The Simple-Mindedness of American Identity Politics

In a recent interview with American writer Amy Tan, the American journalist Terry Gross struggles to explain how Tan’s father, a Chinese-born American Baptist minister, was fundamentally different from Tan’s mother’s ex-husband, an abusive Chinese man. “They’re both Chinese, but they both come from really different cultures in a way,” she said.

Hearing her pause and struggle through the sentence reminded me of everything that is wrong with American identity politics. Terry Gross, an extremely intelligent and educated journalist with decades of experience talking to literally thousands of people from various backgrounds, seemed to have difficulties with the concept that a country with over a billion people can house different people of different ethnic, religious, and social identities.

Her struggles reminded me of a very different failure to identify diversity from over a decade ago. At the start of the Iraq War, George W. Bush and his advisors assured the American public that Americans would be welcomed as liberators, and the post-war effort in Iraq would be relatively effortless. We now know how absurdly misplaced that confidence was, but to this day Americans still struggle to identify and understand the distinctions between Sunnis, Shiites, Christian Iraqis, and secular Iraqis. What’s worse, American policies and identity politics do not base themselves on these distinctions, which are literally a matter of life and death for the people being identified.

This is an endemic flaw in American society. Since I have spent the bulk of my adult life as an expatriate, I have been unable to use the categories that Americans depend on when mapping out the world. For instance, the identity “Asian” is absolutely meaningless to me, although “Asian-American” is a moniker commonly used in America, and American perceptions of over half of the world’s population rely on this broad generalization.

Of course, nothing could be further from the truth. Qatar and South Korea are extremely different societies and cultures, even if both compete in the Asian Games. And if you are South Korean, for instance, being “Asian” is likely at best a tertiary identity — far behind identifying as a Korean (한국인) or a Buddhist (불교인), or a resident of Seoul, or a woman, or the child of a member of the middle class, and so on.

In fact, socio-economic and gender identities in many of the world’s nations are substantially more important than the hyperregional or continental identities that Americans heavily rely on. Being born poor in Cambodia means much more to the impoverished Cambodian than being born in Asia. When I lived in Korea, I heard many people talk about being Korean, being Confucist, or (very frequently), not being Japanese. The only Koreans whom I met that ever spoke to me about being “Asian” were the Koreans who had been educated in the United States or United Kingdom.

I am not the first person to note the quaint inability of Americans to see what is to them subtle cultural differences. Long ago, Gayatri Spivak wrote about westerns’ inability to see the diversity of colonized nations in “Can the Subaltern Speak?”

Although barely intelligible because of its dense jargon, the core idea of the article is really quite simple: in non-western civilizations, there are people in power and people who are not in power, and western interlopers struggle to distinguish the two, resulting in a pretty big mess. (This is also the core idea of “The Quiet American,” and Greene’s novel is infinitely more readable.)

While I believe in the evolution of the history of ideas towards greater complexity and accuracy, the world of identity politics seems to be an exception. Hoards of Americans whose ancestors hail from various societies around the globe identify themselves less as, for instance, descendants of rice farmers in northeast Thailand (where the people are often not considered truly Thai by the Thais of the capital), and more as “Asian-Americans”. Descendants of Jewish mercantilists in Bergen no longer seen themselves as Jewish Dutch, but merely as Jewish Americans — thus conflating themselves with Safardic Jews with very different histories, foods, and traditions or Czech Jews with their own unique cultures and traditions. My own family’s identity has thus been simplified over time — almost all Americans reading this probably have a similar dumbing down and Disneyfied identity.

While simplifying complex foreign identities may be the American way, Americans who fail to recognize this and assert this view on others will continue making the mistakes of history. Americans who assert their own superiority by denouncing the racism of others for not tolerating, for instance, Hispanic Americans are themselves indulging in a racism by assuming all Hispanics are similar enough to deserve an umbrella term. And famous journalists who insist they are on the right side of history will still struggle with the fact that China is a very big country with more diversity than almost all other countries on Earth.