Do we still call ourselves “Asian American?”

AAPI Heritage Month poster from East Tennessee State UniversityWith Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month about to end, I thought I’d write a bit about the terms we choose to describe our identity. Like other ethnic groups, the labels we use for ourselves seems to be always evolving. Hispanic evolves into Latino; Negro to Black to African American; Native American to American Indian. Asian Americans are sometimes called Asian Pacific Americans, sometimes Asian Pacific islander American, and sometimes Asian American Pacific islander. These labels lead to a crazy bowl of alphabet soup acronyms: AA, APA, APIA, AAPI.

I choose to say (and write) “Asian American” most of the time, but say “Asian American Pacific Islander” and use the acronym AAPI for formal references. Although organizations such as APIA Vote and APAs for Progress helped get Asian Americans involved in the political process, President Obama and the White House prefers AAPI, as in “Asian American Pacific Islander Heritage Month.” (Note that the poster shown here, from East Tennessee State University, calls it “Asian Pacific American Heritage Month.”)

Earlier this month at an AAPI Heritage Month event sponsored by the Colorado Asian Roundtable, our friend emcee Kim Nguyen stumbled on “Asian American Pacific Islander” and I had to snicker. It’s a mouthful, all right, especially when you say it over and over into a microphone. And even just saying “AAPI” repeatedly gets to feeling odd, as if the letters lose all meaning upon repetition.

As it happens, we may be on the cusp of a change in how we identify ourselves anyway.

The Sacramento Bee the other day ran an interesting story that proposes that “Asian American” is fading off like the term “Oriental” before it.

“As Sacramento’s growing Asian immigrant communities celebrated Sunday’s Pacific Rim Street Fest, a growing number note that Asian American isn’t a race and said they choose to identify by their ethnicity,” the article stated. The excellent (required reading) group blog 8Asians picked up on the SacBee’s story and expanded upon its theme of ethnic Balkanization.

Asian Americans are increasingly identifying more by their specific culture and ethnicity, and not so much as a larger, racially-linked group.

Like a lot of social change, this may be a generational swing.

Growing up, I was Japanese American (when I wasn’t thinking of myself as a white kid, a banana or Twinkie who’s yellow on the outside and white inside). But as an adult, I identify as an Asian American first, and Japanese American second. There are a lot of reasons, not the least of which include the Japanese American community’s often tiresome small-mindedness, and my increasing interest in a shared cultural identity that includes values, traditions and cuisines (!) from many cultures other than the one I was raised in. And whether we’re Japanese American or Vietnamese American, we’ve suffered many of the same prejudices and indignities, and met — and hopefully, overcome — many of the same challenges that mainstream America has placed before us.

This issue of specific identity has risen to the surface of our racial consciousness because of the 2010 Census, which includes more categories for self-identification as well as a write-in option. But fewer respondents are choosing the broader term “Asian American” and there have been efforts across the country to be more specific, and for instance enter the term “Taiwanese American.”

The SacBee article quotes Sacramento civil rights activists Jerry Chong and Alice Wong:

“There are so many Asian ethnicities, the term Asian American still gives us a sense of unity, solidarity and identity,” said Chong, legal counsel for CAPITAL (Council of Asian Pacific Islanders Together for Advocacy & Leadership), an umbrella group for several dozen organizations.

“To break ethnicity down into the various subgroups works against the collective voice the greater community needs,” Wong said. “When you look at our history, culture and language, there are a lot of similarities.”

They include emphasis on hard work, education and family values, Chong said.

“Asian American” is an umbrella term that gained popularity in the late ’60s, in the wake of the African American civil rights era, when various Asian student groups began lobbying for ethnic studies classes that taught their history. That struggles continues today, even as the students themselves start to see themselves as representing specific communities, including Hmong, Cambodian, Pakistani, Thai or Filipino.

Let’s face it, each of our communities definitely has its own rich traditions and cultural heritage, so in a way it is unfair to lump us all together.

But my thinking is that the larger identity as Asian Americans (or AAs or APAs or APIAs or AAPIs) has still helped us be a little less invisible in the mainstream American society, and it has still allowed us to continue celebrating our own heritage.

That, after all, is what AAPI Heritage Month celebrates every year.

Tagged , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

13 Responses to Do we still call ourselves “Asian American?”

  1. pg says:

    Interesting! I think since Asian America is always in process it will always be difficult to pinpoint exactly where we are. I personally prefer Asian American to Korean American for the same reasons you mentioned. But I’ve also heard that sometimes, the umbrella term might suppress our differences and others might mistakenly see Asian America as a homogeneous group. I guess it has its pros and cons, but I hope whether or not the term “Asian American” stays or goes, we as a community never stop our collective efforts.

  2. Gil Asakawa says:

    Well said, PG — I completely agree with you. Thanks for commenting!

  3. Mike Hiranuma says:

    All of the labels are constructs. They seek to lay down a basic foundation of stereotyping as a means of categorizing the world’s population. Whether these constructs were invented by sociologists or anthropologists is immaterial. They have since evolved into political constructs that are useful in getting societal recognition, obtaining grants and other governmental fundings, identifying perpetrators of crime, and marginalizing groups of people.

    There are pros and cons to the issue of racial profiling as a means of separating one group from another. Personally, I hate the labels, but I also acknowledge their usefulness.

    I think of myself as American because I think of America as a country of opportunity for all. What distinguishes us is the ability to accommodate a diversity of cultures and peoples and to mold them into something uniquely American. Our history demonstrates that we don’t do this without difficulty but it evolves as the country expands its own definition of itself.

    Fulbeck’s current exhibit at the Japanese American National Museum underscores the multicultural diversity that is America. Miscenegation is no longer legally tolerated yet it still exists in the minds of many, particularly those living in so-called middle America and the south. Nazi Germany called it purity of race.

    If we had to use labels at all, it seems to me that color designations are fine. Yellow, black, brown, white, tan, orange, whatever is useful in making distinctions for the purposes of crime fighting. (The alleged perpetrator is described as a yellow person with black hair approximately 25 years of age…) Colors, after all, matter only in the context of color differences. (Have you ever seen black person? I have seen dark ebony people but never a black person, just as I have never seen a truly white person.)

    My wife, a multi-racial person of Cherokee, Chickasaw, Scottish, German and English descent self-identifies as Indian. Not American Indian, simply Indian. America didn’t exist before the Europeans invaded. Neither did Indians in America but it seems to be less offensive to her than Native American.

    When growing up in Hawaii, probably the most culturally diverse state in the union, we identified ourselves as Japanese. We celebrated our own festivals, ate Japanese food, but also joined other peoples in their festivals and with their foods. The history of the Hawaiian plate lunch is a testament to multicultural inclusion.

    I would hope that racial distinctions decrease as assimilation increases.

  4. Katie says:

    I agree with you, Mike. Labels are constructs. Perhaps a necessary evil? They serve a practical purpose, but they are ultimately faulty and inadequate to describe the world we live in. Reality defies categories. No one fits perfectly into any box.

    As someone who is mixed (hapa), I always find it slightly unsettling to be called one thing over another. I am not one or the other, I am both. I think perceptions will begin to change, though, as American population becomes increasingly more mixed.

  5. Gil Asakawa says:

    I agree with you Mike and Katie. These labels are constructs but ones that are still required to navigate contemporary America. Who knows, i another hundred years maybe we’ll be like Irish and Italian Americans, who suffered racial prejudice and stereotypes and labels for several generations until they became “mainstream.” Then again, we’ll never look like the white mainstream, so we may never be allowed to assimilate into the larger culture.

    I love Hawaii, btw because that’s the one place we can feel “at home” and not be on guard!

  6. Lxy says:

    Regarding the “labels are constructs” rhetoric from people here, ALL forms of identity are constructs.

    To reject categorizations (or “labels”) is to reject the very ideas of community, culture, and heritage themselves–all of which are premised upon social forms of belonging that transcend so-called individualism.

    Your identity as an American is also a construct and a label.

    Your identity as, say, a Christian is also a construct and a label.

    Indeed, your identities as a Homo Sapiens, Human Being, or even “Individual” are also constructs and labels.

    Would you reject these labels as well?

    As for that article by the Sacramento Bee, the agenda and motive behind it should be critically questioned.

    That article seems a little bit too celebratory and gleeful about dissolving the category of Asian American.

    I doubt that White America or its media give a damn about the ethnic diversity of Asian Americans.

    Their agenda is more likely about promoting ethnic division among Asian people.

    This is a typical divide-and-conquer strategy that White America has always used to maintain power and dominance.

    Foment divisions between and among minority communites. And keep them weak and divided.

    This is called the Willie Lynch strategy.

    And this is not about “celebrating diversity”; it is about dominance and control.

  7. Gil Asakawa says:

    Legit comment, Lxy, but I wonder if the SacBee is consciously following a “divide & conquer” plan… it may be a subconscious strategy borne of white privilege, but I hesitate to give that much credit to the mainstream media. They’re not great at recognizing Asians in their communities, that’s fer sure. But I personally doubt they’re so evil that they’re complicitly and systematically working against us. I hope not, anyway, since I work for the MSM! Thanks for posting…

  8. Benny Luo says:

    Just added your blog to this Symbaloo webmix, check it out at:

  9. Gil Asakawa says:

    Thanks, Benny! Symbaloo’s cool!

  10. Gumpytono says:

    Gil, in a couple generations we won’t have to worry about fitting into the white mainstream, they’ll be more of a minority than anyone. We’ll have to worry about fitting into the latino mainstream, and probably be required to learn spanish. Better start working on Sushi Tacos so you’re grandchildren will have gainful employment lol

  11. Gil Asakawa says:

    Good point — I guess the young Korean Americans driving around LA in the Kogi BBQ Taco Truck are well-positioned for the future with their Kimchee Quesadillas and Calbi Tacos!

  12. Gumpytono says:

    In semi-seriousness (moreso than my last post) calling all white people “white america” is just as much a misnomer as calling all Asians “asian america” – Koreans, Japanese, Chinese, Philipino etc are all different culturally, and this includes 2nd,3rd etc. generation – in that same vein, “whites” from the south are different from the Yankees which are different from the middle americans which are different from the West coasters – it’s probably as racist for a Japanese american like me to lump all white people into the category “white people”, when it is probably more utilitarian to divide by geographic location, the same way China, japan, and Korea is divided geographically, and thus culturally, in Asia. thoughts?

  13. Gil Asakawa says:

    Well, you’re right, it’s racist to call all Caucasians “White People,” but I do describe Caucasians that way, and in fact most Asian Americans use the term, a study found a few years ago.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.