A New History of Being Asian-AmericanBreaking News
tags: racism, immigration, Asian American History
Most politicians mark Asian Pacific American Heritage Month each May with some kind of rote message of tribute to the nation’s twenty million or so Americans of Asian descent—a sizable population, and the nation’s fastest-growing ethnic group. In contrast, President Trump decided to speak not to Asian Americans but for them. On Monday, after he berated Weijia Jiang, a reporter for CBS News, at a press conference, and hinted that she was somehow intimate with China, he fended off accusations of racism by tweeting that he was very much on the side of Asian-Americans: “Asian Americans are VERY angry at what China has done to our Country, and the World. Chinese Americans are the most angry of all. I don’t blame them!”
Regardless of how Trump gleaned this information, it was a reminder of how, during the past two hundred years, Asian-Americans have grown accustomed to life as a kind of movable chess piece, beholden to political whims beyond their control. Most often, Asian-Americans are met with indifference because we lack the critical mass (and shared interests) to shape national conversations on our terms. We seem invisible and, if scrutinized, indistinguishable. During bad times, such as the Second World War or the collapse of the auto industry in the eighties, we are scapegoats. The coronavirus pandemic has revived a gamut of often contradictory stereotypes about Asian people. On the one hand, the Chinese are accused of being the primary bearers of the disease, drawing from nineteenth-century stereotypes that they are dirty and disgusting. On the other hand, South Korea, Singapore, and Taiwan are praised for halting the disease’s spread, owing to more recent, twentieth-century stereotypes about Asians being passive, collective-minded, and obsessed with hygiene.
When Andrew Yang published an op-ed early in the pandemic about how Asian-Americans had to double down on their Americanness, it was an almost note-perfect echo of what the Japanese American Citizens League had told internees during the Second World War. A few weeks later, one of Joe Biden’s boldest yet attacks on President Trump was actually an attack on China, accusing Trump of being overly permissive toward the authoritarian regime. Biden was once again challenging the average American to distinguish the Chinese government from its people, and the Chinese from other Asian people in general. Meanwhile, many Asian-Americans, fearful of rising incidents of anti-Asian violence, wonder if stories of slurs and assault will unite a diffuse and seemingly fractured community.
This week, PBS airs the five-part documentary series “The Asian Americans,” an ambitious attempt to make Asian-American history accessible to a broader public. (It will stream on PBS until June 8th.) The PBS treatment suggests a kind of citizenship test, taking subjects like baseball or jazz and offering them as a purely American product. In this case, “The Asian Americans” celebrates a community that has become synonymous with American possibilities. How else to explain the rags-to-riches trajectory of Asian America, in which, during the course of a couple generations, a stereotype of Asians can change from godless subhumans snacking on rats to a model minority whose achievements seem to rationalize the whole of American meritocracy?
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