So you’re a great activist. You’re part of X, Y, and Z organization. You’ve gone to all these great cities to give great speeches about being a great activist for your marginalized community. You’ve even taught people how to teach and equipped so many young activists with the tools to fight oppression—so why is this rando on the Internet telling you that you can’t squint your eyes in your selfie and caption it “Chinese”?
Asian Americans make up only about 5% of the United States population, so it’s honestly not surprising that you may have managed to slip by committing ridiculous microaggressions in activist spaces without ever being called out. But just because there are so few of us around, does not mean that we don’t exist or that your actions don’t affect us.
Asian Americans are so often pushed to the side even within spaces that were intended to be safe for us that we are usually doomed to be merely a footnote in conversations about racism, xenophobia, and anti-immigration sentiment, despite the long history of the Asian civil rights movement in the United States and the immense diversity of Asian American experiences. With so many of us growing up in communities that discourage us from nonconformity or in cultural vacuums that leave room only for assimilation, our apparent absence in activism is not a coincidental one—it is yet another insidious effect of white supremacy.
To use this as an excuse is only another way of blaming Asian Americans for our own oppression. Instead of being tacitly compliant with white supremacy, it is up to YOU to start asking yourself: “Am I doing anything that could be perpetuating anti-Asian racism right now?”
1. “Loving” our cultures (when you’re really just fetishizing them).
The uncomfortable truth is that most of the time, your fetishization is going to be completely invisible to you. Whether you’re white or a non-Asian person of color, you should be actively examining the ways you could be appropriating or misrepresenting Asian culture—yes, that means you should probably take those chopsticks out of your hair and think twice about getting that Ganesh tattoo done. Anti-Asian racism doesn’t just exist in John Hughes movies and history books, and it’s not always a blatant caricature or a shitty joke. Orientalism, an ideology that comes from the peak of anti-Asian racism in American history, generally manifests as a perception of Asian cultures (including West Asia AKA the “Middle East”) as strange, exotic, mysterious, or even “mystical”, by comparison to Western cultures.
In American activist spaces, Orientalism runs rampant and tends to run unchecked. Orientalism is the white feminist accessorizing Japanese characters to fit her pastel aesthetic. Orientalism is the white nonbinary weeaboo who goes by “Asuka” because they love Japanese names. Orientalism is the white queer activist who fetishizes Korean pop stars and says “oppa” and “sarang” because they learned it from K-dramas.
Peppering your speech with random words from East Asian languages and using their characters and letters as accessories when you neither speak these languages nor have any cultural connection to them is a form of linguistic appropriation/accessorization. And even if you aren’t “one of those weeaboos/Koreaboos”, remember that there is vastly more to Asian cultures than what you’ve seen in K-drama and anime. Sorry, but trying kimchi one time and binge-watching Bleach doesn’t actually make you an expert.
It’s also important to understand that saying you “love Asian culture” because you have an interest in solely Japanese or solely East Asian (Chinese, Japanese, and Korean) contributes to already existing erasure of brown Asian people. Asia is a massive continent with a diverse range of ethnic groups, languages, and cultures, and hundreds of thousands of years of history. East Asian pop culture does not represent the entire continent of Asia. It’s also certainly no coincidence that so many Americans are obsessed with East Asian culture but are comfortable with stereotyping South and Southeast Asian cultures as “dirty” or even “backwards.”
Believe it or not, it really is possible to enjoy Asian media and appreciate Asian cultures without fetishizing, exotifying, or appropriating the cultures of these countries. All it takes is some sensitivity and self-awareness.
2. Policing Asian Americans on issues specific to us and our experiences.
Yes, that thing that your white friend said in front of your Asian friend was definitely “problematic” (as you put it), but if your Asian friend doesn’t feel like dealing with it, then guess what: they don’t feel like dealing with it. It takes a certain level of entitlement and self-righteousness to ignore the fact that no one is better at recognizing anti-Asian racism than Asian people, and badgering your fellow activists to tackle issues that are likely emotionally draining and even traumatizing for them personally is extremely unfair. It’s not your responsibility to help us recognize acts of racism and it’s a little more than condescending to take our hands and try to walk us through something that you are in absolutely no position to understand.
The fact is that Asian Americans are routinely stereotyped as passive, docile, and ‘apolitical’. With little mainstream recognition of the history of Asian American resistance and activism, it’s not uncommon for a lot of us to find ourselves being patronized by other organizers. It’s also not uncommon to hear Asians being consistently left out of discourse in racial justice spaces that are intended to be open to all people of color, often justified by stereotypes of Asians being a ‘model minority’ and therefore too ‘privileged’ for these spaces.
This attitude is incorrect because it assumes that all Asians are light-skinned East Asians (and that we’re all financially well-off, another myth that has been easily debunked). South and southeast Asians have faced much of the same institutional violence, economic obstacles, and imperialism that other brown people of color have faced, and they are not afforded the benefits of the Model Minority Myth or light skin privilege. Not only that, but brown Asians face oppression even within our communities due to colorism, classism, and a history of exploitation by East Asians. Excluding Asians as a whole from discussions about issues that affect brown people is intentionally cutting off brown Asians from resources and education that is meant for them. In addition, acknowledging the privilege that East Asians have over brown and black people (especially within the Asian community) doesn’t negate the fact that East Asians are not white and placing us in the same category as our oppressors is nothing short of offensive. This is doubly true when it’s white activists doing this: you don’t get a free pass on talking over East Asian people or whitesplaining to us just because you’re eager to invalidate our actual lived experiences with racism and imperialism.
Of course, that doesn’t mean that anti-Asian microaggressions aren’t important or worth mentioning. For example, a friendly warning about a racist coworker or a whitewashed movie is always appreciated. However, the expectation that you, a non-Asian activist, have the right to tell us what to do about it or how to react is a highly inappropriate one.
3. Shaming us for being “too Asian” or “not Asian enough”.
We notice when you look at our food weird and ask us awkward questions about it, or when you go quiet whenever we bring up our families and our history, or when you snicker at us for our cultural practices and values. These are all daily, subtle reminders that being too vocal of our heritage or too boldly practicing our cultures will always make us a target—not just a target of institutional violence, but also a target of tacit social ostracization.
On the flip side of this coin, conforming to white and western standards of behavior and assimilating into white and western culture still does nothing to prevent judgment. Instead, we’re then told that we “sound/act white”, our role in activism may be taken less seriously, and our identities may be erased or invalidated. The model minority myth contributes greatly to this, leading to a perception that Asian Americans are “whiter” (or simply closer to the standard of whiteness) than other people of color. Not only is this ahistorical as it ignores the systematic oppression that Asian Americans have gone through for the past few hundred years, but it also erases the experiences of south and southeast Asians who often face negative stereotypes that are the opposite of “model minority” while also being denied an Asian identity by those around them. Not only that, but this also undermines the accomplishments and sacrifices that Asian American activists have made in resistance to white supremacy and colonialism.
4. Remaining willfully ignorant on Asian people and culture.
No one is asking you to memorize every nation colonized by Japan or the dates of the Korean War. If you find yourself not being able to recall certain facts about Asia, such as the fact that it is a continent of many different nations and is immensely culturally diverse, then perhaps you just didn’t have enough education—-but more often than not, it’s because the education you have had was largely Eurocentric and the stereotypes you’ve internalized are now casting a shadow over the facts.
The worst part of willful ignorance is not even the actual ignorance. It’s the complete apathy towards learning about facts that may not have any personal relevance to you, but is still key to understanding the Asian American community and the struggles that we face. Not realizing that Asia is a continent rather than a country, for example, often has much more to do with internalizing the popular stereotype that Asia is a monolith, rather than a personal lack of knowledge. Neglecting to do anything about this and continuing to believe and spread misinformation has very real and negative consequences. Other common misconceptions include the idea that Asian languages are all the same or use the same writing systems, that South and North Korea are not two distinct nations, and that histories of conflict and imperialism between Asian nations don’t exist. Unlearning the misinformation you were taught and educating yourself on the facts can help prevent you from doing things like assuming someone is Chinese because they’re Asian or asking “are you from North or South Korea?”
Knowing some key facts about the geography, history, politics, and culture of Asia and the Asian diaspora goes a long way to helping you understand the context of sociopolitical issues that currently affect Asian Americans.
5. Homogenizing us.
If you want to get technical, there is actually no such thing as Asian culture.
Stop and ask yourself if you’ve ever heard people say “European culture”. Do people eat sauerkraut and call it “European cuisine”? The answer, of course, is no—it’s German food. So why is it that it is so natural for us to draw distinctions between nations and cultures within the West but not for the nearly fifty Asian nations and thousands of cultures that exist within the continent?
Just like the racist idea that all Asians look the same, the myth that there is such a thing as a generic “Asian culture” is an invention of white supremacy. The truth is that even trying to define cultures within Asian nations is too difficult due to the immense diversity—there are over 2,000 ethnic groups and at least seventeen languages spoken in just India alone.
Though many Asian cultures share similar characteristics, particularly within regions, it’s important to understand how these cultures were spread through diffusion as well as imperialism and forced assimilation. Because of this, we all ended up where we are having traveled different paths, combating different obstacles, facing different fears, and we now live with different stories to tell. East Asians usually benefit from and perpetuate colorism within Asia and Asian communities because they tend to be lighter-skinned than south/southeast Asians—this is just one perfect example of why context is important to understanding sociopolitical issues that affect Asian Americans. Acknowledging that Asian Americans have vastly diverse experiences due to their ethnic groups and nationalities is key to being a good ally to Asian American activists.
6. And finally: simply not listening to us.
Trust me—you are not the first white American person to consider moving to Japan or Korea to teach English, despite having no experience or education in this field. You are not the first white American to naively consider this a harmless and productive way of achieving your dreams of living in East Asia. You are one of countless weeaboos and Koreaboos who don’t realize the role of English in many Asian nations is one of forced assimilation and a testament to western neo-imperialism. Linguistic imperialism is very real and very ignored—it’s only one of the many issues that is difficult to explain to American/western activists who seem to think it’s debatable. Hint: it isn’t. Arguing about this may seem like a good idea when you’re under the impression that you know what you’re talking about, or that you’re qualified to speak for Asian people. Hint: unless you’re Asian, you’re not.
Not listening is the easiest and most invisible one on this list, as well as the most effective way to guarantee that your activism is not inclusive of the Asian American community.
The alternative to this is just as simple: listen to us. Hear what we’re saying. Set aside your biases for a moment to truly consider what we tell you. The key to bridging these gaps is through our mouths and your ears. A few minutes of attention can give you an entirely new shift in perspective, and give your fellow activists a much more respectful and informed person to stand in solidarity with.