Finding Asian American Identity in The Difficult Conversations

A child sits with their parent, holding an American flag. (Photo credit: Center for American Progress)

By Guest Contributors: Katerina Jeng and Krystie Yen, Co-Founders of Slant’d

For so long, racial identity and discussions about race in America have largely been constrained to a black and white dichotomy. With a history rooted in anti-blackness, the black-white framing of racial identity has historically silenced communities of color and pitted non-black communities, including Asian Americans, against movements for black liberation. As Asian Americans fight for better representation and uplift for our community and other communities of color, where do we fall in this conversation about the complex reality of race in America?

While Asian Americans have been organizing alongside other communities of color for years, much of this progress has been pushed back by the pervasiveness of the model minority myth, which silences our perspectives. We are now the fastest growing racial group and are poised to become the largest immigrant group in the country — and that’s why it has never been more important to have conversations about what our community needs and how to advocate for ourselves. Given all of this, we now have the opportunity to create a vision for our community that is inclusive — and we will need to turn to one another to better understand who we are and how we want to be represented.

In recent years, as more questions about Asian American identity have splashed across headlines, our community has been provided with a watershed opportunity to define ourselves. Now, we are faced with a crucial question: how can we step forward to claim our voice and our identity? We can start by first taking a glimpse into the complex window through which others understand us.

How can we step forward to claim our voice and our identity? We can start by first taking a glimpse into the complex window through which others understand us.

Conversations about Asian American identity are happening with or without us. For instance, ongoing debates about immigration among our elected officials often fail to include the perspectives of large numbers of Southeast Asian Americans, whose lives have been affected by detention and deportation. The result is that thousands of families in our community have been torn apart, with inadequate media coverage and lack of conversation around the issue. The model minority myth also continues to be deployed against us, working to simultaneously silence and weaponize Asian Americans against other communities of color.

Amidst the #BlackLivesMatter movement and conversations about police brutality, we witnessed the forcible removal of Dr. David Dao from a United Airlines flight and wondered what justice looked like for Asian Americans. We’ve also had to reconcile our complicity in police violence as perpetuated by those in our own community. Last but not least, we have also been breaking silence by advocating for sexual assault survivors and raising awareness of mental health issue, sharing our lived experiences, and helping to inspire others to share theirs as well.

Ahead of the 2020 elections, Andrew Yang’s presidential candidacy has opened up entirely new discussions about the role of an Asian American candidate, and what duty he has as a representative of the community. The weight he carries as the first presidential candidate of East Asian descent to have mounted a serious campaign has not gone unnoticed. Several of his jokes about Asian Americans, which often play on racial stereotypes, have stirred up considerable conversation among Asian Americans about how we can advance conversations about our community in a responsible and respectful way.

Asian Americans are also being confronted with issues that cause considerable divides among us. For instance, there have been intense discussions about the role of affirmative action and how it affects Asian Americans. From the conversations about elite high school admissions in New York City to the recent case that was brought against Harvard, we’ve been making our diverse opinions heard. It’s evident that our voices can no longer be ignored — we want a seat at the table.

Now more than ever, Asian Americans need to be deeply engaging in these conversations so that they don’t happen without us. With increasing representation both on screen, in the news, and in the workplace, it has never been more necessary for us to define the Asian American experience on our own terms. What do we, as a community, want? What does growth and acceptance look like for Asian Americans? Most importantly: who are we?

We don’t always have access to the right environment to be having these kinds of interactions. Looking forward, we must focus on empowering Asian Americans across the country by providing them with safe spaces to have rich conversations about race and identity. This is why Slant’d is doubling down on our commitment to create spaces for Asian Americans to connect and talk about Asian American identity. Starting next year, we will be offering expanded community-building gatherings in San Francisco, Los Angeles, Denver, and New York City, with more cities to come.

If we don’t stand up to define ourselves, others will speak for us. When we start to recognize more keenly the issues that our community faces, as well as understand the diversity within the Asian American diaspora, we can find the power to speak up. What are we waiting for?

If we don’t stand up to define ourselves, others will speak for us. When we start to recognize more keenly the issues that our community faces, as well as understand the diversity within the Asian American diaspora, we can find the power to speak up. What are we waiting for?

Slant’d is hosting a Twitter Townhall at #AAPICollective on Friday, November 8, at 1pm EST / 10am PST, featuring several participants including Reappropriate. Please join in, or learn more at @slantmedia!


Katerina Jeng and Krystie Yen are the co-founders of Slant’d, a collective built from the ground up by Asian Americans for Asian Americans, rooted in the causes and values that matter deeply to our community. Slant’d is expanding their community gatherings in 2020. Follow them on Twitter at @slantdmedia.

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