SOUTHEAST ASIA: A PLACE OF INCREDIBLE DIVERSITY
THE DANGERS OF PAN-ETHNIC IDENTITIES
Back in the US, it is pretty commonplace for people to classify others as “Asians.” Now, I’m sure that no one does this out of malice, but it really is a gross overgeneralization that isn’t all that telling of the cultural practices and values with which one identifies. Categorizing people from Asia into one single group is, in my opinion, no more helpful or informative as it would be to categorize people from Europe, Africa, or North America for that matter. By lumping all people whose countries are located within Asia into one single category known as “Asians,” it implies that there are in fact very little differences between these groups when in reality the differences are immense.
Even within Thailand, for example, not everyone identifies as being “Thai.” People from Northern Thailand will often instead identify as being “Lan Na” because, in their view, Lan Na culture is significantly different from Thai culture. In fact, people from Northern Thailand and Southern Thailand are so culturally different that despite their shared nationality as Thais, they would have a very difficult time communicating with one another because of different languages/dialects.
This need not apply only to Asians. Arabs, Africans, Europeans, Hispanics/Latinos, or any other socially constructed pan-ethnic identity unfairly lumps people into categories. This, however, is not to say that all pan-ethnic identities are equally misrepresented, which depends mostly on power dynamics and social positioning.
Some pan-ethnic identities are more known to be pan-ethnic identities than others, which therefore implies that some people know that there is more to a person that the pan-ethnic identity they are lumped into. Coming from the US and having had no exposure to Asia before this semester, I was socially positioned to not be as aware of the nuances within “Asian” culture. Conversely, for someone from, say, Thailand, he or she would likely be socially positioned to not be as aware of the nuances within “Hispanic/Latino” culture.
So… does this mean we shouldn’t use pan-ethnicities?
The core problem with using pan-ethnicities is that it often leads to people forgetting about the diversity and variety that goes into these pan-ethnic groups. As long as we understand that there are vast underlying differences within these pan-ethnicies we use to categorize people, then I don’t have much of a problem with people using them. But if we disingenuously use these pan-ethnicies without realizing their limitations, then I think it can be detrimental to real cultural understanding.