The Unique Role Asian Americans Can Play in Promoting Diversity
Which I'll get to in just a sec. But first let me encourage my fellow upper middle class Asians to get on the field. Whether through inertia, comfort-seeking, or family pressure, our default is often to shy away from matters of diversity. Whether we realize it or not, we avoid the hard work and the upside of engaging on issues of diversity when we focus just on doing well in school, getting a good job that is technically heavy and managerially light, and taking care of our families. For in such settings, we can play a comfortable role that does not require us to wrestle with matters of identity and inequity, of debilitating stereotypes and structural racism. We put our heads down, stay out of trouble, and enjoy the commendation of others without making waves or causing problems. But that doesn't make the storm around us go away.
But what do we have to gain or offer by engaging on such matters? A whole lot! For one, the Asian experience in America is itself a diverse one, reflecting the wide range of countries of origin, length of time our families have been in America, and socio-economic class. Many of us struggle with deep poverty and crushing discrimination, and even those of us on the other spectrum are not as far as we think from being pigeon-holed, mocked, or limited based on preconceived notions and patronizing attitudes. We have much to learn and much to experience when we accept our Asianness in its fullest, and find solidarity with our fellow Asians, who we might not otherwise consider brethren but with whom we find common experience in this country.
I think Asians have a unique touch-point with others on the issue of diversity. I can tell you that I have many conversations with white friends and colleagues that have I think been productive for them as they wrestle with the issue of diversity in America. It is a fraught topic for white people, who may feel weighed down by guilt and confusion and ignorance, and we can help be a safe space for learning and growing. What's interesting is how some white folks view us Asian Americans. Sometimes we're seen as white too, and we have to remind folks that we're not and that we have to contend with challenges they're privileged to not have to worry about. And sometimes it's the opposite, that folks carry subtle generalizations about Asians that they think are harmless or even complimentary, and there's a teaching opportunity in those cases too. But we as Asians have to take those opportunities to engage in order for progress to be made by all.
Asian Americans and African Americans, of course, have a charged relationship in this country, and particularly in our cities. Which I understand on the one hand but also think is really a shame, because there is so much we can gain from each other's experience. There is a fine line between cultural appreciation and cultural appropriation, and I'll be the first to admit I often don't know where that line is, but if there is such a thing as cultural appreciation it seems to me that Asians and blacks can and do connect there. And, for all of the tension around Asian businesses exploiting black neighborhoods, there is also opportunity to feel a kinship around issues of economic opportunity and business formation, but we need to make the effort to cultivate that kinship. Finally, I would be remiss if I did not acknowledge the great debt that well-off Asian Americans in particular owe to the courageous work of urban African American leaders during the civil rights movement, without which immigration policies would not have allowed so many well-educated Asian Americans (like both of my parents) to come to this country to achieve a better life for themselves and their children. Would that more Asians and blacks engage on these areas of commonality and shared history, rather than being resistant to or ignorant of one another.
Finally, Asians share in common with Hispanics a sense of otherness in this country, of speaking a different language at home and of being seen as foreign no matter how good your accent is or how long your family has been in America. The struggle is real, and the struggle is similar. And, like Asians, Hispanics are simultaneously one group and many countries of origin, identifying as a bloc but also feeling deep roots to a particular motherland. Not to mention the fact that we are often seen as monolithic blocs when in fact, besides country of origin and length of time in America, we can span a very wide range of socio-economic levels, religious beliefs, and political engagement. I feel like all of this should engender way more of a sense of brotherhood than currently exists, especially given how deeply each group values family and defines it in such an expansive way. We Asian Americans can do better in standing in solidarity with our Hispanic brethren.
I have for the sake of convenience made some sweeping generalizations, which obviously mask a lot of differences and nuances. But hopefully something here has encouraged you, if you are Asian American, to consider how to get on the field. You have much to gain and much to give. Don't be on the sidelines during the game of a lifetime.