The problem with the term ‘Asian American,’ according to Jay Caspian Kang

Will Asian Americans become White?

The question — which considers whether Asian Americans will fully assimilate into the multicultural elite — is at the heart of “The Loneliest Americans,” a provocative new book out this week from journalist and author Jay Caspian Kang. And the answer, according to Kang, is complicated.

Kang, the son of Korean immigrants who grew up in predominantly White communities in Boston and North Carolina, has spent the greater part of his life grappling with what side of the racial binary he falls on. Asian American, the term used to describe Kang and millions of others whose ancestry can be traced back to the continent of Asia, has never truly fit.

In his book, Kang takes aim at the idea of a cohesive, Asian American identity and calls for a reimagination of it instead.

The term Asian American, he writes, evokes a shared history of xenophobia and discrimination that goes back more than a century — even when the vast majority of Asian Americans came to the US after the passage of the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 and bear little connection to the oppression endured by those who came here long before. That identity is complicated further by class, encompassing a wide swath of people who share few of the same experiences, from the children of Indian doctors to those of Hmong refugees.

As a result, Kang argues, Asian American identity politics are too often dominated by the concerns of the upper middle class children of immigrants — White chefs appropriating certain cuisines, the lack of Asian American representation in Hollywood, the absence of Asian Americans from C-suites and boardrooms. The outsized attention on these issues, he says, obscures more pressing challenges facing the most vulnerable Asian Americans: the undocumented, the refugees and the working poor.

“The reason why [upwardly mobile Asian American] people express those things is because … they feel like they’re not being treated as if they were White, and they want to feel some form of solidarity with other groups who might be feeling this way,” Kang says. “But the issue is that when you express such shallow, privileged politics and concerns, it’s very difficult to build those pathways to solidarity.”

CNN recently spoke to Kang about his new book, the two Asian Americas he sees and the ways we might change how we talk about race in the US.

The conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

How did this book originate?

It starts with this question that I had when I was writing this article about these boys in an Asian American fraternity who ended up killing one of their brothers during a hazing ritual. These rituals were about moments of Asian trauma, like the Death March of Bataan, the killing of Vincent Chin and Japanese internment.

When I was reading the court documents about that case and talking to some of the kids who were in that fraternity, I thought: Why are they doing this? What is missing where they have to do this gruesome and pretty bizarre ritual? What is the ritual about?

That question has animated so much of my work, and it certainly animates this book.

What do we make of these people who arrived mostly post-1965, who have such shallow roots in this country with such wide gaps between first generation and second generation? What is the future for this group? How are they going to start to orient themselves? Will they use the term Asian American or not — or should they?

The book is my attempt to try and make sense of all that.

What is the meaning behind the book’s title, “The Loneliest Americans”?

If we think about those boys and why they’re creating these rituals, I think it comes out of this existential sense of not really understanding who you are. It’s being not particularly thought about very much and not particularly cared about in the national discourse.

So then we’re forced to figure all this out and make it up ourselves. Because we’re really only just talking about the last 40 years or so, whatever [identity] is going to be created is going to be clumsy, it’s going to be earnest, it’s going to be weird in some ways.

Grappling with that does lead to a type of loneliness.

Growing up in Boston and North Carolina as the child of Korean immigrants, how did you think about yourself in terms of race?

At the beginning, I didn’t think about it very much. I think that there was some form of suppression because my parents are so aggressively assimilative. Part of me wonders why they were like that. But at the same time, I also think that they saw that as the only method of survival. They thought, perhaps correctly, that if they [worked to assimilate] then their kids would have an easier path to moving up in America.

By the time I started noticing that I was different — sometime around second, third or fourth grade — I found myself identifying more with the Black students at our school than the White students. By the time I got to high school, I had learned to understand that maybe this isn’t the most natural or agreed upon [way that I should identify myself] — I can listen to rap music but I’m not Black.

For the past 25 years or something since then, that’s been the fight in my head. I can identify certain parts of my life that people would [describe as “pretty White”]. I don’t know if those are more important than the parts of my life which I don’t really talk about very much, where I do feel like I am oppressed in some sort of way or where I find the great meaning that I find in writers like James Baldwin and Ralph Ellison.

Navigating that idea — what side of the binary that we should identify with — is a central concern of mine and also a central concern of the book.

The book argues that the language we use to talk about race in the US doesn’t reflect our reality. What are some of the ways our current labels fall short?

The vast majority of the way in which we talk about race is frozen in time in the 1960s and 1970s. We don’t call people “minorities” or “colored” anymore — we say “people of color” or now, “BIPOC.” But those are actually quite small revisions when it comes to actual conversations about equality, about what is important, how we should treat people and what the actual racial hierarchy in America is. Post-1965, we have a completely different country than we did previous to 1965.

A lot of these things will be defined both in the Latino population and in the Asian American population. I don’t know how it’s going to go, but I think what we’re going to start to see is rejection of binary thinking over the next five years. It’s already happening in some ways. The doctrinaire ways in which we think about race in America — that Whites are on top, Asians are a little bit below Whites but basically Whites, Latinos are somewhere in the middle and Black people are at the bottom — will start to shift.

You write in your book of two Asian Americas. What are those two Asian Americas?

I’m trying to write against the type of totalizing history that happens, where people whose parents came post-1965 say they have a direct relationship with the Chinese Exclusion Act and Japanese internment or the radical ’60s [Asian American movement] on California campuses where the term Asian America was created.

We have an Asian America that likes to think of itself as this historic political idea and then we have the actual Asian America, which is tens of millions of people who are pretty apolitical and pretty new to this country. A lot of them don’t speak English in any sort of way, and we should acknowledge that. We should acknowledge that this is a distinct group post-1965 and that it has very little connection with the railroads or the gold mines or anything like that.

Isn’t there value in drawing parallels between the discrimination faced by early Asian immigrants and the challenges that Asian Americans face today?

I think it’s okay to say we as a people might [be discriminated against] as other people have had it happen before us. That’s a little different than saying we are those other people.

To think about these things clearly, we need to think about the distinct mass of people who came post-1965 as perhaps even its own identity. I’ve felt more in common with [a former coworker whose family came from Nigeria post-1965] than I did a whole host of other Asian people, especially those who had long histories in the United States.

Do you see any value in a broad, umbrella term like Asian Americans?

I would just ask why “immigrant” wouldn’t work better.

There’s something about the post-1965 immigration experience that would lend itself to a great deal of solidarity that would be broader than just the Asian American category. It would bring in these sort of natural alliances that already exist.

If you go to a Korean restaurant in Los Angeles and you go into the kitchen, you’re going to see Mexican dudes and El Salvadoran dudes talking to Korean dudes in some mix of Korean and Spanish. Those types of examples are everywhere. If we can create a capacious idea of identity that includes those types of moments, that’s a much stronger form of identity and will make people feel more politically active than this term that we seem to argue about what it actually means.

How is this identity crisis unique to Asian Americans? The same could be said of the demographic divides between Black immigrants and Black Americans or say, between Latinos of Honduran or Cuban origin.

The one thing that is unique to Asian America is how much of the narrative around what Asian America is is dominated by upwardly mobile, educated people — the experiences they have navigating the workplace or navigating social life post-college.

The example that I use is that after the Georgia spa massacres, there was a day of great mourning and confusion and being upset. But then very quickly, something happened in the media, which was very predictable to anyone who paid attention. The conversation shifted almost immediately to what was happening in people’s workplaces. People were writing essays about [anglicizing their names or being mistaken for other Asian people]. It became this great exhumation of Asian American angst.

The stuff that you generally hear is about that — it’s about the bamboo ceiling, it’s about Hollywood representation, it’s about Scarlett Johansson stealing a bunch of roles. I think that’s a catastrophic type of politics. The core of Black politics right now is about policing and equity. I just don’t see that with Asian American politics.

Can’t Asian Americans be mad about inadequate representation in Hollywood and also be concerned about the challenges facing the working class?

They are technically not mutually exclusive. But I’ve just never seen a moment where they exist side by side.

I don’t necessarily care about Hollywood representation at all. I’m not so concerned about bamboo ceiling stuff and microaggressions in the workplace. These are not things that you can start movements in the streets about. These are not things that you can sit with other groups, and say, “Let’s work together to solve this.” It leads to a type of alienation because you just feel like you’re doing your politics yourself.

If we change the politics and make it about the concerns of poor immigrants, then suddenly there are absolutely open pathways to all sorts of solidarity with different people. I think that’s in the end what we want.

You equate the assimilation of Asian immigrants with Whiteness. Why not refer to it just as class mobility?

The book is an argument in a lot of ways with my old professor who just passed, Noel Ignatiev, who wrote “How the Irish Became White.” The question in the book in some places is: Will the Asians become White?

The reason why I didn’t title it “How the Asians Became White” is because I don’t know if the Asians have become White or if they will become White. I’m somewhat skeptical. I try to be somewhat ambiguous about whether or not class mobility actually is Whiteness. If pressed, I would say that this is just class mobility and the term Whiteness means something else.

Is it unrealistic to expect true solidarity among Asian Americans when the experiences of all those it includes are so different?

I don’t think that it is impossible. I do think it requires a lot more than just saying, “Hey, I switched what I care about.” It requires a type of treason against one’s class and one’s race. That’s what’s necessary at this point. I do think it’s difficult. I do think that most people won’t do it. But I do think if a small group of very influential people do it, that it will be massively influential.

Who is this book for?

I wrote the book for my daughter, hoping that it would help her navigate life. She’s only four but she’ll grow up and maybe she’ll ask some of the same questions that I do.

In an immediate sense, I think there are a lot of young people out there who are looking for some sort of political identity. It doesn’t just have to be Asian Americans — it can be young White people, it can be young Black people.

The book itself is a question of why we accept the political identities that are given to us. Is there a way we can think about our lives to try and create better political possibilities that we might not have thought of before? If the book does anything, I hope that it empowers people to think through their own lives and maybe come up with something better than I can of how we should navigate the next 20 to 30 years.

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