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Asian American Policy Review

Topic / Gender, Race and Identity

The Brown Asian American Movement: Advocating for South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Filipino American Communities

This piece was published in the 29th print volume of the Asian American Policy Review.

Across all of these subgroups, individuals from these three subgroups describe a common narrative that “Asian” usually refers to East Asians – resulting in feelings of marginalization and invisibility within the Asian American umbrella.

While the Civil Rights Movement of the mid 1950s and early 1960s made great strides towards racial equity in the United States, it focused primarily on issues affecting Black Americans. Black activists and leaders like Rosa Parks, James Baldwin, and Martin Luther King, Jr. advocated against numerous inequities that were detrimental to Black people and communities – including, but not limited to, segregation, hate crimes, and police brutality. Shortly following, the Black Power Movement emerged, emphasizing cultural integrity and pride, self-acceptance, and the celebration of historical attainments and contributions of Black people.[1] In the 1960s and 1970s, the Chicano Movement formalized – highlighting injustices affecting Mexican American people.[2] Community organizers from the United Farmworkers like Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta became nationally known, as they led one of the most successful labor strikes in American history. Terms like “La Raza” and “Brown Power” were introduced with the aim of uniting people of Latinx origin (e.g., Central Americans, South Americans, Caribbean Americans, etc.) and encouraging them to reclaim a pride in their ethnic identities.[3]

In the late 1960s, Chinese American, Japanese American, and Filipino American activists and community leaders (mostly college students) began to form coalitions to advocate for the civil rights and visibility of Asian Americans.[4] [5] As the most populous Asian ethnic groups in the United States at the time, these leaders believed that building bridges between their various Asian ethnic groups would lead to a stronger united voice, and thus, more political capital. The term “Asian American” was created as a way of combatting previous offensive labels like “Oriental” or “Mongoloid”, and the Asian American Movement formed with the mission of building a united front among Asian American ethnic groups.[6]

In response to the Black Power Movement and the Brown Power Movement, the Asian American Movement was sometimes referred to as the Yellow Power Movement. For instance, activist Amy Uyematsu (1971) stated that the movement sought “freedom from racial oppression through the power of a consolidated yellow people”.[7] At the time, many Filipino Americans vocally protested the terminology, as they did not identify with the term “yellow” and instead identified as “brown”. Even as other Asian Americans with darker skin (e.g., Asian Indians, Vietnamese Americans) began to immigrate to the United States in larger numbers, the usage of “Yellow Power” continued. Whether intentional or not, such terminology set the tone for East Asian Americans (especially Chinese and Japanese Americans) to be centered as the dominant voice in the Asian American movement, and later in Asian American Studies. [8] [9]

Statement of the Problem

Since the inception of the Asian American Movement, Filipino Americans, South Asian Americans, and Southeast Asian Americans have consistently vocalized feelings of marginalization and exclusion within the pan-ethnic group. Filipino Americans have described discrimination from other Asian Americans, including being told they are “not Asian enough”; being stereotyped as inferior or uncivilized; or being completely overlooked or excluded altogether. [10] South Asian Americans have shared how they are excluded from the Asian American umbrella because of their cultural, religious, and racial/phenotypic differences – resulting in lack of representation in Asian American Studies, narratives, and media representations.[11] [12] Southeast Asian Americans have reported feeling like “other Asians” and being stereotyped as being inferior to East Asian Americans.[13] [14] [15] Across all of these subgroups, individuals from these three subgroups describe a common narrative that “Asian” usually refers to East Asians – resulting in feelings of marginalization and invisibility within the Asian American umbrella.

In order for Asian Americans to further advance as a political voice in the United States, it is imperative to address historical hierarchies, community dynamics, and inter-ethnic conflicts. Further, in order for Asian Americans of all ethnic groups to feel invested in advocating for a pan-Asian umbrella group, they must all feel included and must believe that their best interests are acknowledged. Thus, the purpose of this commentary is twofold. First, I will describe the history of the “Brown Asian American Movement” as a way of contextualizing historical power dynamics that have been pervasive in Asian American communities since the 1960s. Second, I will provide recommendations of how current Asian American leaders, activists, and policymakers can be mindful of ways that colorism and privilege impacts invisibility and community dynamics. In doing so, I hope community leaders and members continue the conversations that began many decades ago, but which have generally gone unaddressed or ignored on a national level.

The Historical Context of Brown Asians

In order to understand the term “Brown Asian American,” one must first recognize how the term “Asian American” came to be and who it had historically included. As aforementioned, the term first described the largest Asian ethnic groups at the inception of the Asian American Movement in the 1960s- including Chinese, Japanese, and Filipino Americans. These groups are also credited as being the first Asian Americans in the United States – with Filipinos first landing in 1587 and the Chinese and Japanese first arriving as laborers in the 1840s.

Despite this, the term “Asian American” did not initially include Asian Indian Americans, who had first migrated to the United States in the late 1800s. Despite India being located in Asia, the U.S. Census initially categorized Asian Indians as “Caucasian”– with a primary reason being that they were not considered a “discriminated minority group”.[16] To fight against this, the Association of Indians in America organized in the late 1960s and lobbied that Indian Americans be labeled as Asian Americans. By the 1980 Census, the term “Asian Indian” was created and Asian Indians were identified as a minority group under the Asian umbrella. By 2000 the Asian category was expanded to include Pakistani, Bangladeshi, Sri Lankan, and Nepalese Americans, and the term “South Asian” became popularized as an umbrella term for these ethnic groups.

Further adding to, and complicating, the Asian category was the emergence of Southeast Asian Americans (e.g., Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, and Hmong Americans) who migrated to the US in the mid 1970s, mostly as refugees escaping war and violence. Because of the circumstances for their migration to the US, Southeast Asian Americans’ lower socioeconomic statuses and educational attainment countered the “Model Minority” stereotypes that had been created about the existing Asian American groups at the time. As a result, Southeast Asian Americans had straddled between positive, yet pressured stereotypes (e.g., being expected to do well in school) to negative, harmful stereotypes like being viewed as a gangster or a delinquent.[17]

The first documented usage of the term “Brown Asian” is from the early 1970s, when Brown Asian caucuses formed at various Asian American national and regional conferences. For example, a Brown Asian Caucus emerged at the inaugural National Conference on Asian American Mental Health in 1972 – where Filipinos were joined by Pacific Islanders (i.e., Native Hawaiians, Samoans, and Chamorros) who also felt marginalized as part of the Asian American/ Pacific Islander (AAPI) umbrella group. One of the conflicts for Filipino Americans and Pacific Islanders at this time was that they recognized the benefit of building coalitions with other Asian Americans was the strength in numbers; however, they also learned that such coalitions may not actually benefit their best interests. Despite this, Filipino Americans and Pacific Islanders who were involved in the earlier parts of the Asian American Movement continued to participate in pan-ethnic community organizing and advocacy, in hopes that the needs of their ethnic group would eventually be addressed.

Since then, Filipino, South Asian, and Southeast Asian Americans have spoken against feelings of invisibility or marginalization within the general Asian American community in myriad ways. For example, when Asian American Studies was first established in the late 1960s, course content across programs often centered experiences of Chinese and Japanese Americans – with few publications and classes that examined other subgroups’ history or experiences. Author Fred Cordova (1983) described Filipinos as “Forgotten Asian Americans” – citing how Asian American Studies had traditionally excluded narratives of Filipino Americans,[18] while Filipina American scholar Dawn Bohulano Mabalon (2013) discussed how previous descriptions of Filipino Americans by early Asian American Studies scholars had been inaccurate, misrepresentative, or altogether false.[19]

In the late 1980s, South Asian American student groups formed on college campuses, with the intention of combating religious bigotry affecting their communities, while also challenging the exclusion of South Asians within pan-ethnic organizations and Asian American Studies departments.[20] In their seminal text A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America, scholars Lavina Dhingra Shankar and Rajini Srikanth (1998) highlighted how the term “Asian American” was not initially intended to include Asian Americans who were not East Asian, and how South Asian Americans had continuously been excluded from Asian American Studies.

Similarly, as Southeast Asian American student populations increased on campuses in the 1990s, so did advocacy efforts for inclusion within Asian American Studies. For example, at San Francisco State University (where Ethnic Studies and Asian American Studies were founded), the Asian American Studies Department only offered one Southeast Asian American course from 1989 to 1996. [21] Students critiqued that the course was not enough, eventually pressuring the department to advocate for more Southeast Asian American courses and faculty, as well as the founding of the Vietnamese American Studies Center in 1996. Similar efforts occurred with other Southeast Asian ethnic groups in other parts of the country, including Hmong Americans in the Midwest who had fought for more representation and inclusion in their Asian American Studies departments too.[22]

Through the years, South Asian, Southeast Asian, and Filipino Americans have been vocal within, and toward, the Association for Asian American Studies (AAAS) – the primary national organization for Asian American Studies – for their centering of East Asian American perspectives and their bias of, and discrimination toward, other Asian American groups. For instance, in analyzing AAAS conferences, scholar Peter Kiang (2004) noted that from 1995-2000, only 4.35% of a total of 2,162 presenters were Vietnamese, Cambodian, Lao, or Hmong (in comparison to 50% of presenters who were Chinese or Japanese).[23] Further, in 1998, the Filipino American caucus of AAAS protested the organization when the AAAS awarded a major literary award to a Japanese American author whose novel depicted Filipino Americans in racially offensive and stereotypical ways.[24]

Many Brown Asian Americans have been particularly vocal about the need for data disaggregation, as a way of understanding the unique needs of their ethnic communities and combatting false notions of a homogenous “Model Minority”. In 1988, Filipino American lobbyists advocated for California Senate Bill 1813 which required all California state personnel surveys or statistical tabulations to classify persons of Filipino ancestry as “Filipino” rather than as Asian, Pacific Islander, or Hispanic. Because of this state law, Filipino Americans in California have since always been disaggregated from government data – allowing for policymakers and community leaders to be aware of specific issues affecting the group. Decades later, similar efforts transpired for Hmong American community leaders in Wisconsin who formed an educational advocacy group to lobby for increased services for Hmong American students.

There is some documentation of how ethnic-specific college organizations navigate whether or not to work with or within pan-ethnic organizations – due to lack of representation or resources for their constituents. For instance, in the 1990s, leaders of South Asian American organizations at numerous Ivy-League institutions (e.g., Brown, Harvard, and Penn) described the tension in working collaboratively with their campus pan-ethnic Asian American organization or intentionally seeking their own independent voice as a South Asian community.[25] In 1999, Kababayan, a Filipino American organization at the University of California – Irvine seceded from the Asian Pacific Student Association (APSA), which was one of the umbrella groups under the Cross-Cultural Center. They formed their own umbrella organization Alyansa ng mga Kababayan, due to the lack of resources and support they received from APSA, as well as their need to be viewed as a disaggregated group from Asian Americans. As an umbrella group, they received more funding and more advocacy opportunities for specific Filipino American issues at the university.

Similar to the earlier Brown Asian Caucuses at the inception of the Asian American Movement, many ethnic-specific interest groups have formed within larger pan-ethnic professional organizations. For example, within the Asian American Psychological Association (AAPA), several divisions were created as a way of uniting and uplifting certain subgroups that had been historically overlooked since the organization’s founding in 1972. The Division on South Asian Americans (DoSAA) was established in 2007 and the Division on Filipino Americans (DoFA) was established in 2010. While both organizations remain part of the AAPA, there are some indications of the struggle of Brown Asians within the organization, including that there have not been any South Asian or Southeast Asian American presidents in the 45-year history of the organization. It is important to note that while caucuses of Brown Asian ethnic groups tend to emerge within these pan-ethnic organizations that East Asian caucuses tend not to form. One hypothesis for this trend is that East Asian Americans may generally feel empowered or supported by their overall organization, and therefore do not need a separate support group – a sentiment that may be similar to how White Americans may feel generally supported in White-dominated professional organizations.

Across the country, other ethnic-specific organizations were formed as a way of ensuring that the needs of historically marginalized Asian American ethnic groups were addressed. For instance, the Southeast Asian Resource Action Center (SEARAC) was formed in 1979 and continues to be the only national civil rights organization devoted to uplifting Cambodian, Laotian, and Vietnamese American communities. In 1982, historian and activist Dorothy Laigo Cordova founded the Filipino American National Historical Society (FANHS) with the mission of preserving and promoting the history of Filipino Americans. In 1988, FANHS declared October as Filipino American History Month to ensure that Filipino American history was being highlighted across the country. And in 2000, South Asian Americans Leading Together (SAALT) was founded as the only national South Asian organization with a social justice framework that advocates for South Asian communities; SAALT also administers the National Coalition of South Asian Organizations – a network of 60 South Asian American organizations across the US.

Contemporary issues affecting Brown Asian Americans

In recent years, Brown Asian Americans have been much more vocal about the continued invisibility of their communities within the larger Asian American community – particularly in combatting the presumption that “Asian” equates “East Asian”. In 2016, Filipino American and South Asian Americans wrote an open letter to the New York Times, citing ways that their communities had been erased from narratives involving Asian Americans and racial discrimination.[26] The letter led to a twitter hashtag #BrownAsiansExist – which encouraged Brown Asians to advocate for more visibility within Asian American communities, particularly given that they consist of roughly 60% of the Asian American population. Filmmaker Marissa Aroy produced a short film entitled Thank God, I’m Filipino, in response to this exclusion.[27]

In 2018, when Crazy Rich Asians was released, most Asian Americans were supportive, in that it starred an all-Asian cast in a high-grossing box office hit. However, some scholars and journalists critiqued a few aspects of the movie.[28] First, the idea that “Asians” was used in the film’s title and focused explicitly on East Asians (Chinese and Singaporeans) supported previous hypotheses that “Asian” equated “East Asian.” Second, in the film, the presence of Brown Asians was either minimal or stereotypical (e.g., Brown Asians were only portrayed as servants, and Filipino actors were cast as East Asian characters). Third, there was an expectation for the entire Asian American community to back this film because it was allegedly the first Asian American motion picture of a major Hollywood studio. One of the difficulties with this last expectation was that there were movies from major Hollywood studios that had featured South Asian Americans (e.g., the Namesake) or those from the South Asian Diaspora (e.g., Slumdog Millionaire, Lion). These films were hardly labeled as “Asian” or “Asian American” films (as they did not star East Asian Americans), and there was hardly an expectation for the entire Asian American community to fully endorse or relate to these films. A similar pattern occurs in television with Fresh off the Boat in 2015. Touted as the second Asian American sitcom to appear on mainstream television since Margaret Cho’s All-American Girl, many individuals have overlooked that there have been numerous shows like Master of None and The Mindy Project which had featured South Asian lead characters (and their families).

The presumptions of a homogenous Asian American community regarding academic achievement is prevalent with the recent lawsuit against Harvard University challenging affirmative action. Led mostly by Chinese Americans (under the direction of White American legal strategist Edward Blum), the plaintiffs allege that “Asian Americans” are being discriminated in university admissions because of their race. When the mainstream media reports on the case, they incorrectly generalize that all Asian Americans are in favor of the lawsuit; for example, a Time headline reads “A Lawsuit by Asian-American Students Against Harvard Could End Affirmative Action as We Know It”.[29] Such generalizations fail to recognize that majority of Asian Americans believe in affirmative action,[30] and that many Asian Americans (particularly Southeast Asian Americans and Filipino Americans) benefit from affirmative action too.[31] [32] [33]

Finally, experiences of overt discrimination and hate crimes towards Asian Americans

tend to only concern the general Asian American community if they occur towards East Asian Americans. For example, when hate crimes are historically discussed in relation to Asian Americans, the case of Vincent Chin is most often referenced. Despite this, there are many historical and contemporary instances of Brown Asian Americans who had also been targeted by hate and subsequently murdered, but who often are excluded in the discourse. For example, during the 1930 Watsonville Riots, in which Filipino Americans were violently assaulted by White mobs who believed Filipinos to be stealing their jobs and women, a Filipino American man Fermin Tobera was murdered. In 1999, Joseph Ileto, a Filipino American postal worker in California was killed by a White terrorist after he terrorized a synagogue. In 2012, the shootings at a Wisconsin Sikh temple resulted in the deaths of six South Asian Americans. And in 2017, Srinivas Kuchibhotla was killed by a White gunman who yelled “Get out of my country” while shooting him.

Recommendations for Inclusivity and Coalition Building

Given all of these factors, I end this commentary by providing several recommendations for how current Asian American community leaders can be more mindful and inclusive of issues related to Brown Asian Americans. Not meant to be a complete list of recommendations, it is hoped that these ideas can be a starting point for continual dialogues and reflections.

  1. Encourage meaningful diversity in pan-ethnic leadership and participation. Some pan-ethnic organizations ensure that there are community liaisons or representatives for each major community or subgroups, in order to ensure people’s voices are always being heard. Others are mindful of representation when they encourage their members to run for leadership positions (i.e., intentionally encouraging Brown Asian groups to run if those groups have not been represented). At the same time, organizations must be careful to avoid tokenization by making sure that representation is meaningful and relevant, as opposed to feeling forced or insincere, or masking political undercurrents within the organization. One organization that has exemplified this meaningful representation is the Asian Pacific American Labor Alliance (APALA). With their constitution including a clause that states that leadership must represent ethnic, gender, and geographic diversity, APALA has created a culture in which people of various AAPI backgrounds have consistently served in its highest leadership positions.
  2. Have open and overt conversations about Asian American community dynamics – particularly related to issues of skin color, phenotype, religion, and language. Openly acknowledge the historical context of these community dynamics as a way of ensuring that such dynamics are not repeated in conscious or unconscious ways. Consider other intersectional identities too- including gender, sexual orientation, social class, age, generation, immigration status, size, and more. Discussing these dynamics intentionally will also allow for community members to be mindful of the role of systemic oppression in perpetuating trends and experiences in the organization, while creating solutions for how to instill change, justice, and equity. For example, the Asian American Psychological Association devoted their 2018 conference to discussing intersectionalities and group dynamics within their organization; through workshops and roundtable discussions, Brown Asians, LGBTQ people, and multiracial people voiced their experiences of marginalization within the organization, which prompted leaders and members to strategize on ways the organization can be more inclusive and cohesive.
  3. Acknowledge the extensive history and contributions of the entire Asian American community. When teaching about Asian American studies, ensure that all aspects of the Asian American experience are being covered. For instance, when talking about the earliest presence of Asian people in the United States, make sure to include the Filipinos who landed in what is now California in 1587, or the South Asians who were present during the founding of the US. When discussing the labor of Chinese and Japanese Americans who helped build the transcontinental railroads, also include how the Filipino American farmworkers were the first to strike against the landowners in the 1960s, and how they worked together with the Chicano farmworkers to form the United Farmworkers and successfully advocate for farmworkers’ rights. Finally, when discussing the Asian American “story”, move beyond the dominant narrative of immigrants searching for the American Dream and acknowledge that many Southeast Asians migrated as refugees who were escaping war and violence.
  4. Be mindful when “Asian” or “Asian American” are used as umbrella terms. Being intentional and using proper labels can ensure that specific needs are being addressed, while still being aware of the heterogeneity of Asian American communities. For instance, when addressing common types of microaggressions affecting “Asian Americans”, it is common for researchers to default to themes of being exoticized or being treated as a perpetual foreigner.[34] While many Brown Asian Americans encounter these types of microaggressions, they also encounter other microaggressions (e.g., Filipinos and Southeast Asians are often viewed as criminals or gangsters, while South Asians are often stereotyped as being terrorists). Thus, excluding these examples as common types of microaggressions that Asian Americans face perpetuates the false notion that “Asian” equals “East Asian”. Further, there are indeed many issues negatively affecting East Asian Americans, and those issues should be addressed appropriately. Thus, when speaking specifically about East Asian American experiences, label them as such, without generalizing to the entire Asian American group. For example, previous research has found that Chinese Americans are less likely than other Asian Americans to undergo cancer screenings, particularly when they have lower English proficiency.[35] Labeling this finding as a Chinese American issue, instead of an Asian American issue, also allows for directed programming and targeted outreach toward Chinese Americans, potentially increasing awareness of the problem.
  5. Disaggregate data whenever possible. While many datasets do not account for ethnic differences, it is important to disaggregate when that data exists (and to report on that data). As discussed throughout this commentary, because the Asian American category is so diverse, research should reflect that. When collecting data on Asian Americans, ensure that the sample is as representative of the Asian American population as possible– with one-fifth consisting of Chinese Americans, one-fifth consisting of Filipino Americans, one-fifth consisting of South Asian Americans, one-fifth consisting of Southeast Asian Americans, and one-fifth consisting of other East Asian Americans. If research studies consist mostly of East Asian Americans, then it cannot be generalized to the Asian American experience, and perhaps should be labeled as a study on East Asian Americans.
  6. Be conscious of your own privilege within the Asian American community. It is very important to acknowledge how privilege and bias operate in the Asian American community in ways that are similar in general American society. While it is clear that East Asian Americans are subject to systemic racism and discrimination within oppressive White supremacist systems, there are some ways that privilege operates in parallel ways within Asian American communities. When East Asian Americans say things like “Why can’t we just all view ourselves as Asian American and not fixate on our differences?”, such statements are akin to colorblind ideologies espoused by many White Americans. When East Asian Americans deny that racial or ethnic hierarchies exist within the Asian American umbrella, their sentiments are akin to the ways that White Americans deny that racism and White privilege exist. In this way, it is important for people with privileged backgrounds to listen to the perspectives of those without privilege. People with privilege within Asian American communities may have difficulty recognizing their privilege and the ways they have benefitted from such privilege – in similar ways that White people may not see White privilege, cisgender men may not see male privilege, and heterosexual people may not see heterosexual privilege. While acknowledging that privilege may be uncomfortable, admitting to these dynamics is the first step to recognizing the problems that exist and in advocating for justice and equities within Asian American communities.


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