreaking conversations about myself and those around me. I can re-post the graphics and retweet "for visibility" - I'm not accusing myself of virtue-signaling under the guise of progressive activism. For me, these small acts combat helplessness, and I wholeheartedly think that I'm doing what I believe is right given the circumstances. 

But I wish my activism - or simply, my life, my humanity - dug deeper into questions like whether my parents - or myself, even - fully grasp the Jim Crow legacy; whether my infatuation with my place in the American dream prevents me from recognizing that meritocracy is a myth. I wish I didn't lean into "immigrant narratives" as a proxy for self-awareness; I wish I didn't perform my foreignness for admissions officers, or rely on Asian Pacific American Heritage Month for editors to pay attention to stories like mine. 

(But wait, there's more.)

I wish pan-Asian community building didn't sacrifice careful inspection of the many ways we are not the same. Newer waves of moneyed Chinese, Japanese, Korean, and Taiwanese immigrants critically benefit from - but in most cases, didn't actually contribute to - the labor of earlier working-class Chinese communities: the creation of Chinese tongs, participation in the 1968 San Francisco State strike for ethnic studies, movements for housing rights, bi-lingual education, etc. And that's just among the East Asians. It's not my place to speak on behalf of South and Southeast Asians, but it doesn't really take being the sharpest tool to understand that the refugee and the H1B-holder have vastly different trajectories. And as there are "good" and "bad" Asians from the white perspective, we've also internalized and expanded upon similar dichotomies through our own criteria: are they upwardly mobile? Are they "legal" residents? Are they involved in communities of faith? Do they receive government assistance? Do they have a history of gang violence? We might even carry on state grudges into personal convictions (ahem at diasporic Taiwanese!) 

I can believe, with all my heart, that "yellow peril supports black power" - but to be real - how much do I understand the gravity of "yellow peril?" Am I truly willing to participate in a resistance equally invested in refugee rights as media representation? Do I know what that even looks like? Can I sustain that level of critique? Have I ever given Hmong Americans, Laotian Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Pacific Islanders, and everyone outside my little East Asian bubble their due consideration? Have I ever bothered to learn their histories, their circumstances, their community issues?

I am so frustrated by my all-in desperation to be included in things without the maturity to do the work. I am so easily resentful of generalizations when they try to tell me what I am (Asian Americans are industrious, Asian American women routinely date white men), yet so eager to accept them when they offer me credit (Asian Americans for Black Lives Matter).

I'm still marinating in something Bobblehaus co-founder said: "the conversation comes first." There are of course instances where the window for dialogue has long gone, and lives are at stake and everything is literally a matter of life and death. But I believe we can show up - in our physical presence, in our financial support, in our decision to pass the mic to our black peers - while talking among ourselves about the issues we've long ignored.

With that being said, I defer to this: 

You don’t need to be a Hmong scholar to understand the differences between the lives in a refugee community who have spent much of the past fifty years in poverty and the life of an upwardly mobile East Asian whose family came over on a skilled worker or student visa and quickly found a foothold in a town with a good school system. Hmongs and wealthy East Asians do not share a history, except at some point, one of them was oppressing the other. They also do not “benefit from White Supremacy” in the same way. Any category that includes both of them fails, mostly because wealthy East Asians define “Asian American” through their own personalized politics. So, why would the Hmong community have to carry the guilt burdens of wealthy Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants? And why, for God’s sake, do upwardly mobile Chinese, Korean and Japanese immigrants feel the need to launder their own class guilt through the Hmongs? It’s all nonsense.
None of this excuses Tou Thao. The point, rather, is this: Professional Asian Americans almost never reach out to populations like the Hmongs, except in the most cursory, box-checking ways. There is no “examination of our communities” because we — the wealthy East Asians — never really considered them part of our communities anyway.

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