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What's an "Asian American" Now, Anyway?

A Partial Answer to a Very Good Question

By S. D. Ikeda, Asian-American Village


"Please help us with the definition of Asian Americans.   Does that include Hawaii natives and Pacific Islanders?  Did the Census Bureau in year 2000 separate the Asian and Pacific Islanders?  Thank you."

- R. Yin, in our Village Views Letters to the editors section


Dear R. Yin,

Thanks for your very good question, which really has two possible answers, both true.  First, the short and easy answer: As you correctly point out, the 2000 Census survey first offered �Asian� and �Native Hawaiian and Other Pacific Islanders� as two distinct �racial� categories, as well as the possibility for respondents to select from multiple categories. Sub-categories for the �Asian� and �Pacific Islander� categories were provided with the survey for clarification, and �Other Asian� and �Other Pacific Islander� allowed different write-in responses.  Another significant change was the addition of the �Native� in �Native Hawaiian� and its linkage to the �Pacific Islander� category.

What's an "APA"?

Chart: What�s an APA?

Asian and Pacific Islander Population in the U.S.: March 2000 (Census Update)


This shift in standard categories was announced by the Office of Management and Budget (OMB) in October 1997.   Although the previous Asian-Pacific Islander category officially was to have been replaced in all new government data collections at that time, in fact all federal agencies have been given until January 1, 2003 to completely implement the new standards.

Also, while �Asians� and �Pacific Islanders� were officially severed from each other for purposes of collecting census data, the government continued to link these groups in some operations.  For example, data collected in the March 2000 Current Population Survey � before Census 2000 but after the OMB�s decree � remained entitled Asian and Pacific Islander Population in the United States: March 2000 (Update).

So, for a summary of the short and simple version of Census definitions, see What�s an APA?, in our Village reference section.

Now for the less straightforward answer: The definition of �Asian American� also frequently depends on who�s asking, who�s defining, in what context, and why.  Further one may ask what the questioner means by the distinct terms �Asian� and �American,� and by putting the two together.  This belief is, of course, central to our work and mission here at the Asian-American Village, as we wrote right in our welcome statement for our launch on Day One.  While the possible definitions of "Asian-Pacific American" are many, complex, and shifting, we think there�s value in continuing to explore them even as they change over the years.

What's an "Asian"?

"Should Americans of Middle eastern or central Asian descent be considered 'Asian Americans'?"

Yes - 26.2%
No - 65.39%
Not sure - 7.69%

(Village Poll conducted Nov. 2001)


Is there anything that naturally binds, say, Sri Lankan Americans and Chinese Americans other than a vague geographic proximity of our ancestral lands?  Purely geographical definitions are least useful: After all, Asia is the world�s largest continent and the Pacific its largest ocean.  This tectonic thinking is what has led some scholars in Asian-American Studies conferences to suggest that Russians, Iranians, and Israelis all might fit the field�s subject of study.  In part, this zeal for inclusion responds to charges that an �old boy�s� network had developed in the field, which has traditionally tended to focus on peoples and cultures of East Asian descent.  This inclusive sentiment is certainly generous, and it is also geologically sound: all of these nations sit on the shifting land mass that constitutes the Asian continent.  (At this point, we might also recall that �Oriental� was primarily applied to the Middle East � to Persian rugs and so forth -- before taking on its current associations.)

Nonetheless, the area is so vast and diverse as to be practically uncategorizable except in very specific contexts: For example, Asia-Pacific economic coalitions encompass New Zealand and Australia, but it is unlikely that most immigrant Kiwis and Ozzies would check �Asian-Pacific Islander� on a census form � generally citing �cultural� grounds.   Then again, �cultural� definitions are also inadequate: Lots of Asians eat rice, believe in reincarnation, regard our ancestors differently than in traditional Western cultures. But then again, lots don�t.

For our editorial purposes, we have found it more useful to think of �Asian American� not so much as a racial distinction as a means for envisioning a kind of �tribe�.  A social and political unit, we may have ranged far and wide throughout history, but recognize that there are natural bridges that Americans of South Asian and East Asian descent share: The birth of Buddhism in South Asia for one example; certain colonial histories for another.   Yet, more to the point, if our connections in Asia were tenuous, our shared, more recent history here in America have helped us form a new political and experiential kinship.  Take, for instance, our very specific exclusion from numerous civic activities and legal rights throughout much of the last century.  A closer look is instructive.

How did Indian Americans "change their color"?

This and other mysteries answered in Everything You Need to Know About Asian-American History, available at Amazon

Once upon a time, Asian Indians were considered in a biological and a legal sense distinct from other immigrants whose origins lay in the continent of Asia until, as Lan Cao and Himilice Novas put it so succinctly in Everything You Need to Know About Asian-American History, they �changed their color.�   Originally, the government considered Indians to be �Caucasians,� akin to Scandinavians because of common linguistic and, yes, biological roots.  Agitation by the nineteenth century �Asiatic exclusion� movement led to a 1923 Supreme Court decision (U.S. v. Bhagat Singh Thind) that Indians would no longer be eligible for citizenship, saying, �[I]t may be true that the blond Scandinavian and brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity, but the average man knows perfectly well that there are unmistakable and profound differences between them today.�

In short, whatever the anthropological, genetic, linguistic, or other evidence might indicate, the definition was boiled down to surface appearance � to skin color.  In a manner similar to how contemporary courts have struggled to define pornography, the Court was saying, �I can�t define it, but I know it when I see it,� and ultimately positioned itself to ban the �unseemly subject� on that basis.  Thus, naturalized Indian-American �Hindoos� overnight became Asians, stripped of their citizenships, and subject to all the restrictions and exclusions other Asian immigrants faced.

If Indians throughout the centuries have not genetically or culturally or linguistically been closer to, say, Japanese than they are to Scandinavians, Indians in America and Japanese in America have grown closer in many respects.  Notably, �Asian American� has served as an increasingly  big tent to accommodate political coalition-building among groups.

Although this may seem to stray far from your original question, it is in fact consistent with the even the ostensibly more cut-and-dried, bean-counters� view at the OMB.  Announcing the census changes, the OMB explicitly admitted its limitations when it wrote that �[the new standards]� generally reflect a social definition of race recognized in this country. They do not conform to any biological, anthropological or genetic criteria.�  In essence, the OMB is confessing a certain randomness to its standards.  In light of current events, we might well ask, why does the OMB definition of �Asian� include Pakistan but not abutting Afghanistan (countries that do, after all, share large ethnically, linguistically, and religiously related populations)?  Meanwhile, it might be argued that in many aspects including its geography and its colonial history, the Philippines might well have been placed within the new category of "Native Hawaiian and Pacific Islanders" and not as an "Asian" country, as the OMB currently defines it.

Other meaningful changes by the OMB allowed that �People who identify their origin as Spanish, Hispanic, or Latino may be of any race,� and, more revolutionary still, permitted self-reporting and multiple categories.  What this did for the first time was recognize that individual identity is complex and subjective, and that so-called �objective,� visual-based reporting by all-too-flawed census enumerators was inadequate.  I�m an Asian American because I say so, not because Joe Shmoe figures I look close enough to one to suit him.

And perhaps most radical of all, self-reporting by multiracial individuals challenged our long-standing polarized view of racial difference as black-or-white, either-or.  One no longer was compelled to be � or worse, determined by Joe Shmoe to be � either essentially white or essentially Asian, for example.  Without descending into the pseudo-scientific realm of blood quantum measures, this change allowed respondents to more accurately report mixed parentage, and so to be white or black or something else, and still claim for one�s self an �Asian-American� identity as well.

And so, for our purposes, this simultaneously radical and common-sense notion of self-definition is the core of what it means to be an �Asian-American� Villager.  Asia is a specific place, but, to borrow from the great Filipino-American writer Carlos Bulosan, �Asian-Pacific America is in the heart.�  It may be a muddy definition for some people, I suppose, but here at the Village it's good enough for us.

Hope it helps.

Stewart David Ikeda, Editor


Stewart David Ikeda

Stewart David Ikeda is author of the book, What the Scarecrow Said (HarperCollins-Regan Books), about the Japanese-American immigration, internment and relocation experience, and has taught writing and Asian-American Studies at the Universities of Wisconsin and Michigan, and at Boston College.

Former Director of Online Content and Editor-in-Chief at IMDiversity.com, he is a new media planning and diversity consultant, and currently serves as Editor of the Asian-American Village Online and VP of Marketing and Community Outreach for IMDiversity, Inc.

IMDiversity.com is committed to presenting diverse points of view. However, the viewpoint expressed in this article is the opinion of the author and is not necessarily the viewpoint of the owners or employees at IMD.