Every time I see articles/essays about racial issues on media news, I often read through the comments posted from other readers to see what folks out there are thinking, and I occasionally get into heated debates with random online strangers. Some people may find it pointless to engage in conversations with bigoted individuals they don’t even know. But as I read more comments, I came to notice a pattern where the same rhetoric is repeatedly and pervasively used to dismiss racist incidents. And these strangers have no reservation in spattering around their reactions, as they call people of color oversensitive, whiners, over-reactionary, and reverse racists. They tell people of color, “Stop blaming white people for your own problems, focus more on assimilation, and get over the past!”
Who in the world taught these people about race and the history of racism??
Anyone teaching “race” would agree that it’s one of the toughest topics to teach. Looking back on the days when I taught introductory anthropology courses several years ago, I can still vividly remember the sense of dread while putting my lecture together. The university was in a relatively liberal pocket in the middle of a staunchly conservative state. The fact that the majority of the classes were filled with in-state conservative students shouldn’t have been much of a surprise. Still, it felt like I was going to a Thanksgiving dinner with a bunch of white Republican relatives – except that I had no choice. I had to go in there and talk about the social construction of racial categories and its devastating consequences.
My lectures on race began with a quick look at humans at the genetic/biological level. I felt that it was a necessary start for challenging the faulty biological basis of race before ushering the students into the most critical point – the social construction of racial categories. Subsequently I emphasized that we all belong to a species called H. sapiens, which is a single, highly variable species inhabiting the entire globe but has no biological subspecies or races.
What ironically resonates with this academic/scientific discourse however is the current perpetual colorblind narrative – “We are all humans, and so I don’t see any color and I don’t see you as a person of color! We need to abandon all racial categories!” This utopian post-racial sentiment profoundly dismisses the multiple histories of people of color in the U.S., as well as the histories of their struggles, sufferings, and courageous battles against oppressive white supremacy.
It’s not that my lectures on race completely left out the history of racism, as I briefly went over how racial categories and their given meanings came from white European colonialism and how they continue to be the root of contemporary racist climate. But with the limited amount of time allowed for the particular lectures, I spent too little time on the racial history, and ultimately perpetuated the colorblind post-racial rhetoric.
I recently read two history books, “The Making of Asian America” (2015) and “The Intimacies of Four Continents” (2015). In the former, historian Erika Lee traces diverse histories of people who have come to the U.S. from East Asian, South Asia, and Southeast Asia. In the latter, the author Lisa Lowe lays out intersections of colonialism, slavery, imperial trades, and Western liberalism that emerged from intimate relationships between Europe, Africa, Asia, and the Americas. What caught my attention in these books is how the histories of African Americans, Asian Americans, Latino/a, and Native Americans are intersected and tangled with one another. In other words, the shared experiences of each group of color under racism in the U.S. have never happened independent of the shared experiences of the other groups of color.
Think, for instance, about the stereotypical label of Asian Americans, “model minority,” which was first coined in a 1966 article in The New York Times Magazine by sociologist William Petersen. It is built upon the (sub)conscious idea that whites are intrinsically better than all racial others. By comparing different groups of color to one another, it allows the white privileges unquestioned and the white supremacy to flourish even more. Creating the hierarchy among the groups of color is effective not only for preservation of the white privileges but also for preventing all of the groups from forming a unified front to challenge the white supremacy, or even for instigating animosities between the different groups of color.
There is nothing new about the “divide and conquer” tactic to keep whites on the top of the racial pyramid.
Clearly, all of these historical entanglements never ended because it’s still happening, not only as a consequence of racist colonialism, but also because of the ongoing U.S. political and economic relations with other countries. The acrimonious rhetoric against immigrants from the Middle Eastern countries, particularly Muslim people, is a case in point. And the entanglements continuously shape how many white Americans juxtapose, compare, and arrange different groups of color into racial hierarchies. What a vicious cycle!
[Go to Part 2]