Frank H. Wu (author of Yellow: Race Beyond Black and White, a useful if not entirely satisfying examination of the racial status of Asian Americans) has been making waves with his recent Huff Post editorial, Jeremy Lin and the End of Asian Americans? In it, he makes the point that Asian Americans are distinct from Asians globally, both because Asians in Asia don’t share a pan-Asian identity, and because Asian Americans are neither well known to nor very much like the peoples of the countries in which we are ethnically rooted.
Good enough. I don’t disagree with that point. But then, Wu says this –
I have insisted that Asian Americans are the same as other Americans. I am not sure I have been all that successful in this endeavor with either Asian Asians or other Americans.
This proposition falls flat in the face of a simple fact of life in America. Systematic racial categorization and stratification, in other words, white supremacy, makes us not at all “the same,” a reality confirmed by the difficulty Wu has faced in convincing “other Americans” of his proposal.
That’s not to say Asian Americans aren’t as all-American as anyone else. For instance, the experience of being grouped and characterized by race is as American as apple pie (another American twist on a European tradition).
Black people are lumped together regardless of whether they’re recent arrivals, or their ancestors were brought here as slaves. And little consideration is given to country of origin – virtually none at all after the first generation. Even those who come from places like Haiti almost immediately get absorbed into “African American” by the second generation.
Similarly, Latinos may be immigrants from many countries and cultures or descendents of people who have always lived right where they are, in places like Utah, Kansas, and Arizona, all or parts of which used to be Mexican. American Indians are also a diverse people by (Indian) nation of origin, language and culture. But they too are lumped into one racial category by virtue of the fact that they suffer a shared political history vis a vis the white settlers who pioneered the United States. Even whites are subject to this process, and continue to be lumped together across diverse European ethnic identities.
This point is driven home by Wu’s reference to the fact that Asians in Asia don’t identify as Asian, and don’t identify with Asian Americans. It’s only as we leave Asia that we assume a pan-Asian identity imposed on us by westerners for whom Asia might as well be Grosse Pointe, Michigan for all the diversity it is assumed exists among Asian peoples.
But this shared experience of being lumped into races doesn’t obliterate the social and political differences imposed on us by racism, which, after all, is the guiding ideology of racial categorization. In fact, racism exaggerates difference because we aren’t all raced the same. Each racial category has a different meaning meant to confer differences in status and power. For instance, black people were originally lumped together as a race in order for people who were raced white to enslave them. Asian Americans are lumped together, in part, because the first among us were exploited workers. Racial codes favoring whites meant that casting Asians and other immigrant workers as anything but white made us more exploitable.
Those same racial codes named whites “American,” and the rest of us something else entirely, denied the right to vote, own property, and move freely from one employer to another until as recently as the middle of the last century. Only white and male has always meant “American” in the U.S. Currently political debates over immigration rights, voting rights, and women’s reproductive freedom seem to indicate that, at least for a vocal and influential faction among Americans, the question of the full citizenship of women and people of color remains unanswered.
So yeah, Asians in the U.S. may be as American as chop suey and fortune cookies, but we’re not “the same” as all Americans. Until we are, we would do well to understand that the “Asian” that we attach to “American” is the flip side of the “European” that is generally not acknowledged among white Americans. It serves as a marker, both of how far we’ve come, and of how far we have yet to go in our journey toward true inclusion in a genuinely multiracial and democratic America.