Mar 3, 2008

Asian American Activism: The Safe Work?

I've written here about working in the South/Asian American communities, and seeing that work as being where I've been and where I want to be after finishing with school. But regular interactions with family and desi family friends have made me think more about that choice: specifically because of how matter-of-course the older generation have adopted the racism of white America, fitting right into the racial hierarchy that puts them somewhere between blacks and whites, unless they get uppity.

Sure we get angry, upset, and try to educate within our communities, but how much is sinking in? How much just looks to people like we're idealistic? If we can't even move people on issues of faith (i.e. we are the same people, but choose to worship differently, so what's the big deal?), how are we going to combat all the racial programming that has convinced them that they want nothing to do with the black community (and increasingly, "those Mexicans"). I thought I had the patience, but I end up just ranting nowadays, not moving the dialog at all.

So I've started thinking that because there is still this perception that all South Asians or other Asian Americans in the United States are doing well, working in South/Asian American communities is a "safe" choice to explain/justify to the older generation. They think "job discrimination, yeah, I went through that in my effort to get my engineering job" so they think it's good that you're fighting for that particular right. They don't think you're talking about undocumented workers whose rights are being abused by other South Asians. Even domestic violence, which is so pervasive in our communities here, is connected as a middle class dilemma, and isn't questioned as much.

Never mind that we're thinking and talking about redistributive economics and hoping to work with people who will not be able to get that perfect job as a doctor, because they came here as laborers. The class distinctions are not quite as relevant to them - they can say "my daughter works for our community" without really thinking about what that "our" is -- it's still safe. "South Asian" the way we see it and the way they characterize/envision it is so different.

I'm starting to think that this enables us to do this work without being questioned to the same degree, probably, as people working for social, economic, and racial justice in a space that works primarily with other people of color - with "immigrants' rights" being thought of as working with the Latin@ communities in the middle, and working with Black communities still at the bottom of the perception latter for the first generation. So I'm starting to wonder if I'm taking the safe road by trying to work in South Asian or even Asian immigrant communities. Is it easy to hide some of the significant differences between my life experiences and those of the communities I want to work with because we have "co-ethnicity" for me to hide behind? Seeing how many people that work in Asian or South Asian spaces are incredibly centrist, are we just enabling more of the same by working in these spaces that don't really shake up the status quo? Are we just doing "charity" rather than "movement" work?


powerpolitics said...

I never thought of it this way, I'll say. In my East Asian community, activism was never considered safe, whether or not it was on behalf of our community.

As always, I think you bring up a good question. Just like in the broader progressive movement, there are groups that do direct service like United Way, so we have APA orgs that provide English language classes. We also have groups like CAAAV and DRUM that do kickass direct actions.

As for whether some of our groups are insular and or provincial, sometimes we do great things like how 60 odd APA orgs wrote amicus briefs for equal marriage in California.

Perhaps another view on this is that when I told my parents that I was going to be an activist on APA issues, they were really wary because historically, being an activist in Asia meant being subject to intimidation, surveillance, or worse.

Keep asking these kinds of questions - I love your perspective because it makes me think and re-evaluate.

Rage said...

Thanks for reading and commenting - sorry it took me a while to get back. I do think that working in the Asian American community is still not one of the "traditional" jobs that immigrant/middle-class parents hope for their kids. But I guess I'm putting out there that at least in some circles, it's still "explainable" without getting into a more detailed economic or even racial justice perspective. Kind of like the "giving back" mentality of the first generation, but to a different level.

I'm wondering if it's hard for them to understand why an Asian American would work in other communities of color because to understand, they have to accept that: 1) our "community" in the United States extends beyond the limited borders of race/religion/class/ethnicity that most people have a hard time transgressing, and; 2) things are not so happy in Amerikaland: there are real inequities, and there are specific communities that suffer more than others as a result of these inequalities.

As always, thanks for the perspectives and for chiming in!