'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
Boxing fans and pundits might be familiar with the term 'undisputed' champion. Reserved mainly for boxers, the 'undisputed' champion is seen as the unquestioned champion of (mainly his) weight division. To achieve this status, he must become champion of the various worldwide boxing organisations. Of course, the boxer must constantly defend this status over and over again in order to maintain his place atop the boxing hierarchy. In other words, being an undisputed champion is fleeting, unpredictable, and always in flux.
In my Identities article, ‘Undisputed’ racialised masculinities: boxing fandom, identity, and the cultural politics of masculinity', the term 'undisputed' is repurposed to theorise and allegorise how it is fraught with contradictions. My findings highlight how the undisputed status of racialised masculinity is constantly struggled over, negotiated and contested by male boxing fans of colour. Based on fieldwork observations during a Manny 'Pac-Man' Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez boxing match in 2011, interviews conducted with 1.5 and 2nd generation Filipina/o Americans, and close analysis of 'Gayweather,' it analyses how male fans of colour seek an undisputed masculinity in complex and problematic ways.
Undisputed racialised masculinities are fraught with issues of power inequalities including homophobia, sexism and conservative views of belonging to a nation. Employing a queer of colour critique and women of colour feminism, undisputed racialised masculinity is complicated by race, class, sexuality and nation. During ethnographic observations at the Manny 'Pac-Man' Pacquiao vs. Juan Manuel Marquez weigh-ins for example, homosocial spaces and relations — made up primarily of Latino and Filipino men — produced racially heteronormative ideas of nationalism. These ideas were manifested in homophobic chants (fans chanting ‘puto,’ a Spanish homophobic slur) and heterosexist ideas about who can belong to the imagined national community.
Filipina/o Americans also deployed homophobia and sexism by devaluing African American boxer Floyd ‘Money’ Mayweather’s masculinity. Informants pointed out that Mayweather is Pacquiao’s biggest boxing rival and a gauge with which they measured Pacquiao’s success. They shared that Pacquiao is known to take risks and invite pain. In other words, he isn’t ‘scared’ to stand ‘toe to toe’ with his opponents. In this way, Mayweather’s masculinity works in relation to Pacquiao’s boxing style.
While my article primarily documents how men of colour assert their ‘undisputed racialised masculinity,’ some women challenge this status. During an interview with Louise, a 1.5-generation Filipina American, she brought to my attention the term 'Gayweather' and the discomfort she experienced whenever some of her Facebook friends posted the image. She shared, 'I do feel uncomfortable because yes, Mayweather is Manny’s competitor, but I don’t like the way a lot of people have [given him] that nickname "Gayweather." It just makes me feel really uncomfortable because of the implications that it does have. I’m all for being proud and having support for Manny Pacquiao but when it goes into that and I know they’re doing it just because they’re rooting for Manny. But when it gets to things like that, they’re calling him names that have to do with belittling homosexuals and stuff. It makes me cringe.' In fact, the racialised, gendered and sexualised term circulates on the internet as memes and GIFs by queering Mayweather. This is accomplished by superimposing images onto his body to mark his 'queerness' (e.g. wearing pink dresses and kissing other men).
In order to combat ‘undisputed racialised masculinity,’ the article concludes by pointing to an ethics and politics of care that asks us to imagine differently. To imagine differently means changing social patterns and relations, to radically alter how we live with each other in order to imagine more egalitarian relations.
Blog post by Constancio R. Arnaldo, Jr., University of Nevada, USA
Read the full article: Arnaldo, Constancio R., Jr. 2019. ‘Undisputed’ racialised masculinities: boxing fandom, identity, and the cultural politics of masculinity. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1624068
A couple of years ago, I shared a paper-in-progress with some colleagues. I got a lot of wonderfully kind and collegial feedback, but I noticed that something was amiss between my own home base of sociology and other disciplines that theorise emotion. At the mere mention of the name Lauren Berlant, two people reeled back in their chairs, rolling their eyes and groaning in exasperated derision. The centring of Stuart Hall's work in my paper perplexed one colleague, who explained that 'we've transcended Hall with Pierre Bourdieu and Jeffrey Alexander'.
Bourdieu and Alexander, I couldn't help noticing (especially by contrast to Hall), are decidedly less adequate for understanding race and, to a lesser extent, gender. And unlike Bourdieu and Alexander, who are claimed in the name of sociology, Hall and Berlant can be considered cultural theorists, though they've significantly influenced social theory. The encounter I've just described sits where these two terrains of struggle meet: disciplinary politics and politics more broadly. I want to suggest that it would be fitting to bring the same principles that guide better political praxis into our inter/disciplinary engagements.
The haste with which some sociologists of emotion dismiss interdisciplinary fields such as cultural studies, critical race studies, and postcolonial studies is in one sense perhaps not surprising. Despite the significance of emotion in the organisation of every aspect of social life, keyword searches for recent publications on emotion within prominent journals in these fields produce surprisingly scant results. Other concepts, such as 'attitudes' and 'lived experience', feature more prominently. For emotion theorists seeking an excuse to bypass interdisciplinary work, the lexical differences seem sufficient. 'There's nothing relevant for me here. This isn't how “we” do it.'
But why, I wonder, would we stop digging just when we're about to reach the treasure? It is at precisely this point that questions worth asking begin to arise. Why do some scholars use 'attitudes' where we would use 'emotions'? How has the word 'emotion' operated in the lives and intellectual traditions of the people who've produced this work, and why do these other terms work better for them? Power is almost certain to be involved somehow – either its exercise or resistance to it – and it's a wasted opportunity to allow conceptual divergences to function as walls rather than doors.
Charles Taylor has influentially argued that a politics of recognition demands the genuine possibility of transformation by all parties to a relationship. In order for social scientists to answer the questions that make our work worth doing, we must be open to having our own concepts transformed by our dialogues with other disciplines. The field of feelings is as broad a church as academic knowledge production can furnish. An examination of the work of even the most dedicated disciplinary purists will betray the influences of cultural theory, psychoanalytic theory, neuroscience, sociology, anthropology, philosophy, history, political theory, and interdisciplinary fields such as feminist, postcolonial, critical race, psychosocial, and science and technology studies. The benefits of these interdisciplinary engagements for our work are reason enough to embrace them, but perhaps even more importantly, an aversion to scholarship which is 'not how “we” do it' can, depending on who the 'we' is or isn't, be haunted by the spectre of the same Orientalism that social scientific work ought to root out – in praxis as well as theory. Despite institutional pressures to champion our own disciplines, a sound intellectual politics demands that we inhabit the surprisingly vulnerable liminality between confidence in our conceptual tools and openness to changing our minds about them.
Blog post by Lisa Kalayji, University of Edinburgh, UK
In June 1985, 331 people were killed in the bombings of two Air India flights, which investigators attributed to militant Sikh nationalist groups operating in Canada. Although the bombings are now regarded as the deadliest incident of terrorism in Canadian history, they continue to hold a complex, often contradictory place in Canada’s imaginary.
Much of the existing scholarship has attributed this complexity to systemic racism that limits how the bombings have been regarded and remembered as a ‘Canadian tragedy’ (Dean 2012, Failler 2009, Seshia 2012), even as the Canadian government devoted considerable resources to investigating and prosecuting the attacks. In 2006, the Government of Canada even commissioned a public inquiry to determine how state institutions failed to prevent and effectively prosecute the bombings.
Given that the inquiry received evidence that systemic racism shaped state responses to the bomb plot, it offers a unique vantage point to examine how state institutions reckon with their implication in racial violence.
My Identities article, ‘Racial inquiries: law and the political visibility of racism in the Air India inquiry’, suggests that this inquiry clung to liberal epistemologies that foreclosed recognition of how systemic racism affected the Canadian state’s responses to the bomb plot. These liberal epistemologies frame race as an effect of individual action and intent, disassociating race from its systemic conditions as a relation of power that affects how people are governed and rendered vulnerable to violence and death.
Before and after the bombings, these kinds of systemic conditions led to critical failures in intelligence gathering and analysis that rendered Canadian state institutions unable to prevent or prosecute the bombings. This institutional inaction engendered a distinctly racial field of political violence that has persisted beyond the bombings.
During the inquiry, a number of witnesses proffered evidence of the state’s racial inaction. Yet, this evidence was ultimately disregarded in the inquiry’s final report because of how the witnesses’ epistemic authority was devalued by its liberal epistemic practices. My Identities article shows how the inquiry was not fated to (re)affirm these epistemologies of racism; rather, by illustrating how legal forums are sites of epistemic and political contestation, my article shows that state institutions are shaped by contingent disputes over how certain concepts and issues are defined, understood and deemed relevant to their institutional proceedings.
Given that legal institutions are so frequently approached as avenues of redress against systemic racism, it is critical to determine exactly how race and racism are being operationalised to ensure state institutions are held accountable for their practices or risk extending racial relations of power and violence.
Dean, A. 2012. The importance of remembering in relation: juxtaposing the Air India and Komagata Maru disasters. TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Canadian Studies 27: 198–214.
Failler, A. 2009. Remembering the Air India disaster: memorial and counter-memorial. Review of Education, Pedagogy, and Cultural Studies 31: 150– 176.
Seshia, M. 2012. From foreign to Canadian: the case of Air India and the denial of racism. TOPIA: Canadian Journal of Canadian Studies 27: 215–231.
Blog post by Bonar Buffam, The University of British Columbia, Canada
Read the full article: Buffam, Bonar. Racial inquiries: law and the political visibility of racism in the Air India inquiry. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2019.1600312
On April 15, 2013, two pressure-cooker bombs exploded at the finishing line of the Boston Marathon, killing five and injuring 264. In the absence of information about who the bombers were, Salon.com published liberal commentator David Sirota’s piece 'Let’s Hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American'. Sirota argued that if the bombers turned out to be white, Muslims would be protected from an inevitable anti-Muslim backlash. A few days later, the bombers’ identities were revealed as brothers Tamerlan and Dzhokhar Tsarnaev, children of Chechen refugees who came to the United States when they were 16 and 8 years old, respectively. Interestingly, the brothers were phenotypically white and, as conservative commentators online were fond of saying, quite literally Caucasian (i.e. from the Caucuses). They were also, however, Muslims.
Sirota’s article provoked a firestorm across conservative media, and Sirota was accused of being race obsessed and blind to the threat of Jihadist terrorism. In our Identities article, '‘Let’s hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American’: racialising Muslims and the politics of white identity', we analysed conservative responses to Sirota’s article, as well as the ensuing debate about whether the Tsarnaevs were, in fact, the white Americans Sirota had hoped for.
Given the widely held view that the brothers were phenotypically white, we were surprised to find that this question was shrouded in ambiguity. On the one hand, conservatives referred to the brothers’ whiteness to affirm a distinction between race and Islam, and to argue that the latter was a dangerous political ideology that people choose to believe in regardless of their race. On the other hand, however, and despite this apparently non-racial criticism of Islam, conservative responses to Sirota were permeated by accusations of anti-white racism, race treachery, white guilt, and even discussions of race suicide. We sought to explain this contradiction between intense expressions of racialised threat with avowed commitments to a non-racial critique of Islam.
We argue that reactions to Sirota’s article, as well as the liberal position he is considered to represent, reflect a deeply engrained view that there is a racial war between American whites and Muslims. The accommodation of Islam by white liberals is therefore cast as a direct threat to the United States, which white Americans are deemed responsible to protect. In other words, participating and agreeing to the terms of Muslim racialisation is central to the performance of a hegemonic white racial identity. Failure to perform this combativeness is deemed tantamount to race treachery and facilitating a form of racial suicide. Our critical contribution is that while previous scholarship on Islamophobia has focused on the cultural or phenotypical characteristics of Muslims that mark them as ‘other’, our argument shows that the racialisation of Muslims also occurs through a contested process of white racial formation.
Moreover, we identify a critical weakness in popular liberal critiques of Islamophobia. The critique deployed by Sirota, as well as other liberal commentators in the debate, hinged on a racial distinction between Muslims and whiteness. It was only through this (racialising) distinction that liberals were able to make operative the view that anti-Muslim sentiments after terrorist attacks reflect a form of racism. Liberals struggled to articulate a coherent critique in the face of the strategic use conservatives made of the Tsarnaevs’ ambiguous racial identity, emphasising the need for political counter-discourses to the white supremacist Islamophobia described in our Identities article. Alongside a more refined concept of racism attuned to relational racial formation processes, a primary goal must be disentangling whiteness from American citizenship -- a struggle with stark dimensions in the current moment.
Blog post by Jake Watson, Boston University, USA; Saher Selod, Simmons College, USA; and Nazli Kibria, Boston University, USA
Read the full article: Watson, Jake; Selod, Saher & Kibria, Nazli. ‘Let’s hope the Boston Marathon Bomber is a White American’: racialising Muslims and the politics of white identity. Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power. DOI: 10.1080/1070289X.2017.1397964