Asian American and Pacific Islander Identity

Identity Development 

The research of Jean Kim reveals a number of stages common to many Asian Americans:

Ethnic Awareness Stage

  • Begins around ages of 3 or 4 when the individual first comes to know his or her ethnic origins.
  • Child’s family members serve as the significant ethnic group model.
  • Positive or neutral attitudes toward one’s own ethnic origin are formed depending on the extent of family involvement in ethnic activities.

White Identification Stage

  • Begins when the child enters school.
  • Peers and the surroundings become powerful forces in conveying racial prejudice that negatively impacts their self-esteem and identity.
  • A realization of “differentness” primarily resulting from negative encounters with other children’s racial prejudices. These interactions result in internalization of the problem, self-blame, and a desire to escape a racial heritage by identifying with White society.
  • The person buys into White society’s view that Asian Americans are less attractive and therefore the student is less involved in dating during adolescence and instead focuses their energy towards involvement in formal organizational roles and academic pursuits.
  • Results varied based on active, passive and neutral responses of “White identification.”
    • Active identification: those who considered themselves as very similar to White peers and did not consciously acknowledge cultural differences. These individuals do not want to see themselves as Asian in any way.
    • Passive identification: those who did not consider themselves as White, although did accept White as a reference point.
    • Neutral identification: those whose families were not very involved in Asian culture and activities were more likely to actively identify with Whites.

Awakening to Social Political Consciousness Stage

  • There is an adoption of a new perspective, often correlated with increased political awareness.
  • Often a significant event (e.g., moving to the west coast and having increased contact with politically conscious Asian Americans) initiates the awakening to political consciousness.
  • The person sheds their previously White-identified values and reassess the merits of White standards. Their identification changes from White-oriented to minority-oriented.
  • It is during this stage that self-concept becomes more positive.

Redirection to Asian-American Consciousness

  • Individuals begin to embrace their Asian American identity, self-concept is positive, and individuals feel good about themselves and are proud to be Asian American.
  • Their political and social involvement in the previous stage bolstered their self-concept, and now they desire to embrace their own racial/ethnic identity and immerse themselves in the Asian American heritage.
  • Individuals may feel very angry and outraged at White society. They realize that White racism was the foundation for their negative experiences and their previous identification with White standard and values.

Incorporation Stage

  • In this final stage individuals come to a healthy and secure balance, feeling comfortable with their own identify yet appreciative of other racial groups.
  • The person in this stage does not feel the driving need to either identify with or against White people. They develop a realistic appraisal of all people.
  • Asian American identity is still important but is seen as only one aspect of their overall identity (e.g., religious, political, sexual, sex role orientation, career/professional identities).

These stages are summed up well in this interview with Dr. Chap in Recording and Resources: Understanding Racial-Ethnic Identity Development:

“The premise is that the race narrative in our country is black and white. And also the myth of the model minority has impacted how the Asian community identifies. In the beginning there is the ethnic awareness of the group that they belong to. And then sometimes it’s during adolescence that one moves into trying to figure out, “Well, am I white? I’m not black? So where do I fit in? And then there’s the awakening, moment of, “Wait, I have a group I belong to, this is the group that resonates for me.” And then a redirection into that empowered sense.

The one thing to note about the Asian identity model, just like the Latino model, the term Asian is one word for a huge pan-ethnic group of people, and not all people see themselves within the Asian model. So sometimes people need to see themselves within the ethnic model when that pertains to who they are better than this broad Asian category. That’s true for some friends of mine who are Pacific Islanders or Southeast Asian. I have a friend who’s Hawaiian and his conversations within his Hawaiian communities that this Asian model doesn’t speak to them. So just something for us to note.”

Because these fraweworks hardly capture everyone’s experience, Kevin Nadal modified the Kim model to create a Philipino American Identity Model. I have yet to find one specifically for Pacific Islanders (though I did find this, which focuses on key elements of Pacific Islander culture instead of Pacific Islander American identity development).

As the following video reveals, Pacific Islanders often get left out of the conversations. If you know of valuable resources to help rectify this reality, please link to them in the comments!

Racial Microaggressions and the Asian American Experience 

One valuable piece of work that illuminates identity issues is Racial Microaggressions and the Asian American Experience, which categorizes the many microaggessions that Asian Americans face. I have added videos, often humorous ones, to help further demonstrate these categories.

Theme 1: Alien in Own Land

This theme emerges from both focus groups and can be de- scribed as a microaggression which embodies the assumption that all Asian Americans are foreigners or foreign-born. An example of this theme was universally voiced by Asian Americans of all ethnicities and manifested in questions or remarks like “Where are you from?” “Where were you born?” or “You speak good En- glish.” The participants were often torn between whether the comments were well intentioned expressions of interest in them or perceptions that they were foreigners and did not belong in Amer- ica. Furthermore, the meaning construed by recipients is that they were different, less than, and could not possibly be “real” Amer- icans. That this phenomenon has empirical reality was a finding that White Americans, on an implicit level, equated “White” and “American” with one another while Asian and African Americans were less likely associated with the term “American” (DeVos & Banaji, 2005).

On the whole, the participants did not see the questions or “compliments” as benign and curious, but disturbing and uncom- fortable. One Chinese American participant shared that while she was working in a restaurant, a White customer came in and attempted to converse with her in Japanese. She interpreted the behavior as the person perceiving her as a foreigner and not fluent in English. Worse yet, the person could not distinguish between Chinese and Japanese Americans. The focus group members did not perceive the intent of the questions to be overtly malevolent. They believed the person might have been attempting to establish a relationship with the Chinese American and might have wanted to indicate that he was not like other White Americans and could speak an Asian language.


Theme 2: Ascription of Intelligence

This theme also emerges from both focus groups. It is described as a microaggression that occurs when a degree of intelligence is assigned to an Asian American based on his/her race. Many of the participants describe teachers and fellow students making state- ments such as “You are really good at math,” “You people always do well in school,” or “If I see lots of Asian students in my class, I know it’s going to be a hard class.” The message conveyed is that all Asians are bright and smart, especially in math and science. Interestingly, the work on stereotype threat suggests that this belief is shared by many Whites, and that it may actually depress aca- demic performance among them when in the presence of Asian Americans (Steele, 1997; Steele & Aronson, 1995).

The participants believed that the conscious intent of these statements was to compliment Asian Americans, since being good at math was perceived by aggressors as a positive quality. How- ever, the impact of assuming Asian Americans are good at math can be harmful. Participants describe feeling pressured to conform to a stereotype that they did not endorse, particularly if they were not good at math or did not enjoy it. In essence, they expressed feelings of being trapped. One Korean woman, for example, de- scribes her coworkers bringing every math question for her to solve. Not only did it seem to operate from a stereotype, but it added pressure to help them, and resulted in a heavier workload for the woman. She also expressed discomfort at another major side effect: Asian Americans were viewed as intelligent while other people of color were perceived as less intelligent. It created ten- sions between her and other Black and Latino coworkers.

Theme 3: Denial of Racial Reality

Participants of all Asian ethnic backgrounds share that many microaggressions invalidate their experiences of discrimination. In one case, a Vietnamese American male was told that “Asians are the new Whites.” The participant in the study indicated that the remark dismissed his experiences of racism, indicated that Asians experience no discrimination, suggested inequities do not exist for Asians, and that they have made it in society. In other words, the Vietnamese male felt that the perpetrator saw Asians as a model minority, similar to Whites and experience minimal socioeco- nomic or educational disadvantages. While the intent of the ag- gressor may be to compliment the Asian American individual by saying that Asians are more successful than other people of color, the negating message is that Asians do not experience racism— denying their experiential reality of bias and discrimination.

Theme 4: Exoticization of Asian American Women

A fourth theme found in both focus groups is exoticization of Asian American women who are relegated to an exotic category. One Chinese American women stated, “White men believe that Asian women are great girlfriends, wait hand and foot on men, and don’t back-talk or give them shit. Asian women have beautiful skin and are just sexy and have silky hair.” One Korean American woman indicated that she is frequently approached by White men who are very forthcoming with their “Asian fetishes” of subservi- ence and pleasing them sexually. Nearly all members of the focus groups interpreted these microaggressions as indicating that Asian women are only needed for the physical needs of White men and nothing more. Again, participants felt that the intent of the aggres- sor in these situations may be to praise Asian women for their ability to take care of a man’s every need. One participant was quite vocal in stating that the continual subjugation of Asian American women to roles of sexual objects, domestic servants, and exotic images of Geishas, ultimately “equates our identities to that of passive companions to White men.” Many of the participants also suggested that the exotic image of Asian American women also serves as an unconscious backlash to feminist values and that it potentially creates antagonism with White women as well.


Theme 5: Invalidation of Interethnic Differences

This theme is most closely associated with the statement: “All Asians look alike.” One Filipino American woman states, “I am always asked are you Chinese?” Another example of this is con- veyed by a Chinese American who stated that new acquaintances oftentimes make statements like, “Oh, my ex-girlfriend was Chi- nese, or my neighbor was Japanese.” These microaggressions tend to minimize or deny differences that may exist between interethnic groups or the existence of other Asian American groups. Partici- pants believed the microaggression suggests that all Asian Amer- icans are alike and that differences between groups do not exist and/or do not matter. The intent of the aggressor in this situation is to express that they are familiar with Asians, but instead the message received is that the aggressor assumes that all Asians are Chinese or Japanese. Moreover, it is assumed by the aggressor that most Asians are familiar with each other, regardless of their Asian ethnic background.

Theme 6: Pathologizing Cultural Values/Communication Styles

Another microaggression theme involves the perception of cultural values and communication styles other than that of the White majority as being less desirable or indicators of deficits. One Chinese American woman expressed exasperation at how class participation (usually verbal) is valued strongly in academic set- tings and that grades are often based upon it. Because of Asian cultural values that emphasize the value of silence, less verbal Asians are often perceived as lacking in interest, disengaged, or inattentive by the teacher. Many of the participants felt disadvan- taged, for example, when verbal participation in class was graded. They felt forced to conform to Western norms and values (“talking more”) when such behavior violated their cultural upbringing. Although the Asian participants could see that educators might be attempting to enforce an objective grading standard, they uninten- tionally negated traditional Asian cultural values and penalized their Asian American students. Another example was relayed by a Vietnamese American male who describes being derided and teased by friends for using chopsticks as a utensil. He stated that the message was quite clear; eating with forks, knives, and spoons is the right/correct way to eat and “the American way.”

Theme 7: Second Class Citizenship

Being treated as a lesser being or second class citizen was another common experience. A number of Asian Americans re- layed similar stories of Whites being given preferential treatment as consumers over Asian American customers. A typical story involved a Korean American female who told of dining with White friends. Although she frequently ordered the wine, it is usually her friends who are asked to taste and approve the wine selection. She would often feel snubbed because Whites were believed to more knowledgeable about wine, and their opinions were more impor- tant. Another Asian American woman described how her eight family members were taken to a table to the back of the restaurant, even though there were available tables elsewhere. She interpreted the action to mean that they were lesser customers and did not deserve a table in the front of the restaurant. The message, they believed was that Asian Americans are not deserving of good service and are lesser than their White counterparts.


Theme 8: Invisibility

This theme is used to label incidents that involve the experience of being overlooked without the conscious intention of the aggres- sor. Experiences with the theme of invisibility are commonplace among Asian American individuals of all ethnic groups who share that they were often left out whenever issues of race were dis- cussed or acknowledged. One Chinese American female stated, “Like even most race dialogues are like very Black and White- . . .like sometimes I feel like there’s a lot of talk about Black and White, and there’s a huge Asian population here and where do we fit into that?” Another example involved an Asian American appointed to a committee and having someone suggest that they needed “to appoint a person of color” to the group as well. The messages being conveyed were that Asians are not an ethnic minority group, experience little or no discrimination, and that their racial concerns are unimportant. In addition, the Asian par- ticipants felt trapped in that when issues of race are discussed, they were considered like Whites, but never fully accepted by their White peers.

Theme 9: Undeveloped Incidents/Responses

There were a number of stories told by participants that could not be categorized easily. The eight themes identified above seemed universally endorsed by the informants. Some of the incidents, however, were mentioned by one or two individuals in the group and it was difficult to determine the degree of consensus. It is believed that with more time and probing, it might have been possible to more clearly identify a particular theme. For example, one Chinese American woman describes an experience she had while she was driving her mother’s car, with her Chinese name and last name on the license plate. She recalls being pulled over despite the fact that she was in the middle of two cars, and they were all going relatively the same speed. The stereotype operating here was that Asians are poor drivers, and therefore, she was singled out. Another example of the stereotype theme occurs when a gay Vietnamese male shared that an online dating site posted a state- ment that read, “No Asians, real men only.” The message being conveyed in this situation is that Asian men do not fit the mascu- line qualities of Whites and therefore are not deemed as “real” men.


Video Resources


A Conversation With Asians on Race | Op-Docs:

NBC Asian America Presents: A to Z (2017) | NBC Asian America:


I Am Not Your Asian Stereotype | Canwen Xu | TEDxBoise:

Asian-Americans Respond to Racist Remarks:

The above video sparked outrage from many Asian American groups who were excluded from the discussion, outrage covered in Mic’s South Asians, Filipinos call out lack of inclusion in ‘Times’ video about racism.

Where Stereotypes About Asian-American Men Come From | Take Back | NBC Asian American:

Why Asian Americans are not the Model Minority | Alice Li | TEDx Vanderbilt University:


Can You Pass This Hard Hawaiian History Test?

Honest Government Advert – Visit Hawai’i


Websites and Pages

Angry Asian Man: This is a blog about Asian America.

Denshō: A grassroots organization dedicated to preserving, educating, and sharing the story of World War II-era incarceration of Japanese Americans in order to deepen understandings of American history and inspire action for equity.

NextShark: An online magazine focused on covering business, tech, culture with a focus on the Asian youth market.

The Love Life of An Asian Guy (LLAG): This blog isn’t about joining a conversation, it’s about starting a new one. LLAG focuses on racism, politics, and pop culture.

18 Million Rising: was founded to promote AAPI civic engagement, influence, and movement by leveraging the power of technology and social media. For the past three years, we’ve convened a network of creative, tech-savvy, and passionate individuals and organizations working in and with AAPI communities in every U.S. state and territory. Our vision of engaged AAPI communities began with, but doesn’t end with, the ballot box: it also includes year-round civic activity locally and nationally, holding corporations accountable, building interracial coalitions, and developing our shared identities.


Return to 11-Step Guide to Understanding Race, Racism, and White Privilege.

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