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QUESTION: In many discussions of race that take place in America, Asians aren’Äôt mentioned and the focus is on Black-white relations. If the model minority myth is a way to divide and conquer different racial groups, how can we counter this strategy and thus work together to achieve equality? How can we insert Asian Americans into the larger discussion?
FRANKLIN: I don’Äôt think there’Äôs a ’Äúsilver bullet’Äù that will solve our problems. It has to happen all across the board - people working in their own communities and in their own ways. Living in Washington, D.C., I feel the invisibility of Asians particularly powerfully because demographically, there are a lot of African Americans and the people of color represented in the federal bureaucracy tend to be Black. So it is an issue, and it is sometimes difficult. But here’Äôs where the ’Äúsuccessful’Äù Asians who have done something in the mainstream have an important responsibility. Just being at the table can really make a difference. I’Äôll give you one small example. The National Museum of American History at the Smithsonian just opened an 50th anniversary exhibition of Brown v. Board of Education. Asian and Asian American educational concerns were inserted into that exhibit in a couple of instances, including the 1885 Mamie Tape case. It was a very easy thing to accomplish, to try to insert another perspective on the discourse, because I happened to be there participating.
We also try to create awareness with public programming. I think we’Äôll be able to bring, for example, Ling-chi Wang in a public program sometime this summer, and he’Äôll be able to talk about this kind of stuff.
RINKU: The race debate in the United States will change as demographics change. It’Äôs simply a matter of time and I think the more important question is not whether it can change, but how do we contribute to broadening the debate. Two thoughts come to mind. One is that in order to broaden the debate, we have to be in the debate. So that means we really have to put ourselves in racial justice spaces and comment on race, on policies that have racial implications, and pay attention to what’Äôs happening in the arenas where race is a big factor, like public education, criminal justice, and welfare, even if there are only small numbers of our community members having a stake in those institutions.
The second thing is that we have to do this with a real grounding in the history, struggles and current conditions of our communities, certainly so that we can explain them to people who haven’Äôt been exposed to them. But we also need to have that same breadth of knowledge about African American, Native American, and Latino communities. And each community’Äôs historical trajectory is different. I believe that slavery has created a situation for African Americans that is not the same for Asian immigrants. I also believe that there’Äôs a racial hierarchy in this country that varies depending on where you are. In some places Asians are under white people, but kind of second in the hierarchy, so they exercise a lot of political and economic power. We need to be able to recognize that power and not just feel that unless we’Äôre victims all the time, we can’Äôt work on racial justice issues.
I think we get judged in racial-justice politics, at academic conferences, when we’Äôre trying to make policy and in protest situations. Partly people are looking to see whether or not we’Äôve paid our dues as a community because we’Äôre certainly asking for plenty of benefits. Part of paying your dues is building a history or being able to pull out your history of struggle, but it’Äôs also about acknowledging where people in your community have exercised power in a way that’Äôs damaging to someone else. I think African Americans feel very vulnerable to being displaced as a moral voice around race because of demographic change. It’Äôs partly their responsibility to modernize their approach, but it’Äôs also partly our responsibility to take that into account and to build our political, economic and cultural plans so that doesn’Äôt happen and so we don’Äôt contribute to that.
MONAMI: In terms of how to counter the divide-and-conquer tactic, I really believe that the model minority myth is an attempt to divide people not just based on race but also class - to blame poor and working class people in this country for being poor and working class. And to take the blame away from institutions, from the state, and from the government. So keeping that in mind, I think the best strategy is to work across racial lines and also across class lines. One of the things I spend a lot of time doing is challenging class dynamics within the South Asian community and trying to build real principled solidarity and alliances with middle class and wealthy South Asians in the U.S. - to get them to see the connections between their struggles and the struggles of the working class, particularly undocumented South Asians in the U.S.
A lot of times we don’Äôt live in the same community, we don’Äôt go to the same schools and we’Äôre usually not in the same jobs, so it’Äôs hard to build those alliances. But for people who want to create social justice and create a better world, I think it’Äôs important to make the effort to really understand the lives of poor and working class people and to connect issues, not just in a symbolic way, but in a way that builds real power and liberation for all people.
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