Jung Kim and Betina Hsieh
The Racialized Experiences of Asian American Teachers in the US: Applications of Asian Critical Race Theory to Resist Marginalization
Taylor & Francis, 2021
Reviewed by Patrick Sui
Scholarly work in theory should aim to have a pedagogical impact—we all strive to live up to this ideal, and Jung Kim and Betina Hsieh could certainly say that they succeeded. Identifying Asian American perspectives in K-12 education as an under-researched area, The Racialized Experiences of Asian American Teachers in the US: Applications of Critical Race Theory to Resist Marginalization attempts to fill this gap with seven praxis-oriented chapters, each detailing a pertinent and unique question for Asian-specific critical race theory (AsianCrit). Drawing extensively from the first-hand experiences of Asian American teachers, the book presents an original methodology that treats the classroom as a site for accidental primary texts to make up for the absence of Asian voices in education. It is a much-needed contribution to both the growing body of work on anti-essentialist intersectionality and the strategy pool for effective multiculturalist pedagogy.
Kim and Hsieh open the main body of their book by defining ‘Asianization’ as “the tenuous racial positioning of Asian Americans”: “from one moment to the next, Asian Americans can go from being viewed as model citizens to being portrayed as a threat to American jobs and democracy and back again when being courted for political gain and positioned against newer Asian immigrants.” It is the entangled duality between the model minority myth (MMM) and being ‘honorary white’ on the one hand, and the unassimilable ‘perpetual foreigner’ on the other, alongside its various tropes like the yellow peril, stealing jobs narratives, and most recently, 9/11 and Islamophobia. When one side of the discourse is activated, the other stands in reserve. Meanwhile, both result in the internalization of submissiveness and workplace exploitation, especially for those working in education. The interplay between the two exhibits an observer effect for external perspectives: the hypervisibility of Asian American otherness also often constitutes a form of identity erasure, which in turn makes the racial oppression they experience invisible.
Kim and Hsieh identify “external essentialization,” a concept adapted from Aihwa Ong’s ‘ideological blackening’ that describes the exclusion of Southeast Asians from Asian American racial discourse, as the root cause of the two contradictory sides of Asianization. It lies in a conflict between the universalizing MMM narrative that lumps Asians as a cultural and socio-economic monolith, and the particularities (often highly divergent ones) of each ethnic heritage. Building on Yen Le Espiritu’s work on pan-ethnic Asian identity and Brian Ngo’s notion of ‘double movement,’ Kim and Hsieh devote a whole chapter titled “Strategic (Anti)Essentialism” to detail how Asian American teachers “take up some of these discourses of pan-ethnic identity in certain contexts and reject them in others.” To further examine the nuances of this Asian-specific form of racialization, the chapter teases out the distinction between strategic essentialism, a reluctant acceptance of Asian universality as a pragmatic move against racism, and strategic anti-essentialism, a resistance against broad categorizations through conscious choices to negate certain contrived and generic commonalities.
One historical instance that Kim and Hsieh highlight as an example for strategic anti-essentialism is the choice of some Chinese and Korean Americans to distinguish themselves as being not Japanese during World War II, in order to escape the virulent anti-Japanese sentiment at the time.
Unfortunately, I must take issue with their characterization of strategic anti-essentialism as “a form of survival” by “strategically resist[ing] the pan-ethnic identity when essentialism hurts members of the community.” There is little difference between this practice and South Asians using “I’m Indian” to avoid Islamophobia or wearing a “I’m not Chinese, I’m Taiwanese” T-shirt for safety during the height of post-COVID anti-Asian hate crimes. Notably, both are almost unanimously condemned by the Facebook group “Subtle Asian Traits,” which Kim and Hsieh cite as a paragon for strategic essentialism, as divisive and problematic. While Kim and Hsieh acknowledge that such acts of distancing “do not reflect the strategic identity and coalition-building addressed in AsianCrit,” their remarks earlier on in the chapter could still come off as an endorsement or at the very least acquiescence of these practices as a strategic means of survival.
On a more fundamental level, Kim and Hsieh’s reluctance to condemn Chinese and Korean Americans’ distancing from Japanese Americans rests on an equally essentialist assumption that racial oppression is a monolith. It overlooks the fact that anti-Asian racism does not only come from non-Asians. Comparable, if not more vicious forms of discrimination often exist between different Asian ethnic groups. In this case, Kim and Hsieh are not sufficiently cognizant of the anti-Japanese nationalism that is still prevalent in Chinese and Korean American communities today, which happens to be one of those ‘difficult questions’ that Asian scholars of critical race theory tend to shy away from. Such sentiments are especially divisive, since they often conceal themselves in the universalizing tendencies predominant in racial discourse; to take a genuine stand against essentialism requires one to consciously resist such tendencies.
The book could also improve on its clarity regarding the concerned demographics. From one chapter to another, the focus seems to oscillate between Asian American teachers to the experience of Asian Americans in general. In most chapters, the connection between the two remains unspecified, as the book seems to work under the undeclared hermeneutic hypothesis that the teachers are a fitting synecdoche for the entire Asian American community, one that sufficiently represents the conditions of its racial group as a whole. In other words, the book operates from a set of unsubstantiated part-whole relations that takes the experiences of a highly particular socio-economic substratum to be generalizable, without even considering its specific class positionality. Who are Asian American teachers, and what social factors allowed them to pursue this profession? How are they positioned in Asian American communities? What kind of pressure does the in-group put on them, and how does that in turn shape their narratives? Overlooking these crucial questions could again run the risk of making the very same essentialist mistakes that the authors go to such great lengths to critique.
Nonetheless, these areas requiring closer attention do not take away the value of Kim and Hsieh’s efforts to fill the gap of researching Asian American experiences in K-12 education, and their original treatment of teacher narratives as primary texts. The two issues I raised concerning the many hidden pitfalls of essentialism do not challenge the book’s structural integrity. Instead, they are local, isolated issues that could be resolved by filling the respective gaps they present, a task that invites future scholarship in Asian American studies.