Unlearning Scarcity, Cultivating Solidarity: A Toolkit for the Asian American Community
Updated: Feb 21
Unlearning Scarcity, Cultivating Solidarity
Part 1: Examining the Roots of Scarcity Mentality and How It Is Weaponized to Oppress Asian Americans and Other Marginalized Identities
Last Updated: 9.9.2020
Written By: Jenny Dorsey, Sarah Hong, Emily Chen, Sarah Koff
Edited By: Edric Huang, KarYee Au, Madie Lee, Phoebe Yu, Janii Yazon, Hanna Seabright
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Table of Contents
Click to jump to section
An overview of our methodology, an explanation of goals, and acknowledgement of limitations
The unpacking of the origins of scarcity as individuals and groups, specifically as it manifests within Asian American communities
An examination of how the scarcity mentality has been utilized for sociopolitical agendas
Important terms referenced in this toolkit
Contextualizing Solidarity Among Asian American Communities
Understanding the necessary investment and work for solidarity, and reviewing historical instances of Asian American solidarity
Integrating Solidarity Practices Into Your Everyday
Ways for individuals to combat scarcity and leverage their personal, professional, and communal networks to cultivate solidarity practices
Important terms referenced in this toolkit
Relevant resources to continue this work beyond this toolkit
The Genesis of This Document
This toolkit was compiled by the Studio ATAO team using learnings from our facilitated discussion series, Experimental Salons. Studio ATAO is a 501(c)3 nonprofit community think tank that creates interdisciplinary, impact-driven content and live experiences to instigate organic social change through interpersonal connection.
The central question we posed for the Salons that contributed to this document was:
How Can Asian Americans* Unlearn the Scarcity Mentality and Cultivate Solidarity Within Our Own & With Other Marginalized Communities?
*We use the term Asian American(s) in this document to refer to any Asian-identifying individuals who are living in the United States. We recognize and respect some may have mixed identities and/or may not identify completely with “Asian” or “American”, and are aware these two terms can be unnecessarily limiting for certain Asian-identifying communities in the U.S. If there are terms you think are more inclusive for everyone, we would love to hear your suggestions.
Additionally, we chose to not use the term “AAPI” as we accept and agree with the critiques of it conflating Asian American and Pacific Islander identities that each deserve nuance. While we do utilize Pacific Islander examples in this document where there are overlaps in the Asian American and Pacific Islander experience, we acknowledge our own limitations in fully capturing the unique history and struggle of Pacific Islanders.
Explanation of Goals & Limitations
There are many explanations for the scarcity mentality. We used Stephen Covey’s as our starting point: “Most people are deeply scripted in what I call the Scarcity Mentality. They see life as having only so much, as though there were only one pie out there. And if someone were to get a big piece of the pie, it would mean less for everyone else.”
Our wide range of Salon guests included installation artists, epidemiologists, and chefs to sex educators, marketing experts, and media entrepreneurs. Our goals for the Salons were to:
Bring together a diverse group of Asian Americans to examine the origins of the scarcity mentality in their lives, and its effects on their identities & their relationships.
Unpack the dominant group narratives systematically used to reinforce scarcity as well as intra & inter-group conflict.
Explore an inclusive definition of solidarity and discuss what major obstacles stand in our way of achieving solidarity; and
Empower our Salon participants and toolkit readers to develop their own. personal, professional, and communal solutions to better harness solidarity.
That being said, we also acknowledge our own privileges and limitations:
We conducted these Salons via Zoom, which requires high-speed internet and is not as accessible as it should be for those with visual and/or auditory disabilities.
Our participants and we, as writers & moderators, come from primarily middle and upper-middle class backgrounds. While many of us are active in the social justice space and regularly address issues of classism through our work, we understand that theoretical engagement is not the same as the lived experience.
As writers & moderators, we come from a primarily East Asian demographic; our participants varied in East, Southeast, and South Asian demographics. We recognize that there are many additional Asian American experiences, such as Pacific Islander, which we are striving to learn about more deeply and integrate in this document.
The anecdotes and examples in this toolkit are not exhaustive of all the intersectional identities within Asian American communities. We prioritize the amplification of marginalized Asian Americans’ voices, and will be continually updating this document with learnings from future Salons and public panels in order to be more inclusive and representative of our diverse communities.
This free resource has been a labor of love and the result of tremendous emotional labor from all parties involved in our Experimental Salons. We hope you will find it useful in your work and encourage you to disseminate this toolkit widely in your circles, especially to those you believe would benefit from these learnings. If you would like to reference this during future conversations or events, please provide a backlink to the original document to provide full context and credit Studio ATAO.
This is a living, evolving document as we continue to learn from each other and the community at large. We will be including more quotes and learnings as we host more Salons and public panels on this topic as well. If you have additional insight and suggestions of ways we can improve this document, we want to hear from you at firstname.lastname@example.org!
Future Experimental Salons on Unlearning Scarcity, Cultivating Solidarity
If you are a company or organization interested in hosting a private Experimental Salon for your team on this topic, please take a look at our Custom Experiences page and book a time with our team so we can talk through your vision.
If you’re interested in joining our next Experimental Salon (of this or any other series), please make sure to sign up for our Eat, Drink and Do Good newsletter, follow us on Instagram, and join our discussion-based digital FB Community Social Impact Professionals for announcements!
What Is Scarcity Mentality?
Scarcity mentality is the idea that everyone exists within a spectrum of competition. This mindset assumes there are finite resources (tangible and intangible), and that every resource obtained by one person or group comes at the expense of another.
We all experience some level of scarcity mentality at both an individual level ("I want to have this for myself") as well as a group level ("I want us to be successful, not them"). The latter is a function of tribalism, a primitive aspect of human evolution that helped us build the necessary group cohesion to compete against others for resources. We create these in-groups using shared identities (e.g., gender, ethnicity) as well as common backgrounds, behaviors, and beliefs.
However, the unique ways in which marginalized individuals and groups experience scarcity are not due to self-prioritization or tribalism alone. With the onset of capitalism in the 1600s, the idea of scarcity was intentionally weaponized by dominant groups in power to justify the unequal distribution of resources. Most notably, through the construction of race (under the false pretense of biology) to systematically exploit groups seen as "others". As Ruth Wilson Gilmore eloquently states, “Capitalism requires inequality and racism enshrines it.”
The use of race and its associated character traits has been an important way for the dominant group to maintain control. In particular, Critical Race Theory (CRT) examines how institutionalized power structures (from economics to law and education) were built on a social construct of race that upholds white supremacy. (Read more about CRT in the Glossary.)
As a result of continual oppression, scarcity has evolved beyond a fight for survival and into an omnipresent socialization that we as marginalized identities are "not enough" and, as a group, can never acquire enough to access the full spectrum of opportunities available to the dominant group. This then leads to self-defeatist in-fighting within and between different groups, further perpetuating the cycle of injustice and maintaining existing power dynamics.
Manifestations of Scarcity Within the Asian American Identity
In this first chapter, we will address the historical and contemporary manifestations of scarcity among Asian American communities. In the next chapter, we will discuss how institutional, governmental, and societal structures weaponize the scarcity mindset by providing Asian Americans the opportunities to maintain current racial hierarchy, uphold the same repressive ideals, and contribute to the subjugation of other marginalized identities.
Asian Americans are a diverse population with no “one-size-fits-all” interpretation of scarcity and its effects. The throughline between all of these experiences, however, is the fact that oppression establishes and reinforces scarcity. To further examine this relationship, we utilized Iris Marion Young’s framework of the five “faces” of oppression:
Asian Americans have long been exploited as workers in the United States, from Chinese laborers who were hired to undertake the most dangerous work of building the transcontinental railroad, to American colonizers establishing English-language nursing programs in the Philippines in order to “civilize” them. This sort of oppression is inexorably tied to capitalism, which is built on the principle of wealth accumulation at the expense of the socially and economically disadvantaged.
Despite the fact that Asian Americans have significantly contributed their labor to American society for generations, from major contributions in the sciences to military service, they are still made to feel their claim to American identity is predicated on continued contributions. This inherent lack of belonging places pressure on Asian Americans to continue to “prove” themselves in every aspect of their lives, as seen with highly publicized tension that resulted from the backlash against Andrew Yang’s 2020 op-ed: We Asian Americans Are Not the Virus, But We Can Be Part of the Cure.
As one of our Salon participants shared, operating within a capitalistic society as an Asian American has made them feel:
“I need to have skills to be valuable, because just as a person I am not valuable.”
As a result, their interpretation of scarcity is that they are “always in competition with other people, especially those with a similar background [as them], on who has the best skill. Even if it is a totally inconsequential skill.”
Conversely, even though it is the “foreignness” of Asian Americans’ ethnic, racial, and cultural backgrounds that pose barriers to their acceptance, those same attributes are often appropriated by the white dominant culture for profit (e.g., yoga, hula dance, Mongolian headdress). As one participant shared, the shame in experiencing a “lunchbox moment” as a child, contrasted with white chef-helmed restaurants’ use of (now) trendy Chinese food, reinforces the idea that scarcity is not abated through assimilation, because assimilation does not necessarily result in acceptance.
In order to endure centuries of discrimination and prejudice, marginalized individuals will often internalize the racism and oppression they are facing. For Asian Americans, this regularly manifests as perfectionism, obsession with productivity/labor, and feeling pressured to minimize “undesirable” personality traits associated with their race. This inability to live an authentic life within existing social structures is a manifestation of covert marginalization -- that is, the prevention or limitation of full participation in society.
As one participant shared, when they posed the question, “When should your opinion be heard?” to a white friend of theirs, they were shocked to hear their white friend respond, “All the time, whether it is right or wrong.” The participant, on the other hand, was unaccustomed to thinking their opinion should be heard unless they felt strongly about it being correct, productive, or valuable.
One Korean American participant explained that they felt coerced into agreeing with their former white friends’ racist comments because
“if I was their friend, then what they said wasn’t [racist]...and in turn it allowed me to be accepted. So when they made fun of Koreans eating dogs, I would also dish out stereotypes against Southeast Asians. I was desperate for that white adjacency, that white access.”
Similar to exploitation, marginalization can also result in fierce in-group competition. As one participant recounted,
“my family and I knew that white power and wealth were just unattainable...so as a result it became a class struggle between Asians, between the people I went to church with -- which families could afford good tutors, who got into the best schools.”
Marginalization can also be observed through overtly exclusionary measures such as citizenship status, voting rights, employment opportunities, the healthcare system, public benefit programs, and community activities. In fact, our original Constitution specifically correlated participation in society with an individual’s labor output; anyone considered unworthy of paid labor (i.e. anyone who was not a white male) could not be naturalized, vote, or own property.
In fact, it was not until 2000 that multi-race individuals were able to denote more than one race on the U.S. census. As one multi-race participant explained, scarcity mentality is one that creates false binaries: “it assumes I can only be one identity or the other, either Asian or white, but never both.”
Even as Asian Americans advance professionally, scarcity continues to be reinforced by unspoken policies like the bamboo ceiling and racial quotas. Our Salon participants pointed out how white-dominant platforms only allow a small number of minorities to be simultaneously present as tokens of racial equity. One Filipinx American chef shared their experience of being rejected by a publisher because “they already have another Filipinx chef.” This reinforces the idea that the only value of marginalized people are their identities, making them interchangeable commodities; it is a prime example of racial capitalism, the extraction of social and economic value from PoC through the use of their racial identities. (Read more about racial capitalism in Glossary, and see our Toolkit for Recognizing, Disrupting, and Preventing Tokenization for more on tokenization.)
However, tokenization may initially lead some individuals to believe that their identity and opinions matter to the dominant group and, in response, either self-tokenize or perpetuate structures that enforce this continual scarcity. One participant shared about a time when a well-known figure they considered a “pillar of the industry” told him, “‘We will always need one Chinese chef on TV. That used to be me—now I want it to be you.’” He explained that this, “really enforced a psychology in myself that I need to be the Chinese food guy, not just a Chinese food guy.”
Conversely, another participant explained that “going from the token Asian in my childhood to a university that was majority Asian (73% Chinese American) activated the scarcity mentality in a new way, because it magnified the competition for recognition.”
Powerlessness is the deprivation of a person’s ability to make decisions about their living or working conditions. Similar to marginalization, it often manifests itself in both overt and covert ways and prohibits one from maintaining full ownership in personal and professional realms.
As a Filipinx participant described, the stratifications of powerlessness can be felt through “lines of safety” -- that is, comparing their relative freedom traveling through TSA screening lines, to the experience of their Indian American friends who are almost always stopped.
Powerlessness is often reinforced by discriminatory policies. Starting in 1790, the pathway to citizenship was available only for “free white persons”; this was further compounded by the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, the first law passed banning a specific ethnic group. It was not until 1952 with the Voting Rights Act (VRA) that Asian-descended immigrants were allowed to vote and become citizens, and not until the Immigration Act of 1965 that national origin quotas were removed. Even today, the fight for expansion of translated voting materials and wider access is still an issue, especially in lower-income Asian American neighborhoods.
This lack of influence over one’s future extends beyond the political sphere as well. For example, the San Francisco Plague of 1900-1904 saw quarantine measures that allowed European Americans to leave the affected area, while Chinese and Japanese Americans required a health certificate to leave the city, confining them in already poor living conditions as the plague occurred mainly in Chinatown. California's Governor Henry Gage even refused to recognize the existence of the plague for two years because he valued the city's reputation and profit over the lives of its residents.
Today, the rise of deportation in Asian American populations, particularly Southeast Asian, as well as the ongoing fight for rights of DREAMers (many of whom are Asian American) highlight the inherently dehumanizing process of attempting to secure basic rights as immigrants in the U.S.
Cultural imperialism refers to the value, or even idolization, of the oppressor’s culture, norms, and characteristics. For many Asian Americans with a cultural history that involves war, immigration, and colonialism, cultural imperialism is often expressed through deprioritization of one’s cultural background and subsequent attachment to white or Western culture.
One prominent example is colorism among both Asian American and Asian communities. One Filipinx participant explained that in the Philippines, the mestizas (with both Filipinx and European ancestry) are seen as more beautiful than chinitas (who look more stereotypically Asian) and morenas (those with darker olive or brown skin tones). Because of these beauty standards, chinitas and morenas grow up being told to stay away from the sun, and are seen as less “civilized” as the mestizas.
Cultural imperialism also sustains the dominant group’s belief that their perception of the marginalized group’s identity traits, desires, and needs are accurate. This often manifests in saviorism (see Glossary).
One participant, an East Asian adoptee with white parents, noted that the hidden diaspora of adoptees from Asian countries is an expression of cultural imperialism.
They explained that waves of adoption occur due to war, imperialism, and resulting western paternalism (see Glossary). This value of the oppressor’s culture can then seep into family dynamics and erase a culture and language which was once a birthright.
One participant also shared how “in South Asian countries, your daughter or son studying abroad becomes a sort of ‘status symbol’”. As a result, scarcity became tied to “the idea of education, because there’s a quota for greencards and student visas.” Despite this dynamic, for the participant who lives and works in the U.S., “the people back home [in India] will say that I’m betraying my own culture even though they look up to whiteness.”
Relatedly, David L. Eng and Shinhee Han write in Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation:
“The displacement of Asian youth into the diaspora implicitly reinscribes the East as the ‘problem’ while reconstituting the West as the ‘solution’”.
Poor and/or lacking media representation of Asian Americans also fuel this problem. From mainstream media’s utter failure to report on the Chinese Massacre of 1871 -- one of the worst lynchings in the U.S. -- to Hollywood’s ongoing yellowface, stereotyping, and erasure of South and Southeast Asians, the underlying implication in American society is that Asian Americans are indistinguishable, easily imitable, or simply forgotten. This deepens feelings of inadequacy among Asian Americans and increases the desire to latch onto aspects of the “superior” culture.
For immigrant families in the U.S., the myth of the American Dream glorifies capitalistic meritocracy, while rewarding material consumption as “proof” of success. As one participant described, their mother’s view of the U.S. was “the opposite of scarcity,” and in order to prove that view as true, she would hoard unnecessary commodities. This fallacy of abundance can lead to beliefs that engaging in materialism and overconsumption are effective ways to stop and prevent scarcity.
Over the course of American history, violence towards Asian Americans has generally correlated with periods of sociopolitical tension. For example, the Japanese internment during WWII, South Asians who suffered from the rise of Islamophobia after 9/11, and East Asians who were targeted with hate crimes during the onset of COVID-19.
Violence extends beyond physical harm; it can also be emotional,verbal or ideological. Societal norms, institutionalized structures, and governmental policies that condone violence, or make it difficult for victims to seek justice, are also forms of oppression. For example, Asian women and their bodies are consistently oversexualized as exotic but docile and in service to white men, based on historical power structures when American troops were deployed to Vietnam, Korea, and the Philippines.
Existing as a victim of violence and consequently, seeking acceptance in predominantly white societies in order to avoid future violence can result in Asian Americans’ internalized racism and self-inflicted violence. Many of these self-preservation methods are rooted in scarcity. Examples of these methods include the use of derogatory terms like “fob” (fresh off the boat) to delineate different types of Asian Americans and ongoing attacks against Asian women in relationships with white men (including the attacks against the author who wrote this linked piece).
Exclusionary structures and treatment methods also lead to violence that is often misunderstood, unreported, not legally battled, or improperly addressed. One participant explained that in their field of work (psychiatry), most evaluation metrics are based on a white audience. PTSD, for example, is specifically based on white people’s reactions to war -- but is then applied to completely different groups under different circumstances with conflicting and/or inaccurate conclusions. This not only makes recognizing serious issues like PTSD in non-white audiences more difficult, but it also reinforces the idea that marginalized people need to express themselves within white communication standards in order to be heard.
Given the lack of studies centering the specific struggles of Asian Americans, it is unsurprising that Asian Americans are the least likely to seek professional mental health help. As David L. Eng and Shinhee Han write in Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation:
There is “little acknowledgement or understanding of the social violence and psychic pain afflicting Asian American communities. This fact is as true on the part of administrators, faculty, and students as it is, most poignantly, on the part of ourselves.”
The lasting effects of violence also present themselves in less obvious ways.
A Japanese American participant shared that because all their family’s physical belongings were taken away during the Japanese Internment during World War II, they don’t have many family heirlooms (or the same generational wealth) compared to white families who had been in the U.S. for a similar amount of time.
Additional participants echoed the sentiment that this lack of generational heirlooms can contribute to an ongoing sense of scarcity.
The Social & Structural Weaponization of Scarcity
The scarcity mentality is not a historical relic of oppression, but a framework still actively used by the dominant group in order to maintain power. In the case of Asian Americans, our social positioning as “model” citizens is predicated upon our compliance with the continued oppression of other marginalized groups, in particular Black Americans. Thus, scarcity results in a system in which marginalized groups are incentivized to oppress one another.
In this chapter, we will discuss how the false narrative of always-finite resources and the corresponding scarcity mentality around the distribution of these resources has been routinely weaponized throughout U.S. history by the group(s) in power to:
Stoke strife and hamper cooperation between marginalized groups
Obfuscate the bigger issue of increasing inequality in allocation of resources between the dominant group(s) and all marginalized groups
Encourage one marginalized group to support the oppression of other marginalized groups
One oft-cited example of scarcity used to reinforce social structures in U.S. history is the use of racism to ensure poor, immigrant whites did not band together with enslaved African Americans to overthrow the wealthy class of slave owners, despite both parties suffering from the ramifications of a slave society. By promoting an idea of natural inferiority (racism), the white elites utilized scarcity mentality to convince poor white laborers that the remnants of available privileges (resources, social capital, etc.) they had access to should not be shared with “undeserving” African Americans.
Asian Americans also experienced the weaponization of scarcity during the farm labor movements of the 1900s, such as the Oxnard Strike of 1903 and Delano Grape Strike of the 1960s (see Glossary), where white owners attempted to pit Asian American and Latinx workers against one another.
The Model Minority Myth and Scarcity
For the Asian American community, one of the most prominent manifestations of inter-group conflict rooted in scarcity is the model minority myth, or the overlapping myths that:
Asian Americans are a highly successful, upwardly mobile group that have outperformed other racial minorities
The success of Asian Americans is due to innate ability and/or cultural norms (such as prioritization of education and hard work)
Because of this collective success, Asian Americans are no longer facing discrimination
Since Asian Americans are no longer facing racially-charged obstacles, they do not need additional government or societal support
For Asian Americans, these false assumptions of socioeconomic success (which is not evenly distributed), self-sufficiency, and “overcoming” of racial issues undermines the very real need for dialogue and analyses centering Asian Americans’ unique challenges.
David L. Eng and Shinhee Han explain in Racial Melancholia, Racial Dissociation that
“to occupy the model minority position, Asian American subjects must therefore subject to a model of economic rather than political and cultural legitimation.”
This only serves to exacerbate feelings of inadequacy and scarcity when facing continued discrimination, prejudice, and limited opportunities. Additionally, for Asian Americans who internalize the racism within the model minority myth, they learn to acquiesce to the desired behaviors of diminutiveness and compliance with a belief this will be repaid by future acceptance.
For other minority groups, the implication of the model minority myth is that despite limited resources and high obstacles for minorities, Asian Americans as a generalized identity have succeeded -- therefore, it is not the scarcity of resources that is the problem but rather the other marginalized groups’ inability to use those scarce resources effectively. In short: the problem doesn’t lie in the system.
As Jeff Guo explains in the Washington Post,
“The image of the hard-working Asian became an extremely convenient way to deny the demands of African Americans. As [Ellen] Wu describes in her book [The Color of Success], both liberal and conservative politicians pumped up the image of Asian Americans [in Cold War era America] as a way to shift the blame for Black poverty. If Asians could find success within the system, politicians asked, why couldn’t African Americans?”
Note: There is great variance in how Asian Americans are affected by the model minority myth. For example, a participant who grew up in Hawai’i (a state with majority Asian American Pacific Islanders) explained they were unfamiliar with the model minority construct until moving to the mainland U.S. At that point, they experience both the positive stereotyping as well as the negative desexualization of Asian men.
History of the Model Minority Myth
The term Model minority was first used in 1966 by William Petersen in the influential New York Times Magazine piece, Success Story: Japanese American Style. Petersen lauded Japanese Americans for achieving success despite having “been the object of color prejudice” and pointed to aspects of Japanese culture -- such as the “achievement orientation” of emphasizing education alongside hard work and being “exceptionally law-abiding” even when “surrounded by ethnic groups with high crime rates” -- as reasons for their ascent being “better than any other group in our society, including native-born whites...by their own almost totally unaided effort.”
Petersen contrasts this sharply with African Americans who, despite being “as thoroughly American as any Daughter of the Revolution,” are unable to overcome the structural barriers in their way because African Americans cannot “salvage [their] ego by measuring [their] worth in another currency.” Comparatively, the Japanese were able to do so because of their “meaningful links with an alien culture.”
This depiction of Japanese Americans versus African Americans not only established the concept of Asian Americans as never really being American due to their “native” cultures, but it also fanned the flames of inter-group conflict—particularly Black American vs. Asian American clashes, which are well-documented through history. (See: 1990 Family Red Apple Boycott and 1992 Los Angeles Riots.)
How the Model Minority Myth Fits Into Racial Triangulation
The model minority myth and its continual harm to both Asian American and other marginalized communities is best understood through the framework of racial triangulation, a term coined by Claire J. Kim in her 1999 paper The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans. In it, she describes how:
1. Dominant group A (white Americans) will use the process of relative valorization to portray subordinate group B (Asian Americans) as superior to subordinate group C (Black Americans) on certain cultural or racial grounds (e.g., using the negative stereotypes that Black people are lazy and loud/angry, whereas Asian Americans are hard working/docile)
2. White Americans will paint Asian Americans as unassimilable (the “perpetual foreigner”) in order to ostracise them from being engaged in political and civic membership (civic ostracism)
3. With #1 and #2 working in tandem, white Americans are able to wield cultural, racial, or political power over both groups while ensuring they do not work together to change the oppressive system
Through racial triangulation, the dominant group purposefully obscures its influence over and gains from maintaining a racial hierarchy. In actuality, Asian Americans and Black Americans face similar struggles, such as access to better education and opportunities for job advancement, due to pervasive white privilege. But instead of focusing on the need to develop parity for all non-white members of society, scarcity turns these issues into something subordinate groups fight over.
For example, the recent lawsuit against affirmative action at Harvard University. Many Asian Americans co-signed the lawsuit, buying into accusations of “preferential treatment” due to race in the college selection process. These narratives hid the fact that the dominant group disproportionately prioritized distribution to their own kind (e.g., legacy admissions); even with racial considerations, Harvard’s 2023 class is still over 40% white.
As CRT scholar and lawyer Luke Harris points out, calls for “diversity” and accusations of “reverse racism” decenters the simple fact that affirmative action was created to create equal opportunity in a social system marked by pervasive inequalities. By creating false narratives of colorblind “meritocracy”, conservative activists were able to use the scarcity of quality education to promote Asian American participation in a system that inherently harms their own future opportunities.
The use of civic ostracism to undermine Asian American political action and challenge discriminatory policies has also been consistently reinforced through varying social structures, and the lingering stereotype of Asian Americans as apolitical or an unimportant voting bloc persists to this day.
For example, candidates rarely make an attempt to win Asian American votes -- the 2016 National Asian American Survey (NAAS) reported that 70% of Asian American registered voters were not contacted by a candidate about their current campaign. As a result, the Asian American voter turnout was significantly lower in comparison to other racial groups; in the 2018 election, Asian American voter turnout was only 47%, compared to 66% Black American voters.
Also consider that U.S. territories like Guam and Samoa, with a majority Pacific Islander population, cannot even vote in our general elections, which adds to a vicious cycle of political apathy.
One participant shared their story of going to help their partner (who is white and British) apply for a green card. At the government office, the officer immediately turned to them (a Filipinx American citizen), assuming they were the one filing for the green card -- although their family had been in the U.S. for generations. “This was not the first time it happened,” they said, “plus, my partner received their green card in only 3 months, when it has taken far longer for other [non-white] individuals I know.”
How Weaponizing Scarcity Creates Harm
The position of Asian Americans within this racial triangle has been manipulated by the dominant group to:
1. Offer certain privileges (namely the absence of oppression and scarcity in certain arenas, such as safety in public spaces) to Asian Americans, best described by the term white adjacency.
2. Perpetuate a false belief in Asian Americans that whiteness (or total acceptance by the dominant group) is achievable within our current societal structures. This is best explained as the whitening of Asian Americans through the socioeconomic alignment of white and Asian American interests.
Instead of recognizing the ulterior motives (primarily, subordination of non-white groups, in particular Black and Brown people) that drive these shared privileges or common goals, Asian Americans also engage in oppressive behaviors such as anti-Blackness, colorism, and racism against other racial minorities in attempts to “secure their spot” amongst white Americans. As one participant described it,
“we are taught to have a survivor mentality…[and] I became best friends with an oppressor.”
In particular, violence against Black Americans perpetuated by Asian American law enforcement officers -- notably Peter Liang and Tou Thao in recent years (see Glossary) -- have continued to increase tensions between the two communities.
In addition to perpetuating racism and racial violence against other minorities, adherence to a predominately white, male, heteronormative, cisgender, ableist based society incentivizes Asian Americans to also oppress and erase marginalized identities among Asian American communities. LGBTQIA+, disabled, and Pacific Islander identities -- among so many others -- are often fighting for recognition of their unique struggles within the Asian American umbrella, let alone beyond it.
One participant shared their own struggle with breaking free from the remnants of imperialism and colonialism: “I had hired an Indian artist to draw a map of India to include with our [product] orders. To make the picture pretty the illustrator had changed where the Himalayan mountains are and erased Nepal. When some people reacted angrily, my first reaction was to say ‘It's not about you, it's about [my company]’...
It took a long time for me to sit with this and understand how it feels to be erased...I was so wrapped up in the idea of decolonizing from shared oppressors that I neglected how India has also bullied its neighboring nations.”
How Scarcity Delays Change
Scarcity mentality is exceptionally useful in diverting attention from larger systemic issues that are the foundation of everyone’s suffering at the hands of the dominant group (and their interpretation of capitalism as an economic system). This diminishes our collective ability to work towards mutually beneficial solutions, which in turn maintains the current set of oppressive power structures.
In addition to creating racial wedges and diverting attention away from bigger issues, scarcity-based tactics also have other consequences. For example:
1. Racial triangulation incorrectly equates oppression of Black Americans to that of Asian Americans. Although these experiences are both horrific, they are vastly different on every axis. This idea is then adopted by Asian Americans to minimize the need for out-group solidarity and weaponized by white Americans to instigate inter-group animosity.
2. Racial triangulation bases cultural and racial superiority between groups on respectability narratives. Not only are these narratives untrue, the absence of “respectability” also implicitly offers a rationale for oppression and harm. (Read more about respectability politics & respectability narratives in our post here.)
3. The model minority myth erases the wide socioeconomic gap that exists within Asian Americans, including a massive disparity between Asian American versus Pacific Islander families. The reasons for these imbalances -- from the consequences of Japanese internment to aggressive nuclear testing in the South Pacific -- should be analyzed and addressed individually, yet are blended together when “all” Asian Americans are perceived as successful.
4. The idea of Asian Americans’ rise to prosperity over American history is used to diminish the need for Asian American specific research, studies, and analyses; correspondingly, there are few socio-structural or governmental support systems that focus on the unique perspective and needs of Asian Americans (and the many groups that exist within). For example, very few papers have examined how Asian Americans are treated in the criminal justice system, much less its effects on the larger community.
Understanding Transformative Solidarity And Creating Personal Pathways to Solidarity
Allyship: From the New Jersey Coalition Against Sexual Assault: “The act of directly engaging in learning more information, unlearning harmful ideas, and being in support of a group you do not belong to.” Someone who self-identifies as an ally or “stands in solidarity” with others can be viewed as providing allyship.
Appropriation: Cultural appropriation occurs when someone of another group adopts aspects or practices of another group, especially if it is done so out of context (e.g., a white person using Native American headdress for a Halloween costume). It is particularly problematic when members of the dominant group take cultural elements from a historically marginalized group in order to profit from it. Cultural appropriation trivializes systemic and historical oppression while perpetuating negative stereotypes.
Assimilation: From Wikipedia: “Cultural assimilation is the process in which a minority group or culture comes to resemble a dominant group or assume the values, behaviors, and beliefs of another group.” While a minority group can assimilate into the dominant group culture, this does not mean acceptance by the dominant group. Assimilation may also be voluntary or involuntary and be accompanied by acculturation.
BIPOC: Black, Indigenous, people of color. This acronym specifically calls out the nuanced experiences of Black and Indigenous folx.
Capitalism: From Merriam-Webster: “An economic system characterized by private or corporate ownership of capital goods, by investments that are determined by private decision, and by prices, production, and the distribution of goods that are determined mainly by competition in a free market.”
Within our current system of capitalism, the end goal is to accumulate wealth, and that has been done at the expense of the working class. While in the U.S. our mixed economy utilizes government intervention to create certain safety nets for rights such as housing, food, and healthcare, it is not enough. As legendary capitalist Ray Dalio writes in Why and How Capitalism Needs to be Reformed:
“Most capitalists don’t know how to divide the economic pie well and most socialists don’t know how to grow it well...we are now at a juncture in which people of different ideological inclinations will work together to skillfully re-engineer the system so that the pie is both divided and grown well or we will have great conflict and some form of revolution that will hurt most everyone and will shrink the pie.”
Classism: Prejudice or discrimination due to one’s social class. This can be based on a variety of factors including individual / generational wealth, education level/prestige, and occupation. Often, classism assumes moral or character traits in those of a lower class while overlooking the discriminatory structures that prevent equal access to advancing one’s social status.
Colorism: Prejudice or discrimination due to one’s skin color, where an individual with lighter skin is treated more favorably than another individual with darker skin. Colorism can also be viewed as privilege conferred on an individual for having lighter skin. Colorism and classism also often go hand in hand: across Asia, having darker skin color is often viewed as “undesirable” given its associations with the skin color of a laborer.
Critical Race Theory (CRT): Critical race theory is a framework developed in the 1970s and 1980s to understand and combat systemic racism in a post civil-rights era. CRT “argues, as a starting point, that the axis of American social life is fundamentally constructed in race,” but “this idea has been purposefully ignored, subdued, and marginalized in both the dominant and public discourse.” (Encyclopedia of Diversity and Social Justice) CRT questions the ability of societal structures, such as law and law enforcement, to counteract white supremacy when perpetuating false notions of colorblindness and post-racialism, among others.
CRT’s principles are rooted in lived experiences and social movements, and have grown across disciplines. Founding CRT scholars — including Kimberlé Crenshaw — were mostly Black, but quickly expanded to incorporate other marginalized communities and involve other racial conversations. Mari Matsuda was among this first wave of scholars, and asked as early as 1990 if Asian-Americans were becoming the “racial bourgeoisie.”
Dominant Group: The group of people in society who have the most access to power, privilege, and social status and face the least amount of discrimination and potential to be harmed by others. Societal, legal, and institutional systems in place are built by and for the dominant group to expressly keep them in power at the expense of marginalized groups. The dominant group in the United States is white people, and more specifically wealthy, cisgender, heterosexual, affluent, white men.
Elitism: Preference for individuals attributed to belonging to the elite class, a select group of people that can be based on both intrinsic (e.g., conformity to current beauty standards, “measurable” intelligence) or extrinsic qualities (e.g., expertise in special skills, wealth).
Intersectionality: A theoretical framework by Professor Kimberlé Crenshaw that posits multiple social categories (e.g., race, ethnicity, gender, sexual orientation, socioeconomic status) intersect at the micro level (individual experience) to reflect interlocking systems of privilege and/or oppression at the macro (social-structural) level, such as a combination of racism, sexism, and heterosexism.
Marginalized Identities: People who have, and continue to, suffer from inequities in our society, including: women, Black people, indigenous people, non-Black people of color, poor people, people with disabilities and chronic illnesses, and LGBTQIA+ people.
Marginalization: The prevention or limitation of full participation in society. This can be observed through overt exclusions from opportunities in the job market, healthcare system, public benefit programs, and community activities, as well as through covert pressures to hide aspects of one’s authentic self due to fears of ostracization.
Model Minority Myth: A harmful narrative based on stereotypes of Asian Americans as a highly successful, upwardly mobile group that have outperformed other racial minorities. In the model minority myth, the success of Asian Americans is usually attributed to an innate ability and/or strong cultural norms and is used to suggest Asian Americans no longer face discrimination and do not need additional governmental or societal support.
Mutual Aid: Mutual aid has long been a practice of marginalized populations and is built on the principles of self-organization, egalitarianism, direct action, and the desire for social transformation. From Civil Eats, “Mutual aid has historically described grassroots efforts that link real needs among the people (such as the need for food) with an inherently politicized approach to getting that need met over the long term. And, typically, mutual aid efforts operate from the assumption that only the fundamental transformation of society can truly meet those needs, and aid is mobilized in service of that larger goal”.
Oppression: Privilege, power, and dominance by certain groups at the expense of others. Some common forms of oppression are white supremacy, capitalism, heteropatriarchy, and ableism.
Paternalism / Paternal Charity: Acts of charity that are paternalistic in nature. That is, “relating to or characterized by the restriction of the freedom and responsibilities of subordinates or dependents in their supposed interest.” (Oxford Dictionary)
This is a form of saviorism, where the dominant group believes they are entitled to make decisions on behalf of those receiving the charity. The most common example is the buy-one-give-one model popularized by TOMS. Another example is the placement of free community fridges in low-income neighborhoods. While often widely praised in the (white dominant) media as an effective and “feel good” means of helping others, paternalistic charity often lacks direct communication and accountability to the very community it aspires to support.
Performative Allyship: A lack of ongoing action or accountability in allyship. As a form of performative allyship, individuals and brands can “stand in solidarity” with others without actually taking action or any meaningful steps to dismantle systems of oppression.
Privilege: An advantage, special right, or immunity granted to an individual based on certain factors such as race or gender. (However, privileges may not always be applicable to every individual within the group.) For example, white teenagers are able to move through public spaces without worrying obsessively about safety while Black teenagers cannot. Even the liking of healthy, but slightly bitter, vegetables like broccoli is rooted in privilege.
Racism: The belief that the race and/or ethnicity of an individual determines distinct behavioral traits or characteristics and an inherent superiority in certain individuals over others. Racism, in conjunction of institutional power, is used to create and justify forms of systemic discrimination and oppression.
Internalized racism is the conscious (or subconscious) acceptance of the dominant group’s racist stereotypes and negative biases of one’s own race.
Racial Capitalism: A system that derives social and economic value from racial identity, often in the form of exploitation. Racial capitalism was first explored by Cedric Robinson in his seminal text Black Marxism: The Making of the Black Radical Tradition (1983), which critiqued Marxism for failing to consider the racial nature of capitalist (and colonialist) projects.
Saviorism: Saviorism, in particular, white saviorism refers to the idea in which “a white person, or white culture, rescues people of color from their own situation or themselves.” Because the savior’s actions are seen as benevolent, they are not challenged or seen as a threat to the person or culture that is being “saved.” For example, Western white women calling for the “freeing” of Muslim women from wearing a hijab without consulting Muslim women if that is something they actually want.
Saviorism tends to be practiced by the dominant group in society, namely white men. However, marginalized individuals can also exhibit the white savior complex by, for example, more easily accepting expertise if it comes from a white male source versus a non-white, non-male expert. This is simply the result of internalized white male supremacy.
Saviors are products of our system of values, and exist in all facets of society. For example, voluntourism. Consider this article from No White Savior’s Resource list, Why Are White People Expats When The Rest of Us Are Immigrants.
Scarcity Mentality: Scarcity mentality is the idea that everyone exists along a spectrum of competition instead of collaboration. This mindset assumes there is a finite amount of resources and assets (tangible or intangible), and every resource obtained by one person or group is at the expense of another. Therefore, resources should only be reserved for those in our closest circle(s).
Solidarity: An awareness, understanding, and unity as a result of shared identities, interests, or shifting opportunity structures. (Tormos, 2017) Solidarity can be expressed within a group (in-group solidarity) or to another group (out-group solidarity), where membership to a group is formed on axes such as race, gender, religion, sexual orientation, and profession.
In an intersectional approach to solidarity, there is an ongoing process of creating ties and coalitions across social group differences by negotiating power asymmetries. Solidarity requires one to recognize and represent all intersectionally marginalized social groups formed by multiple interactions and linkages between different social structures and lived experiences.
Tokenization: From Wikipedia: “The practice of making only a perfunctory or symbolic effort to do a particular thing, especially by recruiting a small number of people (tokens) from underrepresented groups in order to give the appearance of sexual or racial equality.”
Tokenism gives those in power the appearance of being non-racist and even champions of diversity because they recruit and use BIPOC as racialized props, while in actuality maintaining power structures that they benefit from.
Transformative Justice (TJ): From Transform Harm: “A political framework and approach for responding to violence, harm and abuse. At its most basic, it seeks to respond to violence without creating more violence and/or engaging in harm reduction to lessen the violence. TJ can be thought of as a way of ‘making things right,’ getting in ‘right relation,’ or creating justice together.”
Transformative justice responses and interventions are based on the principles of not relying on state/governmental enforcement (e.g., police), not reinforcing or perpetuating violence (e.g., criminalizing offenders), and actively cultivating practices that prevent violence (e.g., social safety nets that prevent the major causes of crime, such as poverty and abuse).
Asian American Police Violence
Peter Liang: In 2014, Peter Liang, a relatively new Chinese American graduate of the New York City Police Academy, fired his gun and killed Akai Gurley. Liang was initially charged with manslaughter (the first NYPD officer convicted of an on-duty shooting in over a decade) before it was reduced to criminally negligent homicide. Supporters of Liang claimed he was a scapegoat who did not receive equal support from the police and officers’ union compared to white officers. While this may be true, it also obscures the larger issue of police brutality against Black Americans by turning two marginalized groups against one another.
Tou Thao: In 2020, Tou Thao, a Hmong American officer with a history of use-of-force incidents, stood watching while a white officer knelt on George Floyd’s neck and killed him. While Thao was charged with aiding-and-abetting second-degree manslaughter, his passive involvement at the time of the crime symbolized to many the troubling willingness of Asian Americans to ignore harm happening to Black Americans in favor of upholding their place within a white-dominant society.
Asian American Solidarity Movements
Oxnard Strike of 1903: In 1903, Mexican and Japanese farmworkers banded together to create the first multiracial labor union, the Japanese-Mexican Labor Association. They successfully fought back against the actions of the American Beet Sugar Company and Western Agricultural Contracting Company for the lowering of wages and other grievances. This strike is notable for being the first time different racial groups allied together to create a labor union, especially as racial groups had historically been pitted against each other by those in power.
Delano Grape Strike of the 1960s: Filipino-led labor group Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee started this strike in 1965 to demand better working conditions and pay. Knowing that Mexican laborers would be brought in against them, they allied with the Mexican labor group headed by Cesar Chavez, eventually merging to form the nation’s first farm worker union. The international boycott of grapes, peaceful marches, and protests over 5 years proved successful and changed the course of the farm labor movement.
Third World Liberation Front Strike of 1968 - 1969: One of the longest student strikes in U.S. history, this strike began at SF State University with the formation of the Third World Liberation Front (TWLF), a coalition that included the Black, Asian, and Latin student organizations fighting for education reform. UC Berkeley students then formed their own TWLF in response to deliberations over the creation of a Black Studies department. The strike ended in 1969 with the agreement that the administration at both universities would establish an ethnic studies department as an interdisciplinary field, eventually leading to the creation of ethnic studies departments across the nation.
Asian American Civil Rights Movement (1960s - 1980s): The 1960’s was a turning point for Asian Americans in acknowledging their multi-ethnic roots as Americans and taking action to fight for equality. During this time, the Yellow Power movement was born. It is notable for being one of the first times different Asian groups banded together under one pan-ethnic identity, “seeking freedom from racial oppression through the power of a consolidated yellow people”.
Asian American radicals were inspired by the rhetoric, symbolism, and actions of the Black Power movement, in particular the Black Panthers. They formed different coalitions and fought for various causes including campus reform (see above), an end to the Vietnam war, reparations for the Japanese internment, and justice for Vincent Chin by applying the framework and learnings of the Black Power movement.
South Sacramento's Afro-Asian Solidarity - 2018: Following the police killings of Stephon Clark (a Black man with a South Asian fiancee with whom they shared two young children) and Darell Richards (a 19 year old mixed race Black-Hmong youth) a year of Afro-Asian protests against state-sanctioned violence took hold across South Sacramento.