Are Asians Included in the Term “People of Color”?

Okay, let’s just dive right into a difficult topic: race. Disclaimer: it’s going to be messy, since I’m not used to talking about race, but I feel it has to be done.

I have always been confused about the term “people of color” (PoC) and my relationship to that category. As a Korean, am I included when people talk about “people of color”? While various dictionary definitions say that a person of color is anyone who is of non-white, non-European heritage, personal definitions seem to differ depending on who I’m talking to.

As an aside, I have never felt comfortable discussing race issues, especially when it’s something as technical as defining terms. Because I’m majoring in the STEM field and never took a class on race or ethnic studies, I didn’t feel like I had any authority on this topic. But even though I haven’t had formal education on race, I should have the confidence to speak about my own experience. This, at least, is acceptable, because who can know my experience better than myself?

One other reason why I felt ambivalent about discussing race issues is that my country of origin is often included in the myth of the model minority. The model minority is supposedly quiet and adapts easily to “white America.” As a result of the model minority myth, the unique story of my people is drowned out and painted over. I didn’t learn about what Korean immigrants faced during the Gold Rush, or World War I or II, or in times of racial segregation. We weren’t taught to think about our racial identities like the black or latino kids who belonged to minority groups that have a bigger representation in America. And so, when it comes down to it, I find I don’t know how to speak as eloquently or as clearly as black and latino peers about injustices done to me and my community.

So, back to topic: are people like me included in the term “people of color”? Many people will exclaim, “Of course! Asians aren’t white, so of course you’re included.” But this kind of simple thinking overlooks a crucial point — that Asians are often not included in the calculations when people actually talk about “people of color.” And even if we are, Asians are often simply tacked on as an afterthought, mere lip-service or a forced gesture rather than genuine acceptance.

In the first place, I’m not sure if “Asian” is a good term. The umbrella term “Asian” seems too big and vague; it encompasses too disparate of socioeconomic, historical, and even “color” backgrounds. What do I mean? Well, just going off regional parts of Asia, there are East Asians, the South East Asians, Central Asians, North Asians, South Asians, and West Asians. Furthermore, despite being within Asia, not all of these people are even considered “Asians” in the popular sense.

In addition, there is considerable diversity within each region such that some people are more affluent, some are darker or lighter-skinned, and some have more or less political power. “Asian” is practically meaningless as a term for racial identity. It is more an awkward combination of ethnic subgroups and lacks the political unity and set of shared experiences that defines other racial groups. As usual, very little thought went into defining racial categories for the diverse peoples living in Asia, and the label “Asian” was simply slapped onto many different peoples out of convenience, as an afterthought. I never thought of myself as Asian before coming to college; I was simply Korean…but I’m getting slightly off topic.

Going back to the term “people of color,” people of Asian descent belonging to some of the more affluent Asian countries (like my own) seem to be seen as different from other people of color. In dictionary definitions, we might be called people of color, but micro-aggressions by the people around me suggest that they consider us “off-white” or maybe “dirty white,” an internalization of the model minority myth.

When I am applying to a scholarship, a job, an internship, or a service advertised for students of historically underrepresented backgrounds, I am forced to wonder whether I count as “underrepresented” or not. Looking at my campus, UCLA (snidely dubbed “UC Lots of Asians” or “University of Caucasians Lost in Asia”), AAPI students make up the largest racial demographic, totaling 9,917 of 30,873 new undergraduate entrants in Fall 2016 according to the Office of Analysis and Information Management. At least in UCLA, I am not “underrepresented.” But look at published authors, college professors and high school teachers, prominent political leaders in the US, history textbooks, TV shows and movies, the police force, CEOs of big companies — almost anything that involves executive decisions and influential power — and you have a very different story. But I still need to contend with the knowledge that there are people who don’t recognize inequality when it comes to Asians, and that they will consider my background and my experiences as not enough.

I am not sure why we are even basing political identities off the color of our skin. It feels ridiculous to me that I should even be worrying about how “PoC” I am, as though the amount of melanin in my body could make me more or less of a person of color than another person from a different ethnic group. But the case stands, and I am left wondering where I might lie on the “PoC” spectrum.

And what about people who are mixed? How does one determine whether they are “PoC” enough? A quarter? A half? Three quarters? Are certain combinations of races considered more deserving of the term “people of color” than others? Who will be excluded? Where does one draw the line?

Maybe instead of color, we should focus on differences in opportunities. History. Experiences. Cultures. Discrimination. Socioeconomic status. Political influence. Legal status. If we want to unify people who have faced inequality and injustice, we should use these shared experiences rather than the color of our skin to do so.

At this point, I want to apologize for how all over the place this discussion is, but more or less, I think I’m trying to say that I’m tired of being sidelined. I’m tired of such a vague political identity. I’m tired of being alienated and exoticized. I’m tired of my voice being discounted. I’m tired of other people of color saying that I am part of their group one moment and then framing me as the outsider the next. I’m tired of us-against-them mentality. I’m tired of micro-agressions that make me question whether I belong.

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