Nov 22, 2008

I am So Sick of Reminding "Pan-Asian" Groups to Remember Desis

This is a rant. I have been working in Asian American spaces for more than 15 years. I have had issues with being tokenized, marginalized, the "only one of my kind" (i.e. desi) in some places, and being stuck in the constant educating role when I'm in a positive mood about the place and conflicted history of South Asians in Asian American movements. Usually I just take that as the lumps that come with being in this weird space. But sometimes things get to me.

In the beginning, there just weren't a lot of desi folks working in Asian American spaces. I've written about how many of the people I came up with or learned from cut their teeth in "pan-Asian" organizations on the East Coast, but I don't know if that's the same on the West Coast (but it's interesting that there aren't very many strong South Asian community groups on the West Coast). Then we created our own spaces, and there have always been weird conflicts around turf, resources, and inclusion. South Asians often feel like our own spaces are important because it's hard to reach our communities - and pan-ethnic/national/lingual/cultural coalitions even between different South Asian communities are a new concept to begin with.

But that doesn't mean that in the interest of certain coalitions, and particularly in the places where community issues and interests intersect, that we shouldn't work more collaboratively and learn from one another. There's no need (and the opportunity for this has kind of passed at this point) for "pan-Asian" groups to try to co-opt or subsume South Asian groups, but there are a lot of places where we could be working together. Trust me, I fault a lot of South Asians for not thinking about possible ways to reduce inefficiency and work strategically with allies in the "pan-Asian" context.

But I'm so sick of groups, particularly those on the West Coast, though we have our share on the East Coast and in DC, who take up the space as "pan-Asian" but never do anything significant with South Asian communities. They get the funding, they shape the pan-community's stories in the media and to the funders, and they shape the little space that all APAs get on any legislative or policy agendas. 

Most groups still don't have any South Asian staff in senior level positions, and few even in entry positions. They don't understand the complexities of the communities at all and are not culturally sensitive or understanding in any way (i.e. getting veggie food at many APA events is still a huge hardship, and no one understands various desi holidays). But because these groups are larger, they get first crack at the crumbs thrown down from funders, and they don't have to change their ways to better incorporate the desi communities issues. That leaves even less for South Asian groups, many of whom still feel betrayed by "pan-Asian" groups after September 11th, when they all looked the other way as our communities were targeted and became public enemy #1.

Motherfuckers, we are a full 25% of the community population and growth numbers that you use to get your funding. Stand up or get out of the way. Your relevance was always somewhat questionable, particularly on a national policy level, but now you're just pissing me off. And you know, the academy, the so-called API Progressive/Left Movement, and the Asian American media all perpetuate this. I read the AA Movement Zine online, and there are so few articles on the South Asian American left movement that it's not even worth mentioning it and I may just read SAMAR instead.

This whole thing was precipitated when I read this article in New America Media about possible APA cabinet/presidential appointments. The dude doesn't even mention one South Asian, and the only mention of the community at all is through a quote from Dale Minami. What the fuck? Can't this writer even ask a follow-up question like "who are you talking about?"

Arghhhhhhh. End of rant.

For now.


giles said...

yo man, you're so right. and it's really disingenuous for orgs to say they are pan-asian and not be.

in addition, i've seen groups who differentiate between chinese and taiwanese yet never acknowledge anything more diverse than "south asian" - as tho south asian is made up of one ethnic/religious/linguistic group.

i don't have any insight tho. let's talk soon.

Rage said...

Thanks Giles. I don't mean to hate on folks at all, and I know there's also the need for some meeting halfway, but there are really people out there who are so brazen about their ignorance, when I try hard to understand nuances and include them in my understanding.

Again - not like I'm perfect, but it just burns me when the folks who lead these so-called movements are so insular and ignorant. It's not everyone, and I'm hoping it's just the old guard, but who knows.

Bq said...

i agree so much. most of the pan-AA literature and orgs that I've been part of/exposed to have that issue. i'm not really sure why i stay in them as the lone desi other than to serve as a remind through my very presence? lol.

i really appreciated your point a while back about the focus on the 1980s Vincent Chin case vs. all the violence against South Asians related to xenophobia and foreign policy post-9/11.

Bq said...


Rage said...

Thanks a bunch for stopping by again! I still have hope - I've found a couple of spaces lately where it's not as much an issue, and it may just be about how we start these spaces to begin with. As with other groups in other spaces, I sometimes wonder whether I'm just not open enough to being a part of something larger, but then when things happen where I'm feeling like "yo, I eat with my hands, not chopsticks!" I just feel like screaming.

And yeah - I think I have to revisit the Vincent Chin piece, now that I've actually seen the film (Vincent Who?), particularly because of who they chose (or more telllingly, didn't choose) to speak about post-9/11 violence against S.Asians in the U.S.

Bq said...

Yeah, the colleges in my area organized a screening and i missed it...i heard in passing that post-9/11 hate crimes were mentioned, but i'm not surprised that it wasn't a real engagement.

btw -
this is kind of off-topic, but have you read Unruly Immigrants by Monisha Das Gupta? It's about feminist/queer/labor organizing in nyc.

Rage said...

I think I went through it quickly and wasn't that impressed. I had high hopes for the book. But I have to remember why I didn't think that much of it.

There's a new book by Vinay Lal (an associate professor on the West Coast who runs this interesting website on Indian/diasporic history as well), called "The Other Indians: A Political and Cultural History of South Asians in America" that sounds interesting.

However, the use of "South Asian Indians" in this press release gives me an uneasy feeling. Maybe this is yet another case of mainstream Asian America not understanding that "South Asian" is not just a different way of saying "Indian."

Bq said...

yeah, that is an odd title.

i feel like i've read a lot of shallow asian american history/lit in general. i thought Unruly Immigrants was a lot more complicated and interesting than a lot of what I've read so far, but I have no idea what people who are more familiar w those organizations might think of the framing.

Rage said...

I'll have to get it from the library again to see what it was that made me not even bother with taking notes. I know some/most of the groups she mentioned, but I just can't remember my take on her take.

Will post up once I get that Vinay Lal book. For now, I'm still happier with articles that I've found than most of the book-length attempts to talk about the community activism.

Bq said...

article recs?