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QUESTION: One of the problems with the Asian American community is that whenever somebody achieves a high level of mainstream success, they’Äôre scrutinized for every little misstep or criticized for selling out and not doing enough to help advance other Asian Americans. Isn’Äôt it unrealistic to expect one individual to represent and be responsible for the whole community? I think this kind of attitude is self-defeating and one of the reasons Asian Americans can’Äôt get anywhere as a group.
FRANKLIN: I’Äôm not so sure that it’Äôs true in every instance. I don’Äôt know, for example, if these kinds of criticisms are directed at me, working at a fairly high level at the Smithsonian. So it depends on the situation. To the extent that this happens, some of it could well be deserved. There are certainly people who achieve mainstream success by ignoring the rest of the community. Like Connie Chung, for example ’Äì in her case, I think some of that criticism is deserved. Norm Mineta, Secretary of Transportation, has also been criticized for the way a lot of Filipino airport inspectors were treated - that’Äôs on his watch. On the flip side, any time you get into a position of mainstream visibility, there are underlying assumptions about being held to a higher standard, which can be difficult or impossible to meet. But I think if you’Äôre out there, you’Äôre fair game.
RINKU: I think it is unrealistic to expect one individual to represent their entire community. But I also think that’Äôs an inevitable reaction and stance of a minority community, much of which is deeply cut off from the economic or political benefits and the rights of other people in society. Any successful Asian in any field needs to be prepared to be highly scrutinized, certainly by their own community and possibly by other communities of color or low-income communities and so on.
By the same token, I think you have to hold people accountable to their own aspirations and claims. I don’Äôt expect most Asian American capitalists to fight for public benefits, for example, or for higher corporate taxes or for things that really are community oriented. That isn’Äôt what they got into capitalism for. However, I do expect that Asian journalists will be thorough and accurate, not disproportionately sympathetic to Asian communities but that they will stand up for journalistic standards and point out places where those haven’Äôt been met. The same thing goes for Asian public officials and politicians. Those folks have pledged themselves to the public good, so if they’Äôre not protecting the public, then, as Franklin said, they are fair game.
I do worry, though, about a tendency among some activists to write off whole sectors of people who have achieved a certain level of political or mainstream success. Many successful people can be allies to us on specific issues, if not on our whole agenda. I’Äôm not ready to give up all those potential allies, even if I have criticisms of particular things they’Äôve done or decisions they’Äôve made. I am also concerned about knee-jerk reactions that we have against leadership and success and an assumption that success requires having sold out in many ways, large and small. That assumption trickles down, so it affects not just the Norm Minetas, Gary Lockes and Connie Chungs, but also advocates, organizers, community leaders, city council members, school board members, and so on. And I worry about infighting within an Asian American liberation movement or racial justice movement.
We have to recognize that there’Äôs a fine line between principled political critique and self-righteousness or self-indulgence. And we have to really hold ourselves accountable to that line because it’Äôs not appropriate for someone else to hold us accountable. We have to decide, where am I really making a principled critique and where am I just distracting myself from the real work that needs to be done.
MONAMI: The question of selling out is challenging one, particularly among people doing social justice work and people fighting for things like welfare, housing and immigration rights. As Rinku mentioned, I think it’Äôs important to look beyond the fact of someone being Asian American and really scrutinize their political beliefs and actions. It’Äôs tough for Asian Americans, especially those who are marginalized, to hold Asian American leaders accountable. There isn’Äôt always a natural alliance simply because they are Asian American. I think we have to be more strategic about building allies among people who have power to move forward some of our issues. And it’Äôs important to see the big picture. Where will this person be after this particular issue is over? Is this person a potential ally for the long term, someone who can help make fundamental, institutional changes beyond this issue?
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