How to Take on Andrew Yang’s Assimilation Strategy (And How Not To)

Andrew Yang gets it wrong with his stance on fighting anti-Asian racism in the wake of the COVID-19 virus, asking Asians-Americans to act “more American” to fend off discrimination.

But some (white) anti-racists, rightfully critical of Yang, don’t seem clued into the deep hold of assimilationist logic in Asian-American communities — as it is among many oppressed groups trying to find space for themselves in this country.

It’s one thing to declare that racially oppressed groups need to take the bull by the horns and not give an inch to white supremacy, or try to appease the majority, or aim to prove our national credentials.

It’s quite another to understand that assimilationism and don’t-rock-the-boat-ism are strategies followed by rational people. To learn about why these strategies are tried again and again, generation after generation, despite their failure to bring social justice, and to develop new strategies, organically, from targeted communities themselves — that’s the hard work that needs to be done.

On April 1, Yang published an op-ed in The Washington Post, calling for Asian-Americans to “embrace and show our American-ness in ways we never have before.”

This is absolutely the wrong message. Asian-Americans are not to blame for anti-Asian racism. White supremacy is. Imperialism is. Fear of the immigrant is.

Yang asks Asian-Americans to “step up, help our neighbors, donate gear, vote, wear red white and blue, volunteer, fund aid organizations, and do everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis. We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.”

It’s stunning to read this.

Yes, we should be volunteering and organizing to help our neighbors. As many of us are already doing. But why do we need to wrap ourselves up in the flag to do this? What good would it do? Would we seem less foreign? Less threatening? Less Other?

How did displaying signs of nationalism work for Muslim-Americans and South Asian Americans after 9/11?

NBC reports that some Japanese-Americans, incensed at how Yang pointed to their community as an example, challenged his false implication that since they “volunteered for military duty at the highest possible levels to demonstrate that they were Americans,” this kept them from facing racism.

Bruce Embrey, the co-chair of the Manzanar Committee that educates the public on Japanese American incarceration during World War II said:

“The article brought back memories of elders telling us how they were instructed by organizations to be ‘good Americans,’ when just being American should have been enough.”

Yang’s constant evoking of the model minority myth, throughout his campaign and in his new role on CNN, has helped to cement the racial box that the US puts many Asians in.

But if you’re a (white) anti-racist who is swearing left and right about how idiotic Andrew Yang is, just step back and calm down a bit. Learn the terrain a bit more.

The strategy of assimilation, along with the myth of the model minority, is alive and well in Asian and immigrant communities.

I believe we have to fight it, but also to recognize that this how many oppressed people have tried to lessen their oppression. To find a space in a hostile country in which — as we are seeing now — anti-Asian hatred is just under the surface, ready to explore.

What does the assimilation strategy look like? A common way to talk about it is the desire for “whiteness” — for the college education, the steady and high-paying job, the house, the retirement portfolio, the neighborhood, the clothing, the music, the food, and so many other aspects of daily life — that turn you into a “normal American.”

This chase for “normalcy” is a mirage — the fiction known as “the American Dream” that, to be sure, most white people don’t experience either.

For people of color, and particularly Asians and other immigrant communities of color, even if we do happen to achieve those goals, our culture, race, language, and so much else confers on us a perpetual foreignness, a fault line that might open up under our feet at any minute.

And yet, the assimilation strategy is deeply rooted in daily life. It can only be taken on by dialogue, argument, understanding, and debate. Not by slogans and pronouncement.

Because there’s nothing wrong with the desire to be seen as normal and not as Other. To see if you can put your head down and work your way into some stability, the basis for future family security.

Asians in the US, whatever wealth and achievement they/we may have, are often only one or two generations from the being under the heel of European or US colonialism and dominance.

Their/our parents and grandparents were often the first people to graduate from college, experiencing a great degree of struggle. They often sponsor visas of many family members or send money “back home” — taking on the responsibility of many others.

In such conditions, stability, and being regarded as “normal,” get seen as a good thing.

Undoubtedly, the assimilation strategy is a dead end.

White supremacy loves nothing more than parading around an Asian-American to tell other Asian-Americans that assimilation is the only way to avoid racial attacks. And Andrew Yang is a willing participant in all this.

But the ordinary people who often believe in the assimilation strategy have good reasons to do so — and regard keeping their heads down and trying to blend in as matters of survival.

Anti-racists need to have these conversations with a great deal of respect and understanding. Choosing the assimilation strategy is a product of desperation, a response to oppression.

Associate Professor of English (Postcolonial & Critical Ethnic Studies), The Ohio State University. He/him. Opinions are my own. @redguju

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