I hadn’t learned about them before because racism isolates us, disempowers us, and erases our history. One solution is to find others and discover strength in our stories and our numbers. In high school, my Asian friends and I jokingly called ourselves “the Asian invasion” because that was all the language we had. In college, I joined the Asian American Political Alliance. There I learned that the term “Asian American” had been invented in California by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee when they formed the group in 1968.

“Asian American” was a creation — and those who say that there are no “Asians” in Asia are right. But neither is there an “Orient” or “Orientals” — those fantastic figments of the Western imagination, as Edward Said argued. Against this racist and sexist fiction of the Oriental, we built the anti-racist, anti-sexist fiction of the Asian American. We willed ourselves into being, but as with every other act of American self-conjuring, we became marked by a contradiction between American aspiration and American reality.

On the one hand, Asian Americans have long insisted that we are patriotic and productive Americans. This self-defense often leans upon the “model minority” myth, and the idea that Asian Americans have succeeded in fields such as medicine and technology because we immigrated with educational credentials, and we raise our children to work hard. But Asian Americans are also haunting reminders of wars that killed millions and generated many refugees. And Asian Americans have come to satisfy the American need for cheap, exploitable labor — from working on railroads to giving pedicures. We were and are perceived to be competitors in a capitalist economy fractured by divisions of race, gender and class, and the ever-widening gap of inequality that affects all Americans.

These roles that we play, and the contradictions they represent, aren’t going anywhere. So long as the United States remains committed to aggressive capitalism domestically and aggressive militarism internationally, Asians and Asian Americans will continue to be scapegoats who embody threat and aspiration, an inhuman “yellow peril,” and a superhuman model minority.

No claim to American belonging will end the vulnerability of Asian Americans to racism and cyclical convulsions of violence. And what does it even mean to claim belonging in the United States? If we belong to this country, then this country belongs to us, every part of it, including its systemic anti-Black racism and its colonization of Indigenous peoples and land. Like wave after wave of newcomers to this country before, Asian immigrants and refugees learned that absorbing and repeating anti-Black racism helps in the assimilation process. And like the European settlers, Asian immigrants and refugees aspire to the American dream, whose narrative of self-reliance, success and property accumulation is built upon the theft of land from Indigenous peoples.