HomeSoutheast Asian AmericanOp-Ed: Can't ignore class differences in Asian American community

Op-Ed: Can’t ignore class differences in Asian American community

By Nathan Reddy, Community Works

I received some criticism for a recent piece of mine, as I referred to Cambodian Americans as “low-income.” The commenter was exhausted with academics and writers using Cambodian Americans, Southeast Asian Americans in general, as the go-to in order to declare that not all Asian Americans are well-off, an intellectually weak way to dispel the model minority myth. They said it was homogenizing, which is true. It is also erasing. Displaying them as indefinitely and essentially “low-income” effectively erases them because class is something that is erased within social justice circles as a real entity by virtue of rabid identity politics.

Framing “class” as just another permutation of identity is harmful, in that it normalizes the severe and continuing economic stratification of society. It is not like race, gender or sexuality in that abstract equality can be realized along all those dimensions. “Low-income” is not defined by an attribute, but literally by the amount of wealth one has. Therefore, there can be no abstract equality between people who are “low-income” and “high-income.” For one to have more, the other has to have less. In our fundamentally class-based society, this fact is obscured.

Paulo Freire, arguably the most influential radical educator of the twentieth century, took a lot of heat from other educators and academics for primarily focusing on class analysis. Race was primary, or he should at least have bothered to include race in his analyses, said the critics. In his later years, he acquiesced and said racial oppression was indeed notable, but his rejection of a class-based society remained his mainstay until his untimely death.

Many academics and writers (including me) have a lot of nerve typifying Southeast Asian Americans, including Cambodian Americans as “low-income.” In some way, this is seen as a service to the Southeast Asian American community, as pointing out that they are mostly “low-income” makes them more visible in that the model minority figure obscures their existence. Pointing out poverty, however, is not a strategy to fight it. In fact, I doubt Cambodian Americans would care whether their class status is pointed out in journal articles or not. Neither omission nor notation will absolve their poverty. Asian American academics and writers also deploy the term generously to show that marginal members exist in their “community,” but would never describe themselves as “high-income,” even though, if we are to accept this lexicon, they are. Why not refer to themselves as “high-income?” because it would reveal the gulf of separation between them and their “low-income” peers, with “Asian American” being the barely adhesive glue binding them together.

If “Asian American” were to truly have a meaning, then this gulf of separation needs to be addressed to the fullest extent and crossed. There is precedence to these efforts. The Asian American Movement was not one of empty ethnic pride, but one grounded in thorough and radical analyses of power dynamics in society, class and race. It was based in the community and involved the “masses” at all levels and of all identities, from former gang members to senior citizens. The Third World Liberation Front was notable not only for its radical takeover of academics and its demand for Ethnic Studies, but also for the fact that it occurred on a working-class campus, San Francisco State University. Through these struggles, working class people were not defined as “low-income” but as people who are capable of their own empowerment, in solidarity with academics, writers and socially engaged artists.

“Asian American” must mean more than ethnic pride, and to go beyond that, we must talk about class. It will allow us to transcend barriers of identity erected by fervent identity politics. Rarely will anyone outside of academia or social justice circles identify as “Asian American” now, and that is a travesty.

Paulo Freire clung to a class-based analysis because of his traumatic experience moving from the middle-class to impoverishment as a child. It is the foremost “identity,” if you will, for anyone experiencing poverty. I know this secondhand. I have never fell into poverty, but I worked with a group of Southeast Asian American teenagers, let’s call them “Burmese Americans” even though they go by “Karen” (their ethnic group name) who did not resonate at all with “Asian American.” What did resonate with them was their daily struggles, rooted in their “low-income” status. Ultimately, we created a mural together showing their journey from Burma to America, an Asian American mural in terms of geography, which rose all of our critical consciousnesses, “critical consciousness” being a term coined by Freire.

That experience proved to me, as someone who does identify as both Indian American and Asian American now, that it is possible for “Asian American” to reclaim its radical roots, if “Asian Americans” are willing to not only consider class, but wade into the lived experiences of those who are identified by their class status. It’s time to bury “low-income,” and doing that doesn’t entail deleting it from an article but working towards the end of a class-based society altogether. This means not only working with those that fall under the manufactured banner of “Asian American,” but with everyone from all different identities. When asked what exactly drives their quest for justice, both Yuri and Bill Kochiyama said the dismantling of race, as race-based social organization has masked what is fundamentally a class-based society. I agree, and so my role as a raced being is to undermine that existence, and that undermining is what being “Asian American” means to me.

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