Asian American Multi-Ethnic Identity

1968 SFSU Student Strike (credit to SF State News)

In the city’s public institution of education forty-two years ago, San Francisco State University’s students led a Third World strike that lasted five months. It was one of the longest campus strikes in history and climaxed to a cultural and ethnic explosion. Students participating in the strike, fought for “equal access to public higher education, more faculty of colour, and a new curriculum that would now be called ‘ethnic studies’” (Springer). It was a movement that instigated ethnical minority studies nationwide, challenged cultural hegemony, and set the parameters to studying many of the “other” American groups: the African-Americans, the Asian Americans, the Latino-Americans, clearing a path to more diversity and potential cultural pluralism. For Asian American students particularly, “this also marked a ‘shedding of silence’ and an affirmation of identity” (Unemoto, 2-3).

Within the context of multiplicities and identities, the term, “Asian American” emerged at this time, first coined by Yuji Ichioka at the SFSU strike. It was originally utilized “to describe a politically charged group identity in the ethnic consciousness movements of the 1960s” (Zhou, Lee; 11) and to “articulate the concerns Asian American students had about the political position of Asian heritage living in the United States” (Ono, Pham; 9). Out of this historical discourse, Asian American works as a convenient umbrella term for bringing together numerous Asian ethnicities in solidarity for political mobilization and activism, thus attaining the label of “pan-ethnic.” At the same time, a broad category as such lacks specific distinction from within. As seen historically before the 70s, most of the Asian population in America consisted of Japanese, Chinese, and Filipino heritage. Today, though the latter two are now part of the largest subgroups, there are also the Indians, Koreans, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Pakistanis, Lao, Thai, Indonesians, Sri Lankans, and Bangladeshis, as well as the Japanese. The term, “Asian Pacific Islander” also arose, categorizing those who are native to any of the islands in Oceania, Polynesia Melanesia, and Micronesia.

Diverse national origins are merely the tipping point; ethnic differences also manifest in the most obvious—language, religion, food, and customs—to histories of international relations, contexts of emigration, reception in new society, and patterns of adaptation and/or assimilation (Zhou, Lee; 12). Socioeconomic standing marks a line of divergence between the pan-ethnic Asian American/Asian Pacific Islander (API) community as it segregates blue-collar working from affluent middle-class. Intergenerational differences affect the various mentalities towards immigration and issues such as civil liberties, labor rights, as well as the contrast between “more assimilated” bicultural natives,  “new immigrants”, and “hapas” or those individuals and families of mixed Asian descent.  These are the highlighted factors that have a part in the dynamics of Asian American identity, making it ethnically complicated and distinct.

Social activism on the behalf of students who were involved in the SFSU strike, have inspired future campaigns for “raising political consciousness” and more in-depth discussions on the complications of diverse ethnic and cultural representation in the US. The efforts from the 60s still manifest in today’s pursuit for community and political activism among the Asian American/API identity, striving for that point of unity between the hybrid mix of struggles and differences among the many groups. Even though dialogue persists within and outside the Asian American/API community to speak up for its heterogeneous bloc of identities, the problem lies in the continual persistence of blurring and minimizing racial differences between the many various Asian ethnicities in today’s mainstream media.

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