The Invisible Minority: Why Creating Myths About Asian Americans Is So Easy

Early in October, the surprisingly high percentage (1 in 3) of undecided Asian voters popped up in the media. It took about a minute for that story to cycle through and then, poof! No further discussion.

Pundits and political analysts have talked about Jewish voters, Black voters, Latino Voters, White Voters, young voters, older voters, low-income voters, gay voters, and voting veterans, ex-felons, and independents. But Asian voters? Almost not at all. Or at least that was my theory.

To test that theory, my firm, ChangeLab, conducted a study. We pulled the transcripts of seven weekly political commentary programs televised between January 1-June 30 of this year. The shows included Face the Nation, Meet the Press, State of the Union, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Fox News Sunday, Up with Chris Hayes, and Melissa Harris-Perry. To be fair, Melissa Harris-Perry wasn’t on the air for the whole period studied.

The shows are diverse in many ways, including by market share, but hold one thing in common – they wrap up and analyze what they consider the most significant trends in politics for the preceding week. For this reason, these shows construct part of the truth about the reality we live in for many Americans. Just how real that so-called truth feels to us is largely dependent upon privilege. The less privilege we have, the more aggressively facts of life (like routinely running out of money days before your next check, or having your beloved and lovable 18 year old sent to prison for a non-violent crime you regularly hear celebrities talk about doing on TV) intrude upon this media constructed truth.

But while poor people, women, and people of color tend to be better at seeing past media biases, even for us that ability diminishes with relative privilege. The more we live inside the privilege bubble, the more easily we are influenced by the filtered realities in the media, and the less able we are to be to see the world from the points of view of those whose experiences those filters leave out or distort.

Ironically, the more inside the bubble we live, the more we are able to influence public policy and the media, even as the media and public policy has the most direct affect on those with less privilege. It’s a vicious cycle that sets the dial on what’s “normal,” and “natural” in the world at middle class, consumerist, white, suburban, etc. That’s why ChangeLab put in the long hours and conducted our study.

Over the 6 month period we looked at, the seven programs we selected aired 169 episodes. Of those 169 episodes, only one included discussion of Asian Americans. That one show was the May 27, 2012 episode of Melissa Harris-Perry (MHP). I watched that show and critiqued the content in a past blog entry. You can follow that link or just take my word for it – it was a nice try, but a miss.

Among other problems with the MHP episode was that it focused mainly on voting power and representation, and not on the complex issues facing Asian Americans. Emphasis was placed on how Asian Americans are concerned with the same issues as non-Asians – jobs, healthcare, education, the economy – but much on those issues that are particular to Asian Americans, like that we don’t generally identify as “Asian” so much as by our ethnic groups, yet we are treated as an undifferentiated mass by others. And while Asian Americans often adopt the term “Asian,” the belief that there is an “Asian” race is a racist one.

For that reason, to the extent that Japanese Americans have anything in common with Vietnamese Americans those commonalities tend to be based in shared negative experiences. Some of those experiences include lumping us together as a race, an act that both negates our diverse cultures and makes it difficult to identify and serve the specific needs of particular Asian ethnic groups. Hate crimes and bullying are other specific issues, as are the many popular stereotypes that trivialize, emasculate, and dehumanize us.

Notice that none of these has to do with shared immigration experiences, shared economic challenges, cross-ethnic cultural similarities, shared values, or a shared sense of racial identification. These commonalities are problems resulting from racism.

The one MHP episode that took on “Asians” as an issue told a story about Asian Americans as though the main thing that matters about us is how we impact you, and the you in question is by no means presumed to be Asian American. And why does this matter? Because only telling the story about Asians that is useful to them will do nothing to deal with the problems faced by us.

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By Scot Nakagawa

Scot Nakagawa is a political strategist and writer who has spent more than four decades exploring questions of structural racism, white supremacy, and social justice. Scot’s primary work has been in the fight against authoritarianism, white nationalism, and Christian nationalism. Currently, Scot is co-lead of the 22nd Century Initiative, a project to build the field of resistance to authoritarianism in the U.S.

Scot is a past Alston/Bannerman Fellow, an Open Society Foundations Fellow, and a recipient of the Association of Asian American Studies Community Leader Award. His writings have been included in Race, Gender, and Class in the United States: An Integrated Study, 9th Edition,  and Killing Trayvons: An Anthology of American Violence.

Scot's political essays, briefings, and other educational media can be found at his newsletter, We Fight the Right at He is a sought after public speaker and educator who provides consultation on campaign and communications strategy, and fundraising.

9 replies on “The Invisible Minority: Why Creating Myths About Asian Americans Is So Easy”

[[And while Asian Americans often adopt the term “Asian,” the belief that there is an “Asian” race is a racist one.]]

I’m confused about this one. The term Asian isn’t generally (as far as I know??) referring to a race but to the continent, just as African is not *a* race, it’s the continent of origin, and just as much differs in culture, religion and tribe from one nation to another there as it does anywhere in Asia. (And lets face it, there’s more genetic diversity in Africa than anywhere else!)

Why, then, would Asian American be any more offensive or less accurate than African American? Or American Indian? Or any other term that groups whole ethnicities and nations together into check boxes?

You make a good point. The term African ought not refer to a race just as the term Asian ought not refer to a race. Race is not a biological reality; it’s a social construction. When “African” or “Asian” refers to the region of origin, that’s one thing, though those regions are politically defined, and not by Africans nor Asians historically speaking. They were defined as regions by Europeans.

But when those terms refer to “race” they suggest a “natural” origin of race that is false. There is nothing natural about race. BTW, in the “Asian” region, folks don’t identify as a region. They identify by country and even more specifically by culture. China is part of the continent, but the Philippines is not, nor is Indonesia, for instance. Japan has had a hostile relationship with Korea for a long time now. For good reason, most Korean nationals don’t identify with the Japanese.

Get my meaning? There’s no contiguous economy, shared culture, shared experience apart from that resulting from colonization and the story that begins with Asians emigrating to nations where their status as Vietnamese or Hmong or Chinese is less significant than their status as Asians…something that originates in the notion of the Orient, a concept developed in order to facilitate colonialism.

Africans are very diverse as people. The term “African American” was a way to build a bridge between black Americans and the continent of Africa in order to resist the notion that the history of black people in the U.S. begins with slavery – as though one’s story only begins with contact with white people. Similarly, “Asian American” was a term coined by Asian activists as a counter to the term “oriental” which defined us as a people only relative to whites and our utility to them. These are terms of resistance and they refer to hoped for coalitions between diverse cultures, but they ought not be confused with “race” which was used to create a racist political system invented in order to support white supremacy, slavery, native genocide, etc.

Yes, along with research concerning other racial minority groups representation in these media outlets.

I once worked for an organization whose Affirmative Action accounting system would not let me identify as “mixed race.” I’m “black,” “East Indian,” and “white”. So, I simply identified as “Asian.” Additionally, my stepmother of 30+ years (and the family I inherited), is Korean. My appearance, however, is precisely what most people would identify as “African American.” I later discovered, serendipitously, that the personnel office had changed my designation to “African American – Not of Hispanic Origins.”

An “East Indian” colleague at the same organization, whose complexion is a deep bronze, had identified as “Caucasian” on his application, but when he applies for grants, he identifies as “Asian.” I later learned that “Caucasian,” contrary to what many believe, does not specifically imply a white complexion, as there are many dark-skinned peoples originating from the Caucasus locale. As such, he is free to “identify” as he likes.

Nonetheless, I can say, with confidence, that my “Asian” brothers and sisters suffer biases and discrimination quite similar to that suffered by “African-Americans.” I know this because of the composition of my own family, and from the comments that other “African Americans” make to me, not realizing that I, too, am “Asian.”

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