The End of “Asian-American”?

The other day, I caught this article on my Google alerts. In it, the writer, Stephen Magagini, asserts that more Asian-Americans are eschewing the term “Asian-American” in favour of identifying themselves based solely on ethnicity.

A growing number note that Asian-American isn’t a race and say they choose to identify by their ethnicity.

“I’m full-blooded Filipino-American,” said Mae Lopez, 27, of West Sacramento. “Asian-American is kind of a loose term.”

As the race question on the U.S. census form has expanded to 15 categories and write-in options — giving Americans the right to check as many boxes as they want — fewer are embracing the term Asian-American.

Now, I’m not entirely sure where Magagini gets his information. Nowhere in the article does Magagini cite his source that “a growing number” of Asian-Americans “choose to identify by their ethnicity”, either in the recent Census or in real life. In fact, I went back to the primary Census data, and couldn’t readily find any of that racial/ethnic information (if anyone is aware of where that might be, that would be great).

Instead, Magagini seems to be relying on the on-the-street interviews he conducted with Asian Americans about how they identify themselves. This is soft journalism at its finest: Magagini replaces hard facts and actual reporting with lurid, caricature-ish details about the smell of Asian foods:

Sacramento educators Lee Yang, 40, and his wife, Bo Moua, fled communism in Laos. As they strolled through Old Sacramento, past booths selling savory Thai noodles and barbecue, nan bread and sushi, Yang said: “We look Asian.”

Classy, Mr. Magagini. Classy.

But let’s assume, for a second, that Magagini has hit upon a real phenomenon. Are Asian-Americans actually shedding the “Asian-American” identity? Is an “Asian-American” race still relevant in today’s America, or is it an archaic throwback to mid-twentieth century civil rights activism?

To answer that question, we must first consider the history of the pan-ethnic “Asian-American” identity. The phrase “Asian-American” was used informally throughout the 1960’s, but rose to mainstream prominence in the 1970’s when it became the favoured term for academics to refer to the pan-ethnic Asian community. Importantly, the term “Asian-American” was coined precisely because there was a need to refer to a generally recognized pan-Asian race in a respectful, and accurate, manner. So, a referendum on the use of “Asian-American” in today’s culture is really a referendum on the following question: is there still a need for recognizing a pan-ethnic Asian community?

I argue that there is. While it’s true that Asian-Americans face unique challenges because the umbrella term “Asian-American” is broad, I see this is one of the defining characteristics of our community. Despite the many ethnicities that fall within the pan-Asian group, the “Asian-American” movement is founded upon the similarities — not differences — that exist between these ethnicities. Historically, our community has excelled at finding commonalities between seemingly disparate narratives and using them to our mutual political and social advantage. Consider: before there was an Asian-American community, sugarcane workers of all Asian ethnicities worked together in the fields of Hawaii. White plantation managers attempted to pit Chinese, Japanese, Korean and Filipino labourers against one another in order to minimize payment of salary and benefits, yet workers repeatedly banded together (despite their ethnic differences) to fight these shared abuses. Less than forty years ago, Asian Americans banded together again in order to rally for various causes, particularly on college campuses where their efforts directly led to the formation of Asian American studies programs in schools around the country.

Regardless of our individual ethnicities, Asian-Americans claim a common American history that includes narratives of immigration, poverty, labour, and assimilation. Are the experiences of my Taiwanese-Canadian parents really so different from the experiences of your Hmong-American grandparents or your Korean-American brothers and sisters? Consistently, I am amazed by how the stories of first-, second-, and third-generation Asian Americans transcend ethnic barriers.

In addition, much of the racism faced by Asian-Americans are similar, or often, shared. Asians, regardless of ethnicity, were targeted by decades of racist immigration law that barred immigration from Asian nations. Terms like “Oriental”, “Celestial”, “chink”, “gook”, and “jap” are lobbed by racists regardless of their victim’s ethnicity. Even negative stereotypes, such as the emasculated Asian male or the hypersexualized Asian female, are blind to ethnic differences. In 1982, the murder of Vincent Chin — which galvanized the modern Asian American movement — demonstrated the shared challenges we, as a racial community face: Chin, a Chinese-American man, was murdered in retribution for the loss of American auto jobs to Japanese car manufacturers.

That isn’t to say that the term “Asian-American” isn’t without its share of problems. Asian-Americans often struggle with the homogenizing of our community. The “Yellow Peril” stereotype, for example, includes a perception that Asian Americans suffer from an indistinguishable “sameness”. This stereotype isn’t helped by an “Asian-American” umbrella term that fails to challenge non-Asians to recognize ethnicity. Furthermore, East Asians (specifically the “Big Three”: Chinese, Japanese and Koreans) tend to dominate Asian American sociopolitical activism and representation. Consequently, non-East Asian ethnicities are often overlooked when it comes to discussions of ongoing challenges faced by the Asian American community.

The debate over the benefits of pan-Asian-ness is nothing new. They have raged for as long as the Asian American community has existed, and usually, they present the same arguments presented in Magagini’s article: differences in appearance, national history, language and religion are stressed precisely because they contradict the notion of a homogenized people.  

I often feel like there’s a great deal of energy wasted in arguments that stress our differences. These arguments only serve to tear our community apart and distract us from the important activist work that remains to be done. Instead I question this: why do we believe that race and ethnicity are mutually exclusive?

My ethnicity is Chinese-American. My race is Asian-American. I am no less Asian if I identify myself as Chinese, or vice versa.

Furthermore, my relationship with my race is not diluted if it is shared with Filipino-Americans, Vietnamese-Americans, or Pacific Islander-Americans. I am no less Asian if a Korean-American considers himself Asian-American as well.

Frankly, I think the root of an article like Magagini’s is the myth that America is, or can be, post-racial. Somehow, there’s a misconception out there that racism can be eradicated simply by choosing to no longer apply labels of race to one another. But that’s a little bit like arguing that while looking at a Hummer, we could close our eyes long enough, and it would transform itself into a Volkswagon Beatle. Seeing race is a fundamental part of how humans generate and distinguish identity, and race-based prejudice is actually exacerbated if language does not exist to contextualize racial information. Indeed, CNN’s recent update of the classic doll test powerfully demonstrated the effects of not talking about race to children who are nonetheless incorporating skin colour into their evolving worldview.

There’s nothing gained by hoping to eliminate racism by trying to eliminate race. Racism is the problem of racists — people who use racial information to make derogatory and dehumanizing generalizations about groups or people. But recognizing race is also beneficial: it helps form social and sociopolitical communities and create political power for (numerically) minority groups who otherwise would have none.

So, this begs the question: if we really are facing the end of “Asian-America”, who is really leading the charge to kill it and who would benefit from its death?  Definitely not the Asian-American community.

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