Asian American literature and art have had an illuminating effect on the significance of human rights in the United States and in national culture. Americans are often assumed to enjoy exceptional liberties and rights, which they seek in turn to deliver to other people, in other parts of the world. However, Asian American cultural critique provides an incisive perspective on the limits of citizenship and national belonging as the basis for the granting of fundamental human freedoms, rights, and protections to all persons. The legal exclusion of Asians from immigration and naturalization, as well as from other forms of social and economic security such as property ownership, has long been justified through the construction of Asian racial difference. Reforms in immigration law after World War II, which did eventually transform Asian American life in the United States, took place in the context of a “global Cold War,” and during the same period that saw the institution of an international human rights regime. “Integration” proved as essential a mandate in US domestic and foreign policy as did “containment” in this global conflict. As a result, not only has the Asian American population grown significantly and become more heterogeneous since the late 20th century, the nation has seen the flourishing of Asian American literary and cultural production. Asian American writers and artists have been especially keen to investigate the political, legal, and ideological tensions and contradictions that pervade the postsocialist world and the war on terror. Their works explore the political precarity faced by those caught between the contradictions of neoliberal multiculturalism, the logics and technologies of state security, and the legal tethering of human rights to citizenship.
Human Rights and Asian American Literature and Culture
Race and Ethnicity
Amritjit Singh and Aaron Babcock
Racial patterns at any given time have been intertwined with local contexts, economic and political conditions, technological change, and a growing awareness of the socially constructed nature of race and gender. Race in the modern sense of the term emerged first in the 18th century amid the transformative changes of the industrial revolution, a growing slave trade, and the spread of European settler colonialism and imperialism in Asia, Africa, and the Western hemisphere. As a means of categorizing populations, race was a useful tool in justifying both slavery and imperialism. A further solidification of racial taxonomy developed over the course of the 19th century in which peoples and nations were grouped as genetically distinct. Race was thus essentialized and difference became widely accepted as biological and measurable. In the early decades of the 20th century, the view of race as biologically determined and immutable gradually gave way to sociological and anthropological reconsiderations of previously held assumptions. Contemporaneous to this reorientation of thinking on race was the growth of ethnicity as a related but distinct form of grouping populations that reframed identity as rooted in a shared national and sociopolitical history. In the 20th century, race across scholarly disciplines began to be divested gradually of its biological and genetic aspects and a recognition of race as a legal and social construction had emerged, especially in Postcolonial Theory and Critical Race Theory (CRT). In fact, what was viewed as “race” around 1900 (e.g., the Irish race, the Jewish race) came to be defined as “ethnicity” in the 20th century. For centuries, however, race has been used as a means for exercising power and control and as a defense of a racial caste system that privileges select groups. Through their many creative uses of memory and history, writers and artists in the United States and elsewhere have long responded in multiple genres by offering their own versions and visions of individual and community, complicating in the process our understandings of race, ethnicity, gender, nation, majoritarianism, and citizenship—the tangled issues that continue to haunt Americans and many others around the globe. Historians, literary scholars, and theorists have also played an active role in challenging old orthodoxies on race and ethnicity through multiple overlapping approaches, including African American Studies, Ethnic American Studies, Black Feminism, Postcolonial Studies, and Critical Race Theory (CRT).
Accents and Asian American Representation in Contemporary Culture
Shilpa S. Davé
The study of accent is related to word and language pronunciation that can be linked to a social class, a nationality, a part of the world, or a historic time period. Accent can be characterized as an “identifier” based on sound and sound production rather than visual cues. Accent is thus linked to fields such as linguistics and pronunciation, language education, drama, literature and performance, sound studies, disability studies (communication disorders to hearing to speech), as well as to sociology and global studies (how do people speak and understand each other in different parts of the world and across geographical borders), to nationalism (how does language bring communities and societies together), and to media (how is communication presented and how is language received). Phonetic literacy (as studied by socio-linguists) involves subcategories such as speech and accent (from access to learning English by non-native speakers to the ability to speak English), dialect (variations of English based on geography), and slang. A cultural and interdisciplinary study of accents allow for inquiries about national community that move beyond legal and geographical forms of community and identity. Looking at accents emphasize the linguistic and sonic components of American global cultural values that are present in media representation, performance, and the politics of social relations. In particular, the study of Asian American accents in popular culture lies at the intersection of interpretations of text and sound where standard American English (the language taught in American schools) is positioned as the normative mode of communication and the criterion that non-native speakers are often judged upon in American culture. An accent is both a phonetic and visual means of interpreting the assimilation of immigrants in general, and Asians, more specifically, in relation to themes of American citizenship. Focusing on accent allows for a linguistic and narrative composition of how racial difference goes beyond a visual physical difference and is embedded in the systemic nature of how race and privilege operate in culture. Asian American and South Asian American vocal accents and other kinds of cultural “accents” offer an alternative approach to discuss American racial and ethnic performances because the notion of an accent is also inherently comparative. Accents appear only in comparison to what is considered normal or accepted universal speech, such as Standard American English. An accent can mark or distinguish someone or something in relation to something else or a prevailing norm. An accent can create contrast by its very difference. For Asian Americans, identifying how speech and communication is represented and produced in media and culture is a primary means of characterizing what is not only considered different but also what is seen to be foreign or outside definitions of American national identity. The media representations of Asian Americans exaggerate physical differences from a white American mainstream identity and dwell on alternative cultural values and behaviors that include accent and language.
Border and la frontera in the US–Mexico Borderlands
In the U.S.–Mexico context, the concepts of the border, borderlands, and la frontera represent their ongoing complex geopolitical, cultural, and historical relations. With the signing of the Guadalupe Hidalgo Treaty in 1848 and the Gadsden Purchase in 1853, the Mexican and U.S. governments established the southern border of the United States. The border is the international boundary line between the two countries, and the borderlands are the zones neighboring both sides of that boundary. It is a place where the First and Third Worlds collide daily, creating borderlands that amount to collective spaces of transcultural/transnational encounters. The concept of la frontera represents a counter-narrative of the term “frontier,” which became synonymous with American expansionism, or the westward expansion of the United States as proclaimed by Frederick Jackson Turner in 1883. The Spanish term “frontera,” as used in this framework, presupposes a knowledge production ranging from the implications of land annexation to the geopolitical and cultural processes of borderland sites. While the borders mark the place where adjacent jurisdictions, communities, and nation-states meet, it has also been a hotly contested subject—literally and figuratively speaking—inciting extreme emotional reactions that fuel negative stereotypes about immigrants, ethnic discrimination, and xenophobia. Immigration has become one of the most salient sociopolitical issues discussed on the national level. Unfortunately, it is debated mainly outside of the historical context because the histories embedded in its borderlands can contribute enormously to inform current political debates about immigration in the United States. Border crossers coming from south of the border are often portrayed by U.S. politicians as the most unwelcome and undesirable (yet necessary) immigrants. As the national discussion on immigration reform continues and the alleged ills of the U.S.–Mexico border dominate the political discourse and the media, expressive art and print culture must continue to form novel epistemologies of borders and counter unsubstantiated alternative facts propagated by anti-immigrant groups. To that end, it is important to consider the border's literature and imagine the borderlands as the fruitful heterogeneous site of an imagined and creative homeland: Aztlán.