What does “Asian” mean?

In my research and encounters with multiracial/interracial Asian families, I have been asked this question a lot. Everyone seems to have a general idea. But shine the spotlight on “Asian”, try to get a good look at it, and we all get confused. Everything is blurry. Why is that? What and who exactly is “Asian”? Well. It depends. Like all racial concepts, “Asian” has a long history of construction informed by race/power politics. It never comes into clear view because its identity is never static. Rather always fluid. Continually defined, dismantled, reclaimed and redefined.


Let’s start with geography. The well respected science that studies the lands, its features, its inhabitants, and the phenomena of the Earth. Geographers tell us there are 4 major landmasses on our planet. Eurasia, North/South America, Africa and Australia. These masses are also called continents.


Except for Eurasia.


Eurasia is divided unevenly into two continents. A small fifth to the west is Europe. Everything east of that, a MASSIVE area, is Asia (including western Asia or the “Middle East”). Indeed Asia is the largest and most populous of all the continents. It compromises 30% of the planet’s land area and is home to about 60% of the world’s population. Why are there 4 landmasses, but 5 continents? Does that seem…maybe a little unscientific? That’s because it is. And now we’re getting to the heart of things. Rewind the clock. The word “Asia” was actually invented by ancient Greeks. It described the land to the east which was inhabited by people who were often their enemies. “Europe” was then coined to describe the area to the west where they were the predominant cultural influence.

This “us” versus “them” concept of Asia continued to be propagated by European geographers, politicians and encyclopedia writers. “Asian” remained a descriptor for non-Europeans on the landmass. “To talk of Asia at all,” writes Philip Bowring in the Far Eastern Economic Review, “May even be to talk in Eurocentric terms…Asia would have been no more than a geographical concept but for Europeans deciding they were something different.” Important to note too, the dividing line between Europe and Asia was drawn where the Urals join with the Caucasus and the Black Sea. If you will recall from my piece on “Mongolian Spots”, the Caucasus region was once thought by Europeans to be the birthplace of humanity. It was the location after which the archetypal, and most beautiful, “Caucasian” race was named (from which all other races theoretically diverged). And of course this delineation of races became the foundation for a global racial order that still impacts us.

Fast forward. Nowadays we can tell a lot about what “Asian” means to a people by their country’s national census. Censuses are deeply implicated in sociopolitical construction. They provide the concepts, taxonomy, and information by which a nation understands its parts as well as its whole. They create both the image and the mirror of that image for a nation’s self-reflection. Census definitions of “Asian” however are often at great odds not only with geographical definitions, but each other as well.

For example in Australia, you’re “Asian” if you’re from central, south, southeast and northeast Asia – but not western Asia (then you’re either “North African” or “Middle Eastern”). Western Asian people aren’t considered “Asian” in Canada or the U.S. either. In Canada they’re “Arabs”. Here in the U.S., they’re “White” or “Caucasian.” In New Zealand you’re “Asian” if you’re Chinese, Indian, Korean, Filipino, Japanese, Vietnamese, Sri Lankan, Cambodian and Thai – but not south Asian. Conversely in the United Kingdom “Asian” is pretty much south Asian, while “Chinese” is a different category entirely. And of course these definitions are always changing.


So what does “Asian” mean? Perhaps the best answer is – something different all the time.


~ You can read more guest blogger Sharon Chang at her blog MultiAsianFamilies


  1. Joe

    Thanks, Sharon, for this very original and provocative post. There is more than a book here on how language choices are part of the oppression and dominance processes historically and in the present. Witness too the use of the word “Oriental” by white Europeans (and others) to the present day…. That is, east of whom?

    Also, on a side note, in our survey of 150+ self-identified white college students, the overwhelming majority did not consider any American group of color to be “white,” including these groups on a specific list I had they evaluate: Arab Americans, Middle Eastern Americans, Iranian Americans, Turkish Americans, Japanese Americans, Chinese Americans, Korean Americans, Mexican Americans, Cuban Americans, and numerous other groups of color.

    • Earl Smith

      So Joe:
      Who is White? Just White people?
      My admin assistant is from Peru, brown skin, and when I ask her this type of question she says she is WHITE!
      As you know many (many) people of Mexican, Puerto Rican descent etc., choose “white” when they are asked the question as well.
      So: what is it about the 150+ white college students in your survey that they can disregard what others themselves say they are (ethnically) that is?


  2. Earl Smith

    This is a very important post and one, with permission, I will use in my “Immigration & Ethnicity” class this fall.
    You say: “Here in the U.S., they’re “White” or “Caucasian.”
    OK, but sticking with the US where do you put the large group of those individuals who are categorized as Eurasian?
    Thank you for your important work.
    Earl Smith

    • Sharon Chang Author

      Hi Earl

      You certainly have my permission to use this post in your fall class. I write to raise awareness – so more is definitely merrier.

      As to Eurasians. Good question. Where do I put them (us)? Or where does the GOVERNMENT put us? Haha. From my perspective as a multiracial Asian person, I find the categorizing of races a perpetual annoyance and irritation. I identify with different labels at different times depending on who I’m with. Sometimes I don’t identify with any of them all because they feel incomplete, inaccurate, and incomprehensive.

      As far as the US Census goes, Eurasians have the choice to check “Multiracial” or multiple single race options. Don’t let that fool you however. It’s not as progressive as it sounds. One, as I’ve noted before, multiracial answers are often bridged into single race answers anyway. Two, though there are many different races on the census now, “Asian” races are still lumped together under “Asian” for reporting (technically there are still only 5 races). Third, even though the census sets a standard that is supposed to be replicated by all other state/federal forms, etc, I am told almost weekly by parents and multiracial Asian people that they are continually pressured to “choose one” and not given multiracial or even multiple race options.

  3. John D. Foster

    Perhaps you could rephrase your questions, because I don’t quite understand what you’re asking. Joe simply said that a sample of “self-identified” whites didn’t think people of Middle Eastern or North African descent (among others) are “white.”

  4. Earl Smith

    Hi John:

    No. I am not rephrasing my question. I asked it and I meant what I asked. I asked one of the best scientists out there who has given us some of the best analysis on WHITES perspectives of non-whites and especially African Americans to help me understand these students who fail to see “the other” as others see themselves.

    At the end of the day it is a very important question for those who do the kind of research Professor Feagin does e.g., the kind of research and analysis that helps us understand White people who, incidentally, have made a business of telling “others” who they are racially and ethnically.


    Earl Smith

    • Joe

      Hi Earl, sorry to be slow in getting to your good question, been out of touch a little bit.

      As you know well, these white students don’t fell they have to explain their views and framing. For them being white with white power and privilege gives them the final say on all questions about racial matters in the US, including who is white and who is not. (and much else)

      On my survey of 150 white students, no group of color got more than 11 percent of these self identified whites saying they were white– not Mexican Americans, Puerto Ricans, Cuban Americans, Asian Americans (all groups specifically too), Middle Eastern Americans, Arab Americans, and on and on with numerous groups of color. Only the European American groups like Irish Americans had the overwhelming majority of these white students saying those groups are white.

      Also, interestingly, the majority of the substantial number of self-identified students of color in the sample also agreed that none of these groups above are “white,” although sometimes with smaller majorities than for the self-indentified whites. My survey was pretty superficial and I did not ask the obvious in-depth followup questions about why they gave these answers. I had no grant and just did this little pilot study after I saw a similar survey in Canada (which had generally similar results up there , too)…..

      Deserves much more thought and research.

  5. The categories of color-race-caste all overlap but have the common denominator that they are created and used for no other purpose than defining “us verses them” with the “us” being the dominating group over them. The Chinese and Japanese have as much racism as Europeans do, even among the so-called “Asian” groups, for example, the Japanese looking down on Koreans as a separate and less developed race. Similarly, the Hispanic ancestry nations have racism. I’ve heard Mexicans from one state refer to Mexican from another state using the metaphors commonly used for a separate race. Not so long ago the Europeans all looked at each other as separate “races”, with the Germans, French, English, Italians, Dutch, Scandinavians, and Spanish each self-identifying themselves as the best of the separate races of Europe. Many Europeans still do, but on a more covert level. The concept of “white” is totally a delusion of constructed fiction created for the purpose of creating a color-caste-race to dominate others labeled as “non-white.”

  6. Joe

    Sharon, one or two little points. In a survey we did of nearly 200 college students, very few saw Arab Americans or Middle Eastern Americans (we used those terms) as “white.”

    And the German anatomist, Johann Blumenbach usually gets ‘credit’ for inventing that racist term and category of ‘Caucasian’ (at the top of his ‘racial’ hierarchy) about the same time, late 18th century, as both Jefferson and Kant were also setting the racial hierarchy into concrete in their writings too. He saw Caucasus people as the ‘most beautiful’ of whites….


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