Equity & Diversity Opinion

Where Did the Term ‘Asian American’ Come From?

To understand the current rise in racism and hate crimes, look to history
By Dina Okamoto — June 03, 2021 5 min read
Jessica Wong, of Fall River, Mass., front left, Jenny Chiang, of Medford, Mass., center, and Sheila Vo, of Boston, from the state's Asian American Commission, stand together during a protest, Thursday, March 12, 2020, on the steps of the Statehouse in Boston. Asian American leaders in Massachusetts condemned what they say is racism, fear-mongering and misinformation aimed at Asian communities amid the widening coronavirus pandemic that originated in China.

Since the COVID-19 virus began to spread widely in the United States in March 2020, Asian Americans have been blamed for the ills of the pandemic. They have been targets of harassment, verbal and physical attacks, and hate incidents based on the false connections made between the origins of the virus in Wuhan, China, and Asian Americans in the United State. Former President Donald Trump amplified this misplaced blame through his use of terms such as the “Chinese virus” and “kung flu.”

And a year into the pandemic, a mass shooter in the Atlanta area targeted three local, Asian-owned businesses, leaving eight people dead, six of whom were Asian American women. This senseless attack was not an isolated incident but part of a pattern of hate incidents targeting Asian Americans across the country and a larger history of anti-Asian sentiment and violence.

Amid this violence and harassment, it is imperative that we all learn about the demographics, histories, and contemporary experiences of the different national-origin groups that comprise Asian America. Educating ourselves and our students is an important first step in breaking down stereotypes, changing practices and policies, shifting power structures, and moving toward a more just society.

Since their first major wave of immigration into the country in the mid-1800s, Asian immigrants have been racialized as perpetual foreigners, unfair economic competitors, carriers of disease, sexualized objects, and disposable labor. Based upon these stereotypes and tropes, legislators and public officials constructed racist narratives, fomented xenophobic and anti-Asian sentiments, and implemented restrictive and discriminatory policies.

Asian Americans experienced wide-scale racial exclusion, discrimination, and violence, including the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 and the Immigration Acts of 1917 and 1924 prohibiting immigration from Asia, the Chinese Massacre in 1871, race riots against Filipinos and Sikhs in the early 1900s, and Japanese American internment during World War II.

Anti-Asian sentiment and violence have continued into the contemporary era, reminding Asian Americans that their status in American society is conditional rather than that of full citizens. It has continued, in part, because Asian Americans are not a well understood population in the United States, despite the fact that they have been a part of the nation’s history and despite the fact that they are currently the fastest-growing racial group in the country.

Who are Asian Americans? Before 1968, the label and identity of “Asian American” did not exist. By examining its origins, we learn that “Asian American” is a socially constructed idea. In my book, Redefining Race, I explain that the national-origin groups that are racially categorized as Asian American actually have no natural or biological affinity. Immigrants who arrived in the United States from China, Japan, Korea, India, and the Philippines in the late 1800s and early 1900s did not readily form alliances or cooperate, nor did they see themselves as part of the same racial category. Instead, they built separate ethnic communities, depended on their own systems of social and economic support, and, at times, intentionally distinguished themselves from one another.

The label and identity of “Asian American” emerged decades later in the 1960s, well before the federal government and its agencies adopted it as an official racial category. Asian activists built a political movement based on the shared experiences and struggles of Asian ethnic groups in the United States, developing the new panethnic label and identity.

Asian immigrant communities across the country had historically suffered from poverty, segregation, and discrimination. To address these stark inequalities, students and community members in the 1960s—most of whom were of Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino descent—engaged in large-scale social movements aimed at dismantling structures of class, gender, and racial oppression.

They built the Asian American movement, and despite their national origin, language, cultural, and religious differences, they emphasized their shared histories and experiences as cheap laborers and unassimilable foreigners without access to citizenship, property, and civil rights, and even entry into the United States. They also asserted solidarities with those in China, Vietnam, the Philippines, and other Asian nations who were experiencing U.S. imperialism and racial oppression.

In previous decades, Asian-origin groups had largely organized along ethnic lines, and this core idea about the role of race in generating shared experiences among all Asian-origin groups in the United States and abroad was quite radical at the time. The new definition of the Asian American community also emphasized political change from the creation of democratic organizations and the active participation of group members. Asian American activists rejected the model-minority notion, which framed Asians as having few problems and as next in line for assimilation if they individually worked hard enough.

Instead, activists engaged in collective action along panethnic lines to demand ethnic-studies programs, protest anti-Asian hate crimes, build new nonprofits and advocacy organizations, and seek social change. All the while, they remained deeply engaged with the struggles of Black, Chicano, Puerto Rican, and Native groups and recognized that they were all part of a similar fight for systemic social change. This panethnic political work among Asian Americans increased in the subsequent decades and continues today.

So why is this history important? While it is just a starting point, this history helps us begin to understand who Asian Americans are and how race and racial inequalities shape their experiences. While the term “Asian American” emerged as part of a revolutionary social movement, today it is a racial category that advocates use to seek change and build political power.

But it can also hide the diversity and heterogeneity of the Asian American population. We must move beyond the model-minority myth and other false narratives, toward a more complex understanding of the Asian population. It is only with this complex understanding that we can make sense of the broader context of the recent anti-Asian hate incidents.

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A version of this article appeared in the June 09, 2021 edition of Education Week as Where Did the Term ‘Asian American’ Come From?


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