The Census Bureau defines a person of the Asian race as “having origins in any of the original peoples of the Far East, Southeast Asia, or the Indian subcontinent including, for example, Cambodia, China, India, Japan, Korea, Malaysia, Pakistan, the Philippine Islands, Thailand, and Vietnam.”
That means, according to the Pew Research Center, that the Census definition of “Asian” — the fastest growing American population — covers more than 20 ethnicities and 20 million citizens in the United States.
But American culture tends not to think of all regions in Asia as equally Asian. A quick Google search of “Asian food nearby” is likely to call up Chinese or Japanese restaurants, but not Indian or Filipino. Years after someone posted a thread on College Confidential, a popular college admissions forum, titled “Do Indians count as Asians?” the SAT in 2016 tweaked its race categories, explaining to test-takers that “Asian” did include “Indian subcontinent and Philippines origin.”
According to the Pew Research Center, the very first U.S. Census in 1790 only had three categories: “Free white males, Free white females,” “All other free persons,” and “Slaves.” It took nearly a century, until 1870, for a category to be added for people of Asian descent. That category was simply called “Chinese.” In 1890, the Census Bureau added “Japanese,” followed by “Other” in 1910 (which primarily referred to people of Korean, Filipino and Indian descent), and “Filipino,” “Korean,” and “Hindu” (referring to Indians regardless of religion) in 1920.
People were allowed to choose their own race from 1960 onward, and this year’s Census will have the same categories for people of Asian descent it used in 2010: “Chinese,” “Japanese,” “Filipino,” “Korean,” “Asian Indian,” “Vietnamese,” and “Other Asian.”
As straightforward as that list may sound, the question of who “counts” as Asian clearly endures, and many are now speaking up about why it matters.
“The narrative defines who gets the already few limited resources and airtime that are afforded to Asian Americans,” says Ocampo. For example, discussion of Asian representation in film centers mainly on films with East Asian characters, like Parasite, The Farewell and Crazy Rich Asians. “I find that Black Asians are nearly entirely erased from the convo of being Asian. Like, I’m not even allowed to audition for Asian roles because Hollywood’s vision of ‘Asian’ is just East Asian,” tweeted actress Asia Jackson.
That feeling can be particularly relevant when it comes to checking a box on a form like the Census. Research into what’s known as “social identity threat” has shown that asking people about their identity can make them doubt their social belonging, which can make people doubt their abilities in areas that have nothing to do with race. “Anything that makes you conscious of your identity in a way that is confusing or upsetting or makes things high-stakes for you in some way can represent a problem,” explains Joshua Aronson, a professor of applied psychology at New York University.
Under-representation on the Census can lead to the misallocation of federal resources and a weak understanding of states’ needs, as the population tally plays a major role in deciding on political issues and funding nationwide. The division of seats in Congress and state legislatures is also affected by Census data.
So why are Asian Americans, even today, relatively less likely to fill out the Census?