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10 August 2007 @ 03:48 pm
From Yellow Peril to Model Minority  
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There is perhaps no greater obstacle to the continuing struggle for equality than the complacency that is generated by a certain amount of success. We as a society are fooled into thinking that changing laws solves everything, when the reality is that changing laws is a piece of cake compared to changing attitudes and challenging power structures. I get this all the time when I dare to speak out as a feminist: "What do you mean women haven't achieved equality? We had a women's movement, didn't we?" I just don't know how to explain to people that despite our tremendous successes, we're still living under a system founded on inequality and subjugation; so it's usually at about that point I take out a wooden plank with the words status quo written on it and start beating people over the head.


I don't even want to get into the stereotype of the "model minority" and how insulting it is both to Asian Americans and other ethnic minorities in the US ("See, they succeeded despite our stepping on their heads, why can't you?"). Other people have probably done it better, and if you really want to spike your blood pressure, you can always Google it. What I really want to do is just remind people of the history of Asians in America, and how far from pretty it is.

Here's another story from work, this time from my stint in the Microforms/Newspapers section of the campus library. This was a very cool job, as I got to see newspapers from all over the US and the world. If you want proof of how political alliances shift over time, take a look at labor papers of the past and present. Today's labor papers frequently carry stories on the rights of immigrants and minority workers. At least one paper I know of, The Militant/El Militante, is printed on one side in English and on the flip side in Spanish. This makes sense, right? Labor papers are leftist, and that's the kind of stance we expect from the left. But it wasn't always that way.

On one occasion, one of my supervisors asked for my help with a project. My task was to go through some old volumes of the Seattle Union Record and get an estimated page count for some company that wanted to scan the paper for a digital version. Easy, right? Except that I was foolish enough to actually look at the paper, and inevitably what I would see, at least once an issue, was some serious anti-Chinese sentiment. Like a train wreck, I couldn't look away. I kept reading these articles. Outcry against the encroachment of Oriental labor, dire warnings about the impending dissolution of white American culture in the face of a flood of Chinese, calls for the solidarity of white labor against these Chinamen, &c. &c. I mean, I was touching the actual crumbling pages of these century-old papers. I was face-to-face with my own history. And it truly was very interesting, from that perspective. But it made it really damn hard to do my job.

I was both disturbed and intrigued. I thought about asking my supervisor to get someone else to do the job, but I was trapped in that mindset of "Is it really worth making a fuss about?" and wanting to avoid potential awkwardness and having to explain myself. Furthermore, I- well, I didn't really want to know if one of my other, non-Asian co-workers could look through the same paper and be unaffected. Would that really be better, or would I just want to shout at them: "Don't you see anything wrong here??"

The parallels to the current immigration debate in the US were striking. The same things people are saying about Mexican workers now, they were saying about Chinese workers in 1900. They predicted that we'd all be speaking Chinese within a decade; that Chinese culture would take over; that white men would lose their dominant position. This is why I don't have a lot of patience with alarmist opposition to migrant workers now; because we've heard these arguments before and they didn't pan out then. I'm not saying that there aren't real issues surrounding immigration, or that reasonable people can't disagree. But when we let fear control us--fear which starts out as fear of losing jobs and quickly becomes fear and then hatred of the brown people or yellow people or the Irish or Italians who we feel are taking those jobs--we abandon rational debate in favor of a culture where every fear and hatred become so intertwined that we can no longer tell where one ends and another begins. And that means we all lose.

In the infamous Plessy v. Ferguson case, which established the doctrine of "separate but equal", Justice John Marshall Harlan was the sole dissenting voice. In his dissent, he said:
But in view of the Constitution, in the eye of the law, there is in this country no superior, dominant, ruling class of citizens. There is no caste here. Our Constitution is color-blind, and neither knows nor tolerates classes among citizens. In respect of civil rights, all citizens are equal before the law.
But a few paragraphs later, he goes on to say:
There is a race so different from our own that we do not permit those belonging to it to become citizens of the United States. Persons belonging to it are, with few exceptions, absolutely excluded from our country. I allude to the Chinese race. But, by the statute in question, a Chinaman can ride in the same passenger coach with white citizens of the United States, while citizens of the black race [...] who have all the legal rights that belong to white citizens, are yet declared to be criminals, liable to imprisonment, if they ride in a public coach occupied by citizens of the white race. (emphasis mine)
Yay for fighting racism with more racism! I guess some things never change.

(Some links: Wikipedia on Yellow Peril and the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, aka "Thanks so much for building our railroad, guys, now GTFO".)

International Blog Against Racism Week
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Jen: Wall (by sandintheglass)jekesta on August 10th, 2007 11:39 pm (UTC)
I have nothing intelligent to say but I wanted to say that I've enjoyed all yoru posts this week very much, they've been really interesting and intelligent and yes. ::loves::
not bloody Martin Smith from Croydon: ask me about blogging against racismmercuriosity on August 11th, 2007 06:23 am (UTC)
Thank you for reading! I'm glad you've been enjoying them.
cimmerianscimmerians on August 11th, 2007 10:53 am (UTC)
"There is perhaps no greater obstacle to the continuing struggle for equality than the complacency that is generated by a certain amount of success."

Oh, WORD. This was awesome. I learned stuff. The connections you made are brilliant. Thank you so much for sharing this!
not bloody Martin Smith from Croydon: Sakura: say what? (IBARW)mercuriosity on August 16th, 2007 03:59 am (UTC)
Thank you for reading!
Becky: Ishida - Team Quincyiapetusneume on September 4th, 2007 12:20 pm (UTC)
(I am aware that I'm several days late, but I only just got linked to your posts.)

I honestly haven't had anything huge to say to any of this. This is mostly because I agree and saying "I agree!" on every post gets repetitive, but also because I'm 100% European-American and have always doubted my own "credibility" on the subject. I look like I'm from the British Isles + Ireland + France + Germany because that's where most of my ancestors came from. Do I look "British" or "German" or "Irish"? Well, I sunburn like the Irish. But really, I don't think I look any one way. The most people can tell about me is that there's a lot of Scottish in me from my last name. But since I've never lived in an ethnic neighborhood or anything, I've always doubted my "authority" to talk about the subject, even when I've wanted to discuss it. This is especially troubling for me because ever since I've heard of some of the atrocities that my "race" has done, I have felt responsible for them. So how can I help to "fix" it when I'm not allowed to talk about it? I never got that.

...and somehow I totally got off on a tangeant when that wasn't what I had come here to originally say at all.

In response to your comparison of the Chinese to the Mexicans - it's actually because of the Mexicans that my dad insists that we learn Spanish. It's the second largest language in the US, and he believes it will help us connect better with others in business and in our personal lives if we can expand our lingual horizons. And it's always boggled my mind that people would be against having Spanish as a second language. After all, a good portion of the Western Hemmisphere speaks it. I always thought it should be common sense.

And lastly, this has more to do with you talking about appearances and people trying to guess where someone's from (which you've talked about more than once here) - my sister has an ex-boyfriend who is half-Mexican and half-Polish. He was raised by his Polish mother and knows a good deal of Polish. His last name is Rodriguez (a very common Spanish last name). Everybody says he looks Chinese until they hear his last name. Go figure.
Sanguinitysanguinity on August 14th, 2008 12:44 am (UTC)
Your quote from Justice Harlan's opinion is a penny-drop for me. Much easier to keep Chinese and Blacks from joining against you if you give them different sets of token privileges. Because if Chinese immigrants are allowed to do things that you've been fighting to be able to do yourselves, it's harder to see them as a potential alley. And vice versa. And I kinda knew that, but his scenario made it so. very. clear.

Thank you.
not bloody Martin Smith from Croydon: ask me about blogging against racismmercuriosity on August 31st, 2008 05:29 pm (UTC)
Thank you for reading!