'There are no Asians in Asia, only people with national identities, such as Chinese, Japanese, Korean, Indian, Vietnamese, and Filipino. But on this side of the Pacific, there are Asian Americans', wrote the historian Ronald Takaki. This quote juxtaposes the diversity and heterogeneity of individuals in Asia with the American reality of their pan-ethnic conflation.
In my recently published Identities article, 'There are no Asians in China: the racialization of Chinese international students in the United States', I explore this idea empirically with a longitudinal study of Chinese international students and their racialisation in the United States. I argue that it is through a process of racialisation – a process that involves learning about the concept of 'race' and one’s own social categorisation under such a paradigm – that those arriving from a country like China or Japan could eventually come to identify as 'Asian' or 'Asian American'.
My study draws on two-stage interviews with 15 Chinese international students. The first interviews were conducted within two weeks of their arrival in the United States. I did so in order to capture the Chinese students’ initial understandings of race and their racial identities, before much acculturation processes could take place. I found, not surprisingly, that most Chinese students at this stage identified strongly with their national identity as Chinese and dismissed the category 'Asian' as a label of little significance to them.
I then waited six months before carrying out a second round of interviews. What I found were striking changes. Consider, for example, the following quote from a respondent named Ruby:
'Before [in China], I don’t really define myself as Asian because you are in Asia. So you don’t realize it. But here, I think because we all look the same – the face – so there’s many things we can relate ... It’s just I never realized it before. But now I think it’s because, hmm, how people treat you – the native American people treat you. Or, as I said, because we look the same, so I get to make friends with – I actually never expect that I would make friends with Asian Americans or people from Japan, that it would be easier to make friends with them than white people. I think it’s because of the community. And because of the sympathy. Because I think you may feel that, oh, she’s in the same position as me.'
This response represents a significant pivot from the first interview when Ruby dismissed the label 'Asian' and insisted on emphasising her Chinese identity. Crucially, Ruby is quite explicit that it was her experiences in the United States that engendered this newfound awareness of the significance of her Asian identity, citing, for instance, how 'native American people treat you', and her consequent feelings that other Asians in the United States are 'in the same position as me'.
I argue that this reveals the underlying process of racialisation in the United States not just for Chinese international students, but migrants more generally. Foreigners typically arrive in the United States with a limited understanding of US conceptualisations of race or the social significance of their own racial status. However, over time, through experiences living and interacting in US society, they become acculturated to US racial norms. It is through such racialisation processes that Chinese international students 'become' Asian in the United States.
Blog post by Keitaro Okura, Yale University, USA
Read the full article: Okura, Keitaro. There are no Asians in China: the racialization of Chinese international students in the United States. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1663053
Social categories establish group boundaries, and also may become obstacles to social interaction and contact between groups. In intimate relationships such as marriage and family, taboos may arise upon historically and socially constituted categories.
Intermarriage confronts these taboos: how individuals transcend social boundaries and create another 'us' through their strong relationships and strategies to deal with social oppression and prejudice. Intermarriage also has the potential to enhance social contacts between different groups, to solve group discontents, to question identity, group boundaries, prejudices and stereotypes, and to lead to more integrated societies.
In the Turkish context, Alevi and Sunni intermarriages are a good example of how group boundaries can be blurred, and how categories intersect with different political standings and worldviews, gendered systems and subjective positions.
From 2014 to 2017, I led a research project to investigate intermarriage between people from the Alevi and Sunni communities in the city of Izmir on the western coast of Turkey. The project aimed to investigate, using qualitative research, how contact between different communities can be built and sustained through the marriage of two individuals. However, I found that even the definitions of groups, social categories and people’s understandings of their identifications were contestable. Therefore, it is crucial to examine how self and group identifications are constructed, negotiated or transformed in marriages in relation to their broader contexts. There were four key questions in our research: How do the partners in intermarriages define their family background categories (in this example, Sunniness and Aleviness)? How do they identify in relation to these categories? How do they perceive differences between these categories, themselves and their spouses? How do they construct a ‘we’ within and/or beyond these categories?
My Identities article, 'Creating a ‘we’ between categories: social categories and Alevi-Sunni intermarriages', presents my findings on Alevi-Sunni intermarriages in the city of Izmir, Turkey. The article describes how Alevi and Sunni partners identify their Aleviness and Sunniness in relation to historical backgrounds of these categories in Turkey and current political discourses, as well as their own subjective positions. Their identifications and perceptions of differences reveal blurred group boundaries, processes of transcending the categories in their very particular experience of 'us', and traces of local and global reflections on these identity categories. I explain how partners in Alevi-Sunni intermarriages recognise differences between Sunniness and Aleviness, how they define these categories and identify themselves in relation to them, and how their marriage influences their identifications.
Spouses’ shared experiences of their relationship with each other and their corresponding communities can make both themselves and their social environment think more deeply about pre-defined identities and categories. This can also cause dissonances with former categorisations and create either modified or totally novel identifications. Whether of Sunni or Alevi backgrounds, spouses redefine categories and situate themselves and their partners as a 'we' within their re-identifications along with their sociopolitical, local and global representations.
Blog post by Gül Özateşler-Ülkücan, Dokuz Eylül University, Turkey
Read the full article: Özateşler-Ülkücan, Gül. Creating a ‘we’ between categories: social categories and Alevi-Sunni intermarriages. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1627069
‘I hear people compare the immigration debate with the climate debate, and it does not fit quite well, because climate researchers are not faced with the same threats and the same hate as migration researchers, where the hate is very existential and often very personal’. This experienced migration researcher compares what researchers may experience in two fields of polarised social debate.
Climate change and migration are among the most polarised fields of public opinion and political mobilising; however, both fields depend on scientific knowledge for argument. Political adversaries refer to opposite research results as the 'truth' of the matter, and describe the same research results as either politically skewed or totally objective.
Interviews with different generations of migration researchers in Norway about their research communication show that they often are interpreted as 'being political' when disseminating their results to the media or taking part in public debates:
Motivations for research
Researchers engaged in migration and diversity research choose this field for many different reasons. For some, the lead motive is to provide solid ‘objective’ knowledge to help produce good policies in a field of vital importance to the future of Norway. Others list personal reasons, such as earlier work in asylum camps or having close friends of migrant background. Many note that this field exposes researchers to tough ethical dilemmas, and some state that emotions like anger and compassion were important to their initial interest in this research field. All find the mix of normative and descriptive arguments in the field challenging, but they have different solutions to solve this dilemma.
Credibility contests among researchers
The formative years of Norwegian migration research, the 1990s, were characterised by tough debates among researchers about the relative importance of specific research themes (e.g. racism or gender oppression) and the best theoretical perspectives for analysing them. Young researchers entering the field around the Millennium described such debates over the ‘implicit normativity’ of the research field as hard to navigate. When established researchers were marked as either ‘naïve and politically correct’, or as ‘daring and doing important research’, depending on the point of view, it was difficult not to take sides. Such debates could diffuse to the general public debate about migration, where major newspapers could develop stories about how some researchers were ‘politicised’ and untrustworthy knowledge bearers.
Later on, when the research field matured and migration and diversity became more established, research and teaching themes in the university sector and internal debates among researchers over normativity became less tense. In this period of the 2000s, researchers increasingly became aware of the many debates involving research evidence taking place on blogs and different social media platforms outside of the Academy.
The growth of external critique
Concerns about the explicit normativity or political interpretation of migration research grew with the spread of blogs, web-newspapers and social media platforms. On these platforms, specifically those representing anti-immigration or anti-Islam viewpoints, researchers were regularly ridiculed and accused of being apologists for the ‘naïve’ left-wing. Whereas many had previously joked about being listed in so-called ‘traitor lists’ on the Internet, the terrorist acts in Oslo and Utøya in July 2011 made researchers more wary.
My Identities article, 'Boundary work and normativity in research communication across time', analyses how debates over implicit and explicit normativity develop as a new and politically contested research field evolves, in a period when the Internet becomes more important for societal debate.
Blog post by Mette Andersson, University of Oslo, Norway
Read the full article: Andersson, Mette. Boundary work and normativity in research communication across time. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1688953