Posted on October 23, 2021

The Problem With the Term ‘Asian American’

Harmeet Kaur, CNN, October 14, 2021

Will Asian Americans become White?

The question — which considers whether Asian Americans will fully assimilate into the multicultural elite — is at the heart of “The Loneliest Americans,” a provocative new book out this week from journalist and author Jay Caspian Kang. And the answer, according to Kang, is complicated.

Kang, the son of Korean immigrants who grew up in predominantly White communities in Boston and North Carolina, has spent the greater part of his life grappling with what side of the racial binary he falls on. Asian American, the term used to describe Kang and millions of others whose ancestry can be traced back to the continent of Asia, has never truly fit.

In his book, Kang takes aim at the idea of a cohesive, Asian American identity and calls for a reimagination of it instead.

The term Asian American, he writes, evokes a shared history of xenophobia and discrimination that goes back more than a century — even when the vast majority of Asian Americans came to the US after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and bear little connection to the oppression endured by those who came here long before. That identity is complicated further by class, encompassing a wide swath of people who share few of the same experiences, from the children of Indian doctors to those of Hmong refugees.

As a result, Kang argues, Asian American identity politics are too often dominated by the concerns of the upper middle class children of immigrants — White chefs appropriating certain cuisines, the lack of Asian American representation in Hollywood, the absence of Asian Americans from C-suites and boardrooms. The outsized attention on these issues, he says, obscures more pressing challenges facing the most vulnerable Asian Americans: the undocumented, the refugees and the working poor.

“The reason why [upwardly mobile Asian American] people express those things is because … they feel like they’re not being treated as if they were White, and they want to feel some form of solidarity with other groups who might be feeling this way,” Kang says. “But the issue is that when you express such shallow, privileged politics and concerns, it’s very difficult to build those pathways to solidarity.”

CNN recently spoke to Kang about his new book, the two Asian Americas he sees and the ways we might change how we talk about race in the US.


Growing up in Boston and North Carolina as the child of Korean immigrants, how did you think about yourself in terms of race?

At the beginning, I didn’t think about it very much. I think that there was some form of suppression because my parents are so aggressively assimilative. Part of me wonders why they were like that. But at the same time, I also think that they saw that as the only method of survival. They thought, perhaps correctly, that if they [worked to assimilate] then their kids would have an easier path to moving up in America.

By the time I started noticing that I was different — sometime around second, third or fourth grade — I found myself identifying more with the Black students at our school than the White students. By the time I got to high school, I had learned to understand that maybe this isn’t the most natural or agreed upon [way that I should identify myself] — I can listen to rap music but I’m not Black.

For the past 25 years or something since then, that’s been the fight in my head. I can identify certain parts of my life that people would [describe as “pretty White”]. I don’t know if those are more important than the parts of my life which I don’t really talk about very much, where I do feel like I am oppressed in some sort of way or where I find the great meaning that I find in writers like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.

Navigating that idea — what side of the binary that we should identify with — is a central concern of mine and also a central concern of the book.

The book argues that the language we use to talk about race in the US doesn’t reflect our reality. What are some of the ways our current labels fall short?

The vast majority of the way in which we talk about race is frozen in time in the 1960s and 1970s. We don’t call people “minorities” or “colored” anymore — we say “people of color” or now, “BIPOC.” But those are actually quite small revisions when it comes to actual conversations about equality, about what is important, how we should treat people and what the actual racial hierarchy in America is. Post-1965, we have a completely different country than we did previous to 1965.

A lot of these things will be defined both in the Latino population and in the Asian American population. I don’t know how it’s going to go, but I think what we’re going to start to see is rejection of binary thinking over the next five years. It’s already happening in some ways. The doctrinaire ways in which we think about race in America — that Whites are on top, Asians are a little bit below Whites but basically Whites, Latinos are somewhere in the middle and Black people are at the bottom — will start to shift.

You write in your book of two Asian Americas. What are those two Asian Americas?

I’m trying to write against the type of totalizing history that happens, where people whose parents came post-1965 say they have a direct relationship with the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment or the radical ’60s [Asian American movement] on California campuses where the term Asian America was created.

We have an Asian America that likes to think of itself as this historic political idea and then we have the actual Asian America, which is tens of millions of people who are pretty apolitical and pretty new to this country. A lot of them don’t speak English in any sort of way, and we should acknowledge that. We should acknowledge that this is a distinct group post-1965 and that it has very little connection with the railroads or the gold mines or anything like that.


Do you see any value in a broad, umbrella term like Asian Americans?

I would just ask why “immigrant” wouldn’t work better.

There’s something about the post-1965 immigration experience that would lend itself to a great deal of solidarity that would be broader than just the Asian American category. It would bring in these sort of natural alliances that already exist.