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At Census Time, Asian Americans Again Confront the Question of Who ‘Counts’ as Asian. Here’s How the Answer Got So Complicated

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With the U.S. Census online form set to go live starting March 12, Americans will soon get the once-in-a-decade opportunity to stand up and be counted. But while many of the questions on the Census may seem simple — name or date of birth — at least one is more complicated: race.

For many Asian Americans, who are the least likely among ethnic groups to fill out the Census, this can be especially true. The Census Bureau defines a person of the Asian race as “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.”

That means, according to the Pew Research Center, that the Census definition of “Asian” — the fastest growing American population — covers more than 20 ethnicities and 20 million citizens in the United States.

But American culture tends not to think of all regions in Asia as equally Asian. A quick Google search of “Asian food nearby” is likely to call up Chinese or Japanese restaurants, but not Indian or Filipino. Years after someone posted a thread on College Confidential, a popular college admissions forum, titled “Do Indians count as Asians?” the SAT in 2016 tweaked its race categories, explaining to test-takers that “Asian” did include “Indian subcontinent and Philippines origin.”

This issue even made its way to the 2020 Presidential race: during his run for the Democratic nomination, Andrew Yang, who is of Taiwanese descent, was frequently framed by the media and his own campaign as the Asian candidate, despite his rival Kamala Harris having Indian heritage. In addition, while Tulsi Gabbard’s Samoan heritage might put her in a different category on the Census now, before 2000, the Census put “Asian” and “Pacific Islander” together in the same broader category.

“My Asian-ness is kind of obvious in a way that might not be true of Kamala or even Tulsi,” Yang said. “That’s not a choice. It’s just a fairly evident reality.”

But the history of Asian identity in the U.S. shows that what Yang asserted is self-evident today could perhaps have evolved differently — and that, as the U.S. counts its population, the result of that evolution can have serious consequences.

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Inventing “Asian American”

The boundary between Asia and Europe has no official line, so the definition of “Asian” may include Central Asians, East Asians, Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders, Southeast Asians and South Asians, as well as West Asians — whom the Census counts as white Middle Easterners and may not self-identify as Asian. But today’s common American usage of the term is a relatively recent phenomenon, spiking in popularity in the United States after World War II.

The Corpus of Historical American English shows less than one appearance of “Asian” per million words in American texts from 1810 through the 1940s, but that number rose to nearly 15 mentions per million words in the 1950s. A similar spike can be seen in British English.

At the time of this rise, in the U.S., contact with Asian cultures was predominantly via East Asian countries. “The U.S. was at war with Japan, then Korea, then Vietnam, and has occupied other parts,” explains linguist Lynne Murphy. In addition, the Immigration and Nationality Act of 1965 made way for large-scale immigration from Asia to the U.S.

It’s easy to see how important that contact was. After all, in the U.K., where the breakup of the British Empire contributed to a wave of immigration from South Asia in the mid-20th century, “Asian” has a different meaning. In The Prodigal Tongue: The Love-Hate Relationship Between American and British English, Murphy writes about a British journalist whose use of the word “means ‘from the Indian subcontinent,’ and so when he wants to talk about people from China, Korea, or Japan, he [says] east Asians. In America, the situation is just the opposite: say Asian and people assume ‘east Asian.’ When people mean ‘south Asian,’ they’ll probably say Indian or maybe South Asian.”

As civil rights movements swept the United States in the 1960s and ‘70s, Asian populations likewise seized the moment to agitate for their rights. The term “Asian American” emerged from student activists inspired by those movements and was purposefully broad. Given that their numbers individually were much smaller than other race-based movements, “it was a moment in which Chinese American, Filipino American, Japanese American activists came together and said, ‘You know, let’s unite under this umbrella of Asian American,’” explains Anthony Ocampo, a sociologist at Cal Poly Pomona. The movement soon expanded to include South-Asian Americans, Korean Americans and Vietnamese Americans.

As Asian Americans worked for increased visibility, “Asian” and “Asian American” became more general ways of talking about people while avoiding other terms that were incorrect or problematic, like Oriental, which was prominent before the ‘50s, Murphy notes. But it wasn’t long before the term’s meaning narrowed, increasingly coming to apply only to the most visible subgroups.

Eventually, the term “Asian” came to be associated with “what you look like, how your eyes are shaped, your skin tone and your hair texture,” says Ocampo. “When people hear the word ‘Asian,’ they think of certain types of last names that are aligned with Chinese, Korean or Japanese folks.”

A 2016 study done by the National Asian American Survey found that 42% of white Americans believed that Indians are “not likely to be” Asian or Asian American, with 45% believing that Pakistanis “not likely to be” Asian or Asian American. In addition, 27% of Asian Americans believed that Pakistani people are “not likely to be” Asian or Asian American with 15% reporting that Indians are “not likely to be” either. “The question of Asian American identity is contested, with South Asian groups (Indians and Pakistanis) finding it more challenging for American society to view them as Asian American,” concluded the researchers.

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A narrow vision

According to the Pew Research Center, the very first U.S. Census in 1790 only had three categories: “Free white males, Free white females,” “All other free persons,” and “Slaves.” It took nearly a century, until 1870, for a category to be added for people of Asian descent. That category was simply called “Chinese.” In 1890, the Census Bureau added “Japanese,” followed by “Other” in 1910 (which primarily referred to people of Korean, Filipino and Indian descent), and “Filipino,” “Korean,” and “Hindu” (referring to Indians regardless of religion) in 1920.

People were allowed to choose their own race from 1960 onward, and this year’s Census will have the same categories for people of Asian descent it used in 2010: “Chinese,” “Japanese,” “Filipino,” “Korean,” “Asian Indian,” “Vietnamese,” and “Other Asian.”

As straightforward as that list may sound, the question of who “counts” as Asian clearly endures, and many are now speaking up about why it matters.

“The narrative defines who gets the already few limited resources and airtime that are afforded to Asian Americans,” says Ocampo. For example, discussion of Asian representation in film centers mainly on films with East Asian characters, like Parasite, The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians. “I find that Black Asians are nearly entirely erased from the convo of being Asian. Like, I’m not even allowed to audition for Asian roles because Hollywood’s vision of ‘Asian’ is just East Asian,” tweeted actress Asia Jackson.

That feeling can be particularly relevant when it comes to checking a box on a form like the Census. Research into what’s known as “social identity threat” has shown that asking people about their identity can make them doubt their social belonging, which can make people doubt their abilities in areas that have nothing to do with race. “Anything that makes you conscious of your identity in a way that is confusing or upsetting or makes things high-stakes for you in some way can represent a problem,” explains Joshua Aronson, a professor of applied psychology at New York University.

Under-representation on the Census can lead to the misallocation of federal resources and a weak understanding of states’ needs, as the population tally plays a major role in deciding on political issues and funding nationwide. The division of seats in Congress and state legislatures is also affected by Census data.

So why are Asian Americans, even today, relatively less likely to fill out the Census?

Along with questioning the safety of offering up personal information to the government — perhaps due to the fact that the government also used Census data to round up people of Japanese descent for imprisonment in camps during World War II — language barriers, feelings of neglect and lack of familiarity with the Census all play a part in discouraging Asian Americans from participating, according to the New York Times. One study showed that Asian Americans are more likely than other groups to worry that their answers would be “used against” them.

As part of an effort to address the situation, volunteers from civic organizations are canvassing to educate Asian populations about the Census and appease any fears. And, in January, the Census Bureau began rolling out ads in Asian languages, including Chinese, Japanese, Filipino, Tagalog and Vietnamese. But last July, Representative Grace Meng of New York sent a letter to Steven Dillingham, the director of the Census Bureau, urging him to extend that outreach to the South Asian community. “I’m shocked that the Census Bureau failed to include the South Asian community in its outreach leading up to the 2020 Decennial Census,” she wrote. Dillingham wrote back, in a letter shared with TIME, saying that the Census Bureau is in fact trying to expand the campaign to include content produced in South Asian languages.

Whether that outreach made a difference — and whether it worked among all Asian Americans, or just some — won’t be known until after the Census is done.

For demographers, there is some benefit to seeing each subset of “Asian” as separate: “Good data should always be as disaggregated as possible,” says Lakshmi Sridaran, executive director at South Asian Americans Leading Together. “To understand the nuances within the Asian American community, it does matter if somebody is a Pacific Islander, Southeast Asian, East Asian, etc. In terms of how resources get allocated for diversity and hiring, it is actually very critical to meet the needs of those communities, which can be very different.”

However, as the original Asian American activists of the mid-20th century knew, there’s also power in banding together. According to Sridaran, the question for activists today should be “how we can leverage the power of coming together under that broader identity, but also uplift those who often get erased or sidelined.”

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Write to Anna Purna Kambhampaty at Anna.kambhampaty@time.com