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The Dangers and Pitfalls of Asian Generalization

Writer: Pat Sevikul

Editor: Tonwaan Apiratikiat

Graphic Designer: Pat Sevikul

TW: Violence, Shooting

When we hear the word ‘Asian’, countries such as China, Japan, or Korea will most likely be the first to come to mind. Although these aren’t incorrect, they are, however, incomplete. While there’s no doubt that Chinese, Japanese, and Korean people are Asian, people from other parts of Asia often need to remind and justify themselves to others about their Asian heritage. The image of East Asians has become a tool for identifying Asians of their heritage. But who counts as Asian and how did it come to be this way?

The term ‘Asian American’ was first used to credit the largest ethnic groups who took part in the Asian American Movement in the 1960s, including Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans.

However, the term did not include Asian Indians, and people of Indian descent were labeled as ‘Caucasions’ instead. Despite India being located in Asia, they were not considered a “discriminatory minority group”. Later the Association of Indians in America fought for the term, and by 1980, ‘Asian Indian’ was created as a category under the term ‘Asian American’. By the 2000s, these categories would expand to include ‘South Asians’ with people from Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, and Nepal and ‘South East Asians’, who were mostly refugees who migrated to the U.S. in the 1970s away from the war. Despite these categories expanding, the term ‘Asian American’ always limited its definition to refer to those who are or appear East Asian, while the remaining categories were considered minor groups under the umbrella. Rather than changing its definition to become inclusive, the term became a tool for the generalization of those who appear East Asian, and the exclusion of those who do not.

The “model minority” myth was first used in a New York Times article from 1966, highlighting the success of Japanese immigrants assimilating into America. Its influence is reflected today in the cultural expectations of Asians in the US, generalizing the group as the ideal or ‘model’ minority: smart, and therefore naturally good at math, wealthy, studious, submissive, and so on. These stereotypes, although perceived as positive, actually do more harm than good, and are inaccurate considering how the specific characterizations generalize people from an entire continent. With this, the model minority myth labels Asians with over-achieving interpretations, which undermines the struggles and pressures for them to meet these expectations, creating a hierarchy which puts Asians as superior to other groups. This would particularly affect East and South East Asians, although South East Asians, due to the circumstances of their migration, attained lower socio-economic and educational statuses, and contradicted the stereotypes of the Asian Americans at the time. As a result, South East Asians were viewed between positive and negative stereotypes, such as being expected to excel in school, but also being viewed as gangsters.

Over the years, the Asian population has grown and subsequently, have fought against the marginalization within the Asian community. One of the missions of the Asian American Movement, fought to correct the term ‘Asian American’ and combat offensive labels such as ‘Oriental’ and ‘Mongoloid’.

Moreover, due to marginalization, stereotypes were created for different categories. Today, the term ‘Asian’ and ‘Asian American’ is still a presumption that refers to only East Asians in the eyes of many white people, and over time the term has increasingly been associated with the facial features of East Asians: smaller and slanted eyes, lighter skin tones, a flat nose, high cheekbones etc. Consequently, these facial features became the stereotypical image of what an ‘Asian’ is supposed to look like. Other ethnicities who do not fit into this stereotypical image, are then often ostracized from claiming the term, and people began to experience discrimination differently due to these stereotypes. The people of South East Asian descent have described their experiences of being stereotyped as inferior to East Asians, while South Asians are often completely excluded from their Asian heritage due to their physical appearance which does not fit the stereotypical image of an Asian person. Similarly, those who are half Asian are often accused of “Asian passing”. What’s problematic is that it’s easy for people to lump ethnicities such as Chinese and Korean people together, and simultaneously exclude Indians and Bangaladeshi as part of the Asian community. By excluding people from other regions of Asia altogether, it has created the widespread misconception that Asia merely consists of East Asians. It misses the differences of understanding the heterogeneity and diversity of cultures from different parts of Asia, whether it’s South, South East, North, West or Central Asia, and plays into how ethnicities are often marginalized and excluded within the pan ethnic group.

Marginalization is included in the lack of representation, where although Asians are already a largely underrepresented -- and misrepresented -- minority in the media and in institutions, groups other than East Asians are lacking even more. The media tends to center Asian representation around films starring East Asian casts. For example, when ‘Crazy Rich Asians’ was released in 2018, although the majority were supportive of the all-Asian cast, some critiqued that the film’s title was used to focus explicitly on East Asians, equating that ‘Asians’ only included East Asians. Alongside this, some Southeast Asian characters were played by East Asian actors and actresses, and brown Asians were casted as servants to wealthy Chinese characters in the film. Another example in the media is how studios in Hollywood find it difficult to consider movies with South Asian led casts to be an ‘Asian’ or ‘Asian American’ film. For example, movies such as ‘Namesake’, ‘Slumdog Millionaire’ and ‘Lion’ received much less attention and endorsement from the Asian American community. This also occurs in television, where shows with South Asian leads, such as ‘Master of None’ and ‘The Mindy Project’, are often overlooked.

Generalized categorizations also play a part in how institutions neglect to recognize the differences of ethnicities. For example, medical school applicants who identify as Asian are listed as the three predominant ethnicities: Chinese, Korean, and Indian. These lists however, fail to include ethnicities such as Thai, Hmong, and Burmese, along with Lao, Cambodian, Indonesian, and Japanese who makeup 1.8% of the Asian medical school applicants. Also, the U.S. census 2020 does not include Taiwanese despite them making up 3.5% of Asian applicants.

Looking at the rise in anti-Asian hate crimes today, we can see the effects generalization has had on the Asian population across the globe, from being accused of the “Chinese Virus” or being told to “go back to China” even if they aren’t of Chinese descent. Cathy Park Hong, the poet and essayist wrote, “We don't have coronavirus. We are coronavirus.” As she describes, people who appear East Asian or ‘Chinese’ are now entirely subjected to the blame of the coronavirus, and are treated as if they are the virus, rather than a person who is infected by it like everyone else.

It is obscene to see how quickly people put the pandemic to blame on ‘Asians’, while ironically, they still don’t understand the full definition of the word. Shockingly yet unexpectedly, the discrimination against Asians tends to garner more concern and attention from people when the victims are East Asian. Historically, when discussing hate crimes in relation to Asians, victims who appear brown are barely mentioned. For example, there was minimal media coverage on the Oak Creek shooting in 2012 that took place at the Wisconsin Sikh temple which resulted in the deaths of six South Asian Americans. Additionally, in 2017, Srinivas Kuchibhotla, an Indian man, was killed by a white man who shouted “Get out of my country’ while shooting him.

Asia is a huge continent that encapsulates 4.5 billion people. It’s important to acknowledge Asians for who they are, including their heritage and identity. Constant barriers stigmatize our differences and makes us feel ashamed of the things that are supposedly what makes us foreign. The reality is that stereotypes such as the ‘model minority myth’, and the unchanged definition of the term ‘Asian American’ was never truly effective in inviting inclusion, but only disregarded the diversity of Asia and generalized us as one whole. The prejudices and discrimination Asians face stem from the misunderstanding and selective perception, which took away their identity as Asian. In the end, Asians should be recognized for the basis of their heritage regardless of their differences.




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