Asian American - Terminology


See also: Asian people

The most commonly used definition of Asian American is the US Census Bureau definition of Asian, chiefly because the Census definitions determine many government classifications, notably for equal opportunity programs and measurements. People with origins in the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian Subcontinent are included in the Census definition of Asia. The use of a separate "Asian" category in the Census is a recent addition, beginning in 1990. Since then, the Census definitions have varied. The 2000 census divided the Asian-Pacific Islander group and created Pacific Islander ethnicities as a separate category.

According to the Oxford English Dictionary, "Asian person" in the United States is sometimes thought of as a person of East Asian descent. In vernacular usage, "Asian" is often used to refer to those of East Asian descent or anyone else of Asian descent with epicanthic eyefolds. This differs from the U.S. Census definition and the Asian American Studies departments of many universities consider those of East, South or Southeast Asian descent with or without epicanthic eyefolds to be "Asian". In the US Census, people who originate from the original peoples of the East Asia, South Asia, and Southeast Asia are classified as part of the Asian race; while peoples from Siberia, Central Asia, and Western Asia are classified as "White".

Before 1980, Census forms listed particular Asian ancestries as separate groups, along with White and Black or Negro. Asian Americans had also been classified as "other". In 1977, the federal Office of Management and Budget issued a directive requiring government agencies to maintain statistics on racial groups, including on "Asian or Pacific Islander". The 1980 census marked the first classification of Asians as a large group, combining several individual ancestry groups into "Asian or Pacific Islander." By the 1990 census, Asian or Pacific Islander (API) was included as an explicit category, although respondents had to select one particular ancestry. In the 2000 census, people reporting Jewish or Arab ancestry but not reporting race are presumed to be in the white race category rather than Asian.

The definition of Asian American has variations that derive from the use of the word American in different contexts. Immigration status, citizenship (by birthright and by naturalization), acculturation, and language ability are some variables that are used to define American for various purposes and may vary in formal and everyday usage. For example, restricting American to include only U.S. citizens conflicts with discussions of Asian American businesses, which generally refer both to citizen and non-citizen owners.

In a recent PBS interview, a panel of Asian American writers discussed how some groups include people of Middle Eastern descent in the Asian American category. Asian American author Stewart Ikeda has noted, "The definition of "Asian American" also frequently depends on who's asking, who's defining, in what context, and why... the possible definitions of "Asian-Pacific American" are many, complex, and shifting... some scholars in Asian American Studies conferences suggest that Russians, Iranians, and Israelis all might fit the field’s subject of study."

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