Colonialism: its impact on the Asian American experience

In order to better unite the Asian community against anti-Asian racism, we need to understand the way colonialism has influenced today’s perception of Asian Americans.

Anti-Asian racism and its roots in American colonialism

Racism is the unifying factor in the Asian American experience.

As Hua Hsu, staff writer at The New Yorker, explains, though: “It’s difficult to describe anti-Asian racism when society lacks a coherent, historical account of what that racism actually looks like.”

Over the course of history, we’ve seen anti-Asian violence emerge in moments of crisis. We’ve seen it surface during World War II with the incarceration of Japanese Americans. We’ve seen it emerge during the automotive industry’s decline with the murder of Vincent Chin in 1982. Today, we are seeing it manifest again during the COVID-19 pandemic with the spike in anti-Asian hate crimes across North America.

Anti-Asian racism in the US is a result of colonialism and its extensions of power and influence over Asian Americans. We are seen as perpetual foreigners by white Americans, and calling attention to the history that has shaped this ideology is an important step toward honest discussions about race and the treatment of racialized immigrant communities.

In order to unite the Asian community against anti-Asian racism, we need to dig deeper into the history of colonialism and its impact on us today.

Understanding the history and impact of colonialism in Asia

“An examination of Asian Americans and race needs to do more than critique the history of exclusion, exploitation, and misrepresentation,” writes Yến Lê Espiritu, Distinguished Professor of Ethnic Studies at the University of California San Diego.

As Espiritu explains, we also need to understand the way US-Asia relations and its long history of colonialism gave birth to “alien citizenship” — which refers to those who come and live in the US but are considered forever foreign. To summarize only a few examples:

In China, many labour workers migrated to the west coast of Canada and the US in the 1800s because American colonialism sucked their homeland dry. Chinese immigrants arrived in large numbers during the Gold Rush but faced hostility, and were looked down on for doing tasks considered unfit for white men. Ongoing anti-Chinese sentiment also gave rise to “yellow peril”, the existential fear that East Asians would overthrow and debase Western culture.

Chinese miners working alongside unidentified white men in Aubine Ravine, California in 1852.
As Chinese miners worked alongside white miners during California’s Gold Rush, they regularly faced racism, being called rats, beasts, and swine. Photo credit: Fotosearch/Getty Images

With Vietnam, the arrival of Vietnamese war refugees in America bolstered the narrative of America rescuing Vietnam’s “runaways”, who were seen as primitive and lazy. This misleading narrative erased the role the US played in inducing this forced migration.

The Philippines was painted as a nation that was unworthy of self-rule, and the US imperialist drive was seen as a form of salvation that would bring progress to those that came from what was depicted as a racially and culturally inferior country.

Throughout history, colonial-driven events like above have set a precedent of distrust and exclusion for Asians that still lingers in North America today. 

See also: Why we must learn Asian American history

Impact of colonialism on the present day: colonial mentality

The colonialist narrative continues to define East Asians, Southeast Asians, and South Asians who migrate to America today. Immigrants are “forced to be not only outside, but also inside the nation,” writes Espiritu, defining the concept as differential inclusion.

As a Canadian-born Chinese (CBC), I can attest to this effect. I feel neither fully Canadian or fully Chinese. On one hand, I encounter Western ideals through peers, teachers, and media. On the other hand, I connect with my cultural heritage through my parents and familial ties.

This constant juggling of identities can often result in colonial mentality, “a form of internalized oppression that conditions colonized people to believe that their ethnic or cultural identity is inferior to Western culture or whiteness.”

An everyday example of colonial mentality is beauty standards. We often favour and celebrate features that resemble whiteness — tall, narrow noses; light, fair skin; the list goes on.

See also: Growing up between two ideals of beauty

Photo Credit: Septian Simon

In a recent article, Cold Tea Collective staff writer Lalaine Alindogan reflects on the standards of beauty portrayed in media and its impact on her acceptance of her Filipino physical heritage.

“As a child, my mom taught me to pinch the bridge of my nose. I would shape and squeeze the button on my face and envision gradually molding myself into a narrower nose,” she writes.

As for myself, Western ideals and whiteness heavily influenced much of my childhood and adolescence, shaping how I perceived my Chinese Canadian identity.

Throughout elementary school and high school, my fellow Canadian-born Chinese friends and I would proudly call ourselves “bananas” — yellow on the outside, white on the inside. We would make a clear distinction between us the “whitewashed Asians” and “the FOBs” (fresh off the boat) — those who immigrated here from a foreign nation and have yet to assimilate into the host nation’s culture.

I would reject anything that had to do with my heritage, and looking back now, I was clearly having an identity crisis at the early age of 7. Because of colonial mentality, I felt like I had to distance myself from my Chinese heritage in order to fully belong as a Canadian.

See also: How the rise of anti-Asian racism made an adoptee feel more Asian

Challenging colonial mentality

Adhering to colonial mentality is directly counter-productive to combating racism. How can we unite with other Asian communities against racism if we are simultaneously catering to standards of whiteness?

Here are four ways we can challenge the far-reaching impact of colonialism and colonial mentality:

Learn the colonial history of your ancestors. What are your parents’ and grandparents’ stories? What was their journey to North America like? Have open conversations with your friends and family — listen to their perspectives, learn about their experiences, and share your experience with others too.

Read books and listen to podcasts that talk about the history and impacts of colonialism. I recommend reading The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee to learn more about the history of Asian Americans and their role in American life.

Celebrate your culture unabashedly. Take the time to commemorate your Asian heritage without comparing or conforming it to Western ideals. This can be as simple as sharing a traditional recipe with colleagues without modifying it to fit the Western palate. 

Connect with an adjacent community. Learn the colonial history of other Asian communities, not just your own. Understand the similarities and differences between their struggles and yours, and use that knowledge to discard any stereotypes you may have had of their culture. It is impossible to unite with another community against anti-Asian racism if we passively categorize each other as “others”. 

Recognize that decolonization does not end with Asian American communities. Many, if not all, of the opportunities in North America are a direct result of colonial violence towards the Indigenous communities that first inhabited these lands.

Even if you may not realize it, our Asian American communities have benefitted from historical and ongoing colonial policies that oppress Indigenous voices. By learning and acknowledging whose lands you live on, as well as amplifying Indigenous initiatives in your area, you can do your part in decolonizing the settler state you physically live in.

See also: What it means for me to be a settler of colour on unceded Indigenous lands

Decolonizing is a form of social change

Colonialism has always played a major historical role in how white Americans treat Asian Americans as foreign or inferior. Even today, it has implicitly convinced many Asian Americans to believe themselves as such as well, bringing up feelings of guilt and shame.

These days, it’s so easy to define the limits of social change with a hashtag like #StopAsianHate. 

However, by learning more about the way colonialism has influenced today’s perception of Asian Americans, we can begin to take that necessary step to dismantle the perpetual foreigner stereotype and better unite our communities against racism, and towards decolonization.

See also:

Mental health tips to cope with anti-Asian racism

Cultural appropriation of food: Why it’s so personal

Featured photo credit: Hans Isaacson

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