May 11, 2011

(API* Heritage 2011) Post #5:Association for Asian American Studies

I am trying really hard not to make this the month of cynicism about the community. There's enough dark in the world; no one wants more grim for the sake of darkness. But beyond the day to day work where theory and practice occasionally work together but often challenge one another to fist fights, the rest of Professional Asian America seldom strikes the right note for me anymore.

I suppose a humble person wouldn't feel like they know more than a lot of the jokers out there claiming to be the voice of, the historian of, the advocate for these communities, but I'm not quite that humble man. Of course, academics and scholars get a very special kind of ire from the activisty crowd (unless they are one and the same, as some marxist, revolutionary phDs have been known to live out their fantasies by managing and governing nonprofit organizations that they claim espouse those values).

By finding fault in scholars and their very specific areas of interest and specialization, activists in the "APA" space often deflect similar criticism that could fairly be levied against them: privilege, disconnect, ego, distraction from the "real" community. commodification of community struggle for personal profit/fame/career/eccentricity, missing the forest for the trees, whatever.

The Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) is having its 2011 Conference on Asian American Studies. The line-up of papers and speakers is quite extensive, but of course, in perusing the titles of some of the work and topics, you almost feel like you are at the gateway to a thousand of Calvino's invisible cities. Each more remarkable and unbelievable than the last. I don't even understand some of the titles, let alone what might be discussed there. But does that make what these folks have committed their life work to do wrong? I can't really speak to that. It was not my path and I have come across some really obtuse "community scholars" but in the same breath could name some phenomenal scholar-activists.

Maybe scholars face a healthy dose of envy to go along with all the other emotions hurled at them. It isn't easy living on nonprofit salaries. Even if some of those lowly staffers don't want to admit that they have other ways to guarantee the standard of living they were expecting before going into nonprofit land.

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May 4, 2011

(API* Heritage 2011) Post #4: Advancing... Nothing

I am so tired of hearing groups use the phrase "advancing justice" or "advancing equality" as their catch phrase for what they do in the "social justice" space. In Asian America, this equates to towing the model minority line: speak in your turn, don't ask for anything more than the bigger children, and be polite about the crumbs you get.

I don't get the "good enough" mentality. The assumed role of these groups and individuals as brokers who "deal" away the maximum benefits that the community can hope for in their low level policy meetings to show that "we know how to sacrifice, so please give us this little thing" is just sickening. They have no power, but they still have more opportunity than any of the real folks who they claim to represent. Our community needs more than piddling "advancement" of rights and pushback on the attacks against us.

We need folks who know how and are willing to use all the pieces on the board, not just be/the pawns. We need a peoples' agenda.

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May 3, 2011

(API* Heritage 2011) Post #3: Vapors of Community in Asian American Studies

Asian America, I like to say, is on the fringe of a margin in American public consciousness and life. The big open secret is that it is hardly in the consciousness of most Asian Americans, which in a way, is very different from all other major communities of color in the United States.

African Americans - despite the systematic dismantling of the leadership and heart of the community over the decades - still have a shared history of slavery, the fight for freedom, and the many struggles for equality and self-determination. Even though they do not comport cleanly with the narrative put forward by American mainstream, at least these histories and stories are in some imperfect way part of the American consciousness, and most definitely part of the African American experience. There is power and strength in that.

For Native Americans, even if all members of the tribes do not believe in the militancy of some groups like AIM, nor do they all have the same experience, there is knowledge and deep understanding about their position as peoples struggling and charting their paths in and around modern America. Latinos have a range of experiences that have to compete with the master narrative of the long and more complicated one that the Mexican American community has, but uniform and non-particular anti-immigrant sentiment has given at least some common history of struggle to these communities.

Think about it: activism, history, anything that binds individuals their actions and their accomplishments for self and community together into some kind of narrative is not part of the shared knowledge or "orientation" to the community that most Asian Americans have. We hang onto the vapors of a movement that seems eons old. And in a coalition community that has changed in so many ways since the early 70s, I wonder if it would even be possible to create something coherent and useful as a "movement" moving forward.

It is a lot of work to be conscious and try to quilt together any kind of meaningful narrative for APAs. In a lot of ways, we are more a community without much of a history than one with a long, deep history as is often posited by the canonical discourse of APA Studies and others who need that narrative to exist for them to have jobs and some meaning to their choice of work.

One could argue that Asian America as it could exist has only lived in our imaginations, and in the rare arts and organizing spaces over the past 10-15 years, including informal arts spaces, deliberate cultural work, and college campuses. It's not too far to say that Asian America is often better formed and represented in the student movements to create the programs than in the eventual programs themselves.

Why? Because the folks who can lead these programs have often had to trim down their understanding and scope of engagement with communities in a very specific way to get through the academic obstacle course and be credentialed enough to stand up and be counted for a position leading a fringe program that most departments don't believe in. Add to that the myopia that is almost inherent in academia and is perhaps more present still in Asian American Studies, AND the fact that many of these folks are not practitioners or when they were as students or young community workers there was little in common with now, and you end up with very limited understanding of what is needed and representative now.

Students pushing for APA studies eventually feel that they don't have a connection to what happens once a program is created and the program is not engaged enough with the students to understand what they were hoping for. The programs are not only cut off from the communities that had once demanded ethnic studies, but they are actually often cut off from the activist students at the same campus who have inherited the framework from their organizational ancestors and feel confused, hurt, shut out from their vision of an inclusive and representative program where they could finally see themselves in the curriculum.

What a sad state of affairs.

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May 2, 2011

(API* Heritage 2011) Post #2: Osama Bin Laden and Asian America

Most non-Desi or non-Arab Asian Americanists would either downplay or completely miss the relevance of the title of this piece.

With the kick-off of our month, we get the news that Osama Bin Laden was killed by a covert special operation by the U.S. military. I haven't spoken with Asian Americanists around the nation, I don't know what people are thinking. Perhaps people are out in the streets "partying" like some of mainstream America (murder is not my choice cause for celebrations). Perhaps they are indifferent.

But most of conscious and progressive South Asian America is NOT doing that. People are worried, scared, unclear on what this means, realizing that the global is the personal again, and might become even more and very directly so if things go the way people are bracing for. Last night soon after the news broke, I received a series of text messages from a Pakistani American friend with whom I have had an ongoing dialogue about how complicated community politics are and how lacking mainstream and even ally efforts to speak to or gloss over these issues can be. The friend was troubled by the blood lust, and very conscious of the geopolitical ramifications of the details as they were being released.

It is not good for Pakistani Americans that he was found far from the "caves" in the North West Frontier Province bordering Afghanistan where he was rumored to be. This is all complicated by the mounting pressure in Pakistan to understand the role of the central government and domestic intelligence agency in this, as well as assert sovereignty despite what seems like collusion to U.S. state-sponsored terrorism in their own land. Meanwhile, India is faithfully rattling the "harboring and assisting" argument to garner a better foothold in the face of its arch-rival's dominant strategic position in the everWar against Terrorism.

I suppose you can try to argue that that is "over there" politics that should not trouble us so much as Americans, with the lines in the sand drawn by traditional Asian Americanists (removed from the internationalist and radical roots of the Asian American Movement) against transnational concerns. However, that is not the reality for South Asians in the United States; our communities are inextricably linked and tuned into homeland politics, culture, and changes in a way that feels different from many other communities in Asian America. And besides, this news has real world impact for South Asian American community work as well, as the internal politics and neo-nationalism flare up in migrant communities when things at this scale happen.

And of course, there is tremendous fear of backlash, reprisal or copycat attacks in the U.S., and unending suspicion (from the thin strata of Americans who can discern the difference between Pakistani Americans and their amorphous global enemy in the "war on terror"). FB status messages of "be careful" and "best to stay inside" made their way on many of my Sikh and Muslim friends' pages. While our compatriots celebrate, we have to take cover for fear that their rejoicing could end up in an "accident" with our name buried below the non-ironic headline with words like "unfortunate" and "mistake" rather than "murder" or "innocent."

Does mainstream Asian America see or realize any of this? Shouldn't it?

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May 1, 2011

(API* Heritage 2011) Post #1: Again?

Yeah I'm back this month, two years later. I guess there's something compelling, like a train wreck, about revisiting a place that I abandoned and making the commitment to try to write here once a day for the whole month. I find it a useful exercise to see if I can sustain. Clearly I was not able to do that the first time I tried to write a daily post in honor of "Asian Pacific American Heritage Month."

I read something and it reminds me of this space. I see some folks still rolling out the same tired stories and snapshots of history as the whole of our community's existence, and it makes me think of this space. More than add to the noise, I want to hear and share stories. Here's an example of someone doing that through photos and long-form interviews. The community's voices are far more important than ours. That said, I'll see what I can do to make this year interesting.

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