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Kim’s latest, Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World (September 2023, Cambridge University Press), explores how white-dominated racial power produces inter-ethnic group conflict. It builds on and revises her seminal 1999 article, “The Racial Triangulation of Asian Americans,” which argued that the American racial order could be diagrammed “as a two-dimensional plane defined by two axes: the superior–inferior scale (y axis) and the insider–outsider scale (x axis).” Asian Americans, Kim argued, were located “in between Whites and Black people on the superior-inferior scale and far beyond both on the insider-outsider scale.” For a generation, this argument influenced how U.S. scholars have thought about Asian American positionality.
As she set out to write her new book, which witnessed a notorious spate of anti-Asian hate crimes, Kim reworked her racial-triangulation model. Under the influence of Frantz Fanon’s scholarship on negrophobia, which “names the way in which our collective psychic and institutional lives are organized around the phobic hatred and avoidance of Blackness,” Kim came to realize that much of Asian American-studies scholarship had “redact[ed] anti-Blackness (both the concept and the reality to which it refers) altogether.” Her new book is an attempt to redress the omission of structural anti-Blackness from the stories we tell about Asian American history.
I spoke with Kim via email. Our conversation has been edited for length and clarity.
In Dangerous Crossings, you advocate an “ethics of mutual avowal, or open acknowledgment of connection with other struggles.” This sentiment recurs in Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World, which looks at how Asian Americans have historically been conscripted into maintaining structural anti-Blackness as part of the American racial order.
All three of my books — Bitter Fruit, Dangerous Crossings, and Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World — are about how to challenge the devastating divisions that power inscribes and how to find a way forward together toward a better world. That said, my new book is more closely related to Bitter Fruit, in that it revisits the theory of racial triangulation I laid out there and elaborates my current thoughts on the positionality of Asian Americans. The whole point of classification systems — of race, species, and more — is to divide and conquer, to define groups and pit them against each other, so that power can reproduce itself smoothly and with minimal interference. The question then becomes how to come together in the name of challenging power.
A core idea of your new book is that “in relation to Blackness, Chinese foreignness was always already, and more fundamentally, a site of inclusion, plenitude, and belonging. … Although they were judged to be unfit for republican citizenship, they were recognized as bona fide subjects of the Chinese empire and part of the Family of Man.” Could you say more about how this connects to what you call “the racial triangulation of Asian Americans”?
It’s counterintuitive, right? That the attribution of Asian American foreignness suggests not only alienness and inferiority but also human standing and belonging — the kind of standing and belonging categorically denied to Black people, whether enslaved or free. This complicates much of what is traditionally taught in Asian American studies, and it can only be seen if we examine Asian Americanness in relation to anti-Blackness in a systematic way. In my new book, I take structural anti-Blackness as a foundational reality and departure point for theorizing about Asian American existence. This means revising some of the claims I made in the past about racial triangulation, in particular the claim that Black people are seen as “insiders” in relation to Asian American foreignness.
The whole point of classification systems is to divide and conquer, to define groups and pit them against each other.
You claim to offer “a critique of the critique of the model-minority myth and its centrality in Asian American scholarship and discourse.” Can you elaborate on this?
Mainstream observers dubbed Asian Americans a “model minority” as early as World War II, suggesting white Americans’ preference for Asians over Black people and weaponizing the former against the latter. In the 1960s, scholars involved in the establishment of Asian American studies generated a critique of what they called the “model minority myth.” This critique — which rests upon the claim that Asian Americans are oppressed minorities, too — has become a kind of orthodoxy both in and out of the field. I argue that this critique of the model minority myth has become part of the problem: It purports to clarify the positionality of Asian Americans but in fact further mystifies it by erasing Asian-Black differentials in power and status. Mainstream commentators say “Asian Americans do really well because they have good cultural traits” and Asian American studies scholars reply “Asian Americans aren’t doing all that well”: They point to things like the bamboo ceiling in the workplace, accent discrimination, the rise of anti-Asian hate crimes, etc. What is being left out by both sides is that an anti-Black social order provides Asian Americans with structural advantages denied to Black people, who constitute the most abjected group.
At one point, you write about the view of William Reed, who served as U.S. Minister to China in the 1850s, that slavery was “a health insurance and social-welfare program for Black people.” This statement was made nearly two centuries ago, but it’s not far from the controversial statement made recently by Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis that some Black people derived advantages from being enslaved. Do you see any reverberations of views like Reed’s in modern politics?
U.S. slaveholders described slavery as an expression of white benevolence toward Black people, whom they judged too inferior to make it on their own in the contest of life. This idea that slavery lifted up Black people at the expense of white people — a direct inversion of the truth — was used to parry criticisms of the institution of slavery for centuries. In the anti-Black society we live in today, the phobic hatred and avoidance of Blackness have survived the technical dismantling of the institution which originally fueled them. For the last half-century, opponents of welfare and affirmative action have stoked whites’ misperception that Black people are being “coddled” by the system. DeSantis’s comments about slaves gaining marketable skills in slavery should be seen in this context — as a knowing nod to slaveholder ideology and a sop to opponents of racial equality. That a prominent elected official is saying this publicly in election season lends credence to the argument that we, as a nation, are flirting with fascism.
The legal case of Yick Wo v. Hopkins figures prominently in your discussion of how Asians came to be used as a wedge against Black advancement in the U.S. I’m not sure this is a case that many people are familiar with.
Yick Wo v. Hopkins 118 U.S. 356 (1886) is well known to constitutional-law students, but perhaps only to them. In this case, which addressed San Francisco’s legal persecution of Chinese immigrant laundrymen, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that racially neutral laws that are applied in a racially discriminatory way violate the Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment. This was an important case for various reasons. It asserted a limit to what municipalities like San Francisco could do in their efforts to persecute and drive out Chinese immigrants. It also extended the protection of the Equal Protection Clause, originally conceived to extend legal equality to freed slaves, to a not-Black group, in this case the Chinese. And it initiated an important and enduring historical dynamic: There’s an overlooked passage in the majority opinion that shows Asian Americans being weaponized against Black people as early as 1886.
In recent years, some mainstream critics like Jay Caspian Kang have questioned whether the category of “Asian American” — which, he points out, “includes everyone from well-educated Brahmin doctors from India to impoverished Hmong refugees” — has lost its conceptual coherence. You are careful in your book to distinguish between different groups of Asian Americans. For instance, the second part of your book looks at how Japanese immigrants, during World War II, “were intent first and foremost upon differentiating themselves from the Chinese … they imagined the latter as a buffer between themselves and Blackness, a means of dramatizing their own distance from the bottom.” Do you want to comment on the utility of “Asian American” as a broad conceptual category?
The scholars who inaugurated Asian American studies posed this question back in the 1960s. Given the diversity of peoples squeezed under it, the “Asian American” rubric has always been, and will always be, questionable. Most critical scholarship emphasizes the ways in which the rubric flattens and distorts the experiences of various Asian groups. Asian Americans in an Anti-Black World leans in the other direction, arguing that the category “Asian American” merits our continued attention precisely because it structures how society, the state, and the law perceive and treat persons of Asian descent, regardless of national origin, class, sexuality, gender, and more. As long as the Asian American category continues to figure in the imagination of the state and prominent social actors — and it does — then we need to understand how this category functions, and with what consequences.
Given the diversity of peoples squeezed under it, the “Asian American” rubric has always been, and will always be, questionable.
The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled against the consideration of race in two prominent college-admissions cases, at Harvard and the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. You’ve written about these cases for both The Nation and the The American Scholar. Do you want to briefly share with Chronicle readers your thoughts on these decisions?
Like other observers, I was unsurprised by the decision because there is a conservative majority on the court, some of whom have been quite vocal in their opposition to affirmative action. I think it’s highly significant that the Harvard and UNC cases featured Asian Americans rather than white plaintiffs. What does it mean that Asian Americans played an indispensable role in bringing down a policy which has helped Black, Latinx, and Indigenous students gain entrance to college and improve their chances of entering the middle class? This is an issue most mainstream media outlets have not explored.
I think it’s important we see this destruction of race-conscious admissions in U.S. higher education as part of the longstanding and accelerating right-wing attack on basic and political and social rights. White conservative activist Ed Blum and his billionaire donors want to take us back to an era when Black people had no voting rights, when universities and workplaces were fully segregated. Affirmative action is a modest policy that reduces segregation in these spaces and thereby contributes to the expansion of opportunities for Black, Latinx, Indigenous, and other students. The right wing’s contempt for this policy is a clear indication of where they intend to take the nation.
You end your book by asking, “In the paradigmatic scene where the white officer commands the Black person to assume the position, what would happen if Asian Americans supported the latter by all means necessary, buoyed by the conviction that the Black freedom struggle represents the most promising path to a new and better world?” I couldn’t help but think of Noel Ignatiev’s prompt, in How the Irish Became White: “Imagine how history might have been different had the Irish, the unskilled labor force of the north, and the slaves, the unskilled labor force of the South, been unified.”
There are parallels between the two cases. Like Irish and Italian immigrants, Asian Americans have been lifted up by their not-Blackness. That is, their status has been defined, first and foremost, negatively, using Blackness as a foil. But, unlike Irish and Italian immigrants, Asian Americans have never been admitted to whiteness. Indeed, as the historian Alexander Saxton has shown, European immigrants defined their whiteness in part against the obvious “not-whiteness” of Asian immigrants. So, I would say Asian Americans have always been, and continue to be, not white but, above all, not Black, whereas Irish and Italian immigrants were initially not-quite-white and were eventually granted admission to whiteness.
Ignatiev’s comment reminds me, in turn, of W.E.B. Du Bois’s analysis in Black Reconstruction, where he observes that the material common ground shared by Black and white workers is mystified through the ideology of race. In part, then, the question of how to move forward together is related to the question of how to overcome racial and class boundaries instantiated by capitalism.
Over all, we need to ask: How have slavery, capitalism, and settler colonialism inflicted violence and suffering on humans and other-than-humans over centuries? How have they deformed our social and political possibilities as a species? How do we challenge power’s violent and deforming effects to build a more just world? Who is the “we” and how can it be constituted? What boundaries do we need to cross over to do this? Can we get to the root of the problems facing us as a society, as a species, as inhabitants of earth and find a way to address them while there’s still time?