This year, during the weeks leading up to Martin Luther King day, conversations about racial issues ignited within the community. Race is complicated, especially for those who don’t fit into the black and white binary that usually frames conversations about race in this country. For Asian Americans, discussion of the inequality and discrimination of colored people often leads to frustration and silence.
Race is complex for Asian Americans. On one hand, we’re disadvantaged in many ways. We’re perpetually seen as foreigners, as people who don’t belong here. Our successes are often attributed to our race instead of talent or hard work. We’re walked over in social and professional situations, openly mocked. We’re reduced to stereotypes, with women hyper-sexualized and men emasculated. Tens of thousands of Asian Americans, in a stunning violation of their constitutional rights, were forcibly removed from their homes, communities, jobs, and possessions and relocated to internment camps during World War II-, and then released back into society, years later, with nothing. We’ve been victims of hate crimes from vandalism to murder. Like all people of color in the U.S., Asian Americans have been consistent targets of individual and systemic racism.
But as Asian Americans, we also have certain privileges. People generally assume that we’re smart and hardworking, which is reductive but infinitely preferable to people assuming the opposite. We’re assumed to be reliable people and responsible citizens, not troublemakers. Teachers and police officers tend to believe the best about us and not to suspect or fear us.
So when a conversation about race is framed in black and white terms—which, in this country, is the case more often than not—it’s not always clear with whom we should be identifying. We don’t have the same disadvantages or the same history of oppression as black people, but neither are we as fully accepted as white people. Our experiences don’t always clearly dictate the side to which we belong. Because of this, discussions about people of color often leave Asian Americans feeling left out, and we’re silent in response.
This tendency to remain silent is somewhat cultural. Asian cultures strongly value harmony and not creating conflict. Thus, even in the face of discrimination and controversial events, even when we ourselves are the victims of wrongdoing, many Asian Americans tend to remain silent. This tendency is exacerbated by the fact that more than 90% of Asian Americans are immigrants or children of immigrants—people shaped by an immigrant mindset of keeping your head down and mouth shut, even if circumstances are terrible. Asian Americans want to be welcomed and accepted here, and complaining usually creates the opposite response, even if those complaints are warranted.
An additional complication is the erroneous belief that Asians have been more successful in America than other races because of inherent positive qualities such as natural talent in math and science, an obsession with academics, and a strong work ethic.
For Asian Americans, being active about issues of race often means swimming against a strong current. People’s responses vary considerably, of course, but considering all of these factors—the cultural value of not causing a stir, the immigrant attitudes of looking out for ourselves and wanting to be accepted—there are valid reasons why Asian Americans don’t usually speak up on the topic of racial inequality.
Through the years, the Asian-American experience of racially motivated legal exclusion, disenfranchisement, and horrific violence–commonalities with the African American experience that have been rallying points in demanding racial equality– has been erased from the public consciousness. It’s easy to say the Civil Rights movement was entirely black and white, but the term “people of color” means so much more. As the community continues to address the pervasive inequality among people of color that still exists, I urge everyone to include the experiences of all people—Asians, African-Americans, Latinos, and anyone who has experienced discrimination—no matter how small their voice.