Why is Asian American Pacific Islander voter turnout always so bad? I can think of several reasons. Political trauma and lack of conversation or knowledge around voting are legitimate ones.
However, the idea that Asian Americans are apathetic towards politics by nature is untrue. Asian Americans, however, internalize this idea—a dangerous myth we should debunk.
My parents came from China, a country without a history of participatory democracy. To this day, I don’t ask my grandparents or parents for the details of the political trauma they experienced during the Cultural Revolution. I know they would much rather forget. This can help explain why Asian Americans are out of practice in having conversations on politics.
In addition to political trauma, being a racial minority, first-generation anything, or the only Asian person in the classroom or workplace can make it scary to speak up. Our voices can feel lonely amidst the majority white spaces of academia and the workplace.
Debunking the myth through our history
But there is no reason to feel alone if we look back to the history of Asian American activism. Grace Lee Boggs and Yuri Kochiyama, for example, were trailblazers for social justice and human rights.
Grace Lee Boggs was a daughter of Chinese immigrants and a first-generation college student. After earning a PhD at Bryn Mawr College, society socially barred her from entering academia and the workforce at large.
Boggs spent her whole life building a foundation for activism and social change, focusing on the African-American community.
What’s familiar to many Asian Americans is our parents’ sacrifices and hard work. We often look to this history as a motivating force in our lives. We can look to our political history in such a way as well.
It’s no accident we aren’t taught the history of Asian American activism beginning in the late 1960s, around the time of the Black Power movement.
We aren’t taught that we’re actually born into a history of civic disobedience; or that Asian American organizing was multiracial and coalition-based. The educational curriculum consciously keeps knowledge about Asian American activism away from Asian Americans.
Dropping my political apathy through education
In a self-fulfilling prophecy, the more I believed Asian Americans are politically apathetic, the more it became my reality.
I actively avoided Asian American studies in college because I didn’t want to be in an environment with too many Asian students. I predicted that the environment would normalize apathy. Reducing the class to discussions of The Joy Luck Club in my mind turned out to be a misguided assumption.
My desire to be heard through civic engagement comes from learning Asian American political activist history. Only through Asian American studies did I start to question my view of Asian Americans as a unit of submission and political apathy.
Once I learned more about loud Asian Americans who came before me, I stopped feeling like I was charting unmapped territory in talking about Black Lives Matter with my parents. Instead, I started to feel the support and comfort of tradition.
Shifting away from political apathy
How do we shift thinking in attitudes and views towards political participation? And not just for the November 3rd US Election, but consistently throughout our lifetimes?
While working on the Fresh Off the Vote podcast episode “AA Squared: Asian Americans on Affirmative Action” with Dr. Oiyan Poon, a scholar with the Race and Intersectional Studies for Education Equity (RISE) Center at Colorado State University, her suggestion provides a good example.
“What I ask people to do,“ she proposes, “is to inform yourself, educate yourself on the facts, and cut through the misinformation.”
“Then decide for yourself whether you believe that we as a society should work together for the public interest and address systemic racism.”
How to work against the myth
To all the Asian Americans who feel unaffected by politics or believe voting doesn’t matter—you live with the privilege to not feel the need to fight for yourself or for others.
You are okay living with the status quo. There’s nothing inherently wrong with accepting the status quo, but consider its role in the oppression of many other marginalized folks.
Besides making a plan to vote, whether it’s early in-person or absentee, it’s important to reflect on your values and what changes you want in society. Whatever they are, make sure you feel the power and support to act.
On the policy side, we can make voting easier through simplifying the voting process in all stages, from registration to the logistics at polling sites on Election Day. Also, we can work to expand language access on ballots and all voting information while getting rid of ballot jargon.
We can spend less time wondering why Asian Americans default to political apathy, and more time creating change through organizing, educating, and planning for a more equitable future.
Most importantly, we can lean into, and learn from, Asian American activist history. We can emulate those before us, until the image of an Asian American engaged in politics is no longer surprising.
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