In 1922, Takao Ozawa, a Japanese man who had lived in the United States for more than a decade, sued the federal government to be considered white. His application for citizenship had been rejected, as naturalization was only offered to “free white persons,” “aliens of African nativity” and “persons of African descent.” In his case, Ozawa mentioned the similarities in skin tone between his and a white person’s, as well as his loyalty. He wrote, “In name, Benedict Arnold was an American, but at heart he was a traitor. In name, I am not an American, but at heart I am a true American.”
Ozawa’s case wound up before the Supreme Court, which did not, in the end, think Ozawa could be considered white. The result must not have been a surprise, coming as it did during an age when the fear of the “yellow peril” was manifest. The Chinese Exclusion Act, passed in 1882, prohibited any more Chinese laborers immigrating to the United States, and excluded those who were already here from becoming citizens. The Yellow Peril, an influential 1911 book, argued that, in fulfillment of the Book of Revelation, Jesus Christ would descend from heaven to protect the “Occident” against marauding hordes of Chinese, Japanese, Indian and Korean people.
Ninety-two years later, the boundaries of whiteness appear to have grown more generous. In 2014, the Washington Post ran an op-ed called “How the Asians Became White.” UCLA law professor Eugene Volokh opined on coverage of the diversity numbers of the employees at Google. The New York Times had earlier written that Silicon Valley remained a “white man’s world.” But, Volokh noted, while there is a lack of black and Latino employees, Google was actually less white than the American workforce as a whole, and far more Asian, with about a third of the employees of Asian descent. Volokh sagely wrote that he’d been observing that type of oversight for some time, and quoted himself from something he’d written in 1998: “To some extent, this sort of mistake is funny and even a bit heartwarming. The racial divisions between white and Asian, once so stark and to many almost unbridgeable, are quickly fading away.”
To have one’s ethnicity, one’s race, stripped away is nothing short of a provocation, even if it is “heartwarming.” “So what?” one might think. It’s the kind of provocation one should expect on the internet, which runs on cats and outrage. And the “Asians becoming white” headline is nothing new. Coming from the other side of the political spectrum, ethnic studies scholar Scott Kurashige wrote in 1992 that Asian Americans were like Casper the Friendly Ghost: seen as either white or invisible. Other left-leaning columnists have made similar observations.
So apparently, Asian Americans are basically white, or at least “honorary whites,” next in line to “become” white, a model for other minorities to follow. A comparison to European ethnic groups is often made, usually the Jews. It is, on the face of it, not an unconvincing argument. Asian Americans are immigrants also, stereotyped for having great success in this country. So great is the desire to succeed that Asian Americans are supposed to embody every stereotype of assimilation: educational attainment, loss of foreign language, intermarriage, what have you. For that, Asian Americans are noticeably overrepresented in higher education and in technological and scientific fields.
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Eugene Yi is the special projects editor at KoreAm, an award-winning bimonthly magazine that covers and analyzes the news, culture, entertainment, sports, politics, and people of Korean America. This article was reprinted from the July 2014 issue.