Though the model minority stereotype implies that Asian Americans are non-confrontational and have not struggled against inequality and oppression, there is a long history of activism amongst Asian American communities. One pattern noted earlier is that of the formation of Asian American ethnic enclaves. These became the central gathering spaces for Asian American activists in the 1960s. Following World War II, Asian American enclaves, which are predominantly near urban centers, faced displacement by corporate interests and local governments through the enactment of "redevelopment zones." Not unlike the contemporary struggles against gentrification (the process of changing a neighborhood to become more affluent and white) happening in predominantly communities of color today, local governments exercised eminent domain which resulted in the forcing out of residents and small businesses to make way for capital investment, especially in downtown areas in big cities across the country such as San Francisco, Philadelphia, Seattle, and Los Angeles. This displacement of the poor, elderly, and working class immigrants helped give rise to the Asian American Movement (AAM) (Liu & Geron, 2008). Though the AAM would become most known for its opposition to the Vietnam War, its anti-imperialist advocacy, and organizing for racial justice to support other communities of color, the first issues it organized around related to the needs of the enclaves' working class residents such as the implementation of service programs and the protection of affordable housing. As Liu & Geron note, "In casting much of its lot with the interests of these communities and the residential population of workers, shopkeepers, street youth, and elderly, the Asian American Movement built, educated, and significantly defined itself" (2008, p. 23).
Saving the I-Hotel
One significant campaign against the dispersal and destruction of an Asian American ethnic enclave was the campaign to save the International Hotel in the Manilatown District of San Francisco. In the 1960s as the Financial District expanded, the Manilatown, which was home to many Filipino farm workers, merchant marines and service workers, was threatened by "higher use" development. The International Hotel, which housed mostly elderly Filipino and Chinese residents, was slated to be demolished in order to build a multi-level parking lot. What ensued was a nine-year long anti-eviction campaign supported by widespread student and community grassroots support (Dong, 2010). Such groups included affordable housing advocates, gay and lesbian activists, trade unions, women, and other progressive groups (Soloman, 1998). After initial efforts to delay the eviction, the building which already functioned as a de facto community center expanded to include a flourishing movement center for local grassroots organizations, arts and cultural groups, and a bookstore. In addition to preventing evictions, The International Hotel Tenants Association and its allies demanded the preservation of low-cost housing (Liu & Geron, 2008). In 1977, the campaign culminated in an eviction that enlisted "the deployment of over 400 riot police, mounted patrols, anti-sniper units and fire ladder trucks in a 3:00 AM eviction raid" (Dong, 2010, p. 5). Following the eviction and demolition in 1979, thanks to the activists efforts, Mayor Dianne Feinstein established the International Hotel Citizens Advisory Committee (IHCAC) to ensure that low-cost housing would be built on-site. Check out this interview with the IHCAC from 2016 to learn more about this story.
Pan-Asianism & Black Power
Beyond the enclave-based organizing efforts, what differentiated the AAM from previous Asian American activists was its emphasis on pan-Asianism which is an ideology that promotes the political and economic unity and cooperation of Asian peoples. In fact, one of AAM's notable achievements is the creation of the term "Asian American" which includes the myriad Asian ethnic groups who have migrated to the United States. While the recognition of Asian Americans as a group has its value for political organizing efforts and as a label of self-determination, as has been discussed in other parts of this chapter, it can also reinforce the stereotype that all Asians are the same. Though the identity of "Asian American" is rarely self-ascribed (people tend to say they are "Japanese American," "Korean American," "Thai," etc.) the term, coined by Berkeley students Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee, was originally inspired by the Black Power Movement and as a way to unite Japanese, Chinese and Filipino American students on campus under the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) formed in 1968 (Maeda, 2016). The pan-Asian ideology also included a transnational solidarity with people of color around the world impacted by U.S. neo-imperialism. Similarly, on the East Coast, two leftist Nisei (second-generation Japanese) women, Kazu Iijima and Minn Masuda, saw the anti-racist and anti-imperialist values promoted by Black Power as the antidote to the pro-assimilationist sentiment that developed in the Japanese American community following their experiences with being interned in concentration camps during World War II (Maeda, 2016).
Asian Women's Organizing
Another similarity between the Black Power and the AAM was the sidelining of women's issues and the lack of women in leadership positions. Though the fundamental concerns of social justice, equity and human rights are just as much women's issues as they are men's issues, the patriarchal cultural dynamics often pushed Asian women's concerns to auxiliary groups. The change in immigration laws facilitated the migration of highly educated and affluent Asian immigrants after 1965 also gave rise to the formation of large, primarily middle-class East Asian women's organizations. These groups received more support from conservative and mainstream institutions since they focused on education and service projects rather than the radical, leftist organizing found in the AAM. This distinction contributed to the perpetuation of the model minority myth by implying that, "there was a 'good' minority in tacit opposition to the 'bad' minorities -- African Americans and Latinos" (Shah, 1997).
Not only were Asian women sidelined in the AAM, but they were have also been marginalized in the women's movement. Mitsuye Yamada, author of “Asian Pacific American Women and Feminism,” writes about the disappointment and invisibility many Asian Pacific American women have felt towards the women’s movement. Issues important to Euro American feminists have not always included issues important to and perspectives of Asian Pacific American women. Yamada examines that women of color are often made to feel they have to choose between ethnicity and gender, and she argues the two are not at war with each other, so Asian Pacific American women should not have to choose one or the other. Barbara Ryan, author of Identity Politics in the Women's Movement, quotes Yamada:
Asian Pacific American women will not speak out to say what we have on our minds until we feel secure within ourselves that this is our home too, and until our white sisters indicate by their actions that they want to join us in our struggle because it is theirs also...We need to raise our voices a little more, even as they say to us ‘This is so uncharacteristic of you.’ To fully recognize our own invisibility is to finally be on the path towards visibility.
Millenial Amanda Nguyen, a civil rights activist and founder of RISE, a non-profit organization protecting the rights of sexual assault victims, has raised her voice to call attention to and make visible the violence against the AAPI community. Nguyen exercised her agency through her Instagram social media post in February 2021 which attracted more than 3 million views within 24 hours. In her post, she called out the anti-Asian backlash and increase of hate crimes (150% increase nationwide!) affecting AAPI communities in the U.S in 2020 and 2021, which has been virtually ignored by the mainstream press. In turn, Nguyen's activism has caused the mainstream media to cover Nguyen's plea for voices and issues of the AAPI community to be raised.
Asian American Activism Today
As more recent immigration laws have again added complexity to the Asian American population by bringing less educated, working class or poor Asian immigrants to the U.S., we have also seen the rise of neoliberal globalization policies such as NAFTA (North American Free Trade Agreement) and GATT (General Agreement on Tariffs and Trade) that favor corporate interests and deregulation. These changes mean that those new migrants and the majority of Asian workers globally, especially women, are laboring under substandard working conditions and being compelled to compete for the most debasing, lowest-paying jobs. This state of affairs has mobilized activists in a reinvigorated labor movement that is international and spans industries. A new generation of activists that are putting poor immigrant and refugee Asian women at the forefront of organizing efforts with a global and intersectional lens is rising up.
One such organization is Khmer Girls in Action (KGA), which is located in central Long Beach, California which is home to the largest population of Cambodians outside of Southeast Asia. KGA's mission is, "to build a progressive and sustainable Long Beach community that works for gender, racial and economic justice led by Southeast Asian young women" (Khmer Girls in Action). This youth-led organization partners with other community groups on campaigns such as Long Beach Invest in Youth to survey residents in order to identify what resources and programs are needed for their community to thrive. Through their campaign efforts, they highlighted the disparities in local public spending on youth programs compared to youth arrests ($204 to $10,500 respectively). Though their focus is to support the Cambodian community, the coalitions they form with other groups and the issues they work on undoubtedly serve to benefit other marginalized communities as well.
Another organization that KGA has partnered with is the Filipino Migrant Center which serves the South Bay cities of California. According to their mission statement, they are "are a Filipino immigrant-led organization who aims to educate, organize, and mobilize low-income, working class Filipino families" (Filipino Migrant Center). One of their notable campaigns is the "Stop Labor Trafficking! Stop Forced Migration!" campaign. According to the Philippine Department of Labor (2015), over 6,092 Filipinos leave the Philippines everyday in search of work in over 200 countries. The Filipino Migrant Center has successfully assisted over 50 Filipino migrant workers who faced abusive and exploitative conditions revealing the international impact of Asian and Pacific Islander activism in the United States. As unfettered global and racial capitalism rages on, such organizations will continue to serve a vital role in protecting workers both in the United States and abroad.
Did you know?
Many native Hawaiians resist being labeled "American" as they feel their islands were stolen from them and that the overthrow of the last Hawaiian ruler Queen Lili'uokalani and the ensuing annexation were illegal. There is an ongoing fight for Hawaiian sovereignty, self-determination, and self-governance. Sovereignty advocates have attributed problems plaguing native communities including homelessness, poverty, economic marginalization, and the erosion of native traditions to the lack of native governance and political self-determination (Trask, 2000).
Asian Americans are diverse and all have different push and pull factors that brought them to the United States
Pacific Islanders are indigenous to their homelands and can be understood as colonized peoples.
Asian Americans have often formed ethnic enclaves which provide economic opportunities and entry points to U.S. society for immigrants.
The U.S. has a long history of discrimination and othering Asian Americans as the "yellow peril" and that continues to be reflected in COVID-19 related hate crimes.
The model minority myth is a stereotype and is reductive of the diverse experiences of Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders.
Religious affiliation has helped immigrant Asian Americans adjust to life in the U.S.
LGBTQ+ Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders face double minority status and can feel isolated in their experience.
Many Asian Americans who arrived as refugees continue to rely on public assistance, highlighting the need to recognize the diversity in Asian American experiences.
Asian Americans have some of the highest rates of marrying someone else outside of their own ethnic group among racial/ethnic minorities.
There is a long history of Asian American and Pacific Islander resistance to oppression in and by the U.S. as well as movements of multiracial solidarity.
Contributors and Attributions
Tsuhako, Joy. (Cerritos College)
Gutierrez, Erika. (Santiago Canyon College)
Dong, H. (2010). International Hotels Final Victory: International Hotel Senior Housing, Inc.