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Columns, Opinions

Ren ’23: Andrew Yang is wrong: Asian Americans do not have to prove their “American-ness”

By
Staff Columnist
Tuesday, April 7, 2020

In a recent Washington Post op-ed, former presidential candidate Andrew Yang ’96 leads a rallying cry against racism. Only instead of simply denouncing the recent rise of anti-Asian sentiment in America, he goes one step further. 

In Yang’s view, simply “saying ‘Don’t be racist toward Asians’ won’t work.” So, as he seems to reason, we should seek a more practical alternative that does. Instead of demanding the racists not to be racist, Asian Americans across the country can prove their worth as equals. Or as Yang puts it: “We should show without a shadow of a doubt that we are Americans who will do our part for our country in this time of need.

Yang’s remarks have already incited the anger of many, and for good reason. While he is right in calling attention to the troubling rise of racist rhetoric and behavior spreading across the country, his approach carries a troubling implication: Asian Americans, he claims, need to “step up” not only to cure coronavirus, but to help solve the very racism that harms them. 

As a member of the Asian American community, I find it absurd that we should feel inclined to prove our equal standing and our “American-ness” to others. Even if this approach did have a practical benefit, why are we placing the responsibility on anybody other than the racists themselves? While I admire Yang’s pragmatism in both business and politics ― areas where he has had undeniable success ― in the field of racial justice, his entrepreneurial gifts miss the mark. 

Yang’s approach frames racial equality as something that Asian Americans can earn in this country. In reality, we are already entitled to it. “Demonstrate that we are part of the solution. We are not the virus, but we can be part of the cure,” he writes. Even after we have done this, will bigotry cease?

I doubt it. In fact, I know it. Countless Asian Americans are already stepping up to the challenge, fighting this global pandemic in any way they can. Many are serving on the frontlines, working as doctors and nurses. Yet when these Americans find themselves on the street or in the supermarket and a bigot approaches, will their credentials somehow protect them? Will their sacrifice protect them from verbal and even physical attacks? I don’t think so. All of us are entitled to fundamental dignity. But racism rarely gives in to reason. 

In his piece, Yang describes how UCLA basketball player Natalie Chou wears college gear as a form of protection in the current climate, a trick of optics to “remind” others of her American identity. He uses this as an example of how Asian Americans can “wear red white and blue,” how we can “embrace and show our American-ness” in the age of coronavirus.

But the more salient and, frankly, more concerning point here is that Asian Americans have to work so much harder to affirm an identity that should already be apparent. The coronavirus pandemic hasn’t created a new form of racism so much as it has revealed an existing one. In truth, our American-ness has never been lacking ― it has been forcefully stripped away. 

To grow up Asian American is to grow up in a constant state of flux. We feel fully American, while also knowing that others do not always see us the same way. Strangers ask me, “Where are you really from?” as if San Diego could not possibly be home for someone who looks like me. And I know my experience is not unique. As Asian Americans make their way through the world, our identities are constantly impeached in the most unsettling ways. All it takes is a disarming question, a rude remark or a racial expletive to remind us how precarious our place in this country really is.

Now, with the rise of coronavirus, the attacks are only getting worse. But the targets have always been on our backs. It is the ammo that has been altered, as verbal insults have devolved into outright violence

Yang believes that when the virus is cured, racism toward Asian Americans will be greatly reduced. To that end, Asian Americans should do “everything in our power to accelerate the end of this crisis.” And in fighting the virus, we can remind others of our enduring American-ness.

But what about when the virus is over? Does curing coronavirus entail curing racism as well? Surely not.

At the end of the day, we need to recognize a simple fact: The cause of racism isn’t coronavirus ― it is our country. We Asian Americans have already proven ourselves to America. When will America prove itself to us?

Johnny Ren ’23 can be reached at jiawei_ren@brown.edu. Please send responses to this opinion to letters@browndailyherald.com and op-eds to opinions@browndailyherald.com.

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