by crystal sitt
How Occupy Wall Street seems to have taken off without Asian Americans on board and the importance of API active participation in the movement
Occupy Wall Street has seemingly touched all corners of the world. From the peaceful demonstrations in Los Angeles to the solidarity shown by people in Antarctica, it is truly amazing how much momentum this movement has gained. Although I wasn’t able to take part in the Occupy Oakland event this past October, I felt a surge of pride seeing the tens of thousands of protestors and supporters flooding the highway onramp. Despite the feeling of empowerment that washed over me though, I couldn’t shake off a nagging question: where was the Asian American representation?
Perhaps Asian Americans have always been a testament to “biting the bullet” and “pulling yourself up by the bootstraps.” We were the first racial group to be explicitly barred from immigrating into the United States. We’ve been slapped with the “model minority” label, the misconception that Asian Americans, despite the obstacles, have done remarkably well in fulfilling the “American Dream:” getting a good education, a good job, and being the token example that other immigrants should follow. According to the 2010 U.S. Census, of the 4,747,000 Asian American households that responded, the median income was $64,308 compared to the median Caucasian household income of $51,846 and African American household income of $32,068. According to these numbers, do Asian Americans deserve to be on the model minority pedestal? Does this put them that much closer to the one percent than any other ethnic group?
From a personal standpoint, I’ve never had the luxury of living amongst the so-called one percent. My parents immigrated to the U.S. in hopes of a financially secure future. They took their savings along with some loans and opened their first retail store in a Westfield shopping mall in Southern California—the first of what they hoped would be many. Pretty soon, we had enough money to open two new branches and, at the time, it seemed everything would fall into place. Then 2006 rolled around and my family faced not only a drop in business but a spike in rent. Looking back, maybe the market was just working on supply and demand; regardless, management took advantage of struggling businesses during already tough economic times by raising the lease and forcing tenants to either pay the exorbitant rent or leave altogether.
Yet my parents never really had any leveraging power to begin with; it almost felt like they were picked off due to their lack of autonomy as immigrants. Being an immigrant means being denied many of the advantages that other non-immigrant individuals may have. As an immigrant community and one that is still seen as consisting of perpetual foreigners, Asian Americans will always face challenges on top of the inherent pressures of simply trying to survive. Since only half of all Asian American households in the U.S. responded, the data suffers from response bias and lacks validity in providing an accurate representation of the community. From language barriers to confronting racism, I know my family didn’t live the picture-perfect lifestyle painted by those Census statistics.
There is something inherent in the system that makes it extremely difficult for Asian Americans to pull themselves by their bootstraps. We can see this illustrated in the gap between Asian Americans in higher education and Asian Americans in executive positions. Sixteen percent of Ivy League students identified themselves as Asian Americans, but only two percent of Fortune 500 executive positions are held by Asian Americans. This only illustrates that, even if Asian Americans are able to get the resources and achieve success in higher education, there are still factors fighting against us.
Whether you believe that it’s the Eastern and Western cultural disconnect, best exemplified by the Asian saying “the loudest duck gets shot” versus Western notions of “the squeaky wheel gets the grease,” as the reason why Asian Americans don’t usually have keycard access to the C-suite (i.e. the executive titles: chief executive officer, chief operations officer, etc.) or not, Asian Americans need to make themselves visible by having a bigger stake in protests and political matters. When we don’t make ourselves visible, we subconsciously perpetuate the model minority myth. We need to stand up for our community and participate, whether it be in the form of civil disobedience or community mentorship programs in order to fight back against the institutionalized racism that Asian Americans of all socioeconomic backgrounds face.
“Don’t fight the tape” is a saying that means don’t bet or trade against the trend in financial markets. Asian Americans, though, are seen as the model minority—the quiet kid who doesn’t upset the system, sets the curve in class, and does well in life without anyone having to worry. So, we do need to go against the tape and fight against that stereotype.
Moreover, this is a road that needs to be paved as a collective group and not just by a token few. When the only visible issues being tied to the Asian American community are the bamboo ceiling with individuals achieving higher education but failing to land top positions, it makes it seem like those issues are all that is plaguing the Asian American community, which is not the case whatsoever. We have families working overtime just to make ends meet, LGBTQ Asian Americans being misunderstood and misrepresented, and Asian American soldiers serving their country but being physically and emotionally bullied. The work isn’t done just because a statistical number seems to illustrate that we’ve achieved the “American Dream.” The Asian American community has made significant progress but there is still a long way to go. We need to keep pushing forward in addressing the socioeconomic issues that Asian Americans still face as a community. We need to revive our community spirit.