By: Andrew Cheng, UC Irvine and Nick Mararac, Georgetown University

It has been a tumultuous year for Asian America. The botched governmental response to the COVID-19 pandemic was directly responsible for an increase in hate crimes against people of Asian descent in the United States. Although public scrutiny was sparse in the beginning months of the ordeal, scholars and activists have helped to raise awareness not only about the alarming rise of racially-motivated attacks, but also about the entrenchment of anti-Asian racism in American history. Exclusion and xenophobia have been part and parcel of the Asian experience in America since before American history began.

In January of 2021, we were invited to co-facilitate a teach-in that focused on the intersection of queer and Asian American identities at the LSA Annual Meeting. It was part of a larger workshop, called Room at the Table, that critically analyzed the positionality of Asian Americans in our field. People kept saying that Room at the Table was “so timely” and sorely needed at a time of such high tensions in the Asian American community. Little did we know that January wasn’t the end of it, not even the peak.

On March 16, Xiaoji Tan (49), Daoyou Feng (44), Paul Andre Michels (54), Elcias R. Hernandez-Ortiz (30), Hyun Jung Grant (51), Soon Chung Park (74), Suncha Kim (69), and Yong Ae Yue (63) were murdered by a White gunman in the Atlanta metropolitan area. News media were quick to name and describe the shooter, while the names, faces, and stories of the victims remained unknown. They had families and loved ones; they worked in the spa industry or were its patrons. But the first news stories that broke were about the murderer and his “troubled” background or the social ills of sex work. Writers, editors, and social media users chose to write and share pieces that elevated misogynistic discourses about sex work and dehumanized Asian women.

We want so desperately for Atlanta to be the last time anti-Asian hate crimes make national news. But it won’t be. And it certainly wasn’t the first. We note that it’s June: Pride month, a time to commemorate the Stonewall uprising in 1969. It’s also when we commemorate the life of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American murdered on June 19, 1982, because two White men at a bar near Detroit resented the Japanese auto industry for “stealing” American jobs. We’ve been doing a lot of reflecting.

Nick: Like many of my Filipino friends, I spoke with my mother after hearing about Vilma Kari, a Filipino American in NYC who was attacked on her way to church. Like Vilma, my mom attends church regularly, even during the week because she’s super Catholic. But after coming up short on advice other than to be careful, I turned to my Asian friends to talk about how to address this issue in our local communities, which includes academia.

Andrew: And I’ve been struggling with ways to avoid slipping into performative activism and allyship. I see a lot of that every June, when large corporations buy a Pride float and festoon their logo with rainbows. Come July, their dedication to LGBTQ+ social justice issues has vanished. The queer and Asian communities deserve better, don’t you think?

The intent of this piece is to expand the discussion we began at Room at the Table on queer and Asian American identity, and to tie it into a reflection on the recent #StopAsianHate movement, in particular its manifestation within academia.

As linguists, we examine the intersection of race and language, account for the historical discourses that inform present-day (socially-construed) “realities”, and, ideally, use our knowledge as the impetus for actual social change. We use queer linguistics as a framework for our analysis, not necessarily because we both identify as queer, but because so much of the societal perception of Asians in America travels through a uniquely gendered and sexualized lens, and queer linguistics can be used to critically examine and deconstruct that lens.

Andrew: So let’s start with historical discourses about Asians in America.

The “model minority” stereotype for Asian Americans is a recent construct. It was first described in 1966 by a White Berkeley sociologist named William Petersen, who used it to explain the cultural “success” of Japanese Americans, in stark contrast to other racial minorities, including Chinese, Filipino, Mexicans, and, with particular emphasis, African Americans (Petersen, 1966; Boderhausen, 2011). This description quickly grew into what we call “model minority logics”, with each instance of Asians managing to climb the economic ladder and resist crime despite systemic oppression strengthening the stereotype of all Asians being smart, hardworking, law-abiding, wealthy, and privileged.

Model minority logic fomented anti-Blackness in Asian and White communities, but in its upholding of White supremacist ideology, it also ended up contributing to Asian disenfranchisement (Kim, 1999; Sue et al., 2007). One of the pernicious consequences of model minority logics has been the conflation of different Asian American experiences into a monolith of imagined economic success, erasing the varied histories of oppression and marginalization that different Asian groups have experienced. Another is the erasure of the long history of Asian American oppression.

Now, the “queer linguistics” framework (Motschenbacher, 2011; Motschenbacher & Stegu, 2013; Davis et al. 2014) insists that we use intersectional lenses to analyze and solve problems: this includes academic problems (e.g., how do drag artists use their voices and language to play with gender?) and the very real problems we face in society (e.g., why is it important to focus our discourse on the safety of black trans women specifically?). The queer linguistic pursuit, writes William Leap, “leads into a broader interrogation of structures of normative authority and regulatory power” (Leap 2015:662). It means looking at how gender and sexuality were wielded in the discourse of labeling and othering Asian Americans, and also at how Asian Americans can be invoked to deconstruct the boxes in which we tend to find ourselves placed.

By taking a queer turn, we see how the original treatment of Asians stemmed from hegemonic and heteronormative ideologies of White masculinity (Connell, 2005), not just xenophobia. Long before they were regarded as a model minority, Chinese men who immigrated to the West Coast during the Gold Rush of the 1800s were said to “lack a gender” because they did both “boys work and girls work” (Wu, 2021) and did not embody the characteristics of an ideal American man (Lee, 2003). Following decades of neo-imperialist wars waged by American and European powers in Asian nations (e.g., Korea, the Philippines, Vietnam), the hypersexualization and fetishization of Asian women became a cultural trope, known as Yellow Fever (Uchida, 1998; Prasso & Prassol, 2005; Zheng, 2016; Hiramoto & Pua, 2019).

Sixty years on, model minority logics continue to uphold a patriarchal and White supremacist ideology (Chou & Feagin, 2015). This logic states that Asian Americans achieve by keeping quiet and working hard; they are accommodating and invisible and thereby harmless. Asians are neutralized as a threat to political order because they are perceived as achieving the American Dream without challenging the White, heteronormative status quo. The modern Asian American man is still considered sexless and emasculated. The modern Asian American woman still exotified, painted as submissive and thought of as disposable. Our Asian American elders are seen as defenseless.

Nick: Speaking of masculinity, I had the lovely experience of living in a hypermasculine environment before I started at Georgetown. I served in the Navy during Don’t Ask Don’t Tell, a time when LGBTQ+ service members could not serve openly. I remember being told I was too articulate and that I needed to “man up.” I felt it was harder to hide being gay because I was Asian. Now, in academia, I worry I’m not articulate enough and that I’m also not “gay/queer enough” because of my military experience.

And some Asian Americans have wholly bought into model minority logic. Some of us imagine that we are indeed “a homogenous and self-sufficient community in no particular need of assistance or support” (Eng & Han, 2018). We might take pride in the “positive stereotypes” while not recognizing how they undermine our agency (Siy & Cheryan, 2013).

Andrew: Ever heard of “boba liberalism”? It’s a twist on neoliberalism, but for wealthy Asians -- usually East Asians -- who totally buy into the promise of capitalism and take pride in having “made it” in the US. The boba liberal lacks a critical understanding of what circumstances beyond one’s own hard work makes success possible and doesn’t seek economic justice, only personal gain and shallow cultural and political representation. Not sure why “boba” got attached to it though. Taiwan pride aside, I’m personally not a fan: even when you ask for no sugar, there’s too much sugar.

Perhaps there is some hope that economic achievement will come hand-in-hand with cultural capital. A kind of politics of respectability is in play here: if we Asians are unproblematic, we’ll be accepted. Shame on the “bad Asians” who don’t measure up; shame on those who rock the boat and make it harder for the rest of us to get ahead. But it sounds an awful lot like the internalized homophobia of the late 20th century, when those who were gay had to act straight to be accepted, and those who couldn’t pass as straight had to be perfect in every other way. The gayness was seen as a liability. We had to be golden in order not to be perceived as a threat.

And yet, the acceptance is conditional. All it takes, it seems, is one discursive act of connecting a dangerous virus to East Asia, and the glitter of neoliberal tolerance and acceptance of all races is abruptly blown away. “The worst kind of liberalism, really,” says Louis in Tony Kushner’s Angels in America, is “bourgeois tolerance, and what I think is that what AIDS shows us is the limits of tolerance, that it’s not enough to be tolerated, because when the shit hits the fan you find out how much tolerance is worth. Nothing.”

So when COVID-19 hit the fan, Asian Americans saw the limits of tolerance, and the consequences were deadly. #StopAsianHate arose as a response, and in response to this response, the country’s current progressive paragons, academic institutions, rushed in to defend their Asians -- but mostly their own reputations.

Pardon the shade. We commend institutions who publicly took a stand against racism and admire the commitment to demonstrate solidarity. We are less enthused about the many emails we have received that rehash the trauma of the latest anti-Asian assault, connect it to systemic racism, offer a verbal commitment to anti-racism, and link to outside organizations that are doing the actual policy and community care work. And we are not at all enthused about any of the implications in formal communications that all anti-Asian hate is recent, that it is the same, and that continuing to churn out emails and nothing else constitutes an appropriate response. There is another binary that has arisen in the past decade, and progressive institutions desperately want to be on the “woke” side of it without undergoing the critical analysis necessary to get there.

We’re calling now for an intersectional approach to mitigating the ongoing violence against Asians and Asian Americans, which is what distinguishes proactively anti-racist institutions from those that remain compliant to their own self-interest. The compliant institution hires an Asian person for the sake of representation, but does not acknowledge the unique challenges they faced to get there or provide them with adequate resources for continued success. The anti-racist institution not only provides the person of color said resources, but understands how their multifaceted experiences of inequity are integral to the group, connects the dots, and deconstructs the barriers that made entry inequitable in the first place.

So: a few suggestions from two cisgender gay Asian American men -- we don’t presume to speak for all Asians or all queer people -- on how to do better. First, in the realm of institutional responses, we appreciate language that avoids flattening Asian communities. Please disaggregate. It is important to demonstrate that those who hold institutional power understand that there is no monolith; that the needs of the Sikh community following a mass shooting are different from the needs of Chinese elders in San Francisco following a string of unprovoked physical assaults, because of differing histories and social contexts. We advocate for acknowledging the historical and explicitly political usefulness of categorical labels such as “Asian American” (which was vital for panethnic coalition-building during the Civil Rights Movement) while recognizing that terms can and must change and evolve. Other ways of imagining community and political organizing will come for Asian Americans, and we should welcome their contributions when they arrive.

Second, we ask for more authentic commitment to anti-racist actions, not just lip service to the anti-racist ideal. Now, it might look like the loudest voices in the anti-racism space keep “moving the goalposts” for when true justice is achieved. Acknowledgment is good, but not enough. Funding workshops is good, but not enough. Cracking down on hate speech is good, but not enough. Updating hiring practices is good, but not enough. Abolishing the police is good, but not enough. It’s tempting to look at this and think, “There is no telos.” But that is precisely the point. To do more, to do better, takes work. Radical work. “We will not accept listening sessions or open forums,” writes Johnathan Flowers, “because we recognize them for what they are: incremental change that presents the illusion of a response while allowing the institution to keep whiteness in place” (Flowers, 2020).

Justice and equality for LGBTQ+ communities in the United States has also undergone constant change, with different battles waged in different eras (legal recognition, marriage rights, anti-discrimination laws, and a struggle against police brutality from the very start), because there is no one monolithic LGBTQ+ community, either. Also note that we’re not talking about this as if incremental change is the only method, as if the needs of White, upper-class cisgender gay men had to be met first before we moved on to other marginalized groups. No, movements for social justice don’t progress in a linear fashion; and no, Asians don’t fit into any hierarchy; and no, queer people will not conform to the desires of institutions; and yes, we are going to keep moving the goalposts. What will you do when #StopAsianHate and #BLM stop trending? When AAPI Heritage Month and Pride Month are over? The leaders of the progressive movement update the goals as society changes. They never rest on their laurels, because they are committed to a vision of the future that does not necessite that accretion of institutional power.

So, finally, we ask for the most subversive thing of all: for the institution to take a long, hard look at itself and ask what it has done historically, and what it continues to do today, that stands in the way of liberation for the most marginalized people in its immediate social context. This is a tough one, because institutions almost by definition need to rely on a sense of self-preservation, whereas queer deconstruction seems to fly in the face of that. Can an institution even continue to exist if, for example, it fully commits to reparations for the racial injustice that seeded its endowment? Can academia, if identified as a structure of power complicit in racial inequality (Rosa & Flores, 2017), dismantle itself? One of the benefits of the queer approach is that after deconstruction, we are freed to completely reimagine what we began with, whether that is a reimagined gender identity or a reimagined model for higher education. Take it from the Asian Americans, who have been troubling the binaries from the very beginning.

 

To read more about LGBTQ+ linguistics from LGBTQ+ linguists, check out all of the COZIL Blog posts here.

 

References

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