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Asian American Policy Review

Becoming Authentically Asian American

Foreword to the 27th Volume

The Roots of Asian America

“There was a time when the term ‘Asian American’ was not merely a demographic category, but a fight you were picking with the world.”[1]

We live in turbulent political times, and whether we are looking for it or not, a fight seems to be brewing.

This fight, however, is not new. The term now used to describe the Asian American community—and the namesake of this journal—reclaimed the political identity of a people who had been rendered historically and culturally invisible. Sometimes, this invisibility was literal, as in the case of the invisible Chinese railroad workers standing in the margins at Promontory Point.[2] At other times, the invisibility was sociocultural. Asian Americans are the Perpetual Foreigner, and the “race so unlike our own,” whose struggles are masked by the tired myth of the model minority, which is used to wedge other minority groups against one another.[3]

Neil Gotanda describes this phenomenon as “citizenship nullification”—the denial of full citizenship and ownership of the American story.[4] The earliest people of Asian origin to arrive in North America was a group of Filipino sailors who landed on the California coast in 1587—decades before the arrival of the Mayflower in Massachusetts.[5] Asian migrants began arriving in large numbers in the 1830s and 1850s, and by the latter half of the nineteenth century, sadly familiar nativist hostilities led to the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882—which would remain good law for eighty-three years.[6] Chae Chan Ping v. U.S.—the so-called “Chinese Exclusion Case”—decided in 1889, is today being cited as precedent for the idea that any ban on immigrants, no matter how discriminatory, is within the power of the executive branch.[7] When it comes to racial discrimination, there is nothing new under the sun.

And yet there is great hope in our history as well. The conscious memory of the Asian American political identity began in the 1960s and 1970s, driven largely by student activists who were inspired by the Black power and anti-Vietnam War movements. This period saw the coming together of diverse communities with different histories under the umbrella of Asian America, the birth of Asian American Studies, and the awakening of scores of activists who have continued to define what this movement could be. As one history puts it: “Challenging stereotypes about Asian ‘passivity,’ and rejecting the exoticism and racism of ‘oriental’ labels, Asian American activists mobilized this new consciousness to demand an end to racist hiring practices, biased school curricula, demeaning media stereotypes, residential discrimination, and the gentrification of historically Asian American neighborhoods.”[8] We would do well to draw inspiration from this history.

These issues remain salient to our community today, and are explored in this volume through Paul Ong, Chhandara Pech, and Alycia Cheng’s research on Wealth Heterogeneity Among Asian American Elderly, Kartik Naram’s piece on Racial Capitalism, Gentrification, and the Identity of Chinatown, and in an adapted version of the National CAPACD and CNHA #OurNeighborhoods Report on Anti-Displacement Strategies.

Today, we are still told to “go back where you came from,” even though some of our ancestors have been here for generations. We are told that Asian Americans are politically passive, but there is a rich legacy of Asian American activism and formal political participation.[9] We have always been here, but we are rendered invisible through the “alternative facts” that, for centuries, have fed a narrative of racial denial and subjugation over the Asian American community and countless others.

This is the “grand narrative” of Asian Pacific Islander Americans in this country: no matter how long we have occupied the land, no matter how hard we work toward the American Dream, and no matter how much we assimilate, our standing as citizens in this country can be challenged in an instant.[10] We still find ourselves needing to prove that we belong, and while some commentators are hopeful about demographic changes that will make the US a majority-minority country by 2040, I suggest that our optimism should be more measured.[11] Racial lines can be redrawn. Immigration can be stopped. Communities can be bullied into silence. Having numbers alone does not translate into power, and the roots of our history make it clear that those in power will not voluntarily give it away.

The Pursuit of Authenticity

A few weeks after the election, I found myself reading an article suggesting that so-called “identity politics” gave rise to the divisive situation in which we find ourselves today, some going so far as to suggest that the Democratic Party lost because of its obsession with identity.[12] Setting aside the fact that “political correctness” and “identity politics” have largely been hijacked as a form of racial denial,[13] I found myself stuck with a surprisingly difficult question: what exactly is the Asian American community looking for?

It is simple enough to define this world in the negative: for example, a world free of hate crime and racial bigotry, or a society without coercive assimilation.[14] But what will success look like—in the affirmative—for those who are advocating for a better world?

I will borrow from Professor Gary Okihiro, who argues for the reintroduction of Third World Studies, “an academic field that never existed because it was extinguished at birth” during the same era that gave rise to the Asian American political identity—among many others.[15] He argues that self-determination and liberation—or authenticity—were the goal of Third World Studies, and I propose adopting this goal for Asian Americans, and for this journal, as well.

On the one hand, authenticity requires that we are present to our historical selves. For Asian Americans, this not only requires a deep understanding of the struggles and triumphs that brought our ancestors—or ourselves—into this country, but also the parallel struggles of activism that have made this country the way that it is today. Being authentic to ourselves as Asian Americans must mean that we struggle against the marginalization of our own Asian community and the oppression of black and brown communities and wholesale theft of native lands that sits at the root of American history and continues to shape its politics.

Authenticity, however, must also allow for the flourishing of our present selves. To be free is to be able to move about in this world unencumbered by arbitrary expectations or assumptions. Being authentic means that I ought to be able to enjoy country music without being “whitewashed,” and that I ought to be able to love kimchi without being “so Asian.” We must be allowed to define authenticity for ourselves, instead of having it imposed upon us by the commodification of race or the normalizing “dominant gaze” of white culture.[16]

After a trip to Korea, my partner told me about a restaurant that she had visited where they put American cheese in traditional Korean fried rice, or bokeumbap. I found the idea appalling, and told her that it couldn’t possibly have been authentic. If my ancestors a century ago didn’t put cheese in their bokeumbap, I wouldn’t either.

I am not looking for a pretty picture to capture the heart of “diversity,” and I am certainly not arguing for the metaphor of cheese bokeumbap to replace the banal and imprecise metaphors of the melting pot or tossed salad.[17] I want merely to suggest that notions of authenticity and self-determination are difficult to capture, and what I declared as authentic in my self-righteous Korean American zeal reveals the challenges of moving between two identities—both of which are and always have been tenuous in American society.

The formation of Asian American identity—with the added complexity of intersectionalities and multiracialism—remains difficult to capture because of the heterogeneity of the Asian American experience.[18] We are not all alike, and this volume speaks to some of these challenges with Elizabeth Lin’s piece on The Loneliness of the Progressive Asian American Christian, Ivan Rahman’s commentary on Three Things Asian Americans Don’t Want to Talk About, and through the creative work of uyên phương hoàng (“When Hate Came”), Kimberly Zin (“Hyphens”), and Shurooq Al Jewari (“Islam”).

“Self-determination,” Okihiro writes, “requires a strategic mastery of the language and ideologies of the ruling class to engage and upend oppression. But liberation also demands discourses and practices not of the master’s creation.”[19] The goal—and indeed the intellectual root of this journal—is to reclaim Asian American identity, to encourage authenticity, and to spark conversation about how we can define for ourselves what it means to be Asian American. In doing so, we begin to write our own stories, rooted in our own experiences, about what it means to be authentically Asian American.

The Process of Becoming[20]

We are at our best, I believe, when we play by our own rules.

One such rule is that we assume that racism is not normal, but that it has nevertheless become endemic in American life—we are not, by any stretch of the imagination, post-racial.[21] Another is that we value and re-legitimize the stories of our struggles and triumphs, so policies begin to take shape based on the lived experiences of the marginalized. A third is that we reject the cynicism that plagues political discourse today, and that we remain deeply skeptical of partisan politics because it, too, is often merely a tool of subjugation. The truth is that we as ordinary citizens are fighting for our democracy and institutions.[22] The fight is not new, and the fight is certain to continue.

As Professor Okihiro urges us, we must learn how to engage on two fronts: both within the institutions of the ruling class and outside of those same institutions. I must confess that this can be particularly challenging within the confines of an institution like the Harvard Kennedy School and others like it for at least two reasons. First, at an institutional level, we supposedly represent the “overly educated,” and “bi-coastal elite” that conservative commentators have claimed was explicitly rejected in the most recent election.[23] Second, the field of public policy was not designed to push against the boundaries of the system—if anything, it was designed to maintain and to reinforce it.[24]

The process of becoming must, however, be driven by community, which I was lucky to have found at the Harvard Kennedy School, and for which I am extremely grateful. It cannot be driven by the institution, for the institution will almost certainly default to becoming “of the master’s creation,” even though the discipline of public policy lies in the useful intersection of theory and praxis, allowing us to “master their language and ideologies.”[25]

To this end, we are including three discussions examining the nature and role of AAPI political participation. The first, by Ga Young Chung, examines the role of DACA in mobilizing political action by undocumented Korean Americans who are At the Crossroads of Change. The second, by Managing Editor Claris Chang, analyzes Asian American Lobbying, with a brief excerpt by Elena Ong on The Future of Asian American and Pacific Islander Political Power. Finally, we present an interview with Dr. Elisa Choi, a Commissioner on the Asian American Commission of the Commonwealth of Massachusetts.

One final note: in this process of becoming, it can be easy to look over and to assume that everyone should be equally educated and committed, and that anything less is unjust or irresponsible. I will be the first to confess that I am relatively new to this endless process of discovery. My journey began a little over two years ago at a workshop on microaggressions.[26] I still do not use the right words, and I still do and say the wrong things. But I hope that I am able to listen more attentively and that I will be able to join with others who are also in the process of becoming.

The Asian American Policy Review is and always has been in the process of becoming. This year, we reconvened an advisory board with seven incredible leaders who bring a wealth of on-the-ground experiences that will inform the direction of this becoming. Our team is asking “What’s next?” as we scan the landscape of incredible activism and scholarship that pushes us ever closer to reclaiming our identity.

We look forward to having you join us, with this twenty-seventh issue and beyond, in becoming authentically Asian American.

Daniel Minyong Cheung

PDF version. Cite as Daniel Minyong Cheung, “Foreword: Becoming Authentically Asian American,” Asian American Policy Review Vol. 27 (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, 2017): 8-12.

[1] Chang, Jeff, “Foreword,” Serve the People: Making Asian America in the Long Sixties (Brooklyn, New York: Verso, 2016): i.

[2] See “A Legacy From the Far East,” National Park Service. Accessed on 13 February 2017.

[3] Plessey v. Ferguson, 163 US 537, 561 (1896), (Harlan, J., dissenting); for example, see Lam, Tracey, and Jonathan Hui, “The High Cost of the Model Minority Myth for Asian and Pacific Islander Americans,” Kennedy School Review (Cambridge, Massachusetts: Harvard University, 24 August 2016).

[4] Gotanda, Neil, “Citizenship Nullification: The Impossibility of Asian American Politics,” Asian Americans and Politics, ed. Gordon H. Chang (Washington, DC: Woodrow Wilson Center Press, 2001): 80.

[5] Borah, Eloisa Gomez, “Filipinos in Unamuno’s California Expedition of 1587,” Amerasia Journal Vol. 21, No. 3 (Los Angeles: UCLA Asian American Studies Center, 05 February 2008): 175-183.

[6] Chinese Exclusion Act, ch. 125, 22 Stat. 58.

[7] Chae Chan Ping v. United States, 130 US 581 (1889); see e.g., Planas, Roque, “US Immigration Law Is Racist Enough To Allow Trump’s Muslim Visitor Ban,” The Huffington Post 08 December 2015.

[8] “Seattle’s Asian American Movement,” University of Washington-Seattle, n.d. Accessed 13 February 2017.

[9] The incredible activism of the Asian American community is a sadly untold and under-celebrated legacy which includes scores of individuals like Yuri Kochiyama, Fred Korematsu, Grace Lee Boggs, Fred Chang, and Mari Matsuda. The community continues to be active at both an individual and organizational level. For a history of Asian American activism, see Chan, Sucheng, “Asian American Struggles for Civil, Economic, and Social Rights,” in Chinese America: History & Perspectives—The Journal of the Chinese Historical Society of America Vol. 16 (San Francisco, California: Chinese Historical Society of America, 2002). For a list of some of the organizations who are active at the national level, visit the National Council of Asian Pacific Americans website.

[10] While Pacific Islanders have been racialized into the same category as Asian Americans, the history of many of these communities more closely resembles the experience of American Indians, whose native lands were taken by newly-arrived white settlers. For a discussion of the displacement of Native Hawaiians from their land, see Levy, Neil M., “Native Hawaiian Land Rights,” California Law Review Vol. 63, No. 4 (Berkeley, California: UC Berkeley School of Law, 1975): 848-885.

[11] See generally, Ong, Paul, Elena Ong and Jonathan Ong, “The Future of Pacific Islander America in 2040,” Ameriasia Journal Vol. 14, No. 1 (Los Angeles, California: UCLA Asian American Studies Center Spring 2016). I certainly understand the arguments made by those who are optimistic about the possibility this demographic change can lead to meaningful social change, and we are featuring one of the authors of the article above in this journal to invite further discussion.

[12] Lilla, Mark, “The End of Identity Liberalism,” New York Times, 18 November 2016.

[13] Weigel, Moira, “Political Correctness: How the Right Invented a Phantom Enemy,” The Guardian, 30 November 2016.

[14] Gloor, LeAna B., “From the Melting Pot to the Tossed Salad Metaphor: Why Coercive Assimilation Lacks the Flavors Americans Crave” Hohonu, A Journal of Academic Writing Vol. 4 (Hilo, Hawaii: University of Hawai’i at Hilo, 2006).

[15] Okihiro, Gary Y., Third World Studies: Theorizing Liberation (Durham, North Carolina: Duke University Press, 2016): 12.

[16] See Margaret M. Russell, “Race and the Dominant Gaze: Narratives of Law and Inequality in Popular Film,” Legal Studies Forum Vol. 15 (1991): 243.

[17] See Gloor, supra note 14.

[18] The notion of intersectional identities, first named by Professor Kimberlé Williams Crenshaw, has also been poignantly applied to Asian American women by Professor Sumi Cho in, “Converging Stereotypes in Racialized Sexual Harassment: Where the Model Minority Meets Suzy Wong,” Journal of Gender, Race & Justice Vol. 1 (Ames, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 1997): 177. For a collection of essays on multiracialism, see The Sum of Our Parts: Mixed Heritage Asian Americans, Eds. Williams-Leon, Teresa and Cynthia L. Nakashima (Philadelphia, Pennsylvania: Temple University Press, 2001).

[19] Okihiro, Third World Studies.

[20] Robert S. Chang, Disoriented: Asian Americans, Law, and the Nation-State (New York: New York University Press, 1999): 1.

[21] Delgado, Richard, and Jean Stefancic, Critical Race Theory: An Introduction, second ed. (New York: New York University Press, 2012): 7-9. For an excellent discussion of post-racialism, see Cho, Sumi, “Post-racialism,” Iowa Law Review Vol. 94 (Ames, Iowa: University of Iowa Press, 2009): 1589.

[22] Obama, Barack. “President Obama’s Farewell Address,” n.d. Accessed 13 February 2017.

[23] Riehl, Dan, “Caddell: Democrats ‘a Hollowed-Out Party’ of ‘Bi-Coastal Elites,’ Unable ‘to Reach Out Beyond Identity Politics,” Breitbart News, 21 November 2016.

[24] Harvard Kennedy School of Government, “History,” n.d. Accessed 13 February 2017.

[25] Okihiro, supra note 15.

[26] This workshop was part of the Reblaw Conference and was facilitated by Professor Peggy Cooper Davis, who wrote a wonderful piece titled, “Law as Microaggression,” The Yale Law Journal Vol. 98, No. 8 (New Haven, Connecticut: Yale University Press, 1989): 1559-1577.

Recommended Citation

Cheung, Daniel Minyong. Foreword. “Becoming Authentically Asian American.” Asian American Policy Review 27 (2017): 8-14.