For Asian Pacific American Heritage Month, NBC News is taking a closer look at some of the terminology used when discussing Asian Americans and Pacific Islanders in order to better understand why certain words and phrases are (or aren't) used.
Where did the "model minority myth" come from? What does "hapa" mean? We asked academics and experts to answer those questions and more.
What is the difference between “Asian American” and “Asian American and Pacific Islander”? What is “AMEMSA”?
In 1968, the term "Asian American" was coined by Yuji Ichioka and Emma Gee and other student activists as a strategic, unifying political identity for Asian ethnic groups to use as they resisted U.S. imperialism in Southeast Asia, and white Americans' use of "Oriental" as a derogatory term for Asians in the United States.
By the 1980s, the U.S. Census Bureau grouped persons of Asian ancestry and created the category "Asian Pacific Islander," which continued in the 1990s census. In 2000, "Asian" and "Pacific Islander" became two separate racial categories.
The term has since been critiqued by scholars who argue that the term does not reflect the experience of Pacific Islanders who have and continue to experience a unique set of struggles relating to sovereignty and decolonization, and do not fit into the model minority stereotype which paints Asian Americans as successful, assimilated into American mainstream, and with “good” cultural values.
More recently, in the post-9/11 era, the term AMEMSA (Arab, Middle Eastern, Muslim and South Asian) has emerged as another related identity grouping of distinct communities who have experienced Islamophobia, racial profiling as potential terrorists and other forms of targeted surveillance.
— Dr. Dawn Lee Tu, professional development and diversity and inclusion strategist at De Anza College
If it is OK to say Englishman and Frenchman, why not Chinaman? And what does “Oriental” mean if not “Asian”?
It’s certainly fine to describe people as being "from China," but the label "Chinaman" has a long and racist history that was used to demonize and then discriminate against Chinese immigrants and Chinese Americans.
"Chinaman" was a racial stereotype; a foreign (and unassimilable) menace who competed with whites for jobs, had a lower standard of living, and was racially inferior to whites. The "Chinaman" became a stock character in popular culture and public discourse. And the perceived threat of Chinese immigration led to a range of local, state and national laws that discriminated against Chinese immigrants — and ultimately barred most from entering the U.S. under the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act.
Before Asian Americans starting calling themselves "Asian Americans," others used the demeaning term "Oriental."
This label also has a long and racist history. During the age of European exploration and colonization, the diverse regions of Asia, including southwest Asia, were lumped together as the "Orient," an exotic place that was seen as Europe’s opposite. It was full of fabulous riches, but also savage heathens and backward civilizations. It was destined to be conquered and ruled by the more advanced and superior European powers.
— Dr. Erika Lee, Ph.D., professor and director of the Immigration History Research Center at the University of Minnesota
When talking about the Japanese American experience during World War II, why do some use "concentration camp” instead of “internment camp”?
The term "concentration camp" was the term used by the U.S. government to describe the intended purpose of containing Japanese Americans. The word "internment camp" was coined later, by the War Relocation Authority, as a euphemism.
Japanese Americans were "incarcerated" during World War II. They were rounded up without consent and sent to camps because of the assumption of guilt by association. "Internment" and "relocation" implies benign protection, but these were military stockades with sentries and barbed wire to keep American citizens from getting out.
— Ron Aramaki, adjunct faculty at the University of Michigan Department of American Culture
How is the term “refugee” different from “immigrant”? Why does it matter?
An immigrant chooses to leave and chooses where he or she will go. If the immigrant is "legal," then the immigrant at least has the hope of being welcomed at her or his destination, or at least accepted. While becoming an immigrant might be difficult, and while the immigrant’s life in a new country might be challenging, the journey itself between two countries is relatively safe.
A refugee is forced to leave, endures an often dangerous and life-threatening journey without a guarantee of a destination, may be fated to spend long stretches of time in refugee camps, and is often unwanted in both the country of the refugee camps and the country of destination, which are sometimes the same but oftentimes not.
The distinction between undocumented immigrant and refugee is oftentimes unclear and oftentimes amounts to a political distinction cast by the country of destination, which might have moral and political obligations to refugees but not to undocumented immigrants.
These distinctions amount to matters of life and death for the person who is classified as immigrant, refugee or undocumented immigrant. These distinctions also matter to those of us who are looking at them, how we perceive them, and what degree of empathy we feel for them.
— Dr. Viet Thanh Nguyen, professor of English and American studies and ethnicity at the University of Southern California, author of the Pulitzer Prize-winning “The Sympathizer” and “The Displaced: Refugee Writers on Refugee Lives”
What is the Secret War in Laos? What is the legacy of the Secret War?
The Secret War refers to the U.S. government’s involvement in the Second Indochina War during the 1960s and the 1970s, where, without a declaration of war by Congress, the Central Intelligence Agency led clandestine military operations in Laos.
The U.S. war in Laos was kept a secret because it violated the Geneva Conventions of 1954 and 1962, which resulted in an agreement that Laos would remain neutral in the Cold War. U.S. intervention included providing the royal Lao government with financial aid and military advisers and recruitment of guerrilla forces comprised of Hmong, Lao and other ethnic groups. The most significant and lasting intervention was a U.S. bombing campaign from 1964-1973, in which two million tons of bombs were dropped on Laos.
Up to 30 percent of the 270 million cluster bomblets dropped never exploded, killing or injuring 20,000 civilians since the bombing ended. The majority of the country’s 17 provinces are littered with the unexploded ordnance, which hinders sustainable development in Laos, contaminating land needed for farming, housing or development projects and leading to greater risk of death and injury.
— Channapha Khamvongsa, executive director of Legacies of War
What is the difference between “Hawaiian” and “Native Hawaiian”?
HAWAIIAN: Caution. An ethnic group. Refers to a person who is of Polynesian descent. Unlike a term like Californian, Hawaiian should not be used for everyone living in Hawaii. The distinction is not trivial. If Wales were the 51st state, not everyone living in Wales would be Welsh.
— Asian American Journalists Association, “Guide to Covering Asian America”
What is yellowface and whitewashing? Is colorblind casting the solution or the problem? What about white savior narratives?
Yellowface is the term used to describe non-Asian actors (typically white) putting on makeup, including prosthetics, to look like a stereotyped version of an Asian person.
The prosthetics typically flatten eyelids and slant eyes while the makeup gives a yellow hue to the skin. Similarly, whitewashing describes a non-Asian actor playing an Asian character either with or without the exaggerated makeup.
Colorblind casting means casting actors in roles irrespective of their race. Unfortunately, this has historically meant that white actors can play any role, including characters of color. Rarely has colorblind casting resulted in actors of color playing white characters.
To correct this inequality, color-conscious casting takes into consideration the historical impact of race when it comes to the exclusion of people of color on stage and screen. This also means developing more Asian American stories and not just slotting Asian Americans into white-centered narratives.
White savior narratives are storylines in which white characters save communities of color from a myriad of social ills and fantastical enemies such as poverty, racism, armies and monsters.
Films such as "The Last Samurai" starring Tom Cruise and "The Great Wall" starring Matt Damon are some examples of white savior narratives. When mixed with whitewashing, we see films like "Ghost in the Shell" in which the lead Japanese heroine is portrayed by Scarlett Johansson.
— Dr. Nancy Wang Yuen, sociologist and author of Reel Inequality: Hollywood Actors and Racism
What does "hapa" mean and where did it come from? Is there a better term we should be using?
This phrase means part European American, with the implication being that the person is also part Native Hawaiian.
In Hawaii there are other kinds of hapa people.
Increasingly, many Native Hawaiian people object not only to the way the word has been changed in its grammatical usage, but also to how it is applied to anyone of mixed Asian and/or Pacific Islander heritage, when it implies Native Hawaiian mixed heritage.
This is not merely a question of trying to hold on to a word — that like many words encountered in the English language — has been adopted, assimilated or appropriated. This is a question of power.
Native Hawaiians, in addition to all of the other ways that their sovereignty has been abrogated, lost for many years the right to their own language through oppressive English-language education. Given this history and given the contemporary social and political reality (and realty — as in real estate) of Hawaiian, the appropriation of this one word has a significance deeper than many Asian Americans are willing to recognize.
To have this symbolic word used by Asians, particularly by Japanese Americans, as though it is their own, seems to symbolically mirror the way Native Hawaiian land was first taken by European Americans, and is now owned by European Americans, Japanese and Japanese Americans and other Asian American ethnic groups that numerically and economically dominate Native Hawaiians in their own land.
— Dr. Wei Ming Dariotis, professor of Asian American studies at San Francisco State University, who now uses “Asian Americans of mixed heritage” instead of “Hapa” in “Hapa: The Word of Power”
Where did the model minority myth come from? What is the harm in describing Asian Americans as smart and quiet and good at math?
Asian Americans have long been portrayed as the model minority since William Petersen’s 1966 New York Times Magazine article, "Success Story: Japanese American Style," and a myriad of subsequent studies of Asian socioeconomic attainment that crystallize this image.
Recent research, however, has been critical of such "acclaims" of Asian Americans as the model minority, contending that the socioeconomic success of Asian Americans has been exaggerated. For ‘substantive’ measures of success, including median individual income, wage returns to education and representation at the managerial level, Asians actually fare worse than whites.
The model minority image also conceals the fact that the poverty rate among Asian Americans is higher than that of whites. Additionally, the success stories of selected Asian groups are often not a result of individual efforts rewarded by a fair system, but rather a "success" of the American immigration policies that have targeted highly skilled professionals since the 1960s.
The model minority image also obscures the racial subordination of Asian Americans. Despite the group’s perceived socioeconomic success, the typical Asian is also often viewed as an outsider or a perpetual foreigner. Studies in history, sociology and psychology have provided strong evidence that almost all segments of the Asian American population, including ﬁrst and later generations, youth and elderly, English and native-language only speakers and across most ethnic groups, suffer from this stereotypical image.
— Jun Xu, professor of sociology at Ball State University, and Jennifer C. Lee, associate professor at Indiana University, in “The Marginalized ‘Model’ Minority: An Empirical Examination of the Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans”
What does Desi mean? Which countries are included?
I have always interpreted the term "desi" to describe people who hail from South Asian countries — a cluster that includes India, Bangladesh, Pakistan, Sri Lanka, the Maldives, Bhutan, Nepal and Afghanistan. In my language of Bengali, "desh" means homeland and "deshi" means someone who hails from that homeland.
That said, I think there is also a risk that a word like "desi" might pose — potentially homogenizing the diversity of South Asian cultures into a single, uneven identity that does not equally represent all the nations in this particular region.
— Rohin Guha, executive editor of The Aerogram
What are the countries and cultures that the Census Bureau includes in the definition of Asian American and Pacific Islander?
The U.S. Census Bureau must adhere to the 1997 Office of Management and Budget standards on race and ethnicity which guide the Census Bureau in classifying written responses to the race question.
Asian — A person having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand and Vietnam.
Native Hawaiian or other Pacific Islander — A person having origins in any of the original peoples of Hawaii, Guam, Samoa, or other Pacific Islands.
The 1997 OMB standards permit the reporting of more than one race. An individual’s response to the race question is based upon self-identification.
—U.S. Census Bureau, “About Race,” 2018
These answers have been edited for length and clarity.
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Frances Kai-Hwa Wang
Frances Kai-Hwa Wang is a freelance writer and speaker based in Michigan and Hawaii. She has been a contributor for AAPIVoices.com, NewAmericaMedia.org, ChicagoIsTheWorld.org, PacificCitizen.org, InCultureParent.com. She has published three chapbooks of prose poetry and been included in several journals, anthologies, and art exhibitions. She teaches Asian Pacific American Studies and writing, and she speaks nationally on Asian Pacific American issues.
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