Posts in: RM200
“…activism can be the journey rather than the arrival…” – Grace Lee Boggs, The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century
Grace Lee Boggs carries many titles. One of them being a visionary organizer – someone who practices the art of imagination to create alternatives to existing systems. In her earlier years, she received her PhD in philosophy, but she could not find a job because she was a Chinese woman. It was while she was living in a rat-infested basement that she started to become involved with organizing for better living conditions with her Black neighbors. That was the beginning of her fight for civil rights alongside the Black community.
In her book, “The Next American Revolution: Sustainable Activism for the Twenty-First Century,” Boggs proposed a need to transform our institutions and people. In the new American revolution, we would focus on nurturing the humanity within us rather than growing an economy based on racism, capitalism, and militarism. Within this vision, we would be responsible and respectful humans who are kind and compassionate towards ourselves, each other, and the community; we would be artists, thinkers, and makers of a world we want to live in. But resisting isn’t enough for systemic change. Our day-to-day life has been conditioned to see, act, and think in specific ways that upholds racism, capitalism, and militarism that to reimagine a new, responsible America, we also need to change ourselves. Change will take time, action, and internal reflection and change does not have to be dependent on our leaders.
Community engagement is a form of resistance to white structures as it disrupts the idea that we are powerless to make changes. Boggs argues that change is the most effective and important action to “rebuild, redefine, and respirit” our broken and seemingly desolate communities from the ground up. There can be a negative connotation when we start small – there would be voices saying it would be hard to have an impact that influences a “big” change; that starting small is a weak movement bound for failure. But starting small is the most powerful tool we have because through these “small” acts of involvement, we become leaders, thinkers, and compassionate people that see ourselves as makers of history and agents of change (American Revolutionary: The Evolution of Grace Lee Boggs).
Growing up, I always envisioned leaders to be smart, all-knowing, and confident – they were the most visible and active person standing in representation of others. Those were the people I saw who were celebrated, so I subconsciously ingrained this image of leadership to validate and invalidate who were “good” and “bad” leaders – myself included. With my narrow imagination of leadership, I wasn’t sure what it meant when others would say “everyone is unique in their own ways” or “we all have something to contribute.” It felt a bit ironic to learn about Boggs’ idea of community engagement as a form of self- and communal empowerment when I think about being a “Community Engaged Fellow” on campus. This role has helped me better understand the people of Colorado Springs and the inequities that affect them, but it constantly felt like I was going through the motions. I certainly didn’t see myself as an “agent of change,” so I started questioning what the point of community engagement was. What is my purpose of being there?
Maybe feeling loss reflects how I haven’t found a space I deeply connect with. Maybe it’s because I don’t see the impact I have. Learning about Boggs, however, I think I was also in the wrong headspace – I was so caught up with the idea of “having an impact” that I failed to recognize that community engagement is about the people and not about me. The act of starting small and rebuilding, redefining, and respiriting from the ground up is a collective resistance to oppressive structures because through our involvement, we are growing our communities, each other, and our souls. I don’t have to know the answers or see myself as a particularly “useful” person – it is also important to reflect and recognize our struggles, mistakes, and the humility to change.
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.”
“It’s like a magazine” would be the simplest way I would describe what a zine is. But a zine is different from the colorful booklets we pick up to randomly flip through pages at a doctor’s office. Of course, they share similar elements of having images, texts, and messages – a medium where art, stories, and advertisements are pieced together – but the do-it-yourself nature of a zine is the “cornerstone for marginalized voices” free from corporate goals (Rona Akbari, The Creative Independent). I would say, the personal nature of a zine is what makes it different from a magazine. We don’t need to be a professional artist, writer, or publisher to be a producer of art.
Our final project was to make a zine relating to our experiences during the pandemic and to the class. In all honesty, it was a struggle. In my optimism to start early, our class had zine study sessions over week 2. You would think that starting early meant having my zine completed early. Alas, that was only a fruitful hope.
In the beginning, my idea was focused on “ethnic heroes.” I wondered, in my childhood, who was someone (American) I looked up to that “looked like me”? Certainly prior to this class, I didn’t learn about activists, Grace Lee Boggs or Yuri Kochiyama, who fought for our human rights. My “American” childhood was very much revolved around the Suite Life of Zack and Cody, Wizards of Waverly Place, Hannah Montana, Malcolm in the Middle, and the Simpsons. Like many other Cantonese speaking kids, I also grew up watching a lot of TVB shows. When I think about Asian American role models, the only person that came to mind was Michelle Kwan and that was because we had her autobiography at home. Other kids in my grade talked about Bruce Lee, but I always thought he was a martial arts icon from Hong Kong since all the references I got of him were from TVB. Embarrassing, right? But the idea of doing a zine on “ethnic heroes” was just not calling to me. So, for the rest of week 2, I mulled about in a cycle of unmotivation that carried on to week 3.
But I was in an emotionally worse state during week 3. I didn’t know what I was looking for, and I was becoming increasingly restless. While I was going through my internal turmoil, I was also reminded that there are more than 200,000 people dying due to COVID19. “Oh shoot,” I thought, “here I am worrying about school and forgetting that a global pandemic is still happening.” Adding on to my stress was this feeling of uncertainty. Usually, I would have a general idea of my emotions…but I couldn’t pinpoint why I was so unmotivated. When my professor and Ocean Vuong, writer of On Earth We’re Briefly Gorgeous, was describing how the process of creating doesn’t have to be towards finding closure, I wondered what exactly does that look like. What does it mean for my zine to not “conclude” with closure? The funny thing was, I wasn’t even sure what I wanted healing from, but I that thought of “closure” kept returning. In me, there was this hope that as I wrap up my zine, I would feel more at peace. But I just feel as trapped as before. Hence, the title of my zine – “trapped.”
Did you just read a few paragraphs of nothingness – yup. What I do know, though, is that the process of making a zine illustrates a message that we’ve been having a dialogue about in class. Art doesn’t always have to have an answer. The role of art, however, is a medium for us to recognize that we have the power and ability to be cultural producers. We are all shaped by different moments of joy and sorrow, of content and loss, of peace and war, and taking charge of our own narratives is also a form of resistance and solidarity with each other.