I have two entries in the new encyclopedia Anti-Immigration in the United States: A Historical Encyclopedia, edited by Kathleen R. Arnold.
My entry on the Chinese Exclusion Act is an effort to challenge the dominant accounts of the act, promoted by those who subscribe to the Commons School of History approach or to progressive colorblind approaches, both of which defend or apologize for white racism against Asians by arguing it was economically and morally justified. Since I had first learned of the act over a decade and a half ago, I have been bothered by this defense of white anti-Asian racism, too often found in history books and promoted by too many white lefties and liberals. Books written by Asian Americans and a few others have tended to take a more critical view of the economic argument and showed how much more was at play; increasingly more scholars are looking at the racial politics of immigration policies. In addition, we can always consider, even when economics are involved, as they always are, why does white suffering (real or imagined) get to be used as a justification for white on non-white violence, a violence that has never been mutually inflicted to the same degree and with the same level of sympathy? For my entry on eugenics I wanted to address how anti-Black racism and anxieties about the importation of “Black blood” among race scientists was a feature of eugenic approaches to immigration.
The entries “Chinese Exclusion Act” and “Eugenics” start on pages 105 and 189, respectively, and can be read in full in the Google Books edition.
I wrote this in 2008, before I had my own blog; Kenyon Farrow graciously posted it on his blog. To deal with the stress of the situation I detail, I wrote notes and ideas on the little white bag provided in the seat pockets to passengers during my flight. I couldn’t write my way out of the situation I experienced but I knew when I got off the plane that I was going to go home and write this essay.
“Southwest Airlines & ‘The Souls of White Folk’”
Tamara K. Nopper
March 2, 2008
In his 1920 essay “The Souls of White Folk,” African American scholar and activist W.E.B. Du Bois raised the question: “‘But what on earth is whiteness that one should so desire it?’” Answering his own query, Du Bois responded, “Then always, somehow, some way, silently but clearly, I am given to understand that whiteness is the ownership of the earth forever and ever, Amen!”
A recent incident I had while flying on Southwest Airlines demonstrates Du Bois’ point. I therefore detail the situation here both to document it and to theorize its relevance for understanding contemporary white supremacy.
As is practice with Southwest, I had boarded the plane when my category of seating was called. Having been lucky enough to download the boarding pass for category A, I was among the first to pick my seat. Shortly after sitting down, an older white man sat in the seat next to mine. He then proceeded to spread his legs wide open as if, to quote a wise person I know, “he thought he had balls the size of pumpkins.” In response to the uninvited pressing, I requested room for my legs. The man then proceeded to imperiously point his finger to the floor to emphasize that his feet were within the boundary of his seats. He never addressed the fact that his legs were spread beyond them so as to invade my space and press up against my body. Instead, he said to me, “You’re a big girl.” Talking on my cell phone, I interrupted my conversation to calmly tell the man “Don’t fucking talk to me that way.”
With his right hand, the man reached across himself to grab my left arm. With my arm in his grip, he looked me in the eyes through his glasses and replied, “I’m going to slap you in your mouth.” I freed myself from him and then stood up. I called out to the steward at the front of the plane that I needed assistance since I had just been grabbed by the person sitting next to me. Hurriedly, the man bolted out of his seat, muttering that he would move. As he exited the row he made it a point to emphasize that I had cussed at him, neglecting the fact that he had made the comment that initiated our negative exchange.
I turned around to be met by a young, white woman steward named Crystal G. Webb. When I told her that I had been assaulted by the man who was now making a mad dash for a seat a few rows back, she began to laugh. As she bit her lip, a smirk escaped. I informed her that I did not appreciate her laughing and that I did not pay to be assaulted on a plane. She then asked me if I wanted to speak to her supervisor, to which I said yes.
Ms. Webb returned with an older white woman named Ms. Terri Parker. Wearing a Southwest uniform that was more official than that worn by Ms. Webb, she led the two of them as they approached my seat. Before she reached me, another older white man had sat down in the seat that had been vacated by my assailant.
I repeated my story to Ms. Parker, adding that Ms. Webb had laughed at my concerns. Ms. Parker asked me if I would like to press charges. I said yes. However, I changed my mind when I learned that it would require me to get off the plane with the man who had assaulted me and be placed on a later flight.
White men under attack: Reverse “yellow fever” from “just an (Asian) girl in the world”
Tamara K. Nopper
June 7, 2010
One of my guilty pleasures is the show Law & Order. I say guilty pleasure because its premise—a cop show—is nothing short of repulsive as are the requisite story lines, characters, and narratives regarding the state and criminality.
While I can deconstruct the racial, gender, sexual, and class politics of every Law & Order show I have ever watched, a particular one stands out to me because its main suspect was, like me, an Asian American woman. The episode, “Just a girl in the world” (season 20, episode 2), featured the character Emma Kim, an Asian American journalist who reports being attacked by a cab driver. It is later revealed that Kim reported a false claim in order to throw off detectives from their investigation into the murder of Daisy Chao, an Asian American Crime Scene Unit investigator whose dead body (discovered by her white fiancé) is shown in the opening scenes.
Model minorities versus Black (reverse) racists: Blacks, Asian Americans, & South Philadelphia High
Tamara K. Nopper
December 18, 2009
As a resident of Philadelphia and an Asian American concerned with and engaged in research and writing about Black-Asian relations, I have been following Asian American students’ recent boycott of South Philadelphia High School after almost 30 of them were purportedly physically attacked by a group of Black and Asian students on December 3, 2009. The whole situation makes me sad. Yet I’m concerned with how Black people are being implicated by some of the media reporting and political support for the students. Specifically, I am concerned with how some are taking advantage of the situation to promote the all too popular and white supremacist charge of Black reverse racism, even when some of the alleged perpetrators have been identified as Asian American. In the following I explore the image of Black reverse racism and how some non-Blacks have used this to marshal support for their causes. I also consider how the Asian American students at South Philadelphia High are being depicted by some of the media and supporters as model minorities in opposition to Black criminals and reverse racists.
By Tamara K. Nopper, Ph.D.
If I had a dollar for every time I heard people claim that Asian immigrants do well because they migrate with the human capital to succeed, I’d be able to…do many things.
A common sociological explanation for economic inequality between Asian immigrants and “native born minorities,” the importation thesis posits that the “development” of third world countries and policy dictates for skilled and educated labor have resulted in imported success. In other words, immigrants come in with more human capital and thus are able to effectively compete against and sometimes economically surpass other racial groups.
Whereas biological and cultural explanations focus on ethnic group characteristics as facilitators of success or failure, the importation thesis is preoccupied with the selectivity of immigration policy that has diversified the types of migrants the U.S. recruits and receives. Emphasizing the landmark 1965 Immigration Act, which set in motion the increased immigration of ethnicities previously restricted from entry or naturalization, scholars have refocused our attention on the state’s role in shaping contemporary economic inequality between racial groups.
Nevertheless, there are limitations to this approach.
To read the rest, go here.
December 13, 2008
There has been little discussion among mainstream media about Obama’s election and Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders (AAPIs). While I can’t provide a detailed analysis of AAPI party politics or voting patterns, I want to provide an account of a community forum held in Philadelphia’s Chinatown that I attended in mid-October. Sponsored by Pennsylvania Asian Americans & Pacific Islanders for Obama, the event featured NYC Councilman John Liu and two Asian American politicians from California: Congressman Mike Honda, Vice Chair of the Democratic National Committee and Chair of the Asian American Congressional Caucus, and Dr. Judy Chu. In attendance were several of the old guard Chinatown “community leaders” and a diverse group of AAPIs involved in local and regional politics, with translation provided for the former.
Three issues stood out. First, despite the tendency to perceive AAPIs as unconcerned or unwilling to talk about race, the topic was addressed many times at the event. This was unsurprising since the event was held to bring together a specific racial group. Also unsurprising but nevertheless troubling was how race was talked about. The rhetoric was consistent with most AAPI’s uneasiness dealing with racial hierarchies as well as Obama’s emphasis on being “NJB.” As described to me by one of my African American students at the University of Pennsylvania, some Black students there categorize other Black students as either “JB” or “NJB”: “just Black” or “not just Black,” with the latter being those who identify as African or Caribbean.
Such an approach to race was part of the sales pitch to AAPIs. For example, at the event people could pick up a brochure targeted at AAPIs (complete with a cover picture of an Asian American man talking to Obama). On the first page, above a photo of Obama sitting with Asian American school children, there is the following quote from Obama’s book The Audacity of Hope: “[I am] the child of a Black man and a white woman, someone who was born in the racial melting pot of Hawaii, with a sister who’s half Indonesian. . . America’s genius has always been its ability to absorb newcomers, to forge a national identity out of the disparate lot that arrived on our shores.”
Obama’s half-sister Maya Soetoro, along with her husband Konrad Ng, was repeatedly referenced during the forum. Indeed, they were not just mentioned, their ethnicities were cited. We were reminded several times that Soetoro is Indonesian and that Ng is Chinese. At one point, Dr. Chu said that if elected, Obama would be the first president to have Asian “blood” relatives. At another point in the speeches, someone (and I forget who—my notes from the meeting are unclear on this matter), actually said that Obama would be the “first Asian president.” What was revealed in these appeals was the belief that to win over the crowd, Obama had to be “NJB,” and more explicitly, had to be related (literally and figuratively) to Asian Americans “by blood.” Whether this was an effective strategy among the people in the room was unclear but it was a noticeable effort nevertheless.
The second and related issue was the attention given to Obama’s Hawaiian roots. At one point in his comments, Congressman Honda mentioned that Obama was a “native son of Hawaii” and had the appropriate “aloha” spirit to lead. According to Congressman Honda, the “aloha” spirit is characterized by openness and is exemplified in Obama’s willingness to work with and listen to others. Such comments are consistent with sound bites that Soetoro has given to newspapers. For example, an AP story has Soetoro saying about her brother: “Hawaii is the place that gave him the ability to. . . understand people from a wide array of backgrounds. . . People see themselves in him. . . because he himself contains multitudes.”
Such depictions of Hawaii are disturbing for a few reasons. First, while Asian Americans have a long history in Hawaii, that a Japanese-American congressman was able to claim Hawaii—to the point where he could determine who was a “native” son of the state—made me think of Native Hawaiians who don’t embrace Asians as fellow Hawaiians. As some Native Hawaiian critics point out, Asian national interests and labor have contributed to the trajectory of Native Hawaiians, which is marked by high incarceration and poverty rates and territorial and political disempowerment. Second, the notion that Hawaiians are an “open people” also reproduces sexualized racial fantasies of an open territory with happy natives warmly “receiving” outsiders—a perception that requires non-Hawaiians to imagine native Hawaiians as eager to provide visual, edible, and sexual pleasure to newcomers (think dancing, food, and sex here). In other words, colonialism is rearticulated as amalgamation.
The third and final issue was how AAPI ”concerns” were defined. Both in the brochures and speeches, AAPI issues were characterized as education, small business ownership, health care, and immigration. Along with these points, the issue of racial profiling was listed, noticeably at the bottom of different materials. The topic of immigration was discussed by many speakers. Immigration was always referenced in relationship to family ties. While the (not overwhelming) majority of AAPIs are foreign-born, unsurprisingly absent—at least for the hour that I was present—was how concerns regarding immigration may also be shaped by economic interests. Some of the people in the room were either business owners in Chinatown or part of organizations that worked with and benefitted from companies in the neighborhood. Given that many such businesses rely on immigrant labor, the issue of immigration reform is not simply driven by familial concerns (and this is not to say familial concerns are outside of the logic of capitalism).
Along with these three issues, the event had a few awkward moments. One that stands out is Congressman Honda leading the crowd in singing “This little light of mine,” presumably prompted by the name of Reverend Dr. Robert P. Shine, a well known member of the Black clergy in Philadelphia, who had opened up the forum with a prayer. Or at least this is what the politician said when he burst into song. Looking at Dr. Shine, Congressman Honda said that he loved his name “Shine” because it reminded him of a tune. . . and so began the singing.