“Identity” is a term that simultaneously unites and divides Asian Americans. Those with Asian ancestry in the United States are united in this demographic label through the political reality of the history of racialization (exclusionary immigration and naturalization laws, restrictive marriage laws, mass xenophobic incarceration) that Asians in America have been subjected to (and continue to be subjected to) and by activist and academic beliefs in making visible the experiences and histories of Asian Americans within the larger U.S. society. Asian Americans are divided by the different types of identities that exceed this singular racial label—by differences of ethnicity, heritage, national origin, religion, race, class, immigration status, citizenship, able bodiness, sexuality, gender, region, education, language, age, and a host of other identitarian markers. Both the original (1976) and revised (1983) versions of Raymond Williams’s Keywords: A Vocabulary of Culture and Society do not include the term “identity,” which is telling for all the ways in which this word has evolved in meaning and importance in both popular discourse and academic scholarship. Where once a word like “identity” may have strictly been understood to describe psycho-social development, nowadays the word “identity” brings to mind phrases that have currency in our 21st-century lives: identity fraud (or theft), identity crisis, identity politics. We now apply adjectives to this term that reflect our understanding of the broadening of subjectivities in U.S. society: racial identity, ethnic identity, gender identity, sexual identity, religious identity, national identity, cultural identity, etc. As Carla Kaplan notes in her own entry on “identity” for Keywords for American Cultural Studies, “[o]ne of our most common terms, ‘identity’ is rarely defined” (2007, 123). Indeed, trying to define “identity” seems akin to nailing jelly on a wall. Yet this word is, perhaps, not just a keyword but the keyword that undergirds the field of Asian American studies.
The term’s meaning, within an Asian American studies perspective, was born out of the modern civil rights movement of the 1960s and 1970s, a time when people were fighting for enfranchisement over and against a white supremacist society that took whiteness as a universal norm and that relegated all nonwhites to marginalized, second-class status. Asian American studies was galvanized by other identitarian movements—black civil rights, the American Indian movement, La Raza/Chicano pride, queer and women’s rights movements. Recalling the work of scholar-activists from this period, Gary Okihiro observes that “like many of my generation involved in the struggle for ethnic studies and for a Third World identity, that insofar as Asians occupy the racial margins of ‘nonwhite’ with blacks, yellow is a shade of black, and black, of yellow” (1994, xii). What these causes all had in common was a desire to proclaim one’s identity as valid and valued, different and distinct, from a universalizing normativity that made those who did not conform to a heterosexual, white, male identity as unequal “others” in U.S. society. As the second definition of “identity” in the Oxford English Dictionary states, “identity” is “a set of characteristics or a description that distinguishes a person or thing from others.” An Asian American identity is distinguished from other racialized identities within the United States through the idea that as different as the ethnic groups that comprise Asian America are, they all share common goals. “Despite their distinctive histories and separate identities,” writes Yến Lê Espiritu, “these ethnic groups have united to protect and promote their collective interests” (1992, 2–3). Furthermore, the concept of an Asian American identity is rooted in U.S. soil; it is an identity that does not travel well, since the nature of aligning oneself with others of Asian descent has the most value within a U.S. context (S. Wong 1995). Claiming Asian American as a political and ideological identity and asserting the epistemological and pedagogical value of Asian Americans, Asian American studies affirms the culture, history, and set of experiences for Asian Americans as Asian Americans, recognizing the process of racialization in the United States that has created the conditions for a disparate group of people with ancestry in various Asian nations to be labeled, marked, and identified as Asian American.
The editors of the earliest assemblage of Asian American creative writing, Aiiieeeee! An Anthology of Asian-American Writers (and the first to use the phrase “Asian American” in the title of their book to consolidate an Asian American collective identity), begin their preface by stating: “Asian-Americans are not one people but several” (Chin et al. 1974, vii). While the communities they subsequently list include only Chinese Americans, Japanese Americans, and Filipino Americans (presumably these were the three Asian ethnic groups with the greatest numbers living in the United States at the time of their writing), their understanding of Asian Americans as multiple rather than singular is a truism within the field of Asian American studies, since the people found under the umbrella term “Asian American”—who can be identified as Asian American—include people from a multiplicity of nations, ethnicities, and regions: Viet Nam, the Philippines, Malaysia, Cambodia, Taiwan, Pakistan, Burma, Korea, India, Thailand, Syria, and the list goes on and on. The very vastness and diversity of people that comprise an Asian American identity is simultaneously one of Asian American studies’ greatest strengths and most profound challenges, since there is little commonality that these disparate people share, except for the racial identity of being Asians in America. Which thus begs the question: Who is Asian American?
As noted above, the field of Asian American studies was founded on a desire to claim a political and ideological identity for people of Asian ancestry residing in the United States as Asian American in opposition to the manner in which Asians in America had become racialized and subject to the defining power of racist state apparatuses. However, there is no set agreement on who is Asian American, who identifies as Asian American, or what it means to claim an Asian American identity, particularly since the majority of people who would mark “Asian” on a census form do not self-identify as Asian American in their everyday lives but “instead link their identities to specific countries of origin” (Zhou 2007, 355), a fact confirmed by the controversial Pew Report “The Rise of Asian Americans,” in which only 19% of the polled respondents identified themselves as Asian American (Taylor et al. 2012, 25). One could add that a term like “identity” has different valences and connotations for someone working in psychology or anthropology than for someone working in history or cultural studies. Central to this point are the contested meanings inherent in the term “identity” and the ways in which Asian Americans both surpass and are circumscribed by this term of common affiliation, as Lisa Lowe notes: “the profile of traits that characterize Asian American ‘identity’ is as much in flux as the orthodoxy of which constituencies make up and define Asian American ‘culture’” (1996, 53). People of Asian ancestry in the U.S. are interpellated as Asian American by scholars wishing to study this particular demographic and by U.S. culture and society, yet how they are interpellated varies according to other factors (age, education, sex, socioeconomic status, etc.) contingent upon their subjectivities. For example, Southeast Asian Americans are often divergently interpellated from their East, South, and West Asian American peers, which suggests that there is a multiplicity to a term like “identity” that a singular racial label often belies (Schlund-Vials 2012b). Moreover, Asian Americans often refuse the hail of others who would seek to limit and stereotype them as Oriental, as alien, as model minorities. Therefore “identity,” as a keyword in Asian American studies, exists as a set of contradictions, balances, and contestations that can often vacillate between opposite poles of meaning.
Indeed, embedded in the term “identity” is a series of binaries: self-other, choice-imposition, individual-society, sameness-difference, essential-mutable. How we understand the tensions within these binaries is crucial to understanding the pervasiveness and complexity of how the term “identity” informs the central intellectual questions raised within the field of Asian American studies. The tension of being unique, singular, and exceptional versus universal, collective, communal. The tension of similar experiences and histories versus the differences within experiences and histories. The tension of that which is inherent and immutable versus that which is changeable and variable. The tension of choosing which identities, forms of affiliation, and membership in various collectivities one wishes to demonstrate at any given time versus the ways in which others try to constrain that choice and impose ideas of their own onto one’s sense of selfhood. Yet despite these various tensions found within the term “identity” and the impossibility of stability and fixity, it is, in Kandice Chuh’s words, “the undecidability of identity” that “contributes to the construction of an Asian American studies geared specifically toward undermining racial essentialism” (2003, 14; emphasis in the original). The term “identity,” with its inherent indeterminacy, allows for a generative ambiguity within Asian American studies, one that opposes concretized and totalizing definitions in favor of an Asian American epistemology that questions essentialist notions of singularity. One of the most significant contributions that the field of Asian American studies has produced is the examination of intersectionality—the ways in which scholars have recognized the multitude of identities inherent within the individuals that constitute the collectivity of Asian Americans and the ways that these various identities are not simply additive but comprise overlapping and sometimes contradictory statuses of oppression and privilege. Asian American studies scholars analyze queerness (Eng and Hom 1998; Manalansan 2003), gender (Y. Espiritu 1999; Y. Espiritu 2008; Eng 2001; Parreñas 2008), class (Prashad 2013; Y. Chang 2010), disability (C. Wu 2012), region (Joshi and Desai 2013; Bow 2010), multiraciality (Spickard 1997; Root 2001; Williams-León and Nakashima 2001a), and the intertwined nature of all these intersectionalities (and many others) within the context of various Asian American identities.
“Identity” continues to underpin so much of the work that Asian American studies scholars produce. The power of this keyword is evident when we recognize that people are both individual and unique entities but ones who share a collective social identity with others and who gain political enfranchisement through coalitional networks and group identification. Thus, the greatest strength of “identity” is also the greatest strength within the field of Asian American studies: the fluidity and flexibility of this keyword allows for an antiracist activism that guides the discipline of Asian American studies. Asian American studies was born in the crucible of social justice activism. It has grown, expanded, and changed along with the various constituencies that find themselves grouped under the umbrella of an Asian American political collectivity, but at its core Asian American studies remains committed to equality and an end to oppression for all people of all identities.