This is one of the many penetrating voices of Asian American activists that you will find in “The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism: Community Vision, and Power”. Tracy Lai and her co-authors offer a brilliant historical account of the Asian American Movement from a grassroots perspective that includes the visions and actions of everyday people and activists. This groundbreaking, engaging work is not only for students and scholars, but also community members and activists who continue to lead Asian American activism.
Tracy Lai is a tenured historian at Seattle Central Community College. She was a founding member of the Asian Pacific Student Union and is currently active in the American Federation of Teachers-Seattle and the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance.
1) Why did you and your co-authors decide on using the term “Activism” in your title rather than “Movement”?
Part of our analysis is what makes a Movement, as well as distinguishing activism as distinct from a Movement. Social Movement theory helped us to see at what points a Movement formed, ebbed and receded. The choice of the term “activism” also acknowledges the activism that preceded the Asian American Movement, as well as the activism that continues despite the end of the Movement as it was in the late 1980s.
2) How did you come to decide on the image of “the snake dance” for the history of the Movement?
The photo on the front cover is of the Bay Area Asian Coalition Against the War (BAACAW) and they are running in a zigzag formation which they adopted from Japanese student anti-war activists (in Japan). The formation helped the contingent to stand out in the larger anti-war mobilizations. Also, the snakedance is a metaphor for the twists and turns that the Movement went through.
3) One of the things that you mention in the introduction is the notion of “excluded history.” Could you briefly define the notion for us here? What were some of the “excluded history” did you insert into your book?
Although the term “excluded history” often refers to marginalized histories/herstories excluded from mainstream or traditional narratives, in this case, we are referring to the excluded voices and histories of the Movement activists themselves, especially those who identified as revolutionaries and radicals. In a broader sense, we wanted to gather many activists’ oral histories to inform and develop our analysis.
4) Was women’s role in the AAM part of the “excluded history”?
As in many histories, the specific role of women is neglected, or worse, misrepresented. The scholarship on the Asian American Movement is still developing, but so far, there have been personal accounts, but not a full examination of women activists. Women in the Asian American Movement were both instrumental throughout the Movement (students, labor, community), as well as in that part of the Movement that addressed women’s oppression. Like the women members of the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee (SNCC), they coped with sexism and patriarchal values within the Movement, as well as in the dominant society.
5) To what extent do you think the political struggle of the AAM had contributed to the formation of Asian American identity?
The political struggle of the AAM contributed hugely in shaping an Asian American identity. The language of that political struggle emphasized the pan-Asian aspects of historical experience such as the similarities in discriminatory/exclusionary laws, the stereotyping which compressed and denied national cultural identities, as well as the vision and demands which argued for pan-Asian and coalition approach. From the Third World student strikes that birthed Ethnic and Asian American Studies there was a consciousness of solidarity which acknowledged how much could be gained by forging such an identity together: one that claimed and honored each others’ experiences, rather than emphasized our differences (or historical enmities).
6) The global politics has shifted a great deal since the AAM had emerged. What kind of structural changes should Asian American activists demand and work towards now?
Since the 1990s, Asian American activism has been evident in a number of arenas, such as the anti-globalization movement and opposition to the “war on terrorism” (as it has been used to profile and scapegoat Muslims, among others). Whether a more unified Movement that defines an API agenda will emerge, remains to be seen. Despite or because of the changes in global conditions, the issues of social justice, meaningful democracy and human rights continue to be real and pressing more than ever. The responsibilities of Asian American activists from inside “the belly of the beast” are distinct, especially as US militarism has yet to be accountable or diminished. I hope that in our various ways we will build community infrastructure that will support our long term struggles because this indeed is a lesson from the past. In local and larger ways, we have tools and opportunities to organize differently than in the past. I have faith in our youth and the new generations of activists to creatively solve the challenges ahead.
“The Snake Dance of Asian American Activism: Community, Vision, and Power”, (Lexington Books, 2008). By Michael Liu, Kim Geron, and Tracy Lai.