When you think of Asians, who pops up in your mind? Chinese? Filipinos? Iranians?
People from Asia are as diverse as their places of origin. Yet our minds simplify that richness and create shortcuts for social groups, more strongly associating particular people or places over others. But that comes with consequences for America’s fastest-growing race.
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“We need to disaggregate the Asian identity more to have a stronger understanding of their plight and issues they face in society,” said Assistant Professor of Psychology Jin Goh.
Goh, together with psychology major Jamie McCue ’22, coauthored a new paper, accepted to the Journal of Experimental Social Psychology, that examines who Americans and Britons typically consider Asian. Conducting a series of studies, they found that Americans think of East Asians and don’t consider South Asians to be Asians but Britons are more likely to consider South Asians than Americans.
This difference, rooted in history, bears an important lesson for many, including scholars and policymakers.
“In many disciplines, when people study Asians, they mostly seem to be only talking about East Asians, even though they use the term broadly for people from over 20 national origins,” said Goh, a native of Malaysia.
When he moved to the United States, Goh observed that people mistakenly thought he was East Asian, and that others didn’t recognize Southeast Asians as Asians. Wondering why, he decided to investigate this personal issue from a professional perspective for the first time at Colby.
“As an Asian American, I wanted to understand and contribute to the literature that sometimes overlooks Asian Americans,” he said. And he wanted to do so in a “more nuanced and more historically grounded way that has not been done before in psychology”—a discipline that’s known to be ahistorical.
“I don’t think I’d have been able to do this project outside of Colby,” he said, emphasizing its interdisciplinary nature drawing from not only history but also anthropology and sociology. Colleagues from other disciplines “really opened my eyes to how a well-rounded liberal arts education can really push our research to go beyond the silo.”
Goh and McCue, “a pivotal member of the team” who joined as a sophomore, designed three studies to explore American and British views on Asians.
For the first study, McCue combed through databases to select 30 photos showing East Asian, South Asian, and white peoples. This was a struggle, she recalled, because images of East and West Asians dominated the databases. The researchers asked participants to rate each image for its likelihood of representing an Asian. It turned out that Americans considered East Asians to be more prototypically Asian than Britons while Britons viewed South Asians that way more so than Americans.
Writing up the results and applying her in-class learnings to this real-world study, McCue found this conclusion illuminating.
Coming from a Massachusetts community with a 33-percent Asian population (predominantly Chinese), she realized that there are many other different groups within the Asian American umbrella. “They shouldn’t be lumped together,” she said, “especially when it comes to very important things like economic assistance and scholarships to get into college.”
In the second study, participants rated a list of 12 Asian subgroups (e.g. East, South, and West Asians) on how Asian they thought they were. Americans saw East and Southeast Asians as more prototypical than any other subgroup. Britons, however, rated South Asians at the top.
The last study aimed to find out participants’ perceptions on the foreignness of these same 12 Asian subgroups but with Canadians included for comparison. For Americans and Britons, Canadians emerged as the least foreign, followed by East Asians for Americans and South Asians for the British.
The overall results gained more meaning with history.
Goh explained that the first U.S. immigration policies targeted Chinese people, such as the 1875 Page Act and 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act. He argued that these, coupled with events like the World War II Japanese internment camps as well as the Korean and Vietnam Wars, led Americans to associate Asians primarily with East and Southeast Asia. India’s colonization, on the other hand, fundamentally shaped Britons’ perception.
“History really does provide a profound understanding of modern psychology,” said Goh, “and how we currently think about and treat other people.”