Monday, June 26, 2006

The Pan-Asian Identity

I never thought that the idea of a pan-Asian identity could be fraught with so much controversy. Although I'm loathe to revive the shit-flinging that surrounded my "Mad as Hell" rant, I did stumble across a post that addresses some controversy a few months back and which refutes the feasibility of a pan-Asian identity, citing the disjointed identities across the number of Asian countries. I have to say, I did very much appreciate reading the post -- it treated the issue with respect, didn't get bogged down with taking sides in interpersonal conflict, and laid down an argument against geographic distinctions for culture. And, while I don't disagree with the tenousness of doing so, as I've written earlier, I believe that the pan-Asian identity, while probably not feasible in Asia (and also far too reminiscent of Japan's ambitions in WWII), becomes a necessary, and even reasonable identity to develop within the context of America. In other words, by immigrating and be looking at the treatment of all of Asian culture by non-Asian cultural imperialists -- who do not discriminate between us -- we begin to draw a connection that becomes a foundation for a pan-Asian identity. To me, I draw parallels to the whole discussion (biology vs. society) of race. Although it's true that race is an insignificant factor when studied scientifically, and that DNA differences could not distinguish between an African American and a White American, the development of a racial identity is profoundly important, and unity is found based upon common narratives, mutual disenfranchisement and marginalization. And, besides, it was the formation of the pan-Asian identity that marked the birth of the Asian American community in the first place. If we had not come together to develop unity between our differing countries, we would never have become the (still infant) political community we are now. Basic practicality requires that we, Asian Americans, find a way to put aside the differences of our own country and find a way to unite our identities and culture. However, this is just one woman talking. Although all comments are welcome, I'd be interested to hear what other Asian Americans or people of colour think about this -- after all, this discussion is crucial to an understanding of identity politics from a racial minority perspective. In particular, I'm curious to know how other Asian Americans feel about arguments against a pan-Asian identity.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Pilipin@s are NOT, and will NEVER be "Asian". Fuck that pan-Asian unity.....I see so much contempt from East Asians on how they see the "darker" Asians and Pilipin@s to be inferior to them.

I even see that elitism within activism and progressive movements within the APA construct. *sigh* And I feel that same degree of elitism when it comes to hapas never being "truly" Asian or Pacific Islander.

6/27/2006 12:27:00 AM  
Blogger Jenn said...

That's really very sad, anonymous. I personally don't think Filipinos are "less Asian" or "inferior" to other APIAs -- and Filipinos have been an extremely important part of the APIA movement. Hell, it's Filipinos who were critical to the unionization and labour issues earlier in our history.

It sounds like you feel like the colourstruck issues of East Asian culture affects you here. Do you think it would be better to dismantle the pan-Asian identity? Or do you merely wish that those who are colourstruck would shut up and wise up?

(ditto with the hapa issue)

6/27/2006 11:36:00 AM  
Anonymous gatamala said...


Wow anon. I have a friend of a certain background that made that "Filipinos aren't really Asian" comment to me once. It should not have really impacted me other than mere curiosity, but I did feel a bit of offense. I suppose I sympathize b/c as an AfAm, I am "mixed" by nature (& not Black enough for some Africans). She also informed me that her mother looked down on SE Asians.


The discussion of (non-white) identity politics refers to AfAms. Understandably our political/social/cultural fight AGAINST a LEGAL/ECONOMIC/SOCIAL framework based on SKIN COLOR (& all perceived/projected inferiority) forced us to unite as a bloc. America was (& still is) a society based on the color line. Now where that line runs is another story.

Now...if you are talking about a white/non-white dichotomy, then a pan-Asian identity construct would be easier & more useful to forge and sustain. There is strength in numbers.

But...if you are talking about a black/non-black dichotomy, there may be no need (or not as strong a need) & thus would be more difficult to form and sustain such an identity.

[Jenn, I know you know this... :) ]

Our history in the US is a unique one. We are NOT immigrants (not voluntarily anyway). We were never monolithic in any way. Nations, ethnic groups, clans, families, linguistic groups, religious groups were intentionally and deliberately destroyed to facilitate subjugation. Yes, vestiges of our pre-slavery heritage remain (music, dance, form of worship, religious structure, spirituality, food), these things resemble other communities of Blacks in the Western Hemisphere (there are some differences that aren't really needed here). But, by and large, our African-AMERICAN culture is one we created because of and in response to shared circumstances. Our culture was American, before we were "technical" 5/5ths Americans. This mentality is something that pervades our consciousness and makes identity politics [somewhat] easier. For better or for worse, America became our homeland - we had no other place to go.

Now, I'll let yall discuss what circumstances you (see! I'm thinking collectively already) share. But please [pan-Asians] don't be too hard on yourselves! It took us a couple of centuries to get to the mid-60s. You have centuries of internal, external, intracontinental conflicts to contend with on top of Uncle Sam. The circumstances you share are probably fewer in number and are certainly less dehumanizing and pervasive than color/race-based slavery and cultural annihilation. The impetus for such a broad identity may not be strong enough for long-lasting coalition. Besides, nobody has interests that converge with someone else's all the time. Cambodians have unique issues; Koreans have theirs. Whether an individual issue succumbs to the whole is a battle that you will always fight.

6/27/2006 03:13:00 PM  
Anonymous nonwhiteperson said...

Asian Americans can enjoy both political pan-ethnicity and ethnic pride. Society sees Asians as all the same but we think of ourselves as Chinese, Filipino, Indian, etc. Like W.E.B. Dubois said, our lives are a balancing act between Americanness and Africanness/Asianness/etc. Rachel S. had a post about the pros and cons of panethnicity.

She doesn't go either way but does say it is necessary for political clout because our identities are formed by dominant forces that see Asians as all the same.

6/29/2006 12:40:00 AM  
Anonymous nonwhiteperson said...

So how society sees us makes panethnicity necessary. I think we need it for political clout.

6/29/2006 12:42:00 AM  
Anonymous maneater said...

I find it intriguing that a lot of the cultures that "darker" Asians and Pilipin@s come from......have long-established histories of resistance movements, as well as U.S. imperialist military interventions.

Ironically enough, these countries that have "darker" Asians/Pilipin@s are considered "third world". I sometimes tell uninformed activists within my circles,

"Whutchu know about the third world, son?"

And there is a LOT of infighting within APA groups in the U.S. Sometimes it gets REALLY awful. Sad, really.

6/30/2006 12:07:00 AM  
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