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boundary 2 28.1 (2001) 153-194
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Morphing Race into Ethnicity:
Asian Americans and Critical Transformations of Whiteness
The meaning of Caucasian as at one time prevalent has been now practically exploded.
—District Judge Smith, Ex parte Dow, 1914
The American Dream is at the expense of the American Negro.
—James Baldwin, quoted in David Leeming, James Baldwin: A Biography
Whiteness studies has focused primarily on the historical emergence of liminal European groups (the Irish and southern and eastern Europeans) [End Page 153] as whites over the last century and a half and on the mutually constitutive nature of whiteness and blackness in the construction of American national identity. Central to the project of whiteness studies in both areas has been the effort to reveal the status of whiteness as an unmarked marker and to expose its historical contingency as a racial category.1 Other minority groups have figured only tangentially in the historiography and sociology of whiteness, thereby entrenching the black-white binary as the defining paradigm of racial formation in the United States. This essay focuses on how Asian Americans produced, and were in turn produced by, whiteness frameworks of the U.S. legal system. In doing so, it opens up a new area of investigation in whiteness studies and critiques the reliance on a black-white model of race relations, which has obscured the complex reconfigurations of racial politics over the last century. Furthermore, the theoretical simplifications of the black-white binary have impeded the articulation of strategies adequate to confronting the significant racial and class-based realignments of the post–civil rights era. These recent shifts have enabled the reconstitution of white privilege as color-blind meritocracy through the consent of new immigrant groups and model minorities, and have legitimized the retrenchment of civil rights gains in the name of the new global economy. The rearticulation of whiteness in the era of global capitalism highlights another important paradigmatic constraint within whiteness studies, namely, the reliance on the analytic framework of the nation-state for understanding the shifting meanings of whiteness. But the erosion of civil rights gains cannot be fully understood apart from the emergence of a global economy under U.S. geopolitical supremacy in the 1970s, a connection that seems to have been largely overlooked so far. Studies of whiteness that are limited to a nation-state model are unable to address the ways in which global capital has used, modified, and infiltrated racial meanings in the contemporary context. No materialist analysis of racial formation can afford to ignore the implications of the transatlantic and transpacific integration of capital circuits [End Page 154] during what Marxist critics have identified as the fourth epochal stage of capitalism, in the progression from mercantile to industrial to monopoly to global capitalism. Asian Americans (of whom approximately 65 percent are foreign-born) have been a crucial conduit for and a site of the reconfiguration of racial identities. By offering a Foucauldian analysis of the productivity of whiteness in shaping the meanings of Asian American identities and in creating stratifications within the Asian American grouping and across minority groups, I hope to foreground the need for developing conceptions of agency that account for complicity and resistance within this intermediary racial group.
The legacy of the civil rights and antiracist coalitions of the 1960s, which were founded on the convergence of working-class and nonwhite identities, developed models of minoritization that foregrounded racial oppression, resistance, and oppositional consciousness. Based on an implicit construct of parallel minoritization rather than stratified minoritization, the racial politics of the sixties challenged white supremacy by positing the opposition between white and nonwhite positionality and strategically deferred theorizing the relationship between racial minorities outside this framework. However, our continued dependence on this once powerful and transformative model of the minority has hampered our ability to recognize and engage the breakdown of the coalitional rationality that grounded the strategic alliances of people of color in the 1960s: This breakdown is dramatically evident in some of the most politically charged and definitive contemporary issues, such as...