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Diaspora 7:3 1998 Category Crisis: South Asian Americans and Questions of Race and Ethnicity1 Susan Koshy University of California, Santa Barbara The identity of South Asians in the United States has proved to be problematic, both for the self-identification of the group and for the identifying institutions and popular perceptions ofthe host society. As a result, a certain exceptionalism (commonly indexed as ambiguity ) has come to attach itselfto the historiography ofSouth Asian American racial formation.2 This exceptionalism, in turn, has formed the ground for two competing constructions of South Asian American racial identity that wield significant influence today. One view, represented by some of the major immigrant organizations and reproduced by many middle-class immigrants, stresses ethnicity and class and denies or mitigates the historical salience of race for South Asians in the United States. This position emphasizes the anomalous status of South Asian Americans among racial minorities and embraces the rhetoric of a color-blind meritocracy. The second position, associated mainly with scholars and students in the humanities and social sciences and with some activists, treats South Asian color consciousness as equivalent to white racism and criticizes the immigrant community for denying its own blackness. These critics advocate that South Asian Americans politicize their identity, like their diasporic counterparts in Britain, by forming coalitions with other people of color. Ironically, both positions tend to construct racial identification as a choice, inadvertently reproducing the American ideology of self-making and possibility in discussing one of the social arenas where it has been least applicable . In rethinking the question of South Asian American identity, I focus, instead, on the tension between assignation and assertion that sociologists suggest shapes racial identity, the negotiation between the identity categories immigrants bring with them and those to which they are assigned (Cornell and Hartmann 8O).3 Moreover, it is crucial to keep in mind that race is not a transhistorical category, that the meaning of whiteness has shifted over the years, and that what it means to be black or white in Britain is quite distinct from what it means to be black or white in the United States. On the one hand, I will argue that the historical and Diaspora 7:3 1998 contemporary situation of South Asians in the United States indicates that they have been ineluctably racialized and that the embrace of color-blindness amounts to assuming a public stance of "don't ask, don't tell" on matters of race that leaves no avenue for redress. On the other hand, despite the radical objectives of the progressive strategy, I will argue that it is politically problematic for South Asians to claim blackness in the United States (unlike in Britain), since the history of slavery and the structural position of African Americans requires that the distinction between black and other racial identities be maintained. Despite the divergence in their goals and strategies, both political positions are based on a common historical narrative of South Asian American emergence. According to this narrative, South Asians were unique among nonwhite groups in seeking citizenship as whites in the early part ofthe century. Subsequently, in the 1923 United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind Supreme Court case, they were ruled nonwhite and hence ineligible for naturalization. It is commonly asserted that after initial classification in the Census in 1930 and 1940 as "Hindus," they were categorized from 1950-1970 as "Other'VWhite"; it was only finally in 1980, in order to secure the benefits of affirmative action programs, that they lobbied for and won inclusion in the category "Asian American." This is the commonly accepted and most widely disseminated narrative of the racial history of South Asians in the United States, and it has assumed the status of common knowledge among scholars and non-academics alike. Within this narrative, the defining characteristic of South Asian American racial formation in the past and present has been their identification as whites. White-identification was secured in the past through their putative racial genealogy as Aryans and in the present through their color prejudice and their class position. To deconstruct the established narrative of South Asian American exceptionalism, I will show that, from the time of their...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1911-1568
Print ISSN
1044-2057
Pages
pp. 285-320
Launched on MUSE
2011-07-06
Open Access
No
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