Introduction

asian am activists pic

“Remember that consciousness is power.” – Yuri Kochiyama

“Know history, know self.” -José Rizal

Post by Joy Sales, PhD Candidate at Northwestern University and Visiting Professor at Grinnell College (Fall 2013)

Education should empower students– that is one my philosophies as an educator, scholar, and activist. In my “Asian American Activism” class at Grinnell College, my students used their education to learn about and share histories, stories, and experiences that are still grossly underrepresented at U.S. colleges and universities. Together, we created a blog called, “Badass Asian Americans.”

Ever since white journalists in the 1960s situated Chinese and Japanese Americans as the “model minorities,” Asian Americans are largely perceived as an upwardly mobile racial group with no struggles [1]. Due to the influx of professionals from Asia after the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965, state policy has perpetuated the model minority myth, and many Asians themselves accept and reinforce this discourse through elitism and anti-blackness [2]. Unfortunately, because of this discourse, most Americans (even Asian Americans themselves) do not know that there is a rich history of Asian im/migrants and Asian Americans contesting and challenging oppressive structures, including (but not limited to) imperialism, white supremacy, patriarchy, exploitative labor practices, and exclusionary immigration policies.  With the Asian subject representing the “perpetual foreigner” and “yellow peril,” the U.S. government has excluded Asians from citizenship, put them in concentrations camps, invaded their homelands, and pitted them against other racial minorities [3]. Because of these injustices, Asian Americans have been politicized since they arrived to this country, and sometimes before. And the state responds, sometimes with concessions, but also with new forms of policing, surveillance, and punishment [4].

The “Badass Asian Americans” blog offers a short introduction to this rich history by showcasing 17 significant Asian/American activists in U.S. history [5]. You will learn about each activist’s personal journey, the historical context in which their activism took place, and at the end of each post, students posted creative pieces based on their research. These pieces range from podcasts to choreographed dance to collages and drawings, and they demonstrate how knowledge can be expressed creatively, specifically how the arts can be used towards political expression.

Everyone should know about these 17 activists because they illustrate the following important lessons:

  • Coalitions across race, class, gender, and national borders help us devise broad-based solutions that are systematic, rather than piecemeal
  • Activism represents a wide array of strategies, such as litigation, art, literature, and education
  • The most oppressed people in a movement, usually women and LGBTQ+ activists, offer the most radical ideas and strategies for social change
  • Activism is dynamic, highly contingent, and dependent upon activists’ historical context

Anyone interested in social movements and social justice should read and share this blog. Get inspired, get agitated, get woke– and use your newfound knowledge to make change!

Works Cited

[1] “Success Story of One Minority Group in the U.S.,” U.S. News and World Report, December 26, 1966; “Success Story, Japanese-American Style,” The New York Times, January 9, 1966.

[2] Robert G. Lee, “The Cold War Construction of the Model Minority Myth,”Contemporary Asian America: A Multidisciplinary Reader (2007): 852-82; Vijay Prashad, The Karma of Brown folk (U of Minnesota Press, 2000).

[3] “Perpetual foreigner” is the stereotype that Asians are unable to integrate in U.S. society, no matter how long they have resided in the U.S. The most common manifestation of this stereotype is the question, “Where are you really from?” Yellow peril is one form of racial anxiety, in which “the West” constructs “the East” as a danger, menace, and Other. Rooted in Orientalism, yellow peril served as the motivation and justification for exclusionary immigration policies and racist practices in Western settler nation-states, like the United States. For more on perpetual foreigner and yellow peril, read Erika Lee,  At America’s gates: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943 (Univ of North Carolina Press, 2003); Lee, The Making of Asian America: A History (Simon and Schuster, 2015). For primary sources, read John Kuo Wei Tchen and Dylan Yeats, eds. Yellow Peril!: An Archive of Anti-Asian Fear (Verso, 2014). For Orientalism, read Edward W. Said, Orientalism (Vintage, 1979) and Gary Y. Okihiro, Margins and Mainstreams: Asians in American History and Culture (University of Washington Press, 2014).

[4] One example is connecting the racial anxiety of Japanese Americans after Pearl Harbor with that of Muslim Americans and Muslim-looking peoples after 9/11. See Frank Chi, Letters from Camp

[5] This blog is limited, as it does not contain many Southeast Asians and no Pacific Islanders. This limitation speaks to the confines of Asian American as a racial category, and how, despite its dynamic history as a political identity that galvanized a multitude of Asian ethnic groups, it still erases various identities. This limitation also represents the dearth of knowledge on Asian/Americans in U.S. curriculum.

[6] Image from Stand Up: An Archive Collection of the Bay Area Asian American Movement, 1968-1974 (Asian Community Center, 2009).

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