Content Warning: Includes descriptions of war, violence, and killings
In March 2021, some comrades and I organized some vigils and demonstrations addressing anti-AAPI racism shortly following the Atlanta Massacre that left eight people dead, six of them being Asian women. We held one in Sylva; a small town situated a few miles down the road from Western Carolina University.
The speeches I gave during these demonstrations were centered around linking anti-AAPI racism with its origins in racial capitalism and imperialism. That anti-Asian racism is a lived discourse founded on the justification of colonizing, imperializing, and killing Asian bodies, souls, nations for the enrichment of the West. I spoke about the millions slaughtered by U.S. firepower in Korea and Southeast Asia, about the slavish exploitation of Asian labor and resources by finance capital, about the military colonies of the Pacific that persists today in places like Hawaii, Guam, Jeju, and my motherland, Okinawa.
During this hour-long demonstration, there were about five cars that passed by shouting slurs and threats: “Go back to China!”, “Ch*nks!”, and the worst one I heard that night, “Kill all Asians!” Many of the AAPI participants felt unsafe, so I asked my comrades to stay behind until everyone had safely returned to their vehicles. Afterwards, an old man with a hat reading “VIETNAM VETERAN” approached me. He stated that he feels partially responsible for the hate. I, of course, asked him why. He then described to me how during his tours in Vietnam, similar language was used to dehumanize the Vietnamese that they were killing, both soldiers and civilians alike. He shook my hand then wished me luck in the fight.
During the long 60’s, the term “Asian American” meant something different than it does today. It wasn’t just a demographic category, it denoted a sense of pan-Asian identity that united Asians in both the homelands and America in the struggle against racism, colonialism, and imperialism. But it also united us with other oppressed communities within the United States. Inspired by the Black Power movement, Asian American identity was also part of a larger “Third World Consciousness” that united the Asian struggle with the Black, Chicano, and Indigenous struggles for emancipation. In the effort to build dual power, Asian American revolutionaries set up tenant unions, built community centers and health clinics, organized low-income workers, and staged anti-war demonstrations.
Yet this history of Asian American identity is largely left under the surface today. This has dire consequences for our political work. For one, our movement suffers from a pervasive epistemological problem. “Epistemology” is the study of knowledge; it’s how we frame problems because how we frame things affect what we see, therefore, what we know about it. We tend to locate anti-AAPI racism within categories like “intolerance,” “bigotry,” or “underrepresentation.” These things surely exist, but they exist as symptoms of the problem, and not the problem itself. Although fighting against these symptoms are important, we must also address the structural dynamics that contextualize anti-AAPI racism.
This lack of holistic analysis forms an assimilationist consciousness in our political work. What this means in practice is that we turn to innately racist, white-supremacist, and colonial institutions in trying to solve the problems that face our communities. We inadvertently maintain anti-Black, anti-Indigenous, and even anti-AAPI structures of domination. Audre Lorde says that “the master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house.” Voting is important. It’s a right that was granted to us because of the sacrifices our ancestors made. But electoral politics is only one field of struggle. We should also learn from our ancestors about the importance of building grassroots, working-class, dual power.
Karl Marx teaches us that ideologies come from material conditions. If we want to fight harmful ideologies, we fight the harmful conditions that substantiate them. In my short time of organizing in southern Appalachia, I have learned how hate often comes from deprived souls. Many workers are exploited and impoverished, and this makes them angry. Berated by the media, they shift the blame to others: Hispanic, Black, Muslim, and Asian folks. The ruling class channels this anger towards discourses that manufacture consent for the continued imperialization of Asian nations abroad. The angry worker then sees Asians in the United States as internal enemies.
Of course, this is no excuse for the violence waged by bigoted people. But as organizers and activists, we must study objective, material conditions if we want real change. Like our Asian American ancestors, we must struggle – not just against anti-AAPI hate – but against the exploitation of workers that lead to their impoverishment, which in turn reproduces racist discourses and ideologies. It’s not a one-to-one fit, however. Racism still has a life of its own that needs its own serious attention. But nonetheless, we cannot fight for our emancipation without understanding how it relates to the emancipation of all peoples.
When I organize against anti-AAPI racism, capitalist exploitation, or U.S. imperialism, I do not see them as separate issues, but as tied to a larger system. Therefore, my speeches have tended to bring in my experience as a biracial, indigenous Ryukyuan person from U.S.-occupied Okinawa. I want other Asian Americans to know that our struggle against hate and racism here should resonate with the struggle of our brothers and sisters in the homelands fighting U.S. militarism, colonialism, and imperialism. When we do our political work, we should discard our assimilationist consciousness for an emancipatory one.
About the author:
Matthew Miyagi Tuten (decolonized/indigenous name: Miyagusuku Mashuu) was born in Okinawa, Ryukyu Islands, and currently resides in Western North Carolina. He is finishing up his degrees in political science and philosophy at Western Carolina University (WCU) and plans on going to graduate school this fall. He is currently the president of WCU’s chapter of Act Now to Stop War and End Racism (ANSWER Coalition); an anti-war, anti-racist, and anti-imperialist organization.
NCAAT’s blog is a chance for NCAAT staff and community members to write about topics relating to their personal passions, interests, and the Asian American community in North Carolina. The views expressed in NCAAT’s community blog posts are not endorsed by NCAAT nor representative of NCAAT’s official stances or views.