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We Don’t Have the Words to Fight Anti-Asian Racism

Tangled questions of Asian identity need answers that aren’t defined by U.S. terminology alone.

By , a British freelance writer who has written on politics and culture for publications such as the Moscow Times and the Calvert Journal.
People protest against anti-Asian violence.
People participate in a protest to demand an end to anti-Asian violence in New York City on April 4. Spencer Platt/Getty Images

After the horror of the Atlanta shootings that killed eight people—six of them Asian women—the question arose again: Just who in the West is Asian? Covering the Biden administration’s response to the Atlanta attacks, media outlets such as Buzzfeed and the New York Times emphasized that Kamala Harris is the “first Asian American” to hold the vice presidency. Although Harris’s Indian heritage certainly allows her to identify as such, the pointed use of the term following an attack in which the victims were primarily East Asian immigrants strikes a discordant note. That points to a wider problem with the way the Asian experience is defined in the United States, especially when those definitions affect the way identity is seen in other countries. As an ethnically Chinese British woman working in Washington, these issues aren’t just abstract ones; they’re part of the challenges of identity that I, and others, face every day.

Asian-ness, unlike Blackness, is geographically defined. The Black Lives Matter slogan can speak to Black British people as well as Black Americans since there’s a shared understanding of what it is to be Black. But definitions of “Asian” differ markedly among countries. Because the U.S. story is inseparable from the enslavement and exploitation of Black people, the U.S. conception of race has become rooted in the literal notion of skin color. East Asian people did not become as central to Western conceptions of race as Blackness, nor was there an Asian equivalent of the one-drop rule in the United States that defined anyone with any amount of African ancestry as Black. That creates further confusions over mixed-race people; Blackness is often inherited in the United States, but “being Asian” is a matter of fervent debate.

While laws discriminating against Black Americans primarily identified them by the color of their skin, laws discriminating against East Asians—such as the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act and the 1875 Page Law—focused on the nationalities of “undesirable” immigrants. The 1900 census listed white, Black, Chinese, Japanese, and American Indian, underscoring how the white political establishment saw Black Americans as one amorphous group identifiable by color but East Asians as distinct groups.

This distinction has come into sharp relief as the definition is debated. “This is not Asia,” wrote one Twitter user above a map of China, Japan, North Korea, and South Korea, responding to discontent from some East Asians about the inclusion of Indian Americans and others in the term Asian American. Beside it was a map stretching as far as the Middle East. “This is [Asia],” the same user asserted. The tweet garnered nearly 700,000 likes.

In Britain, Asian on its own usually refers not to people of East Asian descent but of South Asians—India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, and Sri Lanka. As a result of the British empire and its demand for workers from India and Pakistan in the 1950s and 1960s, a much larger percentage of the British population is South Asian (6.8 percent) rather than East Asian (under 1 percent). In the United States, in contrast, waves of East Asian immigration from the mid-19th century onward have created strong Japanese, Chinese, and Korean American groups. Prominent British politicians, such as Rishi Sunak and Priti Patel, are of South Asian descent, and the BBC’s Asian Network channel only covers South Asian issues. Growing up in this cultural context, I was never quite sure how I should identify. The only group identifier I remember hearing for people who looked like me—not least from a colleague in a former workplace—was the patently distasteful term “Oriental.”

After the horrific attacks in Atlanta, U.S. politicians and media were quick to express their solidarity with “the Asian community.” During his maiden floor speech on March 17, Sen. Raphael Warnock condemned “unspeakable violence visited largely upon the Asian community.” The Guardian ran an opinion titled “There’s only so much pain that the Asian community can swallow before we realise we’re drowning,” and Thrillist published articles on how to support the “AAPI American community” in Texas and California. A month before the Atlanta shootings, Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez addressed the rise in anti-Asian attacks prompted by COVID-19, tweeting “We stand with our Asian American & Pacific Islander community against the rising tide of racism and hate crimes.”

“Community” is a powerful word, one with strong connotations of dignity and solidarity. It has proved a powerful organizational tool, and a sense of broad Asian community is, for many, being created in reaction to attackers who make no distinction between their victims. But when used constantly and unthinkingly, especially by outsiders, it can sometimes erase the lived experiences of Asian people who do not belong to—or who do not identify with—their racial community.

I was adopted from China as a baby by white British and American parents and have spent the majority of my life in primarily white spaces. I have no connection to the Chinese diaspora in either the United States or the United Kingdom and speak neither Mandarin nor Cantonese. This is not an uncommon situation; roughly 110,000 Chinese children have been adopted globally, with U.S. citizens responsible for more than 70 percent of those adoptions, as well as roughly 125,000 Korean-adopted children in the United States—mostly to white parents. My experience as a Chinese adoptee raised by middle-class white British and American parents is different from that of a working-class Thai woman who works in a takeout restaurant, which, in turn, is different from that of a financially successful Indian American who works in Silicon Valley. The paradox of the Asian community as a phrase is that it simultaneously protects and glazes over difference.

I am very much not part of any “Asian community,” yet I, too, experience anti-Asian racism and am chilled by the Atlanta attacks on a profoundly personal level. As both the United States and the United Kingdom become increasingly racially heterogenous, Asian people do not necessarily live in predominantly Asian areas or have strong connections with the country they trace their heritage to. Yet conceptions of Asian-ness remain tied to Chinatowns and Little Koreas and Japans: conveniently discrete spaces that belong to—and are somehow separate from—the broader population. The insistent use of the term “Asian community/communities”—no matter how benevolent the intent—reinforces this othering of Asian people and disregards the experiences of people who do not, or cannot, identify with this collective identity.

Beyond this, however, is the broader issue of using U.S. conceptualizations of race to understand the plethora of Asian experiences in the West. The term AAPI (Asian American and Pacific Islander), for example, is clearly borne out of the U.S. social context—shaped by the arbitrary confines of past census categories. The popular hashtag #StopAAPIHate is an effective call to collective action in the United States, but it doesn’t resonate elsewhere.

Last year, the Black Lives Matter movement went global. The phrase became a rallying cry in the West, appearing on placards in the United Kingdom, Germany, and France. The ready adoption of the U.S.-based movement points to a long-standing tendency of Western European countries to import the U.S. racial justice lexicon wholesale, regardless of whether it makes sense in a local context. Europeans are more likely to be familiar with activist Martin Luther King Jr. than with their own anti-racist activists.

The U.S. civil rights movement saw Black Americans reappropriate Blackness as a term of personal and political empowerment. Today, it remains a powerful collective signifier with the more recent addition of “Brown-ness” encompassing many Latinx, Middle Eastern, and South Asian people. In the United States, progressive politicians and activists regularly use the phrase “Black and Brown” almost as a synonym for people of color. The emergent term BIPOC (Black, Indigenous, and People of Color) has only compounded this tendency. Despite assertions to the contrary, East and South East Asian people are undeniably people of color. We can never pass as white as a group, yet our lack of a color with which to identify hinders our participation in racial discourse.

Calling someone “yellow” in English inevitably conjures up the racist language and images of the “yellow peril.” Yet, this is an age of tweets and soundbites when complex arguments must be stripped to their media-friendly bones. Should East Asian people reclaim “yellowness”? The famous Chinese-language song “Heirs of the Dragon,” written in 1978 by Hou Dejian and performed by Lee Chien-fu, demonstrates how in China, “yellowness” is a point of pride. “Black eyes, black hair, yellow skin, forever and ever an heir of the dragon,” go the lyrics. While there is no simple answer to this question, East Asian people’s lack of color makes it even harder to insert ourselves into today’s racial justice conversation.

Words matter, but the response to the wave of anti-Asian hate shows that lack of words matters too. Neither the United States nor the United Kingdom has fully developed the language or the paradigms to come to terms with, or respond to, racism against East Asian people. The heterogeneity of Asian experiences should be acknowledged and celebrated. Only by finding solidarity in our differences can we truly combat white supremacy.

Emily Couch is a British freelance writer who has written on politics and culture for publications such as the Moscow Times and the Calvert Journal. She lives and works in Washington.