What Andrew Yang and Kamala Harris Do—and Don’t—Have In Common
“Asian” and “Asian American” are terms so absurdly broad that they obscure a lot more than they identify.
Our collective inability to grapple with race and identity could not be more clear than it’s been this week, when President Joe Biden signed an anti-Asian hate crime bill while Vice President Kamala Harris was weirdly snubbed as not being Asian American enough—all while Congress failed to pass the George Floyd Justice in Policing Act before the one-year anniversary of his murder.
It’s the muddy, predictable mess that results as people struggle to come to terms with the fact that the world—and the country—is more nuanced than Black, white, and shades of gray.
In the conventional American usage, Kamala Harris and myself are both Asian American, since our families came from the continent of Asia—which is presently home to nearly 60 percent of the world’s population. But according to a recent poll by Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change, 42 percent of Americans “didn’t know” a single prominent Asian American. The next most popular answers were Jackie Chan, at 11 percent, and Bruce Lee, who died in 1973, at 9 percent. The remaining 38 percent said they don’t see color at all.
OK, that last part is a joke, but how did all of those people completely whiff on naming the current vice president of the United States as a prominent Asian American? Because she is also a Black American. And American culture still wants to put people in color boxes that are limited to White, Black, Brown, or Asian—which used to be yellow but that’s racist so now we just lump everyone on a continent of nearly 5 billion people together, including 23 million Americans whose family members came here from somewhere in Asia.
Political polling is no better. Though Asian Americans are the fastest growing political group, with 11 million voters comprising 5 percent of the electorate, polling is done along the same lines of a monolith Asian American and Pacific Islander identity. This is actually progress from previous years, when this group was ignored entirely.
That helps explain how Politico recently declared failed presidential candidate and current New York City mayoral candidate Andrew Yang the most prominent Asian American politician in the United States. The internet responded with the names of Asian Americans who are actually serving in office, like Sens. Mazie Hirono and Tammy Duckworth and Reps. Ted Lieu and Grace Meng. Oh, and the sitting vice president.
In Britain and elsewhere, Asian is mostly used to refer to people from the subcontinent of South Asia, with a heritage rooted in India, Pakistan, Bangladesh or Sri Lanka. In the 1970s, when Idi Amin decided to expel 60,000 Asians from Uganda, he meant people with roots on the subcontinent. When Myanmar stripped the Rohingya people of their citizenship, the government cited a historical connection to Bangladesh. Overnight, 750,000 people were now the wrong kind of Asian, and became refugees.
East Asians, by contrast, are usually referred to by their specific country of origin—Chinese, Korean, Japanese, and so on.
Only in the United States do 4.75 billion people get lumped in together as one mass of “Asians,” with a whole month to celebrate Asian American and Pacific Islander heritage. This has been a challenge for ages, since Chinese immigrants were subject to exclusion from citizenship despite building the railroad that connected the rest of the country together. During World War II, Japanese Americans, whose families had been here for generations, were sent to concentration camps to make White America feel better. Immigrants from the subcontinent faced this same “forever foreigner” status once they were allowed into the United States in the post-Civil Rights era. Hearing ‘Where are you from?’ and ‘Speak to me in your language’ is a common part of the Asian American childhood experience (along with the expectation that you’re good at math, and liable to bring stinky food to the lunchroom).
Thus, in the American discourse, though we look nothing alike, and have had vastly different lived experiences, me and Andrew Yang and Kamala Harris are “same same.”
Now throw a dash of Blackness into the mix. Someone with a Black parent and Asian parent isn’t just Asian American, no, they are Blasian. My kids, who have a dad with roots going back to enslaved Africans, and a mom whose family came from Pakistan, are Blackistani. The Blackness comes first, not because we choose to pick one identity over the other but as an insidious remnant of Jim Crow culture and the one-drop rule.
In what used to seem like a long time ago, a person of mixed heritage did not get to decide for themselves how they would identify. The law decided it for you. If you took the Census in 1923 and you had “one drop” of Black blood, you were not allowed to identify otherwise “regardless of the amount of white blood.” The cultural remnants of that concept have dripped down to how Americans do—and don’t—understand race and ethnicity today.
We are still too close to the systemic division of the Jim Crow era, which has surfaced again with more than 40 states moving to restrict voting rights in minority communities. The summer of marching for Black Lives Matter and the ongoing efforts to end the killing of Black people by police puts Blackness front and center in the American consciousness.
And so has Kamala Harris. The daughter of Shyamala Gopalan of India, Kamala embraces the Blackness that comes with her father Donald Harris’ Jamaican heritage. Harris speaks publicly of choosing a Historically Black College and University, Howard, because “when you’re at an HBCU… it just becomes about your understanding that there is a whole new world of people who are like you.” She is a proud member of a Black sorority, Alpha Kappa Alpha, and her call-and-response of “skee-wee” on the campaign trail confounded numerous mainstream reporters.
This is the limitation of our current discourse and colloquial conception of identity, despite the fact that most of America will look like some version of VPOTUS or my kids by 2045. The problem isn’t a lack of clarity from people like our vice president, or a dearth of information on a person’s genetic makeup. The problem is our own habitual need for things to be Black or White—in one box or another—and our collective inability to discuss identity with nuance.