Writing Against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric
reviewed by OiYan Poon - March 28, 2017
Title: Writing Against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric
Author(s): Haivan V. Hoang
Publisher: University of Pittsburgh Press, Pittsburgh, PA
ISBN: 0822963620, Pages: 192, Year: 2015
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Haivan V. Hoangs Writing Against Racial Injury: The Politics of Asian American Student Rhetoric explores how Asian Americans have confronted legacies of systemic racism in literacy education in the K12 sector and on college campuses. It achieves this by providing ethnographic and historical studies of educational activism from the 1970s and the early 2000s. The book draws upon ethnic studies and literature scholar Carl Gutiérrez-Joness notion of a rhetoric of injury (2001). This problematizes the ways discussions of race in education have shifted over time to primarily focus on individual injuries. Through this rhetoric of injury, contemporary public discourses fail to recognize systemic racism and oppression. Instead, they define racism as individualized acts and experiences. This lens of racial injustice limits the analysis of racism and the possibilities of transformative change. As a result, it serves to narrowly define racism as the experience of personal harm, which can also be sustained by individuals who are identified as being white. In this way, discourses on race allow for the systems and ideologies of white supremacy that broadly impact people of color to remain intact.
A key strength of this text is Hoangs seamless weaving of foundational texts from the fields of Asian American studies and ethnic studies with questions of race and racism in educational settings. For example, the book opens with a discussion of Chang-Rae Lees Native Speaker. This notable Asian American novel illustrates how standards of English literacy are racialized and perpetuate racial injustices. The volume also relies substantially on Asian American historical texts and sociological concepts like Omi and Winants theory of racial formation. This choice situates activist efforts and advocacy efforts as racial projects that work to discursively challenge and rearticulate racial meanings in society. By drawing on the transdisciplinary canon of Asian American studies, the author unveils the argument that activists of color rearticulate their subjectivity by engaging in innovative projects of critical literacy (e.g., reading, writing, and speaking) to confront endemic structures and cultures of racial oppression through the two parts of the book.
The premise that English literacy and education in the U.S. have played critical roles in the reproduction of systemic racism and perpetuation of racial legacies is foundational to this volume. Specifically, it explores how Asian American activists have confronted and navigated the changing rhetoric of injury between the 1970s and early 2000s. In Chapter One, Hoang discusses how Asian Americans during the 1970s advocated for self-determination and navigated the changing racialization of language minorities. They achieved this through the campaign for bilingual education rights leading up to the Lau v. Nichols (1974) U.S. Supreme Court case. This chapter also explains how the legal arguments and maneuvers in legal filings led to a troubling distinction between racial discrimination and linguistic discrimination that was quite clear. However, most of the students experiencing educational inequalities through a lack of bilingual education were immigrant children of color. Chapter Two presents an analysis of how Asian American activists articulate and rearticulate politicized Asian American identities. This is achieved through the student-initiated publication of the Gidra newspaper in the aftermath of the 1968 ethnic studies strike. Exploring how activists engaged in projects of literacy advocacy and community dialogue through alternative media in the 1970s, Hoang argues that self-determination serves as a foundational principle to historical Asian American advocacy, collective organizing, and political pan-ethnic identity.
The three chapters in the second part of the book vividly present ethnographic narratives and analyses of how Vietnamese American college students in the early 2000s were informed by Asian American activism in the 1970s. This history of activism encouraged these learners to confront, navigate, and creatively address racism. In the new century, the rhetoric of injury becomes hyper-focused on individual injuries. Chapter Three demonstrates the effects of the new rhetoric of injury and race on the campus racial politics of the Vietnamese American Coalition (VAC). This student organization formed at a public university where it confronted these issues regarding injury and race. As VAC learned, the new era of color-blind racism (Bonilla-Silva, 2009) and debates over individual rights enabled false equivalencies. Specifically, these equivalencies were the harms done to white people through accusations of racism versus the ways people of color suffered through the historical and contemporary legacies of systemic white supremacy, racist violence, and oppression. As a result, the new terms of racial discourse limited how VAC student activists were able to advocate against racial inequalities in education.
Consequently, as detailed in the fourth chapter and fifth chapter, the VAC student activists engaged in creative means of challenging racist ideologies. For example, Chapter Four demonstrates how these activists astutely evoked cultural memories in their community education efforts. They protested against Senator John McCain, who was once a presidential candidate, regarding his use of the racial slur gook. Chapter Five presents an analysis of students rearticulated racial constructions of being Vietnamese and enacting Asian American identities through creative arts and a ubiquitous student-produced culture show.
Scholars, students, and educational practitioners across the K12 and higher education sectors will find Writing Against Racial Injury useful in advancing an understanding of the connections among literacy education, race, racism, and Asian Americans. The book also adds to an understanding of how color-blind racism operates. However, in exploring the changing rhetoric of racial injury, the text does not acknowledge the role of neoliberalism in advancing an individualized framework in contemporary racial discourses. As color-blind racism clearly emerged in the 1990s, so did neoliberalism. The latter displaced collective public concerns with the centering of individualized interests.
An understanding of the intersection of color-blind racism and neoliberalism can provide a sharper analysis of the racial politics of contemporary debates over race-based inequalities in education. For example, it can help us understand how Asian Americans generally remain invisible in these public discussions. Hegemonic education policy debates are generally grounded in the deficit-based and color-blind framework found in the racial achievement gap. As a result, Asian Americans are typically placed outside of discourses regarding racism and education because they are an aggregate racial group with high educational achievement statistics. The neoliberal rhetoric of racial injury limits this recognition. As a result, there is a concerted confrontation with white supremacy. This results in the systematic dehumanization of racially minoritized populations in a multitude of ways.
Writing Against Racial Injury offers important contributions to literacy education, higher education, and race in education. Hoang has illuminated the ways policies and discourses relating to literacy education have positioned Asian Americans outside of questions of race and racism. The book sheds light on the limitations of the contemporary rhetoric of injury, which defines racism as an individualized experience of harm rather than as a systemic problem. Applying Gutiérrez-Joness concept of a rhetoric of injury throughout the volume, the author powerfully demonstrates how racial discourses have shifted over time. They have necessitated changes in how Asian Americans have had to innovatively and strategically engage in literacy to confront, resist, and rearticulate racialized Asian American subjectivities. The book is an exemplar of the power of transdisciplinary scholarship. It demonstrates how engaging in ethnic studies can enrich scholarship in education. It also reveals the nuanced ways that Asian Americans currently are, and previously were, actively engaged in a process of racial formation through racial projects of literacy.
Bonilla-Silva, E. (2009). Racism without racists: Color-blind racism and the persistence of racial inequality in the United States (3rd ed.). Lanham, MD: Rowman & Littlefield Publishers.
Gutiérrez-Jones, C. (2001). Critical race narratives: A study of race, rhetoric, and injury. New York, NY: New York University Press.
Lau v. Nichols, 414 U.S. 563 (1974).