While the nation is finally recognizing the collective power and strength of the Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voting bloc, I’ve still noticed the persistence of an unfortunate trend: the erasure of the South Asian experience.
Growing up as a second-generation Indian American in Georgia, I never thought it was important to keep up with politics. In fact, when we were younger, my parents encouraged me and my brother to keep politics out of our personal lives because it could only lead to trouble. Like many other immigrant parents, they were concerned that being vocal about politics could jeopardize their path to citizenship or their ability to stay in the country.
At the same time, until this election campaign, political organizations had never reached out to my parents once they became citizens to talk about voting—and they’re not the only ones.
Despite being the fastest growing racial demographic in the country, roughly 70 percent of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) voters weren’t contacted by either political party during the 2016 election. In a September 2020 poll, about half of the respondents said the same.
AAPI voters have largely been ignored by political and voter mobilization campaigns and, even when that isn’t the case, the programs conducted in our communities have traditionally been small-scale and under-resourced—or come to us asking us to vote without giving any attention to the issues our communities care about.
As a result, AAPI voter turnout was low compared to other racial and ethnic groups as recently as 2012. But that is changing in spite of the voter suppression we face. In the 2020 general election, 6.6 percent of first-time voters in Georgia were AAPI, even though they only account for 2.5 percent of registered voters in the state.
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As someone who has lived in Georgia my entire life, this political awakening and the recent attention paid to it is inspiring to see. But while the nation is finally recognizing the collective power and strength of the AAPI voting bloc, I’ve still noticed the persistence of an unfortunate trend: the erasure of the South Asian experience.
Indian Americans are the largest AAPI subgroup in Georgia but when I look at the stories about record voter turnout, I don’t see us reflected in them. Instead, the highlighted experiences are still overwhelmingly East Asian. Growing up, I was told more times than I can count that I was “Indian” not “Asian,” and after a while I myself became confused about whether or not I truly belonged in AAPI spaces. As an Indian woman, like many other South Asians, I’ve often felt isolated in larger Asian spaces.
Although we are often treated as a monolith, the AAPI community includes people from more than 30 countries and ethnic subpopulations speaking more than 100 languages. Once the elections are all over, lots of campaigns and organizations will pack their bags and leave until the next time they need something. But our communities need long-term investment that acknowledges all AAPI voices and then listens to them.
It wasn’t until I got to college that my perception of the importance of political engagement changed and I began to reflect on the lack of interest in my own family and my community and the factors driving this disinterest. Nearly three-quarters of the adult Asian population in the U.S. was born in another country, like my parents, and many of them are either afraid of participating in politics or not welcomed in because of where they’re from, their race or ethnicity, or the language they speak.
The erasure of South Asians or other AAPI subgroups in the narrative about our voting power creates feelings of isolation and prevents the solidarity and connection necessary to grow movements.
The Georgia canvassing team that I am now a part of at the National Asian Pacific American Women’s Forum (NAPAWF) is one-third South Asian. In addition to Korean, Vietnamese, Arabic, Mandarin and Cantonese, we talk to voters in Hindi, Bangla, Kannada, Telugu, Tulu and Urdu. One of our canvassers was making calls in Bangla when she spoke to one elderly woman who needed step-by-step guidance on how to use a provisional ballot at an alternative polling station. By speaking in the language that worked best for the voter, we were able to build trust.
When we are in conversation, we don’t just talk about whether and how to vote in the upcoming election. We also listen to what’s going on in their lives and in the community we are together part of and then try to connect them with help. We are hearing from AAPI women who are trapped at home with their abusers or struggling to get health care. Many are working to be able to support themselves financially, and the obstacles range from their immigration status to having to give so much of themselves taking care of their families, there’s no time left for anything else.
The work we do is about so much more than one election; it’s about building community and cultivating leadership invested in working on the issues that matter to our lives. AAPI communities hold a powerful potential to be a force for change, but the failure of the political establishment to notice us and engage long-term with our full diversity means that change will come more slowly.
It would be a critical mistake to lose the momentum and mobilization we saw in the general election and not harness it to keep building power. We don’t want to sit on the sidelines. It’s time for us to be fully represented.
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