"Will All the Asian Americans Please Stand Up?": The Politics of Self-Identification

Monday, January 30, 2012

This is part two in a series of posts on Asian Americans, inspired by and in concert with CultureSHOCK, a charity event being put on by the Columbia student group, Asian American Alliance. Click here to read the first post in the series: "Who is an Asian American?" and make sure to join in the conversation!

Yesterday, I mentioned the idea of self-identification for Asian Americans - a topic that can be the fly in the butter for many individuals, but also for many groups trying to organize around this identity pool. Why is it such a challenge? Let me give a personal example.

In the United States, I am highlighted by my difference. I am a Bengali woman (or, more often, the generic "Indian" woman). But when I interact with my family in Bangladesh or otherwise abroad, I am categorized as an American. But what is an American? In the US, non-white peoples are already coded as "less American" or otherwise foreign, so it can feel very strange to have to pick ethnicity or nationality as one's primary identity.

As Asian Americans, are we more of one than the other? Do we identify most with our ethnic group, with our nationality, with our politics, or with something else entirely? We carry within us unique experiences that can relate to any one of those questions. The task is to integrate them and find where they intersect as we conceive of ourselves as whole people.

Tomorrow: representation of these complicated Asian American folk.