At UCLA, I participated in a political science professor’s study on the identity marker “people of color.” A handful of questions were simple for me to answer: yes, “person of color” is a real identity. Yes, I am a person of color. But some were more difficult: who is a person of color? What makes people of color similar? What disqualifies a person from being a person of color?
I particularly struggled to make sense of the way APIs fit into the person of color identity. At first thought, I described people of color as nonwhite individuals who experienced some sort of racial oppression. APIs are obviously not white, but we do we really experience racial oppression?
Asian Americans are the highest earning racial demographic on average. But that’s just an average; there are many low-income APIs on the other end. And even high-income APIs have experienced some sort of racial oppression historically. But if that oppression doesn’t translate into continued depressed earnings, does it even count? We don’t experience police brutality like African Americans do, and we aren’t being rounded into camps on the border like Central American immigrants. But still, things aren’t so rosy in our communities either; many Southeast Asian Americans are being deported. How do you quantify oppression in a demographic that is so diverse?
Listening to Asian American Studies professor Dr. Tom Fujita-Rony, I realized that might be the wrong question entirely. He described his background as a third-generation Japanese American, born and raised in Hawai’i. As he went deeper into his childhood, I was struck by how fundamentally different his story was from mine, his wife’s, and even his own son’s. But none of us are more “Asian American” than the other.
Dr. Fujita-Rony described the API movement as fundamentally one of building coalitions. Besides a history of war, there is not a whole lot that connects all APIs: we don’t all eat the same foods, or speak the same languages, or look the same way. We can’t even agree on rice, or whether we want to hug each other upon meeting. The more I listened, the more I realized I didn’t have to be uncomfortable with the fact the API coalition is very different. Every individual has a different history and experience of oppression, and that is okay.
In fact, it may make the API coalition all the more remarkable. There’s nothing obvious that ties all of us together, but we have made the decision to walk together for our collective empowerment. In a previous workshop, LA Walks Executive Director John Yi mentioned that APIs have a superpower: we are the best allies. And in a way, we have a lot of practice in allyship. Being part of this coalition is an unspoken pledge of allyship to other APIs who might not have a lot in common with us at all.
I’ve always questioned my place in the American racial fabric; what oppressions and privileges have I experienced and inherited, and where do I fit in with everyone else? While being cognizant of the places I belong and do not continues to be paramount, CLA has helped affirm that my pure existence is valid. Something CAUSE Director of Programs Richard Leong says every week is that we are uniquely qualified to lead. I’m on my way to believing it.