On Asian American Privilege

asian-american-woman-350The explosion of online race talk about Asian Americans lately is enough to make your head spin. Are we progressive or conservative? Are we rich or poor? Are we privileged or oppressed? And the thorniest of all: are we allies or colluders on the question of anti-blackness?

The challenge of discussing race on Twitter is that nuance gets stifled by character limits and thumb fatigue. But the short answer is: Asian Americans are all of these things.

This can be seen in research on Asian American political views and poverty, and in our reports on Asian Americans and race. The Asian American vote is up for grabs. We inhabit both ends of the economic spectrum. We are sometimes anti-racist and sometimes not. The problem is, this answer satisfies no one.

Why are these questions so hard, and the answer so unsatisfying? I think it has to do with a tendency to view race as a question of demographics rather than of politics. Because this all begs the question of what and whom we’re talking about when we say Asian American. Is it a demographic category that includes a long list of ethnic subgroups? If so, then what holds us together racially, when segments of that category are among the poorest in the nation, and others among the most prosperous? When it includes prominent right wing politicians, as well as organizers for police accountability and worker justice? Given these differences, how can we say anything definitive about the relationship of Asian Americans to blackness, which is an inescapable, core idea in any conversation about race?

We formed ChangeLab because we believe there’s a need for the racial justice movement to catch up to all the slippery ways that racial politics is changing, and because we believe Asian Americans have an important role to play. Too often, the drive to have the perfect analysis gets in the way of the need just to have a conversation, to admit what we don’t know, and to seek out different solutions. And struggling with our relationship to blackness throws up hard questions. After all, our very economy and political system is built on slavery and settler colonialism. Imagining our way out of that is no easy task, and recognizing our participation in it is painful. But when we wiggle our way out of the question, that makes things worse.

Does Asian American privilege exist? Yes it does. I get the argument that says the historically rooted structures supporting white supremacy were not intended to accrue benefits to Asian Americans, and that the primary beneficiaries of those structures are white. This is true. But this argument sidesteps another truth, that Asian Americans unintentionally benefit from or actively seek to exploit those very structures. It also evades the special burden (and difficulty) that the model minority myth places on those of us who benefit from it to define ourselves politically, as either left or right of the color line. And finally, when we use this argument in response to black criticism of Asian American anti-black racism, it denies the fact that we don’t just benefit from anti-blackness, but also from the legacy of black struggle and resistance. Perhaps a better response would be to say, “Absolutely. It’s a problem that we need to figure out. Ideas?” or “Yeah! We gotta work on that. Who’s in?”

In our research exploring Asian American ideas about race, anti-black racism was an important theme. It often came up in comments about the construction of the model minority myth, but people also specifically critiqued Asian American participation in anti-black racism. One person said:

Especially educated, more middle-class Asians benefit greatly from the current structure…  There’s a great fear out there of ‘Okay, if we identify with Blacks and Latinos, do we become like them? Does having a more progressive, racial justice Asian identity, does it help Blacks and Latinos? Or does it just hurt us?’…I’ve heard people say Asians associate with whiteness… and sometimes I feel like… it’s more a disassociation from blackness.

Such comments often attributed this to how white supremacy has shaped Asian American ideas of race. Another person said:

Some of it is simply you’re a new immigrant here… You want to survive this structure… Even if you don’t have the language for it, you understand there’s a disparity between white people and black people… If you want to align yourself with the measure of success in that hierarchy, it means buying into this idea that we should dehumanize black people and play into that oppression.

The reality is that Asian American internalization of anti-black racism has special political consequence, given the resonance of model minority thinking. And it’s important to acknowledge that not all Asian Americans experience this in the same way. One person put it this way:

The larger structure has not been as… unforgiving of Asian populations, provided that they ‘behave themselves.’ And ‘behave themselves’ might mean not getting too involved in the political process, accepting the role of the junior partner… It’s always contingent upon certain tacit agreements… It is the imagination that Asians, specifically Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans and maybe more recently Korean Americans, behave properly… oftentimes used in opposition to African Americans, and more recently maybe Latinos… They haven’t taken into account Laotian Americans, or Vietnamese Americans, and Hmong Americans, but ‘Asian’ sort of sweeps them all up… They study hard, they work hard, they’re good at math, they’re good engineers, they’re not too loud [and] they don’t riot. This is obviously not true. But in a sense that doesn’t matter, because what we imagine, or how we organize stories, need not have very much relationship to the way things really are.

Let me be clear. Anti-Asian racism is real and life threatening. White supremacy has never fully accepted the presence of Asians in America. The history of exclusion and internment, the objectification and trafficking of Asian women, and current experiences of post-9/11 policing and hate crimes by Muslim, Arab, and South Asian Americans, have proven this. Moreover, the structures of poverty and criminalization, while designed to exploit and diminish the lives of black people, affect us. Incarceration and deportation remove loved ones from our communities, and racial discrimination traps Asian Americans in low-wage jobs and unemployment.

The point isn’t that Asian Americans don’t experience racism, or that it’s somehow less important, or that there isn’t resistance. It’s that Asian American race politics are contested, and blackness is at the crux of the question. And Asian American anti-black racism holds special political potency. Orientalism, an idea that’s hard to break down into everyday language, drives the political utility of Asian Americans in racial discourse, and our invisibility and misrepresentation in popular media. As Michael Omi and Dana Y. Takagi put it:

Unlike ‘black’ and ‘white’ as racial categories, there is a greater fluidity to ‘Asian American’ that can be manipulated in particular ways… It may not matter whether specific claims about Asian Americans are empirically correct or not. In fact, much of what both the Left and the Right claim about Asian Americans is contestable. Thus, the ‘truth’ of the claims is immaterial. What matters are the kinds of rhetorical constructions, and their emotional impacts, that the Right and the Left deploy.[1]

soya-jung-175x227So maybe the answer feels unsatisfying because the questions don’t go far enough. Yes, Asian American race privilege exists, and yes, we participate in anti-black racism — and as Asian Americans, we need to do something about it. What strategies and movement practices would it take to build a more visible and organized base of antiracist Asian Americans? As I said on a recent national webcast, we have internal and external work to do.

Building an anti-racist Asian American coalition holds great potential for advancing racial justice, but it requires real, vigorous debate to determine what our political commitments are – to the most marginalized parts of that coalition, and to the broader racial justice movement.

Soya Jung

[1] “Situating Asian Americans in the Political Discourse on Affirmative Action”

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