Oh, sure, Asian-Americans were a hot topic in February 2012 when the country was in the midst of Jeremy Lin-sanity. But aside from that, Asian-Americans have largely struggled to gain attention.
In 2009, they were trying to get a foothold in a national immigration narrative that has almost exclusively become about Mexicans. In 2011, Asian-Americans struggled to get notice for their increasing voting power in the run-up to the 2012 elections. In 2013, Census numbers verified that they were the fastest-growing racial minority in the country and had higher rates of naturalization than other immigrants. But that, too, brought a collective yawn.
It just goes to show you how both the media and its consumers prefer their news: simple, easy-to-remember and set in stone. Racial issues are about blacks and whites, immigration is about Hispanics, and Asians are supposedly so rich and well-educated that we don’t have to worry about them much.
Hispanics — stereotyped as poor, uneducated and possibly here illegally — and Asians — who are burdened with the overly simplistic “model minority” moniker — have a lot in common.
Neither of these groups has yet proved successful in consolidating widespread political power, and their populations have more often been cast as a marketing target than as a community of actual people. Worse, their socioeconomic status is skewed in most people’s minds. Just as not all Hispanics are poor and generally downtrodden, neither are all Asians academic powerhouses or rich.
We even have labeling issues in common: Some people of Latin American descent hate the term “Hispanic,” while others can’t stand “Latino.” Some of the Asian population are struggling to gain traction for “AAPI” — Asian-American and Pacific Islander — and others, like many Hispanics, prefer to self-identify with a hyphen, as in “Japanese-American,” “Chinese-American” and so on.
“The racial category ‘Asian’ lumps together widely diverse groups with no common language, phenotype, or culture who come to the U.S. under vastly different circumstances. How, exactly, do you arrive at a ‘distinctive whole’ from which you can deduce an average experience of, say, Japanese-Americans and Laotian-Americans? The first wave of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. came through Hawaii in the 1800s as contract laborers lured by lies about grand opportunity and riches. The more recent wave of Japanese immigrants is being recruited to the U.S. as highly skilled workers or business investors. The vast majority of Laotian immigrants, on the other hand, came to the U.S. since 1973 as refugees of war. How do you mash together Laotian war refugees and Japanese business investors and come up with an average or mean experience?”
This is exactly what you’d hear from Cubans, Puerto Ricans or Mexicans who are tired of being routinely lumped together under the umbrella term “Latino.”
It’s time to start paying more attention to the different backgrounds of our immigrants. Though the vast number of America’s foreign-born are still from Mexico, U.S. births are now propelling the Hispanic population. This leaves future cultural diversification in the hands, in larger and larger part, of Asians.
This is a good thing.
Shalini Shankar, an associate professor of anthropology and the director of the Asian-American studies program at Northwestern University, says America is more than ready for “an acknowledgment that multiculturalism is no longer about just blacks and Latinos. Asian-Americans are a population that is growing increasingly diverse religiously, linguistically and in regard to nationality. They can’t help but make a very visible impact on major metropolitan areas and into the suburbs through businesses, the introduction of certain languages into school districts and diverse political stances.”
Though diversity within these groups is sometimes a challenge, it is a strength for our country. The melting pot has always been about making one from many, and more flavors in the pot make for a better stew.
We should empower our Asian-American community to help get us beyond the worn-out tropes about race and immigration. Maybe then can we start focusing on uniting through our commonalities.