Click on each panelist's name or thumbnail to learn about them and to read their statement.
QUESTION: One of the panelist statements mentioned that some people are beginning to include Middle Easterners as Asian American, especially since 9/11 when they have become more racialized. Do you think that being more inclusive will dilute the Asian American identity? Where do you draw the line?
MITRA: For many years even before 9/11, the link between Middle Easterners and South Asians actually existed quite strongly. I think 9/11 forced a lot of people to change the way they might identify with groups that are more categorically identified in the U.S. mainstream. In the South Asian Journalists Association, a great number of Middle Eastern journalists and press are now trying to find a place where they can belong.
That day had a particular impact because terrorism is not something with borders. We certainly have a great number of ties between Pakistanis (who are already defined as Asian) and people in Lebanon or Egypt or another part of the Middle East. So a lot more coalition building is certainly going on. I wouldn't say that including Middle Easterners is diluting the definition of Asian Americans, because the definition is already so broad. The largest Muslim country in the world is Indonesia. So one could argue that if it were a religious connection, those connections already existed and now we're just seeing them emerge.
In many ways Middle Easterners were already a part of the community, but now perhaps they're reaching out for community organizations or participating more in certain institutions.
HELEN: Certainly since 1968 when the term was first coined, and even in the several hundred years that Asian persons have been on this continent, the definition of Asian Americans has been very dynamic and it's going to continue to be that way in the future. Looking at these kinds of categories, it's not just about Asian Americans either. African Americans or whites or European Americans are, historically speaking, categories that have also shifted in time depending on the historical or political context. There are people from northern Africa, for example, who do not take on the term African or African American. And Irish, Italians, and people from the Mediterranean for much of the 1800s were considered more Black than white. There was a transition for them to become white and their whiteness came at the expense of people who we now refer to as African American or Asian American.
So in the broader sense, none of these categories are rigid. They are only useful if they fit reality, not the other way around. I don't think either politically, historically, or for any purpose Asian Americans would want to limit ourselves by some definition.
QUANG: Helen is right, that this kind of label is very dynamic. Up until fairly recently Southeast Asians were excluded and so were South Asians. And if you look at the political, even the artistic landscape today, it is very different. It's important post-9/11 to think about this question because of the coalitions that are being sought to build community and empower groups and individuals to engage in this larger political dialogue. The only question I would put out there is, that if we let the label change without some kind of historical context, how long will that Middle-Eastern-into-Asian-American connection hold? If it is triggered by something like 9/11, the question remains whether it will be for the immediate present or something that lasts forever.
SHERYL: These categories were created and they continually shift and change. One thing about the Asian American identity and its all inclusiveness, is that we've been able to draw commonalities from a wide range of people and I think that's a very strong point for the community, which is something that we should try to utilize.