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Boxed In

Philip Burrowes

One of the many problems residents of this country have with race is that the discourse was constructed largely around a dichotomy that informally excludes large (indeed, growing) segments of the population. Such people could take issue with the presence of Black History Month in the absence of any similar racial or cultural celebration for other groups, which are arguably even further marginalized in the American annals. It must be remembered that there are peculiarities to the creation of the “Black” identity in the United States that sets it apart from all others. While this is no excuse to let others remain unnoticed, the call for attention simply cannot be couched in equivalent terms.

Blackness arguably emerges in this country not from the bonds of slavery, but from the segregation laws that spread throughout the nation following the Reconstruction. Slaves and Freedmen, after all, lived drastically different lifestyles, however much individual members of each group felt an affinity towards each other. With the rise of Jim Crow, states and the federal government effectively made concerted efforts to keep all people deemed “Black” within only certain sectors of society. Despite geographical dispersion, then, a common experience of herding and exclusion was lumped upon a group of people. Race, which arguably does not exist biologically, was thus socially branded. Moreover, the immigration of those people who might identify themselves as Black but privy to another existence were historically kept low by immigration quotas.

“Whiteness,” on the other hand, is much more fluid, even more ill-defined concept. Bhagat Singh Thind, a Punjabi by birth, was granted U.S. citizenship at a time when naturalization was only possible for “white persons” and Blacks; it took the Supreme Court to decide that he was not “white.” “Ethnics” from Europe have long endured resentment from the domestic population; John F. Kennedy had to defend himself against accusations of being a puppet of the Pope, quotas against Jewish students and faculty were used within the nation’s leading academic institutions, and Russians were popularly depicted as enemies well into the nineties. Today, that same discrimination has turned against Arabs and Arab-Americans (whom the U.S. Census regards as “white”). Although the history of discrimination between and against immigrants is certainly a vital portion of the American legacy that probably deserves more attention now than “Blackness,” the solution here is obviously not the creation of some sort of “White History Month.”

Nor is an Asian Awareness Month of such critical importance. It may be disappointing to hear at first, especially offensive given the relatively high proportion of Asians and Asian-Americans attending the Institute, but there is no and should never be an Asian identity worth addressing. Rather, various forces in U.S. history have positioned numerous Asian groups in opposition to other facets of the population. From Chinese in the middle of the nineteenth century up through Koreans during the LA riots, one tactic has been to “triangulate” groups as model minorities: not quite white, but better than the rest. At the other end of the spectrum, however, lie the subjugation of Filipinos and the numerous (if discontinuous) flare-ups against Japanese-Americans. The difference between this “Eastern Asian” experience, and that of Western or South Asians, was only briefly addressed before, but it suffices to say they have only just entered the public eye to any significant degree. Long story short: attempting to fabricate an Asian identity does a disservice to the marked diversity of Asians, a criminal subsumption of cultures akin to the effects of slavery.

Hispanic Heritage Month is just such an unfortunate occurrence, at least on its face. Putting all Mexicans, Puerto Ricans, and Cubans in the same group based on one-time language seems like lumping Canadians, Americans, and Guyanese together as Anglos. Each Hispanic nation has its own idiosyncrasies, be it the Dominican rivalry with Haiti or the near-nativeless Costa Rica. Then again, the term Hispanic is a convention of the United States government itself. American history is tied inextricably to the history of Latin America, from its existence as a role model in the revolutionary period to the hegemonic presence of the Monroe Doctrine. Still, more than any other immigrant “group,” the intrastate variance of Hispanics seems to matter once they arrive here. Millions of Hispanics think of themselves as “white,” the traditionally assimilationist “Black” community attempts to co-opt those Hispanics descended of slaves, but more and more Hispanics are classifying themselves as unclassifiable, i.e. “Other.” Putting aside the political benefits (which we have seen since the last Census), can we sincerely put all Hispanics in one group?

Another of the many problems residents of this country have with race, as evidenced by the Hispanic-lead growth of the “Other” racial category, is that at some point you run out of boxes. Do we put native Hawaiians with Native Americans, with Asians, or group them (as the Census does) with Pacific Islanders? Is putting all Native Americans in one category as much a disservice to them as it would be to Asians? What about Australian Aborigines, the various indigenous Malagasy, or other such groups that have almost no “constituents,” within this country; does that allow us to be ignorant of their existence? When we get to the point, however, that “Blackness” can be broken down in a manner of more importance than a century of segregation, may we be glad that it has reached obsolescence.