Separating the lumps

8 Jun

“48.5 percent of Asians in California hold at least a bachelor’s degree” (

Surprised? Or not so much?

So let me ask: who comes to mind when you think of “Asians”? Who individually, and collectively?

A normative association in the US is East Asians, or more specifically: Japanese, Chinese and Koreans. Even within Asian-America, there’s a historical bias to the East, overlooking southeast and western Asian heritages, from Hmongs to Indians. This connection is shaped largely by geopolitics and immigration–and to some extent, by the desire of a group of people to define themselves socially, politically and economically.

Well, so what? Isn’t “Asian” just a census box to check off (or not)? What does it matter who counts as Asian?

It matters in terms of social opportunity, activism and policy.

The above statistic, commonly produced by surveys and polls that ask respondents to identify their broad racial and ethnic membership fails to distinguish among “Asians,” who actually vary widely in their completion of higher education: according to the 2006-2010 American Community Survey, only 11.5% of Laotians hold a bachelor’s, whereas almost 53% of Pakistanis do.

Based on the model minority myth and over-generalized statistics that fail to refine racial and ethnic categories as the American Community Survey did, Asians appear to be doing just fine, especially when compared to Latinos. (The same study reveals that as a group, 10% of Latinos have finished college, but “the rate is nearly 30 percent among Cubans, Dominicans and Peruvians, 8.5 percent among Mexicans and about 9 percent for Salvadorans and Guatemalans.”) Thus, Asians as a group are discounted from educational outreach and access programs, as well as other individual and institutional forms of support, that some Asians acutely need.

I see this on a daily basis in schools, where Asian-Americans “count” for diversity numbers but aren’t considered “people of color” in conversations about the need to support students, families and educators of color. The reason? As far as I can tell, because Asians aren’t considered “at risk.” And that brings us back to the grouping of all Asians in the same category.

I am one of the “Asians” people mean when they talk about Asian-Americans and high educational attainment. But to assume that all “Asians” share my background, resources, access to opportunities and immunity to (some) risks is to overlook a vast and diverse group of Asian-Americans. And perhaps to deny those individuals and groups the support and resources they might otherwise be offered if they simply didn’t fall under the broad category of “Asian.”

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