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The complicity cost of racial inclusion

Expanding what it means to be white isn't good news; it only preserves structural privilege

August 24, 2014 6:00AM ET

When Brook Soso, a new Asian-American character in the second season of “Orange Is the New Black,” arrives at the federal prison in Litchfield, New York, a fellow inmate named Lorna Morello provides her with a toothbrush and bar of soap. Morello, who is white, is an enforcer of the strict racial divisions (black, Latina, white and other) that define the show’s social landscape — “it’s tribal, not racist,” she explained in the first season — but here she makes an exception. “I don’t normally bend the rules like this,” she says, “but you don’t look full … Asian.”

Morello turns out to be right — Soso is half Scottish — but Soso’s arms-length adoption by white prisoners such as Morello is in many ways still evocative of the shifting position Asian-Americans hold in the United States today. Being Asian and being white are becoming less and less mutually exclusive and the boundary between them (particularly in arenas such as work and education) increasingly porous. But the induction of Asian-Americans into whiteness doesn’t alter the meaning of whiteness; rather, it’s a reminder that whiteness has never been defined by a person’s country of origin or genetic makeup. It’s simply a tool, one that can continue to operate even with the inclusion of certain minority groups.

A recent example of how Asians may be functionally folded into whiteness came on May 29, when Google revealed for the first time the demographic makeup of its employees. In addition to being overwhelmingly male, Google’s workforce is 61 percent white and 30 percent Asian. Just 3 percent of Google’s workers are Latino, and 2 percent are black. The rest are two or more race or ethnicities or identified as “other.” If you look at only the tech jobs at Google, Asians make up an even higher percentage: 34 percent.

The same day, Mother Jones released a report on the demographics of Silicon Valley’s 10 largest firms. The picture was similar. Whites and Asians dominate the tech industry’s jobs, while blacks and Latinos are grossly underrepresented.

Attempts to analyze these findings and address the imbalance of representation in high-paying jobs have resulted in a reconfiguration of the white/person-of-color binary. The Mother Jones report states that tech jobs are “far less diverse” because “94 percent of those workers are white or Asian.” The definition of diversity has shifted from not white to not white or Asian.

This is a common and understandable formulation for anyone attempting to discuss areas of achievement — such as college admissions — where Asian-Americans are statistically well represented. It’s also a practice ripe for exploitation by those who wish to discredit any kind of race-based affirmative action program, such as Eugene Volokh, a law professor at the University of California at Los Angeles.

Volokh discussed the relocation of the color line in a blog post provocatively titled, “How the Asians became white.” (It’s a title he’s used twice before.) To Volokh, the Google staff numbers prove the absurdity of calls for diversity because Google would have to fire large numbers of Asians and hire more blacks and Latinos. Volokh sees the potential penalization of Asians as the linchpin in his argument against racial preferences in hiring or school admissions.

But Volokh is wrong that the inclusion of Asians in whiteness somehow negates the meaning of whiteness. What is white in America (and what isn’t) has always been subject to revision. The Irish and Italians are examples of groups that have been invited into whiteness. The Boston Marathon bombers are examples of how one might be escorted out. Despite their light skin and Caucasian ethnicity, the Tsarnaev brothers were depicted as dark-skinned “Islamic terrorists” on the cover of The Week magazine. American whiteness may be able to absorb mass shooters of schools and movie theaters, but once a bomb was involved, the media seemed eager to relocate the Tsarnaevs to an imaginary Middle East.

By passively accepting the privileges of whiteness, Asian-Americans become complicit in America’s present system of hierarchy.

It may be disconcerting for some people to recognize that the boundaries of whiteness can shift. The ubiquitous boxes we check on applications and census materials might lead us to believe that race is determinate. But race is a social construct, not a scientific fact: American whiteness was an ideological creation to rationalize the enslavement of Africans and the extermination of native peoples. As David Roediger argued in “The Wages of Whiteness,” racial antagonisms helped solidify 19th century American class structure. In subsequent generations, whiteness was expanded to meet the needs of our changing population and the U.S.’s imperial interests abroad. Throughout our country’s history, special privileges (such as voting and land ownership) have been reserved for those who were considered white.

For the past 50 years, Asian-Americans have been the so-called model minority — the minority group held up by politicians and the media to demonstrate the potential for success for people who aren’t white. It is no coincidence that this narrative arose alongside the black power movement in the 1960s. Asian-American success over time became a rhetorical bludgeon used to deny the real and ongoing effects of institutional racism and white supremacy on African-Americans. Ronald Reagan, for example, called Asian-Americans “exemplars of hope and inspiration” while denouncing black women on welfare. The existence of Asian-Americans was a way to deny the significance of whiteness and the hardship of exclusion from it.

One of the clearest examples of how Asian-Americans are afforded aspects of white privilege is the comparative freedom from police repression, which focuses so intently on blacks and Latinos. It’s one way that the dominant society hands Asian-Americans a toothbrush and a bar of soap while denying the same to other people of color. But even here, the porousness of the boundary between white and not white becomes evident, as not all Asian-Americans have access to the same privilege. Today Muslim South Asians may face discrimination that other Asian-Americans may not.

The cost of becoming white is hard to measure. It is ethical rather than material. By passively accepting the privileges of whiteness, Asian-Americans become complicit in America’s present system of hierarchy, a system in which the nation’s institutions inflict ongoing injustices on a racial underclass. Highly paid Asian-American Google employees do not bear more responsibility to combat racial injustice than similarly positioned white people, but they don’t bear less either. Silence and inaction on the part of those receiving privilege only makes it harder for those who are not so lucky to change the status quo.

The truth is, no one really knows what a society that does not privilege whiteness would look like in the U.S.; we haven’t seen it yet. How might we build such an alternative structure?

Asian-Americans — and all those desirous of a more just society — could fight the sort of one-way racial osmosis that permits only some groups to pass. For me and other biracial Americans, that can involve choosing to identify with our nonwhite halves. More broadly, it involves recognizing that big-picture issues (the criminalization of black bodies by the police and the media that we’ve witnessed in Ferguson, Missouri, the case for reparations, the surveillance of Muslim Americans, the racist roots of felon disenfranchisement and a host of other inequities) are not just problems for social justice advocates to fix. They are everyone’s battles to wage.

Perhaps part of the answer lies in redefining our perimeters. In her book “Boundaries of Obligation,” political scientist Cara Wong argues that self-defined membership in a community — one that is based on a sense of similarity, belonging or fellowship — “can lead to an interest in, and a commitment to, the well-being of all community members … regardless of one’s own interests, values and ideology.” Finding points of solidarity, regardless of what issues one is directly affected by, is crucial to erasing the historic lines that continue to divide our society.

The choice to reject white inclusion in favor of the less defined alternative is a gamble on an uncertain national community to be. But considering the racist origins of today’s social structure — and the possibility of a more just future one — it’s a leap worth taking. 

Julia Carrie Wong is a freelance journalist living in Oakland, California. Her writing on labor, feminism, tech and class struggle has appeared in Salon, In These Times and The Nation.  

The views expressed in this article are the author's own and do not necessarily reflect Al Jazeera America's editorial policy.

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