Where are you really from? Asian Americans and the perpetual foreigner syndrome
Frank H. Wu
“Where are you from?” is a question I like answering.
“Where are you really from?” is a question I really hate answering.
“Where are you from?” is a question we all routinely ask one another upon meeting a new person.
“Where are you really from?” is a question some of us tend to ask others of us very selectively.
For Asian Americans, the questions frequently come paired like that. Among ourselves, we can even joke nervously about how they just about define the Asian American experience. More than anything else that unifies us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted b the perpetual foreigners syndrome. We are figuratively and even literally returned to Asia and ejected from America.
Often the inquisitor reacts as if I am being silly if I reply, “I was born in Cleveland, and I grew up in Detroit,” or bored by a detailed chronology of my many moves around the country: “Years ago, I went to college in Baltimore; I used to practice law in San Francisco; and now I live in Washington, DC.”
Sometimes she reacts as if I am obstreperous if I return the question, “And where are you really from?”
People whose own American identity is assured are perplexed when they are snubbed in this manner. They deserve to know why “where are you really from?” is so upsetting. My white friends of whom I have asked the question are amused at best and befuddled at worst, even if one of their grandparents was an immigrant or all of them once were. They deserve to know why “where are you really from?” is so upsetting to Asian Americans even if it carries no offensive connotations to them.
Like many other people of color (or a few whites who have marked accents) who share memories of such encounters, I know what the question “where are you really from?” means, even if the person asking it is oblivious and regardless of whether they are aggressive about it. Once again, I have been mistaken for a foreigner or told I cannot be a real American.
The other questions that follow in the sequence make the subtext less subtle. Assuming that I must be “really from” someplace else and not here, even pausing for the preliminary “where are you really from?” some people proceed to ask me: “How long have you been in our country?” Do you like it in our country?” When are you going back?” and “Do you have the chance to go home often?” I am asked these questions with decreasing frequency over time but still too often, and I am surprised at the contexts in which they continue to pop up.
When I give a speech, every now and then a nice person will wait to chat with me and with utter sincerity and no hint of irony, start off by saying, “My, you speak English so well.” I am tempted to reply, “Why, thank you; so do you.”
I don’t suppose that such a response would make my point to anybody but myself. I am disappointed by these tiresome episodes because strangers have zeroed in on my race and seem to be aware of nothing else. Taken together, their questions are nothing more than a roundabout means of asking what they know could not be directly said, “What race are you?” Their comments imply that I am not one of “us” but one of “them.” I do not belong as an equal. My heart must be somewhere else rather than here. I am a visitor at best, an intruder at worst. I must know my place, and it is not here. But I cannot even protest, because my complaint exposes me as an ingrate. I don’t appreciate the opportunities I have been given. People who know nothing about me have an expectation of ethnicity, as if I will give up my life story as an example of exotica.
A few people, I suspect, ask where we are from out of a naivete blended with malice. If pressed about my origins, I answer that my parents came from China, lived in Taiwan, and then came here as graduate students in the 1950s. My interlocutors sometimes say; “Oh, I thought so,” and end the exchange. They have placed me in their geography of race and somehow they know all they need to know. They must feel that they have gleaned an insight into me by knowing where I am “really” from and they can fit me into their racial world order.
What makes the incidents comical is that the person waiting in line, the clerk behind the counter, the stranger on the street, and whoever else turns around, leans over, or pulls me aside to ask “where are you really from?” does so as if they are asking me something I have not been asked before. They do not know that they are reenacting a hackneyed scenario.
Other people, I suppose, ask Asian Americans where they are really from because they sincerely would like to know about China or Asia, or they would like to show off what they already know. They are compelled to tell me that they went to China for a vacation last year and saw the Great Wall or they ate at a Chinese restaurant where they especially liked the food. They may want to ask if it is really true, what they say about Asians, or there may be a phrase they’d like translated.
Asians and Asian Americans occasionally ask me the same question, but possibly with different meaning. Some of them are the same as anyone else: they may want to confirm a conjecture of some sort, or they wish to confide that they detest another group, say, Koreans or Vietnamese. A few would like to establish rapport with someone else who happens to be a minority and an outsider. They might need help because of their poor English or finding their way in an unfamiliar country, and they guess that I will be sympathetic toward them if not similar to them.
What makes these incidents disquieting is that the passenger at the airport, the waiter at the restaurant, the doctor, any Asian individual who turns around, leans over, or pulls me aside to ask, “Where are your people from?” “Where are your parents from?” or “What province is your family from?” does so as if they are asking me what has not been asked them before. They do not care that they are reinforcing prejudices that affect them.
In the diverse democracy that makes up today’s United States, we have decided that we will not be bound by our collective past. Yet we remain acutely aware of race–which is not to say that we are racists. We want to know about race, but for many different reasons.
The question “where are you really from?” shows that we interact with others around us with a sense of race even if we are not mindful of it. Being asked “where are you really from?” likely will not result in my being denied an apartment or a job, except in isolated instances. I wonder what people are thinking, though: when I was interviewing for a position as a law professor only seven years ago, I was told by a senior faculty member at one school (in California no less), “How appropriate that we have the Asian candidate today”–he was referring to December 7, Pearl Harbor Day. I believe the question is a signal, along a spectrum of invidious color-consciousness that starts with speculation but leads to worse. To be met with it so quickly and so often reminds me, over and over, that I am being treated differently than I would be if I were white.
Yet some people who want to talk to me about where I am from want to share with me where they are from literally or where they are coming from, so to speak. For that rare individual, asking “where are you really from?” is intended as an invitation to a dialogue about what it means that each of us has come here from elsewhere and where we can go together. The late Isaiah Berlin, a great philosopher of pluralism, once wrote, “Only barbarians are not curious about where they come from.” But he included that subject of self-inquiry in a lengthy list of topics in “the pursuit of the ideal.” He thought that the civilized person ought to care about, as importantly, “how they came to be where they are, where they appear to be going, whether they wish to go there, and if so, why, and if not, why not.”
Whether “where are you really from?” begins or ends the conversation is crucial, then. The answer depends on why the question is asked.
Unfortunately, there is worse. Whenever I have had the privilege of appearing in a public forum discussing a controversial topic–and any issue worth discussing in a public forum is likely to be a controversial topic–I receive letters, phone calls, and e-mails from people who disagree vehemently with my perspective. I enjoy the 15 minutes of fame, but I am taken aback by a few of the messages. They run along the lines or, “Yeah, and what do they do in China?”
I have been told, for example, that because it would not be easy for a white person to become a Chinese citizen, it is obvious that all countries value their sovereignty. Thus, according to this reasoning, the United States is no different in making it hard for a Chinese person to become an American citizen.
When I have spoken up in favor of affirmative action for historically underrepresented minority groups that continue to face racial disparities, I received hate mail that asked questions such as whether they have affirmative action in Japan.
I am tempted to retort, “How would I know?” Or with too much cleverness for my own good, I could come back with, “What does that have to do with the price of tea in China?”
The put down of opinions held by Asian Americans through an allusion to their presumed homeland is an ad hominem attack in its classic form. It has nothing to do with the substance of an argument and everything to do with the identity of the person advancing it. The writer who asked me about .Japan had it wrong, doubly. I am Chinese American, not Japanese American. But even though my parents came from China, I have never even set foot on the Asian continent.
I have heard the point as a direct taunt. It comes as the heckler’s jeer: “If you don’t like it here, then go back where you came from.” Or it comes as the snubbed host’s uncomprehending whine: “Don’t you like everything this country has given you?”
The perpetual foreigner syndrome also can be expressed as empathy. Now and again, people introduce themselves to me by speaking pidgin Chinese. Or they make an elaborate show of bowing that is so inept that it might as well be a parody. They don’t realize that I speak English perfectly well and am accustomed to shaking hands.
I have listened to people explain to me, trying their patience as much as mine, that they appreciate how I as an Asian American may face discrimination here, because when they as Americans were traveling as tourists in China or Japan they, too, felt prejudice. As much as I value efforts at mutual understanding, even these kindly people are offering up an analogy that is frustratingly inappropriate. It shows both what is wrong with the way Asian Americans are characterized and the nuance of the error.
As a law professor, I help train people to argue from analogy and to distinguish among different cases. Some analogies are persuasive; other analogies are inapt. The proper comparison to the treatment of a white American overseas–where he is in fact a “foreigner”–is the treatment of a nonwhite American overseas–where in fact he is a “foreigner.” If the idea is to match up the situations, then the appropriate counterpart to the treatment of a–white American in Asia is the treatment of an Asian American in Europe. Otherwise, the necessary implication is that America is a white nation. Incidentally, a nonwhite United States citizen visiting “the Continent” is likely to be regarded as a bona fide Yankee. I am as able as my neighbor to be an ugly American: a loud, rude, English-speaking tourist expecting to be catered to. When I am outside the United States, it is readily apparent to the rest of the civilized world where I come from as soon as I open my mouth.
Here at home, many Asian Americans are familiar with those awful moments when, in a dispute over who was in line first at the cash register, where dogs can be walked, who bumped into whom, or in declining to give money to a panhandler, and so forth, a person who is white or black suddenly shouts something about “go back to where you came from” or mutters an aside meant to be overheard about “all these damn foreigners.” In these instances, Asian Americans must decide whether they can and should disregard the racial tone. I find that when I respond, even if I try to reason with someone, they sometimes become implacable and the effort to engage them is futile. They insist more hotly that they are right, not racist. They were merely claiming the parking space they saw first, and even if they said, “You know, this is the way we do it in America” or asked, “How long have you been in this country, anyway?” it wasn’t a veiled racial reference and I shouldn’t take it as such.
Most people don’t see the slippery slope leading from governments and companies to nations and peoples and then to races and cultures; it is a swift slide from an overseas group to an American individual by way of the catch-all phrase “you people,” as in, “if you people hadn’t bombed Pearl Harbor …” The distinction of United States citizenship, seemingly all-important, is blurred away. It is as easy now as it was a century ago to find diatribes about the Chinese government or Japanese companies that speak in terms of China or Japan as monoliths or that conclude “the Chinese are a military threat” or “the Japanese are an economic threat.” The further proclamations that “the Chinese are belligerent” or “the Japanese are devious” don’t have a clear stopping point.
During the peak of Japanese economic gains, when in 1989, the Mitsubishi conglomerate bought Rockefeller Center, politicians and pundits took it as a dire sign that the soul of America was for sale. In 1992, opponents almost blocked the sale of the Seattle Mariners baseball team to the founder of Japanese game-maker Nintendo, who wanted to save the franchise for the city and forestall its move to a larger market. In contrast to the fallout from Japan-bashing, there were no such concerns about the British and Dutch companies that owned more U.S. properties than the Japanese even during the latter’s buying frenzy, nor in 1998 when the German Daimler conglomerate, makers of Mercedes Benz, merged with Chrysler, effectively taking it over. (Showing the pointlessness of asking about the nationality of international conglomerates, Daimler and Chrysler both owned part of Mitsubishi.)
The original points that critics make about the handful of totalitarian leaders of the Chinese Communist Party or a few top business executives in a Japanese industry may be well founded and even persuasive, but they are generalized beyond all reason. Whether by intention or through carelessness, an anti-Asian outlook appears to encompass Asian immigrants and even Asian Americans. Those who exclaim, “But we don’t mean Chinese Americans or Japanese Americans,” should realize that others do, and it is as difficult for people to distinguish between the two positions as it is easy to clarify what is meant. Such precision would weaken the rhetoric: it is more emphatic to exclaim “the Chinese” and “the Japanese” than to talk about the Chinese government or Japanese companies, but it also is dangerous and wrong.
The confusion of Asians and Asian Americans springs from rules that would prohibit Asians from ever becoming Asian Americans. The racial conception of citizenship they reinforced has a long lineage.
In 1882, Congress passed the Chinese Exclusion Act. Over time, the legislation was extended to create an Asiatic-barred zone. Asian immigrants were not allowed, with only a few exceptions–many came illegally, masquerading as the “paper sons” of individuals who were already legally present; they were “sons” only on paper and not in reality. Asian residents were prevented from becoming naturalized citizens, because they could not meet the prerequisite of being a “free white person.” University of California at Davis law professor Bill Ong Hing has said of these immigration policies: “It’s no accident that the Statue of Liberty faces Europe and has her back to Asia and Latin America.”
Such sentiments were not limited to Asians; but they were undeniably racial, ethnic, and religious in all their manifestations. The nativist movement sought to restrict the number of Europeans who were Southern and Eastern, and Catholic and Jewish. They brazenly wished to preserve the white Anglo-Saxon Protestant dominance of the country, setting their quotas for visas based on the percentages of each ethnic group’s representation in the country at the turn of the century and assuming that anyone who was not part of their “old stock” was inferior.
The federal government opposed citizenship even for native-born individuals of Asian ancestry. In a test case in 1895, the solicitor general–the government’s lawyer before the Supreme Court–opposed the application of Wong Kim Ark for citizenship. Wong had been born in San Francisco to parents who were Chinese. His hopes sprang from the 14th Amendment to the Constitution, which overturned the Dred Scott decision depriving African Americans of citizenship, and which continues to guarantee everyone “equal protection” under the law. The 14th Amendment opens, “All persons born … in the United States, and subject to the jurisdiction thereof, are citizens of the United States …”
In his brief to the Supreme Court, the solicitor general presented the official view of the government by reviewing the precedent that appeared to support Wong before invoking the sacredness of citizenship. He states, “For the most persuasive reasons we have refused citizenship to Chinese subjects … and yet, as to their offspring, who are just as obnoxious, and to whom the same reasons for exclusion apply for equal force, we are told that we must accept them as fellow-citizens, and that, too, because of the mere accident of birth.” He asks rhetorically whether “Chinese children born in this country” should “share with the descendants of the patriots of the American Revolution the exalted qualification of being eligible to the Presidency of the nation.” His answer is adamant: “If so, then verily there has been a most degenerate departure from the patriotic ideals of our forefathers; and surely in that case American citizenship is not worth having.”
Nonetheless, the Supreme Court ruled in favor of Wong by a 6-to-3 vote. It wrote that the citizenship conferred by the measure was “general, not to say universal, restricted only by place and jurisdiction, and not by color or race.” (1)
Even the Supreme Court was not as willing to allow Asian immigrants to naturalize. It gave itself the power to assign racial identities and the consequences that followed. From the inception of federal regulation over immigration, Congress had maintained the rule that only “free white persons” could naturalize. In 1870, it amended the statute to allow “persons of African nativity, or African descent” to naturalize as well. Thus, Asian immigrants had to plead either that they were “free white persons” or “persons of African nativity, or African descent.” In dozens of cases, they lost repeatedly.
Takao Ozawa, a Japanese immigrant, and Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian immigrant, both had their cases heard by the Supreme Court; both of them lost, within three months of each other in 1922-23. (2) As University of California at Berkeley law professor Ian F. Haney Lopez detailed in an excellent academic study, Ozawa wrote an autobiographical brief before retaining a former U.S. attorney general to argue his case. Ozawa attests to his assimilation: “In name, General Benedict Arnold was an American, but at heart he was a traitor. In name, I am not all American, but at heart I am an American.” Called a paragon of assimilation by later scholars, Ozawa reviews his own life: his flouting of Japanese laws requiring that he report himself, his marriage, and his children’s birth to the government; his lack of affiliation with Japanese organizations; his children’s attending an American church and an American school; his use of English, and his children’s lack of knowledge of Japanese; his education at American schools; his continuous residence for 28 years; his preference for an American-educated wife; and his readiness to “return the kindness which our Uncle Sam has extended me.” Moreover, Ozawa argued he was literally white, even more so than “the average Italian, Spaniard or Portuguese.”
The Supreme Court rejected his claims without much difficulty. It reasoned that “white” and “Caucasian” were synonymous. Japanese were not white, because they were not Caucasian. Their skin color was inconsequential, because skin color was not the only test of racial identity.
Thind tried a different tactic, to no avail. Exactly as the precedent set by Ozawa suggested would be appropriate, he referred to the many taxonomies of race that had been devised by social scientists. Within the leading schemes, Asian Indians were not only Caucasian but also Aryan.
The Supreme Court should have been caught by its own equation of “white” and “Caucasian,” but it disposed of Thind’s petition with the same alacrity it had shown Ozawa. It backed away from the scientific test, reasoning “the words ‘free white person’ are words of common speech, to be interpreted in accordance with the understanding of the common man.” By that standard, “the physical group characteristics of the Hindus renders them readily distinguishable from the various groups of persons commonly recognized as white.”
The law was more than matched by popular literature and even progressive political movements.
Novelist Jack London, whose dispatches from Asia for the Hearst newspapers that introduced the term “yellow peril,” also wrote an essay of that title in 1904 warning of the “menace” to the Western world from “millions of yellow men” (Chinese) under the management of “the little brown man” (Japanese). His rejoinder to fellow socialists who admonished him for these attitudes toward Asians was “What the Devil! I am first of all a white man and only then a Socialist.” His belief in Anglo-Saxon supremacy was fervent and formed “a dominant note throughout all his writing,” according to his daughter, as was his conviction that “the world has ever belonged to the pure breed, and has never belonged to the mongrel,” in his own words.
Labor organizer Samuel Gompers, president of the AFL-CIO, co-wrote a pamphlet in 1901 about “Meat versus Rice: American Manhood Against Asiatic Coolieism–Which Shall Survive,” arguing “while there is hardly a single reason for the admission of Asiatics, there are hundreds of good and strong reasons for their absolute exclusion.” On other occasions, he warned of “the menace of a possible overwhelming of our people by hordes of Asiatics.” He explained that “the Caucasians … are not going to let their standard of living be destroyed by negroes, Chinamen, Japs, or any others.” Despite the AFL having pledged to unite working people “irrespective of creed, color, sex, nationality, or politics,” Gompers forbade locals from accepting Chinese or Japanese members.
Gompers was not like other anti-Asian agitators, however, who were anti-Asian through and through without any reservations. He wanted to be known as open-minded. He insisted that he had no grudge against Asian immigrants, but was acting as he did because of his experiences and observations. He said in his autobiography, “It is my desire to state emphatically that I have no prejudice against the Chinese people” but only “profound respect for the Chinese nation.” He said in the very next paragraph, “I have always opposed Chinese immigration not only because of the effect of Chinese standards of life and work but because of the racial problem created when Chinese and white workers were brought into the close contact of living and working side by side.” These contradictory comments were not exceptional. He had said earlier that once the Chinaman comes, he has either dominated or been driven out, for “the Chinaman is a cheap man.” He then added, as if he had regrets for his hatred, “The American people do not object to the Chinese because they are Chinese,” but because of all the ills they would bring to the country.
It never occurred to Gompers that Asian immigrants were not inherently any different from other laborers, but were sometimes forced into being scabs. He did not think that he could organize them to strengthen all workers, and he did not recognize that he was contributing to the very racial problem he blamed for the inability to join forces. For him, race was crucial and exclusion was preferable to cooperation. Yet he recognized, however dimly, that it would be wrong to act out of prejudice even if he refused to acknowledge his own feelings as prejudice.
Demagogues Madison Grant and Lothrop Stoddard had expressed the same apprehensions in their best-sellers in 1916 and 1920, respectively. Grant wrote The Passing of a Great Race; Stoddard, The Rising Tide of Color. In both, the two now-forgotten social Darwinists posited an imminent racial conflict arraying black, brown, and yellow against the superior white. More extreme than Oswald Spengler, the historian who devised the idea of the decline of the West, Grant and Stoddard were especially worried about “race suicide” by the internal weakening of the stock of the Nordic or the Anglo-Saxon.
Chair of the New York Zoological Society, Grant argues on a biological basis for global segregation of barbaric from civilized races. With his interest in museums and environmentalism–he formed a society to save the redwood forests–Grant represented the blend of privilege and prejudice, with culture and science, that shaped public policy.
Although he had a moneyed pedigree that dated back to the Colonial age, Grant was a self-proclaimed Democrat. He averred that wealthy classes had introduced both black slaves and Asian immigrants, to the detriment of common people. But he did not indict the wealthy for seeking their own advantage, and instead expressed hostility toward the people who were exploited. “If there had been an aristocratic form of governmental control in California,” he said, “Chinese coolies and Japanese laborers would now form the controlling element, so far as numbers are concerned, on the Pacific coast.” In other words, it was the Asian workers who were the enemy.
A magazine editor and radio broadcaster who authored more than a dozen books, including a history of children, Stoddard was a disciple of Grant’s. Several of his works advocated nativism and eugenics. Before World War II, he reported from Germany as an enthusiast of Hitler’s regime. He posits an “iron law of inequality.”
Stoddard states that the “obviously dangerous Oriental” was someone “against whose standards of living the white man cannot compete.” He views “the brown and yellow worlds of Asia” as “the effective centres of colored unrest.” He worries that Asians would endanger whites because they had their own “admirable cultures rooted in remote antiquity and worthy of all respect,” but they also “are to-day once more displaying their innate capacity by not merely adopting, but adapting, white ideas and methods.” He disclaims any “disparagement of the Asiatic.” He argues that both Asians and whites were justified in winning opportunities in new lands, but “the hard facts are that there is not enough for both” and the Asian “automatically crushes the white man out.”
Grant and Stoddard were influential, before their ideas of white superiority were repudiated in the aftershock of the horrors of Nazi death camps. Stoddard is even fictionalized in E Scott Fitzgerald’s classic chronicle of the Jazz Age, The Great Gatsby. The character Tom Buchanan, who has been reading Stoddard (called Goddard), proclaims, “The idea is if we don’t look out the white race will be–will be utterly submerged … Well, these books are all scientific.”
During military crisis, the perpetual foreigner syndrome becomes especially dominant. After Imperial Japan launched its sneak attack on Pearl Harbor on December 7, 1941–“a day that will live in infamy” in President Franklin Delano Roosevelt’s historic Declaration of War speech–approximately 120,000 Japanese Americans were suspected of the worst treason. They were presumed guilty as a group of collaboration, sabotage, espionage, and being a likely “fifth column” in the event of an invasion. While two-thirds of the population consisted of native-born United States citizens, they were thought to have blood ties to a hostile power in what was viewed as a racial war.
Given a few days’ notice, they were rounded up and sent to 10 hastily erected internment camps in deserts and swamps. With few exceptions, they were never charged with any crimes or convicted of any wrongdoing. They lost their liberty, their livelihoods, their communities, and their possessions.
The panic after Pearl Harbor was understandable. The disaster was unprecedented. Yet the decision to blame Japanese Americans should be neither condoned nor followed.
Lieutenant General John DeWitt, commander of the Western Defense, famously declared, “A Jap’s a Jap … The Japanese race is an enemy race … It makes no difference whether he is an American citizen, he is still a Japanese.” He added that German Americans and Italian Americans were only dangerous in some instances, “but we must worry about the Japanese all the time until he is wiped off the map.”
Justice Hugo Black, renowned as a civil libertarian, wrote the majority opinion in the best known of the four Supreme Court cases lending judicial approval to the wholesale incarceration of a minority group. (3) Justice Black reasoned that Fred Korematsu, who had had crude plastic surgery in an attempt to pass as Hispanic and stay with his white girlfriend instead of reporting to an internment camp, “was not excluded from the Military Area because of hostility to him or his race.” Instead, Black expounds, “He was excluded because we are at war with the Japanese Empire.”
Justice Black notwithstanding, the crux of the matter must have been race. For aside from being of Japanese ancestry, Korematsu was simply another citizen. Apart from his ancestry, he had nothing to do with either the Japanese Empire or other Japanese Americans. The Korematsu case is the only example of the High Court using “strict scrutiny”–a form of judicial review that is said to be especially skeptical of racial references–but approving an invidious racial classification of a racial minority. Moreover, a case that was supposedly not about race at all has become the source of the controlling legal doctrine on race. (Although Korematsu had his conviction vacated on a rare writ of coram nobis decades later and received a Presidential Medal of Freedom in 1998, his case has never been over-ruled and remains “good law.”) (4)
Their patriotism may have been an unrequited love, but Japanese Americans displayed it poignantly. The Japanese Americans, still technically classified as “enemy aliens,” who enlisted in the then-segregated Army proved themselves with the ultimate sacrifice. The 442nd Regimental Combat Team and 100th Battalion became the most highly decorated units of their size and length of service in American history.
The law has changed, but the general culture has not. When 21-year-old Yale student Maya Lin won the competition for the Vietnam War Memorial commission, her profound design, with its black granite displaying a stark list of all the 58,000 Americans who died in the conflict and set into a gash in the earth, was controversial for more than its aesthetics. The selection process was anonymous, and the Ohio-born Lin was identified by only a number until her sketches were selected. Once her face was attached to her art, there were murmurings that she was the wrong choice because she was a “gook.” Although her monument has become one of the top tourist attractions in the nation’s capital, bringing together veterans, protesters, and families who make crayon rubbings of their love ones’ names, the reticent sculptor still expresses shock at the attempts to discredit her because of race.
Hate crimes against Asian Americans are a brutal form of the perpetual foreigner syndrome. The 1982 murder of Vincent Chin is only the most notorious example. The Chinese American engineer was clubbed to death in Detroit by two white autoworkers who, accusing him of being responsible for their woes, took a baseball bat to his head. The case only became more widely known when the judge sentenced the perpetrators to probation and a $3,780 fine. Numerous other cases have been recorded around the nation, with attackers such as the “dot-busters” in New Jersey who assaulted Indian immigrants and killed two in their violent spree, and others who have taken guns, knives, and fists to Asian Americans as they recall Vietnam or kung fu movies.
Yet I am an optimist. I know I am a citizen whatever others might think. And I believe that by working together cooperatively and constructively, we can forge a sense of community that also allows dissent, a unity that contains diversity. By engaging in the continual process this challenge requires of us, we will make the promise of our nation the reality of our lives. At a minimum, an open society requires that each of us accept all of us as equals.
The perpetual foreigner syndrome can be addressed through public policy. Most importantly, the perpetual foreigner syndrome requires that we acknowledge our own feelings and actions. As the questions about “where are you really from?” demonstrate, many of us sometimes think about race without even realizing that it is on our minds. We are unconscious of our own stereotyping, despite our insistence that we are striving for an ideal of color-blindness. Yet it happens to Asian Americans often: our civil rights violated twice over when even incidents such as assaults that involve racial epithets–“chink” or “jap” or “gook”–are regarded as something other than hate crimes.
The perpetual foreigner syndrome suggests that to understand the complexities of race, we must use a paradigm that is not exclusively black and white–in literal and figurative terms, in literal terms, if “American” means “white” and “minority” means “black,” then individuals who are neither white nor black end up being neither American nor minority. They are excluded altogether as foreigners who lack rights, even if they are in fact native-born Asian Americans, Latinos, or of mixed-race backgrounds. In figurative terms, if racial issues involve only villains and victims, then it is impossible to resolve problems without identifying wrong-doers who are bigoted. The historical, structural, and subtle forms of racial disparities become easy to ignore, even if they are as severe as the isolated and spectacular incidents of hardcore racism.
It is possible and crucial to include Asian Americans, Latinos, and individuals of mixed-race backgrounds, without in any manner denigrating the unique experiences of African Americans. Demagogues may introduce Asian Americans as the “model minority” (another myth requiring critical thought) to send the none-too-subtle message to African Americans that “they made it, why can’t you?” Yet efforts to broaden the discussion of race need not come at the expense of African Americans. The struggles of various groups can complement one another instead. They can gain strength by uniting through principle.
To do so, it is necessary to include individuals and communities that are neither black nor white in the decision-making that constitutes democracy and to consider the concerns of these persons and groups. Among other concrete measures, it is important to maintain accurate and current statistics–on matters ranging from housing segregation, educational attainment, health care, income levels, and political representation–to determine both the progress that has been made and the problems that remain. Any program that is meant for all citizens must be accessible in operation to all citizens. Any program that is targeted at disadvantaged segments of the population should undertake an objective consideration of who should be a beneficiary, rather than relying on assumptions.
The perpetual foreigner syndrome also shows us that some lines that are supposedly based on citizenship actually cover up lines that are based on race. Because the former is permissible and the latter is not, it becomes easy to rationalize distinctions among people as involving citizenship rather than race.
To overcome this tendency, government officials could give greater scrutiny to classifications that seem to be based on citizenship to determine if they are racially motivated or produce racial effects. Of course, the equal protection clause of the Constitution–the source of the strongest protections of our rights–provides guarantees to all persons and not only citizens. The Supreme Court has interpreted this language in some instances in favor of persons generally and in other instances as restricted to citizens alone. It may require fundamental changes to our society, though, to achieve the same consensus about citizenship that has developed over race.
Meanwhile, our civic culture depends on genuine dialogue among equals. Leadership and grassroots efforts that further the process of forming coalitions ought to be encouraged, supported, and funded. Working constructively and cooperatively, we can progress toward social justice.
(1) United States v. Wong Kim Ark, 169 U.S. 649 (1898).
(2) Takao Ozawa v. United States, 260 U.S. 178 (1922); United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind, 261. U.S. 204 (1923).
(3) Korematsu v. United States, 323 U.S. 214 (1944).
(4) Korematsu v. United States, 584 F. Supp. 1406 (1984).
FRANK H. WU IS AN ASSOCIATE PROFESSOR OF LAW AT HOWARD UNIVERSITY. THIS ESSAY IS AN EXCERPT FROM HIS BOOK, YELLOW; RACE IN AMERICA BEYOND BLACK AND WHITE, PUBLISHED IN DECEMBER 2001 BY BASIC.
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