Written by members of Sông to Sea, a US Pacific Northwest leftist collective of people with ancestral ties to Việt Nam. Sông means river in Vietnamese to denote the many rivers in Southeast Asia that converge to the Pacific Ocean that connect us to the Coast Salish Sea, where we currently reside, and the many rivers and streams here that flow to that same Pacific Ocean, connecting us back to Southeast Asia.
Our society’s lack of racial literacy has created so much confusion between ethnic identity, nationality, and political identity, and the media and other institutions often conflate identity politics with representation politics.
These common misconceptions create obstacles in leftist organizing spaces and movements. I want to share what I have learned about identity, in service of collective understanding, so we can build power together with greater clarity, specifically in diasporic Asian organizing.
Representation politics: Diverse faces, same dominant system
There’s been a lot of liberal excitement about how Biden’s appointees are women, people of color, LGBT, or have immigrants/refugee backgrounds. Yet, their politics are not liberatory for the groups they are supposed to represent.
Michele Flournoy being touted as “the first woman to run the Pentagon" is imperial feminism. According to a Brown University study, the aggressive, post-9/11 US wars she advocated for have displaced 37 million people.
The new secretary of the Department of Homeland Security, Alejandro Mayorkas, is a Jewish Cuban refugee and the first Latino man to hold this position. But under the Obama-Biden administration, Mayorkas was responsible for the creation of a vast network of detention centers. Trump might be known as the “kids in cages'' president, but the cages were built under Obama-Biden, with Alejandro Mayorkas overseeing the project.
At a more mundane level, I was once placed in a recruiting video for my first job out of college because I am Asian. I became the face of "diversity" for a multinational corporation with white leadership, having no understanding yet of white supremacy, nor the drive and mission to demolish it.
These are all examples of representation politics. Representation politics is when a person from a non-dominant group who fits a certain identity is given some relative power within a dominant institution to carry out the agenda of the dominant group. The existing power dynamics between the two groups, however, remain undisrupted.
While representation politics blunts political consciousness, identity politics is about raising political consciousness. The former perpetuates the existing power dynamics, while the latter seeks to disrupt it through organizing and fighting against the repression based on political identities.
We’ll revisit the origin of identity politics, but first, let’s talk about identities: political, ethnic, national, and racial.
Political identity is about relationship to power
A political identity is born out of a people or groups of people’s relationship to power.
"White" is technically a political identity. It has nothing to do with biology; it was formed to justify and consolidate power. "white people" are peoples of many ethnicities who have been folded into one single political identity to implement racial capitalism: the process of converting humans and land into property and profit. "whiteness" was always meant to be an anti-Black and anti-Indigenous device that defines itself as superior to the Other.
In the US, racialized groups have formed political identities for collective power in response to white oppression.
"Black" became a political identity in the 60s with the Black Power Movement and Kwame Ture’s call for "for cultural political and economic self-determination." Kwame Ture mentioned "Black power" in public for the first time at a rally in 1966. Before that, the term for Black people in the US was "Negro."
“Asian American” is a political identity created in 1968 which united Japanese, Chinese and Filipino American college students in California with an explicit anti-imperialist agenda. It was born from organizing for racial justice for Asians and from movements opposing the war in Southeast Asia. Before that, Asians were called "Oriental."
"Woman of color" is also a political identity. It was created at the 1977 US National Women's Conference to unite Black women and non-Black minoritized women and address shared political and social issues.
Because political identities are about power, they can have different meanings to people in different physical locations. For example, newly arrived African immigrants to the US may not immediately view themselves as Black. In Việt Nam, I am neither a "woman of color" nor "Asian American." Removed from their contexts, these political identities hold little significance.
Political identity is, as Missouri Board of Education member Mike Jones said, "Something metaphysical...a way of looking at and understanding the world that empowers you to act upon that world to advance your interests."
Understanding our political identity and how our identities are politicized can be instructive to our actions to advance our fight.
Over time, radical political identities tend to be de-fanged and stripped of their original intention. "Asian American" was once about pan-Asian solidarity, self-determination, and anti-imperialism. Today, it is often used as an ethnic identity, and there’s little recognition that it’s a political identity.
Ethnic identities are based on sociocultural factors
Cultural ties and the kinship among people form and inform an ethnic identity based on sociocultural factors. These include the languages we speak; the lullabies we sing; the food we cook; our relationship with the land, waters, spirits, and our ancestors; our creation myths; and the rituals and celebrations of the seasons. Historically, an ethnic identity can also be connected to a specific location: a mountain, a river, or a forest.
Geographical or geological names are often used to define the inhabitants as an ethnonym. For example, the Shanyue people who lived in Southern China & Northern Vietnam during the Han dynasty are literally "mountain viet," from shan = mountain and yue = viet.
My ethnicity is Kinh Viet. The word “kinh” in sino-vietnamese means capital, which was used to describe people living in the “capital zone,” a settlement by the Red Delta River. Today it is known as Hà Nội, which literally means “inside (the) river.” The people living there were a mix of Tai-Kadai people, Austroasiatic Viet-Muong people, and various ethnic Chinese groups who gradually formed a distinct culture over 1000+ years.
Importantly, there are times when a political identity can also be an ethnic identity. African peoples who survived the Middle Passage were forced to relinquish their ethnicities, but they forged a new culture, combining varied folklores, languages, music, and foodways. People in the African diaspora are incredibly diverse and have the most varied background of any other racial group in the Americas.
Ethnic identities do not solely rest on genetics. In the US alone, there are 574 federally recognized tribes. Yet, not a single DNA test can tell if someone is Navajo, Blackfoot, or Lakota. Blood quantum as a legitimate marker of identity is a colonial construct designed to control Indigenous nations and peoples.
“Blackness” is also subject to white supremacist laws, which is reflected in the "one-drop rule,” "one Black ancestor rule,” or “traceable amount rule.” It’s from a concept called hypodescent, which is when “racially mixed persons are assigned the status of the subordinate group” in a society where some are socially superior and others inferior. This also categorizes some people as “pure blood” — a eugenicist idea.
Being “mixed” is not a unique or recent phenomenon. History shows us that humans have been migrating and inter-marrying since time immemorial. To be mixed is to be human.
Long before so-called European “discovery”, the Indian Ocean trade routes connected Southeast Asia, East Asia, India, Arabia, and East Africa beginning as early as the 3rd century BCE. Traders went everywhere, and they didn't just trade spices.
As such, there’s no single "Asian look", just as there’s no such thing as an "Asian spice." In the West, we risk doing ourselves a disservice by essentializing “Asianness'' to a narrow set of Orientalist characteristics. We would do better to push back against “race science” and biological essentialism, and keep expanding our understanding of what is considered Asia and by whom.
Ethnic identity is not dependent on nation-states. For thousands of years, Hmong people have lived in Laos, Viet Nam, Thailand, and China regardless of where the borders are. Ethnic groups and ethnic identity predate the creation of nation-states and settler-colonial states and will outlast them.
Nationality is a legal status between a person and a nation.
Speaking of settler-colonial states, we need not look further than the US as an example. Throughout US history, citizenship has been used as a tool to determine who can access rights to land, resources, and power. Nationality is a legal status.
From its inception, citizenship in the US was exclusively for elite, non-enslaved white men. The notion of citizenship has been used to justify mass displacement and the exploitation of human labor.
Citizenship in the US is associated with whiteness. Whiteness evolved from an English, protestant identity and every European ethnic group, even the palest, blondest Scandanavians, had to pass legal gauntlets for entry into this political identity.
It took a 1908 court case to determine if a Finnish man could become a US citizen. Before that, the Finnish were considered “Mongol”, or “Yellow,” and they were not eligible for naturalization due to the Chinese Exclusion Act. In the end, they were ruled “white” and qualified for citizenship.
It wasn’t until 1868, nearly 100 years after the US’s “Declaration of Independence,” that the 14th amendment gave Black people the right to citizenship. Indigenous peoples didn't legally become US citizens until 1924, but this Act was meant to break up Native nations and force them to assimilate via the boarding school system.
For immigrants from non-Western countries, citizenship continues to be a process of hyper-selectivity. Many who are allowed to enter have greater wealth and access to institutional education than people in their home country and in the US. Immigrants in the US often aspire to whiteness and the legal status of citizenship, as “white” and “American” are often understood to mean the same thing.
As Andrea Smith pointed out, the promise of citizenship gives non-Native peoples a way to take part in settling Indigenous lands. Non-Black peoples are promised that if we assimilate and participate in anti-Black systems, we will be awarded better place in the US racial hierarchy.
The language surrounding nationality is rooted in legality and rights, which conveniently ensures the settler-colonial state’s best interests. Coded into the very core of the law is the idea that citizenship is “natural”, i.e. “naturalization.” When confronted with the US's own white supremacist interests, that supposed absolute falls apart.
Two Supreme Court cases give us insight into the fragile nature of citizenship. The first is Ozawa v. United States. Takao Ozawa was born in Japan and lived in the US for 20 years before applying for US citizenship in Hawaii. He went to college at Berkeley, attended mass, and spoke English in his daily life. He argued that in all ways except legally, he was a US citizen. His petition was denied based on him “having been born in Japan and being of the Japanese race.”
This brings us to United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, one year later. Thind was an Asian Indian man, and applied for citizenship on the basis of his “Aryan” blood according to prevailing race science. The court also denied him citizenship because Thind was not white under a “common sense” definition.
Had “naturalization” been truly natural, Ozawa and Thind would have both been conferred US citizenship based on the law’s own requirements, but white supremacy insists that they did not belong based on race. But what is race?
Race is an Enlightenment-era construct
The so-called “Enlightenment thinkers” of the 17th and 18th century constructed the concept of race based on arbitrary biological classifications such as skull sizes. European scientific racism would later be used to justify white superiority, and therefore, colonial expansion and enslavement.
In 1767, in a scientific journal, Swedish botanist Carl Linnaeus published the five races as follows:
- The Americanus: red, choleric, righteous; black, straight, thick hair; stubborn, zealous, free; painting himself with red lines, and regulated by customs.
- The Europeanus: white, sanguine, browny, with abundant long hair; blue eyes; gentle, acute, inventive; covered with close vestments; and governed by laws.
- The Asiaticus: yellow, melancholic, stiff; black hair, dark eyes; severe, haughty, greedy; covered with loose clothing; and ruled by opinions.
- The Afer or Africanus: black, phlegmatic, relaxed; black, frizzled hair; silky skin, flat nose, tumid lips; females without shame; mammary glands give milk abundantly; crafty, sly, lazy, cunning, lustful, careless; anoints himself with grease; governed by caprice.
What is the 5th race, you might wonder? It’s the Monstrosus, mythologic humans which included:
- The "four-footed, mute, hairy" Homo feralis (Feral man)
- The animal-reared Juvenis Lupinus hessensis (Hessian wolf boy)
- The Juvenis hannoveranus (Hannoverian boy)
I don’t know if modern day "catboys'' would qualify as Monstrosus, but the anthropomorphic man and "humanoid creatures" like the hydra and phoenix did.
This was not some collection of Nordic fairy tales. Linneaus, known as the father of modern taxonomy, published this racial classification in multiple editions. Our entire world still uses this stale saltine’s biological classifications today.
In 1795, Johann Friedrich Blumenbach, a soggy pretzel considered to be the founder of zoology and anthropology, created his own color-coded classification scheme of 5 races:
- Schwarz "black" (Aethiopian)
- Gelbbraun "yellow-brown" (Mongolian)
- Schwarzbraun "black-brown" (Malayan)
- Kupferroth "copper-red" (American)
- Weiss "white" (Caucasian)
The same year, French naturalist and moldy baguette Georges-Louis Leclerc, Comte de Buffon categorized 4 races instead:
- "White" European race (Race der Weißen)
- "Black" Negroid race (Negerrace)
- "Copper-red" Kalmyk race (kalmuckishe Race)
- "Olive-yellow" Indian race (Hinduische Race)
“Mais pourquois only quatre races?”, asked fellow surgeon and burnt brioche René Lesson, who presented 6 groups in 1847:
- White (Caucasian)
- Dusky (Indian)
- Orange-colored (Malay)
- Yellow (Mongoloid)
- Red (Carib and American)
- Black (Negroid)
These were respected Enlightenment thinkers and scientists. They had actual debates about these absurd and arbitrary categories.
As you can see, there is nothing biological about being "white." It's a political identity created to justify stealing land, enslaving people, and waging wars to maximize profit for the wealthy ruling class. The US uses it to identify those it deems qualified to receive resources, land, citizenship, freedom, etc. “White” is not an ethnicity.
"Asian" is not an ethnicity either, nor is it a monoculture. Asia is home to some 4.5 billion people, about 60% of the world’s current population. Depending on who you ask, it contains 48-54 countries with thousands of ethnic groups.
Technically, countries from the "Middle East" and Central Asia are also part of Asia. Russia is part of both Europe and Asia. A Russian friend once told me that's why its symbol is the double-headed eagle, facing both west and east, to symbolize the nation's geographic position.
The US Census only defines people with ancestry from East Asia, South Asia, or Southeast Asia as "Asian." Iranians, Moroccans, and Afghans are classified as "white." Dow v. United States ruled that immigrants from certain parts of Asia, including Syrians, were "white" in order to bypass Asian exclusion laws against naturalization.
What is considered "The East" and "Asian" in political discourse evolves and shifts based on the colonial interests of "The West." Before World War I, the “Near East” meant the land under the Ottoman Empire. At the start of 1900, this was around Tunisia to Egypt to Turkey to Iraq, while the "Middle East" included northwestern South Asia and Central Asia. The "Far East" was all countries in Southeast and East Asia and the easternmost part of Russian Siberia called the Russian Far East.
Over time, racial categories change to accommodate the white power structure. For example, the US Census classifies people from Algeria as white and people from Mali and Niger as Black. But the Tuareg people, a large Berber ethnic confederation, live in Algeria, Niger, and Mali.
“Latin America” is also another legacy of colonialism, named by French, Spanish and Portuguese colonists. They wanted to associate themselves with the land they wanted to conquer and claim while differentiating themselves from English and German colonists. The “Latin race” was first mentioned in the 1830s by a French economist.
Race is fake, but its impact is real
This is because it was invented and altered by colonial and imperial powers. For instance, people in our diasporic Asian organizing spaces might have “racial impostor syndrome.” They might not feel “Asian enough or have anxiety around belongingness.
To people with Asian and European ancestry who feel they have to identify as “mixed white” or “%-white,” I offer this: you do not have to accept a nebulous identity defined by imperialists that has no culture or belonging. “There’s no such thing as a white community,” Fred Moten said, “because whiteness destroys communities.” You do not have to identify with whiteness — not even part way. You don't have to claim a quarter of a construct someone created to justify colonialism. You are a whole person. You do not need to assume a fractional identity.
The language of "half-white," “quarter-white,” etc. was created for Indigenous erasure. It was used to control people by defining and limiting the citizenship of Indigenous nations and tribes. In the words of Black Literature and Culture and Critical Theory Professor Alex Weheliye: “Racialization is understood not as a biological or cultural descriptor, but as a conglomerate of sociopolitical relations that discipline humanity into full humans, not-quite-humans, and nonhumans."
Race is not our biological or cultural identity; we are racialized. I wish more people would understand the formation of race and political identities because they define our relationships to power.
People can say they're "not political" and wish to not get involved in politics, but the lives of those who bear political identities are always politicized by the state. This means that institutions use political identity to decide who gets what — resources, status, rights, etc. — when, and how.
That’s why political identities are created, and that’s why identity politics exists.
The purpose of identity politics
Feminist activist and writer Aurora Levins Morales describes the political identity of “women of color”:
"This tribe called ‘Women of Color’ is not an ethnicity. It is one of the inventions of solidarity, an alliance, a political necessity that is not the given name of every female with dark skin and a colonized tongue, but rather a choice about how to resist and with whom."
“Women of Color” sprung from coalitional identity politics. As scholar, activist, and artist Bernice Johnson Reagon said:
“It must become necessary for all of us to feel that this is our world…‘our’ must include everybody you have to include in order for you to survive…you ain’t gonna be able to have an “our” that don’t include Bernice Johnson Reagon, cause I don’t plan to go nowhere! That’s why we have to have coalitions.”
The term "identity politics" was coined by Barbara Smith. She was a scholar, activist, author, lesbian, feminist, socialist, and educator who was a significant figure in Black queer feminism and the Combahee River Collective. Smith was in high school when she marched against school segregation. She organized against the American War in Vietnam. She organized with poor and working-class people in Boston. After having done all that, she wrote: "the most profound and potentially most radical politics come directly out of our own identity."
The first known written record of the term "identity politics" appeared in a statement in 1977 by a Black feminist group called the Combahee River Collective, which outlines the context from which the term arose:
"There have always been Black women activists—some known, like Sojourner Truth, Harriet Tubman, Frances E. W. Harper, Ida B. Wells Barnett, and Mary Church Terrell, and thousands upon thousands unknown — who have had a shared awareness of how their sexual identity combined with their racial identity to make their whole life situation and the focus of their political struggles unique."
"We realize that the only people who care enough about us to work consistently for our liberation are us…This focusing upon our own oppression is embodied in the concept of identity politics."
"We believe that sexual politics under patriarchy is as pervasive in Black women's lives as are the politics of class and race. We...find it difficult to separate race from class from sex oppression because in our lives they are most often experienced simultaneously."
"We realize that the liberation of all oppressed peoples necessitates the destruction of the political-economic systems of capitalism and imperialism as well as patriarchy. We are socialists because we believe that work must be organized for the collective benefit of those who do the work and create the products, and not for the profit of the bosses. Material resources must be equally distributed among those who create these resources. We are not convinced, however, that a socialist revolution that is not also a feminist and anti-racist revolution will guarantee our liberation."
The organization’s beliefs and praxis are built upon the understanding that “major systems of oppression are interlocking” and that collective self-determination is the path to liberation. Throughout world history, social change was made possible by grassroots organizations creating coalitions and building solidarity.
Representation politics does not build grassroots power and self-determination. In many cases, it attempts to weaken, silence, or extinguish oppressed people’s power. Identity politics, on the other hand, seeks to build capacity and power. As Babasaheb Ambedkar said, we must “Educate, Agitate, Organize.”
Through understanding systems of oppression such as patriarchy, political-economic systems such as capitalism and imperialism, and how political identities are formed, we can do our most effective work. Having this clarity means we will know that a Black man at the head of the US Defense Department and a Vietnamese refugee as the Director of ICE is not liberatory. Multicultural, multi-racial white supremacy is still white supremacy.
My wish is that we continue to build our understanding of our own investments in these identities and what it means for us personally and politically in diasporic Asian organizing. If you call yourself “Asian American,” think about why: is it to honor the journey and struggles of your parents? To reflect a cultural adaptation or assimilation you’ve gone through? Because you’re still invested in the idea and mythology of “America,” or for the “strategic essentialism” of pan-Asian solidarity?
Identity politics is the personal made political. By honestly understanding ourselves and engaging with our personal histories and political identities, we gain personal power that we can then translate into stronger convictions and more cohesive, effective resistance.
Through this framework, I have done and continue to do a lot of work to understand my political identity, which is inextricably tied to my history and ethnicity. My organizing work is more effective and less harmful when I do it within the framework of true identity politics.
I’ll end with this teaching from the Combahee River Collective: once we engage in identity politics, “we have a very definite revolutionary task to perform” and “a lifetime of work and struggle before us.” Once we are really clear on who we are, we can be in stronger solidarity with the coalitions of which we are a part.