|Amerasian Le Van Minh in post-war Vietnam, Newsday photo by Audry Tiernan (1985)|
[She] never told the son who was crippled by polio about her relationship with his father. All she said was that the man was an American, a sergeant in the Army. He was one of the thousands of GIs who left children behind as victims of the conflict that the United States never officially called a war.
-- "Life and Times of Le Van Minh" by Irene Virag
by Sharon H Chang
I've gotten some pretty vitriolic comments these last months regarding my writings on white-mixing not being synonymous with whiteness. A recent response to my piece protesting Asian Fortune's troubled 2013 "Hapa" article:
"Guys...Sometimes you just need to calm the f down. You need to get out of your heads a little bit and stop over analyzing things. I'm sure all you hapas out there have some understanding of the way hapas are treated in Asia. Talk about superficial stereotypical understandings! Your ultra-liberal, ultra-progressive, straight-out-of-an-undergraduate-African-American-studies-class mumbo jumbo would only ever be considered in White countries. And you know damn well that you benefit from 'White privilege.' The reason I put that in quotes is beyond the scope of this comment. Don't write back with some bullshit about traffic stops - I know the statistics." (October 26, 2014)
Another recent response, this time to my piece on talking mixed race identity with young children for Hyphen Magazine:
"'mom am i white?'the answer is yes, he is. Stop confusing the poor child and STOP telling him he's of Asian descent when you and the baby daddy are clearly white. He will grow up with an identity problem and will very likely hate you for it. Have some decency as a parent." (February 10, 2015)
"You know damn well that you benefit from 'White privilege'"; "You and the baby daddy are clearly white"; "You just need to calm the f down...stop over analyzing"; "Stop confusing the poor child...Have some decency as a parent." Though one could certainly argue these commenters are just trolls trying to get a rise out of me, there's still a kernel of truth here, a sentiment I see reflected all over the place. Many people today view mixed Asian/whites as "pretty much white" or "the next whites" and therefore white-complicit hench(wo)men immune from racism, even the villains topping society's racist organization. As physical embodiments of the racial hierarchy's two top-positioned groups (white, Asian), there is often a tremendous amount of resentment directed towards us that disregards our history, testimonials and lived lives. As light-appearing mixes with close white family members and near generational ties to whiteness, it is incredibly difficult for communities of color to imagine us people of color and much easier to envision us as easy, automatic, honorary inductees into the world of white privilege. If they're "light" and "half white," then "they're basically white." Initiate mass write-off.
There are a lot of problems with the idea that Asian/whites are white: (1) it disallows space for contemporary Asian/whites to discuss the racialized experiences they do have when they are viewed and treated as non-white, (2) it ignores/invalidates/erases these oppressions as stemming from a long history of racism Asian/whites have faced nationally and globally that is an integral part of the larger narrative of race, and (3) it ultimately deflects from the more important point that it is not Asian/whites who created and uphold the racism we struggle to undo today.
Racism targeting Asian/whites has a deep significance that gets dismissed and scoffed at far too easily. Consider that one side of the coin has long been white-mixing grossly and dangerously dilutes white purity and so if it happens, must be of unwanted, lesser value. An Asian/white mix then (or any "white mix" for that matter) occupies a contested place particularly capturing the attention of the dominant group because it encroaches upon the borders of whiteness. This place becomes a stage upon which aggressive strategies of dominance can get played out with especial exaggeration. Case in point, when the first Chinese immigrants came to America they were male laborers who could fraternize with women of color in many cases but were strictly forbidden to fraternize with white women. In 1892, famous English (white) social scientist Herbert Spencer wrote:
"I have...entirely approved of the regulation which have been established in America for restraining Chinese immigration...If the Chinese are allowed to settle extensively in America, they must either, if they remain unmixed, form a subject race in the position, if not slaves, yet of a class approaching slaves, or if they mix they must form a bad hybrid" [bold mine] (from Proceedings of the Asiatic Exclusion League)
American GIs (predominantly white) have left in their wake huge populations of abandoned Amerasian children following U.S. military presence in many Asian countries such as Vietnam, Korea, and the Philippines. These Amerasian children have not only often been excluded from American citizenship and orphaned by their fathers, but then treated horribly in Asia as unpleasant, unwanted reminders of U.S. dominance. During World War II Internment (1942-1946), Asian Americans of Japanese descent were interned if they were as little as one sixteenth Japanese. And when freelance journalist Julia Carrie Wong expressed her concern just last week for Malcolm Harris's safety on Twitter, it was her mixed Chinese/Jewish background that users leveraged to attack and diminish her. It was what they saw as most prominent:
Even if Asian/whites are seen as some sort of loaded "good hybrid" this has still not typically freed them from being racialized, oppressed, and yet again diminished. Rather, their "interesting" bodies under microscope can become an even more convenient locale to project discriminatory beliefs. Hong Kong prostitute Suzie Wong from the 1957 film The World of Suzie Wong, for example, was seen as very beautiful. Suzie was played by mixed race Asian/white actress Nancy Kwan (Cantonese/English/Scottish) who skyrocketed to fame and was sometimes called "the Chinese Bridgette Bardot." But the character is also very criticized as what Susan Cho calls "the Hollywood prototype for the masochistic eroticism of Asian Pacific American Women" (see note 58). There is even a scene where Suzie invites her white love interest to beat her so she can show her injuries off as a measure of his affection. Kwan being mixed did not at all allow her to be white. In fact, viewers clearly had no trouble imagining her as a racialized non-white other and subjecting her to a demeaning gendered, racist typecast that then served to further the oppression of all Asian Pacific American women. In a very protested sexist/racist 1990 Gentleman's Quarterly article entitled "Oriental Girls," Tony Rivers grossly wrote about the "great western male fantasy":
Suzie Wong was the originator of the modern fantasy...Perhaps even now,...on the edge of a small town, Suzie awaits the call.
Similarly the 1958 movie musical South Pacific -- considered very liberal and progressive at the time -- told the story of a young (white) American GI who falls for Liat, a stereotyped "submissive" "primitive" local Pacific Islander woman. But Liat was also played by a mixed race Asian/white actress, France Nuyen (Vietnamese/French). Once again, movie-makers and audiences clearly had no trouble imagining Nuyen as a shallow person of color typecast despite her mixedness. "Part white" did not make her white nor did it exempt from harmful stereotyping that pigeonholes and hurts all Asian Pacific Islander women.
And if you think things have improved on that front, better take a look at Nicole Scherzinger's (Hawaiian/Filipino/Russian) 2011 video for her single, "Right There":
This is all to say, no. Thousands, even millions, of Asian/whites worldwide are not white and have never been treated as such. Further the racialized experiences challenging Asian/whites are an important and component part of race as it has been socially constructed for hundreds of years; a construct that engulfs us all. It's necessary to know this and also know the role silencing plays here (because telling me I'm "basically white" and to shut up, does exactly that). Within the construct of race/racism stories of discrimination have been silenced for millennia. Silencing is a major way in which the hierarchy remains intact and racial injustice prevails. One of our greatest struggles then in undoing racism is learning how to receive the stories of others non-predatorily and with true attempt at understanding. That means as we struggle to hear and honor the stories of people marginalized by this construct, we should always be careful about telling anyone their oppression is unreal or untrue. Remember the practice of silencing is what oppressors have done for -- well practically ever. Let's not use the oppressors' tools to keep oppressing. There are many stories within the story of "race" and they all matter. We can't ever know the whole picture if we aren't willing to see its many component parts. And if we can't see the whole picture, it will be near impossible to make things better.