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Invisibility and Anti-Asian Racism
I was so happy to organize this Feminist Studies in Religion (FSR) panel with Dr. Tracy Tiemeier for the American Academy of Religion (AAR). Dr. Tiemeier and I both serve on the FSR board and we felt in light of the pandemic and the rise of AAPI hate crimes, it was crucial to hold a panel to discuss these issues at the AAR.
The panel we organized was "Invisibility and Anti-Asian Racism" and we invited Drs. Rachel Bundang, Tammy Ho, Vijaya R Nagarajan and Najeeba Syeed to be the panelists . We invited these professors and activist to reflect on Asian invisibility and/or anti-Asian racism in religion and society. They were also asked how they see Asian and AAPI voices/issues represented in feminist studies in religion. It was a lively panel followed by deep questions and dialogue. The panel will be shared as a FSR podcast in the future as well as a Journal of Feminist Studies in Religion special journal issue Fall 2023.
Below is a portion of my own paper for this panel which is drawn from my own research and writing and especially from my recent book, Invisible.
“Invisibility & Anti-Asian Racism”
The history of racism and prejudice against Asian Americans shows the long record of suffering and oppression of Asian immigrants. In the 1800s and the beginning of the 1900s, discrimination, racism, and xenophobia marked Asian immigrants as undesirable and un-American. White America precisely defines who and what is American, which denotes privileged selectivity in choosing who can immigrate and become naturalized according to what they feel is acceptable. When the Chinese Exclusion Act expired, it was extended by the Geary Act of 1892, which barred the Chinese from entering the United States. The Geary Act ended in 1943. There was also the Immigration Act of 1917, also known as the Asiatic Barred Zone Act, which stopped immigration from any country adjacent to Asia. During World War II, Japanese Americans lost everything they possessed and were forced into internment camps as they became national threats to white Americans. Anti-Asian racism has been part of the fabric of the American story.
Race and the American cultural perception of one’s race have been the determining factors in distinguishing between the “good” immigrants and the “bad” ones, the better assimilable ones from the unassimilable ones, the racialized ones, and the neutral ones. Immigrants deemed worthy of American citizenship were naturalized; those who were not were excluded. The McCarran-Walter Act (1952) abolished the racial restrictions put in place by the Naturalization Act of 1790, which limited naturalization to “free white persons.” This meant women, nonwhite persons, and indentured servants (who were mostly Asian Americans) could not become naturalized citizens. Over time, access to citizenship became more expansive, but the racial restriction was not eliminated entirely until 1952. This produced the category of “aliens” who were ineligible for citizenship, which largely affected Asian immigrants and limited their rights as noncitizens to property ownership, representation in courts, public employment, and voting. Thus, many generations of Asian Americans were made invisible. Without citizenship, they were pushed to the margins, and they did not have the rights to challenge their marginality and invisibility in the courts.
Xenophobia is a defining feature of American life. Xenophobia emerged as soon as nonwhites immigrated to America and triumphed in the 1920s. The 1924 Johnson-Reed Act was a strict policy of ethnic quotas that nearly closed the door on immigration from Asia for over forty years. When mainstream, explicit forms of xenophobia began to wane during the civil rights movement, it merely bubbled away from the surface, still lurking, only to reemerge in the last half century—namely, during the Trump administration.
Xenophobia has continued the legacy of discriminatory immigration policies, such as the Muslim ban (2017) introduced by President Trump, banning foreigners from seven predominantly Muslim countries from visiting the United States for ninety days. Xenophobia continues to marginalize immigrants and people of color who have been in America for centuries. For example, many employers may not hire potential employees if they bear an “ethnic name” for fear that they may not be American enough for the role. This common employment discrimination has led many people of color to anglicize or change their names to sound “American.” The non-anglicized names of Asian Americans will make them appear foreign even though they have been living in the United States for generations.
Today, Asian Americans are pushed into an ambiguous space wherein their supposed political meekness and social reserve prohibit others from viewing them as cultural leaders. They are not represented in positions of power or seen making visible change, in part because American society does not believe in them doing so. This can be attributed to the model minority myth—white society believes Asian Americans have already achieved success, so these immigrants do not need support for further mobility. Thus, through ambitious activism and diverse dialogues, Asian Americans must redefine their cultural past, which has rendered their discrimination invisible and unimportant in the American story. In this racially ambiguous space and probationary national identity, Asian Americans have remained silent and apathetically endured small injustices as part of their daily existence.
In recent decades, American culture has shifted from being fearfully hateful of Asians to lauding them, proclaiming the “rise of Asian Americans” to be the exemplar for all other immigrants and ethnic minorities. This narrative is due to the model minority myth and honorific whites which is false and only pits Asian Americans against other people of color to create tension and animosity. Furthermore, these myths erase the long history of discrimination, racism, xenophobia, indentured workers, that Asian Americans have experienced from the beginning of their immigration. As a result, their suffering and difficulties are made invisible which results in racism being discussed in ‘black and white’ terms. Invisibility becomes a common experience among Asian Americans and especially Asian American women who are doubly made invisible by not only the white culture but the Asian subculture that they also exist and live in. Invisibility is not only a social concern, but also a spiritual concern.
White American power over Asian Americans is created through cultural, social, and religious practices that are revalidated and reinforced until the oppressive practices undermine and obscure the Asian American. These practices may become so commonplace that the oppression is normalized and indiscernible to both the oppressor and the oppressed. In the normalization of Asian invisibility, we grapple with the loss of communal agency, a major detriment to day-to-day work and life caused by damaging power imbalances. Both parties are harmed in this process, but for the oppressed, their powerlessness drains the mind and soul.
When Asian Americans are made invisible, it is done to justify someone else’s sense of superiority. White America’s position of primacy is defined and shaped by the oppression of others and the eradication of their agency. Without equal opportunity and agency, Asian Americans become imperceptible in society. Becoming unnoticeable leads us down a well-traveled route that many have taken in pursuit of integrating into America. Yet in a relatively young country founded on migration and immigration, foreign identities and invisibility converge in the fabric of racial diversity where racial hierarchies are created to establish dominance amid variances. This relationship between visibility and foreignness is part of the reason it has always been so difficult to accept Asian Americans as American.
This begs the question: Who gets to be an American?
(For the rest of the paper, please look for the JFSR issue in Fall 2023).
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