'At Least You're Not Black': Asian Americans in U.S. Race Relations

By Kim, Elaine H. | Social Justice, Fall 1998 | Go to article overview

'At Least You're Not Black': Asian Americans in U.S. Race Relations


Kim, Elaine H., Social Justice


It is often said that by the year 2015, people of color will constitute a majority of Californians. Those fearful of this future have been vociferously supporting a variety of measures and policies aimed at dismantling affirmative action programs and restricting services for racial minorities and immigrants of color, based on the idea that paying any attention to race is racist and perpetuates racism. Asian Americans are frequently positioned as the racial minority that proves that we have attained a color-blind society, since they have higher educational attainment and incomes than Latinos and African Americans, who have presumably not succeeded as well because programs like affirmative action and bilingual education have made them lazy.

In many ways, Asian Americans are positioned on the in-between - on the cusp, at the interstice, in the buffer zone - of Asia and America, between black and white, between old-timer and newcomer, between mainstreamed and marginalized. Yet the in-between is a precarious and dangerous position to occupy if we are not fully cognizant of where we are and what our position means in the larger picture. Armed with that cognizance, we have the potential to participate creatively and courageously in the shaping of the social, political, and cultural environment.(1)

Current Asian American history is not marked by the blatantly discriminatory laws of the past, which prevented them from immigrating, becoming naturalized citizens, marrying, owning land, and testifying against white Americans in court. However, phobic attitudes and discriminatory policies persist. As Richard Fung has observed, old racist stereotypes of Asian inscrutability, unfair competition, cultural unassimilability, and sexual perversity are displaced onto every new group of Asian immigrants and in every new crisis: the most recently arrived refugees of U.S. wars in Southeast Asia find themselves being called "Chinks" and "Japs" as they step into a historical situation they had no part in making (Fung, 1998: 2). In recent years, resentment and hatred have become ever more visible against Asians and Latinos, who are still thought by many to be inferior, alien, and all alike.(2) As in the past, Asian Americans today are still seen as metonyms for Asia and are forcibly distanced from U.S. national culture, which defines its citizenry - or who can be American - as well as which histories and experience are to be remembered and which ones forgotten.

I am old enough to have experienced various kinds of pre-Civil Rights Movement racial bigotry. Growing up in Maryland in the 1950s, I was continually taunted and subjected to racial gestures and epithets. Sometimes people tried to spit on me. Classmates' mothers sometimes scolded them for befriending me. People told my parents, my brother, or me to go back to our country. People continually joked about how "all Orientals look alike." Asians were assumed to be foreign, since "Asian" and "American" were popularly thought to be mutually exclusive. Even my graduate seminar professor at Columbia University complimented me on my ability to speak English at the end of a four-month semester.

A pair of comments that white people often made remains stubbornly in my memory: "At least you are not black," or "You should be grateful that you are not black." These comments, I think, convey the particular kind of racism Asian Americans should recognize and challenge. While being encouraged to feel superior to African Americans, Asian Americans are being positioned in a racial hierarchy meant to perpetuate white privilege at the expense of both Asian and African Americans.

What seems to infuriate some people the most is the thought of an ungrateful Asian American siding with other people of color, presumably against whites. They want to hold onto their notion of Asian Americans as docile honorary white people whose very existence proves that other people of color are lazy and stupid and that racism does not exist in U.

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