Which ties bind the Asian community?

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Author’s Note: This is the second piece in a two-part on envisioning pan-Asian and Pacific Islander solidarity.  

A map representing the continent of Asia. With so many national, cultural, and religious identities in Asia, it’s hard to conceive the commonalities between these groups. Courtesy of Wikimedia

Asia, to understate things slightly, is very big. With a population of 4.7 billion on and around the Asian continent, and a huge diasporic population around the world, Asian nationalities are truly global in scale.  

With so many national, cultural and religious identities spanning so much of the world, my mind recoils trying to conceive the commonalities between Asian and Pacific Islander nationalities other than the imagined social geographical category of “Asian.” At times, terms such as Asian, API, AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander) and the abundance of variations don’t even feel like they’re describing the same coherent group of people — most of whom share a continent with Europe and many not even technically living on the same continent. Is it possible to pull a satisfying and digestible definition of what it means to be quintessentially Asian without drafting an entire dissertation? The answer, in my opinion, is a resounding no — and this is completely acceptable.  

The historical racial categories with which we are familiar in Europe and its former colonies are almost entirely products of white, Christian supremacy. Demographic sociologist Charles Hirschman identifies the greatest sources of ideological racism — and thus racial categories — as the European-sponsored trade of enslaved Africans, global colonial conquest and the development of social Darwinism. The terms of race have always been set by European colonialism, and, in the case of Asia and North Africa, orientalism — or the Western homogenization of “the East” through fetishistic, infantilized and vilified archetypes in arts, culture and politics.  

 Any meaningful movement against anti-API racism requires an understanding of “Asian-ness” established on our own terms — one that celebrates the multiplicity of cultural and ethnic identities that exists from the West Asian Caucuses (which have nothing to do with the usage of Caucasian as “White” in the American context) to the U.S.-occupied Hawaiian islands. Through manifold linguistic, religious and political differences, Asian and Pacific Island nations have been subject to similar colonial occupations, imperialist wars of occupation and extraction, neoliberal economic orders and eras of overwhelming racism and xenophobia.

A map of the Middle East. Rarely are the countries Americans know as the Middle East included in pan-Asian solidarity movements. Courtesy of Wikimedia.

In spite of having shared colonial histories by different European colonizers, orientalism and contemporary anti-Asian racism flatten popular notions of what it means to be Asian into specific geographic regions. Rarely in conversations about anti-Asian racism are our Central and West Asian siblings mentioned — the citizens and diaspora of Kazakhstan, the Kyrgyz Republic, Tajikistan, Turkmenistan, Uzbekistan and almost all of what Americans know as the Middle East are either wholly excluded from pan-Asian solidarity mobilizations or singled out as their own unique, oriental-ized monolith, as is the case with West Asian nations. Members of the Asian diaspora in the U.S. empire have a pronounced obligation to include West and Central Asian nations in our solidarity movements, as the API community here is extraordinarily diverse and multinational as opposed to the communities with which our relatives abroad interface with on a daily basis.  

Asian anti-racist, anti-imperialist and anti-capitalist movement organizers must break free of Eurocentric ideas of what it means to be Asian. For example, the dispellation of the term “Middle East” into the newer alternative of “SWANA,” referring to Southwest Asia and North Africa, is a prime example of colonial orthodoxies being dismantled. Terminological changes, however, are far from enough to launch an impactful campaign of solidarity with our API siblings around the world. 

The cynical capitalist co-optation of anti-racism has rendered representation in the lucrative film and TV industry as the most important discourse Asians in the U.S. should be having. This strategy averts our gaze from the poorest and most vulnerable members of the global Asian community towards already-wealthy and privileged celebrities. As a result, the Asian diaspora in the U.S. cannot meaningfully organize around the historic flooding and environmental catastrophe in Pakistan, Washington holding nearly $7 billion worth of Afghanistan’s assets hostage — exacerbating the systemic starvation of nearly six million Afghans due to famine and poverty — and the resurgence of the dictatorial Marcos-Duterte government in the Philippines. 

To reiterate the introduction, Asia is big — massive in every sense of the word. Reflecting the geographical and numerical scale of our relatives, our solidarity must also be inclusive of and empowering toward the masses of Asian and Asian diaspora communities whose suffering under empire, climate catastrophe and domestic neocolonial poverty often remains unseen, unheard and unaddressed.  

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