Before the Census, a Question—Who Counts as Asian American? | Time

    with the us With the census online form launching March 12, Americans will soon have the once-in-a-lifetime opportunity to stand up and be counted. But while many of the census questions may seem simple (name or date of birth), at least one is more complicated: race.

    For many Asian Americans, who are the least likely among ethnic groups to complete the census, this may be especially true. The Census Bureau defines a person of Asian race as “having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent, including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea , malaysia, pakistan, the philippines, thailand and vietnam”.

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    That means, according to the Pew Research Center, that the census definition of “Asian,” America’s fastest-growing population, covers more than 20 ethnicities and 20 million citizens in the United States.

    But American culture tends not to think of all Asian regions as equally Asian. a quick google search for “nearby asian food” is likely to turn up chinese or japanese restaurants, but not indian or filipino. Years after someone posted a thread on University Confidential, a popular college admissions forum, titled “Do Indians count as Asians?” The SAT in 2016 modified its race categories, explaining to examinees that “Asian” included “origin of the Indian subcontinent and the Philippines.”

    This issue even carried over to the 2020 presidential race: During his run for the Democratic nomination, Andrew Yang, of Taiwanese descent, was frequently framed by the media and his own campaign as the candidate Asian, even though her rival Kamala Harris is of Indian descent. Furthermore, while Tulsi Gabbard’s Samoan heritage might place her in a different category on the census now, prior to 2000, the census placed “Asian” and “Pacific Islander” together in the same broader category.

    “my asianness is pretty obvious in a way that might not be true in kamala or even tulsi,” said yang. “That’s not a choice. It’s just a pretty obvious reality.”

    but the history of asian identity in the us. shows that what yang claimed is evident today could perhaps have evolved differently, and that, like the us. uu. account its population, the result of this evolution can have serious consequences.

    invention of “Asian American”

    The border between Asia and Europe does not have an official line, so the definition of “Asian” can include Central Asians, East Asians, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians, and South Asians, as well as Asians. Westerners, who are counted in the census as White Middle Eastern and may not self-identify as Asian. But current common American usage of the term is a relatively recent phenomenon, rising in popularity in the United States after World War II.

    The corpus of historical American English shows less than one occurrence of “Asian” per million words in American texts from 1810 to the 1940s, but that number rose to nearly 15 occurrences per million words in the 1950s a similar spike can be seen in British English.

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    at the time of this boom, in the us. In the US, contact with Asian cultures occurred predominantly through East Asian countries. “the united states. was at war with japan, then korea, then vietnam, and has occupied other parts,” explains linguist lynne murphy. furthermore, the 1965 immigration and nationality law ushered in large-scale immigration from asia to the united states.

    It’s easy to see how important that contact was. After all, in the UK, where the breakup of the British Empire contributed to a wave of South Asian immigration in the mid-20th century, “Asian” has a different meaning. InThe Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American English and British English, Murphy writes about a British journalist whose use of the word “means ‘from the Indian subcontinent,’ so when he wants to talk about people from china, korea or japan, [says] east asians. In America, the situation is just the opposite: Say Asian and people assume “East Asian.” when people mean “south asian”, they will probably say indian or maybe south asian.”

    as civil rights movements swept the united states in the 1960s and 1970s, asian populations also seized the moment to fight for their rights. the term “Asian American” grew out of student activists inspired by those movements and was deliberately broad. since their numbers individually were much smaller than other race-based movements, “it was a time when Chinese-American, Filipino-American, and Japanese-American activists came together and said, ‘You know, let’s come together under this umbrella of american,” explains anthony ocampo, a sociologist at cal poly pomona. The movement soon expanded to include South Asian Americans, Korean Americans, and Vietnamese Americans.

    As Asian Americans worked to increase visibility, “Asian” and “Asian American” became more general ways of talking about people and avoided other terms that were incorrect or problematic, such as Oriental , which was prominent before the 1950s, notes Murphy. . but it wasn’t long before the meaning of the term narrowed down, increasingly coming to apply only to the most visible subgroups.

    Eventually, the term “Asian” became associated with “how you look, the shape of your eyes, the tone of your skin, and the texture of your hair,” Ocampo says. “When people hear the word ‘Asian,’ they think of certain types of surnames that are aligned with Chinese, Korean, or Japanese.”

    A 2016 study by the National Asian American Survey found that 42% of white Americans believed that Indians “probably would not be” Asian or Asian American, and 45% believed that Pakistanis “would not likely be” Asian or Asian American. furthermore, 27% of Asian Americans believe that Pakistanis are “not likely to be” Asian or Asian American and 15% report that Indians are “not likely to be” either. “The issue of Asian American identity is in dispute, as South Asian groups (Indians and Pakistanis) find it more challenging for American society to view them as Asian Americans,” the researchers concluded.

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    a narrow view

    according to the pew research center, the first u.s. the 1790 census only had three categories: “free white men, free white women”, “all other free people”, and “slaves”. it took nearly a century, until 1870, for a category for people of Asian descent to be added. that category was simply called “Chinese”. in 1890, the census bureau added “Japanese,” followed by “other” in 1910 (referring primarily to people of Korean, Filipino, and Indian descent) and “Filipino,” “Korean,” and “Hindu” (referring to Indians). regardless of religion) in 1920.

    People were allowed to choose their own race from 1960 onwards, and this year’s census will have the same categories for people of Asian descent that were used in 2010: “Chinese,” “Japanese,” “Filipino.” “, “Korean” “Asian Indian”, “Vietnamese” and “Other Asian”.

    As simple as that list may seem, the question of who “counts” as Asian clearly lingers, and many are now talking about why it matters.

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    “The narrative defines who gets the already scarce resources and airtime given to Asian Americans,” says Ocampo. For example, discussion of Asian representation in film focuses primarily on films with East Asian characters, such as parasite, the farewell and crazy rich asians. “I find that black Asians are almost completely erased from the convo of being Asian. Like, I’m not even allowed to audition for Asian roles because Hollywood’s view of ‘Asian’ is only East Asian,” actress Asia Jackson tweeted.

    That sentiment can be particularly relevant when it comes to checking a box on a form like the census. Research into what’s known as “social identity threat” has shown that asking people about their identity can cause them to doubt their social belonging, which can cause people to doubt their abilities in areas they have nothing to do with. to do with race. “Anything that makes you self-aware in a way that is confusing or upsetting or that makes things important to you in some way can be a problem,” explains Joshua Aronson, a professor of applied psychology at the University of New York. york.

    underrepresentation in the census can lead to misallocation of federal resources and poor understanding of states’ needs, as population counts play an important role in decision-making on policy and funding issues in all the country. the division of seats in congress and state legislatures is also affected by census data.

    So why are Asian Americans, even today, relatively less likely to complete the census?

    Along with questioning the safety of providing personal information to the government, perhaps due to the fact that the government also used census data to round up people of Japanese descent for incarceration in camps during World War II, language barriers, Feelings of neglect and unfamiliarity with the census play a role in discouraging Asian Americans from participating, according to the New York Times. one study showed that Asian Americans are more likely than other groups to worry that their answers will be “used against them.”

    As part of an effort to address the situation, volunteers from civic organizations are campaigning to educate Asian populations about the census and allay any fears. And in January, the Census Bureau began posting ads in Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Tagalog and Vietnamese. But last July, Rep. Grace Meng of New York sent a letter to Steven Dillingham, the director of the Census Bureau, urging him to extend that outreach to the South Asian community. “I am surprised that the Census Bureau did not include the South Asian community in its scope prior to the 2020 decennial census,” he wrote. Dillingham responded, in a letter shared over time, saying that the Census Bureau is, in fact, trying to expand the campaign to include content produced in South Asian languages.

    Whether that outreach made a difference, and whether it worked among all Asian Americans, or just some, won’t be known until after the census is complete.

    For demographers, looking at each subset of “Asian” separately has some advantages: “Good data should always be as disaggregated as possible,” says Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director of South Asian Americans Leading Together. “To understand the nuances within the Asian-American community, it does matter if someone is a Pacific Islander, Southeast Asian, East Asian, etc. In terms of how resources are allocated for diversity and recruitment, it’s actually very important to meet the needs of those communities, which can be very different.”

    However, as the original Asian-American activists of the mid-20th century knew, there is also power in coming together. According to Sridaran, the question for activists today should be “how can we harness the power of uniting under that larger identity, but also uplift those who are often erased or left behind?”

    write to anna purna kambhampaty at [email protected]

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