We have made it to the final week of Asian American and Pacific Islander Heritage Month!
This has been so revealing and relieving. I have used the past week’s theme of politics to really dive into specific areas that I have been eager to explore for a while but never carved out the time. I am excited for what is to come if I can grow and connect these shorter pieces further. It is nice to feel excited (and not pressure or stress) about a creative project.
With just a few days left of this month (one of those being Memorial Day), this final week will touch upon militarization against API peoples and lands.
When I have chosen to engage in it, AAPI Heritage Month has served as a dedicated avenue to lean into systemic political analysis, community organizing, and public education. The underlying premise being that AAPIHM is not for me or us, but a time to mobilize other AAPI people to educate others about our history. This is American multiculturalism at its finest–create a narrow space for us to feel obligated to teach people who have access to the same Google we all do year-round. White supremacy encourages simplicity, not respect; tolerance, not repair.
I am more regularly pausing to ask myself: who actually deserves to learn about me and my heritage? My drive to understand, change, and educate was nurtured into me by my global citizen family. It’s how we make meaning of what we are experiencing, or what we have experienced so long ago but burdens us still. In vulnerable conversations with my mom and my brother in recent years, it feels clear that none of us are willing to inherit the traumas of generations past. Given that silence around trauma is a distinctly inherited trait, it feels essential that we–that I–keep working to find words for this…muck.
Pushing myself with this daily writing ritual has helped me to test the waters of vulnerable self-reflection to move through it. Since I left living under my family’s care 20 years ago, I have often eagerly stepped into–or often created–containers for AAPI connection. While those spaces have offered many opportunities for learning and education, they have not served me in the ways I have been deeply seeking for so long. Even in those spaces of people, I still feel lonely. This writing activity has illuminated for me that my drive to educate comes from a deep sense of loneliness when it comes to my relationship to race, or more so to oppression.
My loneliness is formed in part by a lack of representation. Not in the façade of TV or film sort of way, but more like a demonstration outside of myself. Proof that I and my trauma exist, but validation that I am not my trauma. I am still searching for the words to convey these layered feelings. What is true is that avidly leaning into an over-intellectualization of AAPI heritage will not fill that void. I must serve me differently.
Edward Said’s term “orientalism” describes positioning of us as a threat to “the West,” validating war and imperialism. Reflections?
The Orient. An “olden days” term sparking images of trade ships and bazaars. Language for the magical mysteries of the unknown. Suburban Chinese restaurants with dingy fluorescent lighting and perfectly fine ma po tofu.
Orientalism. A concept that clarifies the racist and oppressive roots of the word “oriental.” An academic discipline by and for white colonizers to justify imperialist actions in the Middle East and across Asia. A term I am eager to better understand but fear it knocking me out emotionally.
When the attacks occurred on September 11, 2001, I was only 16 years old but already knew in my heart that my brown family was threatened. Threatened to be treated as a threat. Supremacist righteousness would contain ignorant whites in their violent confusion. They wanted war at all costs. I knew and felt this even at that young age.
I wonder if all people of Asian heritage have these fears. Do we all know that when the buzzing of war begins to fly in American ears, we are implicated? Do all Asians know how strong a role orientalism has in this country’s mission of imperialism?
Do you feel a personal connection to the Memorial Day holiday?
Memorial Day was not created with me in mind. It was created to remind me that if my foreign family fought in any wars, they were the Other. Any semblance of freedom I feel on this land is a mockery of the American Dream. My blood family and I will not be memorialized by this nation. I am my American heritage. Free from the burden of carrying arms in the name of this country.
In fall of 2014, I participated in a 7-week workshop series by Baltimore Racial Justice Action (BRJA) designed by and for people of color. That is the term BRJA uses to describe people with Black, Indigenous, Latinx, Asian, Pacific Islander heritage. The workshop series is self-selected and requires an application process in which you had to describe your relationship to the term “people of color.” At the time, I had been familiar with the term for several years through the media and my activist community. I identified as a “person of color” as early as 2003 when I entered college as a Sociology major. However it was not until this workshop series that I learned an origin and purpose for this term.
“Women of Color is not a biological designation. It is a solidarity definition. A commitment to work in collaboration with other oppressed women of color who have been minoritized. It is a term that has a lot of power.”
Loretta J. Ross
We watched a clip of Professor Loretta J. Ross discuss “women of color” as a term that came out of 1970s cross-racial feminist organizing, such as the Third World Women’s Alliance. This quote changed my world, or rather have meaning to my connection to the term “person of color.” I felt (and still do feel) this term applies to me and my purpose towards solidarity.
Recently, though I have learned that post-Civil War Maryland’s legal statutes claimed that a “person of color” as “one who is descended from a Negro to the third generation, inclusive, though one ancestor in each generation may have been white.”(The Afro November 1912). This could explain why since living in Baltimore, I have come to experience “person of color” used synonymously with Black or African-American. Particularly among Black Baltimoreans.
A few years ago the term BIPOC has entered mainstream lexicon to distinguish Black, Indigenous, People of Color to include all people who do not identify as White. In this case, my Asian self would fall under general “people of color.” While I see BIPOC being used in Baltimore, again, I have not experienced it widely enough to shift the Black/People of Color conflation.
Basically, I am confused. At the end of the day, I just want to feel solidarity with other people oppressed by white supremacy. I don’t want to feel so alone.
In reflecting on the T***p administration with my dad, he compared it to the political energy in India just before they moved to North America in 1980. This is how my family talks about politics. With a lens on where we come from and how we got here, as individuals, nations, and as a global society.
In April 1980, the BJP political party was formed in India following what my dad described as quite the right-wing fervor burgeoning in the 1970s. He says he could see his country going in a direction he did not like and this was a strong impetus for why he felt the need to leave India. Over my lifetime this violent Hindu supremacist political party has risen to power. Today, BJP is the largest political party in the world and has controlled India’s national government for almost a decade.
Granted, over the years my dad has named many a reason why they left for North America in February 1980. It was in this more recent conversation about U.S. politics today that my dad shared this fascinating comparison to Indian political culture in the late 1970s. I have always wanted to deeply understand the underlying motivations to make such a momentous decision to move across the world. A decision that has basically led to my existence.
That reason–the reason of we got to get out of here, it’s getting real weird, real conservative and hatery–that just feels right in my bones. It makes much more sense to me than “following the American Dream” or some such nonsense. This also offers a lens on how my family has perceived and is affected by the political climate of the United States. Essentially a re-traumatization caused by existing here.
We all in my family engage with political news avidly, but uniquely from each other. My mom often shares a lot of emotional responses to political contexts. She centers humanity, talking about identity and the impacts on our well-being. My dad is an intellectual philosopher. He prefers to strike up conversations about neo-liberalism and Marxism, while always anchoring back to the political climate of 1970s India. My brother is a resource for information at national and global scales, particularly related to climate and social justice but also far beyond those realms. We both approach politics as activists and observers moving towards better.
I think that if it weren’t for coming from this family I wouldn’t be doing the work I’m doing in local-level policy advocacy. I wouldn’t give the shits that I give. Engaging in political advocacy feels like carrying the family torch of questioning and reshaping power.
As we continue to grow as political thinkers and actors, I do hope my family will continue to question, even if it means critiqing our own positional power. We must keep in mind that high-caste Brahmins were appointed to hold political power in colonized and independent India. What does it mean for our Brahmin family to be so politically inclined? To have that lineage of political power? What do we do with that power? This is where we must push.
In my last post, I claimed that I don’t follow politics in Asia or the Pacific Islands. This hasn’t been sitting right with me all day. I feel I need to rethink that self-perception to better understand how I “follow” politics or news at all.
The feminist thinkers and Third World Women’s Alliance organizers of the 1970s pushed us to understand that “the personal is political.” Our bodies–my body has been made political. Race, gender, class, caste. These are political issues that delve deeper than current events. When it comes to engagement with politics in South Asia, I am trying to be much more aware of violence against Dalit, Adivasi, and Muslim people–particularly women, trans, and genderqueer people. The casteism of the BJP political party has been taught to me by brilliant leaders in Equality Labs. As a Brahmin Indian in the United States, it is my duty to also follow how casteism shows up here and to support efforts to end Brahmin power building.
What I must interrogate is around the shame when I feel I am not following politics there or here enough. I’m quite involved in local politics at the city and state levels for my job in harm reduction policy advocacy Whether it was my job or not, I would be paying a lot of attention to it because it affects my day-to-day life. If I don’t feel inclined to follow politics in Asia with the same fervor as I do local politics, does that mean I think politics in Asia does not affect me as a diasporic Asian?
The Third World Women’s Alliance leaders saw the issues happening elsewhere as affecting them personally in New York and San Francisco. How do local organizers keep up with all that going on internationally? This all definitely goes beyond following politics or the news locally. It’s how we make meaning of what is happening in any one place or multiple places at once. How we connect the international to the local and vice versa.
When the Third World Women’s Alliance was formed, there was excessive violent involvement of the U.S. in Vietnam and across Southeast Asia. As I understand it, TWWA members were protesting not just the war itself, but our nation’s role in it. Today, the United States–which remains an Imperialist power–strategically engages in a variety of wars across the globe and in our communities. The War on Drugs, on Black people, poor people, Indigenous people, trans people… This country uses global tactics locally. Global issues with local impacts, and vice versa.
How do we find our focus amidst it all? How do we find peace and quiet amidst this interwoven global chaos?
Do you follow politics in Asia or the Pacific Islands?
In talking with my Amma recently she had shared with me a deep sadness about the “terrible treatment of women that continues in India.” She said she had been reading and watching the news about it and how upsetting it was. I did not know what she was talking about.
My brother graciously sends me article links about current events in India. Every time I see these links I hesitate. I know I should open and read it. I know I should keep up with the political climate of our ancestral land. Where most of my family still resides. I also know that I am so tired under the oppressive American regime that I might break any second. How am I supposed to navigate all of this consistent heartache?
So no, I would say that I do not follow politics in Asia or the Pacific Islands. This is something I carry shame around. It just feels so… overwhelming. For much of my life it felt quite unapproachable. I had heard certain perspectives from uncles and cousins that did not sit right, but I did not feel qualified to push back. As with most “Indian” things I feel just as inadequate at 38 as I did at 12.
Recently I was inspired to find footing in API politics when I attended an international conference for work. There I met brilliant drug policy advocates from the Pacific Islands. I was blown away by the powerful work they were doing to end the death penalty and expand harm reduction. A fire was lit under me to look into such policies in other Pacific Islands and across Asia. In doing this research, I don’t feel as inadequate because I am confident in my political values. Maybe this is the entrance I need to stay plugged into API politics.