Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South

Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South

Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South

Partly Colored: Asian Americans and Racial Anomaly in the Segregated South


Arkansas, 1943. The Deep South during the heart of Jim Crow-era segregation. A Japanese-American person boards a bus, and immediately is faced with a dilemma. Not white. Not black. Where to sit?

By elucidating the experience of interstitial ethnic groups such as Mexican, Asian, and Native Americans- groups that are held to be neither black nor white- Leslie Bow explores how the color line accommodated- or refused to accommodate- "other" ethnicities within a binary racial system. Analyzing pre- and post-1954 American literature, film, autobiography, government documents, ethnography, photographs, and popular culture, Bow investigates the ways in which racially "in-between" people and communities were brought to heel within the South's prevailing cultural logic, while locating the interstitial as a site of cultural anxiety and negotiation.

Spanning the pre- to the post- segregation eras, Partly Colored traces the compelling history of "third race" individuals in the U.S. South, and in the process forces us to contend with the multiracial panorama that constitutes American culture and history.


The Jim Crow era has produced a powerful visual iconography. Photographs of signs on public facilities demarcating the separation between “white” and “colored” enter our collective memory as potent reminders of past injustice. These signs of racial division in the Deep South make visible the contradictions embedded within democracy, the philosophical commitment to equality against its actuality. The dismantling of the color line in the landmark decision, Brown v. Board of Education, became the putative boundary that separated our benighted past from an enlightened future, symbolically dividing past from present, then from now. For better or worse, we have granted the 1954 ruling iconic status as the “Holy Grail of racial justice” (Bell 2004, 3).

Yet that status and the historical periodization that supports it—pre- versus post-1954—nevertheless obscures the ways in which race continues to have force within American culture. It reveals the ways in which the legacy of segregation has come to frame race relations in the United States: first, as the struggle between differential access to rights, and second, as the struggle between black and white. Both, I would argue, have come to constrict our views of what racial difference means. In the first instance, race only becomes intelligible as a problem to be remedied by the state—it is only visible through acts of discrimination antithetical to our notions of democratic universalism. The second struggle frames this book.

The legacy of segregation has come to define the terms of racial meaning in the United States. To wit: the conflation between “black” and “colored.” It is a logical slippage; nevertheless, this book is concerned with what becomes elided in that conflation: how did Jim Crow accommodate a supposed “third” race, those individuals and communities who did not fit into a cultural and legal system predicated on the binary distinction between black and white? Put another way, where did the Asian sit on the segregated bus?

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