How to Organize Asian Americans – Notes from Two Generations

Asian Americans hold signs at a protest. (Photo credit: Flickr / Marcela McGreal)

By: Rinku Sen

First, realize that Asian America is a thing. Combine a bunch of smaller groups (who hated or ignored each other in their ancestral homelands) into one Big Constituency. Then your little community of Indians, Chinese, Vietnamese, Koreans, Bangladeshis, Filipinos, Nepalis, Bhutanese, Samoans – come one, come all! –  can exercise power you haven’t totally built yet.

Call yourself Asian American.

Develop an unblinking side eye for whenever you’re complimented on your English or asked where you’re really from.

Add the specific designations South Asian, Southeast Asian, East Asian and Pacific Islander. This is extra useful for special events like 9/11.

Repeatedly explain the difference between South Asia and Southeast Asia.

Repeatedly explain where the Pacific Islands are.

Realize that whenever you say, “South Asians come from these countries,” no one knows what you’re talking about (even if they nod their heads). That includes other Asians.

Realize that the only Asian countries that Americans know anything about are China and Japan.

Learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act excluding you, even if you’re not Chinese. Picture it as a broad ban on immigration from nearly half the world.

Learn about the race riots and lynchings of Chinese people that preceded the passage of the Chinese Exclusion Act.

Learn that the KKK was formed in 1865 as a reaction to Black Emancipation and suffrage, and that over 4,000 Black people were lynched between 1870 and WWII.

Learn that the full effects of the Chinese Exclusion Act didn’t end until the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965.

Learn that the Civil Rights Act of 1964 made it spiritually and politically impossible to keep immigration quotas in place, so Congress removed said quotas.

Connect the dots: therefore, Asian immigrants after ’65 owe our presence here to the Civil Rights Movement.

In high school, at college or on the playground, start hanging out with the Black people.

When the Black students say something is racist, look into it. Then tell everyone else that it is indeed racist.

In future incidents, try to lose the part where you have to “look into it.”

When community elders tell you not to hang out with the Black kids, smile sweetly and ignore them.

Three days later, tell the elders that it’s racist to avoid Black people. Take them to a Juneteenth celebration.

Feel alone as a person of your sort who loves racial justice.

Learn that Vincent Chin was killed by white men who accused him of stealing their auto factory jobs, because Toyota. Understand that racist vigilantes hate “foreigners” as well as Black folk. Understand that all Asians look the same to racist vigilantes.

Learn about Japanese American incarceration. Feel horror.

Ask if this could happen again. When no one gives you a straight answer, feel confused.

Learn about Japanese American reparations. Feel joy.

Question the historic forces that got reparations for Japanese Americans but not for American Indians or African Americans. Feel deep sorrow and shame that no one ever talks about reparations for members of these groups, who for generations had everything taken from them. Feel bad for begrudging Japanese Americans getting reparations.

Learn about Richard Aoki, who returned from incarceration to find that his Japanese American neighborhood in Oakland, California had new Black residents because incarceration coincided with the middle years of the Great Migration of Black people from the South. Be intrigued that Aoki was one of a handful of Asian members of the Black Panther Party.

Years later, learn  that Aoki was being paid by the government.

Vow not to be like Richard Aoki.

Hear about the founding of the Chinese Progressive Association (SF) and the Asian American Resource Workshop (Boston) in the late 1970s. Over the next 40 years, watch them become beloved institutions.

In the 80’s, read Maxine Hong Kingston. Read Jessica Hagedorn. Read John Okada. Read This Bridge Called My Back.

Meet Asian Americans whose people have been in the U.S. for three to five generations. Realize that not all Asians in America are recent immigrants.

Notice that all of these long timers seem to be from California. Or Hawaii.

Learn that Sikh and Filipino farmworkers organized alongside Latinos in California in the 19th century.

Learn about Yuri Kochiyama, who made friends with Malcolm X. Note that she lived in California.

Learn about the Asian Immigrant Women Advocates (AIWA). Learn about the Hotel Employees/Restaurant Employees Union organizing Chinese housekeepers. In California.

Decide to be an organizer instead of a lawyer or a literary critic.

Move to California.

Show organizing stories to your parents, who are afraid that activism will get you jailed, expelled from school, blacklisted from work, or thrown out of the family. When they tell that “organizing is a hobby, not a job,” tell them you know what you’re doing.

Hope you know what you’re doing.

Learn to speak Cantonese, Bangla, Burmese, or Tagalog.

Learn to eat with chopsticks. Lose a little weight before you get good at it.

Learn to type fast.

Work 12 hours a day during the height of campaigns.

Stay up too late and suffer the next day because you can’t tear yourself away from your compelling coworkers.

Go to the temple, the mosque, and the church. Go to tai chi in the park, especially when you’re organizing elders.

Learn to organize while you sit in someone’s kitchen rolling lumpia, closing little dumplings, or picking the pebbles out of dal.

Take up running because you can’t visit a member without eating something.

Help AIWA run one of the first campaigns to hold a retailer responsible for factory conditions where their goods are produced. Watch this become a model for sweatshop accountability all over the world.

Learn to drive a stick shift.

Learn to cook rice.

Admire the ability of Korean Immigrant Workers Advocates (now the Koreatown Immigrant Workers Alliance) to organize Koreans in LA to vote against Proposition 209 and for maintaining California’s affirmative action programs. Change your name so you can include Latino immigrants in your community.

Support the founding of the Asian Pacific Environmental Network. Watch as Asians become an earth-saving, asthma-preventing powerhouse across California.

Laugh and laugh and laugh.

Fall in love.

Have babies. Push a stroller through protests.

Realize that lots of Asians live outside of California.

Learn about the Bellingham Riots of 1907, when hundreds of white men systematically beat and drove the Sikh lumber workers out of town. Learn that this was repeated in Everett, WA two months later, and in Canada and California after that.

Wonder where Brown Asians fit in the White Supremacy ladder of human value.

In Washington, Oregon and Idaho, confront White Supremacist militias and live to tell about it.

Laugh some more.

In New York, visit the Chinese Staff and Workers Association; track the founding of the Committee Against Anti-Asian Violence; get excited about the founding of the Desis Rising Up and Moving.

Notice that the New York Asians read more Marx and smoke more cigarettes than the California Asians.

Notice that the California Asians read more Gramsci smoke more pot than the New York Asians.

Wonder which vices Midwest Asians have embraced.

In the 90’s, read Grace Lee Boggs.  Read Bharati Mukerjee. Read the radical queer South Asian American journal Trikone.

Support the establishment of the Asian Women’s Shelter (SF), Apna Ghar (Chicago) and Sakhi (NY) for women fleeing domestic violence. Later, support the building of the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum.

After 9/11, watch your friend self-deport to Bangladesh.

After 9/11, watch millions of South Asian Americans become people of color as any  honorary Whiteness they might have had is peeled off by a War on Terror.

After 9/11, applaud the founding of South Asian Americans Leading Together, and watch a new generation of South Asian leaders come of age in Tennessee, Chicago, Atlanta, Newark, Milwaukee.

After 9/11, watch Korean American John Yoo make a case for the United States to torture terrorism suspects.

Watch torture become federal policy.

Imagine waterboarding.


In the ‘00s, read Vijay Prashad. Read Tram Nguyen. Read Jhumpa Lahiri. Read Colorlines.

Watch as Hindu fundamentalists and wealthy Chinese developers call themselves experts on how to be Indian and how to be Chinese.

Watch White liberals be confused by all these conservatives claiming to represent all Asians.

Start saying publicly that Asian conservatives don’t represent you.

Watch Bobby Jindal become Governor of Louisiana. Watch Nikki Haley become Governor of South Carolina. Watch Ajit Pai take over the Federal Communications Commission.

Start the Desi Wall of Shame so they know you’re watching them.

Start organizing people from Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam (especially the young people) into the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center with members in Providence (RI), Madison (WI), New Orleans, New York, and St. Paul (MN).

Organize against the “criminal” deportation of Cambodian refugees to Cambodia.

When the killers of Michael Brown and Eric Garner walk off with no consequences, write an open letter to other Southeast Asians saying “Let us offer ourselves, our love, and our solidarity to the Black Community.”

Weep each time you read these lines in the letter:

We know what it means for our lives to be taken by armed bodies of US government while no one pays attention, here and in our homelands. We know what it means to be forced to find peace with our trauma, and find justice on our own without solidarity from the outside world. We know what it means for the truth of our experience to be stripped from us by the system, and then have to live with our truth in the shadows…. As Black communities charge genocide, war and state violence on their lives and futures by the forces that are meant to protect them, we know deeply the meaning of these very words and experiences as we carry the weight and history of mass human rights violations against our people from one side of the world to the other.… It is no longer enough to watch. We will roll up our sleeves, hit the streets, and do our part to make the world stop.

When Officer Peter Liang kills unarmed Akai Gurley in a New York City elevator, be CAAAV and organize your Chinese immigrant members to demand transparency and accountability from the NYPD.  Turn out for rallies and actions called by police reform organizations and Akai Gurley’s family.

Get reams of hate mail from other Chinese people. Be known as a race traitor.

Grapple with the feeling among his supporters that Peter Liang was only convicted because he wasn’t White, that the police union didn’t stand up for him because of his race. Live with the contradiction that Liang was both perpetrator and victim of racism.

Let D’Lo make you laugh. Feel proud to see him in Sense8.

Help form the National Queer Asian Pacific Islander Alliance.

Start the Asian American Writers Workshop because Asians like books.

In the ‘10s read Jeff Chang, Angry Asian Man, Sepia Mutiny, Alexander Chee, Mira Jacob, Ruth Ozeki, Thi Bui, Chaitali Sen, Tony Tulathimutte, and Celeste Ng. Read Bengali Harlem. Read Scot Nakagawa’s Facebook posts and wonder when he might write a book.

Learn how to block trolls.

Report White nationalists to the FBI.

Be Cathy Dang and write a Facebook post that begins “Chinese conservatives, I’m so over you. We are not afraid.”

Laugh some more.

Learn to meditate.

Organize your people for affordable housing, fair wages, better schools, correct data, reproductive health, real sex education, enough public transportation, brighter street lights, a deportation moratorium, family unification, clean water, clean air, clean soil, bigger parks, youth programs, elder programs, breastfeeding programs, health insurance for all, net neutrality, more public libraries, more grocery stores, more childcare, a union contract or a new community center. Organize them for anything they want, as long as it doesn’t damage any other community.

Organize the old ones, the young ones, the middle-aged ones, the female ones, the male ones, the gender non-conforming ones, the queer ones, the straight ones, the fifth generation ones, the fresh-off-the-boat ones, the ones that are afraid, the ones that aren’t. Organize the athletic ones, the nerdy ones, the sexy ones, the shy ones, the ones with crutches, the ones in wheelchairs, the funny ones, the stylish ones, the dorky ones, the working ones, the jobless ones, the rich ones, the imprisoned ones, the musical ones, the dancing ones, the literary ones, the cinematic ones. Organize the too-loud ones and the too-quiet ones.

Make a mighty commotion.  Build actual power.

Become Asian American.

Rinku Sen

Rinku Sen is Senior Strategist at Race Forward and a James O. Gibson Innovation Fellow at PolicyLink. She writes and curates the news at 

Write Back, Fight Back(#WriteBackFightBack) is a weekly essay series sponsored by 18MillionRising, Asian Americans Advancing Justice, and Reappropriate. It features emerging Asian American writers on topics of racial and social justice. New essays will appear every Thursday.

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