Asian-American identity: what it is, what it means

Identity is a contentious topic. It is personal and at the same time public, defined and legitimated by others. The topic provokes passions and anxieties; it mobilizes some while it paralyzes others. What constitutes an identity, who meets the criteria and who chooses them are common questions faced by any group of individuals that wants to be, or is, identified together. These reflections and tensions are a necessary process, oftentimes productive, and universally unavoidable.

Yet for Asian-Americans, especially on this campus, these types of reflections are creating a dangerous and negligent apathy. Instead of building on such questions of identity, we are trapped in a series of unanswerable dilemmas that impede the activities that legitimate and give substance to the group.

Many Asian-Americans enter into the campus with no sense of association with others, find the political causes of minority groups irrelevant and tangential. Many clearly separate the fact of physical Asian-ness from one that is deeper and self-recognized.

This article will describe some of the problems inherent in Asian-American identity, particularly as they manifest themselves here at Williams. The theme of the month is “The Emerging Face of Asian-Americans.” I suggest three questions to engage the theme in a productive way. First, what is the face of Asian America? Second, how is this face going to emerge? Third, so what?

The Face of Asian America

The most important characteristic of Asian-American identity is that it has been overly simplified. It masks a variety of divisions and differences that are both inherent in such a grouping and poses an ongoing problem to those who seek to maintain it.

The label, first of all, connects two distinct elements: one Asian, one American. Yet within both of these individual groupings are a variety of social, economic, spiritual and personal differences. The hyphen in Asian-American symbolizes the nature of Asian America. It is a border both separating and uniting distinct worlds, each of which has its own divisions. The fact that in addition to these complications is the added one of unifying these two identities makes the label even more misrepresentative.

Secondly, Asian-Americans not only cut across many different lines, but they face animosity and contradictions along these lines. Historical tensions between Koreans and Japanese, the Chinese and Taiwanese, are displaced in the label. Generational gaps within families represent the range of possibilities for tensions across time as well as cultures.

The types of problems that Asian students complain about relate not to an Asian-American experience, but an immigrant experience, one that third-generation Asians, for example, may not appreciate. Language and educational barriers further complicate the communication between whatever disparate portions of the larger pan-Asian community exist.

Thus, the simplicity of any notion of common identity is compounded by many deep differences hidden by the label of an Asian America, which is neither geography nor nationhood. It is not fixed, not neat and thus, not easy.

How This Face Will Emerge

But rather than be deterred by these warnings, we must take them as challenges, ones that require work to overcome. The title conveys no agenda, no clear composition. It is more recognized by those outside of it then those who fall within it. To add substance and meaning, then, Asian-Americans must change the nature of the dialogue. We must not bother with questions that focus on why we don’t fit within the group, but rather what support we can give each other on the complex common grounds we do share.

It is a waste of time to seek and articulate an identity that will vary for individuals. Instead, we must create and maintain the construct, and argue for what ends our nascent political identity and expansive social spectrum should work towards. Deliberate action will help determine what we want this Asian-American construct to mean, and what we want it to do. Here are few suggestions:

First, a political agenda focused on rights and recognition must be established to protect the concerns of Asian-Americans. This is not on the grounds of self-interest, but rather a sense of justice and empathy for all minority groups.

As Asian-Americans with personal attachment to such ends, as minority members who are the subjects of such problems, as American citizens whose duty it is to concern ourselves with the welfare of our country, as students whose education expands into political involvement, we must educate and act. If we wait for a motivation grounded on an unattainably neat identity, we will ignore the multitude of obligations such activities have on us already.

Second, Asian-American coalitions represent a step among many along the spectrum of customized group activities. They form the starting point for various (more relevant and personal) concerns, and permit inter-group contacts based on more general pan-Asian concerns. We should seek each other as resources on the few common grounds that are clear, so that we can practice our fragile coalition for less visible ends. It is, then, as much preventive as it is therapeutic medicine.

So What?

This campus is in too many ways removed. Students here are isolated geographically and have full work schedules that take time from reading the news and getting involved in affairs beyond this campus.

Yet this is the time in our lives in we need to make connections the most. Applying theory and academic discourses to our personal lives, to the world at large is work that we must do now as part of our learning experience. Education is about making connections, and where they are missing we must have faith enough to find them.

The Asian organizations, and all minority organizations for that matter, must do work to investigate what larger concerns there are out there, and offer opportunities for connection for students. We, in turn, must act, must recognize our obligations to participate in these forums. Denying our obligations to expand our ways of learning and deluding ourselves into a justified complacency closes many ways of knowing.

The inertia of inaction comes at a large cost. If we deny the legitimacy and relevance of entire categories of problems, then we have fulfilled our own prophecies. The formula we are used to works the opposite way: in order to know, we must first act. Participation as Asian-Americans will inevitably provide for us the meaning to the notion of an Asian America. We cannot find meaning in a vacuum of experience.