Radical Times in Asian Americanist Critique

by Joo Ok Kim

Photo by Mike Murase / GIDRA

The new series on the AMSJ Blog asks how American Studies and related fields attend to this moment of crisis. We might begin with the #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus activism in France. In that social media movement, Asian-raced peoples activated the hashtag to highlight their resistance against pandemic-related verbal and physical assaults, which associates them with the novel coronavirus.1 And we might begin there to perceive the transnational histories that inform this crisis. Doing so discloses overlapping colonialisms in Asia, calling for US military aggressions in Vietnam, Cambodia, and Laos (in both known and “secret” wars)2 to be examined alongside the presence of differentiated Asian diasporas in France and in the United States. Learning from #JeNeSuisPasUnVirus, a call to uncouple the contemporary conflation of racial “other” with virus in this time, also requires the uncoupling from centuries of discourses affixing disease to differentially racialized human bodies, which is also this time. Arundhati Roy’s recent naming of the pandemic as a portal3 for a different future, and Saidiya Hartman’s meditations on the dramatically disproportioned death toll,4 “an exclusive tally of loss” accounting for American lives lost in the US wars in Vietnam and Korea, further invites us to consider how the time of “in the Time of COVID-19” registers globally. And how might American Studies disengage metaphors of militarization from microbial entities we each harbor, as Patrick Anderson’s Autobiography of a Disease theorizes, such that unended, ongoing, endless wars are not conceptually exempted even further?5 Perhaps On Teaching in the Time of COVID-19 asks us, as we negotiate the pedagogical imperatives of teaching, and of learning, to consider the time—refracted, recursive, anomalous—this virus punctures.

I’ve taught my spring 2020 class at KU, officially catalogued as “The United States in Global Context,” as an introduction to Asian American Studies. While considering the emergence of ethnic studies through radical and global social movements, students are also thinking about broad possibilities for coalitional movements specific to the time of COVID-19. As I read through students’ online discussion posts about the 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, as one flashpoint6 for mobilizing against anti-Asian violence, I’m compelled by their connections to ongoing discursive and physical assaults, in media and in everyday life, of Asian-raced peoples. The urgency to register the murder of Ahmaud Arbery, to demand a meaningful justice while sheltering-in-place, is indexed here. Likewise, their connections to racialized targeting in the immediate post-9/11 moment, their attention to ongoing detentions of Mexican and Central American peoples at the Mexico/US border, and their thinking about impacts of globalization and neoliberalism between the 1980s and this current moment, energize possibilities for political engagement beyond the class.

One example of this is the Haymarket Books online event series, called Learning Together (while staying apart). Past events include conversations such as “COVID-19, Decarceration, and Abolition,” and a discussion with Arundhati Roy and Imani Perry on the speculative notion of pandemic portals. Other ongoing digital work includes townhalls convened by the People’s Collective for Justice & Liberation; Dylan Rodriguez and Eddie Conway’s conversation, COVID-19 Pandemic Illuminates Anti-Chinese Racism and Xenophobia, discusses the necessity of collective care for radical movements; and the Black digital humanities project, COVID Black, tasks community members and scholars to actively catalogue critical statistics and social stories of Black diasporic communities.7

A more local example of such engagement includes significant mobilization at my institution. Rinne J. Früster, Precious Porras, and Cody K. Charles at the Office of Multicultural Affairs have organized with Mercedes Bounthapanya at the CLAS Office for Diversity, Equity, and Inclusion as well as the Vice Provost’s Office of Diversity & Equity to build resources for communities who are directly and indirectly impacted by anti-Asian rhetoric and violence in emergence of COVID-19. Anna Balmilero, OMA graduate assistant, has organized important resources navigating COVID-19 challenges specific to Lawrence communities. I’m learning from AMS PhD candidate Imani Wadud, and her engagements with the zine collab from the Asian American Feminist Collective and Bluestockings Bookstore and Radical Center, Asian American Feminist Antibodies: Care in the Time of Coronavirus.8 And returning to the question of how American Studies and related fields respond to COVID-19, Dr. Chris Perreira’s research—on the US history of racial violence connected through disease and discourses of contagion—has informed critical public health scholars in their open letter opposing public facial recognition technology, in response to the novel coronavirus in this time.9

The accompanying image to this post, a 1970 Gidra photograph of women workers at the zine, opens another kind of portal—a retrospective inviting us into the continuity of struggle, to connect with care in the time of coronavirus, as the Asian American Feminist Antibodies zine urges us to do.10

Joo Ok Kim is Assistant Professor of American and Latina/o Studies at the University of Kansas. Her book, Warring Genealogies: Race, Kinship, and the Korean War (under contract with Temple University Press), examines the racial legacies of the Korean War through Chicano cultural production and U.S. archives of white supremacy. Her published articles can be found in the Journal of Asian American Studiessouth: a scholarly journalVerge: Studies in Global Asias, and forthcoming in MELUS.

1 Alexandra, Rae. “Artists Fight Coronavirus-Related Racism on Instagram.” KQED, March 21, 2020.

2 Roy, Arundhati. “The Pandemic is a Portal.” Financial Times, April 3, 2020.

3 Hartman, Saidiya. “The Death Toll.” Los Angeles Review of Books, April 14, 2020.

4 Sisavath, Davorn. “The US Secret War in Laos: Constructing an Archive from Military Waste.” Radical History Review, 1 January 2019.

5 Anderson, Patrick. Autobiography of a Disease. Routledge, 2017.

6 Schlund-Vials, Cathy, ed. Flashpoints for Asian American Studies. New York: Fordham University Press, 2017.

7 Day, Faithe. “COVID Black: Organizing Information on Racial Health Disparities and Living Data.” AMSJ Blog, April 27, 2020.

8 Bhaman, Salonee, Rachel Kuo, Matilda Sabal, Vivian Shaw, and Tiffany Diane Tso. Asian American Feminist Antibodies: Care in the Time of Coronavirus. Asian American Feminist Collective, March 2020.

9 Public Health Scholars Opposition Letter to California’s AB 2261 on public facial recognition technology: https://www.aclunc.org/sites/default/files/2020.05.01%20-%20Public-health%20letter%20FINAL.pdf

10 Lee, Jaeah. “The Forgotten Zine of 1960s Asian-American Radicals.” Topic, February 2018.

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