By Sam Cacas, AAV Contributing Editor
In recent years, I’ve heard fellow Asian Americans of many different ethnicities say they don’t prefer the term “Asian American” for various reasons, the most common being: the particular Asian ethnicity to which they belong doesn’t seem to be included in discussions about so-called Asian-American issues; the term Asian American ghettoizes their existence, which they feel is inferior to them, given their wealth; and they are often reminded of their foreign-born status, so they don’t feel they identify with being American.
Discussing such concerns with others of Asian heritage who dislike being called “Asian Americans” ultimately raises a related question particular relevant in APA Heritage Month: “What does it mean to have a racial identity that is termed Asian-American?”
I’ve asked myself this question since 1975, when I was a gangly, highly idealistic college student on the campus of the University of Maryland, College Park. At the time, I took a class called “Asians in America” – my first introduction to the fact that people of Asian ancestry in this country had a history and culture to be proud of. Just a few examples from my orientation:
These and other aspects of Asian-American history made me proud of my racial heritage for the first time in my life. Previously, I would often feel embarrassed when my father would tell me that my uncle had graduated from UC-Berkeley with an Accounting degree but could not get a job in that field because no firms would hire Filipinos at the time. I was also embarrassed in high school when I learned about the Chinese Exclusion Act — passed by Congress in 1882 — which prohibited Chinese from legally immigrating to the U.S.
A major omission in such revelations was discussion of racism’s role in these historical inequities, and the lack of protest against them. These injustices also reinforced other predominant aspects of my pre-1975 mindset about Asian Americans: Hollywood characters like Hop Sing on the T.V. show Bonanza, as well as the absence of Asian faces in both corporate and governmental offices.
Before my first Asian-American Studies course, I was regularly attracted to the Black Power movement and its cultural manifestations, such as soul music and African-American Studies. Recollecting this period in my life, I sometimes think I was just trying to be a Black person inside of an Asian American’s body. In reality, however, I was attracted to a culture that admired righteous resistance to injustices. But what often set me apart when I socialized with Blacks were the frequent reminders of my purported foreign status that whites also assumed: that I was a foreigner just because I was “Asian”– even though I was born in the United States.
So the very act of learning about Asian-American history in that class at Maryland made me feel less invisible in my racial identity than I had felt throughout high school. Keep in mind, it is an Asian-American perspective I was taught – not just sets of historical events. The protest movements chronicled by Filipino-American writer Carlos Bulosan, in America is in the Heart, was just one example of the many books this course introduced me to the experiences and perspectives of Filipino-American participants in significant historical political events. Before the 1975 course, the idea of protesting and being Asian in this country was completely out of my purview or logic. After completing that course, the act of political protest by Asian Americans was not an aberration.
Interestingly enough, I learned that the term “Asian American” was coined in the context of protest. In 1968, a group of Asian-American students at UC-Berkeley who had joined a protest in support of Black Panther Huey Newton created their own banner that read “Asian Americans for Justice.” The term became more popular in the early 1970s during nationwide protests supporting ethnic studies and racial admissions, and increasingly took root through the 1980s, in the climates of anti-Asian violence and the immigrant rights movement.
While this racial rubric known as Asian-American was initially coined in the context of organizing around pan-Asian justice issues, the recent emergence of Asian Americans as pop culture icons in business, media, sports, and politics have lent further legitimacy to an Asian American identity. For instance, pro golfer supreme Tiger Woods, Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang and pop singer Coco Lee are just a few examples of figures who affirmed their Asian American identity in more than a few mainstream media accounts. And the allocation of advertising dollars to a market segment known as the Asian-American market certainly speaks volumes about the increasing recognition of a collective Asian-American identity by corporate America.
Despite such developments, Asian Americans will always be playing catch-up in terms of addressing important questions like whether we should just identify with our own ethnic group and defy racial identification, or whether there is a more appropriate term other than “Asian American” by which to describe what is common-ground and mutually beneficial despite our diversity. The ongoing need to ask these questions is what makes it important for all Asian Americans to continue learning about our histories – whether of our own ethnic group or other Asian ethnic groups – during times like National Asian Pacific American Heritage Month. By continuing such exploration, we can begin to embrace a part of our human identity that we have too often been taught to deny.