Problems in “Honorary White” Notions for Asian Americans?

There is a lot of discussion these days about “middle groups” of Asian Americans and Latinos being or becoming white as the country gets less and less white, and speculating about whether they will inflate the white group versus black Americans, who will remain at the bottom of the racial ladder and hierarchy with a few other darker skinned folks. This makes significant assumptions about Asian Americans, both collectively and as subgroups. Today, I was reading a provocative paper (“Critical Thoughts on Asian American Assimilation in the Whitening Literature”) by sociologist Nadia Kim, which is one of the very good places you can find a serious challenge to this “honorary whites” discussion of Asian Americans. I encourage you to take a look at her entire paper , but here are two concluding paragraphs:

Concerning the fate of the American racial landscape, this essay challenged the increasingly accepted sociological forecast that Asian Americans (and Latinos) are whitening or aligning with whites in a new black/non-black divide…. these studies do not incorporate the dimensions along which Asian Americans’ racial status depends, namely hierarchies of citizenship within a context of global inequalities (i.e., U.S.-Asian relations). As such, scholars need to address both the limits and dangers of Asian Americans’ high social class status and an American national identity as a cornerstone of whiteness. Methodologically, this essay questioned why the racial assimilation literature does not engage the qualitative and quantitative studies that directly investigate issues of racialized citizenship.

In her paper she questions the meanings put on certain data:

…. the data presented here problematized and contextualized three major predicates of the thesis on Asian Americans’ racial mobility: high socioeconomic status, high rates of intermarriage with whites and racial attitudes and ideology. Taken together, these arguments yield to a larger and more pressing point: the need to consider how white- American dominance has been secured for about 400 years by exercising racial power over all non-whites. Of the racial assimilation studies on Asian Americans, Bonilla-Silva (2002) and Gans (1999) acknowledge this larger project of racial hegemony. Both contend that lighter-skinned and higher class Asian Americans could, respectively, join an honorary white and residual category (while darker-skinned, lower income Asian ethnics would “blacken”). These “middle” Asian ethnics would thereby shore up white racial dominance by being politically palatable and serving as a buffer for black counter-movements, a purpose which “in between” groups have often served.

While these studies should be applauded for their claims about tripartite models, they need also investigate, and act on, the specificity of Asian-American racialization – to take seriously the denial of social citizenship to Asian groups on a racial basis and to capture how it is linked to anti-black subordination and the racial system writ large. In other words, Asian and black Americans have been played off of one another, respectively, as “harder working than blacks” and “more American than Asians” and, at different points in time, “more like those blacks” (“Filipino brown brothers”) and “more like us.”

A key point implicit here is that whites – elite whites — in key US institutions run the show, including the racial hierarchy and the system of racial oppression. These whites control the oppression of Asian Americans in society, and the latter as white-imaged, as “foreign,” “unassimilable,” “nerdy-strange,” and/or “exotic,” are a long way from really being “white” in the persisting white racial frame in white minds, or the white-controlled racial hierarchy it rationalizes. Indeed, what one thing I take from Kim’s essay is that asking if they are becoming “honorary whites” often buys into the white-constructed “model minority” notions that are important in that white racial frame. Indeed, that is the wrong question.


  1. No1KState

    Sorry. I’ve turned off the ol’ thinking cap for the day. So, what’s the right question?

    I understand your point and I think I understand Kim’s point. I personally don’t see how Asians could be included as honorary whites. No matter how hard some try to assimilate, they’ll always have all too many who are too dark or too poor or refuse to have cosmetic surgery to change their eyelids or some such other thing. The best they can hope for is a more powerful John Yoo.

    So, I’m there. But what’s the right question?

  2. Joe

    N1Kstate, thanks for the comment. Tthere are several better questions, it seems to me. Such as, how and why do whites set up this system of oppression for Asian Americans, and how and why to they get rarely challenged on whitewashed concepts like “honorary white” and “model minority.” And how do we work on white minds and actions to best change it?

  3. No1KState

    Okay, I follow.

    In that case, I don’t see Asian Americans rising much higher than where they are. Much like Eduard Dontez, the Count of Monte Cristo, no matter how much money or power they accumulate as individuals, they’ll never be noble. Poor whites haven’t even managed to crack the barrier.

    My biggest question is will whites change? They managed to maintain some form of slavery and control over black bodies into the 20th century. Even after the Civil Rights Movement, they remain in top positions of power; cry reverse-racism at the idea of one Latina out of 9 judges; and, deny and rationalize racism in the same breath. At the end of the day, will whites be willing to denounce their racial privilege?

    To their credit, for lack of better words, there are very many Asians who reject being “model minorities” and may refuse to play along. That does give me comfort.

    Another related question I have is what about white Hispanics? All Latinos may be treated the same in the US; but back in Latin America, not all Latinos were created equal. Of any group, it seems to me that white Hispanics would be the most likely to accept “honorary whiteness.” (That sounds racist, so I better be clear.) Take for example the Cuban community. The Cubans who most immediately left the island in the wake of Batista’s ouster were white Cubans. With Batista, they enjoyed racial/white privilege; Castro took that away. So what about white Hispanics?

    • Jessica

      In addition to what Joe says below, I also think it’s important to keep in mind that any labeling of Asian or Latino/a Americans as “white” really means “not black” for the purposes of those doing the labeling. For example, on drivers licenses, Latino/as are listed as “white.” They largely don’t enjoy the benefits of being white, but they aren’t black…but the layperson also doesn’t have anything but a race binary to describe people. So what are the “categories” really? “White,” “black” and “not white, but not black either?”

      Did Cubans at that time refer to themselves as white Cubans? (Serious question – I honestly don’t know.) Or are we projecting that description upon them when we really mean “light-skinned” Cubans?

      • No1KState

        I can check, but from what I remember of Caribbean History 220, they did think of themselves as “white” or something very similar. Cubans who were descendents of Spanish landowners/slaveowners did enjoy racial privileges that Afro-Cubans didn’t. Part of Castro’s revolution was to end racism.

        Don’t get me wrong, they may say they left because Castro cut down on dissent or because of some other political reason. But they left because in nationalizing businesses and corporations, Castro cut off their means of wealth and their ability to generate and amass riches. And the reason they had so much wealth and land and power was because of the legacy of racism. Especially when you consider the “American Spanish” war that the Cubans were “winning” long before Americans got involved. (I say “winning” because in guerrilla warfare, the rebels don’t have to actually win, they only have to not lose.) In fact, the reason the US got involved is that they saw the Cubans were about to gain independence and felt if Cuba wasn’t a Spanish colony, it would be an Americans colony. So long as it wasn’t governed by Cubans. So, if nothing else, and there’s lots else, Spain and the US imposed segregation onto Cuba. Americans who did business in/with Cuba; they only worked with white Cubans.

        So, to answer your question, I’m not sure what they would’ve called themselves, ie white or European or Spanish, etc. But I’m 99.9% sure they did consider themselves “better” if not “superior,” or, at least, didn’t see their fortune as a matter of injustice and weren’t in a hurry to “redistribute” wealth.

  4. Joe

    Good questions. Some whites change daily, but the big changes will require another major civil rights type movement. The squeaky wheel gets the grease….. Even ‘white’ Hispanics in the US suffer discrimination. “North European whites” often see them too as inferior….you are right that in Latin America they often rule the roost, but not in the US>..

  5. John D. Foster

    Thanks for the post Joe. @No1KState, you’re right about Asian Americans who resist the label “model minority” in various ways. For example, in her book “Unraveling the ‘Model Minority’ Stereotype” (1996) Stacey Lee writes of so-called “New Wavers” who resist the mm image, and most were of more recent groups of Asian immigrants (e.g., southeast Asians) and were from working-class families. The resistance is tough, though, since this stereotype permeates people’s thinking, including their teachers, who often say they’re “bright but lazy.” The white racial frame treats various minorities differently in terms of content, but the form remains the same in that non-whites are inferior to the lily white.

  6. No1KState

    @Joe – Thanks for the response.
    @ John D – What? Huh? I’ve heard of stereotypes involving high intelligence. Asians are “good at math.” Black, when we’re intelligent, are “cunning.”

    And of course, “negroes” and, . . . er, “Latinos” are “lazy.”

    But, “bright but lazy?” Scuze me, come again? The “Ma Mabley” in me wonders if whites are confused by dark-skinned (black=lazy) Asians (Asians=smart). For what it’s worth, some West African slaves did end up in the Dutch East Indies, so who knows? Maybe some African “lazy” ruined the pure Asian “brightness.”

    Now that I’ve had my chuckle, the academic in my remains in wonder at all the ways white racism can morph such that the form remains teh same in that non-whites are inferior to the lily white, even when simultaneous stereotypes contradict each other.


  1. Tweets that mention Problems in “Honorary White” Notions for Asian Americans? :: --
  2. “黄祸”、种族身份认同与模范少数派 | 微博日报

Leave a Reply