This post will mostly be me just rambling, trying to get down some thoughts I’ve had in the past month or so.
In my attempts over the last few years to gain a historical understanding of the Asian American identity, I’ve struggled to draw a line of continuity from the Asian American experiences of systems of oppression in the United States to the Asian American experience today. They’re linked somehow, and I know they are. I just can’t help focusing on the break in that line, the disconnect.
For black Americans, for example, that line of continuity can easily be drawn from slavery through Reconstruction, Jim Crow, lynchings, segregation, redlining, and the rise of urban cities, and we can follow that line to the black experience today. Black identity today has been directly shaped by history, by historical systems of oppression. I’ve been listening to one podcast’s deep analysis of Beyonce’s Lemonade, exploring how her understanding of her husband’s infidelity is informed by seeing black identity as a result of slavery’s legacy. How a family history of broken relationships between black men and women is a generational curse she must acknowledge, then break.
As someone who loves history, I am deeply interested in how history plays a role in how we think of ourselves today. But I’m struggling to draw my own line of continuity. Right now, I’m reading The Making of Asian America by Erika Lee. Asian American/Pacific Islander History month, part of which included a PBS miniseries on Asian American history, is coming to an end. It’s essential for us to educate ourselves on our own history, but… what if that history doesn’t feel like mine?
As a Filipina woman in 2020, what relationship do I have with the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882? Or even the Filipino farmworkers’ movement in California in 1965?
Anyone who hears me talk about these things would likely get the sense that I am adamant about making that historical connection. But I harbor these misgivings, partly in secret, because I haven’t found a way to fully articulate them.
To me, the break in that line of continuity from the past to the present comes from the undeniable fact of Asian American privilege today. In the past few generations, Asian Americans have gained access to portions of American society they were historically barred from — economic prosperity, higher education, a general dismantling of legal discrimination, and a kind of mangled respect in the eyes of white America in the form of the Model Minority myth. (Aside from, of course, the Asian American groups who still experience poverty and marginalization at higher rates than others.) The modern day microaggressions and racism we still face don’t change the fact of our privilege.
Is that something I’m allowed to say?
Something that just occurred to me is that there just might be a misconception around the importance of learning Asian American history — that our history has been largely unavailable to us, and once we learn it, we unlock the means to understanding ourselves. Perhaps this isn’t a general misconception, but just my own misplaced expectations. For some reason, I approach Asian American history the same way I would approach learning the history of any other group. As a study from afar, a novelty, something I am not a part of.
I share the label, but not the narrative.
My parents and I are recent immigrants — we left the Philippines in 1999 — but I see myself as Asian American because I’ve lived essentially my whole life here. What seems to be missing, for me, is the fact that my own history is not in this country, the country stitched together by railroads built by Chinese workers, the country where Chinatowns and Little Manilas sprung up on the margins, where Larry Itliong organized with Cesar Chavez, where Asian American youth activists demonstrated alongside the Black Panthers. My history is in another country, an ocean away, where I have no direct access, and I am displaced from it.
Perhaps the break in the continuity is not in the broader Asian American narrative, but in my own.
The George Floyd riots are happening right now, and while that’s not the reason I started reflecting on all of this, it resurfaces that question of historical identity for me. I know I stand in solidarity with the protestors and with Black Lives Matter, as I have since the movement began in 2014, and in the years since I began educating myself about the historical context of this movement, I’ve also had an ongoing discussion with myself about my own place in this history.
Who are Asian Americans as a marginalized group? What is our relationship with systems of white supremacy? These were and still are important questions in defining my political beliefs, but I’m learning more and more that it’s not Asian American history that can answer these questions for me.
The complexity of these questions arises every time I try to do my own acts of solidarity by acknowledging and correcting the anti-blackness (or, at the very least, the misreading of modern anti-black racism) pervasive in the Asian community. For immigrants relatively new to this country, an understanding of these events in their historical context can be more difficult to access. For example, how do I explain to my mother, whose experience with civil disobedience was through the nonviolent People Power revolution in the Philippines, that the looting and rioting happening right now represents valid frustration and anger toward generations of brutal oppression? That violent resistance is inevitable within a system, a country, a legacy built on violence?
In discussions about Asian American identity, I want to make space for all the confusing nuances. There must be a way to better discuss the contradictory narratives of our history of systemic oppression, the racism we still face, and the fact of our privilege today, connecting them all somehow without casting aside whatever parts don’t conveniently fit in the story of ourselves. I am lost in all this. I am lodged between my own lack of history and my adamant belief that we are shaped by history. I am picking myself apart to find and break the generational curses that have molded me and that I am in danger of perpetuating. But I first need to know where they come from.