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QUESTION: If Asian American is a racial/political term for achieving equality, do you think there will ever be a time when we should stop using it?
HELEN: I think the underlying assumption in this question is what Martin Luther King, Jr. posed. When will we be seen for the content of our character and not the color of our skin? So if the question is, when will we see that day? I have to say, that is a beautiful ideal to be working for and that really is what the Constitution of the United States and all of that is about. But we're very, very far away from that. It's hard for me to envision that day.
Another way to look at the question is, aren't we all trying to be American and will we ever stop using the word Asian American because we'll all be equal? I don't think that's the goal. It's not my goal that we should all blend into one composite monoculture where we all look the same. I don't think that's desirable, or real. My hope is for everyone to be seen in their full humanity, their full color and individuality as people. We're not going to blend over all the differences, but the contrary - we're going to see the differences more fully. That's the kind of equality I want - where we can be seen as full human beings instead of just cartoon characters.
If you look at the trends, even whites are questioning this idea that we should all be the same. It has not been a good thing for white people to be seen as one big white mish-mosh. If whites start seeing themselves as ethnic people, I think that will help the dialogue as well, instead of seeing the white or European as the default and the rest of us are ethnic. That's so not true. There is this trend among European Americans to look at their own particular histories, which I think is a good thing. If they can see themselves in the context of change and struggle, my hope is that they'll be more understanding and empathetic about what we all go through as human beings Then we can talk about equality, based on equal rights and justice and things like that.
QUANG: It would be easy to let the term go if we ever lived in a completely equal society, a world without labels. I think we'd all welcome it. But I don't think it's a reality, and I suspect in my lifetime it won't ever come to pass. Also, I think the term is more rich than just about achieving equality. In my own experience whenever I meet another Vietnamese American there is a deep resonance. It has something to do with a shared personal history, and all that gets accessed through the language, a certain food, certain things that we have both read. These are very important connections and I would hate to lose that in this trajectory towards an ideal world.
I've always joked that one day maybe we'll call ourselves the American American Writer's Workshop and close shop. But the question then is, what would we be? What is the content of an organization like that? It's hard to imagine. The richness and the beauty of these kinds of things is what keeps me here.
Also, if you look at societies older than America, their notions of race have changed in very profound and dynamic ways, mostly dealing with issues of immigration and now globalization. We're moving into incredibly more complex times. In that sense I don't think the racial ethnic discussions that we've been having are going to go away any time soon.
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