Saturday, 31 January 2015

Program Review: Partly Colored: Between White and Black

Speaker: Dr. Leslie Bow, University of Wisconsin, Madison
Date: January 29, 2015

Tonight I had the wonderful opportunity to listen to a talk at UNC-Chapel Hill, sponsored by the Center for the Study of the American South in Graham Memorial Hall. Dr. Leslie Bow was introduced by her colleague in the UNC Department of English and Creative Literature, Dr. Jennifer Ho. Dr. Bow started her talk with two images of her Chinese grandfather and great grandfather who were both grocers in small southern towns, Greenville, Mississippi and Helena, Arkansas, respectively. Bow remembers a consistent refrain when her relatives discussed the racial components of their lives in the South, “whites treated us just fine and blacks didn’t give us any trouble”. She describes other incidents in the Jim Crow South, where Asians are allowed to sit in the front of the bus, and mark White on their driver’s license applications; generally benefiting from some aspects of white privilege but not being fully accepted by white society. In an allusion to the growing field of critical white studies where scholars debate how Italians or Irish folks became white, Asians are never mention because they only touched whiteness, they never became white. This observation is important because it explains why there is so much internal conflict and pathos contained in the anthropological, historical, and sociological writings on these subjects. How does a group of people define themselves in a society where neither of the boxes fit?

Bow used the subject of a 1998 documentary, Miss India Georgia, and the folklore of South Carolina governor Nikki Haley, to help the audience understand how in some ways, American acculturation has become a synonym for aspiring to whiteness. In addition to her family history, I think that Bow has found the South as a site for this type of inquiry to be most appropriate because it magnifies attitudes and behaviors around race that are experienced throughout the nation. Toward the end of the talk, Bow responded to questions about the lawsuit against the UNC Admissions office, contrasts between urban or western Asian experiences and Southern ones and how the relationship between Asians and African Americans is often missing from the archive. A recurring message throughout Bow’s talk was the duality of experience for most Asians in America. Even if there is a stereotype of neutrality or model minority, there is also a fear or anxiety connected to those feelings of admiration and respect. She also pointed out that most instances of racialization are bound in affect or emotional resonance, which can lead to violence or fetishism. To her, it can be seen as easily in the black male bodies of Ferguson and New York City as the Asian students who make up 50% of the school population at UCLA. In one quote by colonial historian, Dr. Homi Bhabha, the in-between space carries the burden of the meaning of culture, Bow demonstrates how her valuable analysis holds a critical mirror up to the whole notion of race in America.