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Dhingra talks racism, minority assimilation

Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America hosts lecture about race, social privilege

“How should we understand the relevance of race for minorities who approach or even surpass whites along key measures of mobility?” asked Professor of American Studies at Amherst College Pawan Dhingra at the beginning of his lecture Tuesday evening.

Dhingra’s lecture, entitled “The Racialization of ‘Honorary Whites’: Asian Americans and New Conceptions of Race,” was sponsored by the Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America. The lecture was adapted from his current book project, Dhingra said.

Dhingra defined honorary whites as minority Americans who “approximate or surpass whites in terms of adaptation in society.” Within this category he included “light-skinned latinos,” Chinese, Indian, Korean, Japanese and Middle Eastern Americans. He adopted the terminology from Duke University Professor of Sociology Eduardo Bonilla-Silva.

This seldom discussed category, Dhingra argued, is rarely accounted for in contemporary conversations about race. The success of honorary whites “maintains the disenfranchisement of the ‘collective black’” — African Americans, “dark skinned Latinos,” Native Americans and struggling Asian Americans — and upholds white supremacy, Dhingra said.

Throughout his lecture, Dhingra argued that in their “formulations of racial categories,” many racial studies scholars frequently fail to address those minorities who have successfully integrated or assimilated into white society.

Further, many of these scholars tend to view the discrimination and integration of Asian Americans as “mutually exclusive,” when they frequently occur simultaneously. “The evidence we have reviewed suggests the possibility and indeed the likelihood that processes of assimilation and racialization are occurring simultaneously for Asian Americans today,” Dhingra said.

Though this argument draws from Bonilla-Silva’s conceptions of race, Dhingra believes that the other scholar primarily documents the achievements of honorary whites, ignoring the racism they experience.

Using these definitions, Dhingra also touched upon how the idea of honorary whites perpetuates white supremacy in the United States. The model minority myth, for example, allows white Americans to valorize honorary whites “as superior to blacks and comparable to whites.” White Americans can point to honorary whites’ levels of achievement to “perpetuate a colorblind ideology” and “reinforce the subjugation of the collective black.”

Honorary whites are lauded only when their success is on par with that of white Americans, but when their achievement threatens to surpass white achievement and thereby threatens white supremacy, stereotypes of “orientalism” and “yellow peril” are restored to maintain a white-dominated state. “Race and racism are active for integrated minorities when they are negatively distinguished from whites,” Dhingra said.

This dynamic can be witnessed most evidently in two institutions — the U.S.  labor market and education system. The “tiger mom” stereotype, for example, portrays Asian American students as succeeding because of undue academic pressure by their parents.

Looking broadly at his field, Dhingra believes that current racial studies are dominated by binaries — whiteness and blackness or integration and discrimination, for example — while a formulation that includes honorary whiteness offers a more nuanced approach. “Asian Americans experience race differently and play a distinct role in the maintenance of white supremacy,” Dhingra concluded.

Bilal Memon ’22 said that as an Asian American, he related to the “discrimination mentioned in the talk, but also the benefits and privileges.”

Assistant Professor of Religious Studies Andre Willis said that he heard of the lecture through the CSREA mailing list and decided to attend because he had never heard of the topic of honorary whiteness proposed by Dhingra and was interested in learning more. Willis was particularly impressed by how Dhingra presented his work at such an early stage. “I enjoyed the openness of the dialogue because I felt that it was really significant how the interlocutors responded,” Willis said.

Professor of Africana Studies and American Studies Matthew Guterl said he was interested in “the category of honorary white and wanted to understand …what kind of racial system (Dhingra) was going to articulate.” Guterl also appreciated the interdisciplinary nature of CSREA, which allowed him to compare his fields with Dhingra’s approach. “He’s obviously coming from a sociological perspective, and I’m a historian, so I recognize that some of what he was doing is not the way I would do it.”

An earlier version of this article referred to the "Center for Race and Ethnicity in America." In fact, the center's title is the "Center for the Study of Race and Ethnicity in America." The Herald regrets the error.

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