In 1982, Detroit’s automobile industry had begun to feel the effects of increased globalization. Imports of Japanese automobiles posed a legitimate threat to the market dominance of the Big Three, and resentful workers blamed Japanese imports on the decline. That June, two automobile workers—Michael Nitz and his stepfather, Ronald Ebens—were laid off. Angry, and perhaps seeking some form of vindication, Nitz and Ebens wandered into a club one night where they spotted Vincent Chin, a young draftsman who was celebrating his birthday party with his friends. A fight broke out after Ebens allegedly shouted “It’s because of you motherfuckers that we’re out of work!” and both parties were thrown out of the bar.
Ebens and Nitz spent the next few hours driving aimlessly around the suburbs of Detroit, hoping that they would stumble upon a fight. They found Chin again at a McDonald’s, where they forcibly dragged him outside and beat him until he fell unconscious. Chin died four days later from the injuries—less than a week before he was to be married.
The death of Vincent Chin proved to be a painful reminder of the perceived uniformity of Asian-America—even though Asian-Americans are a remarkably diverse group of individuals, they are often treated as a political monolith. Chin’s attackers had not cared that he was Chinese and not Japanese, or that his work was only tangentially related to the automobile industry. They had seen the color of his skin, and that was enough for them.
Even the term “Asian-American” itself implies a certain oneness among all individuals who trace their roots back to the Asian subcontinent: it suggests that Asian-Americans are culturally similar enough to be grouped together even if their ethnic roots are radically different, a premise which Chin’s attackers wholeheartedly seemed to accept. But as historian Paul Spickard explains, the term “Asian-American” actually arose during the Civil Rights movement with the best of intentions. It was coined by activist and historian Yuji Ichioka in an attempt to mimic the success of the Black Power movement in establishing a collective identity for Asian-Americans. By embracing their shared roots as immigrants from a distant, exotic land, Ichioka reasoned, Asian-Americans could collectively issue demands that would be too vocal for politicians to ignore. And, for a time, Ichioka was right. Through the late 1960s to mid 1970s, Asian-Americans wielded considerable political clout in the United States. Some were central figures in anti-war and anti-imperialist movements; others began producing art, music, and literature with a newfound emphasis on exploring their cultural heritage. Pan-Asianism began to emerge as a powerful—if artificially constructed—ethnic identity.
The 1980s marked a radical shift away from this convergence of identity. Throughout the 1980s, a new wave of Asian immigrants continually arrived at America’s doorstep: from 1980 to 1988, data from the U.S. Census Bureau indicate that the total population of individuals who identified as “Asian-American” spiked by 70 percent. Unlike many of their Asian-American counterparts who had come to America long before, however, these individuals were first-generation immigrants. They found themselves in a political culture whose values differed radically from those of the countries in which they had been raised, and their primary concerns were economic—not political. Consequently, even though the label “Asian-American” remained, the identities of the individuals who constituted Asian-America began to change. Whereas the Asian-Americans before the 1980s had been almost-uniformly Japanese and Chinese, the immigrants of the 1980s onward represented a far more diverse picture of East and Southeast Asia.
Despite this growing diversity, however, Asian-American political organizing has remained stubbornly fixated on the interests of an increasingly small ethnic subgroup of Asian-Americana. The Harvard lawsuit serves as a perfect example of this. Though the plaintiffs—Students for Fair Admissions—have rightfully argued that Harvard often holds its Asian-American applicants to an unfairly stringent standard, they have drawn the incorrect conclusion that affirmative action policies are wholly harmful for all of Asian-America. Part of this misrepresentation can be explained by the demographics of the plaintiffs, many of whom come from more affluent backgrounds. Among the most vocal opponents of Harvard’s affirmative are Chinese-, Japanese-, and Korean-Americans, ethnic groups which are comparatively far more privileged than much of Asian-America. And by claiming to speak for all of Asian America in their efforts to reject affirmative action, these individuals have failed to recognize that other, less-privileged Asian-Americans might actually benefit from such policies.
A common argument made by groups such as Students for Fair Admissions is that affirmative action undercuts the hard work of many Asian-American students throughout their high school years. At a talk sponsored by Students for Fair Admissions which I attended last year, one riled-up attendee went as far as to say that the criterion of “hard work” was being replaced by one of “color”—his remarks were, incidentally, met with a standing ovation. Individuals like that attendee have failed to realize several things. First, their definition of “hard work” is unrealistically narrow. For example, many lower-income minorities underperform on standardized tests because they don’t have access to the same academic resources as their more-privileged peers—not because they don’t work as hard.
Perhaps more pernicious, however, is the premise lying behind Asian-America’s purported rejection of affirmative action. The very concept that Asian-Americans are hurt by affirmative action in college admissions implies that all Asian-Americans share the same experience in applying for college—an implication which is not only incorrect but dangerous because it feeds into the Model Minority myth. Often, Asian-Americans have been caricatured as a so-called “Model Minority,” a group whose very existence disproves claims that other ethnic minorities still suffer from society-wide racial biases. If Asian-Americans can achieve financial success without policies such as affirmative action, the reasoning goes, then any minority can do the same. And, based on the myth’s logic, any lower-income minorities who fail to rise up are therefore lazy and unintelligent: they fail not because of systemic barriers but because they didn’t try hard enough. The Model Minority myth falls short on two fronts. First, the claim that Asian-Americans have uniformly achieved financial success is false—to give just one example, the number of Hmong-Americans living below the federal poverty line is two times higher than the national average. To claim that all Asian-Americans are hurt by affirmative action policies, therefore, is to fail to recognize that not all Asians share the same experiences as American citizens. Secondly, accepting the model minority myth distances Asian-Americans from any collective solidarity with other racial minorities. In the case of the Harvard lawsuit, the racial undertones of the anti-affirmative action argument are clear: the rhetoric suggests that all Asian-Americans work hard and therefore deserve to attend elite universities; their less privileged peers, who may have taken fewer AP classes or scored lower on the SATs, by extension, just didn’t “work hard” enough. And because this rhetoric grounded in a false and disturbing caricature of other PoCs as lazy and unintelligent, it only serves to further divide Asian-Americans from other minorities in America.
To make matters worse, the model minority myth’s negative impacts extend far beyond a set of theoretical harms. Not only does the model minority myth divide Asian-Americans from other ethnic minorities, but it also masks the issues which afflict less privileged Asian-Americans. One unfortunate example of the dangers of misrepresentation comes in the realm of education: despite the stereotype that all Asian-Americans are studious and academically successful, many lower-income Southeast Asian-Americans drop out of high school at alarmingly high rates. While their more privileged counterparts fuss over which colleges they will be attending, many of these lower-income Asian Americans won’t go to college at all. This is not to say that the Harvard lawsuit’s fundamental charge is unimportant—it does admittedly shed light on the model minority myth—but its final mission of repealing affirmative action highlights Asian America’s racial and economic stratification. That the more privileged Asian-Americans have failed to offer even the slightest concession that other lower-income Asian-Americans could benefit from affirmative action offers damning proof of the limits of the label “Asian-American.” For now, the label appears to apply exclusively to those who come from wealthier, more affluent backgrounds—everyone else, it would seem, just isn’t “Asian” enough.
Unfortunately, history offers few immediate solutions to the problems of labeling and misrepresentation. After all, the label “Asian-American” itself was constructed with the best of intentions: to generate a pan-ethnic, Pan-Asian collective movement that would bring attention to an oppressed, underrepresented minority. But since the 1980s, the term “Asian-American” has grown so broad as to be virtually meaningless. Even if the individuals who called themselves Asian-American in the 1960s and 1970s shared general inklings of a collective cultural history, the term “Asian-American” is far too broad nowadays for any such history to exist. More troubling is the fact that lower-income ethnic subgroups of Asian-America are often lumped together under the broad “Asian-American” label, only to see the issues which afflict them most go almost entirely unnoticed.
One intuitive solution is to increase the visibility of such underrepresented minorities within Asian-American solidarity movements. In theory, improving the visibility of such individuals could help shed light on Asian-America’s true diversity, while preserving the solidarity necessary to compel political action. And yet implementing this solution effectively is surprisingly difficult: if done incorrectly, the previously-underrepresented minorities will become little more than racial tokens whose existences will undeniably be acknowledged but whose concerns still go largely unnoticed.
Moreover, the aforementioned solution still feeds into the broader myth that all Asians are alike—a myth whose falsity undermines the theory behind using the label “Asian-American” at all. While some East Asian countries do share certain broad cultural similarities, Asian-America is far too diverse for any such generalizations to be made. To give one example, labeling individuals of Filipino, Hmong, and Taiwanese descent as “Asian-American” gives the implicit suggestion that their cultures are fundamentally similar enough to make such a comparison; and, by extension, that any large cultural differences from the “Asian-American” norm indicate that they are not Asian enough.
This essentially leaves one option: replacing the label. Although some might worry that such a rejection would undermine any sense of solidarity, any true solidarity between these ethnic groups should not require the existence of a label which suggests that they are all the same. Let Cambodian-Americans be Cambodian; Chinese-Americans be Chinese; and Filipino-Americans be Filipino. Forcing the artificial label of “Asian-American” onto these individuals only feeds into the myth that all of these cultures are similar enough to be grouped together while failing to capture the true diversity of all the issues which afflict individuals who might be considered Asian-American. Arguably the most convincing proof of the need for a label beyond just “Asian American” is the fact that more and more individuals have already begun replacing the label with more specific alternatives, such as “Chinese-American” and “Filipino-American.” If these individuals are themselves rejecting the notion that they are all the same, then society itself cannot force this notion upon them.
Nevertheless, several valid objections still exist to the argument to replace the label with terms such as “Cambodian-American” and “Laotian-American.” The first comes from parallels to other minorities in America—if Hispanic and Latinx individuals can group themselves together in ways that refocus political action on their collective interests, the reasoning goes, then why can’t Asian-Americans do the same? The problem with this approach is twofold. First, Hispanic individuals share a common language—this is a broad, inherent similarity which Asian-Americans do not have. Secondly, the impacts of applying of “Latinx” and “Hispanic” as ethnic labels still differ radically from those of the term “Asian-American.”Among all ethnic minorities, income inequality is widest among Asian-Americans, an inequality which is especially pernicious because it occurs largely along racial lines. Thus, even the empirical data indicates that Asian-Americans are not similar enough to be grouped together under such a label.
The second objection is one of practicality. Not only have individuals who have been labeled as “Asian-Americans” already been grouped together, but they have managed to fight for greater representation both politically and culturally in recent years based on this more general label. Wouldn’t rejecting this label undo many of these symbolic victories? This argument is, in theory, absolutely correct—Asian-Americans have been lumped together by society-at-large, and by banding together have been able to score major political victories despite these general identifications. And yet upon closer examination, the argument still falls apart: the representational victories for Asian-Americans are unfortunately based on a narrow definition of who qualifies as “Asian-American.” Take, for example, the film Crazy Rich Asians. While the film itself is undeniably an important milestone for Asian-American media representation in general, it nevertheless furthers a narrow definition of who gets to be Asian—the film’s only scene portraying Indians casts them as savages who do little more than point and grunt. The Indian gurkha guards literally have no speaking lines. And even though the film does represent a small sliver of Asian-America with sensitivity, it nevertheless proclaims to be a film not about “Crazy Rich Individuals in Southeast Asia, likely of Chinese Descent” (which, admittedly, doesn’t have the same ring to it) but rather “Crazy Rich Asians.” To make matters worse, one of the film’s central characters—played by Awkwafina—often speaks in an affected African-American Vernacular English, even though the character’s dialogue does not require AAVE to achieve its intended effect. Therefore, the implication that Crazy Rich Asians is about Asians—not just a small subset of Asia—is especially alarming, given the film’s apparent unwillingness to grapple with the diversity of Asian-America as well as America itself. Thus, victories in media representation for Asians are only true victories if they are framed within a very narrow definition of who gets to be Asian American, and these victories, unfortunately, have failed to sensitively grapple with the broader notions of the responsibilities of being a minority in America. If nothing else, replacing the label “Asian-American”—at least temporarily—should give Asian-Americans a better sense of the opinions which are being excluded from the discussion, and perhaps, hopefully, lend insight into how media victories for Asian-Americans might not have to come at the expense of expressing sensitivity toward other minorities in general.
Admittedly, there is no way to force Asian-Americans to reject this broad labeling. And yet if Asian America remains broadly unwilling to represent the views and beliefs of all its members—if it remains bound to a narrow, exploitative definition of who gets to be Asian—then the only way forward is to discard the label altogether, at least for now. Moreover, in discarding the label, those who identify themselves as Asian-American may hopefully better understand how isolated Asian-America has been from other minorities at large. They may learn that media victories, no matter how significant, must come with sensitivity and care if they claim to represent all Asians. And perhaps, if Asian-America recognizes its own shortcomings, the label “Asian-American” may someday find a new meaning. But for now, at least, it should remain as nothing more than a label—a label whose very existence is premised on a false myth about who is—and isn’t—Asian in America today.
Kyle Wang, a freshman, is a staff writer for Stanford Politics.