‘Asian’ Is a Complex and Nuanced Term—We Must Market With Care

The limited understanding of the breadth of Asian experiences has resulted in monolithic grouping and dangerous stereotypes

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AAPI. APA. NHPI. Have we lost the thread on who these acronyms represent?

The breadth of the Asian experience is as diverse as its geography. But as terminology evolved, monolithic groupings—like “Asian American”—became popular shortcuts to refer to people who represent the majority of the world’s population. Shortcuts are antithetical to the work of creating visibility for distinct peoples with widely diverse experiences whose stories aren’t told.

The core challenges Asian and Pacific Islander communities face are rooted in invisibility, erasure, perpetual othering as foreigners and colonialism. But the symptoms for Pacific Islanders, South Asians, Southeast Asians, Central Asians, West Asians and East Asians are vastly different, and there’s no room for ethnic nuance in three to four letters.

If building connection is what we’re after in the industry, we have to start with understanding who these letters represent.

Asia is enormous

Asia is a geographical term. About 4.5 billion people representing 60% of the world’s population (six times that of Europe) live there. Forty-nine countries, three territories, 2,300 languages and dialects. Seven countries are transcontinental: Kazakhstan, Georgia, Armenia, Cyprus, Azerbaijan, Turkey and Russia.

It is also the birthplace of many religions: Buddhism, Christianity, Confucianism, Hinduism, Islam, Judaism, Sikhism, Taoism. Considering that popular spiritual practices like yoga, meditation and mindfulness are from Asia, how often do you see an Asian teacher leading those experiences?

Words have literal meaning and contextual meaning, but the interpretation depends on usage. Locally, most people in Asian countries consider themselves Asian because they live on the Asian continent. In the U.S., Asian indicates racial identity rather than geography and, thus, many find it to be limiting.

Filipino Americans may prefer Pacific Islander because American usage often implies East Asian. Asian Pacific American Heritage Month is sometimes referred to as Asian Pacific Islander Desi American Heritage Month to be inclusive of South Asian cultures.

Western and Central Asia are barely discussed at all. Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders are included in AAPI, but few, if any, countries link Asians with Pacific Islanders.

As full words turn into acronyms, we’re using letters to represent humans. And as we get further away from the words themselves, we lose connection to the people we’re talking about.

“Asian” is complex and nuanced. And with any complex and nuanced idea, we need to take care and be intentional about what we aim to convey.

Origins of ‘Asian American’

The term “Asian American” is attributed to UC Berkeley activists who founded the Asian American Political Alliance in 1968. The Alliance was created to unite students of different Asian ethnicities, who did not find commonality, to collectively fight for social justice and equality because racism doesn’t care about ethnicity.

A pan-Asian identity was a novel concept in 1968, and while it’s widely used today, we still require our unique humanity to be recognized and respected. The original intent was not to simplify but unify. Now that we’ve moved towards unity 54 years later, non-Asians have forgotten that we are unique peoples and not a box check.

The limited education and understanding of the breadth of Asian experiences has resulted in monolithic grouping that creates extremely narrow and stereotyped beliefs and perceptions.

As a result, our humanity is disregarded to the point where we are seen as subhuman and used as literal punching bags for whatever ill people want to blame the community for—economic downturns, job loss, WWII, WMDs, 9/11, Covid-19, Communism.

Damaging monolithic perceptions

LAAUNCH’s (Leading Asian Americans to Unite for Change) STAATUS Index assesses national attitudes and stereotypes towards Asian Americans, and there were some sobering findings.

In 2022, Americans are more likely to question the loyalty of Asian Americans and blame the community for Covid-19 (now 33% from 20% in 2021). Unsurprisingly, only 29% of Asian Americans believe they are fully accepted in this country.

Trump’s sinophobic language fueled anti-Asian hate, and now everyday citizens are conflating Covid-19 with communism in anti-Asian attacks. Politicians are still fanning the flames.

Tim Ryan spent $3 million on an “Us vs. China” Senate campaign ad, blaming job losses and price increases on China’s growth. Vincent Chin, a Chinese man, was murdered in 1982 for this exact reason by white men who lost their factory jobs and blamed the Japanese. Ryan’s insistence that his attacks are directed at another government dangerously disregards the fact that he’s directing harm at everyone people assume are Chinese in this country.

In 2022, 58% of respondents were unable to name a prominent Asian American (compared to 42% in 2021). The top people named were:

  • Jackie Chan (7% and not Asian American)
  • Bruce Lee (5%)
  • Lucy Liu (4%)
  • Kamala Harris (3%)

When asked what roles Asian women often play on screen, the top four answers (10% each) were:

  • Geisha/Sex Worker/Prostitute
  • Kung Fu/Martial Artist
  • Janitor/Maid/Cleaner
  • Don’t Know

When asked the same about Asian men:

  • 29% Kung Fu/Martial Artist
  • 17% Criminal/Gangs/Drug Dealers/Villain
  • 9% Doctor
  • 8% Supporting Role

Now what?

This data doesn’t capture the full scope of issues facing Asian communities and doesn’t speak to Pacific Islander experiences, but it does illustrate how pervasive monolithic grouping, reductive stereotypes and perpetual othering are. From islamophobia to sinophobia and exoticism to emasculation, what we create can feed or fight these dangerous beliefs.

So, where do we start? Stop erasing and othering:

  • Use ethnic identifiers. If using “Asian,” who do you actually have in mind? Are South or Central Asians included?
  • If we are a country of immigrants, why doesn’t the dominant narrative glorify the resilience and grit of immigrants and refugees? See: Everything Everywhere All At Once, Flee.
  • When using “AAPI,” are you actually considering Native Hawaiians and Pacific Islanders? See: Patagonia ad about indigenous land.
  • Give Asian characters backstories and honor their histories. So often, Asian roles are reduced to interchangeable stereotypes (e.g., Blade trilogy) without a deeper understanding of why we are and how we are. See: Turning Red, Warrior.
  • Lead with positive attributes when addressing our issues instead of the negative effects we deal with. See: Asset-framing by Trabian Shorters.

Normalize and integrate. Don’t exoticize, other or appropriate:

  • Asian people are normal people. Everyday activities can be represented by any Asian person. See: Lidl’s spot, Pocstock.
  • American pastimes are also loved by Asian Americans. See: Bank of America’s TV spot.
  • How about boba tea instead of coffee? Kakigori instead of ice cream? A Ramadan celebration instead of a birthday? See: This Is Us’ Katoby episode where Randall wants boba and Kate celebrates in Koreatown.
  • Unique visual elements of Asian cultures are not costumes, accessories or props. See: Gucci’s poor use of Sikh turbans on white models.

Do no harm: Check your ideas for exoticism, erasure, othering and appropriation.

As the people who come up with the words and images that drive culture, we must start with care. Care that you are sending messages to people and about people. The subject matter of people is not optimized for simplification and generalization while so much of marketing is supposed to.

Here’s the new brief: How do we get messages across clearly and uniquely while advancing, not jeopardizing, people and their humanity?

This article is part of a special Voice series, AAPI Voices Shaping the Future of Representation. In this series, we will hear from AAPI industry leaders on the cultural nuances marketers should be informed on in addition to current challenges the AAPI community faces.