Asian Americans and Racial Justice: Racial Exclusion and the (Im)Possibilities of Developing Our Identity, Consciousness, and Agency

By Varaxy Yi, Vanessa Na, Rikka Venturanza, Jacqueline Mac, and Samuel Museus

Asian American man staring at the screen
Photo by dhe haivan on Unsplash

This piece is part of the Growing Up Amid the Rise of Racism Series

“Asian Americans are at a pivotal moment; as we are thrust into the spotlight through increased representation, we must grapple with how we understand our own identities and the weight that carries.” –Katerina Jeng and Krystie Yen

We appreciate the call in this opening quote. Yet, as Asian American scholars and racial justice advocates, we have collectively encountered several constraints to Asian Americans cultivating their racial identity, critical consciousness, and agency to advance racial justice. Some of these constraints stem from the ways in which White Supremacy and anti-Blackness perpetuate a dichotomous or polarized Black-White way of thinking about race, which erases other communities of color from existing systems and racial justice agendas.

We reinforce the need to understand how to eradicate anti-Blackness in Asian American communities and beyond. However, we believe it is possible to both advance knowledge about the insidious effects of anti-Black racism and understand racial violence toward other communities of color. Unfortunately, the exclusion of Asian Americans from racial discourse leads to people dismissing their relevance in racial justice agendas and Asian Americans questioning their own legitimacy engaging in these efforts. The following conversation between Asian American emerging scholars highlights some of our struggles to make sense of ourselves and our racial identities in this context, including the current political context.

Varaxy: How can we make sense of our experiences as Asian Americans engaged in racial justice? I’ve experienced some challenges with seeing myself reflected in this work.

Vanessa: It has been difficult for me too. I recall many moments where my narratives have been shared for me. For example, in an effort to challenge the model minority myth, a faculty member of color told me that Southeast Asian Americans (SEAAs) are “ideologically Blackened.” I felt apprehension as this term relegated my community to its position on a Black-White continuum, rather than acknowledging its full complexity. I feel as though others will determine the “time and place” in which my experiences are relevant, rather than considering how much more expansive racial justice work can be if we are able to connect our full racialized realities to one another.

Jacki: You know, after eight years of engaging in racial equity education, I still find myself to be one of the few Asian Americans who considers themselves a “diversity and inclusion trainer.” Each time I lead a training, a participant shares they are shocked to see me, a light-skinned Asian American womxn, as a trainer. They share they are surprised because they do not usually see Asian Americans in race conversations or believed we have a stake in racial equity conversations.

Rikka: I can relate. My first role in this work was debilitating. Despite knowing our realities of racism and disparities within our own communities, I still questioned the value of serving and centering our needs. After years of extensive training and internal work, I now realize my doubts and resistance had nothing to do with our worth. It was a manifestation of internalized racism. Anti-Asianness used to be this distant theory. It was invisible and unspoken. Yet, when you continue to witness the casual exclusion of your own community within the work, it becomes even clearer that we’re part of this movement. But, our struggles, our communities, remain irrelevant to many. Rarely are we seen as key people to advance the work.

Varaxy: This all resonates me. It’s emotionally draining to have to explain Asian American issues in the context of the Black-White binary. We are trained to make sense of SEAA issues only in relation to these other categories. But it seems taboo to even try. I once used “ideological Blackening” in my own work to describe SEAA racialization but it made people uncomfortable, so I felt unable to adopt it. I accept that it is my responsibility to work to find solutions, but there isn’t much space for these deep, messy conversations. There aren’t many spaces where I can discuss these issues without receiving messaging that Asian American issues are irrelevant. Can that ever change?

Vanessa: I’ve been trying to make sense of what this impossibility feels like. I imagine that I’m in a garden and it’s where I’ve come to understand my Asian American identity. I want to flourish in this garden, but I am tethered to the weeds. Those weeds continue to grow, tangled and thick, so that I have been unable to think about my Asian American identity apart from them. It’s stifling.

Rikka: Yes! It’s hard to think of our identities outside of this context. But there must be more than this, right?

This discussion highlights some of the ways we have struggled for visibility, voice, and agency in racial justice work as a result of the Black-White nature of racial discourse and racial identity development conversations. Contrary to popular stereotypes, Asian American realities are heavily shaped by ongoing racial violence, complete racial exclusion, and everyday overt and subtle forms of racism. Furthermore, due to significant ethnic diversity within Asian America, racial harm they experience takes on diverse forms. For example, many of these communities are impacted by racial profiling and criminalization. In addition, South Asians and Southeast Asians are significantly affected by immigration and criminal justice policies. In fact, over 1.7 million undocumented Asian immigrants face increasingly restrictive immigration policies. For example, the Cambodian community has been devastated by inhumane deportation policies, with over 14,000 families facing final deportation orders. Overall, there are over 22.2 million Asian Americans in the U.S. whose lives are continually and significantly shaped by racism.

Yet, the impact of racism on Asian Americans is often not meaningfully engaged in larger racial discourses. Limited access to spaces that center these communities and cultivate their identities perpetuates anti-Asianness, exacerbates internalized racism among Asian Americans, and fuels beliefs that they are only relevant when understanding other communities. We are also concerned about the implications of this exclusion for larger racial justice agendas and discourse. We argue that this exclusion undermines larger racial justice agendas in at least three ways:

  • Inhibition of Critical Consciousness: There is limited access to knowledge about racism’s impact on Asian Americans and the differential racialization of Asian American subgroups. Where Asian Americans are excluded or deemed only relevant when useful to other communities, it inhibits complex understandings of their positionality and role in racial justice agendas, struggles they share with other communities of color, and how they can contribute to racial justice. But such exclusion also limits the ability of non-Asian Americans to understand Asian American realities, thereby inhibiting the complexity with which they understand race and racism as well.
  • Racial Debilitation: As a result of the points above, it sometimes seems difficult for people to know how to engage Asian Americans in larger racial justice conversations. Efforts to center Asian American experiences are often met with silence, resistance, or censure. Current tools and language for analyzing race and racialization are insufficient for understanding and engaging Asian American experiences. This debilitation inhibits possibilities for solidarity and collective action.
  • Denial of Self-Determination: We define self-determination as the ability of Asian Americans to freely delineate their own realities as experts of their own lived experiences. As our narratives show, Asian Americans are bound to a White Supremacist paradigm that excludes and invalidates them, thereby constraining their agency and empowerment. This exclusion of Asian Americans from racial discourse denies their potential self-determination.

The system is designed to keep us divided and we must advocate for greater solidarity. We can acknowledge how systemic racism harms all communities of color and meaningfully engage them in racial justice conversations. This requires exposing and understanding White Supremacy in all its forms, including anti-Blackness, anti-Asianness, settler colonialism, and horizontal violence. We are all entangled and implicated in various, complex ways in this system and that requires more nuanced dialogue.

Greater engagement of anti-Asian racism in racial discourse might also help us better understand how larger systems function to oppress all communities of color. We wonder about the possibilities of such conversations not yet had. We expect it to be complicated and messy, but we seek space to explore the following questions:

  • How can we complicate discourse in ways that simultaneously address anti-Blackness and holistically engage the experiences of other communities of color?
  • What do spaces designed to understand how White supremacy’s maintenance and deployment of the Black-white paradigm harms all communities of color — including Black and Asian American communities — look like?

We offer very personal, vulnerable critiques of what we deem to be the (im)possibilities of Asian Americanness. It was difficult and messy trying to make sense of our experiences, as the effects of our exclusion are real. The weeds feel real. Yet, we continue to dream of possibilities and collective liberation. We seek visibility, hope, and healing, and ask for space to be better racial justice advocates.

Varaxy Yi is a first-generation Khmer American college graduate and faculty member at California State University Fresno. She is an assistant professor in the Department of Educational Leadership at the Kremen School of Education and Human Development. She conducts research to advance equity, access, and opportunity for historically underserved communities, such as racially minoritized, Southeast Asian American, and refugee populations.

Vanessa Na is a doctoral student in Education Studies at the University of California, San Diego (UCSD) and a Research Associate for the National Institute for Transformation and Equity (NITE). Her research examines equity and justice in higher education, with a focus on examining the experiences of Southeast Asian American students and the solidarity and coalition efforts of students of color.

Rikka Venturanza is a doctoral student in the Social Science and Comparative Education program at the University of California, Los Angeles (UCLA). She serves as a Research Associate for UCLA’s Institute for Immigration, Globalization, and Education. Her research aims to understand the role of immigration status among students of color with a focus on Asian American Pacific Islander students.

Jacqueline Mac is a doctoral candidate in Higher Education at Indiana University and a research associate for the National Institute for Transformation and Equity. Her research agenda focuses on racialized campus environments, institutional transformation, and educational policies aimed at advancing equity and justice.

Samuel Museus is a professor of education studies at University of California San Diego. He is also the founding director of the National Institute for Transformation and Equity (NITE). Dr. Museus has produced over 200 publications and conference presentations focused on diversity and equity, campus environments, and college student outcomes. He is also creator of the Culturally Engaging Campus Environments (CECE; pronounced see-see) Model of College Success among diverse student populations.

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