- Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture by Jennifer Ann Ho
Jennifer Ho’s Racial Ambiguity in Asian American Culture raises timely questions about the category of Asian American at a time when reexaminations of identity categories are being actively carried out in what the feminist theorist Robyn Wiegman calls fields invested in identity knowledges. As Ho explains in her introduction, questioning the definition of Asian American in and of itself is not a new project. The category of Asian American, while rooted in grassroots social movements of the 1960s and meant to counter the demeaning signification of “Oriental,” has been scrutinized, if not solely then most forcefully, by poststructural critiques such as Kandice Chuh’s Imagine Otherwise. Yet Ho’s project differs from existing critiques in at least two regards. First, it consistently illuminates the concept of racial ambiguity—mostly through mixed-race identities and identifications but also through other norm-defying and transgressive identities and identifications emerging variously from transracial adoptees to the definitions of Asian American texts—as the method of exposing and critiquing the multiple exclusions that arise in the vexed project of Asian American self-determination. Secondly, as much as it is invested in bringing into high relief the impossibility of a rigid and exclusionary definition [End Page 165] of Asian American, it is likewise equally invested in reestablishing the category as an important site of knowledge production and of social and cultural engagement.
All the chapters in Ho’s book reflect this dual imperative of dismantling received ideas about the boundaries of race and reassembling the category of Asian American to speak to Lisa Lowe’s much cited call for “heterogeneity, hybridity, and multiplicity.” The first chapter, which is on a little known government policy during the Japanese American incarceration—the Mixed-Marriage Policy of 1942—shows how the lived reality of mixed-marriages evaded the rigid notions of American identity assumed by the policy. Yoshiko deLeon, a second-generation Japanese Amerian woman was able to avoid the incarceration camps through the Mixed-Marriage Policy, but instead of assimilating into white American norms and values, she embraced the Filipino culture of her husband, Gabriel deLeon. While the Policy’s intent was to prevent what it thought would be the reverse assimilation of the children of unions between Japanese women and (mostly) white men, who presumably were growing up in an American—as opposed to Japanese—home environment, Ho illustrates that for Yoshiko deLeon marrying a non-Japanese man resulted in the creation of an Asian American household and heritage. In another chapter on the celebrity golfer Tiger Woods, Ho asks how popular narratives on Woods might be affected if one were to see the larger Cold War context that created the conditions of possibility for Woods’s father, a former U.S. army Colonel who was stationed in Thailand, to meet his mother, a local woman who worked as a secretary at the U.S. Army base. Against the dominant narratives about Woods, which have largely lionized him as a black man overcoming the racist and exclusionary histories and practices of golf as a white man’s sport in America, Ho presents an alternative narrative which places Woods in proximity to other less celebrated Amerasians whose existence is a testimony to U.S. militarism in Cold War Asia and who often faced severe discrimination in their birth countries.
Racial Ambiguity occasions another round of conversations on the assumptions, methodologies, and claims to knowledge in the field of Asian American Studies. As Ho shows eloquently in the book, Asian American Studies has deep investments in social justice. Social justice, not as abstraction but as everyday application and practice, however, is never a transparent concept. Future studies of the category and identity of Asian American will likely have to further expound on the shifting registers and meanings of social justice as they pertain to Asian American Studies and the knowledge it produces.