For a long time, I suffered from a chronic condition called “political apathy.” I was self-diagnosed when I came to Yale, realizing just how little I knew about the broader world and how much I needed to know to make a lasting impact on it. I blamed myself: In high school, I fumbled my way through AP Government for that 5 on the exam, only promptly to forget most of what I had learned. “What’s a caucus?” I asked during the 2016 presidential election debate. I had always been too busy to watch presidential debates, too afraid of controversy to participate in political conversations and too ignorant to really have any opinion. Even now, after marching in two rallies and watching their impacts ripple through the nation, after attending political talks that are uncomfortable at first but intellectually rewarding in the end, I can’t help but relapse when p-sets and midterms pile on. Time and again, political activism slips to the bottom of my to-do list.
I am certainly not alone. As a second-generation Asian-American, I was raised to uphold the ideals of self-sufficiency and ceaseless work ethic rather than political engagement. Both of my parents immigrated in the 1980s, attended graduate school, found jobs and started a family all on their own, a narrative common in Naperville, Illinois, a town that is 16.2 percent Asian. We climbed the socio-economic ladder with no extra help from the government. Why did we need to care about it?
I was apathetic in part because of this culture and in part because of misconceptions I had of the Asian-American community at large. I thought that my experience — a comfortable life and upward social trajectory — was representative of the general Asian-American experience. I had no idea that, though Asian-Americans have the highest median household income at $81,431 as of 2016, this basic statistic fails to account for the wide gap between subgroups within the deceptively monolithic category of “Asian-American.” Take, for example, the state of Arizona, where Thai-Americans have the lowest per-capita income at $18,774, or even the country as a whole, where, according to Eunsook Lee, director of the Asian American Pacific Islander Civic Engagement Fund, “The highest rate of uninsured in this country is among Korean-Americans. High school dropout rates are led by Southeast Asians, including the Hmong and the Vietnamese.” These are the things I never saw in my affluent hometown. Furthermore, these are the issues that are rarely addressed by politicians, media outlets or educators because of the “model minority” myth that assumes all Asian-Americans are high-achieving and successful.
In a recent Facebook campaign led by Duke University’s Asian-American studies work group, Duke undergraduates posed with signs that read, “Duke doesn’t teach me,” followed by aspects of the Asian-American experience that Duke fails to represent in the classroom with its lack of an Asian-American studies program. My twin sister, a first year there, told me about all the things she learned from that campaign, from “the highest rates of undiagnosed depression occur in Asian-American youth” to “the impact of US imperialism in South Korean–American communities.” One undergraduate wrote that “Asian-American history IS American history and American history IS Asian-American history.” These are truths absent from the current social dialogue, not just at Duke, but nationally. It is no wonder that so many Asian-Americans are politically invisible — our historic voices and struggles are largely invisible too, even to ourselves.
To be sure, there is much to be said about how migration from Communist China or from the socialist republic of Vietnam, countries where political activism is not only discouraged but punished, contributes to the political apathy of immigrant families in the United States. And the homogeneity of various Asian countries could contribute to the lack of unity within Asian communities and lack of empathy for other Americans struggling through social issues. We need to examine the ways in which our own backgrounds and cultures perpetrate apathy before we can point fingers elsewhere. But the current lack of attention on Asian-American history and struggles must certainly also be addressed. If we know of no cause to stand behind and hear no voices to stand with, we have little motivation to participate in a process that is largely counterintuitive to some of our cultures. Our moral calling to stand in solidarity with all Americans, with or without the prefix “Asian,” wavers in the face of our isolated narrative. But when we don’t participate, we are choosing to silence our voices. To be ignored and complacent. To give up our power to do good. Is that what we want?
Lillian Yuan is a first year in Pierson College. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.