Race in the US has always been defined in white and black categories. Groups who do not obviously fit in any of these two categories have had a hard time defining their own position within such a society, and society, likewise, has had a hard time to decide where to put them. Asians, mostly because of their outside appearance have usually been given a position in between black and white. Since the 1960s, they have, on the one hand, been pitted against Blacks as a “model minority” and, on the other hand, they have not been given equality with whites. White society has had a particular hard time attributing Filipinos and Asian Indians, who are today considered Asians, a racial category, for they do not look Asian and usually have a dark skin color. In the case of Asian Indians, there was also the issue that they are Caucasian. The dichotomy of white and black has also very often been associated with that of good and evil, smart and stupid, superior and inferior and the like. Because of this harsh opposition of black and white, without a gray zone in between, the question whether or not Asians have to become “white” in order to achieve the position or place they claim has to be considered very carefully.
In my opinion, this question can be answered neither with a clear “yes” nor with a clear “no,” for I believe that the term “white” is, first of all, a question of perception and needs to be defined in terms of who is considered “white,” by whom, and why. Moreover, this “legitimate place or position” claimed by Asian Americans has to be put in more precise terms in order to decide this question. And finally, it must not be forgotten that umbrella terms like “Asian American” or even “white” are simplifications and do not reflect reality as it is. Their inclusiveness or exclusiveness depend on many different variables.
Before addressing the question of “whiteness,” I would like to explain the reasons why I prefer to use the categories of “white” and “non-white” instead of “white” and “black” in this essay. This is so because I do not at all feel comfortable using the categories “white,” “black,” and “people of color” (or “yellow,” “red,” etc.) in the same context since they are not located on the same (semantic) level. Whereas “people of color” does obviously refer to the concept of “color,” “black” and “white” as such are not considered to be colors at all.
Let’s now turn to the question of “whiteness,” i.e. who is considered “white” and who is not. The term “white” has been used to make certain people eligible to citizenship in the Naturalization Act of 1790, and this act has been used until the 1940s (in some cases even longer) to deny citizenship to certain groups of people, to exclude and discriminate against them. There is one example which clearly shows the extent of controversy about the term “white,” and this is the fact that Asian Indians have been declared “white” in court decisions in 1910 and 1913 in Balsara vs. US and Mazumdar vs. US respectively, whereas the court decision in the 1923 Thind vs US case declared them as “non-white.” In general, it can be held that who may be “white” for one group may be considered “non-white” by another group, according to certain interests, experiences, or other reasons. In other words, a definition of “whiteness” is closely linked to one’s perspective.
For many Americans, the concept “white” is linked to one’s skin color. This has often been used to exclude “non-white” groups from certain rights. It also means that the position Asian Americans claim requires a change of skin color, so becoming literally white is, in theory, the only way to achieve this position. In a milder variation of this idea, “white” may be linked up to a position of power comparable to a “white” person. The only way for achieving a position of power may be in an area where a certain number of “non-whites” are concentrated and constitute a majority, such as in Hawai'i where Asians make up more than 40 % of the population. However, this achievement of power requires Asians to reproduce a certain kind of “white” behavior in regard to other ethnic or racial groups on the islands to set themselves apart. As Haunani-Kay Trask shows, this produces a very controversial position for Asians: on the one hand, they are considered basically “white” by Native Hawaiians due to their position of power, but at the same time they are trying to set themselves apart from the haole because they do not equate themselves with the paternalistic colonizer, thus their claim for a “local nation.” They basically want to have white power outside both haole and Native Hawaiian society. “Whiteness,” once more, cannot be universally defined because it is a notion constructed from a specific point of view, and for the US white population a position of power is associated with “whiteness.”
Minorities, as well, associate “whiteness” with power, and also with class. For them, everyone who is, in one way or the other, a colonizer is white. This is the case, as already mentioned, in Hawai'i, where Asians, and especially Japanese Americans, are equated with the white settlers due to their behavior. Trask, from her Native Hawaiian point of view, at least makes this implication by calling the Asians in Hawai'i “settlers” which usually means “colonizers.” Another example for this view can be found in the 1992 L.A. race riots, when Blacks rioted against Koreans. Since the white oppressors where too far away from their neighborhood, Blacks substituted the local Korean shop-owners for them1. These Koreans were in a way the “whites” of the neighborhood since they were better off and due to cultural misunderstandings. However, once more, this does not mean that Koreans were really “white,” since they were still seen as “nonwhite” by white society and left without the police protection whites in Beverly Hills had. Therefore, for minorities, if someone has a position of power he is “white,” no matter what.
Asian Americans as a group also associate the classification “white” with the colonizer (such as in the idea of an internal colony) and with exclusion. The only exception is the group that still believes in the assimilationist approach, such as the JACL during World War Two. For assimilationists, in order to get the position they want, they have to become as “white” as possible in attitude, behavior, and way of life. They thoroughly believed, as is reflected in Mike Masaoka’s creed, that equality is not a matter of skin color. However, other groups of Asians do believe that, in order to achieve the place they claim, they can retain their ethnicity and race and do not have to become “white.” One of these groups is the faction who believes in mental and political de-colonization by adhering to their racial and ethnic identity. For them, the place they claim can only be achieved by not becoming “white.” In short, “the place they claim” is not a universal goal but differs from one faction to the other. Those who want to achieve a de-colonization are rather attempting to achieve a social position of equality which, they believe, does mean to not become “white.” Those who want to achieve political power, be it individual or collective power, see becoming “white” as the only way of achieving this goal.
To cut a long story short, the answer to the question of whether or not Asian Americans have to become “white” in order to achieve the position they claim is located in a whole variety of different spheres. It has to do with the dynamic of self-identification and identification from the outside, and also with multiplicity, i.e. their place on different axes in a very complex social system, and positionality, i.e. their relationship to other groups and subgroups as well as their goals. Race as a part of the political process in the distribution of resources and access is certainly a construct, and a construct created and maintained by “white society.2” In today’s system with its long history of exclusion of certain “non-white” groups, I do not believe that there is a way for Asian Americans to make themselves a place without at least taking over some of the characteristics of “white” society. Race from a social point of view is also a construct, but this concept is constructed from within a group of people. From this point of view, becoming “white” must be avoided to achieve a certain position. The controversy that arises here is, however, that in order to preserve what is called “Asian American” the group must not become “white,” whereas a political participation cannot go without this adopted “whiteness.” To cut a long story short, I think that in a pluralistic society, there exist different spheres of interest which may or may not require Asian Americans to become “white” to some extent.3 One does have to become “white,” even if not entirely, in order to politically participate, but they may well retain their racial or ethnic identity in the non-political sphere.
One also has to be aware of the danger of umbrella terms such as “Asian American” and “white.” In other words, one must not forget the intersectionality of race, class and gender which gives a person of a certain race, a certain class, and a certain gender a specific position with specific privileges. This position may or may not be the same within an ethnic group and the larger society. There are both more privileged Asian Americans and less privileged whites, and adherence to a group may depend on one’s interests at a certain point in time, in a certain sphere of life, for a certain goal to be achieved.
1 Without taking into account the incident in 1991 where a Black girl was killed by a Korean shop-owner in a dispute over a bottle of juice
2 I think that this is most obvious when looking at children growing up in a multicultural environment. Most of the children will not identify their friends by skin color but by other characteristics or things such as clothing. It is not until the child is being introduced to the larger society, that racial awareness comes up. The socialization process therefore causes racial awareness and most likely also racial prejudices.
3 I do not agree with those who believe that the fact that Japanese Americans have succeeded in obtaining redress for the internment during World War Two without becoming “white,” is proof enough to show that one can succeed in politics while sticking to one’s own identity. It is true that redress legislation has been passed but, apart from the official apology by the President of the United States, it has taken many years to see promised payments being made. So despite the fact that, theoretically, redress was provided for without Japanese Americans becoming “white,” it has not put them in the position to make monetary compensation become reality right away, and when it finally came true it was through the help of whites.