Respondent: Patricia Chu, Associate Professor of English

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Akshaya Kumar

Presented September 27, 2005

Respondent: Patricia Chu, Associate Professor of English

Moderator: Mark Mullen, Director of First Year Writing, UWP

Neither Black Nor White Nor Yellow: The Racially Ambiguous South Asian

I know you ain’t white, and you ain’t black or yellow;

the only thing left on here is red…like the Indians -

is that what yinz are?”

entire W Black, White, Hispanic, Asian or Native American? Contemporary American society requires that its citizens identify themselves within the bounds of discrete racial categorizations.

As a result, all my life I have been confronted by questions about which of these races I belong to and have struggled to choose which label from the list truly encompassed my heritage and my identity. :I have always felt that the census to job applicationsimmigrant oftennseracial categorizations eitherormyself

A ’s frustrationThe secretary at our county clerks office evocatively expressed this dilemma during her attempt to assign one of these racial categories to my family’llustrates this evocatively. While my parents attempted to explain to her that we were in fact Indians, but not that kind [read Native American]; the concept was not a part of the woman’s consciousness. The harried secretary well understood the racial divisions that governed our society, but the people standing before her did not fit into any of the categorizations she recognized. She knew where we did not fit in – black, white, and yellow – she just could not figure out <- slang where we did. While American society is fundamentally divided by race, it seems as if;still, immigrants from the South Asian subcontinent, like my family, do not have a place in mainstream America’s conception and understanding of mainstream racial discourse.

Insight into sisthe position of the South Asian immigrant community requires a focus on the discursive formations that shape our collective national consciousness. “Discourse, as Michel Foucault argues, constructs a topic. It defines and produces the objects of our knowledge. It governs the way a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about” (Hall ”Work” 44). Thus, discursive analysis is not just about what is being said; instead it examines how our mental taxonomy is shaped by the language that dominates our discourse. America’s racial constructions highlight the simple fact that the “manifold relations of power that permeate, characterize and constitute the social body” rely upon “the production, accumulation, circulation and functioning of a discourse” (Foucault 93).

As Critical race theorists Michael Omi and Howard Winant explain in Racial Formation, the discourse of race is a social construction and although it employs “biologically based human characteristics, [althoughbut that …] for purposes of racial signification [the choice of those divisive characteristics] is always and [] necessarily a social and historical process” [my emphasis] (123). Indeed, although differences between races have been portrayed as natural, organic and universal, as the American Anthropological Association notes, race is simply a myth fabricated by dominant societal groups and a social mechanism that has historically been employed as a tool of subjugation. It Ddefininges race as “a

body of prejudgments that distorts our ideas about human differences and group behavior” the AAA stresses that “the "racial" worldview was invented to assign some groups to perpetual low status, while others were permitted access to privilege, power, and wealth” (“American” 1).
This revised theory concerning racial discursive formation points to the long history of European colonialism as a key to the development of these discursive constructs and stresses that contemporary racial distinctions continue to reflect this power structure of white European superiority and dominance.

Quite fundamentally, as Foucault’s theory of discursive formation explains, the discourse of race is a construction which has been created and maintained for the purpose of maintaining power. Vijay Prashad expands the notion of racial identity as a discourse of social oppression in Crafting Solidarities, noting that the state often aids in the construction of a racialized discourse, “Tshaping our social space and to reconfiguring our various contested social compacts” creating a “racialized society” (Prashad 113). His argument suggests that race isies a powerful mechanism of state and class control stemming from a legaccy of colonialism and White European dominance.

This revised understanding of the notion of race profoundly challenges mainstream perspectives of racial identity. While social psychologists argue that individuals come to a personal understanding of their race through a process of personal development and self-actualization, this construction fails to examine how the very categories, which individuals are asked to choose from, were originallyoriginated (Thomson and Carter 20). That is quite basically, racial identity theory focuses on individual attempts at reconciliation with a certain designation, ignoring the formation of those categorizations themselves. However, as far ing thatway

AsFoucault’s rather than an organic social division

discursive formation stresses, theat tlanguage used to create racial identity is a crucial site of analysis which cannot be ignored. S“Language is not a reflection of the world but [rather a social construction which] produces meaning” (Hall ”Race” 47). As a result, the words that form our racial discourse, have tremendous power and influence to shape the positional identiy of those groups which are described by them. ”Race” Specifically, r,which allowing dominant groups to maintain hegemonic control

the language with which we understand of racethem.

The unique position of the South Asian immigrant community evocatively illustrates the power of discursive formations and the hegemonic constructions of majority groups. Studies show that South Asians are perceived as racially distinct from the white population, but members of this group are inconsistently categorized as members of any of the major minority racial groupings (Kibria 70-71). Like the secretary confounded by my family’s racial identity, many Americans are unable to fit South Asian immigrants into an existing racial discourse and thus find themselves unable to understand or define the racial identity of South Asians.

Over the past century, as the history of state discourse demonstrates, the racial identity of the immigrant South Asian community has been consistently ambiguous due to constant discursive shifts in categorization South Asians have rendered racial discourse ambiguous. n appropriateIn 1911, the government labeled South Asians and South East Asians as East Indian collectively (Shankar 50). By the 1930 and 1940 censuses, South Asian immigrants were being classified as Hindus although a majority of the population were actually Sikh (Shankar 50). In 1950s the government designated the group as whites, but then shifted them to ‘Other’ between 1960 and 1970 (Shankar 50) However, after the 1970 census, the population was reclassified as white (Shankar 50). By 1980, the group was being referred to as Asian Indian, which evolved into Asian and Pacific Islander in the nineties and Asian American in 2000 (Shankar 50). Each of these discusive shifts in the way this group was characterized further underscored the ambiguity surrounding the community’s place on the racial map

Currently, popular discourse has settled upon “Asian American” as the designation for the immigrant South Asian community. However, America’s racial discourse’s most recent shift to the use of the term “Asian American” is simply the most recent installment in a long line of oppressive racial identities forced onto the community by majoriy discourse. South Asian Americans have “a sense of profound racial difference from other Asian Americans, […] creating a racial gap” (Kibria 75). The term Asian American seems to represent those with Mongoloid features, and as a direct result of this “racial dimension implicit in the term Asian American”, and all non-Mongoloids are automatically excluded (Shankar and Srikanth 4). A When the average American is asked to identify members of the Asian American community, they imagine East and South East Asians but not immigrants from the subcontinent (Shankar ix). While South Asians may now be considered to be “a part” of the Asian American group, differences keep them “apart” from the established “Asian American” identity (Shankar xiii).

[…] [later]”.

The South Asian immigrant community itself since they

entered an American society which already had an established discoursive framework which insisted on pigeonholing people into a “race” ,(Kibria 71). Included u

conditions of The community was presented little choice but to ascribe to this framework and allow itseelf to be categorized on terms defined by the dominant discourse. Often, new immigrants, like the South Asian community, find themselves with a foisted choice”: and feel “obliged to take an identity they are given” (Bahri 39).

The Asian American coalition was thrust upon the South Asian community by interested parties to further their own political agendas with little regard or concern for the identity, interests or values of the immigrant community itself (

Bahri 35). Fundamentally, the use of the term “Asian American” follows American racial discourse’s long tradition of protecting White European hegemonic control and interests.

Samir Dayal describes the restrictive effect of forcing the community into accepting the Asian Americaan label as “ghettoization” in his article Minding the Gap: South Asian Americans and Diaspora. He argues that this “ghettoization” g

“ave the majority (whether Euro-American or Asian-American) <- was that u or him?a way of containing […] a potentially disruptive presence” (245).
By employing the policy of lumping, dominant Euro-American groups were able to reconcile the presence of a new immigrant group without allowing it to challege existing discursive constructions. As Bahri explains, this construction and perpetuation of the Asian American label represents “clumping when convenient and deny[ing] homogeneity or promoting division when such a cluster threatens to become potent” (30).


<- check the quote is it world’s or words


Like the secretary confounded by my family’s racial identity, most Americans are unable to fit South Asian immigrants into the existing racial discourse and thus find themselves unable to understand the racial identity of South Asians. Consequently, while studies show that South Asians are perceived as racially distinct from the white population, members of this group are inconsistently categorized as members of any of the minority racial groupings (Kibria 70-71). Classified as technically Caucasian but not “traditionally white” and part of the Asian American community but not recognized as Asian, the South Asian immigrant is trapped by conventional discursive constructions. Since the average American does not know what race to consider a member of the community and South Asians have not been incorporated under the Asian umbrella, they are often left off of the racial map. Our nation’s obsession with race leaves groups who have no identifiable race or who do not fall neatly within existing categorizations in a predicament regarding their position within America’s racial hierarchy.

.The voices of South Asian immigrants struggling with their identities reveal the fundamental problems and complications of the unique racial position of the South Asian immigrant within America’s thoroughly racialized society.

Subjected to a socially constructed system of racial categorization that furthers their marginalization, the South Asian community is at a crossroads.

How we choose to respond to this position of ambiguity remains to be seen. As Ann Morning argues in The racial self identification of South Asians, the current term Asian American represents a “ detente in the struggle [over] where [South Asians] fit along the black-white spectrum [since] centuries of black-white polarization have left US society unable to concieve of its constituents in any other way” (65). Other scholars consider the current position of ambiguity “a gestation period before moving toward a South Asian […] identity” (Bahri 35). Scholars who have observed this process in relation to other minority groups identify two steps,:

first replacing the pejorative or incorrect label with a self chosen name, and second assuming that self articulated as a badge of pride, describing the group’s historical and cultural foundations and asserting its unique identity.” (Shankar and Srikanth 3-4)

Raymond Williams notes that an understanging of dominant group’s control “cannot even be focused unless we are conscious of the words as elements of the problems” (16). These scholars argue that challenging the dominant group’s labeling is crucial in the struggle to deconstruct oppressive relics of colonial power structures.

In the past, members of the South Asian community have attempted to escape the majoritarian discursive constructions by advocating that they be assigned a different race. ”Between 1907 and 1923, approximately seventy persons, […] gained citizenship on the grounds that they were members of the Aryan race and as such white” since at this point in time the United States only recognized Caucasians as citizens (Mazumdar 233). However, a ruling of the United States Supreme Court made it clear that while the immigrant community might technically be Caucasian, they were not the same “race”. As Justice Southerland explained:

“It may be true that the blonde Scandinavian and the brown Hindu have a common ancestor in the dim reaches of antiquity, Caucasian is a […] word of much flexibility […] and while it and the words “white persons” are treated as synonymous […] they are not of identical meaning and Indians clearly did not qualify as white persons in the language of the common man” (qtd in Mazumdar 234).
Mainstream American discourse created a racial identity for immigrants from the subcontinent, which made it clear that they were not white and thus ineligible for the privileges of white status. The community’s attempt to define themselves as white revealed the South Asian immigrants’ willingness to utilize American racial hierarchies in order to gain recognition. (Mazmudar 240). The new immigrant community saw the only way to gain control as to define themselves as part of the dominant social group. Although their attempt was ultimately unsucessful, the community’s first attempt defining themselves speaks volumes to the power of America’s discursive constructions.

While earlier, activists challenged the existing label and then worked to reclassify the community as a different category, recently activists in the community have stressed that the community needs to reject existing names and create a label of their own.

Hari Kondabolu exemplifies this perspective in Focus on Identity: Indian? South Asian? Desi? Brown?

Name politics are important when attempting to gain power in this country. How else can a minority organize, form coalitions and ultimately be heard [..] a broader [is] more politically viable […] it is crucial that we pick an identity and push it to the forefront as soon as possible. (2)

These new activists argue that the community’s current position of racial ambiguity is politically crippling and that South Asians must redefine itself on its own terms. Consequently, they suggest that the community adds a new name for itself to the discursive framework.

However, as Shankar and Srikanth explain, the South Asian immigrant community is not actually one cohesive whole: “

South Asians, whether they live in their homelands or abroad, therefore usually see themselves in national, regional, linguistic or religious terms. They do not naturally think of themselves as South Asians, and the term “South Asian” is a purely politicized construct” (2). Hailing from different countries, speaking different languages, practicing diffferent religions with different colors of skin, the notion one cohesive group identity is fundamentally problematic.

While this paper has utilized the term “South Asian” to describe the community, it does so solely because our society’s powerful racial dicousrse mandates labels in order to even be a part of the conversation. The article resists labels like Asian American, Desi, Brown or Indian, and only employed the phrase “South Asian immigrant” as a measure of last resort since this is the only language that is available. Quite fundamentally however South Asian immigrants do not think of themselves as one cohesive group but continue to identify themselves as different nationalities, religions, languages social classes, castes and even races. , differences
Howeve, it is crucial to note that the formation of this type of coalition is more acceptable among younger immigrants. This subset sees the similarities among themselves “as overcoming the national and cultural walls that they parents knew back home” (Shankar and Srikanth 3).


second and third generation immigrants’ frustration at their parents seemingly provincial notions highlights a fundamental shift in attitudes. While one’s state and country of origin, religion, caste and social position are important divisive factors to first generation immigrants; younger generations choose to embrace their similarities in order to form a unified coalition to combat their uneasiness with their position of racial ambuguity. These South Asians born and brought up in the United States are willing to abandon localized identities in favor of finding a place in the greater American racial map.

By advocating choosing another title, whether it be brown or desi or Indian, the younger generation accepts the current hegemonic discursive framework just like their parents. A new label responds to the community’s marginalized position within the framework that is marginalizing it. In their eagerness to avoid the embarrassment and inconvenience of ambiguity, second and third generation immigrants are missing a chance to challenge the powerful discourse of race which has held its stranglehold on American society for centuries .

“” .
A new name is a refusal to fight in an attempt to pass by rather than a solution to the age-old problem of the racial hegemony of dominant social forces? The construction of a new title for the South Asian community would simply be performing within the confines of the racialized discourse constructed by the majority. A new label or name does not challenge the racialized discourse that has been imposed upon the South Asian immigrant community, this act of supposed rebellion is an implicit acceptance of the dominant group’s discursive framework.

Instead of working from within, like the South Asian immigrants of a century ago who petitioned for citizenship on the grounds of being white, the community must use their position of racial ambiguity to advocate deconstructing the system itself. Instead of embracing majoritarian conceptions of race, the South Asian community’s position can be transfromed from one of marginalization to one of power and leverage and be used to deconstruct colonialist conceptions of race which have dominated our society’s discourse for centuries. Instead of view the complexity of ambiguity as a weakness, the community must embrace it as a strength.

The first generation community’s “provincial reponse” has already layed the framework for deconstruction. As Rosemary Marangoly George highlights in her analysis ’From Expatriate Aristocrat to Immigrant Nobody": South Asian Racial Strategies in the Southern Californian Context, many members of the community are reluctant to accept a racial identity identity and repudiate “the very idea of being raced” (31). Instead, these immigrants describe themselves with words like Aryan, Dravidian, and Gujurati, in an to attempt to bypass the American system of classification. But as George acknowledges, the first generation’s motivation in ignoring racial distinctions has not been to challgenge the discursive framework perpetuated by the majority. In fact, she notes that in many cases, immigrants avoided “being raced” with the hope of doing the opposite and “moving unconsciously and unobstructedly through the public sphere” (32).

Even so, this framework could provide a fundamental first step in the process of deconstruction. While many first generation immigrants focus upon assimilation into American society and staying under the radar, the second and third generation is ready for activism. But instead of dismissing their parents reluctance to bond into one group as provincial and narrowminded, we could learn a valuable lesson from their response. South Asians do not fit into any existing racial categorizations and this gap indicts the system of racial discourse which is supposed to be organic and natural, Further creating a new category, whether it be brown or desi or Indian or South Asian, would lump culturally, ethnically and religiously unique groups of people together in the same hegemonic fashion as the current labels were constructed. In short, South Asians position of racial ambiguity could “provide a frame of reference by which to resist the dominant society’s racial thinking” (Kibria 72). The ambiguity surrounding the South Asian immigrant population vividly demonstrates that its terms no longer work

While some may argue that the manner in which we divide people and the labels that we assign them are all semantics; it is crucial to remember that “important social and historical processes occur within language in ways which indicate how integral the problems of meanings and relationships really are” (Williams 22). A challenge to the dominant racialized discursive structure has the true potential to produce profound change in the way in which we look at the world as a whole. The South Asian position of racial ambiguity offers a position from which to do so, a potential venue of disruption, if only we choose to take advantage of it. Instead of allowing abiguity to become a handicap which forces us to fade into the background, we must seize it and use it to engineer social change. - We have the chance to remind people like the secretary at the county clerk’s office that black, white, red and yellow are colors of the rainbow and not types of people.

Works Cited

“American Anthropological Association Statement on Race.” AAA Statements. May 17 1997. American Anthropological Association. March 20 2005


Bahri, Deepika. “With Kaleidoscope Eyes: The Potential (Dangers) of Identitarian Coalitions”. A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America. Shankar, Lavina and Rajini Srikanth. Ed. Philadelphia: Temple Univ Press, 1997. 25-48

Dayal, Samir. “Min(d)ing the Gap: South Asian Americans and Diaspora” A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America. Shankar, Lavina and Rajini Srikanth. Ed. Philadelphia: Temple Univ Press,1997. 235-265

Foucault, Michel. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews & Other Writings 1972-1977. Ed. Colin Gordon. New York: Pantheon Books, 1980.

George, Rosemary Marangoly. “From expatriate aristocrat to immigrant nobodyº : South Asian racial strategies in the Southern California context” Diaspora. 6.1 (1997) 31-60.

Gunaratnam, Yasmin. Researching “Race” and Ethnicity: Methods, Knowledge and Power. London: Sage Publications, 2003.

Hall, Stuart. “Race, Articulation and Societies Structured in Dominance” Race Critical Theories. Essed, Philomena and David Theo Goldberg. Ed. Oxford: Blackwell, 2002. 38-68.

---. “The Work of Representation” Representation: Cultural Representation and Signifying Practices. Hall, Stuart. Ed. London: Sage, 1997. 13-74.

Kibria, Nazli. “The Racial Gap: South Asian American Raical Identity and the Asian American Movement” A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America. Shankar, Lavina and Rajini Srikanth. Ed. Philadelphia: Temple University Press, 1997. 69-78

Kondabolu, Hari K. “Focus on Identity: Indian? South Asian? Desi? Brown?” News India-Times. New York: March 2004. 11, 30.

Mazmudar, Sucheta. “The Politics of Religion and National Origin: Rediscovering Hindu Indian Identity in the United States” Antinomies of Modernity. Kaiwar, Vasant and Sucheta Mazmudar. Ed. Durham: Duke University Press, 2003. 223-260.

Morning, Ann. “The racial self identification of South Asians in the United States” The Journal of Ethnic and Migration Studies. 27.1 (2001) 61-79.

Omi, Michael and Howard Winant. “Racial Formation” Race Critical Theories. Essed, Philomena and David Theo Goldberg. Ed. Malden: Blackwell, 2002. 123-145

Prashad, Vijay. “Crafting Solidarities” ” A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America. Shankar, Lavina and Rajini Srikanth. Ed. Philadelphia: Temple Univ Press,1997. 105-126

Shankar, Lavina. “The Limits of (South Asian) Names and Labels: Postcolonial or Asian American” A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America. Shankar, Lavina and Rajini Srikanth. Ed. Philadelphia: Temple Univ Press,1997. 49-66

Shankar, Lavina and Rajni Srikanth. Introduction. A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America. Shankar, Lavina and Rajini Srikanth. Ed. Philadelphia: Temple Univ Press. 1997. 1-24

Shankar, Rajiv. “Foreword. A Part, Yet Apart: South Asians in Asian America. Shankar, Lavina and Rajini Srikanth. Ed. Philadelphia: Temple Univ Press,1997. ix-xv

Thompson, Chalmer E. and Robert T. Carter. Racial Identity Theory. Mahwah: Lawrence Erlbaum Associates Publishing, 1997.

Williams, Raymond. Keywords. New York: Oxford University Press, 1975

Reprinted with the author’s permission
University Writing Program, The George Washington University

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