‘Whither Asian Australia?, or, This Race which is Not One’


 ‘Whither Asian Australia?, or, This Race which is Not One’[i]

The master’s tools will never dismantle the master’s house ~ Audre Lorde


Abstract: The following is a revised version of the keynote lecture I delivered for the 7th Asian Australian Identities Conference, at the Immigration Museum, Melbourne, Australia on 7th November 2019. My talk responded to the conference theme ‘Genealogies of Identity Politics’ by deconstructing the ‘Asian’ identity via a genealogy of ‘Asia’ as a way to complicate contemporary identity politics and move towards a decolonial Asian Australian studies. For this Peril publication, I have revised my talk to focus more on the identity politics side of the argument. For an account of what this means for Asian Australian studies itself please see my forthcoming publication.


  1. Introduction

Thank you to the organisers for inviting me. I realise that there are many scholars, some in this room, who are more senior than me in this field of research. While I do not want to get stuck in self-flagellation (which is awkward for everyone involved), I do want to recognise that this is a great honour for me and I hope that I can do it justice.

To an extent, what I have to say today is not new (which is probably the worst way to start a keynote lecture!) On the one hand, this talk is a culmination of previous presentations I have given at prior Asian Australian Identities conferences but have not had the time to publish, so I’m grateful for the opportunity to extend and consolidate my arguments in this forum. On the other hand, what I will propose as pathways forward for research, debate and activism is already happening in the work of scholars such as Deborah Ruiz Wall, Sukhmani Khorana, Suvendrini Perera, Peta Stephenson, Regina Ganter, as well as many of the speakers in this very conference. So, I don’t want to suggest that I’m somehow making an entirely new break with previous research as some kind of lone intellectual pioneer. Such pioneering fantasies replicate a problematic ‘genius/saviour model’ of scholarship that Asian Australian studies, as a generous intellectual culture, has worked so hard not to reproduce.

In another sense, this talk is a response to queer Asian Canadian theorist and video artist, Richard Fung, whose 1995 essay “The Trouble with Asians” is one of the most important yet underappreciated works in Asian diaspora studies. The essay speaks to the burden of representation, the problems with authenticity, the hidden diversities within the category ‘Asian’ and the transnational misrecognitions that result from reading race within national contexts. As I hope to show through a critical genealogy of ‘Asia’, this ‘diversity’ is far more fraught and far more foundational than it first appears, and that recognising this inherent ‘trouble’ with Asians is far more troubling than it has previously been assumed.

In response to the conference theme, ‘Genealogies of Identity Politics’, I conduct a brief genealogical analysis not of identity politics per se, but obliquely of ‘Asia’ (and by extension ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ identities) as a way to recalibrate our relationship to contemporary identity politics. I begin with outlining and critiquing the positionality of ‘Asians’ in contemporary Australian anti-racist activism in order to show, firstly, how Asians have been erased or positioned as irrelevant, and secondly, how white people have spearheaded this to re-centre themselves in anti-racist spaces. In the following section, I show how these erasures and re-positionings stem from colonial knowledges through a critique of ‘Asian’ identities via a genealogical analysis of Asia as a metageographical concept. I show that both ‘Australia’, and therefore Australian identities, are uniquely dependent on what we mean by ‘Asia’. At the end, I return to the question of what this all means for contemporary Australian identity politics.

  1. Asian Australian Exclusions and Erasures

A recent public event on racism in Australia at LaTrobe University came under scrutiny by anti-racist scholars for beginning with the question of whether racism had become ‘mainstream’. Scheduled less than a month after the Christchurch, New Zealand massacre on two mosques by an Australian white supremacist, killing 51 and injuring 49 Muslims, the starting point for the conversation seemed ‘tone deaf’ at best. But it also came under scrutiny for its speakers, Tom Switzer a white political adviser and Director of the Centre for Independent Studies and Prof. Tim Soutphommasane, an Asian Australian academic, Laotian refugee and previous Race Commissioner for Australia.

The Australian Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Association, the peak national research body on critical race studies in Australia, posted a criticism of the event arguing that it needed to be led by Indigenous, Muslim and Black people. Curious as to why Asian and Pacific Islander voices were not included, I enquired how they came up with that list. I received no reply.

Meanwhile, white, non-Indigenous anti-racist scholars began a petition campaign to include more diverse speakers, specifically Indigenous and Muslim voices. Yet this campaign for inclusiveness sparked some strange claims dismissing Prof. Soutphommasane. Some white academics claimed it needed to be led by people with ‘expertise’ or ‘experts’ as if being a Laotian refugee, an Asian Australian scholar writing on multiculturalism, racism and human rights as well as an ex-federal Race Commissioner was somehow irrelevant. Outside academia, some non-Asian people of colour even claimed that the panel was “all-white”, thus whitewashing Soutphommasane in the process.

Yet even once the campaign had succeeded and the organisers had included two new speakers (Indigenous academic, Dr Chelsea Bond, and Muslim campaigner/activist, Tasneem Chopra) there was still more Asian erasure to occur. After the event recording was released, many white anti-racist scholars who were signatories to the petition specifically asking for Muslim voices, began circulating the video only starting from Chelsea Bond’s talk, that is, specifically skipping past the talks given by Tim Soutphommasane and Tasneem Chopra. It was not even done under the guise of highlighting an Indigenous voice. They were very explicit that they had no interest in hearing what the others had to say, thus sidelining Asian, Muslim and refugee voices in the process. Indeed, one of the things that white anti-racist scholars delighted in most was when Chelsea Bond chastised Tom Switzer and Tim Soutphommasane as ‘mediocre men’. While I agree with Dr Bond’s argument for the necessary primacy of Indigenous sovereignty in discussions of racism in Australia, and her criticism of Soutphommasane’s initial support for the Northern Territory Intervention, the way that specific scene circulated online primarily for white enjoyment transformed the event into a gladiatorial combat for white spectatorial pleasure.

There’s a lot going on here. The erasure of Tim Soutphommasane’s expertise and the downgrading of his voice as irrelevant or ‘non-expert’ by white anti-racist scholars, as well as his racial erasure as ‘white’ among non-Asian communities of colour, speaks volumes both about the erasure of Asian Australians from Australian anti-racist spaces but also about how white, anti-racist scholars are re-positioning themselves in anti-racist spaces in ways that allow them to feel entitled to erase Asian voices.

I had encountered something similar a year earlier when a white academic asked my assistance to find a speaker on racism. I offered myself. She promptly clarified that she was hoping to find a Muslim to speak on “contemporary racism” rather than anti-Asian racism. Not only does this presume that anti-Asian racism is gone (which is not true) or that Islamophobia is somehow new (which it’s not), this generational approach to thinking of racism in terms of ‘waves’ fails to draw connections and continuities between different manifestations of racism while pitting racialised minorities against each other. It is based on a native informant model that locks ‘Asians’ and ‘Muslims’ (as if these were mutually exclusive categories) into only being able to speak on their individual experiences of racism, while reserving for themselves, as a white person, the right to theorise universally on racism.

Like the LaTrobe event, it never occured to them that, as a white person, deciding which racial minority gets to speak on racism while specifically excluding other racial minorities (specifically Asians) on the basis of their race is itself inherently problematic. Through seeming to align themselves with Indigenous or Muslim voices, white Australian anti-racist scholars and activists re-position themselves in ways that enable them to feel entitled to erase, exclude and silence Asian voices from Australian anti-racist spaces. Ironically, ACRAWSA, the same organisation that insisted the LaTrobe event should be led by Indigenous, Muslim and/or Black speakers (but notably not Asian speakers), just a few months later released their inaugural special edition of the Critical Race and Whiteness Studies Journal that does not contain a single Indigenous scholar or scholar of colour[1].

One of the reasons for this state of affairs is the growing pervasiveness of the model minority myth transplanted from the US context. In Australia, this emerged at the cusp of the 21st century as a growing mass of Asian Australians increasingly began to occupy middle-class jobs and conspicuously accumulate wealth due to the fact that Asians mostly entered Australia through the classist skilled migration program. In the early 2000s, conservative radio shock jocks in Sydney railed against Asians owning expensive cars or being able to move into expensive suburbs to stoke fears of Asians stealing jobs from white Australians. As Islamophobia grew in the post-9/11 environment, the model minority myth was used both by conservatives but also by right-wing Asian Australians themselves to distance themselves from the ‘bad’ or ‘dangerous’ Muslim migrants (in the same way that Western European migrants distinguished themselves ‘bad’’, ‘dangerous’, ‘dirty’ Asians less than two decades earlier). In contemporary Australia, this model minority trope persists in ongoing debates about Chinese (and to a lesser extent Indian) international students, Asians dominating elite schools and Chinese overseas property investors (for a critique of model minority myth in Australia, see Fukui, 2018; Wong, 2018). In particular, the myth that ‘Asians are rich’ or ‘elites’ is used implicitly, sometimes explicitly, to exclude and erase Asians from Australian anti-racist spaces on the grounds that they have become ‘honorary whites’ (Zong, 2016: 238).

But Asian erasure also stems from Asian Australian self-exclusions. For example, in a previous AAI conference a senior Professor answered a question by talking about Asians and Muslims as if they were comparable but separate groups. Even if one maintained a distinction between the Middle East and Asia-Pacific (which I debate later on), the Asia-Pacific still holds approximately 60% of the world’s Muslim population. The three most populous Muslim-majority countries are in Asia: Indonesia, Pakistan and Bangaldesh. But if it was based on the size of the Muslim population alone, then there are more Muslims in India than Bangladesh. In this context, to talk about Muslims and Asians as distinct groups is at best misleading.

Another false distinction I’ve often encountered recently is between Asians and refugees. Recently an Asian Australian political group wrote a public letter of solidarity to show support for refugees, which was based on the Asian American community letter of solidarity for the Black Lives Matter movement in the US. The letter initially spoke about Asians as if we were separate to refugees. As I attempted to argue, historically, this makes little sense. In Australia, refugees from the 1970s to the 1990s were often thought of as ‘Asian’, owing in large part to the influx of Vietnamese refugees and to some extent Cambodian refugees. Complaints about Vietnamese refugees were central to the rise of anti-Asian racism under Hansonism. In Australia, anti-Asian and anti-refugee racism is inextricably intertwined.

There are Asian Australians that fled military dictatorships, genocide, systematic sexual violence, economic collapse, authoritarian state and military violence directly stemming from various struggles emerging in response to colonial/imperial powers, some of whom came as refugees but many of whom arrived as migrants. To think of only the former as fleeing persecution is a significant rewriting of postwar history and a failure to grasp how the ‘Asian brain drain’ was marked by decolonial processes and civil war. The fact is that people use whatever channels they can to escape violence, whether those are official migrant visas, or tourist visas and student scholarships to claim asylum once in Australia or via boat. In this context, to talk of Asian Australians as separate to, and indeed privileged in relation to, refugees, risks fetishing the colonial state’s differential conferral of various legal status to different migrants in favour of apprehending the wider context of colonial/decolonial violence in the region. This is not to argue that there are no differences in Asian histories or that all Asian postwar experience fits on a neat, single continuum, but the divide between ‘Asians’, on the one hand, and ‘refugees’, on the other, is incredibly simplistic.

My concern in both these examples, is that these unwittingly centralise the most privileged Asian voices, while treating the experience of postcolonial Asians as extraordinary, peripheral or even relegated to ‘not Asian’. In Asian Australian scholarship and activism, this often comes from privileging middle to upper-class East Asian people, perspectives, cultures and politics, while also relying on an Australian racialised understanding of ‘Asians’. Through a deconstruction of ‘Asian’ and ‘Australian’ identities via a genealogy of Asia and Australia, I hope to show that such distinctions are, in fact, colonial constructs and that uncritically relying on them continues to replicate problematic and Orientalist assumptions.


  1. Deconstructing ‘Asian’: A Brief Critical Genealogy of ‘Asia’

What does ‘Asian’ actually mean? The term is so widespread, socially, politically and culturally, that we tend to presume that its meaning is clear, but it hardly takes much reflection to note how questionable the term is. Racially speaking, and using the terms of scientific racism here, Asia houses at least two races, possibly even four: yellow, brown, black and white. Culturally speaking, Asia is the most linguistically, religiously and ethnically diverse continent in the world. All the world’s major religions, except for Spiritism, originated from Asia. Of the largest ten major language families in terms of speakers, nine come from Asia (Eberhard, Simons and Fenning, 2019). There are nearly 2,300 living languages in Asia (by contrast Europe has just over 200 spoken languages). At a global level, the signifier ‘Asian’ does not even have a consistent referent within English speaking countries: America, Australia, and UK, mean different things by this term[ii]. Drawing inspiration from French feminist Luce Irigaray’s (1985) This Sex Which Is Not One, I tend to think of ‘Asians’ as ‘this race which is not one’, that is to say, this race which is not a race, but also this race which is more than one race.

Probably the safest definition of ‘Asian’ is provided by the Oxford English Dictionary, which defines it as “A person from Asia or of Asian origin”. In short, its meaning is dependent on geography. It defers its meaning to Asia as a place or space. But what would happen if ‘Asia’ itself was a shifting terrain? We get a glimpse of this shifting terrain when we note that the OED also curiously divides the use of ‘Asian’ as a noun between an archaic sense and a modern one without explaining what that difference is, even though they share the same definition. If one looks closely, it becomes apparent that the archaic sense of ‘Asian’ describes people from what we now call ‘the Middle East’ (that is from Anatolia or modern-day Turkey) or the Ancient Persian empire. In order to understand why this is the case, we need to delve into the history of the term ‘Asia’ itself as a geographical category. In what follows I briefly outline a genealogy of Asia (and Australia) in order to better understand and hopefully reshape Asian Australian identities and politics. The following critique of Asia as a metageographical concept is heavily indebted to Lewis and Wigen’s Myth of Continents (1997).

In Classical Antiquity, the Ancient Greek conception of the world was dominated by the Aegean Sea, so that ‘Asia’ essentially meant the lands to the east, ‘Libya’ the lands to the south and ‘Europe’ the lands to the west and north. Although the precise origins of the term ‘Asia’ is debatable[2], it was used by the Ancient Greeks to refer to the eastern shore of the Aegean Sea, known by the Lydians who occupied the lands as Assuwa. Overtime the Ancient Greeks used the term ‘Asia’ to refer more generally to lands of the east, particularly the Lydian Kingdom as a whole, which existed up until 546 BC. By the time Herodotus wrote his Histories of the Second Persian Invasion in 440-430 BC the term could be used to refer to the Persian kingdom. In the second century BC, ‘Asia’ was used in the first book of Maccabees to refer to the Seleucid Empire, which existed from 312BC to 63BC (Coogan, 2004).

It was only under the Roman Empire from 133 BC, when Attalos III of Pergaman bequeathed his kingdom to the Roman Empire, that ‘Asia’ began to refer to a specific delimited territory, namely, provincia Asia, in what is now the western portion of modern-day Turkey, before being disbanded into smaller units between 250 AD and early fourth century AD (Mitchell, 2012)[3]. Alongside this province, the more general label ‘Asia’ still circulated to identify the eastern side of the Roman Empire as opposed to ‘Europe’ for the western side (Lewis and Wigen, 1997: 23).

I want to emphasise two observations here. First, that ‘Asia’ became a European metageographical label for a region that was not used as such by those living within the region and was not how they identified. Second, in this classical period, ‘Asia’ as a delimited territory still mostly refers to a smaller region within present-day western Turkey.

The first sense of ‘Asia’ as a broader metageographical designation slowly grows as more and more lands to the east are mapped by Ancient Greeks and Romans, so that, by Late Antiquity the Greeks begin to use the term Μικρὰ Ἀσία (Mikrá Asía), meaning “Lesser Asia”. In the Medieval period, Μικρὰ Ἀσία is translated as “Asia Minor”, which is first mentioned in the work of the Gallaecian priest, Orosius, in 5th century AD. Minor Asia is re-designated in Medieval Latin as ‘Anatolia’, which first appears in the work of Constantine Porphyrogenitus in the 10th century AD (see ‘Asia Minor’ in Encyclopedia Britannica, 11th edition). So now we have the distinction between Asia Minor and the rest of the lands to the east which then becomes Asia Major.

Throughout the Medieval period the tripartite metageographical schema between Asia, Europe and Libya (Africa) remained and was exemplified by ‘T-O’ maps. This T-O map (see fig 1) printed in the 15th century, portrays an older map from the 7th century AD, and represents a Christianised version of the Greek tricontinental model[4]. Notably ‘Asia’ occupies half of the globe and is represented on the top of the map, rather than on the right as we are used to seeing in most European maps.

Figure 1: T and O style mappa mundi (map of the world) taken from the first printed version (by Günther Zainer in 1472) of Isidorus’ book Etymologiae from 623 CE. Taken from Wikimedia Commons (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:T_and_O_map_Guntherus_Ziner_1472.jpg).

During the Renaissance, as Europeans begin to map more of the lands to the east, the continent of Asia begins to grow exponentially, fueled by the desire to seek an alternative route for the spice trade. The Renaissance is also known as the Age of Discovery and the Age of Commerce because the economic flourishing of Europe coincided with colonial and imperial European expansionism (see Reid, 1988)[5].  In the first half of the 16th century, the Portuguese and Spanish empires were significant players in this region. The Portuguese used a settlement and tributary in Troprabani (now Sri Lanka) as a gateway to Asia, sending diplomatic envoys to the Kingdom of Siam and colonizing Malacca (now Malaysia, which was then a major centre of Asian trade) and Macau. The Spanish, in their celebrated circumnavigation of the globe, simultaneously began the Christian colonization of the Philippines. In response, the Portuguese attempted to colonise parts of Malacca and the Maluku Islands or Moluccas (now Indonesia) and in an attempt to locate new trade routes further mapped the Pacific, including the Islands de Sequiera (aka Caroline Islands), New Guinea, Marshall Islands, and Admiralty Islands. Meanwhile the Dutch, via the Dutch East India Company, took over Sunda Kelapa and renamed it Batavia (now called Jakarta) and wrestled control of Molucca from the Portuguese (for a more detailed account of Spanish, Portuguese and Dutch imperialism in Southeast Asia see Andaya, 1993; Borschberg, 2001; Cotterell, 2014; Reid and Moore, 2015, chapter 6).

As you can see in these following maps (see Fig. 2, 3 and 4) the area to the east slowly grows between the 16th and 18th centuries as more and more lands were mapped by European explorers, merchants and colonisers (for a more thorough discussion of the historical European cartography of Southeast Asia and the Pacific see Suárez, 1999, 2004). Thus, it was only from the European Renaissance onward that the term ‘Asia’ was extended to apply to what is now designated ‘Southeast Asia’ and the ‘Pacific Islands’. In other words, the term ‘Asia’ had circulated among the peoples of Europe to name lands to their east for at least twenty centuries before they had even known of the existence of what we now call ‘Southeast Asia’.


Figure 2: Sebastian Munster (1558). Tavola della Oriental Regione dell Asia. Basle, Switzerland. Source: Birmingham Public Library (http://bplonline.cdmhost.com/digital/collection/p4017coll7/id/167/rec/30).


Figure 3:  Pierre d’Abbeville DuVal (1677). Carte du Voyage de Mr. L’Evesque de Beryte Vicair Apostolique au Royaume de la Cochin-Chine. Paris: Chez l’Auteur. Source: Birmingham Public Library (http://bplonline.cdmhost.com/digital/collection/p4017coll7/id/175/rec/12).
Figure 4:  Edward Wells (1718). A New Map of Present Asia. London. Source: Birmingham Public Library (http://bplonline.cdmhost.com/digital/collection/p4017coll7/id/187/rec/3).

The separation between the ‘Middle East’ and ‘Asia’ is a much more recent addition. As what counted as the ‘Orient’ moved further east and increasingly became racialised, this left the problem of what to call the original Orient, that is, Southwest Asia, often associated with Islam and thus non-Western but also considered Caucasian and thus not really Asian. The term ‘Middle East’ served this role well, separating it from the Near East (i.e. the Mediterranean borderlands) and the Far East (i.e. India to Japan) (Lewis and Wigen, 1997: 65). Although its exact origins are debatable, the term was popularised in 1902 by the American naval strategist, Alfred Mahan, to designate the area around the Persian Gulf, which he felt was strategically important to securing and maintaining influence over Central Asia. Unlike Southwest Asia, West Asia, Asia Minor and Anatolia, the Middle East included Egypt, which at the time was under British rule. The ‘Middle East’, therefore is an American military term that designates an “arena of strategic operations” (Lewis and Wigen: 65), which was arguably foundational for transforming the Middle East into a significant imperial ‘theatre of war’, particularly from the Cold War onwards and into the current extended War on Terror.

In short, these geographical distinctions between Asia Minor/Lesser Asia and Greater Asia/Asia Major, between Anatolia and New Asia, between the Near East, Middle East and Far East, or between West Asia and the Indian subcontinent, or between East Asia and Southeast Asia, or between Asia and the Pacific, etc. thus have nothing to do with how the people within what we now call ‘Asia’ viewed, separated, or grouped themselves. As the 11th edition of the Encyclopedia Britannica in 1911 put it:

The idea of Asia as originally formed was necessarily indefinite […] and the area to which the name was finally applied, as geographical knowledge increased, was to a great extent determined by arbitrary and not very precise conceptions, rather than on the basis of natural relations and differences subsisting between it and the surrounding regions (see ‘Asia’ entry).

However, I would argue, following Edward Said, that such mappings were not as ‘arbitrary’ as this description suggests. The shape that ‘Asia’ took reflected how European empires split up the globe through exploration, mapping and inter-imperial struggles in order to trade with, conquer and/or administrate as colonies the lands they designated as ‘Asia’.

The land now known as ‘Australia’ emerges quite late in this story. It was during the seventeenth century that Dutch explorers mapped the west coast of what previously scholars had speculated was Terra Australis, which the Dutch called New Holland. In the same voyage Abel Tasman also mapped what we now call Tasmania, Fiji Islands, New Zealand, Tonga, Solomon Islands, New Guinea and parts of the Torres Strait Islands. In the following century, the French writer Charles de Brossos coined ‘Australasie’ (in English Australasia) meaning ‘south of Asia’ to refer to the lands south of Magellicana but separated from Polynesia to the east. Later that same century, the British colonized the east coast of New Holland, naming their settlement New South Wales without knowing it was part of the same island[6]. In 1794, the botanist Goerge Shaw in his Zoology of New Holland used the terms ‘Australia’, ‘Australasia’ and ‘New Holland’ as synonymous terms (Denoon, 2003: 292). ‘Australasia’ remained a popular term in the nineteenth century and in 1890 the Victorian parliament defined it as incorporating Australian mainland, New Zealand, Tasmania, Fiji and other British colonies and possessions among the Pacific Islands, including at times Papua New Guinea, Solomon Islands, Cook Islands, and Tonga (Denoon: 293).

Even once the term ‘Australia’ was popularized it was, under the British empire, simply viewed as a collection of British colonies, not a continent or a nation-state. Consequently, what we call ‘Australia’ in the past was far more imbricated within the region than how we tend to conceptualise it today. When Captain Arthur Philip colonized New South Wales in 1788 his commission also gave him authority over what we now call New Zealand[7]. In the latter half of the 19th century, Australia was involved in what some historians have called ‘sub-imperialism’, constantly pushing for the British Empire to annex New Guinea and New Hebrides in order to consolidate power in the Pacific (Thompson, 1980). This agenda was also pushed by the Federal Council of Australasia, the forerunner to the Australian Commonwealth, that formed in the late nineteenth century in order to protect Australian colonial interests in the South Pacific. The Federal Council of Australasia included the self-governing colonies Queensland, Tasmania, Victoria and the Crown colonies Western Australia and Fiji, while New South Wales and New Zealand declined to join. During the formation of the Federation of Australia, it must be remembered that Fiji and New Zealand were invited to join and were part of the negotiations leading up to federation, although they eventually declined (Denoon, 2003: 297-8)[8]. My point here is that so-called ‘Australia’ is not a naturally occurring geographical delimitation that exists across all time. It was far more regionally connected than we imagine it now. Had the British colonial administrators of New Zealand and Fiji decided differently back then, we would not be able to lay claim to our special status as the only island-continent in the world. Australia was literally hewn out of the Asia-Pacific, not separate from it. It was carved out through various colonial interests, historical land grabs, genocide, colonial slavery and administrative power plays, which also radically transformed the region as a whole.


  1. This Race which is Not One: On Becoming ‘Asian’

If, as I argued at the start of the last section, the meaning of ‘Asian’ is dependent on the geography of ‘Asia’ then this brief genealogy suggests that this is pretty shaky ground upon which to build an identity. And if ‘Asian Australian’ is doubly dependent on both ‘Asia’ and ‘Australia’ then we are on precarious footing indeed. So how did we become ‘Asian’? As I mentioned earlier ‘Asian’ as a self-identity is even more recent. While the Ancient Greeks and Romans and Europeans may have called the people in what they termed ‘Asia’ as ‘Asians’ or ‘Asiatics’, these were not terms of self-description until mid-twentieth century in America. That is, ‘Asian’ was for centuries an imposed term by Europeans rather than a site of identification.

In the US, prior to the 1960s, the terms ‘Oriental’, ‘Asiatic’, ‘Mongoloid’ and ‘yellow’ were used synonymously to describe those we now call ‘Asians’ in America. Simultaneously, ‘Asian’ included people from West Asia, such as Arabs, Jews, Iranians, Syrians, Kurds, Persians, etc., (see Esperitu, 1992). This only changed when Syrians and Lebanese fought in court between 1909 and 1915 to be designated as white rather than yellow in order to evade the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 that blocked them from becoming US citizens (see Gualtieri, 2009). In one major case, Lebanese American George Shishim, argued in court: “If I am a Mongolian, then so was Jesus, because we came from the same land” (cited in Kayyali, 2006: 49).

It was not until the late 1960s, during the civil rights movement, that a pan-Asian identity (incorporating people from South, East, Southeast Asia and the Pacific) was formed in the USA in relation to a shared consciousness around racist experiences and treatment, discrimination and prejudice. This pan-Asian identity excluded people from West Asia and also eventually distinguished between Asia and the Pacific. As Esperitu argues: “the pan-Asian concept, originally imposed by non-Asians, became a symbol of pride and a rallying point for mass mobilization by later generations” (Esperitu, 1992: 20). It was similar in the UK and Australia. Around the same time the British Times Literary Supplement in London renamed their ‘Asiatic Review’ as the ‘Asian Review’ in part because Asians themselves felt ‘Asiatic’ was deprecatory (see OED). In Australia, the noun ‘Asian-Australian’ was not used extensively as a self-identity until the 1980s, particularly in reaction to the rise of Hansonism, which was marked by anti-Indigenous and anti-Asian racism (Kwok, 2017: 358).

My point here is that ‘Asian’ as an identity emerges in the diasporic context in the Anglophonic West as a strategic political identity, transforming an imposed term into a space for social and political mobilization. While this was an important political move, each identity (‘Asian American’, ‘Asian Australian’, ‘British Asian’) took for granted the meaning of the term from their respective national contexts, which is why we have different referents for these terms. While it is important to understand how ‘Asian’ is variously used in different contexts, relying on national discursive contexts to ground the meaning of ‘Asian’ sidesteps recognising the inherent fluidity of its meaning and the insights this reveals.

What does this mean for contemporary identity politics? Well, it depends on how we understand identity politics itself. If identity politics is narrowly based on the assumption of some core shared experience that is tied to our identities from which we derive experiential authority to resist specific identity-based oppression, then the very diversity of histories, geographies, cultures, and experiences of ‘Asia’ and ‘Asians’ would radically undermine our capacity to practice such a narrowly understood identity politics. One counterargument is that we, as Asian diasporas, share experiences of racism in our Western country, which is why ‘Asian Australian’ or ‘Asian American’ political identities make sense. But this raises questions about what kinds of power relations and material inequalities are being obfuscated between Asians in such a ‘strategic’ identification that prioritises the present condition over our pasts. Furthermore, an identity politics that assumes differences of experience between different racial identities will run into problems when tracing the history of racist and colonial violence because these inevitably return us to the murky fluidity of racialised categories, where distinctions between Asians and Muslims, Asians and refugees, Asians and Arabs, Asians and Jews, Asians and Pacific Islanders, etc. simply do not hold in a longer duration. Coalition building here may look less like building bridges between identity groups and more like uncovering shared, intertwined histories.

What we need is an identity politics less mired by absolutist standpoint epistemologies based on some mythical shared personal or even collective experience, and more attentive to the complex histories and material realities that suture power to identities across various historico-cultural conjunctures. ‘Asian’ would appear then as a work-in-progress, an identity yet to be achieved through intra-Asian coalition building that is attentive to power differentials in our midst rather than pre-given by shared experience or geography. At the same time, while we draw attention to how Asians have been or are being oppressed, and may strategically organize around this identity, we should stop trying to cram ‘Asians’ into a hole it does not fit. If we recognise and accept that ‘Asia’ and ‘Asian’, ‘Australia’ and ‘Australian’ are colonial constructs that shift and change across time according to different political regimes and that their meaning and use among Europeans is fluid, rather than getting caught in the uncertainty this knowledge brings we should relish in it. Let us embrace this fluidity and see what new connections and configurations become possible.



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[1] See: https://acrawsa.org.au/2019/06/18/critical-race-whiteness-studies-journal-re-launch/

[2] The Encyclopedia Britannica entry for ‘Asia’ (Gourou and Leinbach, 2018: n.p.) suggests it could have been derived from the Assyrian word asu meaning ‘east’ or it may have derived from a local name for the lands surrounding Ephesus, which was later extended to the larger region of what became known as Anatolia. Furthermore, the ‘Asia Minor’ entry in the Ancient History Encyclopedia online (Mark, 2018: n.p.) claims that ‘Asia’ derives from the Bronze Age Hittite word Assuwa which designated the specific area around the delta of the river Cayster in Lydia before being applied more generally to the region.

[3] See also ‘Asia, Roman Province’ in John Roberts (ed.) (2007). The Oxford Dictionary of the Classical World. Oxford: Oxford University Press, n.p. and ‘Asia’ in Michael Gargarin (ed.) (2010). The Oxford Encyclopedia of Ancient Greece and Rome. Oxford: Oxford University Press, n.p.

[5] Even with the so-called discovery of America, the Spanish imperial imagination tended to hold on to the Ancient Greek tripartite metageographical schema, often ignoring America all together (Lewis and Wigan, 1997: 24).

[6] Matthew Flinders proved New Holland and New South Wales were part of one continiguous landmass when he circumnavigated the island in 1801-1803, at which point he proposed the name ‘Australia’.

[7] Until the British could send James Busby as a British Resident to New Zealand. Following the Declaration of Independence by the United Tribes of New Zealand in 1835, the British Colonial Office sent a delegate to claim sovereignty over New Zealand while negotiating a treaty with the Maori in 1840, which we know as the Treaty of Waitangi. In 1841, New Zealand transferred from being a part of the colony of New South Wales to the Colony of New Zealand, which remained until 1907

[8] Furthermore, the Australian dollar was legal tender in Papua New Guinea until 1975 and the Solomon Islands until 1977. It remains the currency in some Pacific Islands: Kiribati, Tuvalu and Nauru.

[i] I wish to thank the Asian Australian Studies Research Network, the 7th Asian Australian Identities conference committee and, more specifically, the conference organisers for the keynote invitation. I also thank the University of Melbourne for their support, particularly the Screen and Cultural Studies program, which provided me with the job stability to do this kind of exploratory research work. I particularly want to thank Claire Maree for inviting me to give the guest lectures that formed the core part of the argument in this talk, and to Tim Laurie for collegial feedback on the draft.

[ii] In the UK, ‘Asian’ refers mainly to South Asians, from the ‘Indian subcontinent’, while the term ‘Oriental’ is used to designate East Asians and ‘Islander’ to describe Southeast Asians and Pacific Islanders. But in Australia, ‘Asian’ primarily refers to East and Southeast Asians with South Asians mainly being all relegated to ‘Indian’ and Pacific Islanders as a separate group. By contrast, in the USA, ‘Asian and Pacific Islander’ were a single census group with South, East (what they fall ‘Far East’) and Southeast Asians are all designated as ‘Asians’ and the rest as ‘Pacific Islanders’, although there are debates about countries that seem to fall between these categories, like the Philippines.

Gilbert Caluya

Author: Gilbert Caluya

Gilbert Caluya is a Lecturer in Cultural Studies in the Screen and Cultural Studies program of The University of Melbourne. He researches and teaches on the intersections of race, gender and sexuality in contemporary cultural formations. Specifically, his research focuses on racial politics of intimacy across several cultural sites: sexual subcultures, cultural citizenship, everyday cultures of security and digital cultures. He was previously awarded a DECRA Fellowship from the Australian Research Council to research intimate citizenship in postcolonial Australia and has recently been awarded an ARC Discovery Project to research digital citizenship and diasporic youth. He graduated with a PhD from the Gender and Cultural Studies Department at the University of Sydney in 2009 and was awarded the University Medal and the Gay and Lesbian Archives Thesis Prize. He is currently completing a book manuscript on intimate security as a structure of feeling for the extended War on Terror and another book on everyday racism in digital cultures.

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