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Asian Americans Need to Own Their Identities and Start Standing Up for Themselves

03/04/2016 11:41 pm ET | Updated Mar 04, 2016
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The notion that Asian Americans could use their voice to close the gaps between what America is for them and what it can be for them can still seem as foreign as the newfound land they call home.

Even now in the face of thousands of activists in support of Peter Liang, what remain unseen are the millions of other Asian Americans who stay silent and insist on laying low until the storm of conflict passes. They disagree with the protestors on issues of engagement rather than on issues of opinion. Their silence is only an example of more far-reaching absences in political involvement and voter turnout. This disengagement must end.

It can be beneficial to understand why Asians have historically been so timorous in standing up for themselves. In homogenous Eastern cultures, it's stigmatized to be different. There's a saying in China: "The loudest duck gets shot." This fear is further amplified by the contrast in freedom of expression between China and America. In recent history, Chinese political leadership ordered martial law against protesting students in Tiananmen Square and drove the persecution of the Falun Gong, a meditation group that the government saw as an ideological threat, events that saw thousands if not more protestors exiled, tortured, and killed.

It's impossible to ignore that the older generation grew up abroad, but the rules of the game have changed. What was true in China is no longer true in America. Protest and mobilization are now not only allowed, but encouraged as a means of expressing one's opinions. We are no longer be constrained by conventions of fear.

Second generation Asian Americans may not grow up with the fear of retribution that their parents did, but they grow up experiencing other uncomfortable sentiments. In large part because of the media's portrayal of them, Asian Americans can internalize one's racial identity as a source of embarrassment and as a limitation from personal and social success. There has been an asexualization of Asian males and a hypersexualization of Asian females. Asian characters are not represented as human beings with original stories, but as obedient and submissive conglomerate masses -- something to be wary of, but never something to ever be intimidated by.

Notwithstanding the 2016 Oscars' best intention to address diversity and racism, Sasha Baron Cohen still referred to Asian people as "hard working little yellow people with tiny dongs." Host Chris Rock, on the same night he tried to focus the Oscars on race, brought three Asian children onto the stage as accountants and made fun of them solely based on a stereotype.

This perpetual reminder of one's foreignness can be paralyzing for many Asian Americans, especially because of how strongly the culture values group harmony. In response, Asian parents have told their children to keep their head down, work hard in seemingly more meritocratic STEM fields, and ignore these discomforting truths until their education and careers can validate their Americanness. As evidenced by the most recent headlines, these discomforting truths still exist.

By now, we should know what the bamboo ceiling is and the perils of a parochial approach to success. Despite their work ethic and overrepresentation in elite universities, Asian Americans are absent in visible and influential roles within larger American society. In law firms, 11 percent of associates are Asian whereas three percent of partners are. In tech, Asians make up 33 percent of the workforce and six percent of board members. There are only nine Asian American CEOs among the Fortune 500. Only two percent of Congress and state legislatures are composed of Asian Americans. Even in the dating arena, race is salient. One Columbia University study found that Asian men "would have to earn an additional $247,000 to stand on equal footing with a white counterpart" and $220,000 with a black counterpart.

The limitations against Asian Americans may exist because of stereotypes, but they are stereotypes because Asian Americans continue to fulfill them. The cited arguments against putting Asian Americans in leadership positions are the very reasons why Asian Americans are so reluctant to engage themselves on activist positions. It becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy when Asian Americans choose out of their volition to remain hushed and passive. This silence is only seen as ignorance, indifference and unwillingness to engage with important matters.

On the other end of the spectrum, I've also met Asian Americans who entirely reject their Asianness. They emphasize their Whiteness and even pride themselves on exclusively dating White people. Beyond this strategy implying that one's Americanness is determined by one's whiteness and a corresponding acknowledgment of another race's superiority over one's own, it's still ineffective at the end of the day because of the blatant ways in which Asian people don't look like White people. Until Asian representation is improved beyond a stereotype, society could care less about how you see yourself and still identify by how you look and what that represents. It's why everyone laughed at the Chris Rock joke without even trying to empathize that the three children on stage are unique individuals with their own backstories and identities, just like anyone else in the audience.

It's so ironic that a culture that cares so much about concepts like honor does so little to actively address affronts on their dignity. Asian culture emphasizes stability, but seems to undervalue the sanctity of feeling safe and empowered in one's own skin. Asian Americans fret over grades and securing jobs, but remain nonchalant over the way others unequivocally judge them. The honest truth is that an elite education and an enviable career path will never be enough to save you from running away from an ethnicity that stays with you from birth to death. As a premedical student at Yale, I'm reminded of this lesson all too often.

Advocacy must be the path we take. Dissent does not invalidate the path towards being American. It catalyzes it. We can change the way society sees us if we take a stand for what we think is right. Being Asian just in itself can absolutely be a source of pride and at the very least a source of comfort.

In the face of adversity, marginalized groups have always acted on a communal brand of courage. As Asians in America, this is our country too. We came to this country with the belief that America is a place where anything is possible for anyone. It's why we left everything behind. But our apathy and hesitancy are what still holds us back. We need to abandon that too if we wish to make progress towards what it truly means to be American.

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