Back in April, former Democratic presidential candidate, Andrew Yang, urged Asians and Asian Americans to embrace our “American-ness” by wearing “red white and blue” to combat the coronavirus and anti-Asian racism (The Washington Post). That’s easier said than done. From the mid-1870s syphilis outbreak, the 1876 smallpox epidemic, to the 1939 tuberculosis epidemic, these diseases were constantly conflated with race to conclude San Francisco’s Chinatown as a “plague spot” and a “laboratory of infection” (Nayan Shah, “Public Health, Race, Citizenship). Chinatown, Chinamen, and Chinawomen were defined as dirty and unhygienic aliens whose differences posed a danger to the American nation. The racialization – or the scapegoating – of bodies is not new. Also known as the “yellow peril,” casting Asians as disease carriers have been a tactic to justify xenophobia, immigration restrictions, and the denial of political rights (Turner Willman and Jason Oliver Chang, “Unmasking Yellow Peril). With COVID19, this is the first time many Asians and Asian Americans have stepped outside their homes with the fear of whether they would safely return. How can we simply wear “red white and blue” like a cape that protects when the nation itself has already been driven by fear that we are all diseased? How can we embrace our “American-ness” when this nation fails to include us within the American narrative as citizens and humans worthy of respect? What, then, does it mean to be a citizen of this “honorable” United States?
The term “Asian American” is a social construct as well as a movement. It first emerged in 1968 and was used by activists to reject stereotypes that “defined” who Asians and Asian Americans were in mainstream media. 1968 was also a time when students in the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State and at UC Berkeley were protesting for an academic curriculum that acknowledged and included the histories of communities of color.
As writer and Professor Viet Thanh Nguyen describes, “Asian American” is both “necessary and insufficient” (Nguyen, “Asian Americans Are Still Caught in the Trap of the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype. And It Creates Inequality for All”). Necessary as it is better than being called a “gook,” a “jap,” a “chink” – examples of some racial slurs for the “Orientals.” This term gives us an identity to organize around and for us to recognize that our anger, frustrations, loss, fear, and even emptiness aren’t “minor,” invalid feelings in this race-based nation (Nguyen). It is insufficient because it represents our own participation in (anti-Black) racism, settler colonialism, capitalism, and militarism.
To be Asian American is complex. It reminds us that our narratives have been one of inclusion and exclusion; it gives us a name to survive; it allows us to claim “American-ness” as well as our complicity in hurting other people of color without guilt. “Asian American” allows us to erase the trauma that our ancestors carried as we bask in the “success” of being “model minorities” – a role that ultimately pushes the white agenda of pitting people of color against each other. And when we “fail” to uphold white supremacy, we conveniently become the “perpetual foreigners” who are “threats” to national security. Or in other words – threats to white exceptionalism. No matter who we are, all too often, we fail to challenge the broken system called the United States. How do we start questioning when we don’t even know where to begin? But…we all start somewhere, right?
This identity is a face as well as an act. It is not a name we earn to call ourselves after meeting a checklist of criterias. It’s a journey of learning and unlearning our mistakes, our responsibilities to each other, and our places in our communities. Thus, proving our “American-ness” – proving our humanity – is not as simple as wearing “red white and blue.”