Undercover Asian: Multiracial Asian Americans in Visual Culture

Undercover Asian: Multiracial Asian Americans in Visual Culture

by Leilani Nishime

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Undercover Asian: Multiracial Asian Americans in Visual Culture by Leilani Nishime

In this first book-length study of media images of multiracial Asian Americans, Leilani Nishime traces the codes that alternatively enable and prevent audiences from recognizing the multiracial status of Asian Americans. Nishime's perceptive readings of popular media—movies, television shows, magazine articles, and artwork—indicate how and why the viewing public often fails to identify multiracial Asian Americans. Using actor Keanu Reeves and the Matrix trilogy, golfer Tiger Woods as examples, Nishime suggests that this failure is tied to gender, sexuality, and post-racial politics. Also considering alternative images such as reality TV star Kimora Lee Simmons, the television show Battlestar Galactica, and the artwork of Kip Fulbeck, this incisive study offers nuanced interpretations that open the door to a new and productive understanding of race in America.

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780252079566
Publisher: University of Illinois Press
Publication date: 01/30/2014
Series: Asian American Experience Series
Edition description: 1st Edition
Pages: 264
Product dimensions: 6.00(w) x 8.90(h) x 0.90(d)

About the Author

Leilani Nishime is an assistant professor of communications at the University of Washington and the coeditor of East Main Street: Asian American Popular Culture.

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Undercover Asian

Multiracial Asian Americans in Visual Culture

By Leilani Nishime


Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois
All rights reserved.
ISBN: 978-0-252-07956-6


Multiracial Asian Americans and the Myth of the Mulatto Millennium

In tracing the history and continued significance of multiracial representations, this book challenges a dominant U.S. cultural narrative. That narrative imagines multiracial people as symbols of the declining significance of race. In order to promise a race-free future, we must perceive multiracial people as an unprecedented social development. Much of the popular, political, and academic discourse positions multiracial people at the fulcrum of shifting racial demographics. The oft-cited 1993 Time cover story, which showcased a woman computer-morphed from photographs of people of different races, was, after all, titled "The New Face of America."

In the years following the Time cover, other media outlets have similarly written about this "new" racial group, with the New York Times pushing the narrative with particular vigor. The 2003 article "Generation E.A.: Ethnically Ambiguous" by Ruth La Ferla claims a generational difference to explain the popularity of multiracial people in advertising campaigns. Such ads appeal to "the under-25 members of Generation Y, the most racially diverse population in the nation's history" because multiracial beauty "transcends race and class," according to the Teen People managing editor quoted in the article. The article ends with a logical leap by La Ferla, who links the rising popularity of multiracial models to the arguments of scholars K. Anthony Appiah and Evelyn Hammond: "Such a transition—from racial diversity portrayed as a beautiful mosaic to a melting pot—is in line with the currently fashionable The Myth of the Mulatto Millennium argument that race itself is a fiction." Despite the article's own preoccupation with the marketing of race and the detailed description of the racial and ethnic background of many of her interview subjects, the author concludes that race is a contrivance. This rhetorical move is indicative of the frequent and often contradictory pairing of academic post-racial theory to utopic projections of a raceless future. As in Reeves's conversation on The Tonight Show, the article primarily invokes multiracial people as an emerging racial category to argue that they act as a stepping-stone to a race-free future.

The notion of multiracial people as a new and generationally specific phenomenon dominates popular media coverage of multiraciality. The New York Times series of articles on "the growing number of mixed-race Americans," titled "Generation Mixed," pointed to factors such as the repeal of antimiscegenation legislation following Loving v. Virginia in 1967, increased immigration, and "a shift in attitude" to explain the presumed explosion of the multiracial population. The articles appeared in anticipation of the 2010 census, which was expected to document the rapid growth of multiracial identities, especially among the young.

The series did not consider the possibility that the apparent growth in the multiracial population might be the result of new census categories, rather than the motivation for them. One of the major motivating forces for the new census was not Congress's sudden recognition of the needs of a multiracial population but the concerted effort of the multiracial movement. The multiracial movement was a relatively small, loosely organized—but politically savvy—coalition of groups invested in multiracial issues. Many, but not all, of the organizations were started and administered by the white mothers of multiracial children. Most of the organizations advocated for a multiracial category on the census rather than the eventual choice of "mark one or more," and several high-ranking conservative politicians rallied to their cause. Their interest in the issue helped push the question of multiracial recognition to the fore during the ten-year review of census categories. A change in politics explains the "emergence" of multiracial people as much, if not more than, changing demographics. It is not multiracial people themselves but the recognition of people as multiracial that is new.

The language surrounding multiracial people, however, remains stubbornly committed to the notion of an emergent population. Rather than attribute the recent increase in the multiracial population to demographics or the racial enlightenment of our current era, we should look to the social need fulfilled by popular representations of multiracial people in the news media and advertising. The aggressive marketing of multiraciality examined in DaCosta's work, the institutionalization of multiracial people as a target population in U.S. education analyzed in Elam's, the insistence on a normatively gendered discourse of family in our understanding of race uncovered in Ibrahim's, and the rise of colorblind ideologies studied in Joseph's all have helped to create a population we call mixed race. If we search for explanations other than a sudden demographic change to understand the emergence of a multiracial population and if we revisit multiracial people and interracial relations within a greater historical and social context, then we can look to the political and the social to answer the questions "Why multiracial?" and "Why now?"

An Alternative Multiracial History

By locating Loving v. Virginia as a point of origin for "Generation E.A.," the article, and indeed much of the popular lore on multiracial people, adheres to a particular narrative of multiracial people as unprecedented and exceptional. If we move the history of the repeal of antimiscegenation legislation back twenty-two years, we would find a very different kind of origin story. The 1945 War Brides Act, while a de facto repeal of antimiscegenation legislation, cannot occupy the same ideological space as Loving v. Virginia. This is not only because it affected a specific portion of the population but also because it tells a different history of antimiscegenation legislation. Rather than a symbol of racial progress, this version recalls how repeals of antimiscegenation legislation can perpetuate, rather than repair, gender and race-based exclusions.

Since the first race-based immigration laws, U.S. immigration policy has subjected Asian women to the longest and most systematic exclusion of any immigrant group. The first exclusionary immigration law limited Chinese male immigration but banned Chinese females completely. Congress later extended the laws to render all Asians "aliens ineligible for citizenship." The War Brides Act was a notable exception to the progressive elimination of noncolonial Asian immigration. Although the legislation intended to lift immigration quotas for European women who married American soldiers, it also allowed Asian women to skirt the near-ban on their immigration. As dramatized in the postwar tearjerker Sayonara (1957), the act was especially significant since, unlike other immigrant groups, laws had prohibited Asian women from naturalizing regardless of marital status or length of stay in the United States.

Given that the vast majority of servicemen were not Asian, the act was also a distinctly gendered exception to antimiscegenation law. Thus, the War Brides Act reminds us of how U.S. policy selectively allowed exceptions to antimiscegenation law to define "appropriate" heterosexual families. As cultural critics Caroline Simpson and Christina Klein argue, both film and popular magazines such as the Saturday Evening Post portrayed the Asian female war bride and her white American husband as symbols of postwar reconciliation. Paired with the continuing exclusion of Asian men from the country, the War Brides Act reinforced a gendered and racialized hierarchy instead of breaking down racial categories. I do not recount this history to displace Loving v. Virginia as the originary moment of multiracial legislation and to assert a new origin. Rather, this reframing of the War Brides Act as a repeal of antimiscegenation law that predated Loving v. Virginia illuminates the stakes of creating a multiracial history. Choosing a moment of origin is itself an ideological act with consequences for how we understand the social function of the "multiracial" category.

The primary focus on legislation in the multiracial movement and in news media to narrate a multiracial origin story also disregards the existence of multiracial families that are not state-recognized heterosexual nuclear families. Moral panics over interracial relationships and the subsequent passage of antimiscegenation laws signal the persistence of such relationships even during periods of open hostility, not the absence of interracial relationships and multiracial people. Numerous laws outlawed Asian/white marriage at the turn of the century and again in the wake of the 1929 Watsonville riots. Certainly, antimiscegenation legislation played a significant role in the differentiation of an Asian population from the rest of the United States, but it did not prevent interracial unions. The 1929 race riot caused a national scandal when a mob of white men attacked a Filipino enclave in Watsonville, California, setting off five days of anti-Filipino riots throughout California. Newspapers and politicians incited the riots with scandalous reports of relationships between Filipino males and white females, and the riots targeted dance halls where Filipino male workers could pay to dance with the predominantly white female dancers. The subsequent passage of several anti-Asian miscegenation laws were a response to the widespread practice of Asian male/white female romantic entanglements that persisted despite social prohibitions.

The very structure of Asian immigration patterns has encouraged and, in fact, guaranteed a longstanding practice of intermarriage despite legal prohibitions. The aforementioned ban on Asian female immigration following the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act resulted in many Asian men starting interracial families. In her study of census material from New York's Chinatown in the late 1800s, Mary Ting Yi Liu found that "interracial marriage remained the dominant if not the only marriage pattern for Chinese immigrant men in New York City." By 1900, approximately 40 percent of Chinese interracial families in New York's Chinatown had children. It is clear that interracial relationships, whether legally recognized through marriage or targeted by discriminatory legislation, can exist and have existed alongside widespread racism and inequality. Scholars and pundits who cite the proportionally large number of Asians who identify as multiracial on the census as evidence of a colorblind society in the post–civil rights era are looking past the phenomenon of multiracial Asian people and interracial relationships that endured even during openly anti-Asian eras.

While the popular press seems to have suddenly discovered a multiracial population explosion, African American studies scholars have long recognized this "new" racial group. In "The Mulatto Millennium" Danzy Senna remembers multiracial history in her acerbic parody of celebratory articles like "Generation E.A." She writes, "Major news magazines announce our arrival as if we were proof of extraterrestrial life. They claim we're going to bring about the end of race as we know it." Later, she undermines the notion that we are witnessing a new phenomenon by recounting a fictional moment at the DMV. Her new license records her racial designation as "quadroon" which recalls "slave days, when they used to separate the slaves by caste." Her comment reminds us that the history of racial mixing is as long as the history of this country itself. She also recalls her own childhood where she aligned herself with a black identity because "they were the only race to come in all colors." The more expansive definition of blackness described by Senna attests to the longstanding recognition of multiracial people within African American culture.

Moreover, examining the meaning of multiraciality has been a continual thread in the African American intellectual tradition, including W. E. B. Du Bois's oft-cited speech "The Conservation of Races." If we include fiction in that intellectual tradition, meditations on the meaning of multiraciality abound. Groundbreaking books by feminist scholars in African American studies pay particular attention to the role of gender in historical representations of multiracial people in African American literature. Studies of early American authors such as Charles Chestnut and the explosion of "passing literature" during and after the Harlem Renaissance delineate the roots of the enduring gendered stereotypes of the "tragic mulatta" and the "seditious mulatto." So, too, have more recent cultural critics analyzed discourses surrounding hybridity, interracial relations, and representations of multiracial African Americans from the American Revolution through post–World War II U.S. society.

This extremely abbreviated chronicle demonstrates an early and continued preoccupation with intermarriage and multiracial people in the United States, and we can see how the new visibility of a multiracial population reconfigures, rather than refuses, racism. The recent visibility of a multiracial population does indicate a change in the ways in which we understand race, but it does so in counterintuitive and unforeseen ways. As Hazel Carby argued nearly twenty-five years ago, the narrative figure of the mulatto is both a vehicle to explore race relations and an expression of that relationship. The political or cultural recognition of multiracial Asian Americans does not guarantee the breakdown or denaturalization of race, but the perceived malleability of this racial category does give us insight into the discourses and images that construct race.

Coming to Terms: "Colorblind," "Post-racial," and "Post–Civil Rights"

"Generation mixed" emerges at the confluence of parallel but distinct discourses of the post-racial in academics, colorblindness in popular culture and everyday life, and post–civil rights in politics. Popular media often presents multiracial people who cross and destabilize racial boundaries as evidence of the end of race. At the same time, multiracial activists argue for the need for a "new" (multi)racial identity. In both instances, however, a race-free utopia is the ultimate goal. As the "Generation E.A." article shows, notions of the social construction of racial difference first gained foothold in academia, but popular media now commonly assert that race is a social fiction. Following the announcement by the head of the Human Genome Project that there is no genetic basis for race, post-race scholars have predicted the eventual and necessary withering away of race. Some scholarly advocates of post-race, for instance, argue that race must be understood an ideological "after-image" and should be abandoned as an analytical category. Even those who would pose a far less radical response to racial categories mobilize multiracial images to support their arguments about the transformative potential of racial mixing.

Many in the popular press, while not taking the more theoretically rigorous post-racial stance, have promoted a colorblind ideal through the metaphor of the "browning" of America. They predict a new society in which racial categories are blurred and indistinguishable, and therefore without impact. Rather than signaling the actual demise of race, the yoking of colorblind claims to multiracial bodies merely obscures current racial hierarchies. Rainier Spencer in his influential 1999 article, "New Racial Identities, Old Arguments," draws together the failures of post-racial and colorblind claims. He argues, "Instead of multiraciality being used in an abstract sense to discredit the idea of race, it is deployed in such a way that it reinforces racial boundaries." The result is a kind of "brownwashing" which replicates the melting-pot ideal and ignores the greater challenges of addressing racial differences.


Excerpted from Undercover Asian by Leilani Nishime. Copyright © 2014 Board of Trustees of the University of Illinois. Excerpted by permission of UNIVERSITY OF ILLINOIS PRESS.
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Table of Contents

Acknowledgments ix

Preface. Why Are You? Multiracial Asian Americans and the Question of Visibility xi

1 Multiracial Asian Americans and the Myth of the Mulatto Millennium 1

Part I Undercover Asians

2 Queer Keanu: The Politics of Bad Acting in the Era of Don't Ask, Don't Tell 21

3 Tiger Woods and the Perils of Colorblind Celebrity 41

4 Aliens: The Interracial Family in Battlestar Galactica 63

Part II Asians Uncovered

5 The Matrix Trilogy and Multiraciality at the End of Time 85

6 Camp Kimora 107

7 Seeing Multiracial 133

Notes 161

Bibliography 195

Index 219

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