I was eight when my parents first became citizens of the United States. I remember watching my mom rummage through her closet, tossing handfuls of shirts over her shoulders as she curated an outfit to take her Oath of Allegiance in. I remember running my go-gurt covered fingers over the shiny leather cover of my dad’s new American passport, marveling at the multicolored seal overlaid on his photo. For my family, citizenship in the US amounted to new passports, different tax forms, but also the promise of home in this foreign country. Yet for some reason, it never once amounted to voting.
My parents were intelligent and loving throughout my childhood, but despite the extreme lengths they took to ensure that my brother and I grew up under better circumstances than they did, they never once participated in the democratic process. Last week on the phone, I mentioned to my mom that I had been doing a lot of research trying to figure out who I wanted to vote for in the primaries. Her reply was basically: “Why waste time on that?”
According to the US Census, Asian-Americans are the fastest growing racial group in America. Our community has doubled in size over the past 12 years and it’s projected to double again by 2040. Despite this, Asian-Americans have some of the lowest rates of political participation in the country, and political representation on a federal level is miniscule compared to the size of our community here. For the most part, Asian-Americans don’t exist in politics. We’re rarely discussed in presidential debates, Mazie Hirono is the only Asian-American in the Senate, and we’re not often mentioned in just the everday conversations surrounding politics.
Many of the issues that concern Asian-Americans — such as language barriers, immigrant protection, access to education — are issues that concern a vast number of Americans, regardless of their hyphenated racial identity. And these concerns aren’t invisible, either, they’re constantly in the news. However, politicians have an overwhelming tendency to focus on the cases and policies as if they only affect other groups of hyphenated Americans. The unique narratives of Asian-Americans are usually homogenized in the political sphere, or just ignored altogether. When politicians attempt to appeal more widely to non-white Americans — such as Sanders’ campaign page on Racial Justice or Clinton’s article “7 Things Hillary Clinton has in Common with your Abuela” — Asian-Americans are either not mentioned at all, or half-heartedly footnoted at the end of these speeches and articles focused on other communities.
It’s also important to note that different problems persist in different Asian-American communities. Chinese-Americans face widely different issues from Hmong-Americans. Cambodian-Americans have completely distinct political needs from Indian-Americans. My use of the term “Asian-American” isn’t meant to homogenize these groups, but to collectively encompass the vast myriad of groups that politicians don’t acknowledge.
While I understand that politicians need to prioritize problems in an order that respects the urgency and timeliness of each issue, Asian-American issues don’t even make the list. We are invisible, as Americans, as non-white Americans, and even as members of the individual groups that compose the Asian-American community.
Despite my disappointment with the lack of discussion of Asian-American needs in the presidential elections so far, I also know it’s a problem rooted far more deeply than just a few forgetful individuals. The reasons why we’re left out of political discussions and absent as politicians ourselves, are intertwined.
Many stereotypes that erase the internal diversity of Asian-American experiences are both symptoms and causes of political invisibility. These stereotypes have created a vicious cycle that perpetuates on conjecture and assumption. For example, there’s a common foreigner myth that claims Asian-Americans, no matter how disconnected they are from Asian culture, will always be considered “others” in America. The operating word for their identity will always be “Asian,” never “American.” This idea that Asian-Americans are eternal outsiders in the United States, no matter what we do, encourages political apathy within our communities. We don’t feel connected to our government because it doesn’t feel like our government.
In turn, the absence of Asian-American politicians allows this idea of “perpetual foreigners” to continue festering. The same cyclical problem persisted in the Yellow Peril myth, and the Model Minority myth, among many others. It’s a two-pronged problem. Politicians don’t acknowledge the needs and wants of Asian-Americans, and Asian-Americans, in general, don’t partake or invest in politics.
And even in the rare case when an Asian American becomes an elected public official, their political efforts are often overshadowed by discrimination and shallow racism. Just last May, when GOP California Assembly Member Ling Ling Chang took the Assembly floor to introduce a bill she had co-authored, Assembly Member Eric Linder — a man who was voted into office because people believed he would help govern the state responsibly — mocked Chang’s non-Caucasian name. He actually asked, “Ling-Ling, did you forget your bling-bling?” Ling Ling Chang was able to climb over significant barriers to get to public office, and she still has to put up with being addressed in a manner reminiscent of 5th grade bullying.
I don’t want to write this article as if I’m not a part of the problem. I am. Before I went to college, politics were a non-entity in my life. I knew little about current events and decisions being made in America. And between juggling schoolwork, socializing, speech and debate, student government (yes, I completely recognize the irony of this) and my general adolescent angst, I honestly didn’t care about any of it. It’s been a painful and slow-moving process. I’ve had to lug myself out of years of political apathy into a role that is aware and educated about my place in this country’s government.
And things have at least been slowly moving in the right direction. Percentages of civic engagement are on the rise in all Asian-American populations, and over the past eight years of his presidency, President Obama has tripled the number of APA federal judges. But the underrepresentation of Asian-Americans in politics has been bothering both Asian and non-Asian communities for years. It’s going to take more than just a few powerful individuals to reverse the damage.
The government lists the ability to vote as a right for all US citizens, but it lists participation in the democratic process as a responsibility. Responsibility can take a number of forms, whether it involves educating yourself on the 2016 presidential candidates, supporting Asian-Americans running for office, or even spending 20 minutes on the phone walking your mom through the absentee ballot process. Whatever you choose, remember that the responsibility to make Asian-American issues heard isn’t entirely on politicians, it’s on us too.