Speaker: Racial Mobility Poses
Dilemma for Asian Americans
By Sherry Fisher
Asian Americans often see themselves more as white than as 'people of color,' according to Frank Wu, journalist, scholar and activist. He spoke Oct. 1 in the Thomas J. Dodd Research Center's Konover Auditorium.
"All too often, many Asian Americans privately, if not publicly, try to disassociate themselves from African Americans and Hispanics and other 'people of color'," Wu said. His lecture, "Asian Americans: Rights and Responsibilities in a Diverse Democracy," opened this year's observance of Asian American Heritage month at UConn.
"Asian Americans now have the possibility - through a sort of collective racial upward mobility - of becoming, in effect, white," Wu said. "Every bit as much white as we were black before. That assimilation, though, even if it were successful, ought to trouble us greatly.
"If Asian Americans do successfully pass into whiteness," he continued, "all that would mean is that they too would then be complicit in helping maintain a racial hierarchy. If Asian Americans are to be principled, we must not only be Asian American, we must also be people of color. We must recognize that we have common cause, that there are principled issues of civil rights that we must stand up and speak out for when the opportunity presents itself."
Wu noted that Asian Americans have made many strides in the past decade.
"For Asian Americans there has been no better moment than today," he said. "Only a decade ago, matters were far different. The challenge was to persuade others that we had a right to belong to this country as equals, that we had a right to stay, that we had a right to comment on public affairs and to take part in politics."
Wu said Asian Americans often were asked, "Where are you really from? How do you like it in our country? When are you going back?" He said Asian Americans also had to struggle to persuade everyone "that we weren't all rockets scientists and whiz kids."
Now that Asian Americans' voices are being heard, the challenge is much more complicated, Wu said.
"As Asian Americans succeed in pursuing power, they must strive to be principled," he told the audience. "Our principles must be genuine, they must be universal. They must be principles that we can deliberate about publicly in a diverse democracy, not principles that we merely hold in private."
Wu encouraged Asian Americans to be inclusive, not exclusive. "All too often Asian Americans have failed to be Asian Americans," he said. "Quite often you find that groups who have Asian American as part of their titles are Asian Americans in name and in name only, dominated by Japanese Americans and Chinese Americans. Some Asian Americans remain outsiders even among Asian Americans.
"And then we have our own issues of gender, of sexual orientation, of disability," Wu said. "We accept, for example, sometimes a subordinate role for women, sometimes defending that by saying 'that's the way Asian culture works.' We characterize being gay as a Western perversion and deny that it has any part in our culture."
Wu was the first Asian American to serve as a professor at Howard University's School of Law. He is the author of the recently released book Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White, which explores the issues of discrimination, diversity, mixed race, immigration, and globalization.
He has written for a range of publications, including the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, and the Chicago Tribune. He has a regular column in Asian Week.
Wu stressed the importance of coalition-building among Asian Americans. "The most important admonition for Asian Americans as a group that I offer is this: We must reject self-interest. If we are to be Asian Americans, if we are to stand up and declare an identity as part of a group, if we are to ask for an Asian American studies program, an Asian American student center, if we are to make demands as a group, then we ought to feel compelled toward coalition-building and bridge-building."