By: Katherine Rooney
Kinetic is an Asian-American advocacy group whose primary goal is to dismantle the model minority myth via targeted action. Essentially, we serve as a public forum to facilitate an open dialogue about what it means to be Asian-American, discussing both the privileges and disadvantages that come with this identity. The next step is getting moving to take action – hence the name Kinetic. We host both events and panels, as well as executing student-led campaigns. Our first campaign is to change the curriculum at my local high school to be more inclusive (when you learn about the gold rush learning about the role that Chinese immigrants had, the Coolie Trade, Chinese immigrants building the railroad, learning what the US did in the Vietnam war, Korematsu v the United States in regards to Japanese internment camps, etc.). This means inserting Asian American history and voices into the lessons we learn already, and creating new units to showcase the diversity of Asian voices in America.
It is my firm belief that given today’s political climate, it is not enough to simply talk about the marginalization of Asian-Americans. This kind of open conversation is a great way to get some people to listen, but when it comes down to it, our allies are not willing or ready to take action. Which is why I created Kinetic. I believe that in order to garner true change, you need to take action. The harsh reality is that many Asian-Americans don’t know what that means. Generations of the “don’t make waves” mentality have culminated into today’s marginalization of Asian voices.
At my own school, it took three months of me fighting with the administration in order for my club to be approved. The activities director urged me to join Asian Culture club – a club whose members include sinophiles and koreaboos, all discussing culture in East Asia. She failed to see how my club and this club are entirely different. Then, she told me to join SOAR – Students Organized Against Racism. However, SOAR is a public forum – a safe space that allows students to have an open dialogue about these issues. I wanted to create ‘Kinetic’ because my mission is to do something. We are past the point of needing to raise awareness; in order to garner true change, their must be targeted action. I firmly believe that it would be inappropriate for me to simply ‘join’ or ‘merge’ with SOAR because in doing so, I would be taking away a critical piece of both clubs – your voice and the social platform that comes along with it.
My activities director could not understand the importance of creating a space solely for Asian American advocacy. For too long we have been cast aside, our plight not large enough for others to take note of. It took calling for a meeting with my principal for my club to finally be approved. Even then, both my principal and the activities director told me that they needed to see how the creation of my club would “affect the already existing clubs.” I asked them to think about how not having my club makes the Asian student body feel. I asked them to think about what the message of their refusal sends to the student body – it continues the notion that Asian-Americans aren’t worthy of their support. My administration failed to understand the objective reality that is yellow peril.
It was 75 years ago that Congress finally ended the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882; 30 years ago that the U.S. government formally apologized for the internment of Japanese Americans during WWII. Behind the present-day Asian American success story is a darker story of cultural assimilation. It wasn’t hard work that earned Asian Americans acceptance by American society. It was the long, dehumanizing process of blending the lines between “us” and “them.” Yellow skin can be disguised: squinty eyes opened wide, heritage disowned, bold and melodic native tongues tamed into chirpy Midwestern accents. We made our culture more tolerable to our bosses and neighbors, feeding white America an easily palatable narrative of conformity and obedience: the smiling Chinaman, the kung fu artist, the diligent student. Maybe we didn’t flinch at the caustic burn of bleach on our yellow faces. But have you ever noticed that the phrases “white-washing” and “ethnic cleansing” are based on the same metaphor? They are only different shades along the red-stained spectrum of ethnic violence: one is the extermination of a people’s culture; the other is the extermination of a people’s lives.
My elementary school teachers told me proudly about how well Chinese immigrants have fared in American society, that we as a race have somehow “earned” the respect of white people through our agreeable culture of General Tso’s chicken and perfect SAT scores. The problem is that respect for another person’s life should not have to be earned: it is something that is due to a person because they are human.
Assimilation is a survival tactic; despite all the talk of racial progress and growing acceptance, it is still true today that if you do not look, act, or talk like the majority does, you are at a severe disadvantage. The killings of Trayvon Martin, Mike Brown, Eric Garner and the countless other losses of innocent black lives, along with the repeated failures of our legal system to condemn this violence, have sent a message from America to its minorities loud and clear: conform, or die.
The disturbing reality underlying both assimilation and racial violence is this: In this country, some individuals’ survival is contingent on others’ approval. Despite this nation being the “land of the free”, basic freedoms and rights are conditional. And if you do not meet the conditions for a life that matters in this country, then you can be unduly deprived of it at any time, with zero consequences.
It’s easy for Asian Americans to think that their acceptance by white society means that America is a post-racial nation, a meritocracy where hard work leads to the American Dream.
Yet the fact that we have kept our heads down and diligently worked does not negate the injustice that people of color in this nation are unable to raise their heads. The fact that we have thrown their hands up and conformed does not dissolve the reality that another person has their finger on the trigger controlling one’s life or death.
The injustice of Ferguson and Eric Garner implicates not just black Americans, but all people who have ever been the victims of racial injustice in this nation. It invokes an empathy and kinship that courses through the blood of history and heritage. Asian American activists in the 60’s stood with the black civil rights movement because they saw their causes, while differently colored, as fundamentally the same, the plights of them and their ancestors linked by common experience.
Katherine is a junior at Highland Park High School. She is on the Principal Advisory Board, is Vice President of HPHLAC Student Board, Committee Head of FOCUS on the Arts (Social Justice in the Arts), President and Founder of Kinetic, as well as head of her high school debate team’s research, and a programming pro for GirlsCode. If she’s not talking about politics, she’s probably playing lacrosse. Katherine plans to study public policy in college.
Find Katherine here: