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The inadequacy of the term “Asian American”

The label aspires to unify a wide range of communities with common cause and shared experiences. But many feel it flattens and erases entire cultures.

A drawing of many Asian faces. Hanifa Abdul Hameed for Vox

This article is part of the Asian American identity series.

Sarath Suong has often felt like the term “Asian American” doesn’t really serve him.

“I was told that I am Asian American when we came here,” says Suong, a Cambodian refugee who immigrated to the US as a child. “But I faced a lot of colorism, a lot of classism, and not a lot of understanding about who Southeast Asians are and how we fit into the Asian American context.”

Suong’s family was among tens of thousands of refugees who fled during the Khmer Rouge regime in Cambodia, eventually settling in the Boston area. When he arrived in the US, he struggled to find his footing in a country where everyone from teachers to neighbors made him feel unwelcome.

“Growing up for me, I felt so disempowered,” he told Vox. “I was always wondering why people in my community were getting harassed and being thrown in jail by the police.”

That experience, Suong says, wasn’t reflected in how the media — or even members of the community — talked about Asian Americans.

As white writers pushed the idea of the “model minority myth” — a racist trope that suggests that all Asian Americans are well off and pits them against other groups — Suong feared for his friends’ deportations and violence at the hands of cops. And as he advocated for more resources in Southeast Asian neighborhoods, he didn’t always feel heard by other Asian Americans, either.

“Trying to enter spaces with predominantly wealthy, light-skinned East Asians, there was a dismissal of us,” he said.

All this has led Suong, now 40 and the head of the Southeast Asian Freedom Network, to be wary of such a sweeping category — and how it excludes some of its most vulnerable members.

While Asian American was a term established by activists in the 1960s as a means to build political power, it’s also been criticized for obscuring the immense diversity among those it purports to cover, centering East Asians and preventing specific ethnic groups from getting the policy support they need. Asian Americans not only have the largest income gap of any racial group but also massive health care, education, and economic disparities that rarely get addressed. Cambodian refugees like Suong, and Southeast Asians in particular, are among those who’ve been overlooked: 19 percent of Cambodians live in poverty in the US, compared to 12 percent of Asian people and 15 percent of all people.

Rev. Deborah Lee prays before attending a deportation hearing of an immigrant from Cambodia in March 2018.
Christie Hemm Klok/The Washington Post/Getty Images

In the 1980s and ’90s the classification was broadened even further via the term Asian American and Pacific Islander, or AAPI, a decision that’s proven contentious as well. (In 1997, the US government disaggregated Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders in its data, though the vestiges of this umbrella category remain. See: AAPI Heritage Month, the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus, and Asian Pacific American studies departments at numerous colleges.)

The term AAPI is also meant to be inclusive, but its usage — by government agencies in particular — has had the opposite effect.

“AAPI is incredibly ambitious. It contends to cover and speak for some of the largest regions in the world,” says Tavae Samuelu, the executive director of Empowering Pacific Islander Communities. “In some ways, marginalization and erasure feel inevitable.”

The terms Asian American and AAPI, in their most idealized versions, have at times historically served as a unifying banner for a wide range of communities to work together toward a common cause. They signify, too, a sense of shared experience tied to what it’s like to be an immigrant, or part of a family of immigrants, and the xenophobia that different groups have encountered, a connection that’s been especially apparent in the wake of recent attacks targeting Asian American people during the pandemic.

“The thing that these Asian American communities [have in common] is the experience of perhaps being viewed as outsiders,” says Indiana University’s Dina Okamoto. “Maybe you arrived 10 years ago, but maybe your family has also been in the US for generations. There are experiences of being othered these communities share.”

But this connection can be tenuous and this label so broad that recent calls for data disaggregation and more visible recognition of the roughly 50 ethnic groups that make up the Asian diaspora have surfaced. In conversations with more than 20 people who spoke about their Asian American identities, there was a huge focus on acknowledging the different needs that various groups may have — and an emphasis on the fact that the community is no monolith.

“Are Asian Americans one or many?” asks UC Riverside political science professor Karthick Ramakrishnan. “The answer is both.”

The benefits of such a label — and who created it

The term Asian American was once a radical one.

First used by UC Berkeley student activists Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka in 1968, “Asian American” was used to unite different communities of Asian descent in order to create a more formidable protest bloc, an approach inspired by the Black Power movement. Their strength in numbers proved more impactful than individual ethnic groups working alone, including working alongside Black and Latino students for an ethnic studies department at the college.

“There were so many Asians out there in the political demonstrations but we had no effectiveness,” Ichioka has said previously in an interview with UC San Diego ethnic studies professor Yến Lê Espiritu. “Everyone was lost in the larger rally. We figured that if we rallied behind our own banner, behind an Asian American banner, we would have an effect on the larger public.”

Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, activists who coined the term “Asian American,” were honored in 1999 at the 30th anniversary celebration of the establishment of Asian American Studies Center at UCLA.
Courtesy of UCLA Asian American Studies Center

The rise of the term also helped combat the use of more derogatory language that referred to people of Asian descent. Before “Asian American” was popularized, the word “Oriental,” a label that othered and exoticized those it described, was common parlance.

For many experts and organizers who spoke with Vox, that solidarity is as important now as it was back then.

“When it comes to having policy influence and exercising political power, it is absolutely essential to have an Asian American movement. Each of these groups is too small, and there are similarities,” says Ramakrishnan.

In the decades since it took off, the term is now mostly seen as a demographic marker. Today, it captures about 19 million people, up 81 percent since 2000, according to a recent Pew report — and a large immigrant population; 59 percent of all Asian Americans are immigrants, including 1.4 million of whom are undocumented. Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial group in America, currently 5.6 percent of the county’s population but projected to be as much as 14 percent by 2065.

Prior to becoming a more established category, though, issues of immigration — and, relatedly, xenophobia — have historically bound Asian Americans closely with one another, serving as a common thread for such an expansive group.

We are “grounded in our history of exclusion laws and immigration bans,” emphasizes Ramakrishnan. “What makes us Asian is a history of exclusion.”

That history goes as far back as 1882 when Chinese immigrants were barred from becoming citizens because they were seen as competition for white workers; in 1917, Indian people were similarly barred; and by 1924, Japanese and Korean people were barred as well.

In a cartoon from 1888, a Chinese man sits outside the gate of liberty beside a sign that reads “Notice: communist, nihilist, socialist, Xenia, and hoodlum welcome but no admittance to Chinamen.”
An 1888 editorial cartoon, titled “The Only One Barred Out,” references the Chinese Exclusion Act.
Interim Archives/Getty Images

In all three cases, groups immigrated to the US as laborers and were framed as the source of economic problems, and in some cases public health ones, too. Members of ethnic groups that have more recently come to the country as refugees — including Hmong, Burmese, and Laotian people — have also faced restrictive immigration policies that have focused on deportation.

“We share ... a continued history of being scapegoated for America’s ills — literally and figuratively — and never being accepted as full and equal members of society,” says Karen Umemoto, the director of the Asian American Studies Center at UCLA.

In recent decades, combating such “othering” has fueled solidarity.

One such instance was in 1982, when 27-year-old Vincent Chin was murdered by two white autoworkers who saw him as representing the increased competition the US was facing from Japanese manufacturers. Asian American-led protests erupted across the country and pushed the Justice Department to investigate the attack as a civil rights violation.

Vincent Chin (left) died three days after being beaten with a baseball bat in Detroit, Michigan, in 1982. Ronald Ebens (pictured above) and his stepson Michael Nitz were accused of beating Chin. They pleaded guilty to a reduced charge of manslaughter.
Bettmann Archive via Getty Images

Currently, in the wake of a surge in anti-Asian racism during the pandemic, attacks on older people, mass shootings in Atlanta that killed six women of Asian descent, and a mass shooting in Indianapolis that killed four Sikh Americans, there’s similarly been a renewed focus on pan-Asian solidarity and activism.

“It has always been anti-Asian violence that brings people together,” says Espiritu. In recent months, thousands of people across the country have gathered for #StopAsianHate rallies in cities including Oakland, New York, and Philadelphia, and worked to raise awareness for nonprofits tracking hate incidents and offering support to local communities.

Ramakrishnan hopes, too, that such efforts will be inclusive of different groups within the Asian diaspora moving forward. “Just as you have South Asian leaders who are showing up to denounce incidents predominantly affecting East Asians, you also need to have East Asians showing up for South Asians and Southeast Asians as well,” he says.

The experiences that Asian Americans share

There are the historical circumstances that bind Asian Americans together, and then there are the everyday experiences they share — many often driven by the “forever foreigner” stereotype.

People from the Excluded Workers movement celebrate the Hindu festival of Holi in Washington Square Park on March 29, 2021 in New York City.
Alexi Rosenfeld/Getty Images

“No matter how much I wanted to be an American, other people wouldn’t see me as that,” says Daniel Shinwoo Kim, 26, a conservationist based in Tacoma, Washington. “Asian stereotypes, Asian anything, are just considered a joke. The most obvious is Asian men’s genitalia being smaller, people laugh at it.”

The idea that people of Asian descent didn’t belong to the US, or were inherently foreign to this country, has fueled tropes like the fetishization of women, the emasculation of men, and insults about people’s accents, food, and appearance.

“The hypersexualization that I faced, probably as young as [when] I was 6, changes how you consider sex and sexuality,” says Elim, 26, an organizer in Doraville, Georgia, who worked at her parents’ anime shop as a child and dealt with men constantly telling her how much they loved Asian women — and how exotic they found them. (Some full names have been omitted to protect people’s privacy.) “It made me question what it was like to be desired, and what it meant beyond being a sex object,” she says.

Elim and others spoke, too, of being made to feel undesirable because of their identity.

“There was often people mimicking the racist caricatures of Indian characters they see on TV or parroting comedy skits they see or the desirability or lack thereof of Indian American women, specifically,” says M., 22, a resident of Washington, DC.

Combating the idea of being “foreigners” has often meant dealing with — and pushing back on — the pressure to conform as well.

“In America, whiteness is your standardized identity. And that was amplified in the neighborhood I grew up in,” says Evan, 34, a government analyst in New York City. “It feels like you’re playing a role. You spend a lot of time thinking about how you come across to people. How are these white people going to judge me? In high school, I was always envious of people growing up in Asian enclaves in California or New York City. It just felt like an easier state of being.”

“I think the first word I think of is ‘invisible.’ Aside from stereotypes of Asian women being very quiet, which I’ve, in my whole life, intentionally fought against, I have been thinking a lot about social situations where I just don’t have any social capital,” says Annie, 26, a graphic designer in New York City. “I have to compensate for that by presenting myself in a very loud way through what I wear or the way I speak. I’ve tried to walk more aggressively.”

Such dynamics have led some Asian Americans to distance themselves from their identities when they were younger, and to embrace them more fully later in life.

“To be completely candid, I’m more embracing of being Asian American now that I had been previously,” says Melina, 40, a massage therapist in Boston, who credits a trip to Myanmar, where her family emigrated from, as an experience that changed her outlook. “That feeling of being left out, of not belonging, is something that I internalized for a long time.”

It is through some of this shared pain — along with a recognition of the specific hardships that different groups have faced — that Asian Americans, too, can find solidarity with one another. Among second-generation Asian Americans, there’s also a broad sense of the sacrifice that family members have made to come to the US in the first place.

“Many of us had immigrant parents, and their focus was on surviving and making a life for themselves and their families,” says Jan Kang, 59, a tech executive, who spoke about how her father took a second job in the emergency room to pay for her college tuition.

“I felt like my parents sacrificed a lot,” says Kang.

How we ended up with the AAPI label

In addition to grouping people of Asian descent under one racial category, the label expanded in the 1980s to include populations across the Pacific Ocean.

The term AAPI, which includes Pacific Islanders, took off prominently among academics and was used in the 1990 census as government officials weighed how to count the group, who had previously been categorized in individual boxes like “Hawaiian,” “Guamanian,” and “Samoan.”

Members of community groups calling for the “de-colonization and de-militarization of Guam” attend a “People for Peace” rally in Hagatna on August 14, 2017.
Ed Jones/AFP/Getty Images

“Pacific Islanders were too small of a group in the mind of key decision-makers to report separately,” says UCLA research professor Paul Ong, who added that the presence of Asian Americans in Hawaii may have been one of the reasons the two were initially put together. Scholars also began using the term to refer to experiences with colonialism that both Asian countries and Pacific Islanders had had. The idea was to “combine forces, given we were less than 3 percent of the US population in those days,” says Umemoto, who helped form a coalition of Asian American and Pacific Islander student groups along the West Coast.

But many Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders argued this grouping erased their specific and current struggles. Although some Pacific Islanders are immigrants, many identify as Indigenous. Pacific Islanders as a group include Native Hawaiian, Samoan, Tokelauan, Tahitian, Tongan, Guamanian, Chamorro, Mariana Islander, Saipanese, Palauan, Yapese, Chuukese, Pohnpeian, Kosraean, Marshallese, I-Kiribati, Fijian, Papua New Guinean, Solomon Islander, and Ni-Vanuatu people.

“Our race is deeply shaped by continued colonization and militarization, and they aren’t necessarily key issues for the Asian American community,” says Samuelu. ”For many Pacific Islanders, America happened without our consent.”

The AAPI category also painted over inequities that existed, making it seem as though Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders were overrepresented at higher education institutions like other Asian Americans when the opposite was the case. When looking at degree attainment broken out by ethnicity, 62 percent of AAPI adults 24 and older have completed an associate’s degree or higher, compared to 28 percent of Native Hawaiians and Pacific islanders of the same age.

In 1997, the Office of Management and Budget — which helps determine the categories used by the census — officially disaggregated the group in its data collection practices, though the label is still used by the media, academics, advocacy organizations, and some government institutions. During the pandemic, for instance, Pacific Islanders have pushed back against states’ decisions to group them together with Asian Americans, a move that’s made it tough to discern when Pacific Islanders have had much higher rates of coronavirus cases and fatalities.

“Pacific Islanders always ask, ‘Are you just using us in name, or do you cover us in a meaningful fashion?’” says Ong.

Sela Panapasa, a researcher at the University of Michigan who identifies as a Pacific Islander of Rotuman, Tongan, and Tuvalu descent, says that Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders have long been invisible — something that lumping them into a larger category only exacerbated. “And who wants to be invisible, as a PI myself?” she says.

The problem with sweeping labels

It’s increasingly apparent that sweeping labels have serious problems.

When it comes to the term “Asian American,” there’s a continual risk that it’s masking the differences within communities and fueling the myth that Asian Americans are a monolithic group. For some, there’s also the sense that East Asians, including groups that were part of some of the earlier waves of Asian immigrants such as Chinese, Japanese, and Korean Americans, are viewed as more synonymous with the term Asian than others.

“It erases way too many people,” says Elim. “That’s bullshit. We’re not all the same.”

Asian Americans comprise roughly 50 ethnic groups, who speak upward of 100 languages including Indian Americans, Chinese Americans, Taiwanese Americans, Filipino Americans, Vietnamese Americans, Korean Americans, Japanese Americans, Pakistani Americans, Cambodian Americans, Hmong Americans, Thai Americans, Laotian Americans, Bangladeshi Americans, Burmese Americans, Nepalese Americans, Indonesian Americans, Sri Lankan Americans, Malaysian Americans, Bhutanese Americans, and Mongolian Americans — and that’s just some of the diversity that exists.

Joemar Olit carries a Filipino flag through the Undiscovered SF’s creative night market in San Francisco, Calif. Saturday, July 20, 2019.
Jessica Christian/San Francisco Chronicle/Getty Images

There are also enormous generational, religious, class, and ideological differences among these groups, as well as huge economic disparities.

According to a report from the National Community Reinvestment Coalition, the income gaps among different Asian American ethnic groups are the widest of any racial group, and they are still growing. While Indian Americans have the highest median income of $100,000, for example, Burmese Americans have the lowest, at $36,000. Similarly, there are significant disparities among Asian Americans in educational attainment and health care outcomes: 94 percent of Japanese and Taiwanese Americans have graduated high school, compared to less than 66 percent of Laotian and Hmong Americans. And 22 percent of Nepalese Americans don’t have health insurance compared to 6 percent of Japanese Americans.

“I think one of the biggest indicators is what did communities come to the US with. There is a big difference in the social, political, and literal capital that someone from China may have come from and refugees from Cambodia and Laos,” says Quyen Dinh, executive director of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

When policymakers simply group all Asian Americans together, none of these inequities are visible, meaning help often doesn’t get to the groups that need it most.

“There has long been a problem of lumping all of the groups together, which makes Asian Americans look well-off by some measures when averaged out as a sociopolitical group,” says Umemoto. “But we’re a bifurcated community, with wide differences in well-being within and across ethnic groups.”

Lamis J. Deek, a civil rights attorney for Muslims, South Asians, and Arab Americans, speaks at an anti-racism press conference on September 9, 2011, in front of Manhattan’s City Hall.
Robert Nickelsberg/Getty Images

The rise of the “model minority” stereotype, too, only added to the perception that all Asian Americans are broadly successful, camouflaging the struggles and diversity of many community members. And whether it’s representation in community organizations or the way the media talks about Asian Americans, many people don’t think the term is representative of the actual breadth of the Asian diaspora as a whole, either.

“Something I’ve encountered a lot growing up is the erasure of South Asians as Asian. From a young age, folks would tell me, ‘Well, you’re Indian, that’s different from being Asian!’” says M.

There’s a unique South Asian experience with “rising racism and Islamophobia” that should be acknowledged, M. says, referring to the surge in hate crimes and anti-Muslim sentiment in the wake of 9/11. “Bigotry toward our Muslim brothers and sisters translates to bigotry toward anyone brown.”

For many, identifying based on their ethnicity also speaks more directly to their family ties and cultural heritage, compared to a more abstract marker like “Asian American.”

“My felt identity, the one that I carry around in my body, is that ... I’m a third-generation Japanese American,” says University of Colorado ethnic studies professor Daryl Maeda. “There are vanishingly few people who would say they’re Asian American as a felt identity. I think it’s a political identity rather than a cultural one or a familial one.”

This is further complicated by the fact that Asian American is an identity that’s often externally imposed because of how people are racialized in the US. When people of Asian descent have been targeted in America — both in recent attacks related to the coronavirus and historically — such racism is often directed at people of many Asian ethnicities.

“We are all put in this same label even though for thousands of years we’ve fought wars against each other,” says Shinwoo Kim, 26.

How to capture the nuances within the larger Asian American category

There’s a major need to recognize individual ethnic groups, and many advocates say this begins with data.

Data disaggregation as a concept sounds complex, but in practice, it’s very straightforward: In addition to gathering data about Asian Americans as a large group, the government can also gather data by ethnic group and direct other major institutions to do the same.

By doing so, policymakers would be able to better measure many of these disparities and appropriately target their responses. In the 2020 census, there is some disaggregation, though it’s not enough: The survey ultimately enables people to identify as Asian American and as other ethnic categories including Chinese, Filipino, Asian Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, Japanese, and “other.” Notably, a lot of groups are left out, including some who face the highest rates of poverty and unemployment among the Asian American diaspora, such as Cambodian, Hmong, and Bhutanese Americans. People of these backgrounds are still able to write in how they identify, which the census will report out as well.

“Our ideal solution is that all 50-plus communities have checkboxes,” says Dinh, of the Southeast Asia Resource Action Center.

The push for more disaggregation has extended to states, too. In Rhode Island, the All Students Count Act became law in 2017, requiring public schools to break out data on Asian American students by ethnicity — though activists are still fighting to make sure it’s fully implemented. In California, too, a 2016 law required the state’s public health department to disaggregate data, with the goal of providing better insurance coverage to groups that don’t have it, and to better understand how illnesses affect various groups differently. Disaggregated health data has played a role in revealing how diabetes disproportionately affects Filipino Americans and South Asian Americans, for instance.

For Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, data disaggregation has been critical during the coronavirus pandemic as well. “In the aggregate, it looks like AAPI has the lowest rates of infection, but when you pull out PI, you see we’re twice as, four times as, six times as likely to get the infection,” says Samuelu.

In the end, such disaggregation speaks to a larger issue about being seen.

Approximately 3,000 activists, residents, and local politicians marched across the Brooklyn Bridge in a rally against anti-Asian hate on April 4.
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

“As a young person who identifies as biracial — Khmer and Black — I always feel left out, particularly when filling out school forms, job applications, and internship opportunities,” Deijah Prak Preaster, an ARISE Youth Leader, said in a 2020 report. “I am always forced to check off the ‘other’ box for the question on ethnicity. The feeling of not being counted or seen hurts; it makes me feel my identity does not matter.”

Currently, the #StopAsianHate movement has also been an inflection point for some Asian Americans to talk about their identity more openly and weigh such questions.

“I think it’s an opportunity to talk about the ways we’re leveraged against each other, the way that East Asians have been used as a wedge and this shining example,” says Elim. “None of these communities are monolithic, and we perpetuate a lot of violence toward each other.”

That effort is integral to attempts to strengthen Asian American solidarity, experts tell Vox.

“I identify as Tamil, I identify as South Asian, I identify as Indian American, I identify as Asian American. It’s not an either/or for me,” says Ramakrishnan.

“People are not just one thing,” echoes Espiritu. “I do identify as Asian American — it is a political identity — but I also identify as a Vietnamese refugee.”

There are a lot of experiences that Asian Americans have in common — including a fight to be visible in American society and a focus on combating the systems reinforced by white supremacy. But achieving true unity may only be possible if people within it are willing to acknowledge not only similarities but differences in need.

The label only works, Suong says, “if Asian Americans can look inward and say, ‘Look, let’s join together and support those who are most marginalized.’ If Asian America really took care of who’s vulnerable in Asian America, we’d have really strong solidarity.”

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