Just got done reading Mia Tuan’s, Forever Foreigners or Honorary Whites?: The Asian Ethnic Experience Today, and appreciated her thoughts on the word “American”.

What race do you think of when you hear the word “American”?

I suspect many think of a Caucasian person.  Why not an Asian?  Further, why do Asians often self-identify themselves as “Asian-Americans”?  Why don’t those with European heritage identify themselves as “European-Americans”?

Although those are rhetorical questions, I will answer them: looks.  As Ronald Takaki asserts in his Strangers from a Different Shore and as is supported in Tuan’s research, those with Asian heritage cannot “shake off” assumptions of foreignness as readily as their European counterparts because they physically do not fit the mold of what society says an “American” is (read: white).

For example, if you are an Asian, have you ever been asked, “Where are you from?”  You respond, “Chicago.”  They retort, “No, where are you from from?” — as if they are incredulous that your black hair and yellow skinned-body could actually be natively born in the United States.

A similar question would seem almost farcical if asked of a 2nd generation European, for example, simply because Europeans look more like what American society has traditionally defined “American”.

3 thoughts on ““American”

  1. Great points, Justin. I have noticed the same thing. I have a few thoughts on why this might be the case, but it starts by defining what it means to be American. Is is a legal standing (citizenship)? Is it the ability to speak English well? Is it a willingness to embrace American culture and forsake allegiance to the country of ancestry? Certainly different people have different definitions, but the ethnicity can be one of the most popular.

    It might have to do with the ethnicities of top leadership in government (governors and presidents). I expect this to change a little now that we have the first Black president.

    It might also have to do with the quantity of people of different ethnicities. White is the majority, followed by Hispanic and Black (I think). Since Chinese don’t seem to have as much of a presence nationally, perhaps people assume that the Chinese they see are not citizens.

    I also notice the tendency of some ethnic groups to isolate themselves from others. I think that by isolating themselves, they give the impression that they don’t want to melt into the melting pot. When Americans of different ethnicities don’t get the chance to really know them, it’s hard to feel like members of the same country. There’s a similar impact when people introduce themselves by their ethnicity: “I’m Chinese”, “I’m Hungarian”, etc. instead of introducing themselves as Americans.

    Aside from these suggestions, I must say that I am personally challenged by your comments that I should readily assume people to be Americans. Thanks for posting it.

  2. After thinking about this for the last couple days, I’d like to suggest that people make assumptions about a person’s religion based on their ethnicity. It would be a huge generalization to say that all Hispanics are Catholic, all Middle Easterners are Muslim, and all Chinese are Buddhist. We must be careful to avoid assumptions in this areas too.

    • I agree. �This is particularly true for Christianity as there are more Christians outside the West! �That is, there are more Christians in Africa, South America, and Asia than in Europe and North America. �See Philip Jenkin’s�_The Next Christendom: The Coming of Global Christianity_ for more on this.

      Thanks for the comment!

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