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8.3: Who are Asian Americans? Identity, Religion, and Racialization

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    • 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, 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.

    What's in a Name?

    Like other communities of color, Asian Americans must contend with an Anglo-dominant society that views those with "foreign sounding" names as outsiders. Some assimilate, or take on the characteristics of the dominant group, by anglicizing their names, like many Chinese international students in the United States (Fang & Fine, 2019), while others endure microaggressions of having their names mispronounced or changed by educators and others in position of authority (Kohli & Solórzano, 2012). On the one hand, as Kohli & Solórzano argue these practices can reinforce the idea of cultural and racial hierarchy of inferiority of non-Anglos and leave lasting impacts on the self-perceptions of children, especially, but in the case of taking on chosen names can also allow for self-expression and agency to select a name that projects an imagined self (Fang & Fine, 2019).

    Chinese Friendship Arch and Gallery Place at Chinatown
    "Chinese Friendship Arch and Gallery Place Building 01 - Chinatown - DC" (CC BY-SA 2.0; Tim Evanson via Flickr)

    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).

    Multiracial/Hapa Asian Americans

    Asian Americans of mixed racial ancestry have been referred to as multiracial, mixed-race, biracial, "Hapa" (a native Hawaiian term that originally meant half Hawaiian), and Amerasian, among others. Their presence in not only the Asian American community but also in mainstream American society has a long history. However, the political, demographic, and cultural implications of their increasing numbers have only recently emerged for both Asian Americans and non-Asians alike. This is an example of fusion/amalgamation where racial or ethnic groups combine to form a new group.

    Traditionally, multiracial Asian Americans, like many other multiracial individuals, have been looked upon with curiosity and/or suspicion by the both sides of their ancestry and the rest of society. In the past, the racist "one drop rule" dictated that anyone who even had any trace of non-white ancestry (i.e., a single drop of non-white blood) was "colored" and therefore non-white. To a certain extent today, many Americans still see multiracial Asian Americans as "half-breeds" and don't consider them to be truly white, Black, etc. or even truly American.

    The pursuit of Hapa-ness. Hapa young woman.

    Figure \(\PageIndex{13}\): The pursuit of Hapa-ness. ( via

    On the other hand, many in the conventional Asian American community also do not consider multiracial Asian Americans to be truly "Asian" and rather, see them as "whitewashed." Politically, many worry that the Asian American community will lose government funding if people who previously identified themselves as solely Asian now identify themselves as multiracial. In other words, many multiracial Asian Americans still face distrust and even hostility from both their Asian and non-Asian sides.

    Sociologists argue that one of the defining characteristics of the U.S. racial/ethnic landscape is the tendency for Americans, white and non-white alike, to prefer a sense of clarity when it comes to racial/ethnic identity. In situations where the racial/ethnic background of a person cannot be immediately identified, many Americans become uncomfortable with this cultural ambiguity. This may help to explain the traditional emphasis on prohibiting the "mixing" of different races, a motivation that continues to drive many neo-Nazi or white supremacist ideologies.

    As a result of these cultural dynamics, many (although certainly not all) multiracial Asian Americans encounter difficulties in establishing their own ethnic identity as they try to fit into both the Asian American community and mainstream American society. As many multiracial Asian American writers have described, as they grow up, they are frequently caught between both sides of their racial/ethnic background. Frequently this involves feeling alienated, marginalized, and that they do not legitimately belong in either community, Asian or non-Asian.

    Moving Forward and Forging A New Identity

    However, recent research suggests that, rather than trying to fit themselves into just an Asian identity or just a white identity, multiracial Asian Americans report the most happiness and the least stress when they create their own unique racial/ethnic identities that combine all of their ancestries. In other words, instead of trying to "pass" as a member of a single racial group, they may be better off when they actively create their own definition of fitting in that is based on synthesizing their unique and multiple characteristics. In doing so, multiracial Asian Americans develop a sense of ownership and pride in their new identity, rather than trying to seek acceptance into the preexisting racial groups.

    As it turns out, monoethnic Asian Americans have been doing something like this for many generations, as they reconcile and negotiate their own identities as both Asian and American. In this sense, we might say that multiracial Americans are now going through the same process that Asian Americans have been going through for years. In other words, monoethnic Asian Americans and multiracial Americans share a common process of actively shaping their identities through combining elements from diverse cultures can help these communities connect with one other and bridge cultural differences.

    As the incidence of interracial marriage and by implication, numbers of multiracial Asian Americans continues to increase, multiracial Asian Americans have the opportunity to both assert their own unique experiences and characteristics while also participating in the larger Asian American community and mainstream American society in general. In the process of doing so, multiracial Asian Americans are likely to play a central role in the demographic, political, and cultural evolution of a diversifying American society.

    Asian American Identity Development Model

    Asian American Identity Development Model (Jean Kim, 1981, 2001)

    This framework identifies a continuum that leads Asian Americans to form a positive racial identity.

    1. Ethnic Awareness Stage: Starts in early childhood around age 3 or 4. At this stage the family serves as the significant ethnic group model and depending on the amount of ethnic expression in the household, positive or neutral attitudes are formed.

    2. White Identification Stage: Begins once children enter school and peers and the school environment become powerful forces in conveying and reinforcing racial prejudice, which starts to negatively impact their self-esteem and identity. Becoming aware of their difference leads to wanting to identify with white society and distance themselves from their Asian heritage.

    3. Awakening to Social Political Consciousness Stage: Means the adoption of a new perspective, usually associated with increased political awareness and an understanding of oppression and oppressed groups. The primary result is no longer wanting to identify with white society.

    4. The Redirection Stage: Characterized by a reconnection and pride with one’s Asian American heritage and culture. This is often followed by a realization of white privilege and oppression as the reason for the negative experience of Asian communities. Anger about white racism may be a part of this stage.

    5. Incorporation Stage: Represents the highest form of identity evolution. It includes a positive and comfortable identity as Asian American and a respect for other racial/cultural groups. The feelings of association for or against white culture are no longer an important issue.


    Kim, J. (1981). Processes of Asian American identity development: A study of Japanese American women’s perceptions of their struggle to achieve positive identities as Americans of Asian ancestry. Doctoral Dissertation University of Massachusetts Amherst. Available from Proquest. AAI8118010.

    Kim, J. (2001). Asian American racial identity theory. In C. L. Wijeyesinghe & B. W. Jackson III (Eds.), New Perspectives on Racial Identity Development: A Theoretical and Practical Anthology (pp. 138-161). New York University Press

    Religion, Spirituality & Faith

    Among the more traditional elements of Asian American culture, religion, spirituality, and faith have always been important to Asian American communities, as they were for many generations before them. But within the diversity of the Asian American community, so too comes diversity in our religious beliefs and practices.

    Which Religion is the Most Popular?

    One of the first questions to examine is, which religions or faith traditions are the most popular among Asian Americans and among each of the different Asian ethnic groups? Unfortunately, nationally representative and reliable statistics are difficult to find. There are few studies or data that would answer these questions conclusively, particularly ones that break down religious affiliation among different Asian ethnic groups.

    Table \(\PageIndex{4}\): American Religious Identification Survey 1990-2008: Asian Americans. (Data from the ARIS)

    American Religious Identfication Survey 1990-2008: Asian Americans

    1990 2001 2008
    None/Agnostic 16% 22% 27%
    Eastern Religions 8% 22% 21%
    Catholic 27% 20% 17%
    Other Christian

    Christian Generic

    13% 11% 10%

    Mainline Christian

    11% 6% 6%


    9% 4% 3%

    Pentecostal & Protestant

    3% 2% 2%


    2% 0% 0%
    Muslim 3% 8% 8%
    New Religious Movements 2% 1% 2%
    Jewish 1% 0% 0%
    Don't Know/ Declined to Answer 4% 5% 5%

    Nonetheless, there are some statistics that give a general picture of religious affiliation within the Asian American community. One of the largest, most up to date, and most comprehensive sources is the American Religious Identification Survey (ARIS), conducted by researchers at Trinity College (CT). The ARIS was first conducted in 1990, again in 2000, and the most recent wave was completed in 2008. The 2008 study includes data from a large, nationally representative sample of 54,461 U.S. adults in the 48 contiguous states.

    The following Table 9.3.5 is taken from the ARIS 2008 report. The results show that while no religion can claim a majority of followers in the Asian American community, as of 2008, those who claim no religious affiliation are the largest group. In fact, this group has grown significantly since the first ARIS study in 1990 and its percentage in 2008 (27%) among Asian American is the largest of all the major racial ethnic groups in the study (whites are second with 16% claiming no religious affiliation). The second-largest religious group among Asian Americans are "Eastern Religions" that include Buddhist, Hindu, Taoist, Baha'i, Shintoist, Zoroastrian, and Sikh. These Eastern Religions saw a dramatic increase from 1990 to 2001, then leveled off in 2008. Catholics are the third-largest group at 17% in 2008, with their proportions declining notably from 27% in 1990.

    Table \(\PageIndex{5}\): Pew Research Institute, Forum on Religion & Public Life 2008: Asian Americans. (Used with permission; Religious Landscape Study. Pew Research Center, Washington, D.C. (2020))
    Christian 45%
    Protestant 27%
      Evangelical 17%
      Mainline 9%
      Historically Black < 0.5%
    Catholic 17%
    Mormon 1%
    Jehovah's Witness < 0.5%
    Orthodox < 0.5%
    Other Christian < 0.5%
    Eastern & Other Religions 30%
    Hindu 14%
    Buddhist 9%
    Muslim 4%
    Other World Religions 2%
    Other Faiths 1%
    Jewish < 0.5%
    Unaffiliated 23%
    Secular Unaffiliated 11%
    Religious Unaffiliated 5%
    Agnostic 4%
    Atheist 3%
    Don't Know/Refused 2%

    The category of "Christian Generic" (comprising those who identified as Christian, Protestant, Evangelical/ Born Again Christian, Born Again, Fundamentalist, Independent Christian, Missionary Alliance Church, and Non-Denominational Christian) is the fourth-largest group at 10% in 2008. Other Christian and Protestant denominations are listed below that. The results show that in 2008, Muslims represented 8% of the Asian American population (up from 3% in 1990) and "New Religious Movements" (comprising those who identified as Scientology, New Age, Eckankar, Spiritualist, Unitarian-Universalist, Deist, Wiccan, Pagan, Druid, Indian Religion, Santeria, and Rastafarian) claiming 2% in 2008.

    These results are largely confirmed by a second comprehensive survey of religious identification taken in 2008, the U.S. Religious Landscape Survey (1.2 MB), a national survey of over 35,000 respondents conducted by the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life.

    In contrast to the ARIS 2008 report, the USLRS methodology sometimes includes the same denomination with separate categories (i.e., Baptists can be both "Evangelical" and "Mainline") -- please check page 12 and Appendix 2 of the USLRS report for the exact categorizations and their detailed explanation of their methodology. The data shown here is for Asian American respondents only and is taken from page 40 of their report.

    Again the data show that Christian faiths and denominations claim the highest percentage of followers among Asian Americans, with Eastern Religions and unaffiliated responses also claiming large numbers of respondents. Interesting, once the unique faiths within the "Eastern Religions" category are expanded, we see that Hinduism is the mos popular eastern faith among Asian Americans (due largely to the large size of the Indian American population), with Buddhism second.

    Unfortunately, neither the ARIS nor the USLRS studies break the religious affiliation down to specific Asian ethnic groups. For that matter, I have yet to find any research that does. So to try to measure the size of religions within each ethnic group, we can look at the proportions for different religions within that Asian country. Although it's not completely accurate, it's a generally safe assumption that the religious proportions within an Asian country are similar to that within its community in the U.S., since the majority of Asian Americans are foreign-born, as stated in the 2000 CIA World Factbook:

    • Bangladesh: Muslim 88.3%, Hindu 10.5%, other 1.2%
    • India: Hindu 80%, Muslim 14%, Christian 2.4%, Sikh 2%, Buddhist 0.7%, Jains 0.5%, other 0.4%
    • Philippines: Roman Catholic 83%, Protestant 9%, Muslim 5%, Buddhist and other 3%
    • Japan: observe both Shinto and Buddhist 84%, other 16% (including Christian 0.7%)
    • South Korea: Christian 49%, Buddhist 47%, Confucianist 3%, Shamanist, Chondogyo (Religion of the Heavenly Way), and other 1%

    Again, these stats are imperfect because as China and Viet Nam are both officially atheist countries, there are no statistics on the proportions of religions in each country.

    Wedding between Indian and Filipino cultures
    Figure \(\PageIndex{6}\): Indian/Filipino wedding. (CC BY-NC-ND 2.0; Ron Tamondong via Flickr)

    How Religion, Spirituality, and Faith Help

    Ultimately, as there is so much diversity in the Asian American population in so many ways, so too this applies to our religions and practices of spirituality and faith. But they all share the commonality of helping Asian Americans adjust to life in the U.S. and all the issues that surround what it means to be an Asian American.

    As several social scientists point out, these various forms of spirituality and faith help Asian Americans to deal with the upheavals of immigration, adapting to a new country, and other difficult personal and social transformations by providing a safe and comfortable environment in which immigrants can socialize, share information, and assist each other. In this process, religious traditions can help in the process of forming Asian immigrant communities by giving specific Asian ethnic groups another source of solidarity, in addition to their common ethnicity, on which to build relationships and cooperation. In fact, history shows that numerous churches and religious organizations played very important roles in helping immigrants from China, Japan, the Philippines, South Asia, and Korea adjust to life in the U.S.

    Also, the secular functions of religion are just as, if not even more important in helping Asian Americans in their everyday lives. Specifically, many churches, temples, and other religious organizations provide their members with important and useful services around practical, everyday matters such as translation assistance. Other practical examples include information and assistance on issues relating to education, employment, housing, health care, business and financial advice, legal advice, marriage counseling, and dealing with their Americanized children, etc. As such, many churches are almost like social service agencies in terms of the ways in which they help Asian Americans in practical, day-to-day matters.

    Other scholars and studies show that churches can also provide social status and prestige for their members. As one example sociologist Pyong Gap Min describes that since many Korean immigrants face underemployment due to their lack of English fluency once they immigrate to the U.S. (especially if they come from educated and professional backgrounds in Korea), they often feel ashamed, embarrassed, or alienated as they adjust to their lower status level in the U.S. Within their church however, many Korean immigrants find a sense of status through official positions inside the church. These can include being assistant ministers, education directors, unordained associate pastors, elders, deacons, and committee chairs, etc.

    Finally, as Bankston and Zhou point out in their study of the New Orleans Vietnamese community, religion can play a significant part in affecting a young Asian American's ethnic identity. The Catholic churches in the Vietnamese section of the city helped to keep young Vietnamese Americans integrated within the larger community. Those youngsters who attended church and participated in religious activities more were more likely to do well in school and to stay out of trouble.

    Of course, religion, spirituality, and faith is only one part of this adaptation and socialization process and it interacts with many other factors in affecting how an Asian immigrant adjusts to his/her new life in the U.S. Nonetheless, its power is undeniable. For hundreds of generations in the past, it has bonded communities and been the basis for many people's lives. Even with changes in culture, physical location, and social institutions, its effect lives on.


    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).

    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.

    Under Western Eyes: Orientalism

    Professor and author Gary Y. Okihiro (1992)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" (pg. 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” (Sang-Hee Lee, 2014 p. 9).

    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.

    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).

    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 (2021) 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" (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 (2010) 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” (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 (2015) 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” (pg. 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” (Lee, 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.

    Contributors and Attributions

    Content on this page has multiple licenses. Everything is CC BY-NC-ND other than Introduction to Sociology 2e, Relocation and Incarceration of Japanese Americans During World War II, and The Gentlemen's Agreement of 1907 which are CC BY-SA.

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    This page titled 8.3: Who are Asian Americans? Identity, Religion, and Racialization is shared under a CC BY-NC 4.0 license and was authored, remixed, and/or curated by Kay Fischer & Teresa Hodges.