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.