South/Asian/American: In Search of an Identity

Last fall, when I heard about the Asian-American discrimination case against Harvard, it looked like just another example of the Ivy Leagues behaving badly. They do, after all, have a long and storied past of excluding Jews, women, and black students. But imagine my surprise when, even scratching just a bit below the surface, I came to discover that the man behind the suit was 64-year old “legal advocate” Edward Blum who, as one NYT articleput it, seeks “above all to erase racial preferences from American life.” In an episodeof Radiolab’s “More Perfect,” I learned that Blum has made something of a career seeking out the “right plaintiffs” in order to tear down legislation that he sees as giving undue preference to racial minorities in the US. And he’s been busy of late. In 2013, Blum led the successful attempt to invalidate key parts of the Voting Rights Act; three years later, he was behind the unsuccessful attempt to remove affirmative actionfrom university admissions criteria. From this angle, the picture starts to shift: The Ivies may indeed behave badly, but that shouldn’t obscure what one ACLU attorney describes as “Blum’s cynical attempt to use members of the Asian-American community…to pit people of color against one another.”

But is that the full picture? After all, in their own interests of attending these bastions of privilege, some Asian Americans have eagerly signed on to Blum’s program and, far from being mere puppets, play a key role in the fracturing of interests among communities of color. Over the last several weeks, it’s a story we’ve seen repeated. Though black students make up 70% of NYC’s public school system, just seven out of 895 gained admission to Stuyvesant this cycle. Compare that to the fact that 74% of all Stuyvesant students are Asian Americans. De Blasio’s proposal to diversify New York’s elite specialized schools would halve the number of Asian-American students, and has led to outcry from Asian-American leaders, groups, and constituents. Meanwhile, over here in California, after the college cheating ring was discovered, Jennifer Kay Toy, an Asian-American mother, filed a suit against the actresses at the center of the scandal for a whopping $500 billion, claiming they robbed her son of a much-deserved opportunity to attend a selective college. As cultural commentator and writer Jeff Yang quipped on Twitter, “[W]hite people are about to see what weaponized Asian privilege looks like,” following up with this astute observation: “The ‘news’ is that Asians who feel entitled to top spots in top schools for their kids now have a new target, wealthy white people.” In other words, Kay Toy had found not just a “new” target, but the “right” target for her rage: rich white parents, not poor black and Latinx students with whom Asian Americans ought to find common cause.

Given my experience as a diversity practitioner in secondary and higher education, these stories prompted a host of thoughts: about the increasingly competitive nature of college admissions, about the unique toll it takes on first-generation, low-income students of color in America, about, frankly, how the hoarding of elite privilege hurts us all in this country. But on a more personal level, it’s made me think about what it means to be “Asian American,” the box I tick off on demographic data forms. More largely, it also made me wonder about the role of Asian Americans in the broader coalition of people of color and, indeed, whether coalition is truly possible. Inspired by current events and two backto backepisodes on Asian-American identity that aired last summer on the podcast Still Processing, I’d like to offer a few thoughts about my own “fit” in that too-big house, “Asian-American identity,” as well as that much-contested category, “people of color.” As I work through my own history of identity formation, I’ll sort through a tangle of questions about family, migration, and inheritance; class, culture, and upbringing; race, place, and region. It's a more personal post than others I’ve written, but any reckoning with your own identity demands a sifting through experiences, and necessarily requires you to look both inward and backward. It’s my hope that it might also offer a way forward. 

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I am the first-born daughter of Indian immigrants who came to the midwestern United States in the late 1970s. As it turns out, I would also be their only-born. Shortly after my birth, my mother divorced my biological father, moved to California, and, three years later, remarried. Her new husband was an Irish-Italian American, born and raised in Chicago with two marriages behind him. (I rather affectionately refer to this man as “Dad.”) My mother worked as a bank manager at Wells Fargo; my dad, a salesman, on and off. Our household, like many in America in the 1980s, was a cobbled together affair. Teenage step-siblings with yellow hair and blue eyes threw tantrums to rival those of my (now, our) mixed-race newborn (half) sister. And, of course, I was there, too. We spoke English exclusively, ate hot dogs and Hamburger Helper, watched The Simpsons and The Cosby Show, celebrated Thanksgiving, Christmas, and Diwali (though to this day, I couldn’t tell you what exactly this Indian “festival of lights” celebrates). We lived in a perpetual state of cultural confusion and contradiction. We were, in other words, very Californian, as far as I could tell. 

We lived at first in Duarte, a mixed-race neighborhood in Los Angeles where blue-collar and white-collar rubbed shoulders. After my mother’s promotion, we moved to Irvine, a mostly white, upper middle-class suburb located an hour south, in Orange County. For my mother, the move to Irvine was a financial stretch barely realizable on her salary alone and justified only by the educational opportunities it provided us: Irvine has one of the best public school systems in the country. And though Irvine was a very white suburb, it was not exclusively so. Wealthy Chinese, Japanese, Iranian, Korean, and Indian immigrants were plentiful. Their children were my classmates and my childhood friends. We never understood ourselves as an Asian-American bloc, and class divided us, of course. Even at that young age, I noticed that many of them, unlike me, led very busy after-school lives full of tennis lessons, piano and violin lessons, swim and choral practice – what I now recognize as the “co-curricular enrichment activities” increasingly necessary for getting into college. I was fortunate that, back then, they weren’t. 

I suppose I ought to have felt community with the other little Indian girls. But their parents were doctors, engineers, and lawyers, comprising a successful little expat community that, it seemed, didn’t take kindly to my family, nor what we represented. They objected to my mother’s sordid past (the divorce!), her remarriage (to a “foreigner”!), and her new husband on the grounds of his lack of education (just high school?) and decidedly unprestigious occupation (just what, exactly, did he sell?). As it turns out, exile in a foreign country can either create the circumstances for connection or reproduce, in exaggerated form, the same divisions that exist “over there.” Another way of saying this is: adults sometimes make decisions they think affect only them. Still another way of saying this is: even now, I struggle to self-describe as “South Asian” though, to look at me, that’s precisely what you’d see.

As Irvine expanded outward, it required a new high school, and when the school boundaries were redrawn, I was sent there. We lived in the original part of the town (constructed in the 1970s) but suddenly I found myself lumped together with kids from the just-constructed rich part of the city whose homes looked like villas, were located in gated communities with delightfully wistful names like “Portola Springs,” and came with price-tags of close to a million dollars. It was, in other words, a much wealthier and much whiter place than the rest of the city and, by extension, its schools. It took time, but I eventually pieced together a ragtag group of girls like myself who belonged neither to the “white” world nor the other one our parents spoke about. They were Vietnamese-, Iraqi-, Persian- and Armenian-American. Their parents expected them to hew closely to tradition, but we had other ideas. Among ourselves, we formed a kind of culturally fluid sorority that served as a bulwark against the whiteness all around us. And when I left for college, I again found kindred spirits among those whose parents were not of this place and who, like me, were regularly updated about people to whom we were told we were related but who lived “over there” – in China, Korea, Palestine, Greece, Iran. Crazy as it sounds, I believed “brown” to be a workable identity category in those days. To grow up in California in the early 2000s allowed for such possibilities. 

When I moved to the East Coast, and started a new phase of life at Princeton University, the racial and class alchemy changed once again, and more drastically than before. At the time, I had no language to describe the shift, and so struggled to grasp what exactly I was experiencing. Certainly, wealth, class, upbringing, status, and prestige mattered, indeed mattered more, but they also mattered differently. I was still adrift in a sea of whiteness, but it was whiteness of a different kind. It was no longer Volcom, megachurches, and surfboards; it was Kate Spade, Presbyterianism, and equestrian clubs. There were fewer people like me whose parents were born elsewhere, though far more who were born elsewhere themselves. All those years growing up alongside immigrants were now put to good use: it was among fellow foreign-born outsiders that closeness came most easily. 

When I first arrived at Princeton, I was asked, frequently, in ways overt and subtle, to explain myself, and I simply couldn’t. Back home, I had passed without much explanation with mentors, teachers, and peers, without needing to report on my background, and consequently had never developed a language to describe my lineage, culture, and ancestry. Haltingly and not very convincingly, I’m sure, I tried to explain that I was “a southern Californian,” or that “my mother is from India” but that “I was born here.” These answers didn’t satisfy. They asked follow up questions: Do I speak Hindi? Do I like cooking Indian food? How often do I go “back”? (Back where? I asked. To India, they responded, exasperated). As I look back now, I see that, in California, I basked in a kind of racial unspecificity that didn’t demand explanation whereas at Princeton, that very same racial unspecificity announced itself, and required constant explanation.

At some point during graduate school, I realized that answering the question “What do your parents do?” came closest to satisfying peers and faculty. It gave them a tool to interpret me, though judging by the awkwardness that would ensue after my reply, it always felt like I’d failed some crucial test. I now understand that, in an elite environment, class functioned as a better cipher for others trying to decipher me. Years later, once I finally learned the vocabulary, I also realized that being a first-generation American and a first-generation college student profoundly shaped my experiences in ways that had always mattered, but mattered more at Princeton. 

During that time, the categories of “Asian American” and “South Asian” increasingly gained currency, but they were not useful for my own sense of self-understanding. Instead, being “nonwhite” was. Defining myself as a person of color felt more accurate given my experiences across different environments. It’s a category that makes room for the alienation I’ve felt from my supposed culture and heritage, while also providing space for my individual experience of class, migration, and generation. Self-describing as a woman of color also organizes my unique personal experiences across shifting regional and institutional scales. Of course, it’s precisely the term’s capaciousness that draws criticism. Some argue that the term threatens to homogenize varieties of racialized experience of decidedly different, and differently-marginalized, groups. I’m persuaded by this reasoning, and I’ve increasingly adopted the term BIPOC, which stands for Black, Indigenous, and People of Color. According to the BIPOC Project, the term “highlight[s] the unique relationship to whiteness that Indigenous and Black (African Americans) people have, which shapes the experiences of and relationship to white supremacy for all people of color within a U.S. context.”

Of course, I recognize that it’s easier for someone like me, who has never felt at home in the South Asian community, to identify in this way. But perhaps my experience can nevertheless be instructive for those who do identify as Asian-American. Our parents may not have been born here, but we were raised here. Many of us have learned the painful histories of racial violence, marginalization, and dispossession that haunt Black, Indigenous, and Latinx populations in this country. This is not to say that Asian Americans don’t have their own painful histories in the United States, too: anti-Chinese violence and exclusion during the 19thand 20thcenturies, Japanese internment during WWII, American wars of imperialism in Vietnam all come immediately to mind. Moreover, the unique stereotypes that attach to Asian Americans are also potent reminders of the endless flexibility and fluidity of racism. But being in coalition across categories of color means we must acknowledge how it is possible to simultaneously profit from andlose out in a white supremacist system since, as we know also, white supremacy affects different racial groups differently. 

What might this acknowledgement look like in practice? For one, it might cause us to reflect on our own experiences in new ways. In that spirit, allow me to do just that:

  • I may have experienced cultural isolation in a wealthy, majority white suburb, but I also received a terrific education that launched me into prestigious colleges and universities. Meanwhile, the very next town over, the Latinx-majority Santa Anahas some of the highest poverty rates in Orange Countyand in the state of California, more largely. 

  • I flourished at UC Berkeley. In fall 2002, when I matriculated there, Asian Americans accounted for 46% of admitted students. Meanwhile, black students were just 4%; Native Americans, 0.4%. I still remember how, drawing attention to those dismally low figures, fellow black students on campus wore T-shirts emblazoned with the phrase: “3.9% REPRESENT.” 

  • And I sometimes wonder now if it isn’t precisely because of the institutional whiteness of a place like Princeton that I, a South Asian woman, could help lead its diversity efforts in, as far as I can tell, a relatively uncontroversial way.

Taking stock of the histories running simultaneous to my own doesn’t erase the confusion, discomfort, and alienation I’ve felt, but it does require me to make space for the possibility that the marginalization I experienced as a first-gen/working-class/woman of color operated alongsideother forms of privilege that accrued to me as a South/Asian/American, which is how I would have appeared in the eyes of others even if not in my own.  

The question to my mind is: How will I use this knowledge? How would you?

Lessons: On the Ethics of Imagery