(East) Asian American Imperfection and Responsibility
No one is born an Asian American. Sure, from the moment you’re born to the day you die, you may be seen as having “Asian” features and therefore being Asian, but I mean being Asian American in a different sense. I mean Asian American as a political identity and as a particular understanding of place and being in America. Everyone who comes to identify with the label “Asian American” has to consciously, deliberately become Asian American. However, when I try to articulate my becoming, my narrative sounds somehow artificial and contrived. When other people talk about formative experiences in their Asian Americaness, they sometimes talk about their “lunchbox moment,” their embarrassment over their parents’ accents, their desire to be white instead of Asian. Some things I can relate to like rejecting my Asianness, talking in English in department stores to my mom so that no one would give us dirty looks. But in many other ways, I couldn’t relate to common Asian American narratives. I couldn’t come up with a convincing answer to what my personal stake is in racial justice and Asian American social activism.
This perplexed me for a very long time. On what grounds could I claim my attachment to Asian Americaness? Could I legitimately call myself an Asian American and a political Asian American if I felt so strangely removed from many of the experiences of other Asian Americans and Asian American activists? I knew that every Asian American has a different story, that “Asian American” is so vague and imperfect of a term, and that my experiences were just as valid as anyone else’s, but something still felt off.
However, the concept of “proximity to whiteness” has been illuminating in understanding my feeling of strange distance from Asian Americanness and being a person of color in general. As a light-skinned, upper middle class, East Asian, I have many privileges that have given me this proximity to whiteness and have therefore given me this feeling of distance and insulation. Asian Americans, which is often conflated with East Asians, and especially those who are educated and well-to-do, have long had a reputation of being “model minorities” and “honorary whites”. We rigorously and rightly resist these concepts as they have been used to make East Asians a wedge against other racial minorities and especially black folks.
But I think it’s disingenuous for us, and specifically East Asians, to deny our own agency and complicity in striving for whiteness and rejecting blackness. Not when after Peter Liang, a Chinese American cop who shot and killed Akai Gurley, a black man, many in the East Asian community mobilized and protested so that Peter Liang could get away with murder just like white police officers. Not when Asian Americans have sued Harvard, Princeton, Yale, and other elite private institutions for “discriminatory” affirmative action policies that “take away” Asian American spots for black and brown applicants. Not when my father’s stories about robbed and murdered Chinese delivery drivers vilified black “thugs” in “dangerous neighborhoods”.
I realized that with my light skin I could indulge, even for the briefest of moments, in the fantasy that I could be white and not Asian. I realized that I was never embarrassed by the way my parents spoke because their socioeconomic status and education, and by extension mine as well, allowed them to learn how to articulate vowels and pronounce hard r’s. I realized that my parents’ professional and graduate degrees and their ability to spend money on my prep classes and to move to a neighborhood with a good public school gave me an enormous advantage in the educational system. I realized that even as a person of color, I am situated in a hierarchy of race, and that East Asians from privileged backgrounds like mine are afforded disproportionately more power than many other Asian Americans and people of color.
This is certainly not to say that all East Asians Americans have a proximity to whiteness (because that’s simply not true and the degree and extent of proximity varies greatly even among East Asians and not just East Asians), but many East Asian Americans do and that is no coincidence. This is also certainly not to excuse white supremacy as the ultimate root of racial oppression. But some of us East Asians must own up to how the power and privilege over others afforded to us by our proximity to whiteness makes us complicit in white supremacy.
Now I’m wondering how to reconcile this relative privilege I have with my desire to be involved in social justice. I’ve also recently come across the idea of a politics of imperfection and responsibility rather than a politics of purity that has helped me better grasp what kind of place I have in the struggle and what I can contribute. No one can be perfect or “pure”. We are all complicit in so many of the systems and injustices we try to resist, and that’s just an undeniable and incontrovertible fact. Everyone has made mistakes, is making mistakes, and will make mistakes, but we can’t just give up because we can never be perfect. We can’t be discouraged from continuing to push for justice and to push ourselves to be better. Because we will always be imperfect, it’s more productive for us to recognize the responsibilities we have had in harming others but also the responsibilities we have in helping others.
So, for me, being Asian American has become much more complex but at the same time much clearer. My gut reaction to first encountering my proximity to whiteness was defensiveness. I thought, I’m a person of color! I’m not white! I didn’t want to confront my privileges and complicities. I tried to be defensive and deflect to maintain an illusion of my purity and clean hands. But a politics of imperfection and responsibility encourages us to reckon with our identities and histories in more productive ways. As an Asian American (and as many other identities melded together), I have both the responsibility to acknowledge all the ways I’ve benefited from the oppression of others and the responsibility to help make a better future where that oppression ceases to exist. I’ll always be imperfect, but that’s all the more reason to struggle and strive.