Many things were spinning in my head as I stared at my phone late last night desperately trying to catch up with what had happened, what was happening. My head itself was spinning at the speed at which the conversation had expanded. Dang, how do people think and thumbtype that fast? One woeful realization was how badly I needed a Twitter crash course.
But here are some other thoughts on what will hopefully become, as the hashtag’s originator Suey Park asserted, “not a trend,” but “a movement…” It struck me that the global nature of the discussion shed light on the presence of Asian Diasporic populations beyond the United States. That seems like a chance to problematize the whole concept of who and what Asian is in the first place. Why are there such significant Asian populations in western nations? What are the forces that have driven migration from Asia historically, and the implications of the West’s fascination with eastward, Orientalist expansion and control? There’s a need for clear popular language to describe this, using words that have real emotional resonance today.
ChangeLab pulled together a meeting this spring with Asian American and African American leaders in the racial justice movement, where some language emerged around the idea that “we are here, because you were there…” It was an attempt to center the history of western empire building in conversations about immigration. At a time when particularly South and Southeast Asians are fighting alongside other people of color to resist criminalization and stop deportations in cities across the country, the response of white nationalists could simply be, “Well then, just stop your complaining and leave.” But that’s already happening, right?
From that cringe-inducing Katy Perry performance to the call by a white six-year-old boy on Jimmy Kimmel to “kill all the Chinese people,” to the restaging of that Orientalist fantasy, “Miss Saigon”, this is a troubling moment that illustrates how close to the surface yellow peril politics have remained in the white imagination. And things don’t look like they’re about to get any better, even as some Asian Americans benefit from or stand silent in the face of criminalization both domestically and abroad.
At such a time what feels like a resurgent left Asian American politics holds great promise not only for Asian Americans but also for the racial justice movement at large. Unpacking the model-minority/yellow-peril tropes could make more space to critique anti-black racism and its relationship to U.S. war and militarism, which are intensifying the effects of criminalization domestically. We have an opportunity to center our varied colonial pasts and their profound effects, and connect them to current-day fights. That’s a tall order. There are tensions and hierarchies within the Asian American construct, let alone in the often-problematic, token inclusion of Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in acronyms like NH/PI/AA.
But maybe this Twitter thingamajig is a sign of what’s possible when you center a politics of resistance. I hope so. I’ll be staying tuned.