Like many Yalies last Tuesday night, I was sitting on the edge of my seat, laptop in front of me, eyes fixated on the election’s news coverage. I watched as anchors tried to predict state results from county voting history and the amount of voter turnout in minorities. That was the moment when I thought I heard it. My heart skipped a beat. Could American news media have just uttered the word “Asians” on national television? In a serious discussion of America’s political climate? The answer was no—I had misheard. Not surprising (unlike the election), since Asian Americans are not seen as Americans because of a lack of Asian representation in media and entertainment. Even when left to speak up for ourselves, it never feels like a good time to talk about the struggles of Asian Americans when other minority groups are faced with more immediate and extreme prejudices.
The moment I thought American news anchors cared about Asian Americans was full of naive hopefulness. I remember having the same feeling when, two summers ago, I went to Taiwan and saw Asian-looking people on TV commercials or when I saw white people shop in Asian supermarkets. The concept of Asian culture being in any way a “normal” thing is just so unfamiliar. In that split-second reaction to mishearing the news anchor, I realized just how sad this situation was. Asian Americans don’t appear often in media, in movies, in theater, or in advertisements. If you learned about America by watching TV, you wouldn’t realize that there were over 17 million Asian Americans living here. If you learned about America by reading through American history books, you would never have known about Japanese internment camps or the treatment of the Chinese when building the transcontinental railroad. We seem simply not to exist. The culmination of these effects all seem to point to the same message: Asian Americans just aren’t important enough to care about. This is how we end up with Asian American invisibility, seen as perpetual foreigners in our own country.
And as many people did on the night of the election, I, as a woman of color, went to bed feeling hopeless, scared, and unsafe. But I, as an Asian American from an upper-middle-class community, felt immensely guilty for feeling that way. Amidst the fear and tension among minority groups, I was lucky to be as safe as I was, sleeping in a dorm in one of the most prestigious institutions of higher education in the world. Who am I to worry, when I know I can be safe and when so many other people have much more to be afraid of? Even if Asian Americans are rarely spoken of, it’s safer to be invisible than to be racially profiled or cast as a threat. Still, being invisible carries problems of its own.
There are too many ways to rationalize not speaking about Asian Americans. Representing just 5.8% of the U.S. population in 2011, according to the Pew Research Center, Asian Americans certainly don’t have as much of an impact on the election results as Hispanics or African Americans. In the context of other movements, we seem to have it okay. The extent of prejudices against us, it appears, is the model minority myth. What could be so bad about being thought of as hardworking and smart? So even in contexts where we advocate for awareness about the struggles of people of color, Asian Americans are forgotten or tacked on as an afterthought. We tend to forget that Asian Americans may have similar concerns and troubles as other minority groups. For example, I know Asian American friends who have close family who are undocumented immigrants, now fearful of the policy changes that may come with the new presidency. Xenophobic policies are a threat to all races.
The invisibility of Asian Americans indicates a larger problem that we as Americans have: our inability to see people as people, not understanding that everyone, despite cultural and experiential differences, are the same at our core. This perceived difference is extremely dangerous. It’s hard to care about people that we don’t see as ourselves. That’s just the way we are biologically wired and America has never been very good at respecting or understanding other cultures. And while there is a disparity between the severity of problems that Asian Americans face and that of those faced by other minorities, it doesn’t mean that we should exclude ourselves from conversations about race. Just because our injustices are not as extreme does not mean they are invalid. Nor does it mean that we can’t also help push for equality and respect for all underrepresented groups.