I get asked that question and various riffs on it like “why do Asians hate black people?” and “why do Asians only stick with other Asians?” all the time. While these questions may seem rude, I take them seriously, not least because they contain seeds of truth, even if they’re ultimately based on misinformation.
Before I get into what I meant by that, perhaps, confusing statement, let’s get real about racism. Racism is distinct from ordinary bias because it was created as the justification for and original blueprint of a society in which race and class were pretty much the same thing. Class is how wealth and therefore power is organized. So, race and power are inextricable. And while parts of the original racist blueprint have changed over time, we built real structures and institutions, like our electoral college, ghettos, and suburbs, just to name a few examples, based on that blue print. We can change our minds about the original design, but unless we dismantle and rebuild those structures, we’re stuck with the inequities they create.
This creates a situation in which white racists are no more morally bankrupt than any other brand of bigot, but they are more effective. After all, white as a racial category was created as the basis of a white supremacist political and economic system, just as “Asian,” and “Black,” etc., were created in order to dehumanize and subjugate non-whites within that same system. Even if you perceive Asians to be “so” racist, we’re certainly not more racist if you measure racism in terms of broad impact. And in addition to the structural racial inequality that is the legacy of this history, keep in mind, our political system in based on majority rule.
But there’s more. Asian immigrants almost never arrive here with an understanding of “Asian” as a race nor of the racial attitudes that prevail in the U.S. They have to be taught. New arrivals are inundated with racist messages as they grapple with what it means to be “American,” often without the benefit of actually knowing members of the racial groups that are being defamed, and without access to contrary sources of information in the languages we speak. Imagine what it would be like to be a Vietnamese immigrant landing in Brownsville, New York’s blackest neighborhood, where 93% of residents have been stopped and frisked by police.
Newly arrived immigrants assimilate a culture in which it is business as usual for American authority figures to arbitrarily pick out black people and treat them like criminals. It’s not that hard to see why many reach the conclusion that black people are prone to criminality, a racist impression that will be reinforced by TV, conservative politicians, movies, and popular music. But we all consume these same messages and “all” of us includes a lot of other immigrants, from many parts of the world, including Europe. So are Asians more racist? I doubt it. Instead, I argue we are less subtle when we express our ill-informed bigotries because we often don’t understand the accepted racial etiquette that we use to avoid provoking racial confrontations.
But racial “etiquette” should not be confused for an absence of racism, nor, particularly, of an anti-racist mind-set. Knowing and living in that etiquette simply means knowing how to avoid an argument or the label “racist.”
Oh, and what’s more, that etiquette tends to make racism more rather than less difficult to combat by forcing it underground.
The process of assimilation tends to twist many American national characteristics into caricature as immigrants for whom these characteristics are exotic attempt to distill and adopt them. This makes these characteristics, like racist beliefs, especially apparent.
But while Asians are certainly guilty of racism, we are also among its victims. That might be why 76% of Asian Americans polled by the National Asian American Survey support affirmative action against 14% who are opposed. Asian Americans also tend to favor humane immigration reform and Obamacare. These are all racially charged issues, especially in how they are treated by national political leaders. Yet, Asian American opinion on these issues seems unaffected by negative racial stereotyping.
And this thing about Asians only liking other Asians? Well, that’s sort of true, though I’m not sure “like” is the right word. Identify might be a better one. The peculiar way that Asians are treated results in a shared experience that most folks can’t relate to unless they’re Asian. So, many Asians do tend to identify very strongly with other Asians, especially those that belong to their particular ethnic heritage groups.
Imagine, for instance, that you are an Asian immigrant from Cambodia who came to the U.S. as a refugee of war. Being a war survivor, I’m guessing, is likely to amplify the degree to which you will identify with others of your ethnic group who are also war survivors and, by the way, maybe the only people in your community who speak your language. Then add to this the way in which you are treated – having people react to your inability to speak English fluently as an indication of a refusal to assimilate, as un-American, or simply as a sign that you’re not very bright.
The combination of these experiences might just cause you to stick to others of similar experience who aren’t treating you that way.
But, Asians aren’t more cliquish than other groups. In fact, whites are the most racially exclusive. 40% of whites, according to a recent Reuters commissioned study, don’t have friends of other races. Given the incredibly large number of whites relative to other groups, that’s a big claim. It means that more whites don’t have friends of other races than the total number of people of color in the U.S. excluding Latinos. And this isn’t just indicative of how whites live, it’s also indicative of how whites think. If you don’t believe that, I present all six seasons of Sex and the City, ten more of Friends, and a whole pile of episodes of Girls as evidence.