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Role of Asian Americans in exposing implicit ambiguity of ‘whiteness’ –

Editor’s Note: Once a year, an essay contest is held at Cal State University, Northridge, among Asian American studies and education majors, as part of an endowment created by columnist Prosy Abarquez-Delacruz for his deceased mother, Asuncion Castro. Abarquez and her deceased sister, Rosalinda Abarquez Alcantara, to provide a scholarship to deserving students. Trials are reviewed by a committee headed by Dr. Tomo Hattori, and with the active participation of Dr. Philip Hutchinson and Dr. Kimberly Teaman Carroll and the oversight of the department chair, Dr. Christina Ayala-Alcantara. This year’s winner is Michelle Gillen.

By Michelle Gillan

Throughout US history, racial divisions have been socially and politically imposed, but never explicitly defined, despite their continued use to maintain the unequal distribution of opportunities and treatment for Americans. The various racial classifications used in this country – white, black, Asian, Native American, Pacific Islander and beyond – influence how we categorize and perceive ourselves through cultural trends, the stereotypes we hold, as well as the effect of our laws and policies although these divisions are completely arbitrary and limiting for many people who do not fit perfectly within the established options. Cultivating our understanding of racial divisions is important on an interpersonal level to prevent prejudice between groups that can lead to conflict and discrimination as well as on a political level to prevent systemic disadvantage against groups that can be targeted.

As a racially ambiguous Lao American, I felt invested in understanding the evolution of peoples’ rights – how a person’s ethnicity can be perceived and changed due to socio-political circumstances – and the consequences of these fluid racial labels. An example of this fluidity appeared in a series of cases from the late 1800s to early 1900s, in which immigrants from Asia and the Middle East attempted to be classified as “white” for the purposes of naturalization. . These cases illustrate the implicit ambiguity of “whiteness” and the determination of those already classified as white to retain their political and socio-economic power.

The concept of race is relatively new, coinciding with the emergence of colonization, its meaning continuing to change in social and political realms at the whim of those in power. In practice, race has been used as the basis for excusing the unequal treatment of non-white communities through laws and policies – whether outright as seen in the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, or in more subtle ways, such as redlining in the 1930s – both of which allowed white communities to gain more socio-economic power by accumulating disproportionate wealth, disadvantaging others in the process.

Even though race is unequivocally unnatural in the sense that there is no genetic or physiological evidence perpetuating the divisions we live in, racial classifications influence the substantive impact of privilege in America. In order to preserve their exclusivity and therefore their power within their relatively small community, the more privileged class are encouraged to invest in systems, propose laws and defend claims that perpetuate this racialized hierarchy.

As racial divisions have always been dynamic, those in early America who were considered non-white took advantage of the unconsolidated definition of race to claim whiteness and thus gain associated rights such as naturalization and other protections. legal attributes attributed solely to whiteness. Several decades after the Civil War, some Asian and Middle Eastern immigrants classified as “foreigners ineligible for citizenship” attempted to circumvent this legal designation, arguing in court that they should be classified as white. Over fifty cases reached the judiciary – two of which were heard by the United States Supreme Court in the 1920s.

Ian Haney Lopez breaks down these leading pre-trial cases in his book White by Law, focusing on the justifications used by US Supreme Court justices to deny the expansion of the white racial category and thereby deny the rights of citizens. white to non-white people. Dozens of arguments have been argued in US courts regarding race falling within two broad concepts – scientific evidence and common knowledge – including phenotypes, geographic distribution of “Caucasians”, assimilation, loyalty and such. The use of scientific evidence and common knowledge has inadvertently illustrated the socially constructed origin of race against the common view that it is a natural aspect of human biology.

When used as a standard for determining race, common knowledge relies on unexamined beliefs of what separates particular races from one another based on changing opinions and tendencies rather than consistent belief. and for a long time. The scientific evidence, on the other hand, was based on the supposedly objective conclusions of experts at the time – who were laden with pseudoscientific beliefs such as phrenology and racial typology – none of which are reliable by American standards. ‘today.

In short, Ozawa v. United States (1922) and United States vs. Thind (1923) are cases of two immigrant men who, like many others, strove for citizenship only associated with white immigrants. Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant, argued that his full social assimilation into white American society was sufficient for him to be considered white and therefore eligible for naturalization. Supreme Court justices used the rationale that Ozawa was not of Caucasian descent (scientific evidence) – therefore not considered a “free white person” eligible for citizenship. After this decision against Ozawa, Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian immigrant, used the justification of scientific evidence applied in Ozawa’s case in his favor.

Using the anthropological knowledge of the time, the Caucasian racial classification included the Indo-Aryans and therefore the Thins. Instead of facing the Caucasian label loophole, Supreme Court justices doubled down – insisting that humans can naturally be distinguished by race (common knowledge) and that science was an illegitimate informant – rejecting the scientific evidence argument they previously used against Ozawa. These two cases reveal how superficial and inconsistent race is, especially when the exclusivity – and therefore the power – of whiteness is potentially threatened.

These cases were incredibly influential in deciding who had the right to naturalize, and with their motivation to maintain the status quo of racial hierarchy, these judges strongly denied non-white immigrants access to white privileges. By finalizing the meaning of white as loosely as “common understanding,” wealthy whites in power could continue to perpetuate systems of advantage and disadvantage to maintain control. This manifests in how we are taught history and language through the perspective of white men, how our basic rights are in terms of white men, and how America was built and maintained for white men. affluent by affluent white men. Even today, being white is a necessary criterion for having all the privileges of being American, alongside other demographics such as wealth and education.

Although nearly 150 years have passed since the first prior case, our social and legal understanding of race is still evolving with many prior laws persisting despite no longer being consistent with today’s values. From limiting school resources to minority communities, to voter suppression and police brutality, these laws endure as those who control our policies continue to prioritize maintaining the status quo.

This fundamental belief held in our government of innate racial divisions and the prioritization of affluent white male control over socio-economic power is what leads not only to the implementation of laws that disadvantage racial minorities like voter suppression, but also to the loss of other minority rights such as the denial of the rights of LGBTQ+ communities and the rejection of bodily autonomy such as the right to medical confidentiality.

The reality that the rights of millions of people, many of whom are not properly represented in government, can be dismissed by the same selfish views of decades past as easily as Takao Ozawa and Baghat Singh Thind lost their chance to get fair opportunities, shows how dangerously biased our current system can be, no matter how clear or vague the definition of terms.


The opinions, beliefs and views expressed by the author do not necessarily reflect the opinions, beliefs and views of Asian Journal, its management, editorial board and staff.


Michelle Gillen is a third-generation Lao-American dual major in Sociology and Asian American Studies who has been on the CSUN Dean’s Honor List for six consecutive semesters, won the AAS Promising Sophomore Award and the Laura Uba Academic Achievement CSUN GE Honors Program. They hope to pursue a career in teaching to provide future generations with the tools to investigate the complexities of America’s relationship with its minority populations.

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