Friday, August 12, 2011

Follow-Up: "Brown" and "White"

The responses to my post on Nikki Haley a couple of days ago have been interesting The pushback makes me want to clarify some of my arguments a bit more, though I don't have any aspirations of actually "winning" the debate; in any case my own views on South Asians and the peculiar American concept of race are very much in flux these days, and I am still thinking it through.

There are two salient themes that seem to come up in the discussion that perhaps could be underlined:

1) The real long-term goal is to undermine "whiteness" as a kind of racial default or endpoint for both immigrant communities in American society and for the established racial minority (i.e., blacks or African Americans). In response to one of the comments on my original post, I suggested that perhaps where we are headed eventually, at least in the urban parts of the U.S. is towards a kind of post-"white" society, where the barriers will be much more class-based than racial, especially for people from immigrant backgrounds who don't have the familial experience of slavery and segregation in their past. The configuration of race has changed several times in American history (see books like "How the Irish Became White" and so on), and it can and will change again.

2) If we can't displace whiteness as a default, perhaps we can redefine it. For at least the past 50 years or so, being understood as "white" in the U.S. meant that you were of European origins (earlier it would have meant more strictly northern and western European origins). I think it may be the case that with the rise of someone like Haley, who is perceived by many South Carolinians as white despite her South Asian immigrant origins (which are widely known), that this kind of subversion may already have happened.

Below I'm just going to paste snippets and comments I've seen by others on the web that address these two ideas, with my own brief responses.

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On Facebook, a friend posted a comment that I thought summed up where I've been on this issue myself for the most part:

I want to believe that one can claim whiteness if one wants. Depending on who's doing the claiming, it could be the ultimate act of subversion against the hegemon, self-loathing assimilation, or somewhere in between. And if any group could get away with it, Indians are the ones with the privilege. After all, Bhagat Singh Thind attempted to gain citizenship by arguing that Indians are Caucasian - even though he lost his case. But looking at Republican Indians in politics, namely Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley, it's hard for me to think they are up to anything other than an attempt to ingratiate themselves to the Republican establishment and their constituents. I say all of this as someone who was only dimly aware of being Indian until I went to college and UPenn's South Asian Student Association tried (unsuccessfully) to co-opt me. Yet, I've never once considered putting anything other than "Asian" in the race box (except for declining to answer when possible or writing in "human" on my census form).

I want to underline my friend's point about privilege. Many Indian Americans especially come from privileged backgrounds economically, and I think people who claim a "People of Color" solidarity amongst East and South Asians, Latinos, and blacks have to recognize this point. I may at times feel a "person of color" solidarity with poor blacks in America, but the solidarity is not shared: to them I inevitably sound a lot more like a white liberal when it comes to social and economic issues, even if I don't look like one.

That said, I don't dispute that Bobby Jindal and Nikki Haley had to work hard to "Americanize" (one could also say deracinate) themselves in order to succeed in politics. On Sepia Mutiny over the years we had many (too many) discussions about whether Bobby Jindal would have had a prayer (loaded term!) of a chance in Louisiana if he had either run as "Piyush" rather than Bobby, or hadn't been a Catholic convert. (The answer is clearly "no, he would not have had a chance") The same probably holds for Haley if she were to have run as "Randhawa," or with a turbaned Sikh husband rather than her actual husband, Michael Haley.

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At the Volokh Conspiracy there have been a pair of posts on this subject, and many interesting comments (these predate my own post). One salient comment by a commenter ran as follows:

[A]llow a white Southerner to point out something about casual use of the word “white”: sometimes it just means “not black”. Meaning, believe it or not, that in common usage, a school (or gathering, or club, or church, or whatever) in the South that includes no black people is “all-white”. This is true even when there are, for instance, people of Korean or Indian ancestry in said group. Whether this is anthropologically correct, or PC, or even nice is beside the point. It’s just one of the common, casual usages. (link)

I have seen this in other cases, and not just in the South. I even have to admit that I've done something like this myself on occasion. For example, at one point I was teaching a class on a topic in postcolonial literature, with something like 12 white students, two (East) Asian American students, and one African American student. To a colleague I remember noting, "with the exception of **** [the African American student], all the students in my poco class this spring are white!" Somehow in the course of that conversation I unconsciously turned the two Asian American women in that class, with Christian first names, into white students.

If you read the many comments on that post at Volokh, you'll see that many other people also seem to unconsciously do this at times, even though they might later note the seeming "mistake." The question I want people who have disagreed with my previous post to address is: what might it tell us about the definition of "race" in American society that so many people are doing this?

To my eye, it suggests that second/third generation Asian Americans in particular are losing their "otherness" in certain contexts and social milieux. When it comes to college affirmative action policies, Asians have long since not counted as "minorities," and the spaces where that is true will only continue to expand.

(Also see this post from Volokh in 2008: "How the Asians became White." There the focus is on a study of doctors in California; Asians and whites are counted on one side, while blacks and Latinos are counted on the other.)

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Samhita at Feministing wrote quite an extensive post on this issue, responding to me and taking up some points made by Taz at Sepia Mutiny. Here is one of Samita's key points:

But, at the end of the day, it is not about what we say we are–race is a structural experience, as much as it is an interpersonal one, if not more so. Having access to white culture and more money doesn’t make you white, as many sociologists have found. Haley can self-identify as white, but she has had the lived experience of a person who is not white and as a result, will never be recognized as white or have access to “whiteness,” in the political sense of the word, even if some people once in a while mistake her for white on the street.

But I actually do think Haley has had the experience of being effectively "white," in part because of the peculiar racial configuration that holds sway in the American south (see the comment from Volokh I posted above), but also increasingly in other parts of the U.S. And I mean that she has been recognized as such by the dominant/white mainstream, not simply that she decided to call herself white on a lark, despite what everyone else around her thinks.

The fact that this is so is not necessarily a cause to celebrate; if anything, the comment I quoted above from Volokh suggests that while the definition of "white" may be broadening, it is still based on an opposition to (and sometimes exclusion of) "black." And that is real problem we have to address, one way or the other.


A Virile Nagalingam said...

if you live in a mentally constructed ghetto wherein all words, deeds and perceived intentions are racist in origin, then Samhita is right, but what we who choose a different worldview have experienced is quite different. Hermon K. Raju was not a surprise because i have seen so many brown girls from her SES act like stereotypical spoiled rich white girls that I see them as stereotypically indistinguishable from white. Why do we talk about redefining or undermining 'white' when it is ceasing to be significant in our real lives and not the life of the mind?

Zack S. said...

I’ve gone through a little ‘culture wars’ withdrawal since I left college, but I find that, like you, I’m softening a little on the old pieties. In general, I don’t think it’s wise to "quantify” oppression or victimhood, to suggest one person or group has had it “worse” than another, but like you I think that most of us are probably overreaching when we count ourselves as “people of color” in
solidarity with others. We are, of course, nominally, and we certainly do face discrimination on a variety of counts (I think the most prevalent/insidious at the moment is Islamophobia, which can extend to Middle Easterners and South Asians of any ethnic/religious background and carries with it the real risk of physical violence), but Indian Americans (or whatever the parameter is in this case) are the single wealthiest demographic in this country, are they not? And/or have the highest levels of education on average? Moreover, as you point out, we lack the history of slavery, segregation and additional forms of violence that other groups had/have endured here
over many generations. That’s important. I reckon part of the problem has to do with the
tendency among progressives to not appear to be leaving anyone out; talk of how “successful”
certain Asian American communities are (while, legitimately, having problems with that definition of success and, of course, the accompanying model minority stereotype), it might look
like a classist erasure. It’s not that we should ignore the working poor and under-classes among
our communities – on the contrary, by over-correcting, we look a disingenuous and risk eliding something else entirely: our own privilege.

To bring that back to the case of Haley and racial identification, this issue about our people-of-
color status and solidarity – and the idea that Haley’s “lived experience” is ineluctably as that of someone who’s not “white” – further bears the risk of promoting the idea of desi sameness. I know folks who grew up in Texas in the 80s and 90s, who, not unlikely Lahiri’s Gogol,
consciously distanced themselves from the transplanted desi culture of their parents and from their own desi peers, and instead had predominantly white, black and/or Latino friends, drank from the fountains of country music and football, and continued to see their identities shift and
evolve into adulthood. This doesn’t make them race traitors or more “white” on the one hand, or
“essentially” and unavoidably desi on the other. Things don’t have to be mutually exclusive. It’s complex.

I find myself in an interesting position, reading this debate online, as someone who primarily
identifies as mixed-race. I’m a fair-skinned half-desi with a completely non-desi name (I asked
my mother a few years ago why this were the case, that neither my brother nor I had a desi first or
middle name, expecting the answer to involve my paternal grandparents – instead, she said her parents advised against it, ‘cause our central European surname was “already too much of a
mouthful”). My college community (campus and town alike) in Missouri was far less diverse
than my hometown in Texas, and as an undergraduate I frequently found myself, by default, as
the person of color in a given setting. Many friends, classmates and community activists just
assumed that, as a token person of color, I faced all sorts of discrimination and invisibility all the time; that I must not be considered an “American” by The (straw) Man, both because of my
partly foreign roots and my minority status. But the only people who have ever told me I’m not something have been folks (not uniformly, I should add) who share one side or the other of my background, because I’m clearly not whole enough for them.

Lastly, check out this case of racial misidentification.

Zack S. said...

Well, pasting the comment from Word didn't transfer too cleanly, and my HTML formatting didn't work on that link at the end, so here it is, as an aside: