Imposed Identities: Perils of Racial-Ethnic Identifiability

In Why Are All the Black Kids Sitting Together in the Cafeteria?, Beverly Tatum describes racial identity development as an ongoing, continuous process comparable to climbing a spiral staircase. Building on the theory of William Cross, she chronicles the journey arising from encountering the beliefs of a dominant white culture, recognizing one’s own devalued position, exploring the multiple facets of one’s own identity, and emerging to affirm a positive self-identity and support diverse others in their exploration. Intersectionality complicates the picture even further as the multiple dimensions of social identity that include race, gender, and sexual orientation among others combine to create what Patricia Hill Collins calls multiple jeopardies or interlocking systems of oppression.

As a biracial individual with a strong physical resemblance to my father who immigrated from Mainland China and much lesser resemblance to my German-American mother, I have repeatedly encountered the question: “Where are you from?” and when I answer, “New York,” the questioner invariably probes deeper to “Where are you really from?” or “Where are your parents from?” or even sometimes, “Where are your grandparents from?” Even with friends I have known for years, I will be asked questions about the culture, customs, and society of mainland China, although I have not lived or visited there and have only been to Hong Kong when it was a British colony. The irony even extended to my mother, who although white, was sometimes mistaken for being Asian due to her last name and asked what part of China she was from.

Frank Wu identifies the invisibility of Asian Americans in serious public discourse and their high visibility in popular culture that has led to powerful stereotypes such as the notion of the perpetual foreigner. In Yellow: Beyond Black and White, he underscores the way that context operates to create forms of exclusion:

Race is meaningless in the abstract, it acquires it meanings as it operates on its surroundings (p. 22).

The conflation of race with citizenship has led to the common experience among Asian Americans that he so aptly describes:

More than anything else that unites us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted by the perpetual foreigner syndrome. We are figuratively and literally returned to Asia and ejected from America (p. 70).

This outsider syndrome and the stereotypes it perpetuates have consequences. In The Myth of the Model Minority, Rosalind Chou and Joe Feagin highlight research revealing that Asian Americans are less than one percent of the boards of Fortune 500 firms and are generally described as technical workers and not executives. Despite extensive qualifications, Asian Americans are only rarely considered for management roles and have frequently chosen scientific professions due to the subjectivity that can accompany non-technical careers in other professions.

Perhaps to Native Americans or African Americans who have suffered enslavement and even efforts at extermination, the persistence of the perpetual foreigner syndrome and other stereotypes that Asian Americans face might seem like less serious concerns. But what is deeply troubling to all Americans of color is what Joe Feagin refers to as “imposed identities.” As he points out, the hundreds of published research papers on racial and ethnic identity are almost always devoted to questions of how individuals seek to define their own racial or ethnic identities personally (typically on check-off lists) instead of how they must deal with the racial or ethnic identities imposed upon them by white employers, police officials, and others with decision-making power in a highly racialized society. Indeed, Derald Wing Sue identifies the nature of contemporary oppression as involving the imposition of identity upon marginalized groups that can take place through acts of overt and covert racial-ethnic exclusion–a range of acts including micro-aggressions, micro-assaults, and micro-invalidations. And exclusionary racial-ethnic stereotyping and other racial-ethnic framing can occur literally in seconds as the results of many Implicit Association Tests have regularly demonstrated.

Even more than ever in the context of a deeply divided society, we are called upon on a daily basis to nurture a community in which interpersonal interactions resist the simplicity of such imposed stereotypes and other framing, bridge the divides of physical identifiability, and assert the underlying connection between our diversity and our common humanity.

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