(9 min read time)
- All of the people born and living at about the same time, regarded collectively
- The production or creation of something
Generation Z: Those born around 1995 and onwards
As a Los Angeles native, I really felt the recent passing of local hip hop artist and community activist Nipsey Hussle. Not because I was a big fan — in fact, I had never heard of him before, despite briefly being a hip-hop dilettante in high school — but because of how people, especially Black folks, reacted when he was shot to death in South L.A. At school, a Black classmate of mine who spends her free time helping the inner city homeless expressed her agony about the tragic news, telling me how Nipsey was “one of the good ones”. He had been a positive role model for the youth in the majority Black neighborhood of Crenshaw, his hometown, where many Japanese Americans once settled in post-WWII incarceration camps and developed close relationships with the African American community due to a shared sense of discrimination. At the gym, I saw two Black men taking breaks between sets to solemnly watch a live TV broadcast of a Celebration of Life for Nipsey, which was held at the Staples Center and packed with over 21,000 people on a weekday morning. Online, social media was teeming with emotional tributes to him from primarily Black actors, athletes, and musicians. Although I was very unfamiliar with Nipsey and his impact on the Black community, reading about him and witnessing first hand how he was regarded by everyday people helped me realize what it meant to “rep” one’s community — and more importantly, what a strong collective racial consciousness looks like.
Nipsey Hussle, immortalized by his community.
As a contributor to ProAsian Voice, I thought about potential parallels to my comparably lacking Asian American community. Was there anybody in the Asian American community, or greater Asian diaspora, for whom we would collectively mourn upon their passing and thereafter show our appreciation by filling stadiums and painting murals? I’ve personally met some “famous” Asian Americans, ranging from celebrities such as Ali Wong (was invited to her private gala) and Randall Park (helped organize a panel for him), to athletes like Jeremy Lin (randomly ran into him and his brother at school), writers such as Jay Caspian Kang (recorded a podcast with him), and online community figures like Albert Hur. Despite how talented and/or intelligent these people are, do they stand a shot at being truly remembered? Jeremy Lin, maybe, because of the incredible international hype Linsanity¹ was able to generate back in 2012. But even Sessue Hayakawa, the Asian man who was literally the very first Hollywood sex symbol², is now nothing to most Americans but an obscure, hard-to-pronounce name while Ken Jeong’s small penis graces our movie screens.
The problem is our lack of collective racial consciousness. If we are to be something more, and not some hodgepodge of fictitious racist caricatures in the popular imagination — which is already rigged against us via centuries of deliberate erasure and dehumanizing stereotypes — who’s gonna “rep” us but us? As an Asian American who has no plans to “go back to my country”, I say it’s time to make a stand. We are here to stay, and in this struggle to be treated fairly and remembered properly, us Generation Z Asians can make all the difference.
“They say every man is defined by his reaction to any given situation
Well who would you want to define you?
Someone else or yourself? Whatever you do, homie, give your heart to it
And stay strong.”
— Nipsey Hussle (1985-2019), from “I Do This”³
Generations: Natural Shifters of the Overton Window
Every generation demands its own unique voice, which is often shaped by meaningful and impactful world events. Some that come to mind include the Apollo 11 moon landing for Baby Boomers, the fall of the Berlin Wall for Generation X, and the September 11 attacks for Millennials. These events shape the very worldview of these generations, especially when they happen at a formative age. As a result, newer generations can deviate quite a bit from the status quo established by the previous generation, thus shifting the Overton window — the range of acceptable political discourse — when they develop a voice or come to power.
Shifting opinions across generations⁴
To illustrate this phenomenon, one can observe current-day American politics. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez and Ilhan Omar, two outspoken millennial women of color, have dominated the headlines ever since their inauguration as freshman congresswomen earlier this year. Ocasio-Cortez, with her progressive platform including Medicare for All and a 70% marginal tax rate for the ultra rich, resonates deeply with her Millennial cohort as they are increasingly pushed out of the middle-class⁵ and saddled with extreme student loan debt⁶. Omar’s criticisms of American foreign policy, especially with regards to U.S. involvement in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, drew much ire and even death threats⁷ from the conservative and racist Fox News Boomer crowd while gaining support from Millennials, of which 87% don’t believe the United States is the greatest country in the world, according to the Pew Research graphic above.
Generation Z, sometimes affectionately referred to as “Zoomers”, has developed a political consciousness and voice of our own, too. The cataclysmic event that radicalized us was the election of Donald Trump in 2016 (I was 20 then). To say his presidency has been nothing short of disastrous for us as young people of color would be an understatement: appointing a former coal lobbyist and climate change skeptic (or greedy immoral cretin) as head of the Environmental Protection Agency⁸, calling literal white supremacists “very fine people”⁹, stoking hatred and resentment towards minorities and immigrants¹⁰ … and these aren’t even the illegal things he’s done. His actions have had enormous consequences, enabling white supremacists to commit hate crimes and deadly mass shootings both at home and abroad.
In the face of evil, Gen Z has refused to be silent. Following the heartbreaking events of the 2017 Parkland high school shooting, in which a white supremacist was the shooter, a group of student survivors became gun control activists and organizers of the nationwide March For Our Lives rally. Their sustained efforts, led by now household names such as Cameron Kasky, David Hogg, Emma Gonzalez, and Sarah Chadwick, directly led to over 25 states passing some form of gun violence legislation.
Sarah Chadwick aptly responding to the president
Greta Thunberg¹¹, a 16-year-old Swedish activist, single-handedly started Fridays for Future, an international student strike demanding action to prevent further global warming and climate change. Taking Greta’s lead, Isra Hirsi, the 16-year-old daughter of Congresswoman Ilhan Omar, organized an American iteration¹² of the student strike with two friends. As a result, hundreds of thousands of school children have participated in the protests worldwide, sending a strong message to the old white ghouls in power.
From a Fridays for Future protest in Germany
But where are my rebellious, politically conscious Gen Z Asians? Whenever I visit various Asian-specific online spaces, all I see are posts defending racist white men dating Asian women and hateful comments denigrating all Asian men as undesirable, misogynistic and patriarchal. Whenever I engage with students majoring in Asian American studies or participate in Asian “activist” training (you can read about my experiences here), the conversation always seem to punch down on Asians for being “anti-black” and “privileged”, two notions that have been debunked over and over again if you’ve been paying any attention in good faith. The most prominent Gen Z Diaspora Asians today include Rich Brian, an Indonesian rapper who refuses to call out his colleagues such as Wiz Khalifa¹³ and Lil Pump¹⁴ for their anti-Asian racist lyrics, and Chloe Kim, a self-professed “banana”¹⁵ dating a white man. A meek cowardly Asian boy and a “yellow on the outside but white on the inside” Asian girl: this is our representation today, as it always has been.
In the face of white terrorism and global warming, two great existential threats, how is this behavior from us Asians acceptable? The first gun control measures against assault weapons¹⁶ in the United States were passed in reaction to the 1989 Cleveland Elementary School Shooting¹⁷, where Patrick Purdy, a white supremacist who resented Asian immigrants for taking jobs from “native-born” Americans, specifically targeted Southeast Asian refugees, killing 5 schoolchildren and wounding 32 others. Just last year, the white supremacist shooter at Parkland murdered 15-year-old Peter Wang¹⁸ as he was helping his classmates escape. I still boil with anger when I remember how none of my over 1500 Facebook friends, most of whom were Asian, had anything to say about their fallen Asian brother and hero. Rest in Power, Peter.
What about global warming? Climate change scientists have deduced that the Apocalypse is coming, and four out of five of those worst affected are living in Asia¹⁹. Major Asian cities such as Shanghai and Osaka, along with several Southeast Asian countries, will be swallowed by the sea. As our history, family, and culture are in danger of being slowly drowned, thanks to the reckless and preventable actions of just 100 greedy corporations²⁰ backed by mostly rich white men, how come I don’t see any young Asian faces in the climate change protests?
As the Asian diaspora, and as those fluent in the lingua franca (also the language of our white oppressors), we are in a unique position to bring about political and social change relevant to all Asians worldwide. Issues such as gun control and climate change disproportionately affect us, especially us young folk, posing very real existential threats to us and our future; yet there is no collective Asian voice — which requires a collective consciousness — able to articulate anything on our behalf. What could we do to develop it?
The Answer: Legislation
As Dr. Erika Lee once noted, racism is the sole unifying factor of Asian America²¹. Our different countries of origin may have feuded in the past, we may have the largest income inequality amongst all racial groups in the US²², and we may even have wildly varying perceptions and preferences of “Asian” cuisine, but we are ultimately all “chinks” in the eyes of a racist. Thus, it only makes sense to use racism as a general flashpoint for developing our common consciousness and voice.
But there are effective and ineffective ways to use racism as a conjoiner. Writing tepid articles about our grievances as a “polite front” to mask the severity of our situation and recording podcasts with deliberate contrarians to “see both sides” of racism does nothing other than virtue signaling how “woke” one is and frustrates those who want to see true change. There is no collective call-to-action in this bland form of liberal activism, which only serves to inflate some egos.
A much more effective method to utilize racism as a bridge would include having achievable short-term goals as an incremental means of establishing robust community bonds. ProAsian Voice has created an Agenda, a legislative platform that posits tangible solutions to problems that all good-willed Asians would like to see addressed. Several spokes of the wheel of anti-Asian racism can be eliminated with the following legislation proposals: passage of an AAPI Film Diversity Tax Credit as a remedial measure for centuries’ worth of Asian male emasculation, reintroduction of the Paycheck Fairness Act to address wage disparity for Asian women, institution of racial quotas to remove the Bamboo Ceiling, establishment of a social safety net to rectify income inequality among our diaspora, and an explicit guarantee of our reproductive rights.
While passing these proposals into law seems like a tall task, my experience with activism at the K.W. Lee Center taught me otherwise. As a small group of college interns, we focused on fighting for criminal justice reform, specifically from the AAPI perspective. A major goal of ours included helping secure the passage of Senate Bill 1437²³, a reform of the outdated felony murder rule which disproportionately affected women and young men of color. Through social media collaborations with like-minded organizations and people, visiting local congressmen, and holding a public panel, we were able to amass hundreds of unique signatures and petition letters in support of the bill. Our efforts were not in vain as the bill was finally signed into law by the state governor just one month after the internship was over.
With the interns after the panel. Fun Fact: one of our guest speakers was Kirn Kim, on whom the Justin Lin directed movie Better Luck Tomorrow was based.
Imagine if millions of Gen Z Asian Americans began clamoring for the bill proposals listed on the ProAsian Voice Agenda: no more having to see Ken Jeong’s penis, no more income inequality, no more bamboo ceiling, and a happier, unified Asian diaspora ready to properly take down the forces of white supremacy.
We are the Asian Diaspora generation who grew up in the age of Trump. White supremacist evil runs amok and the global Apocalypse heads right towards us. But it’s not too late to change things, as long as we band together and collectively be an unapologetically ProAsian Voice.
Our Facebook group is now active and applications are open for anyone who wishes to contribute.
“Never doubt that a small group of thoughtful, committed citizens can change the world; indeed, it’s the only thing that ever has.”
— Margaret Mead
Written by Simon Hyun Joo.