In this edited excerpt from Towards a Grammar of Race, Tze Ming Mok examines the history of language around whiteness and blackness as it pertains to Asian peoples in Aotearoa and beyond.
COMING TO TERMS
East Asians in white countries live within language in a way that is ambiguous, racialised and tense. We are the eternal foreigner, yet when hiding behind our mother tongues, we refer to white people as “foreigners”. In English we call white people by their preferred non-racial term – “Kiwis”, for example – which then becomes our racial term for white people. When bothered by strangers on the phone, we say we don’t speak English in fluent English and hang up. We assimilate, in other words, to the contextual purpose of words, as though the uses of words are the point, even as they deny their own meanings. This contradictory pragmatism is the hallmark of a self-protective and diasporic culture, and it is something I bring with me, perhaps, to the uses of race discourse.
With regard to our history in Aotearoa, Chinese people in particular, including me, have written at length about how racial tropes of the “yellow peril” were constructed and deployed as a key oppositional premise of establishing a “White New Zealand” colonial state, at the expense of Māori sovereignty and status as the founders of the first independent state of “New Zealand”. Infamously, precarious Chinese migrant workers in the extractive settler economy were painted as rapacious, pestilential, colonising threats by the white press, as if “white people are looking in a mirror, but do not like what they see”. These tropes still pervade popular consciousness in the West, summoning regular outbreaks of street violence against people who look like us, including in Aotearoa.
But undoing white supremacy and colonialism also requires acknowledging East Asians’ colour-based privilege in white societies now, how our own pre- and post-colonial cultural history has generated racial thinking, and deeper analysis of how we do relate to whiteness in that racial hierarchy. Examining this doesn’t always land us in the morally comfortable space of “solidarity among colonised peoples”, as emblematised by the following conversation documented in my doctoral research in London.
“You’re either White or you’re Black,” said one of my interviewees, a thoroughly working-class and middle-aged Turkish Cockney, “. . . Is there any other colours?” He laughed. “I know some people would say Chinese are yellow, but that’s stupid. You’re either White or you’re Black.”
“OK,” I said, with a knowing sense of dread, “am I White or Black?”
“You?” he said with a hint of incredulity that I would even ask this, “You’re White!”
I took this in, and inquired as to the status of my husband, an Indian.
“Oh, he’s Black.” No question.
How can Asians be white? Or, for that matter, Black? It was a statement about perceived hierarchy and alignment, dovetailing neatly with colour, which is what “race” boils down to: a concept that can be used as a “master category” that encompasses ethnicity and hints at superseding it, as structure swallows agency.
WHEN ASIANS WERE BLACK
The use of Blackness to set the colour line, to define what “race” is, and to delineate whiteness remains the cornerstone of race discourse in white countries, even ones that historically have very few Afro-descendant Black people. Racists can be very lazy about racism. In this way, Polynesian people – themselves classified as “Aryans” by one branch of nineteenth-century race scientists – become “Black” in the mouths of heartland New Zealand racists. Even where there are no Black people, racism is forced to invent them.
There has been reappropriation, Indigenisation or rejection of the notion or label of Blackness, in diverse ways, by the many groups that are Indigenous to Oceania and Australia. This needs to be done in careful relationship with actual descendants of the Black African diaspora who live here. It is not my story to tell.
But let me tell you about the time that Asians became Black.
“Political Blackness” was a term used in the UK from the 1960s to the 1980s, as a means by which working class South Asians allied with Black Caribbean and Black African activists against racism, before eventual fragmentation into smaller identity-based movements. These Asians were not only from the subcontinent, but also part of “racially mixed” Caribbean communities produced by a history of sugar, slavery and indenture – present, for example, in the genealogy of Stuart Hall, who spearheaded Black British cultural studies and postcolonial thought. As “British Blackness” rather than American Blackness, it was explicitly postcolonial or decolonial, and the term was “performative, relational and dialogic rather than literal”. As an umbrella term for organising, over the years the term was increasingly “sweaty” – gripped nervously, contested and worried over as an implement being wielded constantly and in danger of blowing away.
“Political Blackness” arose from a common vernacular of what Blackness was in post-war Britain. In my doctoral research interviews, whether tertiary educated, politicised or not, older South Asian and Middle Eastern descended working-class respondents would still use the term “Black” intermittently when speaking of themselves, their parents and other people from their communities. They used this term in the context of having dark skin colour rather than African descent, or in the context of a collective cohort’s experience of direct and institutional racism across migrant ethnic groups. Sometimes it would pop up as ironic self-effacement, similar to the term they used when sometimes describing themselves as “a Paki”, reflecting or sardonically retelling racist language they had been exposed to, without quite getting to reclamation. It was not hard to see how activism had seized upon this existing vernacular, rather than the other way around. As with Polynesian people, nineteenth-century British race pseudoscientists had earlier classed these “Black” Pakistanis, Indians and Middle Eastern ethnicities as “Aryan”, in support of some of the practicalities of their colonial rule.
Who is “Black”? Whoever they say is Black, whenever and wherever it is convenient for maintaining a social hierarchy.
WHEN ASIANS ARE WHITE
Being assigned in white settler states as an intermediary “middleman” race in the hierarchy above “politically Black” groups, or being historically assigned by your own people as a superior “Yellow Race” in competition with the “White Race”, locks East Asians into a strange relationship in the diaspora with whiteness, modes of white-becoming, and complicity in the repression of darker groups.
Under what conditions do we “get to be white”? Here I briefly discuss three modes of white-adjacency and their accompanying tragedies, applying to diversity mascots, model minorities and honorary whites.
My diversity mascot is a “token” produced by a specific contemporary middle-class whiteness that is rebuilding itself as “cosmopolitan”, rebooting older notions of imperial mastery over diverse non-white cultures and knowledge of them. The diversity sought is explicitly not class diversity. A school or a neighbourhood may be at risk of being “excessively white” and thus unsophisticated and non-elite, but just add “colourful” middle-class Chinese and Indian people – who are as much avoiding Māori and Pasifika neighbourhoods as pursuing white proximity – and it becomes “diverse”, even as it replicates ethnic self-segregation and institutionalised racial hierarchies.
The tragedy of the “diversity mascot” is to attain representation at the expense of power or action. It is a way of actively doing and being nothing. This is nowhere more apparent than in the New Zealand parliament, where Asian MPs in the two major parties have historically had some of the lowest-rated performances in the House, because they are present only as static cultural products that white-dominated political parties consume and display to build multicultural capital. This lack of effectiveness is an affront to many Asian New Zealanders who are used to higher levels of ‘model minority’ achievement from public-facing Asians.
The model minority myth is a foundational concept of Asian diaspora studies. At its heart it is a tragic pursuit of honorary whiteness via socio-economic achievement and through “straight-line assimilation” – divesting oneself of publicly visible ethnic or cultural traits (unlike diversity mascots, who are valuable to whiteness only because of their visible ethnic and cultural traits). The tragedy comes, as Asian American writers argue, from the fact that there is no true acceptance or equality. As we know from high school, to try too hard to be accepted is to always be an outsider because of your obvious desperation to belong.
However, I would argue that some of us do get to be white, some of the time. We should admit it, and we should also talk more about how it works.
Outside of historical apartheid or fascist regimes, I view honorary whiteness, like “white-passing” and “political Blackness”, as an activity and not a permanent status. It is a privileged behaviour that is contingent not only on class but also on active participation in reinforcing white supremacy.
While the model minority approach encourages attainment as a way of transcending discrimination (anyone can climb the ladder!), the honorary white approach leverages existing socio-economic privileges and actively encourages discrimination against other groups (kicking away the ladder).
This contrast feels like the difference between the behaviour of Asian immigrant parents, working their way up out of the ethnic enclave, and their entitled children (like me). The case of Jerome Ngan-Kee and the Mercy Pictures controversy is particularly illustrative of this dynamic. Ngan-Kee co-curated an exhibition at his dealer gallery titled “People of Colour”, which showcased different national, ethnic and political flags, including Nazi and far-right symbols alongside Māori and other Indigenous flags, accompanied by text from a far-right transphobic thinker, a year after a white supremacist had murdered 51 Muslim people at prayer in the Christchurch terror attacks.
An Asian curator in “Art School Edgelord” mode, uncritically deploying white supremacist imagery, appeared to me to be the epitome of honorary whiteness. However, the public backlash to the show was significant, and Ngan-Kee eventually issued a lengthy personal apology online. His business partners disavowed and mocked the apology on the gallery’s official social media page. He had failed to maintain his honorary whiteness.
Ngan-Kee’s apology “to the communities” had the authentic ring of “Asian Shame” before one’s parents, where one admits to failure and to not being good enough. The act of expressing shame seems itself a way to return “to the communities”. Model minorities are vulnerable to shame and stigma for being Asian, while the status of honorary whites is dependent on the shameless exercise of white privilege in the face of Asians. The tragedy of the honorary white mode is to do dumb shit like a white person, but to regret it like an Asian – because you have harmed communities that you thought you had let go, but then found that they have not let you go.