The Asian American Activism You Won’t See On Instagram
The most effective work that’s being done to protect and support our communities isn’t meant to look nice on social media.
There are two Asian Americas. The first is led by a small, loud cohort of Asians who often take to social media platforms to spread awareness of their personal struggles with microaggressions. In this world, Asian Americans assimilate, tiger parent, and have just ‘woken up’ to the racial and economic hardship of millions. Many support increasing policing and ending affirmative action because they benefit some Asian Americans — despite the fact that these policy positions hurt so many other communities, including their own. Here, representation is the preeminent political, cultural, and professional goal. This Asian America suggests that Asian faces in Congress, Hollywood films, and corporate boardrooms will eradicate racism. But this Asian America has a counterpart.
In this second community, sex workers, undocumented immigrants, the working poor, women, queer, and trans people are not interested in seeing the most resourced among us infiltrate white spaces and gain accolades. They understand how revealing it is that, among all minority groups, Asian Americans have the largest wealth gap between our richest and poorest. This chasm is evidence of our internal fragmentation, and that we’ve strayed from the roots of our founders, Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, activists who first created the umbrella term “Asian Americans” under which to shelter Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino people working in concert with Black, Chicanx, and Indigenous people toward the goal of collective racial justice. In this Asian America, we practice the unflashy, Instagram-unfriendly, oftentimes unacknowledged work of addressing the root causes of racism, patriarchy, and pain.
Audrey Kuo belongs to this second Asian America. Kuo has worked with long running abolitionist group Critical Resistance and Ktown4BlackLives, a multiracial collective organizing against anti-Black racism in Los Angeles’ Koreatown. Unlike the celebrity class, Kuo is weary of calls for representation. “I'm not interested in mainstream discourse about what it means to be Asian American [because] it causes this desire for acceptance,” Kuo told Refinery29. “I'm a gender-fluid trans person, I'm disabled and neurotypical. Yeah, I'm not going to blend in on any level, and so these calls for representation make no sense to me.”
Representation is a topical, individual goal. It calls for marginalized people to be spokespeople for systems that harm communities without changing how the film industry, politics, or businesses themselves reproduce inequity. “When a celebrity pushes for representation, it's all about the visual and not about the power,” says Vivian Chang, the Civic Engagement Manager for Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA), the first and only national labor organization of Asian American and Pacific Islander workers. Because representation is so ineffective as a solution to racism, community organizers like Kuo deliberately disengage from conversations about representation in order to focus on structural problems. “People I care about are going to get deported, people I care about don't have access to healthcare, sex workers are being discriminated against,” they say in response to why they might not care about who gets cast in what movie and why.
Rich, educated, straight, and cisgender Asians are the most likely to be heard when they speak out; their goals of representation and awareness are the most likely to be taken seriously. Their influence combined with the palatable bodies in which it comes from suppresses experiences that diverge from those of this privileged group. But this kind of representation fails the broader Asian American community.
Last month, the Biden Administration deported 33 Vietnamese men. In New York, Asians are the poorest immigrant group. Eighteen percent of Asian and Pacific Islander transgender people live in extreme poverty, earning less than $10,000 a year. “What are we actually building and who are we fighting for?” asks Kuo.
For Haewon Asfaw, who works with SoCal Organized Oppression Breaking Anti-Imperialist Koreans (SOOBAK), an anti-racist, anti-Imperialist collective based in Southern California, the rise of anti-Asian violence alongside the Black Lives Matter movement created an urgent opportunity to answer Kuo’s question about who Asian America is, and who its politics benefit.
Kuo and Asfaw underscore the importance of slow, process-based work that abolitionist organizations like theirs do, that includes building alternatives to police by strengthening community relationships and other transformative justice work that is invisible in mainstream Asian American discourse. Transformative justice is a process that gives people affected by injustice a way to address and repair the harm within the community and outside of police who often increase violence. It has been practiced and developed by groups across the country for decades.
Asfaw says, “The biggest destruction of our movements is how we deal with each other, how we're able to move through hardship, contradiction, struggle, anger, [and] abuse that happens.” As racial justice organizations across the country swell, Asian American activists are doubling down on abolition through transformative justice. Kuo asks, "What is the smallest way you're practicing TJ [transformative justice]?" Kuo says, “Have a conversation with your neighbor instead of calling the cops, or have a conversation instead of leaving a passive aggressive note.”
Kuo, Chang and Asfar have an ambivalent relationship with highly visible, social-media-led displays of activism, but mainstream tactics can be helpful in their political work. Chang says, “The average person in the United States isn't exposed to this whole [Asian American activism] world because that's not in the narratives or you don't interact with that.” The erasure of Asian Americans as participants in racial justice movements is conspicuous. The lack of representation of people like Chang, Kuo and Asfar in mainstream activism risks reinforcing stereotypes of Asian Americans as apolitical and passive.
Asfaw says that their perception of Asian American organizers changed after collaborating with Korean elders in Los Angeles who were fighting the policing of schools by ending truancy tickets. They described seeing “OG grandmas organizing on buses, holding our MTA board accountable” as one of their “biggest turning moments.” The erasure of Asian Americans who hold true to the legacy of the community’s activist roots sets an artificial limit on political dreams and possibilities. Asfaw says, “We as Asians are such badasses . . . we've literally been bamboozled to think we're not."
Asian Americans have been uniquely scrutinized in this pandemic year: Our elders are being targeted, our small businesses are closing, and geopolitical games between America and other Asian countries have threatened the safety and wellbeing of the diaspora. These events cast light on a fact about our Asian Americanness that’s rarely reckoned with: Within our overarching identity group are separate, isolated communities that rarely interact. Our fragmentation is our weakness. This year’s Not Your Token Asian interrogates who among us benefit at the expense of others, and how part of demanding justice for ourselves means demanding justice for each other.