When people in marginalized communities try to prove our “worth” to white supremacists, it’s a time-consuming distraction from the real work ahead of us.
By Kiran Misra
With a South Asian American at the top of the Democratic Party ticket this election cycle, two party conventions where the issue of South Asian American identity was front and center, both a South and East Asian American featuring prominently in the crowded Democratic primary field and several dozen Asian Americans vying for spots in Congress, Asian Americans experienced greater political visibility than ever before this election cycle.
“I have worked on a lot of campaigns over my lifetime and I can tell you that the Asian American community is usually not even factored in,” Varun Nikore, the executive director of the AAPI Victory Fund, tells me. “Typically, when candidates run, they say ‘okay, well, what’s the minimum amount of votes I need to win?’ It’s called their win margin, win percentage, or win number. Usually, Asians are not even accounted for in that calculation.”
So, at times, this new attention on our community felt welcome. A study conducted by AAPI Data, a publisher of policy research on Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders, found that in 2016, around 70% of voters had not been contacted by either political party during the election cycle. But this year, even in the absence of campaign promises from either of the party nominees speaking to some of the most pressing needs for the most marginalized members of our communities—a radical reimagining of our immigration and criminal justice systems, universal healthcare access, strengthening labor protections after years of erosion, and more—it was clear that neither party took the Asian American vote for granted, given the millions of dollars spent to woo us as voters.
We received campaign materials and advertisements in the languages many members of our community speak, filling a gap in language access that often drives lack of Asian American voter engagement. Candidates featured us in their campaign videos, appointed heads of AAPI outreach, held forums to engage directly with the issues impacting us, spoke directly to us in op-eds, reached us on our own radio stations, and addressed us directly in debates and rallies.
But this increased visibility for the Asian community didn’t mean that our peers were more likely to understand or accept us as Americans. In fact, the new awareness of Asian Americans resulted in racist questions and comments everywhere from the presidential debate stage in Tennessee to campaign rallies in Georgia and on the Twitter feeds of politicians across the pond.
In response, we were quick to assert that we do, in fact, generate economic or cultural value and insisted that we are, in fact, capable of assimilating into American society. We swarmed the internet to assure strangers that our names aren’t just a collection of weird-sounding syllables but are actually rich in meaning, protested that many of us actually are living here with documentation, and pointed out that “7/11 not 9/11” isn’t even a factually accurate racist comment against South Asians—all before lunch.
Whether in response to decades of immigration policies which have ensured that only the most economically promising and productive would even be allowed to enter the country, analyses that only address immigrant communities to determine the economic value we generate, years of model minority conditioning that our acceptance in this country is contingent on our high test scores and average incomes, or simply living under an ableist and capitalist value ethic where we are all required to constantly prove our worth lest we be labeled public charges, we deem it necessary to protest again and again that we are American. That we love America, and that we’re an asset to this country.
Never-ending racist attacks can’t and shouldn’t go unexamined, but these rebuttals can do more harm than good. For one, these constant counterarguments are incredibly time consuming and the considerable amount of time spent trying to convince white supremacists who will never see us as fully human regardless that our lives have worth has rarely, if ever, proven to be a successful tactic in gaining power, access to resources, and rights protections for our communities.
As Toni Morrison put it, “the function, the very serious function of racism is distraction. It keeps you from doing your work. It keeps you explaining, over and over again, your reason for being. Somebody says you have no language and you spend twenty years proving that you do. Somebody says your head isn’t shaped properly so you have scientists working on the fact that it is. Somebody says you have no art, so you dredge that up. Somebody says you have no kingdoms, so you dredge that up. None of this is necessary. There will always be one more thing.”
Though racism is also defined by consolidating access to power, wealth, and opportunity in dominant-race communities for the benefit of these communities, one function of racism is, in fact, to keep marginalized communities from doing our work. In college and graduate school, when fellow students would organize events comparing immigrants to disease and debating the worth of marginalized communities in America in the name of rigorous inquiry, none of my attempts to engage with them or the professors sponsoring their events convinced anyone that our lives had intrinsic value. These efforts just added extra work to the already-steep task of surviving in a competitive, primarily white setting. After I graduated, endeavoring to convince peers in a fellowship program that my views on the impact of United States foreign policy on vulnerable communities across the globe didn’t make me a terrorist largely didn’t change the hearts and minds of people who had already decided how they felt about a brown woman being critical of American policies.
Morrison is unequivocally correct in stating that, “there will always be one more thing.” After we point out that Asian Americans on the front lines of the pandemic are saving the lives of white communities who fight to strip us of our citizenship or deport those of us who don’t have it, another pointed accusation will come sailing our way. But just as crucially, we don’t need to be Nobel laureates, have profound and beautiful cultural practices, or even be enthusiastic nationalists in order to “deserve” to live here.
When we validate and reinforce the never-ending implicit conditions on this right, we are only handing those who seek to harm us the ammunition they need to attack the most vulnerable or targeted members of our communities—like disabled, Black, and undocumented Asian Americans, outspoken critics of the many crimes and injustices underpinning the American enterprise, and our elders, to name a few. When we try to prove our worth to white supremacists, we all lose. Kiran Misra is a journalist, editor, and policy researcher based in many places currently including DC, Chicago, and Iowa. She mainly writes about criminal justice policy and the politics of South Asian American identity, but also loves a good piece of cultural criticism or an in-depth profile. You can read her work here or follow her on twitter here.
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