Wednesday, July 19, 2017

Why I am not “Asian” and Other Reflections on Asian American Identities

The experiences of Asian Americans in the legal world are gaining attention—a long overdue development.  This week, Yale Law School published a comprehensive report entitled “A Portrait of Asian Americans in the Law.” The report covers a variety of issues—Asian Americans’ experiences in law schools, clerkships, law firms, government, judgeships, and legal academia, along with the various obstacles that we face.  Shortly after the Yale report was released, the Washington Post published an article on this topic, drawing from the report. 

Just last month, the Law School Survey of Student Engagement (LSSSE) also published a report focusing on the experiences of Asian and Asian American law students—especially diversity among these students.  I was invited by LSSSE Director Aaron Taylor to write the Foreword for this report.  LSSSE wanted to address the proper terminology to refer to various Asian American groups, and my Foreword discussed that issue.  Drawing from my discussion with Aaron, I noted that racial terminology is inherently problematic, but that it is necessary to discuss race, and that we have to accept imperfect solutions.  Nevertheless, I do believe that discussing the nuances of this terminology can help rebut stereotypes of Asian Americans and help us understand distinctions within the group.

The Yale report notes that it “use[s] the term ‘Asian American’ and ‘Asian’ in accordance with their usage by cited sources” … but also acknowledges that the terms are not necessarily interchangeable[.]”  I was glad to see the report highlight this tension. Many sources use the terms interchangeably to reduce word counts and avoid repetition.  In one sense, that is understandable.  However, it has long given me pause that people view the terms as synonymous: they often drop the “American” and refer to Asian Americans as just “Asians”—without critical reflection.  The “American” part is really important to many of us.  Throughout our history, Asian Americans have been viewed as perpetual foreigners who can never be “real Americans.”  Simply calling us “Asian” only reinforces that stereotype and erases a core aspect of our identities.  Moreover, lumping different groups together under the rubric of “Asian”—a term that includes 4.5 billion people—obscures far too many differences.

The Yale report also notes that “the term ‘Asian’ may include foreign nationals[.]”  The implication then is that the term “Asian American” may not include such foreign nationals.  My personal view is that anyone who is living in America is “American” regardless of citizenship, nationality, or intent to remain.  I hold this view even more strongly in the context of the Trump administration’s attacks on immigrants. 

Additionally, some people prefer the term “Asian Pacific American” so that Pacific Islanders are included.  Others think that Pacific Islanders should be identified separately from Asian Americans.  The U.S. Census Bureau takes this latter position: its racial categories include “Asian” and “Native Hawaiian or Other Pacific Islander.”  And within Asian American circles, there are distinctions made between South Asian Americans (those descended from the Indian subcontinent), East Asian Americans (those of Chinese, Japanese, and Korean descent), and Southeast Asian Americans (those from Vietnam, Laos, Cambodia, etc.). 

These distinctions are especially confusing to people outside of our communities.  Often, when I present my research on South Asian American racial ambiguity to academic audiences, a fellow scholar who is not Asian American will come up to me afterwards to talk about my presentation.  Although I used the term “South Asian American” dozens of time during the presentation, the person will say something like “your work on Southeast Asians is really interesting”—despite the fact that I did not use the term “Southeast Asian” at all.  Of course, I realize that this is a perfectly innocent mistake, but it does reflect a general lack of familiarity with Asian Americans, even among some scholars who are interested in race.

I hope those who are unfamiliar with Asian American identities will take the time to learn about these basic distinctions; and also about the salient issues which affect all Asian American communities.  Discourse on race is such a balance between such commonalities and distinctions, and Asian Americans are no different.  I encourage everyone to read the Yale and LSSSE reports and the Washington Post article … and also my articles

Acknowledgement: Thank you to my colleague Shakira Pleasant for her helpful feedback on drafts of this post.

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