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.