I’m Asian American, and I’m wondering why politicians don’t think I exist

Originally published on Matador Network

I was eight when my parents first became citizens of the United States. I remember watching my mom rummage through her closet, tossing handfuls of shirts over her shoulders as she curated an outfit to take her Oath of Allegiance in. I remember running my go-gurt covered fingers over the shiny leather cover of my dad’s new American passport, marveling at the multicolored seal overlaid on his photo. For my family, citizenship in the US amounted to new passports, different tax forms, but also the promise of home in this foreign country. Yet for some reason, it never once amounted to voting.

My parents were intelligent and loving throughout my childhood, but despite the extreme lengths they took to ensure that my brother and I grew up under better circumstances than they did, they never once participated in the democratic process. Last week on the phone, I mentioned to my mom that I had been doing a lot of research trying to figure out who I wanted to vote for in the primaries. Her reply was basically: “Why waste time on that?”

According to the US Census, Asian-Americans are the fastest growing racial group in America. Our community has doubled in size over the past 12 years and it’s projected to double again by 2040. Despite this, Asian-Americans have some of the lowest rates of political participation in the country, and political representation on a federal level is miniscule compared to the size of our community here. For the most part, Asian-Americans don’t exist in politics. We’re rarely discussed in presidential debates, Mazie Hirono is the only Asian-American in the Senate, and we’re not often mentioned in just the everday conversations surrounding politics.

Many of the issues that concern Asian-Americans — such as language barriers, immigrant protection, access to education — are issues that concern a vast number of Americans, regardless of their hyphenated racial identity. And these concerns aren’t invisible, either, they’re constantly in the news. However, politicians have an overwhelming tendency to focus on the cases and policies as if they only affect other groups of hyphenated Americans. The unique narratives of Asian-Americans are usually homogenized in the political sphere, or just ignored altogether. When politicians attempt to appeal more widely to non-white Americans — such as Sanders’ campaign page on Racial Justice or Clinton’s article “7 Things Hillary Clinton has in Common with your Abuela” — Asian-Americans are either not mentioned at all, or half-heartedly footnoted at the end of these speeches and articles focused on other communities.

It’s also important to note that different problems persist in different Asian-American communities. Chinese-Americans face widely different issues from Hmong-Americans. Cambodian-Americans have completely distinct political needs from Indian-Americans. My use of the term “Asian-American” isn’t meant to homogenize these groups, but to collectively encompass the vast myriad of groups that politicians don’t acknowledge.

While I understand that politicians need to prioritize problems in an order that respects the urgency and timeliness of each issue, Asian-American issues don’t even make the list. We are invisible, as Americans, as non-white Americans, and even as members of the individual groups that compose the Asian-American community.

Despite my disappointment with the lack of discussion of Asian-American needs in the presidential elections so far, I also know it’s a problem rooted far more deeply than just a few forgetful individuals. The reasons why we’re left out of political discussions and absent as politicians ourselves, are intertwined.

Many stereotypes that erase the internal diversity of Asian-American experiences are both symptoms and causes of political invisibility. These stereotypes have created a vicious cycle that perpetuates on conjecture and assumption. For example, there’s a common foreigner myth that claims Asian-Americans, no matter how disconnected they are from Asian culture, will always be considered “others” in America. The operating word for their identity will always be “Asian,” never “American.” This idea that Asian-Americans are eternal outsiders in the United States, no matter what we do, encourages political apathy within our communities. We don’t feel connected to our government because it doesn’t feel like our government.

In turn, the absence of Asian-American politicians allows this idea of “perpetual foreigners” to continue festering. The same cyclical problem persisted in the Yellow Peril myth, and the Model Minority myth, among many others. It’s a two-pronged problem. Politicians don’t acknowledge the needs and wants of Asian-Americans, and Asian-Americans, in general, don’t partake or invest in politics.

And even in the rare case when an Asian American becomes an elected public official, their political efforts are often overshadowed by discrimination and shallow racism. Just last May, when GOP California Assembly Member Ling Ling Chang took the Assembly floor to introduce a bill she had co-authored, Assembly Member Eric Linder — a man who was voted into office because people believed he would help govern the state responsibly — mocked Chang’s non-Caucasian name. He actually asked, “Ling-Ling, did you forget your bling-bling?” Ling Ling Chang was able to climb over significant barriers to get to public office, and she still has to put up with being addressed in a manner reminiscent of 5th grade bullying.

I don’t want to write this article as if I’m not a part of the problem. I am. Before I went to college, politics were a non-entity in my life. I knew little about current events and decisions being made in America. And between juggling schoolwork, socializing, speech and debate, student government (yes, I completely recognize the irony of this) and my general adolescent angst, I honestly didn’t care about any of it. It’s been a painful and slow-moving process. I’ve had to lug myself out of years of political apathy into a role that is aware and educated about my place in this country’s government.

And things have at least been slowly moving in the right direction. Percentages of civic engagement are on the rise in all Asian-American populations, and over the past eight years of his presidency, President Obama has tripled the number of APA federal judges. But the underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in politics has been bothering both Asian and non-Asian communities for years. It’s going to take more than just a few powerful individuals to reverse the damage.

The government lists the ability to vote as a right for all US citizens, but it lists participation in the democratic process as a responsibility. Responsibility can take a number of forms, whether it involves educating yourself on the 2016 presidential candidates, supporting Asian-Americans running for office, or even spending 20 minutes on the phone walking your mom through the absentee ballot process. Whatever you choose, remember that the responsibility to make Asian-American issues heard isn’t entirely on politicians, it’s on us too.

3 thoughts on “I’m Asian American, and I’m wondering why politicians don’t think I exist”

  1. So true! I too feel pretty ignored in politics. I’ve just decided to vote for the party that aligns more with my lifestyle. I’m voting in my personal interest rather than what the majority of my demographic group votes

    Like

  2. This is a very good article. I think our parents or just people up to a certain age have quietly accepted what I refer to as the model minority trade off. Some Asian-American groups do really well economically in America and for some that’s good enough. To participate in politics comes with certain risks and exposures that many don’t wish to put their financial security in jeopardy for. Also, to become involved in political activism isn’t the most lucrative career path and it’s time consuming and can be soul draining with no favorable results. We are far from silent. We are not huge masses of people with no opinions of our own who just go along with whatever the white people dictate to us, but many don’t know where to start and I think the Millennials and younger will reverse this trend.

    Liked by 2 people

  3. Unfortunately I’m sad to say that I think the problem why politicians don’t care about us is that we as Asian Americans often at times don’t speak up and talk about these issues.

    Not trying to turn this into a political debate, but politicians like Hilary Clinton and Bernie Sanders wouldn’t have cared about #BlackLiveMatter movement if African Americans or Black people didn’t care about anti police brutality. Those two know that the BLM matter to the black community. The black community is vocal and public about it. They are great when it comes to making it visible on media and basically making it relevant, common, and important so that EVERYONE would know about it.

    My point is people ain’t going to know what we are going through unless we share our voices. We have to start blogging, making videos, being on TV, etc. We gotta make it visible, important, and central.

    Our parents often tell us to go into law, business, medicine, engineer, etc whatever practical careers they can think of.

    Yes, they have our best interests. However, since many of us try to follow these practical careers we don’t have a lot of people who become teachers, social workers, public service officers, writers, artists, and entertainers. Careers where it’s in our face constantly.

    I wished I had an Asian teacher growing up! That would have been so cool! Fortunately I had a Japanese American as a sub and she was awesome! I didn’t realized until now how having her even as a sub made a profound difference on me. It was awesome having someone as your role model who looked like you.

    I’m not saying we don’t have Asian teachers or entertainers or in non-practical careers. We obviously do, but I feel like we don’t have enough to make a big impact or the same level as blacks and Hispanics.

    Fortunately, we have more and more Asians running for public office. We have more Asians in TV shows. Lastly, the Asian immigration growth is a great boost to us Asians.

    I’m not saying we shouldn’t have Asians in practical fields. That would be bad! Then we wouldn’t have Asian doctors, lawyers, business owners, etc.

    But there’s gotta be a balance. We need Asians in EVERY field, private and public sectors.

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