When I was a kid, my ethnicity--I was born in the United States to Chinese parents--made me "Chinese." Later, that label gave way to the broader category of "Oriental." At some point during high school I was abruptly informed (by a white friend) that "Oriental" was now a racist term and that I would heretofore be known as "Asian." College brought the all-important addition of "American," so that I am now "Asian-American," or, if one really wants to split hairs, "Asian American" (the hyphen, to some, indicates an undesirable hierarchy or dualism).
Generally, I've accepted these changes as mere semantics. But recently, two developments have made me consider how the conscious choice of such labels can become a serious and meaningful issue. The first is the rise, or return, of "African-American" as an alternative to, or substitute for, "black" in the past few years; the second was my learning about the Asian American community's own struggle to define its identity and its label.
At a meeting of black leaders in December 1988, Jesse Jackson and others suggested that "African-American" should replace "black" as the term of choice. Since then, "African-American" has been gaining ground among black leaders, politicians and the national press. In the past four years at Harvard, I witnessed the fascinating phenomenon of a label in transition: students coming to the point in a sentence where the proper racial label should be inserted would hesitate, even freeze, before gingerly choosing one. At times I would avoid using either term, electing to leave the person's race unspecified rather than choose between the two labels. "African-American," though, seems to have largely won out, at least here. (The Crimson continues to employ the term "black.") It's not so clear what the reception has been in the black community at large or in the wider population; polls in 1989 and 1991 showed that most blacks preferred "black," but that may have changed.
The term "African-American" is not new. But black leaders who endorsed the change saw the shift as a cultural statement, a move beyond the exigencies that drove the adoption of "black" itself 30 years ago. In 1988, Jackson argued that to be called "black" made the community "baseless," while "African-American" restored the community's "cultural integrity" and "proper historical context." Ramona Edelin, president of the National Urban Coalition, said in 1989 that "African-American" stood as an expression of unity with Africa and the African diaspora, of whom African-Americans were first and foremost a part; it is, she said, "our proper geopolitical identification" and "the first step in the cultural offensive" worldwide.
The "African" in African-American, then, locates black culture outside the United States, in its ancestral, African roots. At the same time, the "-American" places blacks among the ranks of the American hyphenated. Among these ethnic groups, too, the move toward hyphenation has been a conscious, progressive struggle. Only in our own generation has "Asian-American" supplanted "Oriental" and other such terms.
But the move toward hyphenation has been a very different kind of struggle for Asian-Americans; it has been, arguably, a fight for the legitimacy of the "American" in the name rather than for the primacy of the "Asian." Asian-Americans have had to combat perceptions of them as profoundly foreign, as culturally alien to (white) America. "Oriental," from this point of view, was an essentializing term that incorporated not just ethnicity but mentality, even for the American-born.
This predicament was, perhaps, a product of the historical situation of Asian-Americans, as a population of relatively recent immigrants--though that status, too, became part of the stereotype brought down upon thousands of Japanese-Americans in the internment camps of World War II. For Asian-American activists of the 1960s and 1970s, the pressing issue was carving out a unique place in America for the Asian community: the finding of a uniquely American identity, one that was not simply defined by our Orientalness. It was no surprise that writers like Frank Chin turned to black culture as a model for Asian-American identity. Chin saw blacks as everything Chinese-Americans were not: independent, defiant of white culture, rejecting assimilation in favor of constructing their own unique identity. Chin and others sought to ground Asian-American identity in the unique historical experience of Asians in the United States. Chinese-Americans, Chin argued, were not simply sojourning Chinese; rather, their identities were shaped by the American Chinatowns in which they were born and raised.
For Chin, naming was vitally important. Just as blacks had appropriated formerly derogatory terms--from "Negro" to "black" itself--as consciously chosen emblems of racial pride and identity, Chin tried to turn the racist label of "Chinaman" into one Chinese-Americans could claim as their own. Instead, hyphenation carried the day. But "Asian-American" only replicates Chin's dilemma: for it emphasizes the duality that plagues conceptions of Asian-American identity. The theme of most popular Asian-American literature has been the conflict of cultures--the alleged impossibility of reconciling Eastern and Western values, the stories of children caught between their parents' "Asian" values and their friends' "American" ones. Lost is the uniqueness of individual experience; lost is a sense of the history of Asians in America. I know that I can never be culturally "Chinese"; I lack access to that culture, and it can only be foreign to me. To imagine that my identity is somehow dual, to imagine that I can "return to my roots" in any meaningful way, would be a delusion.
But I find myself stuck with the duality, stuck with the label. And it is into this semantic morass that "African-American" now plunges black Americans. By choosing "African-American" over "black," blacks may give up that historical grounding that Chin envied in favor of the duality he feared. The attempt to return to African culture can only be a kind of tokenism, a search for the "authentic" in costumes and food festivals--just as I exercise my "Chineseness" in culinary exploits. The threat--as Chin and others saw--of trying to root onself in Africa is that it can become a distraction from the specificity of one's conditions, leading to a neglect of the history that gives one a unique cultural space.
It might be argued that this shift simply represents a different historical moment: blacks, confident in their position within American culture, should now identify with a larger global community. Perhaps the shift to "African-American" is part of a larger multicultural strategy, whereby blacks seek to place themselves within an America made up of many different cultural groups. But the cultural dualities that have confronted Asian-Americans should demonstrate the dangers of identifying with the "homeland." And perhaps blacks should be wary of giving up the cultural leverage that their unique, hard-won identity in American culture gives them. It is that leverage that Asian-American activists have sought and continue to seek, often by borrowing the tactics of black leaders. If the reply is that the Asian-American and black experiences have been profoundly different, that's exactly the point.
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