Centering The Asian American Community
The growing Asian American community is deeply rooted in resilience, sacrifice, and strength. We are projected to be the second largest growing population within the country, and yet there are still so many histories to unpack, myths to dispel, stories to be told, and figures to be honored. For this reason, I care about centering Asian American experiences, communities, narratives, and politics in untraditional ways.
When I think about Asian Americans, I think of a community that wants to get organized and uplift the power of their people. But there are not enough tools in our cultural toolbox to engage in this type of (political) discourse. For example, we all are aware of the amazing work Cesar Chavez did around the labor movement, but most people don’t know about Larry Iltliong, the Filipino Labor leader that also shepherd the United Farm Workers front. We know figures like Malcom X, Martin Luther King, Jr,. but we don’t give enough credit to Yuri Kochiyama, the Japanese American activist that advocated for government reparations after the internment of Japanese Americans and fought alongside Malcolm X and the Black Separatist movement. But Asian Americans want to see themselves reflected in the world of activism. They want to be shown that they can take up space.
I did an illustration series alongside a digital organization known as 18MillionRising to highlight Asian American activists. At first, it was turned into a sticker pack, but the response was so positive that they turned my illustrations into sweaters! Now, I’m seeing the “Asian4BlackLives” sweater being worn all over the country.
Still, creating “Asian American” content seems too vague. This umbrella term washes us all together under the same history. That should not be the case—specificity matters. In a recent collaboration with Asian Americans Advancing Justice Asian Law Caucus, I saw firsthand the value in illustrating narrative around specific groups within the Asian American community. For this collaboration, I created an illustration series focusing on the plight of Khmer Americans. When I shared my work online, Khamer Americans and Cambodians started writing to thank me for highlighting their history and situation. They often see themselves represented within the monolith as Asian American, rather than as specifically Khmer Americans. It was a reminder that communities we think of as an afterthought want their stories to be told, seen, and recognized independently. Otherwise, we risk erasing their unique history. Now that Pacific Islanders and Native Hawaiians are being encompassed under Asian Americans, there’s the danger of washing away their history, too. Seeing these groups stripped of their stories influenced me to work with community members to create more inclusive illustrative narratives and stories of largely ignored groups. My goal in doing these illustrations is to help the communities under the Asian American label become more recognized, seen, and heard; to build more pride and politicization.
It comes back to fight of disaggregating data, and why the model minority myth is dangerous. Many folks believe that Asian Americans are the most educated and make some of the highest incomes, but when you examine each ethnic group, you’ll see different subgroups face different barriers. As the National Asian and Pacific American Women’s Forum reports, “for every dollar the average white, non-hispanic man makes, Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) women are paid on average $0.85,” as represented by March 5 (how far AAPI women must work into 2019 to make what white, non-hispanic men made in 2018). But that’s only part of the #AAPIEqualPay story. For certain Asian communities, the wage gap is much greater. Vietnamese women earn $0.64, Thai women earn $0.60, and Burmese women earn only $0.50, making them some of the lowest paid people in the nation. Even within high earning fields, Asian women are paid less than their male counterparts. “Model-minority” rhetoric is racist, classist, divisive, and just plain wrong.
Right now, I only illustrate part-time. To make it my full-time career is not a realized intention of mine, at least not yet. However, by not having to depend my whole income on my illustrations allows me to focus on uplifting Asian American clients who need these illustration tools to educate the community. I cannot and do not seek financial equity and opportunity through mainstream, institutional (predominantly white) media publications and organizations. It’s not just a pay gap issue at that level—it’s a representation issue. In those spaces, I feel like I have to fight to tell these stories. I can’t even consider arguing for equal pay, since we’re still overcoming considerable hurdles to uplift Asian American narratives. However, when working with Asian American clients, I don’t have to explain why certain aspects of representation are important. They are just as hungry to center specific components of Asian and Asian American narratives, so, with them, I can focus more on fair pay. I have found similar support from those who come from progressive organizations in the advocacy space interested in inclusive collaboration, like the United State of Women. I’ve been lucky in that all my clients have treated me with utmost respect through pay and have encouraged me to set my own pricing based on my experience and what I think is best.
This AAPI Equal Pay Day, I want to highlight how important it is to hire diverse people in any industry or field. Adding Asian American artists of all ethnicities to the mix—and paying them equally—will elevate your creative work by providing a perspective no other community can. If you don’t know any of them personally when you’re looking to hire, take the time to do your research (that’s how the USOW found me) or ask around. Chances are your networks are deeply connected and are in the know about their own community. So many Asian Americans have important work to be shared—seek them out and compensate them fairly.
Be sure the check out USOW’s new merchandise featuring Natalie’s designs! If you need a notebook for all your patriarchy-smashing plans or a sticker pack to show just how strong you’ve gotten in the fight for gender equality, you’re in luck! Pre-order your feminist gear today!