implicit racial/ethnic classification

Lynne Murphy lynnem at COGS.SUSX.AC.UK
Thu Jun 14 10:57:27 UTC 2001

--On Wednesday, June 13, 2001 10:59 pm -0700 Arnold Zwicky
<zwicky at CSLI.STANFORD.EDU> wrote:

> 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).

An interesting parallel:  during the Apartheid years, certain categories of
eastern Asians were officially categorised as 'white' in South Africa.
(They were known as 'honorary whites'--I cover this a bit in my article on
S African racial terms in Internatl J of Lexicography--Jan 2000.)
Taiwanese and Japanese visitors could count as honorary whites, but not
local Chinese people (who were either Coloured or Asian, depending on the
decade and the law in question) nor mainland Chinese.  (Other east Asian
countries don't come up in the discussion of this term.  I guess not many
Koreans in SA in the 1970s.  Not many there now, either.)  The decision was
entirely economic/diplomatic.  SA was interested in Japanese/Taiwanese
investment/business, and it wouldn't do to have such businessmen show up
and have to use different (and lesser) facilities than the white people
they were doing business with.

The implicit categorisation of East Asians w/ whites in the US (in contexts
like Arnold described, where they don't 'count' toward 'diversity'), seems
to be linked to the idea that a 'minority' is someone who's not expected to
be part of the middle/upper/suburban class.  Just as people don't like
counting East Asians (as opposed to Southeast Asians) as 'diversity'
categories in American universities (because they are perceived as
over-represented and already accustomed to academic culture), I think they
don't count in suburban diversity perceptions because they're not
'expected' to be limited to the inner city.  When people want diversity in
their suburbs, in order for it to be 'good for the children', they usually
mean 'I want the kids to see that black people aren't limited to the inner
city and Latinos aren't limited to the barrio.'  Somehow Chinatowns don't
seem to count in the same way (at least not to me), perhaps because they
are limited to a small number of cities.

> 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.)

South Asians don't count as 'Asian' in the US usually, but I'm not sure
that they'd count any more toward the 'diversity' of a neighborhood, since
they are not one of the groups that's 'not expected' to be mixing with
whites.  Since South Asians are often known in the US as professionals
(esp. doctors), they are not stereotyped as belonging to the lower classes.
I would bet that Korean counts as much as Japanese in 'Asian', but
Southeast Asians do not, because they are again usually (or
stereotypically) outside the middle class.  But there must be regional
differences in the US, according to what groups have settled there and what
socioeconomic roles they are perceived as playing.  Also, I'd bet that
there's gradation among the Southeast Asian groups related to how and why
they came to the US (e.g., Cambodian being 'less white' than Thai).

> 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.

I don't know--I think Chinese food is more 'ordinary' just because the
Chinese have a longer history in the US and so the food has had more time
to become known (whereas Vietnamese is pretty new in the US).   I don't
think that the Chinese are 'more white' than Japanese, but Japanese food is
still much more foreign than Chinese, and Korean food is more foreign
still, but I don't see Koreans as being 'less white'.  I think Americans
are much better at telling the differences among the cuisines than among
the people and their cultures.


M Lynne Murphy
Lecturer in Linguistics
School of Cognitive and Computing Sciences
University of Sussex
Brighton BN1 9QH

phone +44-(0)1273-678844
fax   +44-(0)1273-671320

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