The question of whether Asian Americans qualify as people of color has become increasingly pertinent, especially after The Sun published an article about admissions statistics for the class of 2023, stating, “Nearly 55 percent of this year’s admitted students are ‘students of color’ — underrepresented minorities or Asian Americans — a new record for Cornell.”
So then, are Asian Americans people of color? It’s complicated.
Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922) was a case in which the United States Supreme Court found Japanese-American Takao Ozawa ineligible for naturalization because the courts deemed him to not be white. United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923) was a case in which the Supreme Court unanimously decided that Bhagat Singh Thind, an Indian Sikh man who identified as a “high caste aryan, of full Indian blood,” was racially ineligible for naturalized citizenship in the U.S. Associate Justice George Sutherland said that authorities on the subject of race were in disagreement over which people were included in the scientific definition of the Caucasian race, so Sutherland instead chose to rely on the common understanding of race rather than the scientific understanding of race. Concurrently and subsequently were the advents of calls to action for the government to address the “Yellow Peril,” Japanese internment during World War II, and fear of the “Hindoo Invasion.”
Asian Americans in the 1960s joined the fight for ethnic studies departments and for courses in higher education to teach them about themselves through a lens that was not anthropological or militaristic, but through focusing on the history of people of different minority ethnicity in the U.S. The combined determination of the Latin American Student Organization, the Black Student Union, the Intercollegiate Chinese for Social Action, the Mexican American Student Confederation, the Philippine American Collegiate Endeavor, La Raza, the Native American Students Union and later the Asian American Political Alliance galvanized California and the rest of the nation with the first student strike. Individuals like Yuri Kochiyama, Grace Lee Boggs, Fred Ho, groups like the Asian American Political Alliance and Asian Americans for Action and publications like I Wor Kuen, Wei Min She and Gidra all further exemplify the contributions of Asian Americans in the civil rights movement at large.
But what about Asians’ access to white privilege? The murder of Vincent Chin due to the ignorant homogenization of all East Asian people, the rise of the Dotbusters (a hate group in Jersey City, NJ that attacked and threatened South Asians), and the targeting of South Asian, Arab, Muslim and Sikh immigrants post the Sept. 11 attacks (well documented by South Asian Americans Leading Together) demonstrate that Asian Americans were precluded from it. Disaggregated data when looking at the socioeconomic backgrounds and documentation statuses of Laotians, Cambodians, Vietnamese, Hmong and Bangladeshis reveal structural inequities that are hidden when Chinese, Korean, Japanese and Indian data is incorporated into statistics on “Asians” as a demographic population as a whole. South Asians whose ancestors are of indentured servitude migration patterns (notably populations like those of Indo-Trinidadians and Indo-Guyanese folks), when immigrating to the U.S., largely lack the presupposed privileges that many Indians immigrating directly from the subcontinent benefit from. When left unacknowledged or dismissed, we erase the first generation, low income and undocumented Asians who struggle to feel that they can call the U.S. their home.
Prudently, the model minority myth was cultivated to preserve white supremacy, and through racial triangulation drives a wedge between Asians and other minorities. The consequences are profound, delegitimizing the experiences of racism and institutional oppression that Asian Americans face while also producing new issues within our communities, like underreporting cases of mental health issues and illnesses, domestic violence, and most prevalently, rampant colorism and anti-Blackness.
The recent admissions debates at Harvard and with New York City specialized high schools show that Asian communities are diverse and not uniform in their political beliefs — presuming their inclinations is ultimately unproductive. Best articulated by Hasan Minhaj in an episode on affirmative action in Netflix’s the Patriot Act, progressive Asian Americans readily recognize the reasons behind and necessity of affirmative action, in addition to refusing to be used by the conversative and pro-white lawyer Edward Blum.
From writing this, we are not seeking to equate Asian American struggles to those of other people of color nor necessarily do we feel that we are people of color because of the development of and implications about an equivalency of experiences of oppression — the acronym BIPOC serves as a strategic and useful tool to, “undo Native invisibility, anti-Blackness, dismantle white supremacy and advance racial justice.” We are, however, asserting ourselves as people who are deemed perpetual foreigners and come largely from nations that were former European colonies and nations that have suffered from Western policies of interference and military operations. Erasing our postcolonial histories relieves the British, Spanish, Portuguese, Dutch and many others from the horrors they inflicted upon our ancestors, as well as the bloody revolutions and freedom fighters that fought to demand and realize liberation and sovereignty from Europe’s economic exploitation of their resources and people, white colonizers’ multifaceted attempts at permanent socio-cultural hegemony, and the disenfranchisement that has resulted in many Asian nations being now called “developing countries.”
We are calling for more harmonious coalition-building amongst students of color at Cornell and transnational anti-imperialist solidarity across the world. We are not competing to be recognized as equally oppressed because Asians are not affected by the school-to-prison pipeline and mass incarceration, police brutality and active genocide in the ways that black, Latinx and indigenous communities here are. However, not experiencing these should not then allow for drawing a conclusion that Asian Americans must be white-aligned. Quite the contrary.
Shivani Parikh, a senior in the agriculture college, Kumar Nandanampati, a junior in the agriculture college and Aashka Piprottar, a junior in the hotel school, are members of the South Asian Council. Jong Han, a senior in the arts college, Hansen Tai, a junior in the arts college and Jeannie Yamazaki, a sophomore in the agriculture college, are members of the Cornell Asian Pacific Student Union. Comments may be sent to [email protected]