Ethnic Studies, Revolutionary Politics, and the Third World Liberation Front with Viet Thanh Nguyen

Viet Thanh Nguyen speaks with Jay Kang about ethnic studies, the Third World Liberation, and Asian American identity on the Time to Say Goodbye podcast.

We’re very excited to have Pulitzer Prize winner and Macarthur Genius Grant recipient Viet Thanh Nguyen on the show. There was a lot to discuss and a lengthy conversation that I (Jay) found absolutely fascinating about the role of academia, especially during a time of national protests. A lot of history in this one as well — if you didn’t know about AAPA and Third World Liberation Front, there’s a short primer at the beginning of the episode.

1:05 – A conversation about the promise of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a student movement that started at San Francisco State and UC Berkeley in the late sixties and promised an inclusive, solidarity-based activism rooted in anti-imperialism and anti-capitalism. The TWLF fight resulted ethnic studies programs across California and Viet talks about being an ethnic studies student at Cal in the early 90s and gives an assessment of what has happened over the past forty or so years since the establishment of the TWLF and the AAPA (Asian American Political Alliance).

8:00 – Discussion about Viet’s conversation with Pankaj Mishra, which we highly recommend you read.

19:00 – Have Ethnic Studies programs been effective in producing radical thinkers and progressive students? We talk about the early demands of the TWLF, which included a separate school within a school with its own faculty search committee and admissions office.

50:00 – a lengthy discussion about where the focal point of the Asian American identity should lie. Should we talk about immigration and the immigrant experience as much as we do? Or should we think more about where we came from and the effects of American imperialism across Asia? Can Filipinos, Koreans, Cambodians, Vietnamese, and others find common fighting ground in a renewal of “third world” logic? Or are those efforts nullified by the presence of an upwardly mobile, assimilation-driven class of Asian-Americans?

Listen to the podcast episode on Apple Podcast or read the transcript below.

Jay Kang: I wanted to talk to you about one thing in particular, because it’s something that I am very curious about. And I know that it’s something that you have a lot of experience with, which is this idea of ethnic studies, which is something that you studied, I believe at Cal, is that right? 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, I was an undergraduate major in ethnic studies as well as English.

Jay Kang: When was that? 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: 1990-1992 because I transferred in from UCLA. And then I stayed on to do my PhD in English, from 92 to 97. But it was basically half ethnic studies. That was half my committee.

Jay Kang: What was the ethnic studies program at Cal like and when you’re there?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It was transformative for me. I started taking ethnic studies when I was a freshman at UC Riverside Chicano Studies. And then when I got to Berkeley started taking Asian American Studies. My first class, there was with Ron Takaki, his introduction to Asian American Studies and his book, Strangers from a Different Shore just come out.

I took that class and I guess I was just completely ignorant about Asian American history, because that class just hit me like lightning, you know, to learn all these things about what had happened to Asian Americans. Ron Takaki was a great lecture, there was four or 500 students in that class and many of us became very politicized and through that class and my involvement with the Asian American Political Alliance, which a group of undergraduates had restarted from his 1960s origins.

That was my radicalization as a person, but also that was completely tied up with becoming an Asian American. And then after that I declared an ethnic studies major instead of Asian American Studies, because I took seriously this idea that, you know, it wasn’t enough just to be an Asian American. It was important to think about our relationship to other minority populations in this country. I wanted to learn more about African Americans, for example, so took a lot of classes that dealt with both inter ethnic solidarity and history as we called it back then, but also specifically Asian American and African American studies, too. 

Jay Kang: What were the conversations like around Asian American Studies when you were there? I know that right now there would be a lot of talk about interactions with blackness and perhaps ways in which people can discuss the protests going on right now. In the late 60s, it was about Black Panthers was about solidarity with third world groups. What was it like when you’re there in the early 90s?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: We were being taught by the generation of Asian American activists that had been at Berkeley or the Bay Area in the 1960s. So literally the people who had started the Ethnic Studies movement, and were participants in the Third World Strike at Berkeley were now professors at Berkeley. And so we were working off of very much this model of the Third World Liberation Front of the 1960s. That was why a lot of the Asian American activists were not just doing Asian American work, you know, they saw themselves as being more than only Chinese or Japanese or Vietnamese Americans. As Asian Americans, we also thought that it was crucial to work in solidarity.

There was a lot of tension at that time actually around the place of Pacific Islanders and to Filipinos in this Asian American coalition. And even back then, Filipino students were saying, “Well, we’re not Asian American, or why aren’t we included here?”

Jay Kang: How much was the legacy of the Third World Liberation Front at the forefront of the organizing that you did back then?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I think for us it was mostly a positive thing. You know, we felt that we were pretty close to history, you have to understand that when you’re 19 years old, and you’re thinking about something that happened 21 years before that’s like ancient history, but it wasn’t really and but we don’t feel very close to it because we had this conduit with the professors but also know a lot of people took seriously this, this idea that what the Third World Liberation Front and subsequent movements, for example, the ones involving Asian American labor movements, I hotel, even in a very radical left wing, supposedly very radical left wing, Asian American movements, all these things were present on the campus as well. So there’s a very clear sense of place. genealogy and inspiration. And that, you know, people were modeling themselves after this romantic moment of the late 1960s.

We also felt like we needed to foreground the Third World Liberation Front because the whitewashing of 1960s history was already taking place. The tensions, I think, resulted from the fact that one of the most concrete results of the Third World Liberation Front at San Francisco State and at UC Berkeley was the creation of ethnic studies on these two campuses, which were both very successful and already by 1990. When I got there, there was already the sense well, is this the most important thing the Third World liberation Front did? And have its energies been domesticated into the campus and its academic life?

Jay Kang: When I see students try to emulate the Third World Liberation fight and calling for ethnic studies or tenure for professors, it feels a little bit small to me. If I was trying to explain this to somebody who didn’t know anything about it, they might ask, “Well, what’s the big deal? It’s one person’s tenure. Surely, there are other things to worry about?”

How did you resolve that?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t think I ever resolved it. I think the tensions between campus and community and what they symbolize are still with me. I think that’s why I still feel guilty. Sometimes I ask myself, “What am I doing as a professor? What am I doing as a writer?” And these tensions I think are wrapped up with the very problems they’re designed to address. We’re in meshed in contradictions. We’re enmeshed in capitalism. We’re enmeshed in binaries also between authenticity, and inauthenticity as well, in terms of what we do. And as a writer, which is now my primary identification more so than as a professor or as a scholar, I have to put that aside because it doesn’t help in the long run, to be burdened by guilt.

In that respect, we have to also recognize the legitimate legitimacy of the work that we do and whatever Avenue we end up in. So as a writer, I think I have to believe that writing itself is a form of political activity that matters, even if, obviously, organizing workers and so on is an important form of political activity too. The challenge is, how do you how do you coordinate these things together? How do you acknowledge these kinds of things? How do you both grant the legitimacy to identity politics and to Academic accessibility and diversity and the need for ethnic studies with also a relentless focus on economic struggle and justice and all these things as well. I mean that that’s a theoretical and a practical problem that hasn’t gone away.

Jay Kang: Do you think that’s possible to do both? I just can’t think of that many models of people who can be “Asian-American” with a capital A without compromising an economic/class based argument.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: From the 1960s onward, there’s been this trajectory from the origins of Asian America, which were radical and deeply economic to the present moment where the Asian American name has become so broad and nebulous that anybody can be an Asian American, you know, that includes neoconservative anti-affirmative action Asian American Yeah. More broadly, what would probably be the mainstream of Asian America — which I think you’ve been very critical of — is compatible with everything from liberalism to Neoliberalism and is hardly radical in any way and, and is oftentimes oriented around issues of networking and access and, and upward mobility and you know, bourgeois politics and all these kinds of things.

And so the section of Asian Americans now who would be interested in not just those kinds of liberal politics, but also something more radical in terms of reimagining American society in very fundamental ways… I think that’s a relatively minor population. But that minor population tends to be in Asian American Studies, they tend to be the ones doing the scholarly theoretical work.  

Jay Kang: My critique is that a lot of what the kids read now in terms of ethnic studies probably is radical, right, but that they process this type of radical language to get a better job. They use that radical language in moments like the one we’re in, even if there’s nothing radical about their actions or demands. It’s almost like there’s a separation between the language and the ideas and the actual practice of it at every level.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Universities or cultures are about studying certain things and being professionalized — you go to a university, to learn stuff, but also everybody understands that you go there to be culturally formed. I think students enter with the expectation that their degree is going to be a ticket to upward mobility or at least is that maintained where they happen to be at a class level. So even if what they’re studying might be radical, the ideas that are being espoused culturally are being taught by bourgeois professors who are swamped by status, income and all that kind of thing… at least the small subset that is still tenure track. And again, the academics who have the most intellectual purchase the ones who are producing the ideas that gets circulated, they’re the ones with tenure. So the inequalities of American society that are expressed within the university in terms of a tenure track and non tenure track people expresses a contradiction the students can clearly recognize. If I look at my cohort at Berkeley, all these people who did Asian American Studies, their studying was reproduced into a bourgeois class. They became politicians. They became lawyers. They became doctors and so on. Very few people became and then stayed activists outside of this network that you’re talking about. Most typically the people who stayed the most politically committed did so by becoming elected politicians or working with ACLU — -those are still very institutionalized places. 

I look at my own students who have graduated at USC, most of them have done exactly the same thing. I can only think of one student I graduated who became a labor organizer. From my own cohort, one person I can think of became a labor organizer, and then after some decades, gave it up, because it was so hard to to make a living that way. So that, again, is a real challenge. 

To address your point, specifically, about what happens if you become a member of the so called intellectual class? Can you do more than just reproduce the intellectual class? That tension I struggle with too. You know, I’m a writer, I write fiction. And of course, you know, in the United States, we have a lot of good fiction by writers of color of all of all backgrounds that gets allotted and so on. Is it actually radical? No, for the most part, no, I mean, it for the most part, it affirms the sort of a new liberal approach to race and representation. So yes, you’re bringing up some terrible deal that was done to your people, but you’re not really challenging the literary establishment as a part of the American power system. And so I always wonder, am I doing that? I mean, it is my work as as sufficiently radical or am I am I also being or am I just like all these other writers that I’m very critical of? it’s a constant source of anxiety. 

Jay Kang: Let’s talk specifically about Asian Americans. For Asian Americans, I think college is the eye opening experience for so many — they take their first Asian American Studies class, maybe they didn’t know about Korematsu before, maybe they didn’t know about Vincent Chin, maybe they learn about the Chinese Exclusion Act. Their eyes are open. At that point, when they’re 18, 19 years old, they’re willing to do anything like the whole world is open to them. And yet, it just seems like they almost all of them get trapped into upward mobility. Do you see that as just inevitable because we’re talking about students who are going to Cal or UCLA, USC? Or does it constitute some sort of failure on the part of ethnic studies?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I wouldn’t lay the blame entirely on ethnic studies. I look at this and i think i think of politics as being cyclical. Any country goes through moments of stability, stabilization, domestication and unrest. And, if, in 1990, the political confluence of events meant that the protests around the Gulf War and the diversity protests on campus had somehow been enjoined, and then millions of people took to the streets, then the work of ethnic studies would have been realized. 

But now, you look at Black Lives Matter in the eruptions across the country, and the work is being led by activists by young people. People all kinds. We can’t dismiss what ethnic studies has done in this context — it’s helped to lay the groundwork for that by circulating these ideas by putting them out there by training, educating students, so that they’d be they’d be ready when the moment took place. So the catalyst of seeing George Floyd murdered ignited everything that had been simmering for decades in this country. It’s not just ethnic studies — I think that itself wasn’t able to be the ignition for that, for that moment. But the task was to prepare people theoretically, to think about moments like this so that if they happen to be around, when historical moment happens, they can go take to the streets. That’s my optimistic way of thinking,

Jay Kang: There’s two ways to took at what was happening on campuses in the late sixties and early seventies with the Third World Liberation Front. The rosy version is “there are these kids from San Francisco State and Berkeley whose parents worked in the fields in the Central Valley, they’re all reading Gidra which was a big publication at the time, and that there was some sort of cross-class solidarity within there between working class Asian Americans and the second- and third-generation kids who ended up at Cal. Those kids engaged in actions in “the community’ to help people who are not as fortunate enough to go to Cal. think that is a version that that I would like to believe. And I think a lot of people would like to believe. 

So let’s assume that rosy version is true. How do we get young Asian people to do that work in the community instead of the other version, which is take these ideas and to apply them in sort of a neoliberal way to help them in their own career so that they can like advance further and in a capitalist system. How do we get them to go into the International Hotel, for example, and spend six years fighting indigent, old Filipino men who are living there?

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Well, I think this is where there is a failure of ethnic studies. And it’s partly a failure of us as teachers, but also the institutions we find ourselves in. Back in the day, part of the education, part of the original mission of ethnic studies was to bring students out of the campus and get them involved in activist politics outside, to give them internships, to get them working with local organizations, and so on. And that emphasis, I think, has dropped out of most ethnic studies.

Jay Kang: Why do you think that happened?

Viet Thanh Nguyen  39:44

Honestly, I think it happened because ethnic studies has been relatively successful within the academy by producing academics who are very sympathetic to community activism and organizations, but their energies are so consumed by surviving in academia, which is a really labor intensive existence. They don’t have that much time or energy left to become also full time activists or even part time activists and have the knowledge necessary to train their students outside of the campus. 

I’m guilty of that, too. I’m involved outside of the campus in organizations, but my organizations are arts organizations, they’re not labor organizations, they’re not anarchist organizations. So even the kinds of organizations that some academics get involved with outside of the campus tend to be not as radical as they might be.

I remember back in the day when we were all getting arrested for our activism on on campus…  there was this tension between the students, who might be ethnic studies majors committed to these kinds of causes, and the non campus activists — the people who we couldn’t identify, whose politics we didn’t know, who could be anywhere from anarchist to Marxist. So there was already a sort of respectability, even amongst the students, that we were engaging with back then about who we should be organizing with. So yeah, I think ethnic studies has not been successful overall  in encouraging this kind of non campus activism and orientation among students.  

Jay Kang: But kids don’t always just do what their professors tell them to do, right? The kids in 1969 certainly were not being told by the professors to go and organize the Third World Liberation Front.  Why do you think the students today, for the most part, aren’t just doing this by themselves? Why aren’t they going out and and trying to make economic based arguments or occupying buildings that are going to be torn down? 

I look for that sort of stuff all the time. And if it’s happening at some large scale, I apologize. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Yeah, I’m happy for you to be corrected for me to be corrected. I’m totally willing to admit, you know, I don’t know what’s going on. And maybe there are a lot of radical activists out there are doing different kinds of organizing work with non bourgeois kinds of organizations. But I think that one answer to your question would be that ethnic studies as been successful in very elite, very expensive institutions like my own, the University of Southern California. It costs $70,000 a year to go here. So you’re already looking at institutions that simply by their cost are going to discourage certain habits of thinking. And then if you look at institutions that are not as expensive, they’re still expensive for the students who go there.  

The entire force of American society in the last 30, 40 years has been privatized to make education too expensive. This orient students towards survival in the kind of economy that we have. So it’s not a surprise that people burdened by debt of various kinds are not super interested in not being able to pay off that debt by becoming labor organizers and activists and the like.

Jay Kang: I wanted to ask you something and please tell me if I’m reading this wrong, but from the piece that you wrote in Time, that you believe that there is a way for us to take the core of ethnic studies and the core of “Asian American,: even though the terms since 1969 1971 have expanded so much and changed. You believe we can take that identity and then we can apply it to leftist politics. And that’s the path forward. 

My sense is that we probably can’t do that. We need some sort of radical redefinition of Asian American and perhaps it might mean doing away with the term altogether. Am I mischaracterizing your argument? For me, it just feels like the second we make it about Asian Americans and it becomes about Crazy Rich Asians and rooting for vaguely Asian athletes in the Olympics or something like that — there is this diversion away from leftist politics that happens the second that you enter the Asian American identity space. It’s become so severe that we can’t quite meet the two together.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I don’t disagree. I think I feel the obligation to keep saying Asian American and to say things like I’m an Asian American writer or having any problems with that, not because I think of Asian American as a term and as an identity and as a basis for a movement still has very significant validity in a lot of ways…. I think of it more as a tactic. And I think what you’re saying is that if you adopt a tactic, it can become a strategy. 

Even if you say, well, we understand that Asian American is provisional, but simply by adopting that term, there’s an easy slippage into the most naive kinds of identity politics or the kind of politics are the most susceptible to neoliberalism and commodification and so on in the politics of consumption and representation. I think that’s very, very true. So then how do we negotiate between saying, okay, tactically, we need to acknowledge that Harvard needs Asian American studies — on Thursday, I’m going to be on a Harvard ethnic studies panel saying that because they do they do need Asian American Studies and ethnic studies — how do you go from that and not, then simply be happy when Harvard gives you Asian American Studies and you get a tenured professor of Asian American Studies and nothing changes? Harvard remains the same smug institution, it’s always been producing bankers or whatever. That’s a real challenge if you don’t offer the alternative that you gesture at, you know, which is a left that is somehow a radical left that that can move beyond these kinds of politics of racial formation. 

But that’s also very tricky, obviously, because that space also also tends to be inhabited by people who dismiss the importance of race altogether and who go around saying, you know, we need to return to pure Marxist class based politics instead.

Jay Kang: I’m with you on that. I mean, it’s, it’s, it’s a question of, do you want people to listen to you or not at some fundamental level, right? If you go to a bunch of 20 year old Asian kids and you say,, “Let’s just drop this whole Asian American thing and all this stuff that you guys care about, like Hollywood representation,” you’ll lose the entire crowd. It’s something I struggle with a lot, because I believe that Hollywood representation was a very bad thing for Asian Americans to be preoccupied with for so long, but when I start explaining this to people who are not just my friends with the exact same politics that me, I can just see this glaze come over the person’s face, and I feel like the old guy who hands out socialist newspapers at college campuses, screaming at sorority and fraternity kids who walk by.  

Viet Thanh Nguyen: I’ve been on the lecture circuit for about four or five years now. And I started off giving that that narrative about the necessity for having a voice and for speaking up. And then that gradually evolved not to dismiss that, but to say, “We have that we need that, obviously, but ultimately, what we also need is decolonization.” 

I needed a term beyond representation, because everybody agrees, representation matters. Everybody gets excited about having Constance Wu on screen or whatever. But beyond that, you know, we need decolonization. And then then I break it down to what, what the decolonization would entail. And I try to say that no matter where I go, that’s it’s crucial to tell a story. 

I think the stories are absolutely necessary for liberation and for political organizing, I really do believe that. And Asian Americans have been dominated by a story about representation and inclusion. And those are very seductive words, and they totally make sense. Liberals do not get offended about representation and inclusion. If we have anything we can do as journalists, and as writers and teachers, it’s to tell the tell the story. 

There still remains a challenge to articulate what that more radical story is beyond the inclusion of Asian Americans and equality for Asian Americans. And I think for me, I keep coming back to this idea of that were enmeshed in a very long contradiction. It’s not like what we’re dealing with is new. I’m teaching Frantz Fanon again in a few week — Black Skin, White masks and the Wretched of the Earth. Everything he was saying in the 50s and 60s about Black people and Black revolution and Black identity is still true today. 

He says you have to be black. But to be black is also to be trapped at the same time in a racist, capitalist, colonialist contradiction, where blackness is both your prison and the site of your liberation. I don’t see any difference, really, between that position and what we have to argue about for Asian Americans. You need the name “Asian American” for a movement for liberation. But what’s the object of that movement for of liberation? To be liberated from being an Asian American? It’s a contradiction.That’s the thinking that we need to engage in.  

Jay Kang: Do you think that there is a pathway towards a pan Asian identity? I think about it quite a bit in terms half Asian kids. The way we treat half Asian kids is essentially, ‘Well, if you want to come with us, that’s fine.” But we don’t really take their Asiannesss seriously and I worry about a future because I do believe this Asian American thing is gonna have to work in some sort of way because we don’t have really much else. So how do we form it in a way that allows it to be more inclusive than it is? Which then makes me ask, “How do you get to pan Asianness?” 

I don’t know if we’re gonna get there, but we have to try. You seem to feel like it’s even even harder than I do. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: For me, the answer is that we have to think dialectically. People want the Asian American movement to be a site of “authenticity.” We all fall into this, like, “okay, you’re not really Asian American because you eat crappy Asian food. You don’t eat the real Asian food,” or whatever. 

And so while it’s a joke, there is a real impetus towards this. Who are we authentically? And who isn’t one of us? White people clearly help us to define who we are, but mixed race Asian American kids pose a different kind of a problem. This is why in my novel, The Sympathizer, I deliberately chose to make the protagonists mixed race half French, half Vietnamese, because I did not want to write a book that would allow Vietnamese people to say, “Hey, it’s a book that represents us,” when “us” — the we — are racist. We’ve been colonized by the racist French but we ourselves are racist toward are our mixed-race brethren. This is all wrapped up in the larger problem of colonization. 

Likewise, with hapa Asian American kids — the ones who choose to identify as Asian American, — they’re crucial because they throw into crisis the very meaning of Asian American. And that’s a good thing. Asian Americans, like everybody else don’t want to be in crisis. They’ve got authenticity, they want comfort, etc, etc. But in reality, we should be in crisis, we should be uncomfortable, we should be welcoming these kinds of signs of the problem of our own categorizations. 

That’s what I call dialectical thinking, because then we have to think about why we are in crisis. How do we resolve the crisis? It’s not by just drinking more boba or incorporating more Asians or whatever. It has to be using those kinds of issues as a launching point for something else. That’s dialectical thinking. And again, you’re right — not enough Asian Americans want to do that. It’s difficult to do. It’s taken me many, many years. I try to wrap my head around it. And I get paid to do this kind of intellectual work… How do we expect people who don’t get paid to do intellectual work to think through these issues? 

Well, a lot of them think through these issues by getting involved in political struggle, right? Whether it’s the political struggle of diversifying their workplace, or now the political struggle of being on the streets for Black Lives Matter. 

But I think more of us who are doing the thinking work in the Asian American context need to be stressing these kinds of issues: crisis, contradiction, dialectical thinking, being uncomfortable, not settling for authenticity, not feeling like we would if we had a pan Asian movement, that somehow everything would be better.  

Jay Kang: Another thing that’s been on my mind that I’m curious about your opinion on… The protests that are going around around the country and this push to turn what happened in Ferguson in 2014 into something much bigger that involves a lot more people… I worry because I see that Asian Americans, for the most part are going through this as allies, right? Like they say, “Yellow Peril Stands with Black Power,” or, they write letters to their parents. There’s this constant incantation of, “Oh, we must address, you know, anti blackness in our community.” 

The fear that I have is that I feel like a lot of these young people are trying to position themselves in a way where they don’t actually have to see their own struggle wrapped up in what’s going on in the streets. And so they’re trying to almost become white liberals. They want to occupy this position of white liberalism where they don’t have to actually feel invested in liberation. 

The problem I have with this Is that I think that ends up being very shallow. There’s this sense that as long as they can show enough deference and acknowledge, “Well, my uncle is racist, but I’m not,” they can occupy this new space in which anti racism becomes almost professionalized and inert.

The fear that I have is at the point where it is it is so deferential, there’s no coalitional foundation to it. There’s no movement, whether it’s just Korean Americans, whether it’s all pan Asian. Whatever is going to be formed out of all this is going to dissipate the second that the protests stop and Asians don’t have to consciously position themselves as much. 

At this moment right now, it doesn’t feel like we’re actually building something that tries to create our own politics, and then stand next to other people who have the same struggle. That’s what I think the Third World Liberation Front tried to do.

Viet Thanh Nguyen: It’s true that Asian Americans in this moment of Black Lives Matter have assumed a more modest position. And I think actually they should — that is the right reading of the situation. The gravity of of racism in American society is much worse for black Americans and for Native Indigenous peoples than it is for for Asian Americans, even though we are also victims of racism in different kinds of ways. 

But you’re right in that taking such a position of deferral and simply acknowledging that anti black racism is more critical at this moment than anti Asian racism is a liberal way out of thinking about the difficulty of what it means to be Asian American today in relationship to all the various kinds of problems, including anti-Black racism. 

It’s crucial for Asian Americans to think about why they’re here in this country, and not just stick to an immigrant narrative. If you choose the immigrant narrative, you have to give priority to anti black racism because as as immigrants to this to this country, Asian Americans do occupy a structural position that is generally more advantageous than black people simply by the privilege of immigrating into this country. 

But if you think of Asian Americans as being here as the result of warfare and colonization and global domination by the United States in Asia and the Pacific then you have a completely different read. That Asian Americans existence here is also testimony to the military industrial complex American imperialism, in which anti-Black racism and anti Asian racism plays a role. 

But when you go in that direction, it can be frightening for a lot of Asian Americans, especially the second generation, because it throws into question their place in this country and their place in relationship to their families and communities.  

Jay Kang: There’s this narrative now that Asian Americans are only here because the 1965 Immigration Act, which only passed because the civil rights movement happened. Within that formulation, there’s almost a command for deference, right? 

I’m not saying that any of this isn’t true in a lot of ways, and I’m certainly not saying that the that the weight of racism on Asian Americans is same as it is on Black people. But let’s say you take a more internationalist look at Asian Americans… I just think if you start to talking about colonialism, if you start to talking about war, if you start to talk about violence and trying to find yourself there, you might find yourself in conflict with the growing consensus that that actually what you should do is just position yourself as white adjacent and deferential when it comes to race. Does that make sense? 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: One of the things that does is affirm the American context. If everything is articulated through the domestic experience of racism and the Civil Rights movement, you’ve already taken for granted the American framework and that foregrounding American experience is primary above all else. The immigrant narrative also totally feeds into that. 

So what I’m saying is that our opportunity as radical Asian Americans, is to dislodge that narrative. Iur situation domestically is as the model minority. That’s structurally what we do. But if we think about ourselves, internationally, our situation is different. You know, the flip side of the model minority, as we all know, is the perpetual foreigner stereotype. Well, there’s a reason that that stereotype exists. And again, it exists because of the United States relationship to Asia. 

When I said it would be difficult for Asian Americans to think of themselves in this context, what I meant is that if you think of yourself in relationship to American imperialism, versus the American dream, you get a different result. So therefore, it’s not that critical to struggle for spots at Harvard University when to be a part of Harvard University means that you might be there to help develop napalm to be dropped in another country. Or if you think about yourself in relationship to wars in Korea and Vietnam, for example, and you are a good liberal Asian American, you might have to think about what the role of your family has been in Korea and in Vietnam. 

Jay Kang: Does an anti-imperialist, internationalist approach require us to reject some of the ways in which race is framed currently? So, for example, the 1619 project would say that we can only really think of ourselves in the context of race in America — through what happened to black Americans in terms of chattel slavery. There isn’t really space for an international aspect in that framework. 

If we shift the focus of Asian American, does that mean we have stand against that type of read of history and argue against it? Or is it something that we can just let pass? Because it seems like that would be a very difficult fight. 

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Part of the issue is that Asian Americans as a whole, haven’t done the work collectively, to be able to articulate a position that exists alongside the 1619 project. When I think about the 1619 project, one of the great innovations that it does is to locate the history of slavery beyond the founding of the country, beyond the Declaration of Independence to what is essentially a colonizing moment — African slaves are brought here as a part of the colonizing moment. So all these histories are wrapped up together. 

And so if we think about our history through colonization versus through immigration, we actually have a better relationship to the 1619 project, because as immigrants, we become participants in anti-Black, anti-Indigenous society. Whereas if we think of ourselves through narrative of colonization, we are also immigrants participating in racism, but we’re also victims of the same colonizing process that brought black slaves to this country, as well. So there’s an opportunity there but again, it demands as you’ve been saying, as well, that we get outside of thinking purely in these nationalistic terms about us assimilation and liberalism in which Asian Americans are right now.  

Jay Kang: Yeah, I just think it’s too difficult. The contradiction is too difficult. It’s actually more comfortable for us to act as white liberals because it means that we can advocate for ourselves and live comfortably, and we don’t have to do all this difficult stuff. I don’t know how to fix it — I disagree with it, obviously, and I do think there is a way to build a stronger political identity and then use that political identity to stand in not in deference, but alongside black issues in a way that will feel much more real, but it actually involves sort of negating part of that critique as well that seems to command a type of deference.  

Viet Thanh Nguyen: Whiteness studies has actually been pretty critical, because it involves white thinkers thinking against being white. Not all Asian Americans are white adjacent, but a good number of them are and the ones that you’re talking about —  the intellectual class definitely are, for the most part, white, adjacent, and participate in the privileges of whiteness, even if they’re also occasionally victimized by anti Asian racism. 

The thinking class of Asian Americans needs to increasingly think against what it means to be Asian American. Asian American Studies has had a problem with this. The standpoint of Asian American studies has been to say, “We are victims of American racism. We are the victims of white people. We need to stand against American society, consolidating this Asian American identity and movement.” 

If there’s one innovation that needs to happen is that Asian American Studies needs to think against Asian Americans at this point, that would be a major shift from what happened in 1960s and 1990s.

Category: Interviews


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