"It is no wonder we have been both the expendable chink and the dependable chinaman. America’s racial amnesia still cannot determine where we stand."
Our yellow and brown bodies have always been physical forms of radical resistance. As Asian Americans, we have broken and disrupted the black-white paradigm for centuries—since the first Chinese coolies were brought to American shores, since the first Filipinos settled in Louisiana.
The racial paradigm in this country has but black and white—our histories tells us as much. In one decade, our docile bodies are loved as dirt-cheap labor imports; in the next, our reprehensible beings are oriental rabble to be driven out. These wild American mood swings that shaped Asian American history have been as consistent as they have been swift.
Leslie Bow, in her masterful work examining Asian Americans in the American South, calls us “Partly Colored.” Our partly colored communities may be able to successfully shape a narrative that appears black or appears white, yet no matter what we do these narratives are but a forgery—a fraught representation of our truest selves.
The “Asian American” identity was constructed to accommodate our growing strength, to define us as a collective threat to the American fabric. There is an inherent hypocrisy and contradiction here—in a system defined by binary racial structure, the imposition of a non-binary categorization just cannot stand.
It is no wonder we have been both the expendable chink and the dependable chinaman. America’s racial amnesia, to this day, still cannot determine where we stand.
Yet while our bodies have long been a source of radical resistance, our culture and politics have not. What we colloquially think of as “radical” is actually not—the political ideas are labeled "radical" are simply ideas that are even further left than most progressives, instead of an idea that is profoundly radical. To be truly radical is to fundamentally reconsider the state of things, to uproot the social fabric at its very core and configure it anew.
For Asian Americans, this radical resistance must first be a deep reconsideration of where we stand in the constructions of race. We must consider how we can cease to operate within this framework of racial binary—to imagine the construction of a social body that entirely rejects this inadequate representation of our lived experiences.
This does not mean we cannot still combat the effects of racism, nor is it to ever deny the existence of persistent racism. But it is to say that we must imagine a future through which we stand not in juxtaposition or contrast to black or white, but in contrast to ourselves.
When we define ourselves in contrast to others, we lose agency and selfhood. If we are to hold onto this identity of Asian American, we must construct ourselves in our own image, not in contrast to the image of others, nor in contrast to the image projected onto us by others.
Yet our image must not only be what is on television. Our obsession with media representation is understandable—but we must remember that representation in popular culture does not mean that we "have made it," nor does a shift in the media and television signify some era of Asian American "arrival."
For we have always been here. We have been here for centuries. We are not just "arriving" because we are now on television.
It is easy to believe that this is enough—but we must not forget that our political history, our political physical beings, deserve more than just screen time. In order to advance our communities, we must take the momentum newfound exposure has given us and synchronize with the growing political power we wield.
Asian America has always a been troublesome conception. Our demand to disaggregate data is not an effort to fracture our communities but to recognize that this racial configuration of "Asian American" is incompetent and problematic to persist as a racial grouping. To the naysayers that believe that Asian American is a legitimate and complete racial categorization of our peoples, whether based on the color of our skin or geographic location, clearly do not understand Asian America.
Like other Peoples of Color, our identities are in large part shaped by our oppressions, yet while we fight against our oppressions, we cannot seem to imagine a future in which we retain a racial identity that is no longer defined by collective injustice. If our identities are so intricately tied to our oppression, must we not be ready to forgo our identities when we eliminate our oppression?
Let us work to problematize, deconstruct, and tear down the present structure of Asian America that holds us hostage to a future of narrow possibilities. We have done much work in problematizing this identity constructed without our consent, from attacking the Model Minority Myth to calling for disaggregated data, from pushing to expand beyond an East Asian focused Asian America to highlighting health and wealth disparities in our communities.
As our identities are so intricately tied to our oppressions, we must consider this reality: a future without racial oppression may be a future without racial constructions. A future without oppressed Asian Americans may be a future without Asian America.
This is not advocacy for a post-racial world in the present, instead, it is advocacy for imagining a post-racial world in a collective future in which our people can thrive without the baggage and burden of identity and oppression. This is not tomorrow, nor is it in the next decade. Yet if we aim only for equality, we will never reach a future where peoples of yellow and brown skin can thrive, unshackled from our burdens today.
Is it not the rationale behind our work in this pursuance of justice purportedly to imagine such a future? Yet instead, today we pursue conservative justice instead of radical and structure-changing utopia.
Kathi Weeks suggests that aspiring and working towards utopia as a project can deliver real results as a vehicle of modern political demand. Instead of marching towards the attainable goal of justice, we must race towards the unimaginable future where our yellow and brown bodies not only have—but demand—the agency to define who we are not in contrast, but in context.
I do not just imagine that Asian America is inherently radical—I know we are so. Yet we oppress our radical beings to pursue a neoliberal justice that is far from fulfilling. Let us forge together a future that is impossible today, possible.
We must work together and bring our diverse communities into the sociopolitical fold, and remember that it is upon us to educate our own families and communities. We must move beyond simply calling others out, but begin to call others in.
I came across an idea recently that I find truly radical: rebels call people out, but revolutionaries call people in.
Asian America, I'm patiently calling you in.
Special thanks to the individuals that have had countless discussions with me to flush out my thoughts: Jenn Fang (Reappropriate), snoopy, Kevin Chen, Lynna Zhong, Christian Hosam, Professor Robyn Autry, and Chris Caines.
Photograph, Corky Lee, 1975