Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring outside Ethnic Lines, 1925-1955

Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring outside Ethnic Lines, 1925-1955

Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring outside Ethnic Lines, 1925-1955

Making a Non-White America: Californians Coloring outside Ethnic Lines, 1925-1955

Synopsis

What happens in a society so diverse that no ethnic group can call itself the majority? Exploring a question that has profound relevance for the nation as a whole, this study looks closely at eclectic neighborhoods in California where multiple minorities constituted the majority during formative years of the twentieth century. In a lively account, woven throughout with vivid voices and experiences drawn from interviews, ethnic newspapers, and memoirs, Allison Varzally examines everyday interactions among the Asian, Mexican, African, Native, and Jewish Americans, and others who lived side by side. What she finds is that in shared city spaces across California, these diverse groups mixed and mingled as students, lovers, worshippers, workers, and family members and, along the way, expanded and reconfigured ethnic and racial categories in new directions.

Excerpt

Young Oak Kim, the son of Korean immigrants, recalled sharing city streets, playgrounds, and schools with “Chinese, Japanese, Italians, Mexicans, Jews, and affluent Caucasians” in Los Angeles in the 1930s and early 1940s. Estimating that no more than a handful of Korean families occupied the neighborhood, Kim related how, “right from the beginning, I had to learn to get along with everybody. I learned to get along with Caucasians as well as … I had a lot of Japanese friends, as well as Chinese friends.” When an interviewer asked him about racial tensions in the period, Kim insisted upon the absence of local prejudice. “No,” he began definitively, “as you can see by the way I’ve broken the groups down, they’re almost equal in size, except the Jewish group was smaller. I never had that feeling. I always had a sense that I didn’t belong to any group, but that made it possible, I think, early in life to get along with everybody.” This “getting along” with other ethnoracial groups, a practical necessity of his youth in a multiethnic setting, became a lifelong habit that took on more political implications as he aged. In 1942, much to the chagrin of his parents, Young Oak Kim married a woman of Chinese and Korean heritage whom he had known since he was five. Kim’s propensity for and comfort with crossing established ethnoracial lines shaped his distinguished military career as well. During World War II he took command of an all–Japanese-American unit. Given the long history of hostility between Japan and Korea—hostilities that many immigrants from those nations and their descendants sustained in the United . . .

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