AANHPI Heritage Month: Beyond Complicity: Asian-American Organizing, Solidarity, and Power

I count myself as one of the lucky ones. Growing up, my mother never let me forget the sacrifices she made to get me here in this country. As a Filipina immigrant myself who arrived in the United States at age eight, I needed no reminder of the assimilation, alienation, and discrimination that she faced as she navigated life in the arid Californian suburbia, worlds away in every manner from the wet urban jungle of our former life in Manila. In America, I could be anything that I wanted to be, I was told, but my parents’ lingering preference for me was to pursue a career in law or medicine (or engineering!) – a hallmark emergence of immigrants’ lasting socioeconomic anxiety, and an all-too-familiar illusion of choice to many Asian-American kids like me.  

Yuri Kochiyama
Yuri Kochiyama Credit to of the Kochiyama family/UCLA Asian American Studies Center

Now, at 23 years old, I get the privilege of a lifetime to combine my life’s greatest passions – justice, reproductive rights, and the law – into what I get to work on every day. My experiences as a darker-skinned Southeast-Asian, Arab, curly-haired feminist color my politics and the way I show up in spaces to organize and advocate to dismantle the systems that have long-imposed barriers for women of color. Speaking publicly on the importance of access to comprehensive sex ed., contraception, and abortion or gathering fellow students to protest our college shutting down was so natural to me. After all, it was easy to articulate to others why they should care: many of these experiences were fully-lived by me. But when it came to my parents, my family, and my fellow Filipinos, I still tended to shrink. Years of being shut down when I spoke out about police brutality, centuries of racial segregation and economic inequality, and the model-minority myth reduced my efforts to engage my community members to change the things that have gravely affected us into minor passing comments that have largely gone unacknowledged. Marrying my social justice self with my studious, triple-majoring first-gen daughter self had become an all-but-impossible feat.  
But then, for what did we go through all of that just for me to show up as anything less than my whole self?  
In my first year living in the US, I lamented the cities’ seemingly-unending sprawl, eerily-spacious single-story buildings, and the absence of honking horns in every drive, to which I had grown up in the Philippines. Memories of my homeland, in all its claustrophobia-inducing cacophony, made an immigrant kid like me who came home every day after school to extended family feel more alone than did my unmistakable accent, inability to understand slang, or frustration to prove that I was actually smart in my native Tagalog tongue. Educating myself on the history of the people of this strange new land was how I made sense of my life as a self-identified transplant, and activism became the antidote to the loneliness and disenfranchisement I experienced.   
But organizing for Black lives, Indigenous land sovereignty, and abortion access for undocumented people did not only gift me with new chosen families with whom I shared struggles. Through learning about the trajectories of Asian and Asian-American movements, oppressions, and establishment as an imperial subject, I had come to terms with my identity as an AANHPI woman within the politics of complicity. In Students for Fair Admissions v. HarvardAsian applicants to Harvard College attacked the institution’s race-conscious admissions policy, purporting that such affirmative action penalizes qualified Asian applicants. By advocating for the removal of race considerations in college admissions, we Asians lie directly complicit in the disenfranchisement of Black applicants and students, opening the door for a slurry of race-neutral policies that inevitably cements whiteness and all its privileges as the educational status quo.   

TWLF poster
Courtesy of Center for Race & Gender, University of California, Berkeley.

Conversely, when Yuri Kochiyama hosted Freedom Riders in her home and fought for school integration in Harlem, she took part in the fundamental struggles borne of America’s long history of white supremacy that resulted in segregation and poverty for many Black and Asian people. In 1968, The Third World Liberation Front, a coalition of Black, Asian, and Latinx students in the Bay Area, led one of the longest students strikes in the United States, leading to the establishment of Ethnic Studies as an academic concentration in colleges throughout the country. When injustice is thrust upon us, AANHPI people have immense potential to draw upon the love, care, and power within our community to energize and organize as agents of change. To suggest otherwise is to succumb to the silencing knife of white supremacy. 
I am not the first Asian girl to organize, agitate, push back and want more. Just as my mother emigrated to the US in search of a better life, Asian-Americans and Asian immigrants have created coalitions and solidified organizing fronts to imagine and demand an equitable future. Our rights, prosperity, and representation as Asian Americans were paved by the giants that came before us, and we owe it to our history, joy, and identity to unrelentingly co-conspire to achieve liberation for ourselves, and for Black and Native Americans, and for all people of color.