The Problem with ‘Asian’
Breaking down homogenization, racism, and identity erasure in the world’s largest continent
by Ruvani de Silva
Asia. Surely the most truly ridiculous linguistic simplification of all time.
How are a mere four letters supposed to adequately describe the largest continent on Earth, taking up roughly one-third of its land mass and home to nearly 60% of its total population? Why do we even try to talk about ‘Asia’ when the very act of doing so, of lumping together the 4.561 billion citizens of 48 nations and speakers of nearly 2,300 living languages, is so obviously an utterly ridiculous thing to do?
This article was conceived before the recent horrific Atlanta shooting that left six women of Asian heritage dead, and has shone an international spotlight on ‘Anti-Asian Racism’ in the USA and across the globe. Right now, there is an almost unprecedented (certainly in my lifetime) outcry against violence, hate, and racism towards people from this, the world’s largest continent. Countless op-eds are asking long-awaited and much-needed questions about how and why ‘Asian’ communities are being targeted, and what must be done about it.
It is both excruciatingly sad and not at all surprising that it has taken an act of such grotesque violence to bring to the fact of ‘Anti-Asian racism’ to the attention of both the media and the world at large. Yet, for most people of ‘Asian descent’ living in the ‘West,’ racism, and the risk of violence, is a fact of life in the same way that it is for every person from every minority.
One major problem with all the attention that ‘Anti-Asian Racism’ is currently getting is inherent in the very concept of the phrase itself – the homogenization of all people whose heritage can be traced to this four-letter demarcation of one-third of the world’s land mass.
Etymology and History
The etymology of ‘Asia’ itself remains contentious and unproven, although multiple online sources seem to agree that the Ancient Greeks were the first to record the use of the term Asia in 440 BCE. It refers specifically to Anatolia, or the Persian Empire, to the east of the Aegean Sea. The Romans picked up the term and spread it through Europe. As Europeans moved across the continent, the use of the name spread to incorporate each new region they traversed. The eye-rolling irony of ‘Asia’ being named by Europeans is another unsurprising fact.
What is ‘Asia’? What is ‘Asian-ness’? Or ‘Anti-Asian Racism’? Why do we insist on trying to create a monolithic identity for cultures that stretch over 6,835 miles (11,000 kilometers). In comparison, when in the US, the UK, Australia, Oceania, and Europe, people identify themselves by the state or region that they come from, often even down to a specific town, and often take significant offence at being mislabeled. While no-one (or at least very few people) would even try to pretend that Asia is not made up of many hugely disparate cultures traversing 48 separate nations, we still become linguistically reduced to this single four-letter entity whenever it’s convenient, and often when it isn’t.
This reduction places ‘Asians’ between a rock and a hard place – by throwing off the label, we may be seen as inadvertently attacking or rejecting our fellow ‘Asians,’ implying that we are somehow superior to them by refusing to be counted among them. Of course, we do not want this. Yet, if we accept the term and go along with it (full disclosure – I use the #StopAsianHate hashtag), while we have the advantage of solidarity, we are simultaneously erasing our own specific cultural heritage and identity. We risk being subsumed by a mass identity that may offer some degree of safety in numbers, but also acts as a toll enabling white ‘Western’ culture to undermine and ignore our individual backgrounds.
Let me explain this more clearly. If you told someone from Manchester that you thought they were from Liverpool, they would correct you. If you told someone from The Bronx that you thought they were from Queens, they would correct you. If you told someone that you thought they were from Prague but were from Warsaw, they would correct you. And you, as a person of whatever heritage, but living in the ‘West’, would understand the difference.
Conversely, getting white people to think beyond ‘Asian’ can be hard. Unabashedly racist generalizations like ‘Oriental’ and ‘Arab’ are no longer considered socially acceptable, yet the knowledge and effort to replace them with accurate geographic or cultural descriptions is still vastly lacking in much of the ‘Western’ world. In fact, for many more socially aware people, there is a profound discomfort in raising the topic of an ‘Asian’ person’s heritage for fear of making a faux pas, which further enables this culture of homogenization.
On correcting the frequent assumption that I’m of Indian heritage, my efforts at correction regularly meet with confusion – is Sri Lanka part of India? Is it even near India at all? As ‘Asians’ living in the ‘West’ (and for those who live in Asia but interact frequently with ‘Westerners’), there is a pervasive expectation that we know every detail of ‘Western’ history, geography, culture, and cuisine. That knowledge is very rarely reciprocated, even by many of the white people who have traveled in Asia itself.
The cultural and social burden, the awkwardness, of proffering a quick gallop through the history of Partition or Taiwanese independence might be of genuine interest to some white people, but also places the speaker at risk of being seen as boring, pedantic, aggressive, or superior. A confused look or a ‘yeah, whatever’ response to attempting to explain one’s ethnic heritage is really not a nice thing to go through. Neither is receiving a stock stereotype-racist response, ranging from patronizing, if benign, comments about curry and elephants to worryingly misused political slogans. Yes, there are certainly situations where ‘Asian’ can feel like a get-out-of-jail-free card.
But, by falling into the trap of assimilative language, lump-demarcation, we are ultimately playing a losing game. Stereotypes and assumptions always work against minorities, whatever their nature. By accepting the ‘Asian’ label, we can be seen as conforming to the incredibly reductive stereotype of the ‘good immigrant,’ the ‘model minority’ that has hounded all those of Asian descent for centuries. I could write a whole other essay on the long and ‘Orientalized’ history of this trope, which is equally pervasive on both sides of the Atlantic.
This conceit of ‘Orientalism,’ first and most famously unpicked in Edward Said’s seminal work of the same name, is a construct built on centuries of armchair-anthropologist misinformation, a deliberate collaboration of scholarship and government policy designed to justify colonialism and the economic and cultural hegemony of white people over the continent of Asia. While ‘Orientalism’ is now widely understood in academia and among the more socially and culturally aware, and cartoon caricatures of obsequious servile Asians are (mostly) no more, as with most deeply historically ingrained stereotypes, ideas around our meekness and obedience still exist, and they still exist in a way that perpetuates our perceived homogeneity.
Ultimately, in not challenging inappropriate or unwanted labeling, in going along with terminology that we are uncomfortable with, in order to put our white companions more at ease, we are unwittingly fulfilling the prevailing stereotype that we are subservient, ingratiating, and non-confrontational – easy to conquer and manage, proficient yet obedient worker bees.
In asserting our own specific ethnic heritage as our right, we are simultaneously challenging our mass demarcation and these Orientalist assumptions. Beyond this, it is unarguable that all stereotypes are harmful. Whether one is perceived as the ‘good immigrant’ or the ‘lazy immigrant,’ as ‘ghettoized’ or ‘anglicized,’ being told by another ethnic group, specifically the dominant ethnic group, who you are and what you are is disempowering and restrictive, as well as being racist. Being called a ‘model minority’ is not a compliment – it is not an ideal to play up to. It comes loaded with messages that we are subservient, compliant and unable to lead or assert ourselves, that we are ultimately lesser. It also plays into the typical ‘divide and conquer’ ‘Western’ treatment of immigrants, minorities, and People of Color, trying to separate us out with perceived favoritism that is loaded with prejudice.
And white people are not the only ones to blame. Stereotypes and racist tropes can be found everywhere, including among some Asian communities about others. Asians are not innocent when it comes to propagating stereotypes – the same generational and cultural prejudices that white people have are reflected in our own cultures, our own ‘North-South divides’*, as well as prejudices we have undoubtedly picked up from Western culture.
Remember that we have our own conflicts, our own state and civil wars and our own cultural misconceptions to deal with. In fact, one of the only ways in which we really are all the same is that we’re not perfect and we need to grow, learn and educate ourselves – the same as everyone else. Breaking these labels and assumptions down within our own cultures is just as important as overcoming ‘Western’ prejudices – it is essential that when we do define ourselves, we do not do it in a way that throws detriment onto other minorities.
Without going into too much detail, I certainly grew up in a household where cultural and national stereotypes were thrown around in a way that I now consider embarrassing and wrong. It might not always be easy to challenge our own families and friends, but pursuing a truly progressive and inclusive agenda means having those difficult conversations with everyone, even when comments are made in family settings or ‘behind closed doors’. We wouldn’t expect anything else from our white allies. A key element of comfortably embracing and sharing our own identity means being genuinely comfortable with and interested in the identity of others, not putting them down to raise ourselves up.
As previously discussed, white people have no problem with owning and celebrating their own heritage, and there should be nothing stopping ‘Asians’ from proudly owning our individual ethnic and cultural history and traditions. The accepted standard, whether we like it or not, that everyone in the world should not only speak English but should be well-versed in ‘Western’ history, geography, and culture sets an expectation that in order to succeed in the world, everyone must be ‘Westernized’ to a degree that makes them able to integrate and perform with a knowledge base of this, the dominant culture. When I use the term ‘white,’ it is to this dominance that I refer. White people do not need to be reminded to celebrate their own specific culture, history, and identity – no one is telling them not to. But, white people regularly define the parameters of ‘Asian-ness’ in ways that can be homogenizing, harmful, restrictive, and inaccurate, and most importantly take away from our agency to define ourselves, which is why we need to call this out.
The terminology of being ‘Asian’ may be something that has been conferred on us and come to represent us, but we are still able to control how we see ourselves and represent ourselves, and in doing so, we can and should incorporate every element of our identity in which we believe. In this article, you will find the word ‘West’ in inverted commas. I never thought to challenge the conceit of what constituted ‘West’ and ‘East’ until I met the late Nawal El Saadawi, the brilliant, forthright feminist scholar and activist. In her legendarily assertive manner, she said to me “What is this ‘West’? ‘West’ of whom? Who decides what is the ‘Middle East’ or what even is the ‘middle’? When I travel to America, I say ‘I am going to the Middle West’!” Nawal’s refusal to adhere to unwanted labels, to transcend accepted definitions and create her own, without losing any part of her chosen identity or cultural heritage is at the heart of this discussion.
Breaking free from these blanket definitions of ‘Asian’ does not mean that we should not pull together as Asians and support one another, and retain a part of our identity that signifies our chosen, self-defined Asian-ness. Right now is, by no means, the first time that ‘Asians’ have come under attack in the ‘West’. The impact of 9/11 is still visible on any trip through airport security, and the cruel, brutal horror of the internment of Japanese-Americans during WWII is still a living memory for many. Aside from the anguish and frustration that comes with blanket attacks by white people on anyone that ‘looks Asian,’ these are moments when it is essential to show visible solidarity and support as part of a wider Asian community. This doesn’t mean erasing our separate identities – why would it? Identity is complex and multi-layered, something that is taken for granted among white people but which we must never lose awareness of. This is why I will continue to use hashtags like #StopAsianRacism – because although being Asian is not all that I am, it is still a part of who I am. And, everyone should be working to stop all racism, all the time.
What, if anything, does any of this have to do with beer? Actually, plenty. Pervasive assumptions around ‘Asian-ness’ lead to the same lack of access to opportunities in the beer industry that affect all other minorities, the closed-door-club of the white cis male ‘beer-bros’ so pertinently researched and documented in Nathaniel G. Chapman and David L. Brunsma’s outstanding book on Beer and Racism. As well as restricted industry opportunities, stereotypes about ‘Asians’ can make taprooms unwelcoming and hostile for people of Asian heritage.
Whether you are being forcibly questioned over common generalizations, for example, if ‘people like you are allowed to drink alcohol,’ or are confronted with racist or culturally insensitive beer names or branding, or events involving cultural appropriation, like brewery yoga, you are expected to take it in your stride, laugh along, not make a fuss, and certainly not question the nature of your experience for fear of coming across as over-sensitive or humorless.
The Brewer’s Association continues to classify all Asians as a single entity in its diversity survey statistics, making it impossible to find an accurate breakdown of brewery ownership or brewery employees of differing Asian heritage. This is really important data that matters immensely when considering diversity in the industry and when considering new beer trends and experimental brews – a brewer of Thai heritage who wants to incorporate flavors from their traditional cuisine into their beer will be working on something very different to a brewer of Pakistani heritage.
It is essential that the industry ceases this enforced homogenization and begins to consider pro-active, inclusive ways in which to grow the 1.9% of breweries currently under Asian ownership. A model for ascertaining ethnic heritage in more detail along the lines of that employed by the census – not without its problems but with the opportunity for brewery owners and employees to self-identify their ancestry, would be a huge improvement.
With the craft beer industry taking off dramatically in certain areas of Asia, including China and India, this is a relevant moment for the North American beer industry to find ways to actively engage with different Asian communities in a considered and targeted manner, to broaden its reach and genuinely diversify. Because ‘stopping Asian racism’ isn’t just about hate, it’s about apathy, disinterest, passive-aggression and ignorance, and our industry needs to step up and do its part to overturn stereotypes, respect and understand different cultures, and build bridges to foster authentic, informed inclusion.
*The ‘North-South divide’ has different meanings in the UK and the US, but in both cases refers to a cultural and economic disparity between one half of the country and the other. In the US, the reference relates back to the Mason-Dixon Line, the earlier industrialization of the Northern states and the Southern states’ reliance on agriculture and slave labor that led to the Civil War, and continues to be reflected in the perceived politics and cultures of ‘Northern’ and ‘Southern’ states. In the UK, it was the South that became the financial hub during the Industrial Revolution, and while there isn’t as significant a political divide, the economic discrepancy and cultural division still exists. Many Asian countries have similar political, economic, and cultural divisions that are often less well-understood and explored outside of those countries.