Five Things You Should Know About Asian Americans

May is Asian-Pacific American Heritage Month. In honor of the occasion, here are five things that I think you should know about Asian Americans.*

1. We Don’t All Look Alike. In fact, most of us aren’t alike at all. When many non-Asians conjure a picture of “Asian American” in their minds, they see an East Asian person – someone whose roots can be traced to China, Korea, or Japan. But Asian America includes dozens of distinct and linguistically diverse ethnic groups originating from a region that encompasses much more than the Far East.

Moreover, we are immigrants or the descendants of immigrants who came to the U.S. for wildly different reasons, at different times, and under vastly different circumstances. While some Asian immigrants first arrived in the U.S. as sojourners seeking economic opportunity (and not a few of us because the economies of our home countries are devastated by global economic pressures), others are in the U.S. as legacies of war. Still others entered the U.S. with special visas in order to fulfill business needs for investment capital or highly skilled workers.

And, Asian Americans generally don’t identify as Asian American, which after all is an American term invented in the 1960s, before the largest waves of migration from Asia post-1968. Instead, most of us identify by ethnicity.

2. We Aren’t Halfway Between Black and White. In fact, this way of thinking of Asians overlooks the peculiar role anti-Asian racism plays in strengthening the American racial hierarchy. Rather than be profiled into traditional categories of Black, White, or indigenous, Asians, like many Latinos, are raced as “forever foreign,” even if we may have been in the U.S. for generations. Whether we’re profiled as sub- or super-human, we are always exotic, and anti-Asian stereotypes are manipulated in a way that strengthens the oppressive power of all other racial categories, from White as normative, to Black as problematic and dangerous.

Some version of this has been true since the first Asian immigrants came to the U.S. Because of perceived over competition for economic opportunity and white anxiety over loss of cultural and political control, the reaction to the arrival of Asians made the connection between “American” and “White,” and “race” and “nation,” stronger than ever.

3. We’re Not Your Model Minority. We aren’t all privileged by high incomes and higher levels of education. That’s not to say there isn’t some privilege associated with being stereotyped as exceptional, but that privilege is conditional, based on our usefulness in maintaining a racial hierarchy in which there are model minorities and “problem minorities.” As long as we can be profiled as a model minority who quietly pulled ourselves up by our boot straps, that stereotype can continue to be used as the exception to American racism that strengthens the myth of American social mobility across the color line, with terrible implications for other people of color.

And, word to the wise, the point of drawing attention to those Asian ethnic groups who don’t benefit from the stereotype is, in part, to remind those of us who do that our privilege should be balanced by the obligation to raise the visibility of those among us who continue to suffer from poverty and/or anti-terrorist racial profiling. When we dodge this responsibility, we make ourselves vulnerable to changes in the political climate that might turn the stereotype over onto its flip side which casts us as disloyal, dangerous perpetual foreigners.

4. We Aren’t “Naturally” Conservative. While it’s a perilous jump from Asian American voters to a whole community that includes so many non-voters, most of us who vote aren’t conservative at all. That doesn’t mean we’re progressive, exactly. Instead, it means we tend to side with liberals on issues like health care, affirmative action, immigration, and social security. That’s probably why well over 70% of us voted for Obama. And as we are also less likely to be Christians, as long as the GOP continues to side with conservative evangelicals, many Asian voters will lean toward Democratic candidates.

5. Asian Americans are Human Beings. That may seem awfully obvious, but studies demonstrate that when many of us, especially Whites, respond to images of White people, we describe people without race. We may use other adjectives, but white isn’t often among them. That is, until images of non-Whites are introduced. And when non-White images are presented first, race is almost always noted.

But, we are all just human beings upon whom race has been imposed. Race is neither cultural nor biological. Instead, it’s a political system, invented to subjugate and exploit non-whites, and to keep those raced as different apart from one another, I’m guessing so we can’t figure out that we’re all just human.

During Asian Pacific American Heritage month, this bears repeating. Even as we address racism, and celebrate our many cultures, we Asians should remember that race, as opposed to culture or ethnicity, is a political invention imposed upon us in order to fit us into categories according to which power has historically been organized in the U.S. Forgetting this may well strengthen those oppressive categories, even when our true interests lie in holding them up and making them visible to ourselves and others in order to destroy them.

*Often when Asians use the term “Asian-Pacific American,” they really just mean Asians, though certainly with the intent if not always the effective of being inclusive, rather than to marginalize Pacific Islanders. I make a distinction between these groups. Addressing the needs of Pacific Islanders requires us to address the different ways in which Pacific Islanders are profiled in the U.S., and the legacy of U.S., European, and Japanese colonialism in the Pacific. Those differences in profiling and historical legacy point to different public policy solutions for Pacific Islanders, including to Native Hawaiians whose struggle for recognition as a colonized people should not go without notice in a blog about race.
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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.

8 replies on “Five Things You Should Know About Asian Americans”

Let’s not forget the many traditions and food that are part of our diverse heritages..

The obvious bias of point #4 may be based on incomplete or over-generalized data. The labels, “conservative, progressive” continue to become less relevant to describe one’s entire outlook based on one designation. Unfortunate that in a well-intentioned attempt to provide clarity to promote better understanding of the richness and diversity of the Asian communities in the US, the writer commits the same sort of “sloppiness” that often plagues less informed mainstream “experts.”

Thanks for the comment. This is helpful to me. I did try to use the term “naturally,” along with “conservative” in the hopes of making the point that we are neither conservative nor liberal or progressive, but are likely to vote as though ideologically committed to a liberal agenda because of the way in which self-described conservatives have chosen to position themselves vis a vis certain issues (that, btw, I’m not sure really have anything to do with what many of those who call themselves “conservative” most want).

Though I see what you’re trying to get at w/ point #4, I wholeheartedly disagree that Asians ‘are likely to vote as though ideologically committed to a liberal agenda’. Some may but many like myself are completely the opposite. We’ve never been handed a free lunch, don’t feel entitled, and don’t look to government as the answer to all of our problems. How many Asians do you know have that mentality?

I always find it interesting that starting w/ those brainwashed in academia, most politically active Asians try to lump ourselves with “people of color”. We may be a minority but that’s where the commonality ends. Our viewpoints differ much and mostly are quite the opposite, especially when it comes to affirmative action and illegal immigration.

Also by saying race is used to “exploit non-whites” and the implications of that, it’s being racist itself. Whites are humans too. And racial quotas as required by affirmative action (harming Asians no less) are just as racist as when there were different water fountains for different races.

So we would all do better if we lived in a truly color-blind society from an institutional standpoint (colleges, employers, etc) all while we celebrate our heritage, unique to each ethnicity.

I see, when you said what you did in your previous comment, I thought you had something useful to say about generalizing Asian experience based upon polling results that only speak to certain aspects of the experience, and only pertain to voters, who are a very specific slice of a much more diverse community.

Based on this comment, I see we actually are in complete disagreement with each other, especially on the point that it is intellectually honest to equate affirmative action with Jim Crow, a system of racial apartheid that was a model for South African apartheid, and that was enforced throughout the South with a combination of racial terrorism and totalitarian local government, and resulted in a separate and unequal system of laws that extended even to providing limited and different welfare benefits to black people as opposed to white people in much of the South, and even to excluding black people from wage standards and labor laws pertaining to whites.

Affirmative action is a very different kind of program. Agree with it or not, and I do believe there are problems with affirmative action, to compare the two things is a manipulative distortion of history.

Nonetheless, I appreciate the comment. I learn something, and I hope my readers do, even when I disagree.

Thank you for writing this. It is excellent. I hope you don’t mind that I added it to my recent blog post, “I Am Asian American.” And no, I’m not Asian American myself, the title was chosen for me at Teaching Tolerance! But I am a teacher who teachers students of many cultures and races.

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