Editor’s Note: Jeff Yang is a frequent contributor to CNN Opinion, a featured writer for Quartz and other publications, and the co-host of the podcast “They Call Us Bruce.” He co-wrote Jackie Chan’s best-selling autobiography, “I Am Jackie Chan,” and is the editor of three graphic novels: “Secret Identities,” “Shattered” and the forthcoming “New Frontiers.” The opinions expressed here are his own.
Every year since 1978, May has been commemorated as Asian Pacific American Heritage Month – the official, federally designated period for the nation’s 20 million residents of Asian descent. President Jimmy Carter first proclaimed it as such.
However, this year’s celebration is unique. That’s because May 2018 quietly marks our golden anniversary: the 50th birthday of “Asian-American.”
And as far as we Asian-Americans have come over this past half-century, it’s time to figure out who we are.
Of course, the history of Asians in America goes back further than 50 years – hundreds of years in fact. The arrival of Asian immigrants to what would eventually be called America can be traced back to 1587. That’s when a group of “Luzon Indians” from the Philippines, sailing on a Spanish galleon, disembarked in Morro Bay, California.
Later, in 1763, Filipinos would establish the first permanent Asian enclave in the Americas, the town of St. Malo in Louisiana. A century later, the first mass waves of migration from Asia to the United States would begin as Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, Filipinos and Indians arrived in vast numbers to work the plantations of Hawaii and the gold mines and railroads of the continental West.
But these are all markers of arrival, not shared identity. These early sojourners and settlers may have lived and worked side by side, socialized with another, even intermarried; nevertheless, they saw themselves through the lens of separate ethnicities and national origins.
Early immigrant Asian groups considered themselves as different from one another as they were from the white majority around them, with discrete languages, customs and cultural traditions, and in some cases, histories of prejudice or mutual hostility. During World War II, when Japanese-Americans were showered with hostility and eventually, unconstitutionally incarcerated by the US government, some Chinese even wore buttons stating, “I am Chinese,” to avoid being accidentally targeted by the hysteria.
That sense of separateness was defiantly challenged 50 years ago this month, by a group of young activists whose gathering in a cramped Bay Area apartment ended up transforming the course of a community.
Back then Yuji Ichioka, a graduate student at the University of California, Berkeley, and Emma Gee scoured a published roster of fellow students who had protested against the conflict in Vietnam and contacted every individual with an Asian-sounding last name, inviting them to become charter members of a new organization: the Asian American Political Alliance.
It would be the first public use of the coinage “Asian American” – inspired by the term “Afro-American” adopted by black activists of the era – as an umbrella term for Americans with roots or origins in the continent of Asia. As the name of the group implied, it was an explicitly political statement, stating in essence: We are united by our status as Americans, yes, but we are also claiming a new identity, nominally rooted in geographic origins, but more accurately anchored in our common desire for empowerment, for a united voice of protest, for social change.
Both the term and the idea behind it, that the diverse array of Asians in the United States should be seen as an amalgamated entity – a race – rapidly gained momentum. In 1977, the federal Office of Management and Budget formally directed that aggregate statistics should be gathered on “Asians and Pacific Islanders,” which led to Asian-Americans being rescued from the undifferentiated category of “Other” in the 1980 US census.
The results of that census were an eye-opener, unexpectedly indicating that Asian-Americans were the fastest-growing population in the nation, with a median household income and college attendance rate that outstripped even the white population.
Since then, individual Asian-Americans have increasingly risen into positions of visible prominence and influence.
This month, a group of notable Asian-American business, media and technology leaders, called Gold House, gathered a panel of Asian and non-Asian celebrity judges – including Olympians Apolo Anton Ohno and Michelle Kwan, Yahoo! co-founder Jerry Yang, Ogilvy & Mather co-chair Khai Meng Tham, super-producer Pharrell Williams, GLAAD CEO Sarah Kate Ellis and Hidden Figures producer Mimi Valdes – to select and release the A100, a list of the 100 most influential Asian-Americans in our contemporary culture.
Looking at the list is eye-opening. In media and entertainment, the co-head and COO of Amazon Studios, Albert Cheng, is named, alongside Netflix’s vice president of original documentary and comedy, Lisa Nishimura; Disney’s executive vice president of worldwide production, Susette Hsiung; and the president of DC Films, Walter Hamada. The list also features actors such as Dwayne “The Rock” Johnson, Mindy Kaling, Constance Wu and Aziz Ansari.
The business and tech sections included venture capitalists such as Cowboy Ventures founder Aileen Lee; corporate heads such as SC Johnson’s global chief marketing officer Ann Mukherjee, Microsoft CEO Satya Nadella and Google CEO Sundar Pichai; Katrina Lake, the founder of Stitch Fix, an online subscription and personal shopping site; and Chieh Huang, founder of Boxed, an online warehouse. In lifestyle and sports, there’s snowboarder Chloe Kim and skater Nathan Chen, restaurateur David Chang and social media superstar Chrissy Teigen.
It’s a staggering array of talent and achievement.
But it’s also an overt challenge to Asian-Americans, a community that I described back in 2012 as “very much in beta, and still working out the compatibility issues that come with a rapidly growing and wildly varied installed base.”
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That is because the individual achievements and collective emergence of Asians in the United States can easily paper over the very real issues we face. Anti-immigrant rhetoric increasingly targets new arrivals. The flames of hysteria continue to be fanned against Muslims and those who are simply perceived to be Muslim. National rivalry – in some political quarters – with China, and fear of North Korea fuel xenophobic hate. The wealth and privilege of some in our community hide the poverty and isolation of others.
Age 50 is when one must truly put away the idle excuses of youth, and stare the reality of one’s past achievements, present resources and future responsibilities in the face.
It’s time for Asian-Americans to come out of beta, and define who we are and where we stand. Will it be with those who are building a better world, or those who are focused on personal enrichment? With those who fight for the needs of the underrepresented, or those who indulge the whims of the entitled? With those who speak truth to power, or those who excuse the lies of the powerful?
Many on the A100 roster, and many who are reading this essay, will be around to see our community’s centennial. Let’s hope that over the next 50 years, we will answer these questions – and in ways that will allow us to look back on our first century with pride.