The Myth of the "Asian-American"

As discussions about race have become louder in light of recent events in Missouri and Staten Island, the voices of Asian Americans have become silent. Personally, I have had difficulty articulating my feelings on the issues at hand. Discussions of race in America are often black and white, and Asian-Americans fall into an ambiguous territory where we don’t identify with the privilege exhibited by White Americans, but not necessarily the same history of systemic oppression as Black Americans. But my problem isn’t even that Asian Americans don’t have a voice in larger discussions of race in the U.S. My problem is that, as an Indian-American, I don’t even have a voice in discussions of race within the Asian American narrative.

Asian Americans have tried to make progress in carving out a space for their voices in these discussions; however, as an Indian American, I often feel that my experiences are left out. To be perfectly honest, I don’t always feel like I “count” as Asian. When non-Asians look at me, they don’t see what they normally conceive of as “Asian”. In fact, most of my fellow Asians don’t consider me Asian. I’m often misidentified as Middle Eastern, which makes a lot of my experiences with racism in America align more with their experiences than the experiences of those considered to be “typical” Asians. Yet when I fill out my race on the census, or when filling out job applications, I consistently have to check off the box that says “Asian”. There is no other place for me to identify my race or ethnicity.

So when I read stories about Michael Brown and Eric Garner and the countless other victims of systemic racism, I never know where I fall in discussions of race. I’m an Asian American, but most people don’t even recognize that, and my personal experiences with racism in the U.S. do not align with the standard narrative of racism against Asians. Sure, Indian Americans are subject to the “model minority” and “tiger parent” stereotypes just as much as other Asian Americans. But because of the color of our skin we are also subject to stereotypes of being inarticulate cab drivers and 7/11 owners, or on an extreme end, terrorists, jihadists, misogynists and fundamentalists.

I’m in a double bind, where as an Asian, my voice isn’t recognized by society at large, but as an Indian, my voice isn’t recognized amongst my fellow Asians. This is because the term “Asian-American” and what it has come to mean in the U.S. only refers to a narrow definition of what being an Asian or Asian-Pacific Islander means. It ignores the rich ethnic and cultural diversity of the largest continent in the world.

As a member of the Indian Student Association and a representative on the Asian Leaders Council at my college, I’ve seen the isolation of the Indian community from the Asian “umbrella” firsthand. ISA has consistently had to force itself to be recognized within the Asian community, even though we are one of the largest cultural organizations on grounds with over 200 active members. Most students at our college do not see ISA as an “Asian” organization, and many of our fellow Asian organizations do not recognize us as one of the major Asian presences on grounds. Additionally, many of our own members do not know that ISA falls under the Asian cultural umbrella, because many of our own members do not identify with the dominant narrative of the Asian American experience.

There is definitely a benefit to bringing multiple cultures together under one umbrella, as it promotes solidarity and increases the political leverage of minority voices that are already left out of the discussions of race in America. However, the problem with the definition of what it is to be Asian American and the dominant narrative driven under this racial identity is that it is a myth. It ignores the experiences of many other “Asians” that cannot identify with this dominant narrative. It ignores their experiences to the point that many of these outsiders don’t really feel like Asians at all.

Race is a social construct. There is no genetic basis for it. Everything we know about what “race” is comes from what society has grown to believe it is. When people look at me, they do not see an Asian. But they also don’t see someone who is black, white, or Latino. I honestly have no clue what they see. But I do know that the racism I experience doesn’t fall under what the world tells me I am supposed to experience as an Asian American.

Before Asian Americans can truly carve a space where their voices are recognized in national discourses of racism in America, we need to have a conversation about what it really means to be Asian American. We cannot continue to talk about the “silence of Asian Americans” on racial issues in the U.S. when the construct of being considered an Asian American in the first place doesn’t exist for many of it’s so called constituents. We need to include the voices of all ethnicities under the Asian umbrella, and have a meaningful discourse about how these unique experiences relate to a common narrative. Once we have more inclusive discussions of experiences as Asian Americans, we can work towards more inclusive discussions of race in America.