Saturday, September 01, 2018

The Sick Men of Asia

theatlantic |  This alignment of certain Asians with whites evokes historical instances of ethnic groups migrating from minority status to becoming part of the majority racial group. Sociologists have a name for this phenomenon: “whitening.” It refers to the way the white race has expanded over time to swallow up those previously considered non-whites, such as people of Irish, Italian, and Jewish heritage. In the next wave of whitening, some sociologists have theorized, Asians and Latinos could begin to vanish into whiteness, as some assimilate culturally into white norms and culture, and become treated and seen by whites as fellow whites. “The idea of who is white and which groups belong and don’t belong to it has been malleable and has changed. It is different across place and time,” Jonathan Warren, a University of Washington sociology professor who has written about whitening, told me.

The recent lawsuits echo the process by which whitening previously took place—in part, with the political and legal alignment of non-white groups with pro-white interests. While some Irish Americans once socialized and lived among black Americans and held anti-slavery views, they were courted by and ultimately joined the pro-slavery Democratic party, and came to pride themselves on their newfound whiteness and embrace anti-black stances. Centuries later, they are considered white people in the United States. Class, too, has influenced how minority groups have been viewed over time. According to Matthew Jacobson, a history professor at Yale, the idea of whitening stems in part from Brazil, where there’s a Portuguese phrase that translates to “money whitens.” The idea is that “if you move up the economic ladder you get magically whitened,” Jacobson says. “Some idea like that has been transposed into the U.S.”

Asians as a whole are not, of course, considered white people: The 2018 census form allows respondents to select from a number of Asian ethnicities. And not all academics agree that whitening will take place for Asian and Latino communities—Warren and Jacobson both say it isn’t happening, at least not to the degree it did previously. That’s partly because, as Jacobson notes, Asians and Latinos suffer from racial stereotypes such as the “model math student,” and the “immigration menace,” as he called it, that mark them as foreigners and non-whites.