“I’m Asian, so you know I love to work.”
“I’m Asian, so I know a lot of doctors.”
“The opposite of Donald Trump is an Asian man who likes math.”
Casual jokes about Asian Americans have become a mainstay in Andrew Yang’s campaign to become president, and they have opened up serious disagreement within the community about the use of racial humor. His decision to sit down with Shane Gillis—the comedian who was hired and quickly fired from “Saturday Night Live” for making disparaging jokes about Chinese Americans—didn’t help the situation.
The first major presidential candidate of East Asian descent, Yang has energized a wave of Asian-American voters who have never before seen someone who looks like them in national politics. Moreover, many young voters, particularly young Asian Americans, are excited by his candidacy and have become more involved in the electoral process because they finally feel represented. But he has also raised serious concerns among those in the community who feel he is using tired stereotypes of Asian Americans to cater to a wider range of voters.
Yang has admitted that he has been less than perfect and does not claim to speak for the entire community. But the polarizing nature of his remarks, and his candidacy at large, indicates a greater issue and a greater opportunity for discussion within the Asian-American community about identity and what it means to represent the community in a way that helps push us forward. Who are we, and how do we want to be represented?
Asian Americans are at a pivotal moment; as we are thrust into the spotlight through increased representation, we must grapple with how we understand our own identities and the weight that carries. Over the past few years, our community has been made more visible through movies like “The Big Sick” and “Crazy Rich Asians,” and the booming results at the box office have shown that Asian Americans—especially young Asian Americans—are hungry for more representation. At the same time, these gains have lagged in the workplace. Many Asian-American professionals still deal with the effects of the bamboo ceiling, and Asian-American women continue to face professional and pay gaps that hinder their professional development and reduce their income.
After years of having our voices ignored, Asian Americans now have the opportunity to define who we are, on our own terms. It is our duty to educate ourselves on the issues that matter to us, and to speak up and make ourselves heard. We must also be aware of how we fit into the larger web of race relations in America; at a time when the model minority myth weaponizes us as a wedge against other communities of color, Asian Americans must be particularly cognizant of the ways our community is selectively silenced or provided a platform to bolster agendas that do not always have our best interest in mind.
It’s abundantly clear that we need to hold space for difficult conversations about who we are, how we want to be represented and who we want to represent us. As we move forward, we must do this in a way that uplifts other communities of color as well. This brings us to some crucial questions: How should we talk about race and identity? How will we ally ourselves with other communities of color? What is our role in a racial narrative that has typically remained restricted to Black and White?
The good news is that there is room for multidimensional layers of identity, and continued growth and learning. One Asian-American candidate cannot and should not be seen as a representative for our entire, diverse community, and so we need to have these conversations within our own community. Ultimately, we are responsible for—and must claim—our own voices.
Katerina Jeng and Krystie Yen are the co-founders of Slant’d, a collective built from the ground up by Asian Americans for Asian Americans, rooted in the causes and values that matter deeply to the Asian-American community. Slant’d is expanding its community gatherings in 2020. Find out more via Twitter @slantdmedia.