Five Books to Educate Yourself on Anti-Asian Racism in America
As an Asian American teenage girl, I never saw myself in movies as the main character and rarely read books where Asian Americans were even mentioned. Asian American activist books? Even less.
I have always wanted to be better informed as a social activist, especially about issues facing Asian Americans. Asian American history is rarely taught in American K-12 classrooms. If it is, it mostly glosses over only the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and internment of Japanese Americans.
I also want to learn more to be a better ally. There is so much intersectionality in social activism, and as a woman of color, I know there is more I need to know before participating in conversations with other people of color.
There is no better time than now to get informed and to support Asian authors. With the amplified violence and hate towards Asian Americans, I decided to read more to stay informed. I read several new books and have picked out my top five recommendations that I think you should read this month.
1. Minor Feelings: An Asian American Reckoning by Cathy Park Hong
I have waited a long time for a book like this. Minor Feelings (2020) is brutally honest about the self-hatred some Asian Americans experience and brings validation to what we are told are “minor feelings” from this tension between the American dream and the reality Asian Americans face.
Hong, a Korean American poet and writer, truly explores the Asian American consciousness both through her essay collection and her recent New York Times article about the racism against Asians the coronavirus pandemic has unmasked. In my view, Hong discusses some hard truths about how self-hatred makes us Asians hard on ourselves. She highlights how damaging the model minority stereotype is. And how damaging it has been for other races to tell us we have nothing to be pissed about.
Hong also writes about some of her very important experiences that reminded me of ones I have personally experienced or heard from my Asian American friends (also so many that were different from my experience). Like her, I will never forget each,“that’s never happened to me before” after particularly scarring incidents. And as she notices Asian American writers stripping race from their work, I, too, have noticed that I have purposefully shied away from writing about it. I, too, did not want to be branded an “identitarian,” but what is the shame in that?
Asian Americans inhabit a purgatorial status: neither white enough nor black enough, unmentioned in most conversations about racial identity. In the popular imagination, Asian Americans are all high-achieving professionals. But in reality, this is the most economically divided group in the country… How do we speak honestly about the Asian American condition — if such a thing exists?
The facts and stories are so real and infuriating, it fires up the activist within you.
2. We Gon’ Be Alright: Notes on Race and Resegregation by Jeff Chang
This book was published in 2016, but when I read it last year, it felt more relevant than ever. Journalist and writer Jeff Chang details recent tragedies and protests with more depth than I ever saw on the news or read about. He is not afraid to take on difficult topics, such as, “Is diversity for white people? (#OscarSoWhite),” the resegregation of American cities, and student protests on college campuses. He also highlights the connection among them.
We Gon’ Be Alright is not centered on the Asian American experience. It is about what America collectively faces in race and resegregation. Chang calls out Asian Americans to get more involved in issues affecting other communities of color. In his chapter, “The In-Betweens: On Asian Americanness,” he switches to the second person, using “You.” It feels at once deeply relatable and deeply attacking. It is my favorite chapter, speaking to my soul and why I have struggled as an Asian American activist.
Chang also fills his book with hard facts that make you more aware. Facts like “Twenty years later, Whites were still three times as likely to be admitted to selective universities as Asians with a similar academic record.” Facts like, “Neighborhoods where mostly people of color lived were more than twice as likely to have received subprime loans as mostly White neighborhoods. Blacks and Latinos were 70% more likely than Whites to lose their homes to foreclosure.” The facts and stories Chang writes about are so real and infuriating, it fires up the activist within you.
The burden of representation — the idea that one has to always attend to the gap between how one appears to others and how one perceives oneself — had always been real.
3. Hood Feminism: Notes from the Women That a Movement Forgot by Mikki Kendall
As the sticker on the book says, every woman should read it. I would extend this to every person. Hood Feminism (2020) is another book not at all about Asian Americans but instead illuminates for social activists a major issue all women of color face — a lack of true inclusivity in feminism. And what I love most about it is that Kendall does not hold back one bit.
Kendall is incisive in calling out mainstream feminism and White feminists. She demands solidarity while making sure readers know about all the issues feminism is intersected with. This includes gun violence, poverty, and hunger, among others. These were things I had not thought about as much before, but I learned how tied together everything was. Kendall also brings in her own experiences and facts. She addresses how feminism is often focused on issues that only concern a few and how women have to accept some inconvenient truths. One is that some women are oppressing others, and power dynamics exist. For example, White women can oppress women of color and cis women can oppress trans women.
Equally importantly, she offers advice on how we can do better. This book made me realize how much I did not know and how much I needed to step outside my own world and areas of focus to fully participate in inclusive feminism.
In fact, even the most ‘positive’ tropes about women of color are harmful precisely because they dehumanize us and erase the damage that can be done to us by those who might mean well, but whose actions show that they don’t actually respect us or our right to self-determine what happens on our behalf.
“How we physically present in the world makes our experiences in it so different.” — Ta-Nehisi Coates
4. The Making of Asian America: A History by Erika Lee
Published in 2016 but still relevant. Award-winning historian Erika Lee knows what she is talking about, and it becomes evident throughout the book as she describes the little-known history of Asian Americans, including the first Asians in the Americas. She draws from multiple historians, including herself, and she highlights the global journeys and histories of Asian individuals, families, and communities. For me, finding this book emphasized how much we are lacking in books about the history of Asian Americans.
File everything in this book under things I wished I learned in school.
There are many golden nuggets. Asian Americans are sometimes labeled “good Asians” or “bad Asians,” depending on how the political environment feels about us. The book does not focus too much on present day Asian Americanness, which could be seen as a shortcoming. Of what she does say in her final section, “Twenty-First Century Asian Americans,” I still found thought-provoking.
Key fact I learned (given it’s a history book): “Following the 1965 Immigration and Nationality Act, new waves of immigration resulted in the racial restructuring of U.S. society, allowing a new generation of Asian American activists who took inspiration from the freedom struggles of the 1960s to vigorously campaign for their civil rights.”
5. Between the World and Me by Ta-Nehisi Coates
Between the World and Me (2015) is simply one of the best books of all time, so incredibly powerful and beautifully written that it will incite nothing short of an inner fire against racial injustice. I read this book back in high school in 2016, and I still remember how it made me feel. And no, it does not once mention Asian Americans but does embody the larger struggle of racial injustice so powerfully that it is essential for any social activist to read, particularly one of color. These are issues we all have to care about.
The book is a letter that Coates writes to his teen son. Coates captures the pain and the wounds of White supremacy, writing to help his son make sense of blatant racial injustice. I agree with what some have said about it — it is “necessary wisdom.” Coates writes often of the “black body.” This is something social activists have to all be aware of: How we physically present in the world makes our experiences in it so different.
You are growing into consciousness, and my wish for you is that you feel no need to constrict yourself to make other people comfortable. None of that can change the math anyway… The people who must believe they are white can never be your measuring stick. I would not have you descend into your own dream. I would have you be a conscious citizen of this terrible and beautiful world.
Happy reading and learning.