Identity, Multiple: Asian-Americans

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Identity, Multiple: Asian-Americans

Although Filipinos lived in the United States in the sixteenth century, the first large Asian group in the modern era arrived in the United States in the nineteenth century. Since then two inclinations have simultaneously characterized how Asian-Americans' ethnic identity has been viewed. One tendency has been to look at their identity either in terms of a collective panethnic identity as "Asian-Americans" or an ethnic-specific identity, such as "Filipino-American."

The second tendency is rooted in the fact that ethnic identity is both a concept applied to a cultural group (a group that shares assumptions about the world and ways of interpreting and interacting) and a sense of connection created by that group. That tendency has been for exogenous views (that is, perspectives of those outside Asian-American communities) to differ from endogenous views (that is, perspectives within Asian-American communities) about the meaning and significance of ethnicity. Both tendencies have arisen because, like race, a concept rooted in ideology more than morphology, ethnicity is not simply a direct reflection of what exists; it is a concept created for various uses.

Endogenous and Exogenous Perspectives

The designation of nineteenth-and twentieth-century Asian immigrants as "Asians" was not a label Asians brought to the United States. By the beginning of the twentieth century, most Asian immigrants were either Chinese, Japanese, Korean, or Filipino, and they self-identified either in ethnic-specific terms or even more precisely (for example, in terms of a Chinese province). By helping immigrants find work and deal with racism, ethnic-specific loan associations, churches, and other formal and informal organizations reinforced an endogenous ethnic-specific identity.

Nevertheless, collective identities were quickly imposed exogenously (by white Americans). Occasionally panethnic identities were actively protested, as in the case of Japan's opposition to segregated, so-called Oriental schools, where all California Asians were to be educated. Usually, however, Asian-Americans had no say, and exogenous panethnic identities dominated.

The impulse for this exogenous emphasis on a collective identity sprang from the categorization of various Asian groups as from one, nonwhite race. For centuries the West viewed nonwhite races generally as "Others""not us" and more specifically "nonwhite." It viewed Asians, in particular, as alike in their fundamental and extreme contrast to Westerners. Once Asian-Americans were classified as a racial Other, additional distinctions between them were usually dismissed as irrelevant. Prohibitions against naturalized citizenship and entry into unions as well as other actions designed to restrict Asian-Americans' socioeconomic mobility and political power put Asians into similar socioeconomic circumstances, which further reinforced beliefs about their similarity.

Gradually, though, suspicion and fear of the racial "Other" and differences in the power and foreign policy of Asian countries spurred exogenous efforts to make ethnic-specific distinctions, often mirroring differences in the immigrants' nationality. These changing perceptions produced an array of classifications by the Census Bureau which, at various times, categorized Asian-Americans as nonwhite, Other, Oriental, or in ethnic-specific terms.

Reflecting public concerns, the Census Bureau has long focused more attention on distinguishing between nonwhite than between white Americans. Accordingly, at a time when U.S. relations with Asian countries varied widely, the 1930 census distinguished between white, "Negro," Hindu, Indian, Chinese, Filipino, Korean, Japanese, and all otherswhich was, Sharon Lee points out in "Racial Classification in the U.S. Census: 18901990" (1993), a striking number of distinctions between Asians then constituting less than 0.25 percent of the U.S. population and at a time when the United States had basically stopped further immigration of Asians.

Fear of the racial Other, coupled with a belief in white racial supremacy, led to preemptive efforts to undermine a coalescing of Asian workers under a panethnic identity. Asian workers on white-owned Hawaiian plantations, for instance, were residentially segregated and paid on ethnic-specific pay scales. Similarly Asian-Americans were pitted against other minorities, as in the case of Filipinos replacing striking African-American railroad workers; doing so promoted and sustained the economic superiority of white Americans while undermining the development of a collective identity and political mobilization with other minorities.

Throughout the nineteenth century and much of the twentieth century, the white American public viewed Asian-Americans as inferior, all-alike Others. This view was created from portrayals established for self-serving purposes. Much as portrayals of enslaved African-Americans were self-serving reflections of the slaveholders' desire to minimize contradictions between their self-concept as good Christians and their treatment of the enslaved, self-serving characterizations of Asian-Americans were created by plantation owners paying Asians less per hour than white workers, by missionaries reporting the reasons they failed to convert Asians, and by competing workers. Because of the belief that Asians were homogeneous Others, portrayals of the first Chinese immigrants (as sneaky, for example) were extended to subsequently immigrating Asian groups, such as the Japanese and Koreans. Much like musical, television, and movie depictions do now, popular magazine serial and minstrel show depictions of almost interchangeable Chinese, Japanese, or Filipinos propagated an identity as homogenous Others.

In the early 2000s dominant exogenous views of Asian-Americans still emphasized Otherness. In a world divided into mutually exclusive and oppositional East versus West and in a country typically imagined as either white or black, Asian-Americans are usually classified as essentially Asian and foreign (which is the reason Asian-Americans are never said to have "all-American good looks").

The culture forming the supposed basis of their ethnic identity has been exogenously depicted as Orientala mystic, unchanging, centuries-old, anachronistic if not mythical culture supposedly deeply ingrained in the twenty-first century's Asian-Americans, who have been only superficially influenced by experiences in the United States. Explanations of European-Americans' behaviors in the early twenty-first century typically bypass reference to three-hundred-year-old influences on Western culture as too far removed from current motives to be pertinent; but caricatures of Asian-Americans in terms of 2,500-year-old Confucian thoughtgross equation of Asian-American cultures to a vague Orientalized pastare commonplace. Yet for many U.S.-born Asian-Americans, a sense of connection to ethnic ancestors in Asian countries is a stretch of the imagination; Orientalization is a fiction akin to feeling connected to Adam and Eve and eclipses the ethnic identities Asian-Americans actually create.

Orientalizing portrayals also oversimplify. The varied cultural backgrounds of Chinese-Americanswith ancestors from Cambodia, Hong Kong, Laos, the People's Republic of China, Taiwan, Thailand, and Vietnam as well as differences in socioeconomic status and acculturationexpose the faulty assumption that an Asian-American group, much less Asian-Americans generally, can be defined in terms of a single (much less Orientalized) culture. Because their ancestors came at different times in history, various Asian-American groups are not creating and redefining an ethnic identity from the same experiences in America.

Nevertheless, inaccurate exogenous portrayals still dominate because Asian-Americans' perspectives are usually unsought. Representations of Asian-Americans' lives are either absent (for example, in the curriculum) or distorted (for example, by mass media), resulting in caricatures that racially marginalize Asian-Americans as foreign, out-of-step, ancillary, and irrelevant.

Panethnic Identity

Although Asian-Americans initially saw themselves in ethnic-specific terms, they gradually developed a panethnic identity. Endogenous panethnic Asian-American identities first developed in Hawaii before World War II. Ethnic-specific strikes by Asian farm laborers were only partially effective. Seeing that exploitative plantation owners were pitting them against each other and that their unfair wages and poor living conditions were linked, the workers organized powerful panethnic, islandwide strikes whose success reinforced a panethnic identity. Panethnic identities developed further as the second Asian generation in Hawaii reached voting age: Asians and native Hawaiians formed voting blocs to unseat racist politicians.

After World War II, foreign relations among Asian countries were no longer undercutting pan-Asian-American relations as they had earlier. Spurred by the civil rights movement, a panethnic identity, with its potential for increased political voice about community concerns, began to develop in the 1960s on the U.S. mainland.

A collective identity as "Asian-Americans" was not difficult to form then. Groups were never asked to abandon an ethnic-specific identity. Due to restrictions on the immigration of Asians, 79 percent of Asian-Americans just before the 1965 Hart-Celler Immigration Act were either Chinese-or Japanese-Americans who shared many similarities as U.S.-born descendants of immigrants who came before a series of racist immigration laws essentially stopped Asian immigration and experienced similar race-based discrimination. Their political affiliations were not as varied as now among Asian/Pacific Islanders. In addition they were frequently seen as almost interchangeable by non-Asian-Americans in terms of racial and cultural Otherness, education and crime levels, and the tendency to avoid bumptiousness.

"Asian/Pacific Islander," a modern panethnic label, encompasses roughly thirty groups, including many, such as Thai, Burmese, and Samoans, who were not in the United States in the nineteenth century. The 1965 Immigration Act, the first to drop racial criteria, resulted in an increase in Asian immigration and a panethnic population that includes more cultures and more varied cultures than ever. In this sense, Asian-Americans' panethnicity has expanded.

Nevertheless, ethnic-specific identities still predominate. A panethnic identity that subsumes varied cultures and ancestral nationalities can be difficult to sustain, partly because it downplays endogenously apparent cultural and social differences. The varied groups now do not share many of the historically similar experiences of the pre-1965 Asian-American population. Even though asserting a panethnic identity might enable Asian-Americans to expand and mobilize resources, strengthen their political voice, and elicit more responsiveness from society, it can also exaggerate tendencies to direct hostile feelings about one Asian-American group to Asian-Americans generally.

Much like their counterparts centuries ago, immigrants arrive now with an ethnic-specific identity, reinvigorating the tendency to sustain such identities. However, the immigrants find that in addition to being considered, for example, Koreans, they are viewed as Korean-Americans, Asians, Asian-Americans, and Asian/Pacific Islanders.

After being longtime U.S. residents, they may add a panethnic identity, as do some U.S.-born Asian-Americans. However, those who do not usually do not oppose a panethnic identity; they do not see its usefulness.

The term Asian -American is both older and more widely used than Asian/Pacific Islander, but both are part of a never-ending process of creating and challenging identities. Even the issue of who should be included in the panethnic identity is questioned. For example, the Census Bureau, reflecting input from scholars, classifies East Indians as Asian, but the public often rejects their inclusion as Asian-Americans on the grounds that they do not seem to be the same race, much less the same ethnicity, as other Asian-Americans.

Grouping Asian-Americans and Pacific Islanders is also contested. On the one hand, inclusion of Pacific Islanders may make their political voice louder to the larger society than it would have been otherwise; on the other hand, distinguishing the groups would more accurately reflect differences in cultural background, identity, and social needs and might produce more focus on their concerns. For Pacific Islanders, as for many Southeast Asians, panethnic stereotypes (such as the inaccurate model minority stereotype) have sometimes caused society to overlook their needs and exclude them from equal-opportunity programs.

The Ongoing Creation of Identities

Whether a panethnic identity is invoked sometimes depends on the context. Accordingly a young Korean-American man might think of himself as Korean when with his grandparents, Korean-American while at a Korean-American church, and Asian-American when thinking about whom to casually date. Selectively porous and elastic ethnic boundaries create multiple, simultaneous identities.

Those multiple forms of ethnic identity are created in the context of other identities, such as socioeconomic status, residential region, gender, and degree of acculturation or multinational identity, which add to the complexity and change the meaning, relevance, and significance of ethnic identity. Ethnicity for Korean-Americans in Los Angeles's Koreatown has a different meaning than it does for Korean-Americans in Bismarck, North Dakota; a wealthy Chinese-American man and a poor Filipina-American picture bride experience their ethnicity differently.

The consequences of ethnicity create meanings. For example, when the mid-nineteenth-century Foreign Miner's tax (as high as 98 percent of income) was applied only to Chinese miners, the meaning of being (a miner who was) Chinese was that one would be subjected to unfair taxes. In the early twenty-first century some young Asian-Americans see their ethnicity as a way of consciously connecting with their parents; a few see it as a passport to gang membership; still others see it as a source of self-esteem.

Adding to the complexity, ethnicity, like culture, is often used as a sugarcoated code word for race. Using ethnicity in this way makes events seem to be innocent reflections of ethnic differences rather than racial bias or socioeconomic opportunities, promotes the impression that racism is irrelevant to the lives of Asian-Americans, and deflates attempts to change racial inequities.

Compounding the complexity and changing meaning of ethnic identity is the difference between the ethnic identity of Asian-Americans and European-Americans, both as an attributed concept and as a choice individuals make when identifying themselves. European-Americans' ethnic identity is regarded as largely irrelevantto the point that many do not even know their full ethnic background.

Ethnic identifications of Asian-Americans occur more often than for European-Americans because they are perceived as more relevant to the former. Indeed experience has shown that when Asian-Americans identify themselves simply as "Americans," that identification is commonly rejected as inadequate. Despite America's purported embrace of ethnic diversity, so-called hyphenated Americans (such as Chinese-Americans or Asian-Americans) frequently find that a hyphenated identity is sometimes objectionable as well. As the historian James Loewen pointed out in his book Lies My Teacher Told Me (1995), racists like Woodrow Wilson interpreted the hyphenation as a sign of treachery. Others claim the hyphenated term, which places ethnicity first, makes ethnicity more important than nationality. (Actually in the term Asian - American, Asian is just an adjective modifying the more important noun, American. ) In the face of such criticism and misunderstanding, people struggle to create an ethnic identity.

Contrary to most assumptions, ethnicity is "not a way of looking back at the [country from which ancestors came; rather it is] a way of being American" (Greeley, p. 32). In that spirit, Japanese-Americans rarely learn the intricacies of a Japanese tea ceremony; instead, they have created ways of being American with a nod toward their background. As Fukiko Uba Odanaka recounted (in a personal communication), in the 1930s, when Japanese-Americans were not allowed on school teams, she and some friends created female basketball teams paralleling teams created for young Japanese-American males around the same time. Since then organizational sponsors have seen thousands of Japanese-American boys and girls play in basketball leagues, which have become a central cultural activity among West Coast Japanese-Americans. The leagues create cohesion while giving youngsters who go to schools that have few Japanese-Americans the opportunity to learn Japanese-American values and interaction styles. Rather than being an unambiguous demographic indicator of ancestry, ethnic identity has many contrary, complex, changing meanings, and its created significance changes accordingly.

See also Critical Race Theory ; Cultural Revivals ; Loyalties, Dual ; Race and Racism: Reception of Asians to the United States .


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Laura Uba