The Apolitical Asian: How Ethnic Studies Can Teach Us About Asian Resistance
"In what world could you then claim that Asians, especially the most marginalized of us — those who are stateless, undocumented, refugees, the working poor — are simply docile servants?"
I never really got to spend time with large groups of other Asian people until my first year of college, when I joined a hip-hop dance team. (The fact that some collegiate hip-hop teams are Asian-dominated, especially in California, brings about some complicated feelings for me, but this is the truth.) In that space, I felt like the odd one out in some key ways that I hadn’t ever really experienced before. I was one of the only queer team members and the only trans person. I was also one of the only people pursuing a degree in social sciences, and especially who had any sort of interest or experience in activist work.
Before that, I had attended an arts charter school in Oakland, California with a pretty small Asian population — many of whom had parents who were artists or activists like my own, and a vast majority of whom were queer. So when I started to hear the sentiment from my college peers that, as Asian people, we tended to be pretty apolitical and unengaged in social issues, I was really surprised. I hadn’t encountered this as a true feeling held by fellow members of the Asian American and Pacific Islander community before.
Many members of the dance team — most of whom identify as East Asian — seemed to subscribe to this idea: our community has never really demonstrated political willpower on any mass scale fighting for rights or resisting any sort of oppression. We definitely have not participated in intersectional or solidarity struggles with other groups of people of color or with queer people, working people etc. And to this day, we are a docile, politically submissive group of people who are only here to work 9 to 5, feed our kids and not complain. We are model minorities.
And I think one of the key reasons that this belief has spread so far and wide since the birth of the model minority myth is a lack of real ethnic studies and a true understanding of the history of POC in this country and abroad.
For me, I come from a family of organizers, activists and educators all in their own ways, which means I have a strong relationship with ethnic studies. We all do, especially my parents.
My dad dropped out of Chinese business school in his early 20s after he met my Chinese-American mom, and he followed her back to California — leaving his country behind. There, he enrolled in an ethnic studies course while studying creative writing at Oakland’s Laney Community College. In this class, my dad, a twenty-something-year-old recent Chinese immigrant, learned about the the Trail of Tears and the genocide and dispossession of Indigenous peoples and land. He learned about the touring human zoos that showcased Filipinos and other minority groups as exotic specimens. He learned about the construction of race as an idea, and how the law is used to oppress and manipulate marginalized groups in America.
And my dad learned about Chinese-American history — something he says Chinese mainlanders don’t know much about. He said, “[We] knew about the bigger events, but not about the fishermen. Not about how [Chinese] laborers were treated in this country.”
Learning about the perception of Chinese and Asian Americans gave him a strong orientation to this country in his first few years. Having just immigrated, Chinese-American history wasn’t the history of his own ancestors or relatives, but he inherited those legacies when he moved to the United States. Studying ethnic studies alongside other POC — being able to talk out their experiences coming from different oppressed groups — it taught him more about being American than the citizenship test or any other state-sanctioned form of naturalization.
Without that class, my dad said he would’ve judged more things at face value, he wouldn’t understand issues from a systemic level. He now works for a disability rights organization in Berkeley. He talks to me about Chinese and world politics, he is inquisitive and always challenging traditionally held beliefs about the world and this country. He is no apolitical Asian.
My mom was raised as one of three children of immigrants in her entire school district in Indiana — one of the other three being her sister. As a mixed kid, she struggled with the dichotomy between racist harassment by her white peers — who would make slanted eye gestures at her, call her “Ling-Ling,” etc. — and treatment by her aunts and uncles, “fresh off the boat” from Hong-Kong, who would tease that she wasn’t truly Chinese because she didn’t speak the language, etc.
But in college, my mom participated in the fight for ethnic studies at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, led by student groups like the Black Student Union. She took a class from a professor of ethnic studies. In that course, she learned about the social construction of race, and told me, “I think I just felt like suddenly, I existed in the world … And that the reason why I felt out of place was racism – like, ‘Oh, okay, there’s nothing I did wrong.’”
This course led my mom to an internship through an organizer training program where she got introduced to the labor movement and strategies of organizing. She learned from organizers who had done work in the United Farm Workers Movement, as well as the Third World Liberation Front, which had fought for and won the first ethnic studies department in the country at San Francisco State University.
Upon returning to school, my mom used that internship as the basis for her thesis research on POC solidarity movements, and graduated as the university’s first ever graduate of ethnic studies. She went on to become a strong union organizer for the next over 25 years, continuing to this day.
The way she put it, “That [ethnic studies] class led me to a thesis, which led me to a conclusion, which led me to a career.” When asked about the idea that Asians have been a historically apolitical group, she brought up the Delano Grape Boycott, led by both Mexican and Filipino workers, the fight for reparations after Japanese internment, Gandhi and Mao — all of these hugely influential Asian political leaders — and the fight for ethnic studies and the Third World Liberation Front. And she talked about how Asian Americans make up so much of this country’s labor force. They are janitors and hotel housekeepers and live-in domestic workers and cooks and garment workers. And in all of these areas, Asian workers in the labor movement are constantly resisting their oppression and exploitation.
So then, in what world could you then claim that Asians, especially the most marginalized of us — those who are stateless, undocumented, refugees, the working poor — are simply docile servants? When Asian-American folks, youth especially, buy into this claim that we have never and thus will never exercise any sort of political power, it breaks my heart. Because look at our ancestors, look at our predecessors and the legacy we have inherited off their struggles. Look at how they continue to fight for justice in their communities.
After a long discussion, my dad reminded me that immigrating itself is inherently a political choice. Those who choose to leave home are in the minority of their national or ethnic groups. Often, they are fleeing political repression themselves. And so we look at the Filipinx workers in Los Angeles, the Asian elders in Chinatowns learning self defense against hate crimes, the Native Hawaiian activists fighting for sovereignty and against land degradation and many of our intersectional AAPI communities coming together in solidarity. We learn about our history through ethnic studies and in conversations with our elders. Through that, we learn about our own power to resist structural oppression and to not be apolitical Asians.