South Asians are NOT white

February 2, 2006

Or perhaps my favorite scenario was my out of control crush on Adam, the pee-wee football quarterback. After months of blushing and giggling and carefully placed rumors, Adam finally came up to me on the playground. I remember that my knees were slightly trembling and my face was on fire.

Adam: Hi.
Me: Um, … H-hi!
Adam: So, I hear you like me?
Me: Um, … um ….
Adam: Well, I think you’re really pretty.
Me: Really, you do?
Adam: Yeah, but I’m not allowed to date black people.
Me: Oh! Well, that’s okay because I’m not black!
Adam: Whatever, I’m still not allowed.

The saddest part of that little scenario is that I went home that day on Cloud 9 because Adam said I was pretty. I mean, I wasn’t allowed to date white boys either.

Anyway, I was just thinking about the confusion of race and classification after reading this article on how South Asians are often still classified as white in certain parts of the U.S. This article has a lot of interesting history about how South Asians were originally classified as Caucasian and how they tried to use this classification to avoid facing Exclusion Laws, like the Japanese, at the turn of the century. The most famous case was that of Bhagat Singh Thind, which went all the way to the Supreme Court in 1923.

I think being aware of this early Asian American history is really important when talking about a pan-Asian American identity. As one of Hyphen’s sole South Asian editors, it is my goal to bring these ideas and their connectedness to the forefront. To me, this article shows that Asian Americans – including South Asians – were facing the same issues dating back to the 1800s. There was difference in the ways we went about dealing with them, but at the end of the day – we were all excluded. In the same way, I feel like the issues facing South Asian Americans today – profiling, racism, hate crimes – parallel those of may Asian Americans. And I am sure most of you have similar stories from your own elementary school days.




this is only related to the anecdote at the beginning of your post: my crushee in 1st grade was this sandy-haired, blue-eyed boy named Michael. being one of the very few Asian Americans at the school - this was small town, South Carolina - everyone teased me and this Japanese American boy. the rationale was, me being the only Asian girl, he being the only Asian boy, that we should go around together. and i remember despising him a little bit.
a boy at my high school also thought south asians were black. i have yet to understand...then again, i, a japanese american woman 100%, was also mistaken as hispanic...
Thank to the Asian Exclusion Act, there are not many Asian around.
No guy ever told me that he couldn't date me because I was black (or brown), but the fatal and internally racist attraction to whiteness was there, and the extremely racist friends in grade school were definitely there.If the East and Southeast Asian American communities are not well aware of Asian American history and the Asian American movement, then South Asians don't have a fucking clue. I think it's half our fault. Being the wealthiest minority group in the United States, I think we're often too privileged to care. And then there's intra-POC racism, and the South Asian attitude has often embraced the model minority myth in an attempt to distinguish ourselves as superior to other people of color. But South Asian immigration came in drastically different waves, and there is a significant underclass of extremely disprivileged South Asians whose plight is getting dismissed because of the myth.I'm gathering bits and pieces of the South Asian American history here and there. I don't know of any comprehensive and authoratative historical account of South Asian America, so I would definitely appreciate it somebody dropped a hint.And finally, I just wanted to drop you a line because I had to laugh at what you said about being the only South Asian American up in this joint. I'm the only South Asian in my political progressive Asian American org on campus. I don't even feel a part of most Asian American communities I've encountered because they're almost invariably centered around East Asian American discourses, but I still participate just to make my presense known, even if it makes me and other people feel uncomfortable. It's still productive in its own way.
I feel the exact same way about South Asians presence in Asian America. I participate because I feel like I have to stand up and say, Hey we're here too. A lot of the Asian American discourse talks about yellowness -- which effectively discludes both South Asians and Philipinos, both of whom have a history of being called "brown".Kudos to you for being where you are!
I think this cuts both ways. A lot of Asian American orgnizations are dominated by east Asians (mostly Chinese) where the discourse is around yellowness. But there are also some Asian American organizations striving for true pan-Asian American unity (I like to think of Hyphen as one of them. And I'm not saying we're where we'd like to be yet. We have work to do and we know it.)However, it seems that many South Asians (and Filipinos for that matter) don't even identify as Asian American.So, how to best increase the South Asian presence in AA orgs?As the kids used to say at my college AA org: Yellow and brown make the world go round.
i'm east asian, and chinese no less, and i've had the experience at more than one pan-APA organization of trying to diversify by outreaching to desi orgs, only to be ignored. this happened with many orgs, but one experience particularly burned me.over the course of a year and a half i called and emailed one particular desi org -- whose mission and programming dovetailed with ours -- repeatedly. i signed up on their mailing list online and forwarded all their announcements to my org's own community list. i never got an answer or acknowledgement. finally i gave up on that org -- but not on desis. instead of going through orgs that ignored me, i relied on my contacts with individuals. and my programming was as inclusive as i could make it.a few months after i had left my position at the pan-APA org, i heard from a desi friend that she had heard that the organizers of the desi org resented us (the pan-APA org) because we didn't include desis and because we ignored the desi org. WTF?i totally hear it when south asians say that pan APA orgs are dominated by east asians and especially chinese -- they are. i totally hear it when south asians say that east asian-dominated orgs tend to ignore south asian issues and individuals -- they do. i hear it, i've heard it, and i (and my east asian colleagues) have really, really, really worked hard to do something to change this.but you know what? i can't do it by myself. i can't represent south asians because i'm not south asian. if south asians don't step up to work in pan-APA orgs and magazines, if south asians don't outreach to pan-APA orgs or respond to outreach, then south asians won't be adequately represented. period.i appreciate shruti, and rukku daring to be tokens and speaking up in spite of discomfort. but there's a difference between being a representative and being a bridge. representatives are tokens, panaceas for majority guilt about exclusiveness. bridges -- people who actively recruit members of their own groups and use their position to expand participation from their own groups -- are the ones who really effect change.
It is awesome to hear from Shruti and Rukku because even knowing that you are reading Hyphen's blog and responding is part of the process of bridging that Claire was talking about.Personally, I have been on both sides of the line -- being the lone South Asian at Asian American organizations and trying to get my Desi brothers and sisters to acknowledge the Asian Pacific American community and our place in it. I feel like there is a lot of ignorance about the way South Asians fit into the Asian American community and movement. I took a South Asian Studies class at San Francisco State last semester with some young Desi women who were so angry about the Asian American Studies classes they had taken, where only *one* day was spent on the South Asian community. In that class I learned so much interesting history about the early South Asian immigrants to California, a community which gave birth to the likes of Dilip Singh Saund --the first Asian American to be elected to Congress. I think there really does need to be a more comprehensive South Asian American history text out there and a push for more inclusive Asian American history classes. But, like I said in my post, I am not sure how to make the South Asian community more receptive to bridging and connecting with the Asian American community. In fact, I have taken this issue on as my special project at Hyphen. And I agree with Melissa, pan-Asian American magazines like Hyphen really help me to see the connectedness of our communities as we are facing such similar issues.
I definitely appreciate the side that Claire presents, and I would like to say that I think I am a bridge. How effective I am, however, is not so certain.I think the biggest obstacle I face with my South Asian friends/community is that by saying South Asian we're already embracing a certain amount of diversity which is not entirely present in our practices. South Asians means that we're encompassing Hindus, Muslims, Sikhs, etc. not to mention both Indians and Pakastanis... this is not even addressing the internal diversity of India, the divide between North and South, etc.I'm not denying that there is the same types of diversity playing into the East Asian countries; political boundaries are always difficult to negotiate. But I do respect the hesitation of South Asians to become enveloped under an even larger umbrella than the one they already are.That said, I'm not going to give up on South Asian representation in the Asian American arena. Glad to be a token, as always!
couldn't help but notice how quickly the OP distanced herself from being black (eewww!) and everybody seems to be OK with that.the intra-POC racism is alive and well and as an African American i have often caught a definite 'what are you doing here!' snarl at APA events. you have more than just South Asians reading this who are decidedly 'brown'.
rukku: thanks for the perspective. i hadn't thought of that issue with the diversity among south asians. actually (and i realize as i write this how stupid it is) i have always been relieved about the "south asian" designation because, for some reason, i don't know how to ask south asians about their ethnicity/nationality, although i have no problem asking east asians the same thing. i always feel like i'm tiptoeing around the india/pakistan divide, and i'm not at home enough there to navigate it. (for clarification, i've been smacked down more than once by a "taiwanese american" whom i called a "chinese american" -- as an ethnic, not national designation. for the record, with chinese, i'll smack back ;) )anonymous: i don't want to speak for neela, but i read her story differently than you did. i think she was presenting it humorously, critiquing her own lack of awareness. at the time, all she was concerned with was whether or not she got to date the cute boy. so she was concerned with the "legal loophole" of black/not black, as in: I'm not black so you can date me!i think her point in telling the story now is to make fun of herself for not noticing or caring at the time how incredibly racist the whole thing was. and i think no one has commented on it because her point did get across (but maybe i'm wrong.)
i actually got neela's point. it was interesting to see how quickly she learned to disavow membership in certain groups. what else was she taught? I am sure she is not of the mindset now. the point i was making is that there is a lot of anti-black sentiment in the asian community and it seems to go largely undiscussed or unchallenged. at the same time, there is much hue and cry against any anti-asian behaviour. the tone and tenor of the protest differs significantly when it is from whites and blacks. now, blacks are not immune to discriminating, so i also challenge them when i see anti-asian or anti-other behaviour too. how can you whip people when you (should) remember being whipped? people seem to be real sensitive to their own ox getting gored, but forget that other folks have oxen too. as for the model minority thing, while it is not true in the purest sense, the impact and targetted educational demographics of the Immigration Acts of '54 and '65 did a lot to create a sort of 'best and brightest' immigrant class. at which point they are placed in competition with a group that was systematically prevented from ever congealing such a skilled critical mass. while it is stifling to be thought of as a 'model minority' all the time, it is a bit better to have that than to be thought of as a 'criminal in waiting' all the time. presumed intelligence and passivity can crush other artistic expressions but presumed criminality and sloth pretty much crushes everything.which would you rather be - overlooked or beaten?please, overlook me some more!!this isn't to start an 'oppression olympics' (heard that the other day and liked it) but to 'put everything in context' as M. Franti says.
No one notices the racism that she herself should not deign to date white boys. Why should she and her family be excused that?
the 'anonymous' posting immediately above this one is not the same anonymous the posted immediately above that. just for clarification.
real anon: good point/s, and these truly aren't discussed enough in the apa community. one aspect of the "model minority" situation that is rarely discussed is that model minorities are used to displace, geographically and politically, more entrenched minorities.don't know if you're in san francisco, but anyone who is can go to the intersection of fillmore and geary and see how it's done. they ran an eight-lane street right between japantown and the african american fillmore district. then they started clearing both areas. the response to japanese american protest was money pumped into cultural centers and ja businesses, which still predominate in the area, whereas ja residents do not. the response to african american protest was to clear residential areas and build housing projects, sending the middle class african americans to oakland and elsewhere.the interesting thing is that in these efforts, asian american residents get displaced (mainly to suburbs, where they can't organize) but asian american cultural centers and businesses don't. so the centers of community organizing in the aa communities become geographically seperated from the cultural enclaves. this results in strong organizing that is completely disconnected from the most disadvantaged members of our communities. (this is part of the reason that hyphen is organized the way it is, with editors on both coasts, and a virtual "office" online.) our protest gets defanged when it is seperated from neighborhoods and bodies.this also, and most obviously, prevents asian american communities from connecting their protest with those of other minority communities -- a collaboration that would be hard to beat. the best, and really only, way to make those connections is with your neighbors, the people who live a few streets over and who are getting the same shaft you are. if they don't live a few streets over, though, if you don't have to see them every day, then they're easy to ignore.once we've been seperated from our connection to the gritty cultural enclave, it's easy for us to feel that we have no leg to stand on in the oppression olympics (thanks for that!) so we should just keep our damn mouths shut when it comes to the more oppressed. also, since we're so seperated from our ethnic communities (we're pan-ethnic, after all), we're seperated from the source of traditional anti-black racism, so it's easy to feel that we're not subject to it anymore.i've been thinking a lot about this lately as a result of an article we published in issue eight by wendy cheng ("remodeling the minority") about the vietnamese american community in new orleans. she gets more in depth about geographical containment and playing minority groups off of each other. not to plug hyphen or anything ;) but you should read it.
Claire, thanks for your reasoned and in depth response. the whole idea of 'pitting' one minority group against another is classic and not restricted to the west coast nor real estate (see UCal Affirmative Action issue of years past). Get them to fight over who gets the biggest crumb. Divide and conquer. I have struggled to get various 'minority' groups (i hate that term! - but 'people of colour' can be equally annoying. i haven't seen any transparent people yet, so...) to work together on any number of issues and it is a hard row to hoe. To much N.I.H. thinking. Heck, when we have APA events with a Korean speaker, the Koreans show up, but the Chinese don't and vice versa and nobody even talks to the Japanese! I've tried to convince the Latino, African and Asian community 'leaders' that immigration issues are a common thread for them all and that multilingual public services cross many borders. I think, on the APA front, there are distinctive differences between the 'inclusiveness' (read: treatment of non-Asian minorities) of Eastern and Southern and SE Asian groups. I suspect that this has as much a socio-economic basis as an ethnic or cultural basis. Where you 'plug in' to America greatly influences who you lpug along with in your daily grind. I think that in many ways, (many) Asians are not subjected to the same sort of negativity that African Americans are 'rewarded' with. The difference between being feared and ignored. You react differently to a cockroach in your house than to a moth even though both are insects. That said, I think there are some differences in the treatment of African immigrants and Afrinca Americans. This may be the result of more a culture\class thing or perception of a thing. There are also differences for APA folks between the West and East coast (and South and Central too) which is very sensitive to the percentage of the 'offending other' in the local society. I call it the 5% solution. Anymore than 5 - 8% and you are no longer 'an exotic spice adding flavour' but become the advance guard of an invading army.So anyway, I'll be on the lookout for the next issue and I look forward to reading the article.Take care!
I think many asians think they are better than other minorities, especially african americans and its not right. Many come to America and try to act SO WHITE. I mean its really ridiculous. When Asians act White its okay but it other minorities act White-it's your trying to hard or something to that nature. I have found MANY Asian men disrespectful to black females. They practically knock them over just to get where they have to go. Many don't say excuse me, as if they are so much better that they don't have manners. It really makes me sick. You, Asian Americans, are so self-centered. I dont mean to be disrespectful but you are. All you want is White men or White women. To hell with the rest as long as you are living in your White fairy tale everything is fine. It's quite sad that everyone wants to be like White people. There's not anything special about them. Many Caucasians have been the cause of many wars and millions of deaths but yet, you want to be like them. Go figure. This is just my opinion.
Dear Tonya, it's not just Asians who are disrespectful to black females, it's everyone.
There are some useful fact sheets that South Asian American Leaders of Tomorrow put out on their website about South Asian history and community statistics. There are some other things available out there, but it's pretty limited.For my part, my political consciousness came from working in pan-Asian American spaces. But I don't see that being as much the case with younger desis rising up. While I think it's fine for folks to work only in desi spaces or to go into other organizations of color, I think that some of the links are important to bridge South Asians and other Asian Americans. No easy answer, I suppose, but it's worth the time to dialogue. Thanks for this space.
Everyone knows they are not white. Ive seen Asian try to act black, blacks act white and whatever else. White society will put you in your place if you get as they call it, out of line.
Tonya, I agree it's sad and ridiculous when Asian people try to be white. When any people of color try to be white for that matter. It is NOT ok. I sure hope you don't thinnk all Asians are like that. There are plenty of brown & yellow folks proud of their heritage.
My Beautiful People:There is a body of information relative to your connection to the Motherland Africa that you might not be aware of. Ivan Van Sertima authored a set of scholarly works one of which is titled African Presense in Early Asia. Due to the rascism of western Society, most people want to distance themselves from the blessings of the Creator's Gift of Melanin, but the source of all people is Africa, so you will need to work that out pychologically and accept the gift of Original Man.If you can study this book and gain some knowledge of SELF, outside of the narrow and erroneous definition of So called Western Society, it would empower you to accept the God in you and not be ashamed of the gift that your dark skinned Ancestors gave you.Like it said in the Halls of Kemet(the Black Land), Man-Know Thyself.