Stephanie Wibisono Liem
The Asian American experience: always knowing my place, without ever taking space.
Updated: Feb 12, 2021
From before I can even remember, I’ve been engrained with the mentality of “knowing my place.” As an Asian American, I was conditioned to believe that speaking out in any way was seen as talking back or disrespectful. It was not my place as someone’s child, as a woman, or as an Asian American to speak my mind when instead, I could just be silent. “Listening without speaking and giving without taking” is the ideal personality that a lot of Asian people strive towards because that is what society expects from us -- this is the classic Model Minority trope. The same mentality applies whenever I speak on my experiences with racism and oppression. I am repeatedly told by others that it is not my place to highlight the struggles of Asian people because I do not face institutional racism to the degree that Black or Brown people do. While I completely agree that the Asian experience is not at all comparable to the Black experience, I am here to say that I know where my place is. My place is in the revolution.
My name is Stephanie Wibisono Liem and I’m the Communications Director at Hip Hop For Change. I am a Chinese-Indonesian, first generation Asian American immigrant, and I use my voice to challenge the Model Minority Myth and advocate for Afro-Asian solidarity.
Contrary to popular belief, the Asian American immigrant experience is not one that can be easily summarized by the monolithic Model Minority narrative. First and foremost, our experiences vary by region; for example, someone immigrating from Southeast Asia (like myself) will have a completely different experience than that of another coming from East Asia, South Asia, Central Asia, etc.
Additionally, we also experience poverty, hunger, racism, and oppression, yet stories of these struggles are often overlooked by the media, history books, and even our closest friends. Asian Americans are the fastest growing racial group in the United States, yet we have the lowest rates of voter turnout and political participation. Why is that?
This goes back to a culture of silencing Asian voices. Many of our parents and grandparents carry generational trauma of being silenced in their home countries, where speaking out against injustice or political corruption gets you and your whole family killed. A lot of us Asian American children essentially came to inherit those fears harbored by our parents and grandparents who sacrificed everything in their home countries to give us a life that they didn’t have. So yes, that leads to years of us being complacent and silent in the fight for BIPOC liberation. While that is not at all an excuse to condone complacency, it is a call for empathy to understand why Asian-American generations before us practiced politics of survival. We have been experiencing hate crimes and racism since our ancestors immigrated to America in the 1800’s, and others experienced oppression in Asia before immigrating to America. However, whenever injustices were committed against us, we buried it and never spoke about it because those were the sacrifices that had to be made if we wanted to peacefully assimilate in America.
Asian Americans are placed at this awkward intersection where light skin privilege meets color, and because of that, a lot of us get gaslighted when we speak on our experiences with racism, poverty, and other forms of oppression. However, excluding Asian people from BIPOC conversations and dismissing their blatant cries for help simply because they do not win first place in the oppression Olympics is just wrong on so many levels.
In spite of the Model Minority narrative, the earliest memories I can recall are of my family and I sleeping on the floor, eating on top of cardboard tables in a cockroach infested studio in Downtown Los Angeles. As a Southeast Asian immigrant fleeing ethic violence and political turmoil in Indonesia, my story was one of extreme poverty and social inequality. Life at home was emotionally tumultuous, and there were so many times where I wanted to call out for help, but emotionally expressing yourself in Asian culture was frowned upon. My parents conditioned me to stay out of trouble and never talk back, which is why whenever I was bullied or disrespected at school, I always apologized first because that was the expected behavior of an Asian American. I was trained to always know my place.
Years later, I am revisiting the conversation around “knowing my place.” As an Asian American activist working for a Black-led organization, I am highly cognizant of the fact that I have a lot of unlearning and relearning to do. I benefit from light skin privilege, which is why my allyship must always be proven through actions and not words alone. Everyday, I am committed to anti-racist work, but I always advocate for Black and Brown causes without spotlighting issues that plague the Asian community because I often “feel bad” about bringing attention to the plight of Asian people.
However, recent anti-Asian hate crimes spiking across the globe as a result of Coronavirus induced xenophobia has driven me to the point where I can no longer stay silent on issues that devastate the Asian community. While I continue to “feel bad” about speaking up for my people, Asian communities are being attacked, assaulted, and murdered. I can no longer shame myself into thinking that I do not deserve a seat at the table when discussing BIPOC issues. I will no longer permit people to gaslight me when I speak on my experiences with racism because I am very much a person of color. Always making space for others without taking space for myself is a disservice to all the Asian activists who came before me to make sure that my voice would be heard.
Everything that I am saying goes to show that the Model Minority Myth is a myth, and really just a ploy to pit minority groups against each other while white supremacy continues to oppress and kill all of us. The oppression of Asian people is often dismissed because the American education system fails to educate us on the history of Asian oppression and liberation. American media and history frames us as complacent, silent, and submissive because they want to take away our power. But if you look at the American Civil Rights Movement, Korean Minjung Movement, Hong Kong protests, Non-Aligned Movement, Vietnam War, and multiple decolonization and independence movements pioneered by Asian countries that were previously colonized -- you can clearly see that Asian people have not at all been silent in the face of injustice.
Thus, I’ve come full circle on the idea of “knowing my place.” My place is in the revolution. My place is in the community, where I can help to build Afro-Asian solidarity. My place is in BIPOC circles, where I can bring awareness to the struggles of Asian people as a whole. I will speak on these issues until the Asian experience is acknowledged and validated because I am tired of so many of us crying in silence and grieving alone. It will take time to have these difficult conversations with each other and heal collectively as a community, but there is no reason that we should be tearing down each other's movements. We can talk about anti-Blackness and pro-police attitudes in the Asian community while still building Afro-Asian solidarity. We can learn about the struggles Asian Americans were forced to endure while still building Afro-Asian solidarity. People are dying on the streets, we don't have time to keep fueling race wars between minority groups.
Everyone has heard of the rose that grew from the concrete, right? Well, how about the lotus that grew from the water? All of us have been oppressed by white supremacy, all of us have suffered and grieved. It is about time that we came together and dismantled the higher powers that continue to oppress us. Then, we can be a garden of different types of flowers that grew in spite of being oppressed by white supremacy. Let’s continue to build as a community and invest in our relationships with one another. Unlearn and relearn about each other. Show up for each other. Together, we will welcome a new and stronger era of not just Afro-Asian solidarity, but cross-community solidarity.
Our place is with one another.