Although systemic racism is the oldest motif in American history, recent events – including the Michael Brown shooting in Ferguson and the protests in Baltimore – have prompted us to thoroughly confront what it means to be a person of color in the United States.
As Taiwanese Americans, our phenotype generally assigns us to a vague “Asian” aesthetic.
This “Asian” aesthetic then ascribes us to certain privileges and disadvantages.
Historically, the Asian American community has confronted racially-charged violence and immigration/legal exclusion. To this day, we remain heavily stereotyped, exotified, hyper-sexualized (women), or emasculated (men). But these struggles have been invalidated and reduced as Asian Americans are remodeled into a homogenous community of scholars and computer programmers. Our appeasement is our subscription to social survival. Our reticence grants us the security of being the favored model minority.
But the reality is that our perceived advancement was based on our segregation from other minority groups. While our common experiences of being racially violated could have united us into powerful collective action, this potential was shattered by the socially constructed hostility among different ethnic groups.
This “divide-and-conquer” strategy was implemented by institutions of white supremacy. They sought to empower themselves by turning us against each other.
I ask us now to reflect on our Taiwanese American identities in the context of a broader, more complicated system. I ask us to engage in acts of solidarity with other marginalized groups in a continual effort to claim political and social justice.
What is solidarity?
To stand in solidarity is to stand with others.
It is aligning yourself as an ally of an oppressed group with the understanding that collective action is a form of political and social power. It is a demonstration of empathy. It is strength in numbers.
Solidarity is not supposed to be pretty. Let me be very clear: Taiwanese American alliance with black communities is not speaking for or on behalf of them. We can amplify and echo their voices on their struggles, lending our privileges and platforms to those with whom we stand and support. In the midst of continual violence against black bodies and black spaces, I ask the Taiwanese American community to enter difficult conversations about race relations without derailing the heinous realities that threaten black lives. I ask that our demonstrations of solidarity be sensitive and self-aware, and not for performance. This matters to the integrity of the fight.
But I also encourage us as Taiwanese Americans to be advocates for ourselves and for our own experiences. It is important to create safe spaces in which to process and learn; dismantling transgenerational racism is disruptive but crucial work. I hope we all have the humanity to engage in this.
Why does it matter?
Our own history is incomplete without awareness of the complicated and messy racial history of the United States. For Asian Americans, it can seem intuitive to exclude ourselves from conversations about race relations. We are often confused about where we fall on the perceived spectrum of a black and white dichotomy. We might be intimidated by the tension and conflict we could create. Or, perhaps most dangerously, we believe that this fight is not our own.
But the under-representation of Taiwanese Americans voices is a severe form of oppression. We are seen as perpetual foreigners and denied agency because we are told again and again that the stories and struggles of this nation are not our own.
But they are.
We are Taiwanese American. That space between our ethnicity and nationality grounds us in this country – as businessmen, researchers, YouTube personalities, doctors, students – whose lineages were not simply transplanted, but given room to grow and prosper. It bridges us between two nations that have survived continual conflict and discord.
As Asian Americans, we are often expected to function in spaces with people who don’t look like us, and we may feel like we are outsiders within our own “American dreams,” like we don’t belong in the context of our own ambitions.
But we do.
When we remember this, we reclaim our voices. When we decide that we want to be included in conversations about intersectionality and racism, we complicate the black-and-white paradigm so that it better represents the diversity of this country.
But this also means acknowledging that our complicity – our refusal to make noise about an issue that does not seem to directly concern us – reinforces problematic institutions like white supremacy. If we are not actively dismantling these, we are perpetuating them; upon recognizing our own instrumentality, we must then be proactive.
Where do we stand?
The experiences of different minority groups are unique, but many of our obstacles trace back to a white supremacist domination. If we stand together, we make it exponentially more difficult for this antagonist to define the parameters of our existence.
To be frank, many of us believe that our safety and security in this country has been earned by obedience and honesty; we subscribe willingly to the model minority myth because it rewards deference with privilege. But we have to understand that the model minority myth was essentially created to berate African American (and other disenfranchised minority) groups. (“If Asians can achieve success, why can’t they?”) It is a flattering prophecy, but violently abusive to those included and excluded; it erases the struggles that many Asian Americans realistically face and further criminalizes the black community. It creates a model of the geeky Asian engineer and the black thug; neither is truly representative of his community, but while one is lost in a nameless haze of sweatshop computer programming, the other becomes a body whose mere right to live is widely contested.
Asian American history is not African American history. But Asian Americans must consider their historical, social, and political relationships with black communities.
So although the Asian immigrant experience was historically elevated through anti-blackness, we must now stand in solidarity with our black peers. Although the model minority myth generally places us in social favor, we must work to deconstruct this because it remains, ultimately, a stereotype that qualifies us based on physicality alone.
We must risk losing our honorary white privilege in acknowledgment that we cannot continue to uplift ourselves at the cost of other minority groups. Again, this is not supposed to be seamless work. It will challenge us to confront racism within our own families, our elders, and our communities. But it matters.
The Taiwanese American community is a powerful one.
We have demonstrated incredible tenacity; our narratives continue to evolve from that of immigrants to that of growing generations, from the struggle to survive to the capacity to thrive. We continue to be a family-oriented group, shedding love and light to those who struggle beside us.
We could be a force of distinct influence. We could be drivers of social and political change. Let’s reflect on what our complicity has done to elevate certain lives, often at the cost of violating others. Let’s discuss the stereotypes and prejudices prevalent within our communities and how we can work to deconstruct them. Let’s include and amplify black and other marginalized voices with whom we should and will always co-exist.
Let’s start the conversation.
Leona Chen is currently a freshman at Washington University in St. Louis. Her most recent combination of studies includes double-majors in Economics & Strategy and Leadership & Strategic Management, a minor in Writing, and a pre-Law focus. Thanks to a childhood of being (lovingly) poked and prodded by fabulous role models in Taiwanese-American organizations such as SEBTA, TAFNC, and TACL-LYF, she is now exploring social activism at the intersection of passion and purpose.