I am 24-years-old. I’m an American citizen. And this November, I will be voting in a government election for the very first time. If you do the math, you’ll know that I’ve been eligible to vote in one prior presidential election and a number of other local elections for 6 years. The fact that I’ve never voted comes as a surprise to many of my friends and family because for the better half of this year, my social media has been 90% politics.
In the context of the Asian American community, I am part of the low voter turnout statistics that has been documented for our racial demographic. In 2014, the Pew Research Center found that Asian Americans lagged in voter turnout at 31% in the 2010 midterm and 2012 presidential elections compared to Blacks at 44% and whites at 49%. Studies have found that voter engagement is typically increased with higher levels of education and income however Asian American voters have historically defied this trend.
Even as an American-born citizen, throughout my entire upbringing, I felt strongly disconnected to this particular American experience. I’ve always thought voter apathy was a personal issue but I wondered if the statistics spoke to a broader APIA narrative. Over the past year, I’ve taken myself to task in addressing my apoliticism. Is it really a personal issue or something much larger? How does my story tie into my multifaceted political identity as an Asian American? And how do we as individuals, the community, and society at large work towards a more engaged electorate?
Until I was the age of 18, Fox News was a staple news source in my humble immigrant home. Every night my family would gather in front of our television, dinner in hand, as we learned how to assimilate to the world around us. Without understanding media bias, Fox News was the scope of our awareness of America. As the eldest, I was tasked with the job of interpreting the news. Consuming, processing, interpreting these stories as a child, I was unable to draw a line between interpretation and internalization.
Years of anti-blackness, anti-LGBT, anti-immigration was broadcasted into our living room. I interpreted words, ideas, and sentiments as I perceived them and these were echoed by my family the moment they came out of my mouth in Vietnamese. I internalized this.
In high school, during the presidential primaries of 2008, a family member said he could never vote for a woman to lead the US “because women are weak” and “unfit to lead this nation.” Nevermind that his wife is the breadwinner or that he has a daughter—the toxic patriarchy of our community poisons beyond reason. I internalized this.
When my peers shared political commentary from their parents during lunch, I didn’t participate. Political dialogue didn’t happen in my household. What is liberal? What is conservative? What is partisan? What is trickle-down? What is good and what is bad? I read the definitions, but I simply didn’t have the context to process these concepts. In a country that places so much emphasis on civic duty as patriotism, I was ashamed of the limited level of awareness. The irony of growing up in the suburbs of DC only solidified my sense of shame.
I started undergrad at Georgetown of all places, world-renown for its School of Foreign Service. Oftentimes I’d find myself observing conversations where students dropped names of world leaders or international policy like it was celebrity gossip; casual conversation fodder. Already feeling alienated as a first-generation student of color at this PWI, the lack of political acumen made me even more conscience of my place on campus. During a game of Cards Against Humanity, someone played Dick Cheney and everyone laughed. I played along but only so they wouldn’t catch on that I didn’t know who he was.
The summer after my freshman year I met some Vietnamese American women who were highly engaged in political advocacy for Vietnam. The more I learned about the injustices facing Vietnamese citizens and migrants, the more I became passionate about the fight for human rights. They invited me to a week-long conference in the Philippines for which I applied and received a scholarship.
The first time my family and I talked about politics was when my parents forbade me from going. When I pressed them why, they said Vietnam is not my problem. If I were to get involved government spies would come and take everything away from us, kill me and destroy the family. Politics were pointless, they said. I would never make any change. My mom told me that if I went through with it, it would be an insult to everything she came to the U.S. for. I finally understood the fear and trauma she held from a lifetime of seeing citizens tortured and brutalized for any act perceived to be civil disobedience. This was the last thing she wanted for her children. So I gave up my scholarship and stayed behind.
With these messages from the community reinforced in me, when the 2012 election came, I hadn’t concluded my own political views. I was distinctly uncomfortable with the perspectives I had been exposed to in my life, but the fact was, that was all I knew. I approached politics with dangerous tunnel vision and my ultimate resolve was that it was better to do nothing than to do harm. I relied on the tired excuse of voting doesn’t make a difference anyway to deflect my own sense of shame. When my classmates ran down to the White House the night Obama was reelected, I couldn’t bring myself to go. This was, in no part, my victory to celebrate. This was my dirty secret.
Social justice was a crucial gateway for me to becoming politically aware. As a linguistics major, I learned how biases are communicated through language cues. I remember watching Fox News during which the anchors would say things like “the gays” or “the lesbians”, how otherization fueled homophobia in my life. I got involved in minority student groups and slowly began to break down problematic stereotypes and all the subtle ways that society perpetuates them. I engaged with feminists to undo beliefs rooted in toxic patriarchy and misogyny. I eventually started a relationship with a partner who was highly politically engaged and I was finally comfortable enough to ask questions I thought were too ignorant or embarrassing. I started reading everything. I saturated my newsfeeds with political commentary so I could form educated opinions. I watched House of Cards. Through this process of socialization, I recognized that social change cannot happen outside the system without also happening within.
On January 4, 2016, Michelle Wu was elected as president of the Boston City Council in a landmark vote. In an article on her historical election, Wu, a Taiwanese American, spoke towards the barriers Asian Americans face to becoming politically engaged. She talked about how many Asian immigrants come from countries in which political engagement was synonymous with treason and how that trauma carries with them to America. For a first-generation American like myself, her message resounded with my own experiences in a powerful way. I’ve found that oftentimes for myself and others in our community, we face a number of difficulties in bridging this cultural divide but many of us default to grappling with it in silence. I was afraid of asking these questions and exposing my own vulnerabilities because I thought people would question my competence. I eventually became highly politically engaged but first, I needed to admit that there was a lot I didn’t know. Once I finally had this larger context to anchor my own experience, I knew that this was bigger than just my own story. But just like there isn’t a single narrative, there isn’t a single solution.
Beyond the cold statistics, there’s an underlying story here that isn’t told when these raw numbers are taken at face value. Without understanding the story, the American public continues to reinforce and perpetuate myths such as Asian Americans don’t care because we’re too well off, we’re your quiet minority, or we have our other “homelands” to return to—Fox News even taking it so far as to portray Asians in America as completely politically ignorant—to the point where these tired generalizations are used to divide minorities in problematic ways. A simple look at this Twitter conversation started by comedian Lil Duval will show you all that in a nutshell.
The problem extends further when, without understanding the context behind Asian American low voter-turnout, politicians render our votes inconsequential and don’t seek to reach out to our communities at all.
The explanation that Asian Americans are apolitical because it doesn’t impact us, we’re “too busy” with our academic or professional endeavors, or just simply because we’re docile is not even a fraction of the story; these are merely convenient excuses. In 2014, 28% of the Hmong community live below the poverty line, 46% of Cambodian and Laotian Americans have only a high school education or less, and Asian American activism has actually been around for decades. Politics impacts us.
This past August, I attended the first ever Asian American presidential forum hosted by APIAVote, the largest political convergence of AAPI leaders in history. Front and center in that auditorium of 5,000 strong, I saw all Asian Americans represented. From immigrant to second and third generation Asian Americans, East to Southeast and South Asians, we came together to finally hear the future U.S. presidential party address the issues that matter to us. I had mental notes of just a few questions I hoped would be asked.
- How do you or your candidate prepare to address the needs of disaggregated data for our community
- If you were given the opportunity to nominate the next Supreme Court justice, who would be your decision and why?
- How do you propose we make our public systems more accessible to immigrants and those with English as a second language?
It’s finally time to make our voices heard. I was here for this.
An hour into the event however, my expectations were shot to shit. One of the candidates, when asked what APIA stood for, was unable to parse out the acronym. When another was asked who their pick for the Supreme Court would be, in a pandering move, simply said “an Asian American”—no specifics. One of the party’s representatives started off engaging the crowd with Asian American stereotypes and then fed straight into the model minority pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps myth. I was livid. It became clear to me that politicians continue to regard the Asian American community as an afterthought.
However far we’ve come as a nation, as long as Asian Americans remain invisible in politics, we have much much further to go. We’re expected to care about America when America continues to think we ain’t shit. Yet, given the numbers and my own personal experiences as one of millions of apolitical Asian Americans, how can we be convinced a candidate is looking out for our interests when he or she doesn’t even know what those interests are? Because Asian Americans don’t see ourselves represented by political candidates, we’re less likely to participate in the political process. This in turn becomes a vicious cycle and self-fulfilling prophecy echoed by the American public. But everyone needs to do their part, here and now, to start changing that narrative.
Outside the many reasons why this election is iconic, it has been a particularly engaged one for marginalized identities in this country. This is happening simultaneously with the efforts of #BlackLivesMatter, in the aftermath of Pulse Orlando, in the midst of a global refugee crisis and the rise of hate-crimes against Muslim & Sikh Americans, at the outrage toward Brock Turner’s rape wrist-slap, and with #NoDAPL. That’s a mouthful for just the tip of the iceberg coming into this election. Knowing that the next president will also be appointing our Supreme Court Justices, the legacy of these next 4 years will outlast my lifetime. The power, as well as stakes, of my vote and those who have been historically marginalized are more than ever before.
This is my story but there is no singular narrative. By understanding the unique and nuanced barriers Asian American apoliticism has manifested in our histories, communities, and ourselves, I hope to push politicians to engage us in these contexts. By speaking out, I hope to lead others to find their own path to truth and awareness. For my Asian American brothers and sisters who have felt as if the political process was not made for us, start by doing the hard work of admitting the gaps we need to fill so that we, our entire community, and American society can collectively work towards a more inclusive and representative American electorate. Asian Americans can be pivotal in the political movement and we have the opportunity to turn these statistics around, to break down these barriers and build upon a foundation of APIA activism for future generations.
As a first-time Asian American voter, I’m proud to push back against our statistics. I want America to know that it’s not because I haven’t cared, it’s that I’ve only now figured out how.