#MyAsianAmericanStory: The power of hashtags in the presidential race

The #MyAsianAmericanStory hashtag was started by a southern California high-schooler after controversial comments by Jeb Bush.

Brennan Linsley/AP
Republican presidential candidate, former Florida Gov. Jeb Bush, speaks during a town-hall-style campaign stop, at the VFW in Englewood, Colo., Tuesday, Aug. 25, 2015. The GOP presidential hopeful has come under fire for calling "anchor babies" a problem with Asians.

Republican presidential candidate Jeb Bush didn’t do himself any favors when he tried to characterize the "anchor baby" issue as "more related to Asian people."

What the former Florida governor was referring to, a campaign spokeswoman later clarified, is the phenomenon known as birth tourism, where wealthy families from Asian countries take trips to the United States to have their children. But birth tourism has been seen in only limited cases and does not have a significant effect on immigration numbers.

Mr. Bush’s had earlier tried to justify use of the term "anchor baby," which is identified by the American Heritage Dictionary as offensive. The phrase refers to children born in the US to parents who are in the country illegally, with the children then gaining American citizenship.

Put together, Bush’s comments garnered widespread outrage from the Asian-American community and attacks from his GOP presidential rivals. And they sparked a social media trend: #MyAsianAmericanStory.

The hashtag – started by southern California high-schooler Jason Fong – is encouraging Asian-Americans to initiate a conversation about immigration and assimilation into the country.

In a world increasingly connected through social media, similar hashtags have become focal points of conversation. So-called hashtag activism has gained visibility especially in issues of social justice, most notably demonstrated by the #BlackLivesMatter movement, which became prominent after the death of Michael Brown in Ferguson, Mo.

Stories that have emerged out of #MyAsianAmericanStory include the struggles of being seen as a perpetual outsider in one's homeland as well as the conflict in trying to reconcile one's native and adopted cultures.

"I hope that people can look at this tag and know that Asians and Asian-Americans are part of the American narrative," 15-year-old Jason told the Los Angeles Times. "Our opinions and our stories matter just as much as those who immigrated less recently."

The 2016 presidential race has repeatedly seen the impact of social media trends.

The hashtag #BobbyJindalIsSoWhite was started by an Indian-American comedian after the Louisiana governor’s entry into the presidential race with the purpose of highlighting apparent attempts by the candidate to distance himself from his racial and immigrant background.

Additionally, the hashtag #BernieSoBlack came out of backlash against Democratic candidate Bernie Sanders for what some saw as his patronizing explanation of his record on civil rights. 

Donald Trump, the GOP front-runner, who is often credited for bringing the term “anchor baby” back into the Republican mainstream, has peppered his speeches with statements offensive to Mexican immigrants – including in his candidacy announcement when he said Mexican immigrants bring crime and drugs into the country.

The #ImNotACriminal hashtag was created for Mexican-Americans to share reactions to his statements.

Hashtag activism itself has attracted its own share of criticism, with some saying it encourages minimal participation in the political process. 

"[A] hashtag is not a movement. A hashtag does not make you Dr. King. A hashtag does not change anything. It's a hashtag," said filmmaker and writer Shonda Rhimes in a Dartmouth commencement speech last year. "It's you, sitting on your butt, typing on your computer, and then going back to binge-watching your favorite show."

But supporters of the trend, like civil rights activist DeRay Mckesson, say that social media have democratized activism to the point where a high school student or a comedian can trigger a national conversation about race or culture.

"Individual people can come together around things that they know are unjust. And they can spark change," Mr. Mckesson said in The Atlantic. "I think that what we are doing is building a radical new community in struggle that did not exist before. Twitter has enabled us to create community."

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