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Do I count as 'Asian American'? What the history behind the term taught me

An AAPI reporter reflects on the origin of "Asian American" and who can claim the term amid a surge in violence against the community.
Asian American Term
Until recently, I'd never stopped to consider whether I count as Asian American.Courtesy Fabio Briganti/TODAY illustration / Getty Images
/ Source: TODAY

During Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, TODAY is sharing the community’s history, pain, joy and what’s next for the AAPI movement. We will be publishing personal essays, stories, videos and specials throughout the entire month of May.

When I saw the photos of the six Asian American women who died in the Atlanta spa shootings in March, I saw my mother, my grandmother and my godmother. The victims may have come from different places from my family and lived their own unique immigration stories, but poring over interviews and GoFundMes, I imagined their excitement amid loss when trying to build a life in a new country, and their dedication to their children felt deeply familiar.

My own mother moved to the U.S. from the Philippines in 1969 and in the ‘80s and ‘90s had three kids who look white. She’s admitted that as a teen, I was held to more Filipino standards than my brothers, like no dating and having to call my grandma daily, and I endeavored to learn far more about my heritage when I lived in Manila for three months after college.

Until recently, I’d never stopped to consider whether I count as an Asian American. I knew how the world categorized my features, and as I aged, I gave up on searching for hints of my Filipino family in photos of myself. Something inside you shifts, though, when you realize that one of the people who raised you isn’t safe when she leaves the house because of the way she looks.

What it's like to 'pass' as non-Asian when your community is under attack for its appearance
The author with her mother and maternal grandmother in 2003.Courtesy Fabio Briganti

Anti-Asian hate crimes in the U.S. have increased 169% compared to this time last year. Chinatowns are facing financial hardship due to both the pandemic and anti-Asian sentiment. Asian American Pacific Islander (AAPI) elders, including Filipinos, are being attacked at alarming frequency. My godmother, who lives in New York City, told me she’s taken to pulling her mask higher up, joking that it will keep her safe.

With the community in the spotlight like never before, I’ve wondered if my own grief — much less than so many others’ — qualifies me to claim the two words that I debate whether to check when I fill out forms: Asian American.

What does ‘Asian American’ really mean?

The term “Asian American” started as a political rallying cry in the late 1960s, but now its meaning differs based on who you ask. For Ally Maki, actor and founder of clothing brand Asian American Girl Club, it's about "dismantling" the idea that there's only finite space for Asian voices.

"Being an Asian American means there's room for everyone," she told me. "There's an enormous sense of pride that comes behind it and also an homage to all of these trailblazers in our past."

Jean Kim, who holds a doctorate of education and coined “Asian American Development Theory” some 40 years ago, said she thinks it rejects the forever-foreigner stereotype.

"Asian American says, 'I have a right to be here in this country, and I have a particular membership in a particular group that has done really great things for this country,'" she explained.

"Minari's" Steven Yeun called “Asian American” its own third culture. Author of "Southbound: Essays on Identity, Inheritance, and Social Change" Anjali Enjeti told me, "One of the things I love about the term is it's as broad as one can get." (It made me think of times white friends have said they don’t consider me Asian.)

While the meaning of "Asian American" changes from person to person, and even day to day in my case, I’m not alone in believing it signifies something new now.

'Asian American' is political

When the term "Asian American" entered the American lexicon in 1968, it had a very specific purpose: to build political power. Inspired by the Black Power, anti-Vietnam War and American Indian movements, among others, two students at the University of California, Berkeley, Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, decided to call their campus organization the Asian American Political Alliance, usually cited as the first use of the two words together.

Student Protest
Students carry signs with anti-war slogans during a protest in Berkeley, California, in 1972.Ralph Crane / The LIFE Picture Collection

"They were trying to convey the similarity in historical experiences among then primarily Japanese, Chinese, Filipino, South Asians and ... Koreans," Michael Omi, a professor at UC Berkeley, who was taught by Ichioka, told me. "Those commonalities included immigration exclusion, the denial of naturalization rights and discriminatory laws and practices ... that led to their marginalization."

Russell Jeung, co-founder of Stop AAPI Hate, said the term at the time was "a way to resist ... this notion that the East is inferior" to the West. The emphasis on "American" was about inclusion in a society that had long tried to paint AAPI people as separate, he added.

The term galvanized the community once again after the 1982 killing of 27-year-old Chinese-American Vincent Chin by two white autoworkers in Detroit. The American automobile industry was being outcompeted by the Japanese, and Chin's attackers — who repeatedly struck his head with a baseball bat but didn't serve any jail time — reportedly said, "It's because of you little m—f—s that we're out of work."

Lily Chin
Lily Chin holds a photograph of her son Vincent, 27, who was beaten to death on June 23, 1982, in a photo made Nov. 2, 1983.Richard Sheinwald / AP

"The general sentiment was that justice was not served and that the Asian American community needed to band together in a different way to have a stronger voice because everyone recognized that Vincent Chin was murdered," John Yang, president of Asian Americans Advancing Justice – Asian American Justice Center, recalled.

"In 1982 and thereafter, people recognized ... that lawmakers would not pay attention if it is only coming from the perspective of one specific Asian ethnicity."

Balancing broadness with nuance

For many members of the community, the lack of specificity in “Asian American” is its downfall. My mother told me that she feels it wipes away the nuances of her individual story, moving to a suburb of Albany, New York, and deciding to become a lawyer in her 30s. My own hesitation around using the term is that I've long been told I don't fit into the American idea of what Asian looks like.

"Non-Asians often see Asians as exactly the same as one another," Enjeti explained, adding that many fear the term reinforces this idea and she understands this argument. For example, while she identifies as Indian American and Asian American, she stressed that this doesn't mean she knows any more about the Malaysian, Chinese or Singaporean cultures than she does Latinx communities.

Enjeti stressed that being Asian American doesn't mean she knows any more about the Malaysian, Chinese or Singaporean cultures than she does Latinx communities.

Enjeti said the other concern, based on her experience as a political organizer in Atlanta, is that "Asian American" can minimize the vast range of struggles AAPI communities face, from income inequality to immigration and language access.

Determining which issues and ethnicities should take center stage continues to challenge the movement, added Yen Espiritu, a professor of ethnic studies at University of California, San Diego.

"As the community gets more diverse, those questions become amplified," she said. "It is an issue in any kind of organizing. The leadership has to figure out how to become much more inclusive."

She called attention to her own story as a Vietnamese refugee, which she said is sometimes overlooked by people whose families migrated voluntarily, adding, "There's a big class and educational difference."

The importance of inclusivity isn’t about people like me, and rightly so. I’m as safe as any other white woman when I walk down the street, even though most white women weren’t once told as a kid that they couldn’t leave sports practice with their own mother because the coach didn’t believe they were related. I have only a handful of stories like this, where someone else’s assumptions about my family left me confused and insecure, and I’ve mentally replayed them these past few weeks.

The author and her family on vacation in 2005.
The author and her family on vacation in 2005.Courtesy Marc Hohman

Amid the recent violence, New York City-based organizer Thahitun Mariam said she's seen AAPI people "reclaiming the term for ourselves ... so that ‘Asian American’ is not just seen as just one specific type of Asian within America."

"We've seen throughout the years attacks against many immigrant communities," she added. "I think it is broadening because a lot of the conversations we're having about Asian Americans (are) inclusive of a lot of different communities. Folks face different forms of violence in society, so the more people you have under this umbrella, the more protection there is."

Her outlook is, in part, informed by the activism she saw in her neighborhood after 9/11, as attacks against Muslims surged in the U.S.

"After 9/11 happened, we had to figure out ... how do we create systems of community care?" she recalled. "I think that is why we're able to align and rally together and show up for each other because we've seen how our South Asian communities, Muslim communities have been targeted."

'Transforming into something new'

Understanding the origins of anti-Asian sentiment in the U.S. defines success within Kim’s Asian American Development Theory — which posits that Asian Americans need information and strong support systems in order to let go of the self-hatred that racism can cause. “If you don't know the history, a person tends to blame him or herself for whatever they’re experiencing. They think, ‘It must be something about me, it must be something that I'm doing,’” she explained.

Roller skaters during a rally organized in solidarity against the recent spate of hate and violence directed against the AAPI community at Madison Park on March 20, 2021, in Oakland, California.Yalonda M. James / The San Francisco Chronicle via Getty Images

Kim, who has a daughter who passes as white, said she’s not sure how the theory applies to people like us and wants more research. “Their connection with the Asian American experience … might either be weaker or might take longer to come to be an important aspect of who they are,” she said.

Reporting a story earlier this year was my first education on the history of anti-Asian violence in the U.S., and Kim’s initial ideas about biracial Asians check out: The facts infuriated me, but I didn’t feel more entitled to claim being Asian American, even if I wrote about the abuse of Filipino farm workers.

When I try to imagine myself under the umbrella of “Asian American,” I end up fixating on the hate that faces the community that my family is unequivocally a part of. Anger overrules pondering the cause of it. Clinical psychologist Jenny Wang, who runs popular Instagram account Asians for Mental Health, has seen a similar phenomenon within her almost-72,000 followers.

“The violence ... is highlighting that if we don't speak up as a collective, then how are these individuals going to be able to sustain the consequences of these attacks?” she said. "For the first time, there are a lot of people who felt previously on the fringe of this term 'Asian American,' and I'm witnessing people claim that term much more intentionally and with much more ownership.”

Wang added that she believes "transforming ‘Asian American’ into something new" can be powerful for individuals.

"People are finally locating themselves in a story that resonates with their experiences versus seeing the Asian story, which is typically the story of our parents or immigrants. People are saying actually we're going to take the term ‘Asian American’ and redefine it altogether and not have it centered around these very disparate narratives that we've grown up with."

NBC News reporter Kimmy Yam pointed to media coverage in recent months as helping create "more of an idea of what we look like and what we are, and that is both powerful for people outside of the community, as well as within the community."

Asian-hate protest in NYC
A protest in New York City on March 27, 2021, in the wake of the Atlanta spa shootings.Tayfun Coskun / Anadolu Agency via Getty Images

"This invisibility that we've dealt with for so many decades, that's led to a lot of confusion around identity," she told me.

AAPI people who don't feel represented by the term "Asian American" may still feel invisible, a sentiment that's pervaded since the first Asian immigrants to the U.S. were forced out of towns in the 1800s. But now, I’m starting to believe the term "Asian American" intends to include people, and maybe it's there for all of us.

CORRECTION (May 4, 2021, 3:11 p.m.): A previous version of this story misstated that the Atlanta spa shootings happened in May. They happened in March.