Social movements and political action
Social movements and activism in my family have been characterized mostly with distrust, skepticism and a general sense of futility. Interviewing my parents who lived mostly adhering to the status quo of the current government wherever they would live, they would always say that one would only be putting oneself in danger whenever you would go out and join rallies and mass action. Though mostly Asian and living within the time of great social and political transformation, my parents did not participate so much in democratic activities and rallies that sought to enact change within the government.
At best, they would watch the happenings on the news and comment on the events that unfolded. Even now, as immigrants into another country where Asians are mostly treated as second-class citizens, my parents always adopted a perspective that would be described as ‘low-profile’ or, in other words, to simply blend into the new society wherever they would go and try to survive and make it on their own while adhering to whatever rules and norms were present in that particular society at that time.
When they found difficulty with the rules and qualifications set for immigration, my parents would simply work harder to strive to meet the qualifications and be passed through immigration without question. There would be no indignation and righteous anger at their treatment as second-class citizens or how troublesome bureaucratic processes were for them. They would simply follow the rules quietly and nervously avert their eyes from those who dared to challenge or complain about the system.
In their perspective, anyone, no matter what racial background or ethnicity could overcome institutionalized obstacles as long as they lead, as they would put it, a ‘dignified, unobtrusive and quiet life’. This ‘life’, meant doing the best with what one had and that social conditions were indeed produced by outside forces, but a person only needed to take charge of their own destiny and work hard to achieve success and acceptance.
According to them, there were certain things that could not be changed no matter how many rallies were conducted or how many movements were launched, and that one should just worry about their own family and loved ones instead of going out into the streets to protest. This was not saying that they did not want the status quo changed. They said that they would be glad if qualifications were relaxed, processes would be easier and that more immigrants would be accepted because there were indeed a lot of people in need of good jobs and were willing to do manual labor to survive, if their credentials weren’t so low.
Also, being forced into blue collar employment in one country when you were a college graduate or higher from an Asian country did irk them, as employment was based on ethnicity and that people from other countries were generally looked-down upon by Western countries. They wanted racial equality but saw this concept as something that would not be reached in their lifetime, or even in mine.
Since they would not be able to enjoy this and that so many other people were working towards this goal, then it would be better for them to just do their best with the given circumstances and just make sure I got through school and would be able to make a living for myself. I would say that my parents were very simple folk who would go where life would take them ensuring that their life would have some measure of comfort and that their children’s future would be secured as well.
Turning on the news for them and hearing stories about protest rallies, social movements and activism would bring sighs of pity or frustration at how people would waste their time and energy in joining events like these when they could be working or looking for work and they these people were simply not trying hard enough. This conservatism and negative reaction to social action and change may be rooted in their very traditional upbringing back in Asia and their strict devotion to Catholic faith.
The traditionalism and deep socialization that they had undergone both as children made them wary and nervous about speaking out and desiring something which was not allowed to them. Instead, they would look for ways to make themselves ‘worthy’ of what they desired. If there were strict and high qualifications needed from immigrants, they did their best to perform well and meet these qualifications.
They did not complain at how the system asked too much of them or how the system would often discriminate against them and that it was their choice to go into Western society and it was up to them to adapt to the culture and norms where they were lower on the food chain than Westerners. They held on the stereotypes about African Americans, Latinos and other ethnicities in Western countries, citing that their poverty was their own fault and that they didn’t try hard enough to get what they needed.
Even now, in the United States, seeing how they were not the only group treated as second-class citizens and that they could find empathy and sympathy from more people, they did not associate themselves with these other groups. Instead, they would use the same stereotypes, the same preconceptions about Latinos and African-Americans and steer completely clear of those whose personality was questionable’. At the most, I would posit that they thought these groups were lazy and protested a lot because they simply did not want to work and that everything would be handed to them because they were ‘second-class citizens’.
Perhaps in my parents’ mind, being a ‘second-class citizen’ meant you had to work doubly hard and put double the usual effort Westerners put in so that they would survive or live as the Westerners lived, and this was because the former were living in a land not their own and that the Westerners only gave them a chance to live there because they thought people like us would not cause much trouble. That our family should live up to these expectations and be thankful for the comfort that they enjoyed and not ‘screw anything up’.
Growing up, seeing their distrust of fellow Asians who were activists and participants in rallies and social movements, I had adapted a view wherein protest rallies and social movements were places of danger and those who went there were at great risk of getting killed or hurt badly. That to join one such event and to have one’s face on the news camera as a participant in the rally would bring great shame to my family and would put my loved-ones in grave danger.
That joining an event would show I was disobedient, stupid and had nothing else to do. Student rallies, especially, made me very nervous and queasy wherein I would seek the fastest and farthest route away from the commotion and go straight home or to some place where I would not hear the sounds of protest. I was not the least bit interested, even if the issues involved me as a student or me as a person of Asian descent. I wanted merely to continue my studies and get this degree finished so I can get a job and earn a living for myself.
I viewed political activism with distrust and fear, and thought that challenging the system and making an enemy of governments and institutions very dangerous and that I would eventually get hurt if I had become part of such. Seeing other students and actually knowing someone who was heavily involved in racial and ethnicity issues on campus made me very nervous. I tried my best not to judge persons like this, perhaps somehow seeing that my parents would take stereotypes and misconceptions too far, and would only shy away when topics would avert from entertainment and light issues to heavy and politically-colored ones.
I thought that rallyists and other people involved in social movements simply had a different viewpoint than me and I respected them if that was that they wanted to do about their situation. My fear perhaps was only that my parents would discover that I was acquainted to such people and would sit me down to another sermon or berate me for having any for of connection with ‘incorrigibles’. I am aware of the difficulties and discriminatory practices that occur because of race and ethnicity, and have even been victim to some myself, but as my parents, the conflict that arises ends up in acceptance of the norms and the events that happened.
Acting in a passive position, I le the system work its way because this is how it is at the moment. If any change was to happen, it would not be because of protests and rallies, but because some Westerner was sympathetic enough to look into our condition and see the need for equality. This was after all their land, and we were just allowed to live here, luckily. Klatch’s research, which was conducted through interviews with families, sought to acquire data on four key sets of issues (Klatch).
The four key sets issues were; 1)the demographic backgrounds of activists and their parents, their parents’ political and religious beliefs, family dynamics and early political gender socialization, 2) political involvement and the development of ideology, 3) the interpretations of key events during the 1960’s and, 4) shifts in the activists’ lives after certain events (Klatch). Throughout Klatch’s study, the experiences and personal stories of activists show that politics and activism for these people were rooted in discontent and issue-based (Klatch).
Sometimes, people felt strongly about an issue and would participate in social movements and action. Other times, they would fade from the activist scene when the issues became detached from their own personal feelings. One interviewee was noted to consider his political involvement and views a ‘philosophy’ which would dictate various other factors in his life. Also, the intense feelings for a cause or issue would put a person in a social location which could only be related to by others who share the same view.
Some activists would choose to relate only with people who shared the same views as them or who were equally involved in particular movements and causes. Thus, political inclination and participation played a large part in the activists’ lives, even dictating their personal relationships and basis for forming friendships and such. However, with the relationships formed through activism come getting married and having children and settling down.
The activists, who formerly detested involvement in practices that were produced by the government which did not heed their issues, were now faced with family and children which gave them a broader perspective (Klatch) with respect to diversity not only in race and ethnicity, but also with other dynamics of social location. The political beliefs which were before deep-rooted philosophies which were held at utmost importance were now only secondary to their family and their careers which afforded them the survival of their family.
A shift could be seen in activists’ lives and perceptions with the life events of marriage and the birth of children. Klatch also noted that though a shift to family and career life occurred with the previous activists on both the Left and the Right, most activists did not completely change their political views but rather, ‘mellowed down’ and would often refer to the ‘bigger picture’ wherein politics would not only involve ideologies and government mechanisms, but also personal issues and other issues that were subjective to their own experiences and lives.
Family life and career somehow changed the political activism seen in their youth, even if most unions were formed from political practices such as rallies and protests. Some would shift views, but not completely. Those from the Left and also from the Right would begin to regret not supporting certain issues and movements in the 1960’s, perhaps in reflection to their own lives and the personal experiences they were facing as family breadwinners and people with formal careers.
My own family’s experience, however, being more traditionalist even to the point that any kind of protest or activism, even if it was for a cause that they too supported, was dangerous and not the way to go about things, did not change or shift beliefs. They continued to be wary of social movements and have a very traditionalist view but it was characterized by conformity and silence.
The intense traditionalism that my family promotes and practices does not usually clash with my own beliefs and as a traditionalist myself, but somehow I would like to be able to discuss political matters and issues with my parents in a healthy way, not with them constantly expressing their disgust and frustration over youth who ‘throw away their lives’ and ‘don’t know a thing about living on their own’.
Lastly, after reading Johnson’s speech ‘Coalition Politics’, inclusion and exclusion comes into stark view for me. Given my family values and background, I would like to think that personally coalitions can be made and be used to enact social and political change. However, my own family itself would never allow it. Their stereotypes and preconceptions about other ethnicities and groups would prevent the idea of inclusion and exclusion that Johnson’s speech posits.
What Johnson posits about ‘not caring to work for a cause because it would mean working with people whom you don’t care to work with too much’ (Reagon, 2001) readily applies to my family. Though tied together by discriminatory practices and treatment, different ethnic groups feel a detachment from each other for the same reasons that the Westerners feel a difference from immigrants.
It just so happens that the Westerners are more in a position to dictate the status quo that these groups would experience. Uniting different racial and ethnic groups in politics would be akin to taking all the issues that each of these experience and trying to coincide family values and traditional values of each of these groups. Being part of a certain group comes with many implications and some groups, though experiencing the same discrimination and harm, perceive these things in different ways.
The question of inclusion, exclusion and ethnic acceptance and tolerance that Johnson presents is relevant to me as an Asian because it forces me to think about how difficult political activism is especially concerning the issues of immigration and ethnicity. Countless people experience discrimination everyday, with practices and events all coherent and the same across groups, but with their own differences, getting these groups past their own differences with each other would be difficult.
People like my parents, who may be described to be victims of exclusion all their lives by both their own doing, values and society, would find it hard in including even themselves in certain groups. How would they accept all other groups into a coalition if they themselves could not be accepted or would want to be accepted in the first place? My family background and values do indeed play a big role in my attitude and behavior towards politics, and somehow I wish things could have been a little different.
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