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Asian Americans at a demonstration in Los Angeles against US involvement in the Vietnam war, circa 1971.
Courtesy of UCLA Asian American Studies Center

What does it mean to be Asian American?

The label encompasses an entire continent of different cultural roots. Does it speak to a shared experience?

The label “Asian American” is almost comically flattening.

It consists of people from more than 50 ethnic groups, all with different cultures, languages, religions, and their own sets of historic and contemporary international conflicts. It includes newly arrived migrants and Asians who have been on American soil for multiple generations. Depending on visa types, immigration status, and class, there are vast differences even among those from the same country. In fact, the income gaps between some Asian American groups are among the largest of any ethnic category in the nation. Yet these differences are rarely explored and discussed.

With the recent rise in anti-Asian attacks, however, Asian Americans have found themselves in a rare moment in the national spotlight. For many, it has led to a renewed sense of solidarity as well as confusion about what the Asian American label means or if there really is a unifying experience attached to it.

It also inspired Vox to post a survey asking Asian Americans to write in and tell us how they’re feeling right now. The rise in violence — especially the shootings at three spas in Atlanta that left eight people dead, including six women of Asian descent — haunted the responses. One major theme emerged: Why did it take such an extreme act of violence to get America to care about its Asian communities?

“It frustrates me that the anti-Asian sentiments popularized by Trump had to be escalated to media-worthy violence and mass shootings in order to be elevated to mainstream discourse,” one person wrote from California.

“We’re trending today, but I bet we’ll be forgotten by next week or month,” wrote another from Michigan.

Other persistent issues emerged from our survey, too. Many responded that they didn’t quite know how to talk about cultural identity or racism with their parents or their children. The experience of growing up in non-diverse areas versus immigrant- or minority-dense enclaves — and how different it felt when moving from one area to another — also kept coming up. People with roots in South and Southeast Asian cultures wondered how they fit into an ethnic category so commonly associated with East Asians. Many questioned what the label Asian American really means and what purpose it serves in the larger American conversation around race.

In a series of stories publishing throughout this month, we will explore some of these questions and shared experiences, in a time when many Asian Americans are experiencing a sense of alienation not only from the nation at large, but also from the label “Asian American” itself.


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

The pitfalls — and promise — of the term “Asian American”

by Li Zhou


Julia Kuo for Vox

The many Asian Americas

by Karen Turner


Lizzie Chen for Vox

In many Asian American families, racism is rarely discussed

by Rachel Ramirez


An illustration of the author looking in a TV screen and seeing the face of Lane Kim from “The Gilmore Girls.” Anshika Khullar for Vox

Seeing myself — and Asian American defiance — in Gilmore Girls’ Lane Kim

by Sanjena Sathian


The Asian American wealth gap, explained in a comic

by Lok Siu and Jamie Noguchi


Culture

Every version of the Monica Lewinsky story reveals America’s failure of empathy

Culture

R. Kelly was convicted. Are we finally listening to Black women?

Politics & Policy

How the Christian right embraced voter suppression

View all stories in Identities

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