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QUESTION: If Asian Americans want to be accepted by others as full Americans, why don’Äôt you stop using hyphenated terms like this? It seems divisive, like you’Äôre setting yourselves even further apart. Also, 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?
RINKU: The first part of this is a very common question. My essential answer is that dropping the hyphen won’Äôt stop the mistreatment of Asians or discrimination against Asians. And it won’Äôt prevent us from being flooded into sectors of the economy and the American culture that are very limiting to us. It’Äôs not damaging to the goal of having a healthy, dignified life.
The truth is, we stick out in a white America and in a native-born America we’Äôll always look different. Other additional differences will get piled on top of the looking different. Our foreignness will continue to make us targets of hate violence, workplace discrimination, housing discrimination, and so on. Many Asian Americans would be happy to drop hyphens of all sorts if they thought that was really the answer to being treated equally. Instead, people have adopted an Asian American identity as a way of pulling strength and community out of a bunch of negative experiences that otherwise would have destroyed us.
The use of Asian American will change as conditions and identities change. It’Äôs really hard to predict what the change will be. But people already go back and forth between more specific identities for themselves - Indian American for me, for example - and more general categories like people of color, depending on the context and depending on who they want to reach out to in a particular setting. When I’Äôm outside the U.S., for example, I’Äôm considered an American and I have found that it is not always easy to assert my Indianess in those contexts. There’Äôs a certain amount of justice to that. I do live in the United States, I’Äôm a U.S. citizen, and to the extent that the U.S. carries out hostile policies around the world, I both benefit from those and have some responsibility to try to change those. Our identities are very fluid on a daily basis, but they’Äôre usually driven by who we want to connect with and how we see the way that we’Äôre treated in the U.S.
It shouldn’Äôt matter whether we use a hyphen or not. Too much of our rights seem to depend on what we call ourselves, which gives people the impression that the basis of human dignity is that we’Äôre all exactly the same. We behave in exactly the same ways. We speak exactly the same languages. We eat the same food and so on. Yet international human rights standards say that we all deserve dignified treatment regardless of our identities and regardless of our cultures. So I’Äôm really looking toward a situation in which we can all be who we really are and not have benefits and punishments given out on the basis of that identity.
FRANKLIN: For those of us who are a bit older, trying to create a pan-Asian sense of identity had a political purpose originally ’Äì it was a way of asserting or indicating full equality or respect. I also want to question the assumption behind this question ’Äì you know, I’Äôm of Japanese heritage and even though I’Äôm third generation and my granddaughter is fifth generation, it’Äôs an important part of who we are. So I wonder, why does the notion of being an equal American depend on being dispossessed of something that might be quite meaningful to you and your family?
MONAMI: We’Äôre not all the same. We’Äôre very different in terms of our experiences, our backgrounds, our beliefs, our visions. From the other perspective, I would say that there are many Asians who don’Äôt use the term Asian American or even Asian. Instead, we’Äôre more likely to call ourselves people of color because we believe in a history and a future of working towards equality and racial and economic justice with millions of other people from all over the world, including Native Americans, Latinos, Arabs, and African Americans who are so marginalized by white supremacy in this society. For many people, claiming Americaness is not our first priority. What we call ourselves is not the reason that we’Äôre not being accorded respect or power. The reason we’Äôre not being accorded respect and power is white supremacy.
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