The Volokh Conspiracy

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Iceberg, Weisberg, Goldberg, What's the Difference?

Government-dictated racial and ethnic classifications fail to account for the diversity within categories.


One of the stranger phenomena related to the official government racial and ethnic classifications we have all gotten used to (Hispanic, White, Black, Native American, Asian, Native Hawaiian/Pacific Islander) is the way people treat them as true sociological or anthropological classifications. Ironically, when the government established these classifications (with minor modifications in the interim), they came with the warning that the "classifications should not be interpreted as being scientific or anthropological in nature."

Nevertheless, when Steven Spielberg wanted to show he was being "culturally sensitive" to Puerto Ricans in casting West Side Story, he hired a half-Columbian, half-European actress to play Maria because, after all, Puerto Ricans and Columbians are both "Hispanic." This is like showing respect for Quebecois culture by hiring someone of half-Walloon and half-Mexican descent to play a character of French Canadian origin.

Similarly, when Michelle Malkin, a Filipina American, published her book defending the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II, many critics tut-tutted that they couldn't understand how an "Asian American" could write a book defending racism against other "Asian Americans." (E.g., "Her take on the racial politics of the internment of Japanese Americans during World War II is quite outrageous, especially for an Asian American. Even though she has a white name, it doesn't make her so.")

I found it remarkable at the time that it did not occur to any of of these critics that few people think of themselves primarily as "Asian Americans." (Indeed, I've since learned that research shows that fewer than forty percent of "Asian Americans" accept that identity even as a secondary one.) Many Filipinos, meanwhile, have resented (to put it mildly) the brutal Japanese invasion, occupation, and defense of the Philippines during World War II. So, if we looked beyond the government label of "Asian American," it was perhaps less surprising that a Filipina American wrote a book defending mistreatment of Japanese Americans during World War II than if a white author had written it. (Note: I am not suggesting that Japanese Americans should have been deprived of rights thanks the actions of the nation of Japan; rather, I'm just saying that to the extent these policies were a reaction to anti-Japanese hostility arising out of World War II, if you think of someone as a "Filipina" rather than as an "Asian American," the notion that she would be especially unlikely to defend Japanese American internment becomes much less viable.)

Four side notes. First, the West Side Story remake was entertaining, but wholly superfluous given the original. Second, the joke that gave me the post title's can be found here. Third, Malkin has since more explicitly gone off into far right racist looney land, and that may be explanation enough in retrospect. Finally, if you are interested in how our arbitrary classification came about and spread through society, you will want to check out my recent book on the subject.