Rosalind Chou outlines the crux of neoliberalism in Asian American Sexual Politics. She states that neoliberalism an is interaction of discourses that call for freedom from economic restraints, that construct consumerism as citizenship, and that stress individual agency through personal choices (77). Neoliberal ideologies are made visible through a textual analysis of an anti-Trump presidential campaign video, produced by South Asian-American political group Vote Against Hate. In appealing to neoliberalism, this video dangerously masks the problematic nature of the American Dream.
The video starts with a series of clips of young South Asians. They start by saying,
“Dear Babus and Dhadhis who still vote Republican—dear Ammamas and Appapas—dear Nanaas and Nanis” (0:00-0:05).
In using the terms for “grandma” and “grandpa” in various South Asian languages (in Hindi, Tamil, and Punjabi, respectively), these clips frame the video’s content for heteronormative viewers: older, heterosexual South Asian couples, presumably the older relatives of these young Asian-Americans.
This heteronormative framing at the start of the video is used, through neoliberal rhetoric, to link the South Asian “grandmas” and “grandpas” to the American Dream. A voiceover of the young Asian-Americans plays as old photographs of South Asian families are shown (mostly young, heterosexual couples with multiple children):
“30 years ago, 40 years ago, 50 years ago, you left your country and moved to the United States so that you could become: biochemists, a veterinarian, pharmacists, architects, engineer. You came to the United States so you could have a better life. You came so you could raise a family. I mean, let’s face it: you guys, are the American Dream!… You worked so hard all so that I could get an education” (0:14-0:35).
Through the listing of specific occupations (“biochemists, veterinarian,…” etc.) and reference to “work[ing] hard”, the video glorifies the neoliberal ideas of individual agency, personal choices, and capitalist labor as citizenship. Moreover, referring to life in the United States “a better life” also glorifies neoliberal ideas of freedom from restraints and the West as the nexus of modernity. This neoliberalism is essential to linking South Asian-Americans to the American Dream. Generally speaking, the American Dream is an ideal of family life in the United States. However, implicit in the American Dream’s construction are discourses of racialized heteronormativity, class mobility, and meritocracy—the imagined families who live the American Dream are white, heterosexual couples, with a male breadwinner who has worked hard to earn his family’s middle-class lifestyle. The video mobilizes neoliberal tenets to bypass the racialized white heteronormativity of the American Dream, instead focusing on its elements of class mobility (individual choice to leave their home countries for a “better life”), meritocracy (“you worked hard” through capitalist participation), and family (the juxtaposed pictures), in order to include South Asians in its idealized construction.
While the message of the video is one that I personally agree with, using neoliberal tenets to (re)construct what it means to be American is dangerous and obscures many realities of Asian-American lives. Neoliberalism’s emphasis on individual choice and freedoms leaves social, political, and historical structures unacknowledged. For example, the video’s political mobilization of the American Dream without acknowledging its construction is also problematic, as this justifies and normalizes the racism, classism, and misogyny that is present among Asian-American communities. Focusing on heteronormative families erases the multitude of queer South Asian experiences. Glorifying the economic successes of South Asian immigrants leaves unacknowledged the global inequalities that force people to immigrate to the United States in the first place, and the fact that many Asian-American immigrants do not become wealthy professionals. Lastly, neoliberal appeals to ideas of class mobility and meritocracy in the American Dream do not acknowledge inhibiting social structures for South Asian-Americans, and especially South Asian-American women who face intersectional economic oppression from both racism and misogyny. While preventing a Trump presidency may be a priority for Vote Against Hate, these neoliberal campaign videos leave their own harmful mark on Asian-American politics.