Tuesday, February 17, 2015

Are Mixed Race Asian/Whites, "Basically White"?

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.

[image source]

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.


  1. I agree with you Sharon that we should never be silenced.
    I always wonder how much time and energy we should spend on fighting ignorant trolls. When they have anonymous names I'm quick to block them instead of letting them use my platform to spread their hate. If they have full online identities they should be called out, if we have the time and energy for those battles.

    Oprah had the KKK on her program a couple times and she said she would never do that again because she felt they were using her to spread their hate. And she found out they were using her show to recruit members.

  2. One additional aspect that comes before any of the discussion in your piece (and one a lot of the discussions about race in the US seems to completely fail to address) is the simple fact that "Asian" technically includes all peoples from Turkey to Tokyo (although other definitions draw the line as far east as Iran). The reality is that "Asian" definitely includes Afghanistan, Pakistan, India, Sri Lanka, Nepal, Bhutan, Bangladesh, and Myanmar/Burma, in addition to the Pacific Asian to countries to which many Americans implicitly refer when stating "Asian.” But don't forget all of the "Stan" countries as well as eastern Russia and Mongolia, either. (And possibly people from the Middle East, too, depending on who's drawing the line.)

    Historical US associations with Asia have primarily been with the Pacific nations (aka East and Southeast Asia), and not so much with the rest of the continent. The premise that Asians are "light-skinned" becomes laughable when you expand "Asian" to include (just as an example) Sri Lankans.

    Some people seem to prefer to "dismantle" the construct of "Asian American" by instead saying they are "Korean American" or "Japanese American" or "Indian American" (the last sometimes getting quizzical looks, thanks to the unfortunate moniker historically used to describe descendents of pre-Columbian residents). In short, some would prefer to refer to ethnic descent instead of racial descent. And some government forms (most notably the Census) are starting to comply to various degrees.

    IMO, a lot of this stems from the problem that race relations in the US still revolve around a single "Black/White" axis. (Although in areas with large Hispanic populations and small African American populations, the axis tends to be "Hispanic/White," despite the inherent inconsistency of comparing an ethnicity with a race.) For example, lot of people apparently think you can't be racist to Asians, since they're not Black. It appears that sticking to the well-known, well-used, and well-trodden axis of race relations of Black/White is far easier than expanding popular notions to encompass even the three additional racial groups used in the census (i.e., American Indian/Alaska Native, Asian, and Hawaiian/Pacific Islander). While one can go on about how even considering five racial groups are not adequate in describing race relations in the US (e.g., What race are recent immigrants from Africa?), the point is that expanding the conversation to five races seems to be beyond the capacity (or desire) for many Americans.

    And never mind the idea of further expanding the idea of "race relations" to one of "ethnic relations," in which people would have to recognize the distinctions between "Korean American" and "Japanese American," between "Bangladeshi American" and "Pakistani American," etc.

    .... and that's before even discussing mixed Asian-White ancestry in the United States.

    Although I sometimes write about my experiences of growing up and being confronted with the idea of "race" in a US context a couple times on my blog, the most recent was over a year ago (http://umlud.blogspot.com/2013/09/racial-identity-and-me.html). The truth is that race only becomes annoying to me (half Asian, half White) when I'm filling out US government forms. I grew up most of my life outside of the US, and while I lived in the US, I was fortunate to be on a major university campus, where racism against Asians, Asian-Americans, and half-Asian Americans was next to nil. Now that I live in Chile, I'm treated as a stock "foreigner," but not as a "typical gringo." And that's okay by me.

  3. Thank you. You shouldn't have had to clarify this further, but you did so brilliantly and in a way that moves the discussion forward. People with different racial oppression histories will experience challenges that are *different*. Intellectually adept, empathetic individuals will comprehend parallels and overlaps in the experiences. A friend of mine studying international law in the US to expand her work as a women's rights barrister in Nigeria was asking me about a comparative American cultures course I taught. When I mentioned the colonial past of Ireland, my friend became distraught. She exclaimed, "Do you mean that England did the same thing to another country besides my own?!" I explained it doesn't come up as often because it was Europe. But, yes, it was on a neighboring island that England as a colonial power first tried out certain techniques before later examples of colonialization that many would consider "more advanced" in harshness. As my friend, who was well-versed in Pan African studies, not the overlaps elsewhere in colonial studies, had to take a moment to absorb this, I did have to answer the inevitable question, "But you're white, too." I could only say, well, strangely enough, "Yes, the English and the Irish are both very pale. But to the English at the time, and even to some isolated Anglo Saxons today, no, those with power did not see the Irish as 'white.'"
    Yes, most Irish and ethnic Irish Americans enjoy "white privilege." It's easier overall, until it's a job interview or a subtle power play in the work place, and there's someone who thinks you're "less than" who's holding all the cards. Your point about a "contested place" that attracts the attention of the "dominant group," "because it encroaches on the borders of whiteness," hits the nail on the head. This explains both why the experience is so painful, so powerful, why it holds individuals, families, and communities back--and why so many people do not witness it happening. It did, in fact, take an observant and compassionate ethnic studies professor to explain to me what was inexplicably going wrong on some of my "perfect" shoo-in job interviews.
    Due to the quirks of genetics and/or cultural mimicry, on the other hand, some ethnic Irish blended in so well, they "became" white (see Noel Ignatiev); some didn't/don't. Some, sadly, choose to throw their lot in with those who behave consciously or unconsciously as oppressors in the US and elsewhere, choosing to hate themselves and other people. Other Irish choose to throw their lot in with people who've had it worse--and to acknowledge that different experiences of racism are *different*. This might help explain why you sometimes see divergent behavior patterns with people of Irish ancestry over the last 200 years. I threw my lot in with everybody else before I found out it wasn't technically "me" the weird, stuck up people were rejecting. I chose the "everybody else" side in my youth, many years before a British woman at a conference, upon finding out what village my family came from, worked herself into a froth telling me that my people were "savages" who "need civilizing" by military force. (She was early middle age, by the way, and this happened about four years ago. And, no, I didn't poke the colonialist with a stick first. I had no idea my distant cousins threw rocks at her soldier kinsmen.)
    Exploitation and othering do take on differing forms, and we would all do so much better together if we treated each other's experiences in being Othered with the same gravity and kindness my barrister friend (undeservingly) showed me. I hope your column and work gets reposted many times!

  4. Asian/white is still non-white (that's what pushed Eliot Rodger over the edge: not being accepted as "white"). Under the system of white supremacy, depending on the race/color/phenotype of certain non-white people, white people can allow them to function as "white" or maintain a higher status in the racial hierarchy and access to benefits depending on the situation (i.e., how they choose to function in relation to darker-skinned people and people lower in the racial hierarchy). The important thing is how they function. Accessing those conditional, situational "white" benefits can make it difficult to play both sides of the fence (oppressor vs. oppressed) for those who would try to do so.

    Does that make sense? Do you think that is accurate?

  5. www.longingfordeath.wordpress.com

    The truth about white women and Asian men from a Eurasian son.

    Shame on Asian women... just shame on them. There is a special place in hell for Asian women, and that goes for my own mother.

    1. I've not read much of your content yet but have you written at all about "pretty privilege?" I've found that MOST Hapa women and men are actually very attractive. Even if they are mixed and still considered people of color, they DO get more privileges just based on the idea that they are considered more mainstream beautiful. Not to be a creeper, but you are also very pretty. I'm a woman of color and not mixed and since my features are not considered mainstream beautiful (flat nose and shorter) I wouldn't have this privilege. Of course there's this whole over-sexualization of Asian women in general although if attractiveness and being able to pass as white can also be a privilege. Do yo have any thoughts about how pretty privilege affects hapa people negatively or positively?

    2. Everyone's personal experience is their own, and is not to be invalidated or dismissed. However, extrapolating from one's personal experience / circumstances to claim that they must also apply to all, or even most, others who are in a similar-appearing situation is a logical fallacy.

      Without a statistically significant amount of synchronously collected data (for example, via a large survey) regarding the expressed subjective experiences of many other Hapa women and men, one cannot reasonably conclude that (various types of) subjective experiences are "typical", let alone "universal".

      That is to say, while your subjective view on the situation may be similar to that of X% of the Hapa population; we cannot know what "X" is even within any kind of confidence interval without a statistically significant amount of objectively collected data from the whole overall population.

    3. What ever happened historically, the reality in countries like America, England, France, Australia, mixed east Asian / whites suffer virtually no discrimination irrespective of whether their racial origin is recognised /proclaimed. Of course there is always the exception and experiences living in Los Angeles is going to be different to rural Alabama.

  6. Thank you for this. As a very white looking half Asian I feel awkward in these discussions. I feel like most people who care can't tell, so I really don't know how much it has impacted me. Though perhaps omnidoll's comment about not getting hired after so many interviews applies.

  7. Asian and white I agree does not = white, and why do you guys have such a complex with identifying as Asian. So ashamed of your Asian heritage, makes no sense......

  8. Asians in Genesis Chapter 10-11 clearly states that Asians are Direct descendants of Ham, which means they are black people. This is true; you can even google this. Blacks and Asians have similar DNA. The reason they look white is from all the skin whitening products they consume. That is another little known fact. Its a billion dollar industry.

    1. This is the stupidest thing I've ever heard.

    2. I knew I'd eventually come across a comment by some delusional stupid Afrocentrist. You idiots get dumber by the second. Those already low IQs must be dropping to the single digits. I mean your comment has got to be the dumbest I've read in a long while. And yes I'm a Black American woman!

  9. White passing Eurasians are asking the wrong questions. They ask "do I just not know about what it's like to look Asian?"

    They should be asking: "Was it my mother's intent to have white children, and if so, why?"

  10. There's a range of experiences depending on various variables, including how 'visible' one's Asianness is (in terms of appearance, in terms of one's name, whether one lives with relatives who are visibly Asian, etc.), the communities one was raised in/live in, the degree of identification with one's Asian race/root culture... I had a half-Asian half-white friend who looks phenotypically quite Asian, and grew up in rural New England, where he had an extremely racialized experience growing up, being the brunt of racist taunts and stigma throughout childhood. If he had an Asian first or last name, it probably would've been worse. I'm half-Japanese and half-white, and have a very Anglo-sounding name, and am hard-pressed to think of any experience in the US where I was aware of being treated as 'other' (in Japan, it was another matter). Nowadays, people typically have to ask what my ethnic background is, and are more likely to think that I'm Latino or 'ethnic white' (i.e., Italian/Greek/Portuguese) before they do. I do feel I've benefited from white privilege (the Anglo name, the inability of people to easily stereotype me from my appearance), but there are certain contexts--especially after I've made my ethnic mix known to someone--where that white privilege is diluted. Dating apps are another place where the white privilege I experience is likely diluted significantly.

  11. I'm half-Japanese and half-White. My father fought in WWII, and my mother (Japanese) was beaten by him. I grew up in the 1980s having to choose on forms only one race - either Asian or White. The teachers told me to choose the race my father was. But I knew I wasn't White because my neighbors would tell me they didn't want to play with me because I was Japanese. I was neither Japanese nor White. I was multiracial, or hapa, or hafu, or whatever name I was given by Hawaiians or Japanese people. The Japanese side of my family didn't like me because I was mixed, and the White side of my family thought I was exotic, etc. I once dated an African American man whose family disliked me for dating him, and who called me pretty much the same things that White people and Hispanic people have called me - a Jap, a nip, oriental, and/or exotic. I am 42 years old and have experienced racism and discrimination from ALL PEOPLE, not just Whites. I understand what white privilege is, but there are also other privileges that exist, such as age privilege, socioeconomic privilege, aesthetic privilege, etc. I'm also a veteran of the USMC, and I have a diverse amount of friends whom I call my military family, who have accepted me as their sister, regardless of their race or ethnic background. I've also been discriminated against for being Mexican, even though I'm not Hispanic, which came after I had decided to do my hair and cosmetics differently. I have very dear friends who are Hispanic, and I stood by them while speaking out against racism and discrimination from all fronts, all people. I didn't care what my race was, I knew that I was judged for my looks and skin color, and I stood by my Hispanic friends against racism against them. Today, I have nephews who are mixed with what I have plus African American, and I have nieces who are mixed with what I have plus Puerto Rican. We've all been discriminated against by not only White people, but also Hispanics, Asians, and African Americans. When African Americans tell me that I'm basically white, that I'm white passing, and that I benefit from white privilege, they make a judgement call about who I am based on my skin color. This isn't fair to me nor white people. It's the same behaviors we're all claiming to fight against - the judgement of people based on their appearances, skin color, eye shape, hair color, ethnicity, friendship status, job status, etc. If we truly want systemic discrimination to end, we have to stop fighting back with similar behaviors. I agree that there are privileges we all benefit from, but it's not the person who benefits who is the problem - it's the biased person who does the hiring, it's the media who continues to feed our brains with information that create implicit (unconscious) biases, it's the bigotry we see from extremist groups. Stop blaming the victims or the privileged for "being part of the problem." The problem occurs in similar forms around the globe. Mind you, Asians also include Muslims and Hindus and Buddhists and many other people from different parts of Asia. Multiracial people also exist, and so do other types of Asian Americans. White people don't always benefit from their whiteness either, and so-called "white passing" persons have their share of discrimination and pain. Dr. Carter at the University of Columbia (New York) conceded that it is problematic to discuss racism in binary (black and white) terms. Further, Dr. Carter and his colleagues wrote multiple publications regarding race-based traumatic stress injuries. Racism is traumatic, but there are many people who are both victims and offenders. It's not just white people who are offenders; they can also be victims of hate. The hate crime laws include white people as targets of hate as well, in addition to other non-race-related hate crimes. Asians, Hispanics, and multiracial individuals can also both be victims and perpetrators of hate, bigotry, and discrimination.

  12. I am what you could a hispaisian half Hispanic half Asian. I am a mix of Vietnamese and Puerto Rican and even in this modern day I get discriminated for it. Especially by other Hispanics and Asians!!! I am also light skin so I look pretty white. I get treated like I'm some kind of "wanna be" Puerto Rican kids in my school would get offended when I tell them I am Puerto Rican because they say I am not a true Puerto Rican I'm just an Asian white girl who wishes she was. Or I tell Asian and it's I'm not a true Asian unless I'm a pure blood. Or I get looked at like a scum for being this type of mix. Especially Vietnamese , I have other Vietnamese tell me I don't look Vietnamese or that I don't have a, right to identify as such clearly because I am a mix race. Being a Vietnamese/ Puerto Rican is an extremely rare almost unheard of mix but it happens, and it comes with it's problems just like being an Asian/white mix.