There are some things we take for granted, some concepts that seem so self explanatory that we don’t bother explaining them. This happens a lot in academic fields of study. The language we use in our fields is what makes our work inaccessible to the general public. For some fields, this is viewed as a positive thing. Language becomes a gateway to prove that people have put in their time. In Asian American Studies though, we want our work to be accessible to the general public. Towards this end, I want to help define some basic Asian American Studies terms. Maybe this will even become a regular feature.
Todays topic is: differentiating between race, racism, and racialization. They may sound similar, and they’re related of course, but they’re not the same!
1. Race: a way of classifying people. I don’t deny that there are phenotypical and biological differences among the world’s population. The part I deny is that these phenotypical and biological differences have anything to do with the classification called “race”.
Race is an arbitrary classification. Proof. How many races are there? Take a map and color in the sections where each race comes from. Here are some hints to help you: the US census considers Hispanic a culture, but Jose Vasconselos coined “la raza cosmica”, a new race because of the racial mixing in the Americas. Folks from the Middle East are legally white. Folks from the Indian subcontinent are sometimes Caucasian. Mixed race people with African ancestry are usually legally black, but mixed race people with Asian ancestry have been legally classified as a unique “mixed race race”.
2. Racism: the expression of racial biases, conscious or unconscious. These expressions (like violence, verbal slurs, employment preferences, bad movies, and where grocery stores get built) mean that some populations (people of color) don’t get the same treatment, respect, or opportunities that other populations (often white) get. To be clear– everyone has racial prejudices, and it’s not just whites against the world. People of color do some pretty shady stuff to each other. But don’t be fooled. People of color historically and continually get the short end of the stick.
3. Racialization: the process of creating race and giving it meaning. Race was invented. The story of how it was invented and how it continues to change, is racialization. Think of it like this: back in the day Africans didn’t need to think of themselves as African. Centuries ago, Asians didn’t think of themselves as Asians. When different Asian populations immigrated to the United States, they still thought of themselves as distinct peoples, but the United States classified them as Orientals and stereotyped them as suspicious, yellow skinned, skinny eyed, threat to American labor. But it wasn’t until the 1960’s that a group of students at UC Berkeley coined the term Asian American, to bring Asian Americans together as a political group. You can also call this “racial coding”.