The Power of Deconstructive Politics: Moving Beyond “Asian American”

By Guest Contributor: Sudip Bhattacharya

As we devolve into a modern incarnation of white establishment politics, one that has merged the sensibilities of 1950s-era America with the advent of social media, the easiest and most natural response for us would be to counter through uniting around familiar concepts such as “Asian American” rights and empowerment. However, by doing so without a critical eye, I fear we will lapse into a politics that is neither revolutionary nor liberating.

Only by pursuing a path of deconstructive politics — one that takes apart ideas and identities we take for granted among ourselves — can we truly form an agenda that benefits all classes, all genders, and all those who will be further marginalized by this new and dangerous administration.

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During post-WWII decolonization, theorists like Frantz Fanon worried that certain independence movements were adopting the mannerisms of the European elite. Despite nominally demanding “freedom,” so-called “freedom fighters” nonetheless clung to colonial notions of nationalism and social structure that preserved the middle class of their origins.

“This characteristic of the nationalist political parties must be attributed to the nature of their leaders and their supporters,” Fanon writes in The Wretched of the Earth, “The supporter of the nationalist parties are urban voters,” adding, “The peasantry is systematically left out of most of the nationalist parties’ propaganda.” Eventually, the bourgeois nationalists forged an artificially “united” front against the colonial powers: on one side were Europeans who brutalized entire continents, and on the other were Asian and African elites claiming to speak for an “Indian”, “Kenyan”, or a so-called “Indonesian” population while masking crucial differences and disagreements within this coalition. What Fanon recognized was that a true revolutionary spirit — one that could free all peoples, especially the poor, women, and queer — had been squandered and replaced by an artificially aggregated political identity that considered community differences a threat to progress.

Similarly, in her seminal work, Justice and the Politics of Difference, critical feminist theorist and super-hero, Iris Marion Young, argued that movements on the Left that strive for a cohesive voice are myopic and can be dismissive of the diverse lived experiences of those that it hopes to liberate. According to Young, “insisting that equality and liberation entail[s] ignoring difference [and] has oppressive consequences… Blindness to difference disadvantages groups whose experiences, culture, and socialized capacities differ from those of privileged groups,.”

Young encourages us to recognize the importance of individual identities. “In our complex, plural society, every social group has group differences cutting across it, which are potential sources of wisdom, excitement, conflict, and oppression,” Young explains. “Gay men, for example, may be Black, rich, homeless, or old, and these differences produce different identifications and potential conflicts among gay men, as well as affinities with some straight men.”

Although much of Young’s criticism is directed at predominantly white male thinkers who may think that only discussions of class matters, or those who disagree with policies like Affirmative Action, her assessment has been applied by other prominent social scientists to other sphere, such as by Cristina Beltran in her examination of Latino politics.

Beltran writes in The Trouble with Unity: Latino Politics and the Creation of Identity, “Advocates and politicians who claim to speak for or on behalf of Latinos continue to put forward theories of empowerment that rely on presumptions of Latinos as a cohesive electorate. This approach reflects a widespread investment among elites in sustaining the idea of ‘Latino’ interests’ alongside political strategies capable of both explaining and mobilizing this emerging electorate.” Although there are some issues that unites most Latino Americans, to assume that all share the same struggle or political/social reality overlooks the diversity of this group and the innate competing interests that might be found within. Latinos can be black, white, Catholic, Protestant, gay, wealthy, middle-class, poor, straight, non-gender conforming, Mexican-American, Puerto Rican, or Cuban exiles. Given this diversity, Beltran asks, what would be the proper “Latino” interest to advocate on behalf of?

Most importantly, in her discussion of the Chicano and Puerto Rican politics of the 1960s/70s, Beltran describes how activists who try to break away from Anglo cultural imperialism (even while being people of color) can start to impose strict guidelines of their own on their community. When Chicana feminists raised demands of dealing with patriarchy, many of the male leaders of the radical Mexican-American organizations viewed them as traitors and as jeopardizing their movement for civil rights. The men felt that feminist issues, such as critiquing masculinity among them, was a distraction, and could sow division. “In challenging traditional gender relations, many Chicana activists were accused of being lesbians, ‘white identified’, narcissistic, and antifamily,” Beltran states. Once again, political differences that reflected the diverse identities within the community were delegitimized and deemed as dangerous to the revolutionary struggle.

These insights from Fanon, Young, and Beltran serve as lessons when moving forward and fomenting change. They illustrate how the goal of “unity” is not always a positive. Within progressive communities and those of color, divisions may instead be worth highlighting.

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To clarify, I am not arguing against the dismissal of terms like “Asian American” or other labels. For the purposes of understanding gaps in wealth and other factors, social scientists and others rely on categories to help codify and interpret their data. Yet, as someone invested in the dismantling of patriarchy, capitalism, heteronormativity, and whiteness, challenging all forms of oppression is required, and can only happen when we, as Asian Americans, begin to analyze on a more substantive level what it means when we speak of “Asian American” civil, political, and social rights, and empowerment. This is where deconstructive politics, as expressed by the previous thinkers, especially Beltran and Young, can be valuable.

Deconstructive politics (which comes from the term “deconstruct” defined by Merriam-Webster as “to take apart or examine in order to reveal the basis or composition of often with the intention of exposing biases, flaws, or inconsistencies”) reminds us not to accept categories as fixed or stagnant. In terms of “Asian American” politics, this means critically assessing whose voices are being represented and whose are being left out when we speak of group empowerment. As influential social scientists, Pei-Te Lien, Jane Junn, Karthick Ramakrishnan, and Janelle Wong, among others have shown, Asian Americans consist of a diverse set of people. In their research, they uncover generalizable conclusions about Asian Americans, but also reveal salient differences within the Asian American coalition by income, educational attainment, and partisan alignment.  According to a report by the White House, particular subgroups like Southeast Asian Americans suffer from what the study describes as “staggering” high school drop-out and poverty rates, which for Hmong Americans are nearly at 40 percent.

In 2016, two books — The Latinos of Asia: How Filipino Americans Breaks the Rules of Race by sociologist Anthony Christian Ocampo and Desis Divided: The Political Lives of South Asian Americans by political scientist Sanjay Mishra — were published. Both discussed how each subgroup’s experiences and culture (Filipinos and South Asians) were markedly dissimilar from the rest of the “Asian American” population. On the subject of campus life, Ocampo describes Filipino Americans as finding more common ground with Latinos and African Americans than with other Asians. “In addition, involvements in student organizations allowed Filipinos, and Latinos, to become more aware of their shared history and culture,” he explains. Similarly, Mishra hopes that by using the example of South Asian Americans, he can influence other social scientists to take into account aspects of religious identification and sexuality as well. For example, he explains that after 9/11, it wasn’t a simple process of all South Asian Americans uniting to protect one another. Instead, Muslim South Asians and Sikh South Asian Americans experienced the brunt of the hate crimes and assaults, while Hindu Americans tried to separate themselves from them. Neither authors’ writing should be interpreted as an argument against the relevance of the “Asian American” category. What it should tell us, instead, is that the quest to discover a unifying “Asian American” political position on any given issue is flawed and risks ignoring the particular concerns of individual Asian American subgroups.

By appreciating the full difference of the “Asian American” lived experience, we expand the range of our critiques against white supremacy, as well as against patriarchy, heteronormativity, and capitalism.

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The conventional theory of empowerment within progressive identity politics seeks a political “common ground” that “unites” the marginalized as single voice against the oppressor. However, this approach can ironically lead movement leaders who seek to empower the “Asian American” community to adopt positions that directly injure some Asian Americans. In fact, those with more access to sociopolitical capital (and who therefore believe themselves empowered to decide and define the “Asian American” identity) can end up policing the borders of Asian America by monopolizing our definition of “Asian American” issues.

In our pursuit for justice, equality, and empowerment, we must avoid mimicking the categories and strategies of those we would be in opposition. To be revolutionary is to be self-aware, self-critical, and daring to dismantle all hierarchies. As individuals, especially those of us with economic and educational privilege, we must challenge our biases and advantages as well as those of our family and friends. Books like Women, Race and Class by Angela Davis, Black Feminist Thought by Patricia Hill Collins, and Living for Change by Grace Lee Boggs provide knowledge for tackling the intersectional reality of class, gender, race, and sexuality for persons of color, and aiding organizations like CAAAV and DRUM are necessary.

Resisting oppression is more than just attacking the corrupt on their thrones. It is the constant criticism and condemnation of the throne itself and why it exists in the first place. Deconstructive politics allow for a substantive vision of what our society should be, and pushes us to demand more of our community and of ourselves.

Sudip Battacharya
Sudip Bhattacharya

Sudip Bhattacharya is a PhD student in Political Science at Rutgers University. He’s also a journalist and writer whose work has been published in CNN, Lancaster Newspaper, The Daily Gazette, The Jersey Journal, The Washington City Paper, The Aerogram, and AsAm news. He mostly focuses on issues of social justice, race, and identity through his work, and is a fervent optimist, but not the annoying kind. 

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