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5.2: Who are Asian Americans?

  • Page ID
    143305
    • Kay Fischer & Teresa Hodges

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    Asian American is Panethnic

    When we teach our Asian American Studies courses, we tell students that Asian Americans are not homogenous; we are diverse and there is no one way of “looking” or “acting” Asian. As Asian Americans in California, our experiences growing up in the Bay Area, So Cal, or the Central Valley may be very different from Asian American communities throughout the West, East, Hawai’i, or increasingly Asian Americans in the Midwest and the South. Over 20 million Asian Americans were counted in the 2020 census and have origins in more than 20 different countries (Gebeloff, et al, 2021). Contrary to the “model minority” myth which we’ll get into in a later subsection, Asian Americans represent an array of educational and socioeconomic backgrounds. Simply put, you can’t put Asian Americans in one box.

    Still, there have been significant historical events that have shaped the racialization of Asian Americans in the U.S. and in some ways forced or encouraged Asian Americans to come together as one. This is what panethnic means: when people of various ethnicities are grouped together, largely for political reasons. Since Asian immigrants faced fierce immigration restrictions from the 19th century into the mid-twentieth century, the population has remained small, and after the 1965 Immigration Act (Hart-Cellar Act), the population is now the fastest growing racial demographic in the U.S.

    The following list highlights recent Census data on the diversity of Asian American and Pacific Islander (AAPI) communities:

    Anti-Asian Racism in the time of COVID-19

    two masked protestors with signs, one reads Stop Asian Hate
    Figure \(\PageIndex{1}\): Rally to Stop Asian Hate, Washington, D.C. March 21, 2021. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Victoria Pickering via Flickr)

    Stop AAPI Hate was established on March 19, 2020 by three Asian American organizers and professors after they were denied support from the California Attorney General’s office in creating an anti-Asian discrimination reporting center. They launched their own reporting center titled Stop AAPI Hate, which helped track and analyze anti-Asian hate at the start of the COVID-19 pandemic.

    Professor of Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley, Catherine Ceniza Choy pointed out that the swift thinking and coordination of the reporting center, “emerged from a legacy of six decades of Asian American activism as well as a response to contemporary anti-Asian violence” (2022, p. 19). A political infrastructure already existed. Asian Americanists and Asian American organizers grew concerned about the backlash that could be faced by the Chinese and Asian American communities when it was reported that the coronavirus spread in China, especially since president Donald Trump publicly referred to it as the “Chinese virus.” They were right. Stop AAPI Hate received around 100 anti-Asian incidents a day in its first week alone (p. 20).

    Professor Choy pointed out that while the more disturbing examples of anti-Asian violence made it to the news, less sensational incidents were still reported to Stop AAPI Hate, including: people being prevented from utilizing public transportation; being coughed at; being verbally harassed or harassed online; and vandalism (2022, p. 21). The data analysis also showed that Asian American women experienced discrimination at over twice the rate of men. They reported that although Chinese were the most targeted, 60% of respondents were of other ethnicities, including Korean, Vietnamese, Filipinx, Japanese, Taiwanese, Hmong, Thai, Lao, Cambodian, and those of mixed ethnicities, proving “the significance of ‘Asian American’ as a panethnic category” (p. 22). Often, the racialization of Asian Americans doesn't make distinctions between ethnicities, and Choy brings up the importance of collecting both aggregated and disaggregated data that helped to express the shared experiences among Asian Americans and distinct experiences of Asian ethnic groups.

    Many Americans found anti-Asian hate during the pandemic as unexpected or surprising, but anti-Asian violence is not new in the United States. Historian, Dr. Erika Lee testified before Congress on the topic of “Discrimination and Violence Against Asian Americans” on March 18, 2021. She started out by affirming the rate of anti-Asian violence rising in the aftermath of the COVID pandemic that started in late 2019, early 2020. Lee testified,

    As shocking as these incidents are, it is so vital to understand that they are not random acts perpetrated by deranged individuals. They are an expression of our country’s long history of systemic racism targeting Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders. We’ve heard in the past 24 hours many describe anti-Asian discrimination and racial violence as unAmerican. Unfortunately, it is very American. This history, this American history, is over 150 years old (House Committee on the Judiciary, 2021, 01:22:48 - 01:23:25).

    Lee informed the committee of one of the largest mass lynchings by a mob in U.S. history, happening in 1871 when seventeen Chinese men were lynched by a white mob of 500 in Los Angeles. She also shared that in 1886 a mob forced out all of Seattle’s Chinese residents; similarly South Asian immigrants were attacked and driven out of their homes, and Japanese and Filipinx people were subject to beatings and other racially motivated attacks. She brought up the brutal 1982 killing of Vincent Chin, and the wave of anti-Asian violence in the 1980s that targeted Korean shopkeepers and Southeast Asian refugees from Vietnam, Laos, and Cambodia. She reminded the committee that in the weeks after September 11, 2001, hate crimes against Muslim, Arab, and South Asian communities increased by 1,600 percent. Lee continued, “As these incidents reveal, Asian Americans have been terrorized, we’ve been treated as enemies, we’ve been discriminated against. Today we are still viewed as foreigners, rather than U.S. citizens” (House Committee on the Judiciary, 2021, 01:24:17 - 01:24:31).

    These historical and contemporary events are often not taught in our schools. Even our Asian American students often end up internalizing the “model minority” myth; that Asian Americans are successful and don’t face racism, and even that Asian Americans are "honorary whites." We’ve read many essays by Asian American students who’ll write that they’ve never faced racism, but follow up with examples of racial discrimination. Deceptively “positive,” the “model minority” myth only works to divide people of color and ignore the long legacy of systemic racism and racially motivated violence against Asian Americans. The most recent expression of anti-Asian discrimination and hate is simply an extension of this legacy.

    Sidebar: Varying Degrees of Pan-ethnicity

    As a diverse group, Dhingra and Rodriguez (2021) explain how Asian Americans exhibit varying degrees of connection with other Asian Americans. For example, East Asian Americans (such as Japanese and Chinese Americans) display a stronger sense of pan-ethnicity as Asian Americans than South Asian Americans or Southeast Asian Americans. South Asian Americans (such as Indian and Pakistani Americans) "do not develop a pan-ethnic identity, possibly due to their distinct racialization and reliance on one another rather than on other Asian Americans (Schachter 2014)" (p. 126). A distinct racialized experience for South Asian Americans was during the post-911 Islamophobic attacks on South Asian, Muslim, Sikh, and South West Asian communities who were targets of hate crimes, harassment and racial profiling (South Asian Americans Leading Together). Southeast Asian Americans (such as Vietnamese and Cambodian Americans) may not identify with the "model minority" stereotype and feel distinct because of their refugee experience. Dhingra and Rodriguez also point out how a focus on structural inequality may lead Southeast Asian Americans to "salient ethnic rather than pan-ethnic identities," such as in the case pointed out by Bindi Shah (2008) who argues that Laotian Americans center their ethnic rather than pan-ethnic identity in their social justice organizing when assisting refugees and low-paid workers (2021, p. 126).

    Vincent Chin and the pan-Asian American Movement of the 1980s

    The 1982 murder of Chinese American Vincent Chin in Detroit, Michigan, is considered an important landmark in Asian American history and panethnic political identity development. Asian Americans protested the fact that two white men, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz, were sentenced to probation and a small fine with no prison time for their manslaughter conviction. The case led to the development of a nationwide consciousness around Anti-Asian hate, and established some groundwork for continued civil rights and social justice campaigns (Tajima-Peña, 2014, p. 185).

    Journalist and activist Helen Zia witnessed the collapse of the auto industry in Detroit, with hundreds of thousands of mostly Black and also white working class auto workers left to fend for themselves. Described as “a city in crisis,” people in Detroit lost their jobs, homes and cars, and “gloom turned to anger as they searched for the cause of their miseries” (2010, p. 36). Japan made an easy target. First, the oil crisis of 1978 essentially “killed the market for heavy, eight-cylinder dinosaurs made in Detroit,” leading to massive layoffs. Meanwhile, Japan’s auto industry was beginning to grow, meeting the demand for inexpensive and fuel-efficient vehicles. Zia continued, “They were easy to hate. Anything Japanese, or presumed to be Japanese, became a potential target” (p. 37). Unions sponsored events where they sledge-hammered Japanese cars. Zia reflected that living in Detroit at the time, “It felt dangerous to have an Asian face” (p. 37).

    Vincent Chin, age 27, was out with his friends celebrating his bachelor party on June 19, 1982 at a local strip bar. Ronald Ebens, a Chrysler plant superintendent and his stepson, Michael Nitz, a laid-off autoworker, seemed annoyed that Vincent was receiving attention from the dancers. Vincent’s friend overheard Ebens say, “Chink,” “Nip,” “fucker,” and one of the dancers heard him say, “It’s because of motherfuckers like you that we’re out of work.” Vincent responded, “Don’t call me a fucker” and they fought. When both groups were kicked out of the bar, Ebens and Nitz drove around searching for Vincent. Once they found Vincent, Nitz held him down while Ebens swung a baseball bat into his skull four times. Vincent was mortally wounded and died four days later. Zia wrote, “His four hundred wedding guests attended his funeral instead” (2010, p. 38).

    On March 18, 1983, it was reported that the two killers were charged for Vincent’s slaying. They pleaded guilty and no contest to beating Vincent to death, yet each received three years of probation and $3,780 in fines, with Judge Charles Kaufman defending his sentencing, stating, “These aren't the kind of men you send to jail” (Zia, 2010, p. 39). People were enraged and called out this obvious example of systemic racism, where the lives of two violent killers were valued above the life of an Asian American hate crime and murder victim, Vincent Chin.

    As more and more Asian Americans heard about Chin’s slaying and the “slap-on-the-wrist” sentencing, they began to demand justice. They felt that what Vincent experienced could have happened to them and to anyone who “looked” Japanese. This was the start of another panethnic Asian American movement. Over 100 people came together to form a pan-Asian organization that could seek civil rights justice for Chin’s murder. They were called American Citizens for Justice (ACJ), and news on the efforts of ACJ spread across the country due to lobbying and press coverage. “It was the first time that an Asian American–initiated issue was considered significant national news,” wrote Zia (2010, p. 48). ACJ was naming anti-Asian violence as “present-day phenomenon” and they helped to create an organizing framework for Asian Americans.

    Eventually, the Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) opened an inquiry and a federal grand jury indicted Ebens and Nitz for depriving Vincent Chin of his civil rights and conspiracy to do so. The jury found Ebens guilty of the civil rights charge, but not conspiracy. Nitz was found not guilty for both charges. Ebens was sentenced to 25 years, but he appealed and his conviction was overturned in 1987 (Tajima-Peña, 2014, p. 186). Mrs. Chin moved back to Guangdong Province in China. Ebens and Nitz never publicly expressed remorse, nor did they ever spend a full day in jail (Zia, 2010, p. 53).

    Zia wrote that losing its first national campaign didn’t devastate the Asian American community, “instead, it had been transformed” (2010, p. 53). The legacy of the Vincent Chin case lived on through award-winning documentaries and as author and Ethnic Studies professor Yen Le Espiritu pointed out, as a result, Asian Americans are more willing to speak on anti-Asian racism, are better organized, and this era paved the way for building “pan-Asian unity.”

    “Asian American” Panethnicity and “Third World” Solidarity:

    Black and white mural of Yuri Kochiyama and other protestors
    Figure \(\PageIndex{2}\): "Yellow Peril Supports Black Power" Art in Oakland. Photo taken February 20, 2023. (CC BY 4.0; Photo by Jordan Burkart)

    Inspired by various nationalist liberation movements of the 1960s such as the Black Power movement, second-generation Asian youth started to use the term “Asian American” to describe a panethnic identity rooted in solidarity. Asian Americans of diverse ethnic backgrounds attended a UCLA conference in the summer of 1968 to discuss issues of identity, power and the war in Vietnam. They rejected the term “Oriental” since it “smacks of European colonialism and imperialism,” noting that Asia is only east in relationship to Europe (Espiritu, 1992, p. 32). This forced students to consider Asian American as an alternative to “Yellow” and “Oriental” and the first organization to apply this term was the Asian American Political Alliance (AAPA) at UC Berkeley in 1969 (p. 33). Yen Le Espiritu, Ethnic Studies Professor at UC San Diego, wrote on pan-Asian ethnicity and explained how Asian Americans were also inspired by the success of anticolonial revolutions and “Third World” solidarity between Africa, Asia, and Latin America (such as “Afro-Asia” solidarity displayed at the Bandung conference in 1955).

    Instead of cultural bonds, panethnic identity is a result of political and social processes. Espiritu emphasizes the political nature of the development of a panethnic identity for Asian Americans, with the purpose of struggling for power and resources (1992, p. 14). As Asian American Studies professor Diane Fujino, UC Santa Barbara, notes, this was a political strategy “to contest racial oppression” (2014, p. 1104).

    The Asian American Movement focused on solidarity with Asia, and both global and internal Third World communities. Activist Amy Uyematsu wrote that the movement rejected their parents’ assimilationist goals and “turned the racial order on its head by asking Asian Americans to see a shared oppression with black Americans and to challenge the anti-black racism harbored by many Asian Americans” (2014, p. 1105). AAPA was anti-imperialist and organized the Third World Liberation Front strike at San Francisco State (1968) and UC Berkeley (1969), standing in unity with other students of color to demand Ethnic Studies in the longest and most violent student struggle in the U.S.

    Espiritu adds that the development of Asian American Studies was perhaps the most important outcome of the Asian American Movement and the discipline continues to build on an Asian American heritage. Asian American Studies curriculum expresses both similarities and differences across diverse Asian American communities and helps Asian American students understand who they are (1992, p. 36). Standing in solidarity with other oppressed groups also highlighted the view “that their own liberation was intricately linked to the liberation of peoples everywhere” (Fujino, 2014, p. 1106).

    Since these movements of the 1960s and 1980s, we’ve witnessed and participated in the development of Asian American Studies, panethnic non-profits, conferences, news, film festivals, political campaigns and voter drives that organize for better political representation across diverse Asian American and Pacific Islander groups.

    Sidebar: Richard Aoki: an Asian American Black Panther

    A headshot of Aoki with a mustache is looking at the camera and wearing a black tie
    Figure \(\PageIndex{3}\): Richard Aoki. (CC BY 2.0; Davis Sasaki via Flickr)

    Richard Masato Aoki (1938-2009) was only 3 years old when he and his family were incarcerated at Topaz, Utah during World War II for being Japanese. Afterwards, his family moved to West Oakland and Richard grew up in a segregated Black neighborhood, which he shared was “one of the best experiences I ever had” because he was immersed in African American society (Wang and Cheng, 2009, 11:54 - 12:03). He knew both the co-founders of the Black Panther Party for Self Defense (BPP), Bobby Seale and Huey P. Newton. Newton asked Richard to join the party, as they were both politically engaged, and he became an early member. Richard shared that when Newton approached him, he replied, “Wait a minute now…I don’t look exactly Black.” Newton responded, “the struggle for freedom, justice and equality transcends racial and ethnic barriers” (01:22 - 01:51). As a “Field Marshall,” Richard became the only Asian American panther member who had a leadership position.

    As the call for freedom and self-determination were some of the core principles of the panther’s 10-point platform, so was the right to self-defense. Richard Aoki helped to supply and trained party members on how to clean and break down guns. BPP leader Kathleen Cleaver strongly affirmed that Richard helped to start the organization because he witnessed “people being subjected to unfair, racist domination…and he knew it was wrong and so he was quite willing to help his friends fight against this” (Wang and Cheng, 2009, 44:10 - 44:24).

    In 1968, Richard was a student at UC Berkeley and the chair of the Asian American Political Alliance. He helped organize the 3-month strike in 1969 with the Third World Liberation Front, helping to establish Ethnic Studies at the university. He was on the frontline being beaten by police, getting arrested, and physically fighting back. Richard became one of the first coordinators of Asian American Studies at UC Berkeley. Afterwards, he worked for the community college system and Diane Fujino noted that he would “go to bat” for first-generation college students, often students of color from working class and/or immigrant backgrounds. Fujino, who was also Richard’s biographer, stated, “He would try to get them scholarships…try to encourage them to take certain classes…encourage them to stay in school” (Wang and Cheng, 2009, 1:20:20-1:20:33).

    Later in life, he unofficially mentored various youth activists, college students, and community organizers, including author, Kay Fischer. Richard also spoke regularly at various campus and community events about his life as an activist and social change agent. He supported and advised the Ethnic Studies strike of 1999 at UC Berkeley.

    Due to serious illness, Richard ended up taking his own life in 2009. Four years after his death, journalist Seth Rosenfeld came out with a book titled, Subversives: The FBI’s War on Student Radicals and Reagan’s Rise to Power. He claimed that Richard was an FBI informant, and although his book mostly focused on the FBI’s covert operations on student movements during the 1960s, Rosenfeld benefited from sensationalist press coverage right before the release of his book that explicitly focused on outing Richard Aoki, a well-known activist. Progressives in the Bay Area were divided on the issue of whether they believed Rosenfeld’s claim, or felt that there wasn’t strong enough evidence. Fujino questioned the timing of the release of these documents and pointed out how revealing the identity of an informant was a “serious breach of FBI protocol” (Gonzales, 2012). She also stated that after reading Rosenfeld’s book, she was surprised to find that there was very little information on Rosenfeld’s claim, and simply put, the evidence was not substantial. Fujino continues that after evaluating the FBI documents herself, it’s not clear whether he was an informant or the one being observed (Democracy Now!, 2012).

    Many of Richard’s friends and life-long activists have also come out to defend Richard’s legacy and integrity. The impact of Richard’s revolutionary commitment to liberty and justice is not lost. Richard’s narrative of fighting for Black Liberation and for Ethnic Studies at UC Berkeley was an important demonstration of interracial solidarity. Musician, writer and activist, Fred Ho, also wrote to rebut claims about Richard, stating that he must have been a “piss-poor” informant as he ultimately shaped the Third World movements of the 1960s. Richard’s commitment to change continued into the 1990s and 2000s as he mentored and inspired the next generation of activists. Those who knew Richard remembered him as forward thinking, generous, principled, for the people, and consistent. As Ho pointed out, Richard “remained a revolutionary for life” (Ho, 2012).

    Under Western Eyes: Orientalism

    One idea that’s remained a part of the way Asian Americans are racialized is that Asians, no matter how American, are “Forever Foreign.” A common microaggression that Asian Americans face, for some on a daily basis, are questions or comments like

    Although 71% of Asian American adults were born in another country (Budiman and Ruiz, 2021), Asian Americans have a 500-year-old history in the Americas starting with Filipinx sailors who traveled with Spanish colonizers on the Manila-Acapulco Galleon (Ding, 2001, 06:35 - 07:34). Ethnic Studies professor and ground-breaking Asian American documentarian, Loni Ding states in her documentary, Ancestors in the Americas: “People sometimes think Asians are only recent immigrants. But, actually Asians have been in North America even before America became a republic” (2001, 05:45 - 05:55).

    Illustration of several canoes and people surrounding the Manila Galleon ship
    Figure \(\PageIndex{4}\): An illustration of a Spanish Manila Galleon in the Ladrones Islands (Mariana Islands) in the Pacific Ocean, 1590. (Public Domain; Artist Unknown via World History Encyclopedia)

    In fact, when we dig deeper into why Asians began arriving to the Americas, we must actually start with Europe. Christopher Columbus, who for so long has been celebrated in American classrooms as the person to “discover” America, stumbled onto the territories of the Taino people in 1492, and thought he had landed in Asia! In fact, Columbus was commissioned by the Spanish monarchy to find another route to Asia or “the Indies,” with hopes to grow their riches and power through trade. It wasn’t Asians that came to the West, it was the West who came to Asia.

    Orientalism: A Western Invention

    Professor and author Gary Y. Okihiro wrote,

    Asians entered into the European American historical consciousness long before the mid-nineteenth century Chinese immigration to “Gold Mountain”...The “when and where” of the Asian American experience can be found within the European imagination and constructions of Asians and Asia and within their expansion eastward and westward to Asia for conquest and trade (1992, p. 7).

    We can find examples of what Europeans thought of people from Asia even among the ancient Greeks from over 2,000 years ago. They made general statements about a people they didn’t know well, enabling an “exotic, alienating construction of Asians, whether witnessed or simply imagined" (Okihiro, 1992, p. 9). For example, Greek philosopher Aristotle wrote in 4th century BCE that Asians were in a constant state of subjection and slavery, and Alexander the Great called Asians effeminate and “a nation of slaves” (p. 9). These baseless generalizations of a complex and diverse group of humans in a vast region were passed on from generation to generation in a static, frozen manner, as if the stereotypes of Asia and Asian people never transformed or changed over the centuries.

    This is what Palestinian American literary critic, author and professor, Edward Said described as orientalism: the European invention of Asians as “the Other,” a system of ideas that supported a “Western style for dominating, restructuring, and having authority” over Asia (Said, 1979, Introduction). The European identity was based on how it contrasted from “the Other,” helping to inform the West’s desire to project itself as “a masculine, conquering Europe” as opposed to “a feminized Asia ripe for conquest” (Lee, 2015, p. 15). The function of these ideas were to “...substantiate Europe’s identity rather than to understand Asia in an accurate or nuanced manner” (Sang-Hee Lee, 2014, p. 7). Orientalism was based on the idea of the European authority on the “Orient” and was never concerned with the actual ideas, thoughts, and experiences of people from this region. Orientalism was rooted in the “impulse to dominate, possess” and it was about setting Europeans apart as a people who are not only different, but superior to Asia. Over the centuries, these ideas persisted and became common sense, “the Orient was backwards because it was and people had been saying this for a long time” (p. 9).

    Simultaneous Colonization of the Americas and Asia

    Crusaders and European travelers described “bizarre creatures, alien plants, and strange customs of the ‘East’” (Lee, 2015, p. 16), and by the 13th and 14 centuries, Asian goods started to appear. Marco Polo, who traveled to Asia and the Middle East, told narratives of fantastical creatures like unicorns and endless riches like “mountain streams flowing with diamonds” and “ample accounts of prostitutes, sex, and women” (Okihiro, 1992, p. 14; Lee, 2015, p. 16). Books like The Travels of Marco Polo became popular and influential. Europeans developed a taste for goods from Asia like spices, silk, and sugar, and cargo from Asia would yield massive profit. In 1615, Sir Walter Raleigh stated, “whosoever commands the sea commands the trade; whosoever commands the trade of the world commands the riches of the world, and consequently the world itself” (Lee, 2015, p. 17; Raleigh, 1829, p. 325).

    Columbus was, in fact, inspired by Marco Polo and had his own well-worn copy of his book. Upon landing in the island of what's today called Cuba, his description of the land and the people was influenced by the ideologies of orientalism. Columbus described Indigenous people as “children” and the land in feminine and sexualized qualities, such as describing the mouth of the Orinoco River as shaped “like a woman’s nipple” (Okihiro, 1992, p. 17). He died in 1506, still thinking the Caribbean was Asia.

    Spanish colonizers followed and began growing their empire, Nueva España. And as the Spanish continued to search routes to Asia, soon “Asia and the Americas were linked in the Spanish imagination and became two parts of the New World, ambas Indias, both Indies, that could be conquered and converted to Christianity,” claiming control of the Philippines archipelago starting in 1521 (Lee, 2015, pp. 18 - 19). Europeans colonized large swaths of land in Asia and by the early 20th century, Japan did the same. Soon, the U.S. expanded beyond the territories of the Americas and took over Hawai’i, Guam, and the Philippines. Colonial expansion extended to the so-called New World, with the British, Dutch, Portuguese, French, Russians, and Spanish drawing random boundaries that never existed before, displacing and killing tens of millions of Indigenous people through genocidal policies and with diseases.

    Gary Okihiro states, “So if we think about the general spread and expansion, we can understand that Asia was always on the mind. They were always looking toward Asia” (Ding, 2001, 11:50 - 12:05).

    Race, gender, and sexuality

    From its inception, race has been used to categorize people into separate and unequal groups in a hierarchical manner. The physical differences we give meaning to are superficial differences, and our “race” has no determination over intelligence, athletic ability, or personality traits. Nor do people in one “race” have more in common genetically with one another than with people in different racial groups. Racist ideologies and the arbitrary categorizations that followed were developed to justify mass removal and genocidal policies against Indigenous populations and to rationalize and moralize the enslavement of millions taken from Africa. Since ideas of race “...emerged in the context of European colonialism, it is organized around the logic of white supremacy, that is, those who are considered white are considered intellectually and morally superior over those who are nonwhite” (Dhingra and Rodriguez, 2021, p. 26). For more on white supremacy and its origin in colonialism, see also Chapter 7, section 7.2 "Defining Whiteness and White Supremacy."

    Furthermore, in the United States, notions of race are often limited within the black-white binary. The racial experiences of Asian Americans are not like either Black or white Americans, but they’ve been racialized as close to Black or close to white. Historically, Asian Americans have been legally defined as nonwhite, as they were excluded from nationality, land ownership and marriage to whites. They’ve also been “stereotyped as morally deviant and explicitly compared to African Americans” (Dhingra and Rodriguez, 2021, p. 39). Yet, at other times, depending on the political and economic context, Asians have been described as “outwhiting” whites when it comes to education and household income. Additionally, Asian Americans are racialized as “forever foreign,” no matter how long they’ve been in the U.S. Their exclusion is heightened during times of perceived threat from Asia. This subsection will review how Asian Americans have been racialized in a duality: yellow peril or model minority, and sometimes both.

    Yellow Peril

    Yellow Peril is an extension of Orientalism and frames Asians and Asian nations as a threat to the West: either economically, politically, sexually, or morally. Examples include white anxiety around Asian immigrant labor replacing white workers or Asian men soiling the "purity" of the white race by “going after” white women. Asian women in the context of yellow peril framing are presented as evil temptresses or prostitutes that manipulate white men. Asian American scholar, Robyn Rodriguez and Pawan Dhingra in their book, Asian America (2nd Edition) point out that the “yellow peril” stereotype typically only arises when the U.S. is at war or during a “crisis of capital” (Ong, Bonacich, and Cheng 1994, as cited in Dhingra and Rodriguez, 2021, p. 40). Dhingra and Rodriguez further point out that the U.S. doesn’t have to be in a literal war for Asian Americans to be perceived as a threat, as in the case of the Vincent Chin murder in 1982. Similarly, when news of the coronavirus outbreak reached the U.S., Trump called himself a “wartime president.” Americans blamed Asians and people perceived to be Chinese for the virus and anti-Asian discrimination, harassment, and violence grew exponentially in 2020 and 2021.

    The term “yellow peril” is the exact translation of a painting commissioned by German Kaiser Wilhelm II who woke from a nightmare in 1895. He dreamt that the "great" nations of Europe were facing an invasion from the East. Convinced that this was what to come, Wilhelm commissioned a painting of his dream, titled it Die Gelbe Gefahr (The Yellow Peril) as seen under Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\) and sent reproductions to European leaders and president of the U.S., William McKinley. The painting centered female warriors representing European countries with the Christian cross hanging above them. Archangel Michael is pointing toward the threat: the supposed menacing Buddha riding a Chinese dragon headed toward Europe with dark clouds and lightning overhead, and a burning city right below (Lee, 2015, pp. 122 - 123).

    The Yellow Peril. Details in text
    Figure \(\PageIndex{5}\): "The Yellow Peril" - "Peoples of Europe, guard your dearest goods." 1895 (Public Domain; by Hermann Knackfuss via Wikimedia Commons)

    This image helped popularize the term “yellow peril” and ended up being “the most influential political illustration of the late nineteenth century” (Lee, 2015, p. 123). This message found “a ready audience in the United States” merely a decade after the passage of the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.

    Ironically, the Japanese Shogunate of the 17th century instituted a policy of isolation to protect Japan from European colonialism. Determined to expand its influence in Asia and frustrated with Japan’s refusal to trade, it was the U.S.’s own gun-boat diplomacy that led to Japan restructuring its nation in order to compete with U.S. and European imperialism. U.S. Commodore Matthew C. Perry sailed 4 armed navy ships in 1853 to the shores of Edo (Tokyo) Bay and threatened to use force unless Japan opened its doors to trade (Lee, 2015, p. 110). It was not Asian countries that invaded European nations or the U.S. for the purposes of empire building. For hundreds of years it was European nations that were threatening to Asia and other parts of the world, seizing land, exploiting resources, and displacing or stealing people in the continents of Africa, Australia, Asia, and the Americas, and the islands of the Pacific, all in the name of expanding their nations, power, and wealth.

    The Model Minority

    A seemingly opposing racialization of Asian Americans is the "model minority" myth or stereotype; that Asians and Asian Americans are culturally or biologically smarter, economically well-off, and successful, but also obedient and docile. Since the mid-20th century, U.S. media often highlight stories of Asian American success by focusing on their disproportionately high educational attainment, higher median income, and residential integration of Asian American families in traditionally white suburbs. Dhingra and Rodriguez point out,

    This apparently positive portrayal has more going on than a representation of imagined social trends. This stereotype has gained currency because, like all stereotypes, it fits various preconceptions and racialized ideologies. First, it works to denigrate Asian Americans, even as it purports to praise them. The “model minority” is cast as subservient and obedient. While the “model minority” appears highly valorized, s/he remains a foreigner (2021, p. 42).

    Instead of examining structural factors or immigration policies that explain the data around educational attainment, the model minority myth proclaims that Asian culture or Confucian principles lead to their success. Thereby, Asian Americans can be considered successful, but still not “assimilated enough to be seen as everyday citizens, much less civic or corporate leaders” (Dhingra and Rodriguez, 2021, p. 42). In fact, the framing of this newer racialization of Asian Americans conveniently became popular during the Civil Rights Movement. African Americans and their allies were calling out the U.S. as a racist country, and to counter that and contain demands for social justice, the model minority myth worked to uphold ideologies of colorblindness and meritocracy. Asian American were “proof” that anyone willing to work hard enough could achieve the “American dream.” To further elaborate, Robert G. Lee writes, “The elevation of Asian Americans to the position of model minority had less to do with the actual success of Asian Americans than with the perceived failure—or worse, refusal—of African Americans to assimilate” (2010, p. 256).

    Starting with World War II, America was being called out for their blatantly white supremacist laws and practices, especially on a global scale. Germans, the Japanese, and later the Soviet Union and other communist movements around the globe were calling out the U.S.’s hypocrisy around fighting Nazism, yet incarcerating over 120,000 Japanese Americans (and Canadians and Latin Americans) simply for their heritage and their anti-Semitic policy of refusing to accept Jewish refugees from Europe. Lee explains that the U.S. had a strong motive to push the narrative of the U.S. as “...a liberal democratic state where people of color could enjoy equal rights and upward mobility” (2015, p. 257). The U.S. understood that the nation’s legacy of racial discrimination impacted their relationships with other countries. During the Cold War, the U.S. engaged in a struggle for global influence and worked to promote an image of the U.S. as a multiracial and liberal democracy; to top it off, they claimed that U.S.-style capitalism meant anyone could “make it,” including immigrants and racial minorities.

    With the onset of the Civil Rights Movement in the 1950s and '60s, biological racism and blatantly racist rhetoric was no longer socially acceptable. In its stead, ideologies around cultural racism tried to turn the blame of racial inequality away from structural and system reasons and toward African Americans for their own failures. In 1966, two major magazines The New York Times and U.S. News and World Report published articles centering on Asian American success stories. Lee notes how the media blatantly pit minorities groups against each other, with the U.S. News asserting, “At a time when it is being proposed that hundreds of billions be spent on uplifting Negroes and other minorities, the nation’s 300,000 Chinese Americans are moving ahead on their own with no help from anyone else” (2015, p. 261).

    Furthermore, during the Cold War, “homophobia and anticommunism went hand in hand” and homosexuality was seen as a threat to national security, going so far as banning gay men and women from federal employment in 1953 (Lee, 2015, p. 269). The nuclear family was valorized, and only offered a narrow approach to being a patriotic American family: middle-class, with the wife at home, and the husband providing for the family, with the added duty of reproducing children who would be faithful patriots of this great nation. The model minority stereotype highlighted Asian Americans who, for the most part, met this nuclear model. Asian Americans who didn’t meet the “model minority” image were quickly forgotten and their problems ignored. This includes members of the LGBTQ, poor Asian Americans, those struggling in school, or Asian Americans who are disabled, struggling with mental health, facing abuse, or incarcerated.

    Hypersexualization of Asian Women

    A masked protestor carrying a sign reading: Not your fetish, not your scapegoat, not your model minority
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Rally for Asian American Women in Chinatown. April 10, 2021. (CC BY 2.0; Andrew Ratto via Flickr)

    Asian women have been portrayed as a sexual threat or perpetual sex workers. In fact, before the Chinese Exclusion Act was passed in 1882, Asian women were particularly targeted for exclusion in the 1875 Page Act. The act targeted Chinese and other Asian women suspected of prostitution from entering the United States (Schlund-Vials, Wong, and Chang, 2017, p. 38). This is an important example of how a gendered and sexualized framing of the yellow peril stereotype influenced policy that criminalized all Asian female immigrants as undesirable, causing “moral and racial pollution,” and therefore excluded from the U.S. (Lee, 2015, p. 91).

    The correlation between Asian women and hypersexuality or sexual deviance continued into the 20th and 21st centuries. One of the first Asian American actresses on the silver screen was Anna May Wong (1905-1961) who was type casted to play “Dragon Lady” characters: deceitful and cunning, but also exotic and sensual women who used their sexuality for foul play. Such representations continued into modern days, such as Lucy Liu’s character on Ally McBeal (1997) and Kill Bill (2003).

    When the “model minority” stereotype became prevalent, Asian men were asexualized and deemed effeminate, especially since they were depicted as undermining patriarchal gender roles for doing “women’s work” (i.e. the prevalence of Chinese men doing laundry work). Meanwhile, Asian women were framed as a submissive “Lotus Blossom,” eager to please white men in Hollywood films. Musicals, operas, and movies like Madam Butterfly (1904), Full Metal Jacket (1987), Miss Saigon (1989), Kill Bill: Vol. 1 (2003), The Last Samurai (2003), Memoirs of a Geisha (2005), The Fast and the Furious: Tokyo Drift (2006), and more portrayed Asian female characters in hyper feminine and exotic manners. Asian women have been portrayed as quiet, passive, and subservient, willing to cater to a man’s every whim. These images were rooted in U.S. expansion through wars in Asia, such as the post-WWII U.S. occupation of Japan, the Korean War, and the Vietnam War.

    Hollywood films depicting interracial pairings were an endorsement of interracial relationships. However, media critic Dr. Ben Tong notes, “It was a certain form of miscegenation that was endorsed: white man, Asian women, not the reverse” (Gee, 1988, 21:10 - 21:17). These movies romanticized white male/Asian female relations and often overshadowed the very limited opportunities of rural and poor women. Living in the aftermath of the post-war economic destruction of their native countries, women had limited options for work, and were sometimes enticed by American pop culture. Some worked at U.S. military bases as clerks or servers and others entered sex work in order to survive or were tricked into it. Rest and Recreation sites surrounding U.S. military bases in Asia, supported by the U.S. military and local authorities, involved local women to cater to American soldiers. These sites were described as “Playgrounds...for American men fighting in the Korean War, and later camptowns in Korea and Thailand and the Philippines for soldiers fighting in Vietnam” (Kim, 2011, 06:59 - 07:19). In fact, camptowns continued even during peace times, “for today’s American empire is an empire of military bases” (07:18 - 07:26).

    The continued popular portrayal of Asian women as “spoils of war,” particularly for American soldiers helped to conflate all Asian women with sex work and hypersexualization, as if it was in our very nature to be sexually alluring and pleasing toward Western men. This was a common portrayal in American films about the war in Vietnam. Movies like Deer Hunter (1978) reinforced the fantasy of the “sexually pleasing Asian woman.” Such portrayals ignore the prevalence of rape, abuse, and killings amongst real Asian sex workers, Asian women and girls who live near and around U.S. military bases, and Asian women married to U.S. servicemen. Some examples of such violence include:

    Furthermore, in Asian Women United’s documentary, Slaying the Dragon: Reloaded (2011), Asian American Studies professor and author, Elaine H. Kim articulates,

    Part of the fantasy about Asian women is that they need to be saved from the East by the West. In fact, saving women from the oppression of Islam and Muslim men has been one of the U.S.’s justifications for invading the Middle East (12:02 - 12:16).

    Such framing of Asian women’s sexuality is related to the countless websites, porn sites, massage parlors, and online dating services catering to racist fantasies about sexualized and available Asian women. These prevailing images of Asian women can be connected to why Asian American women reported twice as many hate incidents after COVID-19. The March 16, 2021 slaughter of eight people in Atlanta, Georgia across three Asian massage parlors, with 6 of the victims being Asian American women, is an extension of the normalization of harm and violence toward Asian women that stems from Orientalism, misogyny, anti-immigrant sentiment, and the criminalization of sex workers. The names of the eight killed in the Atlanta mass shooting are: Soon Chung Park, 74; Hyun Jung Grant, 51; Suncha Kim, 69; Yong Ae Yue, 63; Delaina Ashley Yaun Gonzalez, 33; Xiaojie Tan, 49; Daoyou Feng, 44; and Paul Andre Michels, 54 (Nieto Del Rio, Sandoval, Berryman, and Knoll, 2021).


    This page titled 5.2: Who are Asian Americans? is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kay Fischer & Teresa Hodges (ASCCC Open Educational Resources Initiative (OERI)) .