Dear Asian American Parents,
For the past ten years, I’ve been working with your children when they attend college. I’m sure you’ve been terribly proud of their accomplishments and sending them off to college is a huge step for your family. However, parents, after a decade of listening to and observing your children, I think it’s time I write you a letter.
See, moms and dads, in all of your college preparation and planning, many of you seem to have forgotten a few important “teachables” for your kids. While I will continue to work alongside your children to correct for what they should have learned at home, I figured this letter could be my first attempt to “head upstream” and address one of the sources of the problem.
Lovely parentals, I’m just going to come out and say it…why aren’t you teaching your children to identify as Asian American? Why aren’t you packing the bambinos off to college with a racial identity toolkit to accompany that new winter coat? Oh, is it because you yourselves don’t identify as Asian American? Perhaps you’ve misplaced your racial identity toolkit along with last year’s Halloween decorations? No fear, mommas and poppas, I’ve got a list to get you started.
Five Things Asian American Parents Need to Know in Order to Raise Asian American Children that are Critically Race Conscious (Yep, I know, it’s the list you’ve been waiting for..and, no, it’s not a complete list.)
- If you can trace your ancestry back to Asia and your body is in the United States, you are Asian American. The number of people I’ve met that tell me that they don’t identify as Asian American because they don’t have citizenship is concerning. You, my dear friends, are 1st generation Asian Americans. If you were born here, welcome to the 2nd generation group! I’m in your club (kinda, I was born in Canada, but whatever). Big shoutouts to all my 3rd, 4th, and 5th gen brothers and sisters…don’t stop calling yourselves Asian American just cuz you’ve been here since the top hat and petticoat era.
- Asia is a big place! It’s not just East Asia. So, from Japan to Saudi Arabia, down to Sri Lanka and Samoa, we’re all Asian and we’re all Asian American. You can add words to the category if you want…Asian Pacific Islander American or Asian Pacific Islander Desi American…sure sure. I just want to clear up the common, bizarre misunderstanding that the term “Asian” only applies to East Asians…nope, it doesn’t. So, all my peoples hailing from South Asia, Southeast Asia, or West Asia…welcome to your racial group. Asian America is glad to have you.
- Asian American is a racial identity. It DOES NOT erase your ethnic identity…you can have both. Parents, I’ve seen so many of you work hard to instill a sense of cultural heritage in BooBoo and RayRay. We love our languages, our food, our festivals, our clothing, our religious celebrations, and our in-group humor! All that ethnic stuff is just swell, hang on to it! But, that stuff isn’t race. It cannot help us explain our own broader historical experience in this country for the past two centuries. It can’t serve as the tie that binds across all those ethnic differences. Race, however, can. In all of our multi-ethnic glory, we are all Asian Americans. Thinking of ourselves as Asian Americans gives us a strong place to stand in the face of torrential racism. It connects us to a legacy of historical struggle, civil rights agitation, and key contributions to the growth of this nation. As someone who identifies ethnically as Indian, do I share a legacy with Yuri Kochiyama, even though she’s from a different ethnic group? You bet I do! Identifying as Asian American allows me to be inspired by Yuri’s work in a special way. It allows for her struggle to reach across time and space and give me the energy to work for racial justice today. (If you’re scratching your heard and wondering who the heck Yuri Kochiyama is, it’s time for you to stop reading this blog post and get your Google on, my friend!)
- When one of the following things happens to us, let’s name it as racism: you get complimented on your English, even when it is evident that you are a native speaker; you get asked repeatedly where you are from and Milwaukee doesn’t seem to satisfy as an answer; or you revealing your specific ethnic identity results in someone telling you something they know about the country in Asia your people originally come from. Too often I hear Asian American college students describe these incidents as being pervasive in their life…and they don’t name them as racism. Newsflash: being perceived as perpetually foreign is part of the Asian American racial experience. So, parents, instead of encouraging your children to “laugh it off,” let’s use those moments as an opportunity to have a conversation about race in America. Don’t worry, you’re not being overly sensitive. As Asian Americans, we’ve been simultaneously included and excluded in the nation state. Borders and boundaries have been dissolved and reformed around us, depending on the economic and military lusts of the country. This sense of being forever foreign is one of those “ties that binds” us Asian Americans across our ethnic differences.
- (Drumroll please…this is the last item on my horrifically incomplete list…) It’s not good to be a Model Minority. When I ask Asian American college students today if they think it’s good to be a Model Minority, I’m shocked at how many of them think it’s a good thing! What are you teaching them at home, parents?! Let me set the record straight: we are getting played. Being stereotyped as academically gifted, politically docile, affluent and unfailingly reverent of our parents has numerous deleterious effects on our community’s wellbeing. First of all, just in case I need to state this for the record, it’s not true. We’re not extra smart. We are not uniformly polite. Many Asian Americans are working class or poor. And, many of us have had tremendously volatile relationships with our parents! (Sorry, mom and dad!) J Beyond simply being not true, this whole Model Minority thing has isolated us from other communities of color that we share a ton in common with. Every time our country gets close to having a critical conversation on systemic racism in P-12 and college education, we get tossed into the discourse as some sort of proof that race “can’t” be a factor, “…after all, look at how well the Asian Americans are doing…and they’re not White!” Not only is this characterization of Asian American academic success reductive and counter-factual, I’m sick of being used as a bolster to prop up White hegemony! Succumbing to Model Minority status allows us to be used as a crowbar to dismantle affirmative action and, as someone who works in higher education, this kills me! I sometimes think that Asian Americans buy into the whole Model Minority thing because of the allure that, just maybe, if we accept the mantle of honorary Whiteness, we’ll be spared the caustic effects of racism. Sorry to rain on the dream sequence my peoples, but conforming to the place we’ve been given has yet to result in racism “taking it easy” on us.
Pant, pant. Parents, I got so passionate typing this letter that I’m out of breath! I hope that my Top Five list gives you a few good talking points to bring up at the dinner table with your cute little Asian Americans. You send them to college identifying loud and strong, their racial toolkits stashed right next to their XBoxes, and we’ll take it from there. There’s still a long road to travel in the fight for racial justice and, once we actually start identifying as race conscious Asian Americans, we can get started on the journey.
This blog post emerges from the qualitative research I conducted with nine, Asian American college freshmen for my doctoral dissertation, titled “Asian American College Students: Making Meaning in an Era of Color-blind Racism.” A few weeks ago, during my doctoral defense, one of my committee members mused aloud, “I wonder what your subjects’ parents are teaching them about race at home?” And I was like, good question! Well, after mulling it over for a bit, this semi-satiric rant is my attempt to name many of the themes that emerged from my research participants’ narratives, which closely mirrored much of what I’ve heard Asian American college students say in the last decade that I’ve been working in Student Affairs. Peace. -Vijay