implicit racial/ethnic classification

Arnold Zwicky zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU
Thu Jun 14 05:59:08 UTC 2001

[i've been thinking more and more about various social
categorizations, especially implicit ones (for which there are no
generally used labels).  that's the background for this observation.]

a couple of days ago, KQED-FM had a short opinion piece about
racial/ethnic diversity in oakland, by an african american woman
who had heard comments from white folks about diversity in the
city and how it was *good*, especially for kids.  a couple of
these white folks had moved to the suburbs and complained about
the "sameness" of their new neighborhoods: almost nothing but
white people, and asian americans. (some of them had moved back
to the city.)

it was the "and asian americans" (with a pause first) that caught
my ear.  there's an implicit category here, whites-and-[certain]-
asians (versus another implicit category, crudely characterizable
as blacks-and-browns).

now, the "asian american" part of this is complicated.  presumably,
people of chinese ancestry count without question.  probably those of
japanese ancestry as well.  then it gets dicey.  korean ancestry?
filipino?  vietnamese?  south asian?  (i'm pretty sure the speakers
reported on would *not* have included americans of south asian
ancestry as "asian americans" in this context.  a cute turn in this is
that in the u.k. it is exactly people of south asian ancestry who
centrally count as "asians".  local history rules.)

in any case, chinese americans are, for some people, almost "white".
certainly not "people of color" (though in other contexts, and for
other people, they'd count as "people of color", or "minorities",
as opposed to "whites").  no surprise, really, given that chinese
food has become ordinary (like spaghetti or bagels, to cite the
food of two other ethnic groups that have been assimilated into
ordinary american whiteness), in a way that vietnamese etc. food
has not.

arnold (zwicky at

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