Column | Feb. 16

Asian-American identity: The Princeton perspective

By Andrew Hahm

In 2012, the Pew Research Center published a report on Asian-American demographic trends, proclaiming that “Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States.” The report, entitled “The Rise of Asian Americans,” points to an incredible growth in the visibility of the Asian-American community in recent years. More Asian-American politicians across the political spectrum, from Republican Nikki Haley in South Carolina to Democrat Grace Meng in New York to socialist Kshama Sawant in Seattle, have been elected to public office than ever before. Culturally, Asian-Americans have been finding a greater voice in film, comedy, music and literature, through both traditional media and new online platforms. Asian-American commentators such as Amy Chua and Wesley Yang have been garnering national attention for their views on what Asian America entails.

Yet, as the supposed spotlight shines on the Asian-American community, it also uncovers a latent uncertainty and debate over what it means to be an Asian-American. Historically, Asian-American identity has fluctuated with the greater state of race relations in America. For example, Asian-American stereotypes have changed erratically over the years. At one extreme Asian-Americans are unassimilable, hypersexualized and economically-threatening. At another, they are the emasculated and docile “model minority”. The ethnic groups that constitute Asian America are unclear and oft misidentified as well. Just last year, reports showed that officers of the New York Police Department were identifying Indian-Americans as “American Indians” in their police reports. Sikh Americans have been targeted in anti-Islam hate crimes following 9/11, while Chinese-American Vincent Chin was beaten to death in Detroit by laid-off white autoworkers who held deep resentments against Japanese automakers. What, then, makes one Asian-American?

A recent survey conducted by Princeton’s Asian American Students Association may shed some light on the matter. The six-question email survey was sent to the University undergraduate population to determine how Princeton students perceived the Asian-American community. The survey asked respondents to rank the similarities among Asian-Americans in five different categories on a scale of one to seven. The final question asked respondents to select on a map the regions of Eurasia from which Asian-Americans may have ancestry.

As to the latter question, almost all respondents believed that people of East Asian descent were Asian-American. However, around one-third of respondents did not believe that people of South Asian descent were Asian-American. Generally, the further west on the Asian continent the region was, the fewer people there were who claimed that a person with ancestry from the region could be considered Asian-American. In a way, this data seems to be indicative of the same mindset that caused the NYPD confusion when categorizing Americans of Indian heritage.

The responses for the questions ranking similarity among Asian-Americans tended to indicate that Asian-Americans were “very different” from each other, pointing to the Princeton community’s view that Asian-Americans had little in common historically, economically and politically. Answers to the free-response question asking respondents to define Asian-Americans reflect this desire among Princeton students to be as accurate as possible in defining racial categories: some wrote apologetically of “straight black hair, small eyes, pale skin,” while others explained how “problematic [it is] to lump people into massive ethnic groups.” This survey could, perhaps, be representative of a greater liberal trend in America against stereotyping and sweeping generalizations.

At the same time, it is crucial to acknowledge both the similarities that Asian-Americans share and the legacy that the term “Asian-American” carries. It would be misleading to say that Asian-Americans share no common narrative. Asian-American immigration patterns have been affected in similar ways by overgeneralized American immigration policy in the past two centuries, and the majority of Asian-Americans of all ethnic groups tend to vote for the Democratic Party. It would also be inappropriate to conclude from the heterogeneity of the Asian-American population that Asian-Americans of different ethnic groups should dissociate from each other. For instance, academics such as Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak write of a “strategic essentialism” to a unified identity, necessary particularly for the political gains Asian-Americans seek. In other words, it is important to recognize the power of identity politics and its importance in achieving representation for all Asian-Americans.

Although this survey revealed disagreements on what constitutes Asian America, it will hopefully spur an open dialogue about Asian-American identity beyond mindless stereotypes. The hegemonically imposed Asian-American identity is one that still has currency in society today. It is necessary to confront the problems it poses, not ignore them. Such a dialogue will help the Asian-American community to better identify and fight for shared interests while celebrating acknowledged differences. Princeton is ahead of the curve in its view of Asian America, but in an institution in which one in five students identify as Asian-American, this is not enough. A coherent identity is needed, and that begins with conversations on our campus.

Andrew Hahm is a freshman from Ramsey, N.J. He is a member of the AASA Asian American Studies Committee. He can be reached at ahahm@princeton.edu.

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