Why Asian-Americans are embracing a common identity


“Outcasted” is how Angelene Superable describes the subtle sense of alienation she felt growing up in Pearland, Texas, a town outside Houston.

While her best friend was a blonde-haired, blue-eyed beauty — a sort of Texas ideal — Superable was the daughter of Filipino immigrants who had arrived in the US with just $200. She found herself wincing at the slights suffered by her parents, with their heavily-accented English, and the regular reminders that they were outsiders even as they were living a version of the American dream. They built careers in the medical industry and managed to eventually buy a home with a swimming pool. When she arrived at the University of California Berkeley, Superable longed to join a mostly white sorority. “I was like, ‘I want to be the token Asian!’” she says.

Angelene Superable this year helped found the New York Pan-Asian Democratic Club © Instagram/asuperable

But no longer. By the end of her studies, Superable had come to grips with her roots and her identity. After graduating, she joined an initiative sponsored by the office of New York City Mayor Bill de Blasio to register disenfranchised voters, many of them Asian-American immigrants.

Then earlier this year, shadowed by the Covid-19 pandemic that has whipped up anti-Asian violence across the country, she and a group of friends founded the New York Pan-Asian Democratic Club. Its aim is to boost candidates from an ethnic group that has been chronically under-represented in city and state politics.

“Why don’t we have something like this?” Superable, 25, recalls asking herself. “Every other ethnic group does.”

Protesters demand an end to anti-Asian violence earlier this year in New York City
Protesters demand an end to anti-Asian violence earlier this year in New York City © Spencer Platt/Getty Image

NY PAD is part of a wave of Asian-American activism rolling across the country, propelled by those like Superable seeking to forge a coherent political and social movement from citizens who trace their heritage to such disparate countries as China, Vietnam, India and Bangladesh, among many others. Their sense of purpose has been fortified by a pandemic that originated in China and which has led to a surge in hate crimes and violence that has sent tremors through Asian-American communities.

From New York to California, Asian-American groups say they are signing up new members who previously showed little interest in the cause. One fruit of their efforts was harvested in Illinois in July when the state legislature passed the country’s first law mandating that Asian-American history be taught in the state’s public schools. That could make common knowledge of events like the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 — the first and only law to prohibit a specific ethnic or national group from immigrating to the US — and other pieces of Asian-American history largely ignored by most Americans. Other states are now examining similar measures.

Meanwhile, in Georgia, Asian-Americans played a pivotal role in President Joe Biden’s surprise election victory in November — just months before a gunman murdered six Asian-American women working at Atlanta-area massage parlours and spas.

“What we’re seeing now is . . . a mass galvanising moment for Asian-Americans,” says Takeo Rivera, a professor and playwright at Boston University, likening its cultural importance to the 1982 murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese-American man who was beaten to death by two Detroit autoworkers at a time when rising Japanese imports were stirring anti-Asian sentiment.

“Before the Vincent Chin case there wasn’t a broad-based national sense of what it meant to be an Asian-American,” Rivera argues. Now there was, and he saw Asian-Americans again “uniting around a sense of shared vulnerability and a shared sense of precarity against racist violence”.

For Wayne Ho, president of the Chinese-American Planning Council, a social services organisation in New York, the burst of activism is the silver lining he had hoped for when he and his staff gathered in the early days of the pandemic to discuss its possible implications.

“We actually said a best-case scenario could be not just Asian-American activists and professionals but also that Asian-American community members who have not been as civically involved could actually feel more empowered and assert their voice and try to fight for their rights more because of what we were starting to see at the early stages of the pandemic,” Ho says.

Pandemic pressures

Asian-Americans total about 20m, or roughly 6 per cent of the population, according to data from the Pew Research Center. They are now the country’s fastest-growing racial or ethnic group.

Still, Asian-American identity is a recent concept and a fragile one. The term dates to 1968, when two graduate students at the University of California Berkeley coined it to try to create a pan-Asian activist group. It emerged from the same ferment as the civil rights and Third World liberation movements. Previously, Americans whose families immigrated from Asia identified by their country of origin — Chinese-American, Japanese-American, Indonesian-American, Nepalese-American and so on. Many still do.

The notion of cramming so many nationalities and ethnicities under a single umbrella is challenging, to say the least. There are dozens of languages and cultures to accommodate.

While Asian-Americans lean Democratic overall, there are plenty of exceptions. Many older Vietnamese, for example, harbour a deep fear of communism and tend to be more conservative. Any issues relating to China can be polarising for people who hail from other countries in the region.

There are also generational differences that stem from how and when people arrived in America. 

One could, for example, be the ancestors of Chinese labourers who came generations ago to build the railroads, and have since built their own community organisations; or be a highly-trained Indian doctor who arrived after US Immigration law was liberalised in 1965; or be a desperately-poor refugee fleeing violence or war. 

“What it means to be Asian-American is constantly in flux,” says Rivera.

Grace Meng, the New York City congresswoman, speaks at a news conference with House Democrats and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus on the ‘Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, in May this year
Grace Meng, the New York City congresswoman, speaks at a news conference with House Democrats and the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus on the ‘Covid-19 Hate Crimes Act’ on Capitol Hill in Washington, DC, in May this year © Andrew Caballero/AFP via Getty Images

Now Covid is shaping a new generation. Communities like Flushing, Queens, home to one of the world’s biggest Chinatowns, were among the first to see their businesses suffer as tourists stayed away and restaurants shuttered. Then came the violence.

The Center for the Study of Hate and Extremism at California State University San Bernardino found that reported hate crimes against Asian-Americans in 16 major US cities increased 149 per cent last year — even as hate crimes overall fell by 7 per cent. In New York City, hate crimes rose 262 per cent during the first quarter of this year compared with the same period in 2020.

Behind such statistics are accounts of elderly Asian-Americans being spat at and told to “go home”, and videos that have circulated widely online, such as one showing an 84-year-old man being assaulted in San Francisco — he later died of his injuries — or the two Asian women being accosted by a hammer-wielding woman in New York.

“People are just really scared. They don’t want to leave the house at all,” Grace Meng, the New York City congresswoman, told a group of business leaders earlier this year. “I have people texting me left and right: ‘I have pepper spray. You want one? Where do you buy pepper spray?’”

Many blame former president Donald Trump for racialising a virus that emanated from China by repeatedly calling it the “China virus” or “kung flu.” In the process, they say, Trump has reinvigorated an enduring prejudice that Asian-Americans are, somehow, not truly American.

But such bigotry appears to be binding Asian-Americans together in a way that other initiatives have not. As with Vincent Chin’s murder, bigots are inclined to target all Asian-Americans for the perceived transgressions of any ethnicity.

Former president Donald Trump was accused of racialising a virus by calling it the ‘China virus’
Former president Donald Trump was accused of racialising a virus by calling it the ‘China virus’ © Drew Angerer/Getty Images

A man in Midland, Texas, for example, last year stabbed three members of a Burmese family, including two children, at a Sam’s Club discount store because, he told law enforcement, he “thought they were Chinese and spreading Covid”.

“Most Americans don’t make any distinction between national origins. That has a way of reminding those of us who are Asian-American that we’re all in this together,” says Janelle Wong, a professor of Asian-American studies at the University of Maryland.

Mobilising votes

While only a minority of Asian-Americans have embraced a common identity, according to Wong, the rates are higher among younger generations and those born in the US. There are plenty of peculiarities. Even though many Indian-Americans have adopted Asian-American identity, many of those whose origins are in East Asian do not accept them as such.

Those sorts of divisions help to explain why Asian-Americans have struggled to harness political power. Another problem is that many are also concentrated in non-swing states, such as Hawaii, New York and California, diluting their appeal to political parties.

Asian-Americans tend to receive the fewest flyers, door knocks and other forms of political outreach. In New York City, where Asians are 14 per cent of the population, Governor Andrew Cuomo has never attended an official event in Chinatown.

“Because of the way we’re situated in the political landscape, because we are a smaller group — a group that is predominantly immigrant, a group that is not all English dominant — it’s very hard to mobilise Asian-Americans,” Wong said. “And parties, at least until the very recent past, have not devoted a lot of resources to mobilising Asian-Americans.”

Asian Americans attend a self-defence class organised by the Public Safety Patrol, a civil patrol team started in response to the spike in attacks against Asian Americans since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, in Queens, New York
Asian-Americans attend a self-defence class organised by the Public Safety Patrol, a civil patrol team started in response to the spike in attacks against Asian-Americans since the outbreak of the coronavirus pandemic, in Queens, New York © Ed Jones/AFP via Getty Images

That might be changing. Asian-American turnout jumped from 49 per cent in the 2016 presidential election to a record 60 per cent last year, according to AAPI Data. (Indian Americans led the way, at 71 per cent, while Filipino voters trailed at 54 per cent).

In Georgia, Asian-Americans helped deliver not only Biden’s victory but also the wafer-thin margin to deliver the state’s two Senate seats to Democrats in January’s special run-off election. Among the winners was Raphael Warnock, the first black Democratic senator from the south since the Reconstruction era.

Grace Pai, the executive director of Asian-American Midwest Progressives, went to Georgia for two months to lead a field campaign to knock on the doors of 100,000 Asian-American voters in and around Atlanta. She noticed that both the political parties hired staff for that contest to liaise with the Asian-American and Pacific Islands community, something they have not traditionally done.

“That is a step in the right direction, but there is so much more to do,” she says. “When we’re talking about Asian-American voters, there are a multitude of languages spoken in our community, and in order to reach those voters you have to both do multilingual work, but you also have to do long-term organising. You can’t just show up at someone’s door and ask them to vote for someone just because you have a translated flyer, you know?”

A Guardian Angel patrols New York City’s Chinatown
A Guardian Angel patrols New York City’s Chinatown © Alex Wong/Getty Images

Asian-American voters tended to focus more on issues — such as healthcare, education and now safety — than party affiliation, according to Pai, who estimates that the number of Asian-American political organisations had at least tripled over the past five years. Such groups are aiming to build long-term relationships within communities — not just during elections.

One is 18 Million Rising. It launched in 2012, during President Obama’s re-election campaign, and at a time when the murder of young black men, like Trayvon Martin, was intensifying debates about identity and politics. Its hope is to create an online hub where young, politically-conscious Asian-Americans might connect, particularly those outside diverse communities like Los Angeles and New York. It is the sort of political home that Laura Li, one of its campaign managers, wished she had in her formative years.

“I grew up slightly disconnected, which is the experience of a lot of Asian-Americans,” says Li, whose parents settled in Silver Spring, Maryland in the mid-1980s.

They ended up working in restaurants and hotels — an existence far removed from the “model minority” myth, which holds that East Asians have been universally successful in America. Growing up, Li described her place in her high school’s ethnic and racial hierarchy as “proximate to whiteness.”

“I think a lot of children of immigrants, we only gather the language to explain our experiences as we grow up, and we begin to understand how our experiences relate to the context in which we grew up,” Li said, echoing Superable’s description of her coming-of-age in Texas. “I would say that Asian-Americans are experiencing a political awakening right now.”

A poster in memory of Vicha Ratanapakdee on display as members of the Thai-American community held a rally against Asian hate crimes in Thai Town in Los Angeles in April
A poster in memory of Vicha Ratanapakdee on display as members of the Thai-American community held a rally against Asian hate crimes in Thai Town in Los Angeles in April © Genaro Molina/Los Angeles Times/Getty

Checking stereotypes

That awakening can be complicated. Superable’s parents, for example, struggled to understand their daughter’s objection to positive stereotypes about hard-working and brainy Asians. “It was hard for them to take the nuance that any racialised stereotype can be harmful because it opens the door to other stereotypes,” she said.

In New York’s June Democratic primary, NY PAD saw some of its favoured candidates for city council prevail, including Julie Won, a Korean-American from Queens, and Shahana Hanif, a Bangladeshi-American from Brooklyn. They are likely to be among a record six Asian-Americans on the 51-seat council.

But NY PAD was strangely silent when it came time to endorse a candidate for mayor even though Andrew Yang, the upwardly mobile son of Taiwanese immigrants, was on the ballot. For months, opinion polls showed Yang leading the race, holding out the possibility he might become the first Asian-American mayor of America’s largest city. Brooklyn borough president Eric Adams won the party’s nomination for the November election.

Still, Superable and some of her progressive friends were not satisfied. In Yang’s moderate policy stances, they saw a politician they believed was still too eager to be the token Asian in a largely white fraternity. Mere representation was not enough for them.

“It’s probably been the most pivotal year of my life,” she explains. “It’s when I found my voice.”


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