When Racial Categories Attack

Are some of Asia’s 4.4 billion people white? To liberals, this is a very important question.

As an honorary black man, I feel entitled to have strong and implicitly unchallengeable opinions on matters related to race, so I very much enjoyed the miniature brouhaha over efforts to calculate just how white Canadian op-ed pages are. If my fellow Americans can get over their ancestral aversion to reading about Canada, there are some interesting lessons here for those of us south of the border.

At issue is this: Davide Mastracci, a graduate student in journalism (poor soul) at Ryerson University in Toronto, wrote a post for the Ryerson Review of Journalism lamenting the relative shortage of “opinion journalists of color” on Canadian op-ed pages. He identified the Toronto Sun as a paper that had made a diversity hire to add a little color to its white-on-white lineup. But critics responded that his critique implicitly counted as “white” the newspaper’s editor, Adrienne Batra, as well as columnists Tarek Fatah and Farzana Hassan, all people of Asian origin. (As you might expect, Mastracci disputes this characterization of his argument.) A conservative provocateur criticized the critic, noting that Fatah at least is of Indo-Aryan origin, and “Aryan” sure sounds like a near synonym for “white,” or a species of whiteness.

Asians, and especially South Asians, are, as everybody knows, “people of color,” a phrase that appears repeatedly in Mastracci’s post. That’s how the Left in the Anglosphere sees the world: On one side of the line, we have white people, that indiscriminate lump, and on the other side we have “people of color,” a lump so indiscriminate that it includes literally everybody else in the world. People of South Asian origin are by default people of color because they aren’t white.

Says who?

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There are, of course, lots of people in South Asia who certainly look white on cursory inspection. The blond-haired, blue-eyed Kalash people of northwestern India and Pakistan are practically Danish in their appearance. One meets people in Kashmir who would not look out of place anywhere from Tuscany to Poland. Being here at National Review, I took the opportunity to pick up the Caucasian hotline (the white phone) after getting the secret password from Ian Tuttle, and I learned that there hadn’t even been a vote on the matter by the Generally Accepted Whiteness Standards Board. What’s worse, a discreet inquiry among my Delhi-based colleagues revealed that the Indians hadn’t taken a vote, either, possibly because of the difficulty of translating the ballot into 1,800 languages.

#share#If we’re going to have demographic lumps, it isn’t at all clear that South Asians should be lumped in with African-Americans and Hispanics rather than with Poles, Jews, and people in Greenwich. An English traveler who was following the old Silk Road reached the Pakistani border and breathed a sigh of relief that he was finally back among civilized people, who “took milk in their tea and knew all the latest cricket scores.” Cricket fandom has always struck me as some next-level honky. If the boobs at Daily Kos can decide that I’m black, why can’t Jamaican cricket fans be in the same demographic bucket as the Queen of England? Are we really so primitive?

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A dear friend at the University of Texas was told that he was not welcome at the Asian Students Association because he was Indian (he still is), and that’s not exactly what they meant by “Asian.” At first, he thought that the Korean-American and Japanese-American undergrads were worried about being overrun by the Indian hordes (oldest joke: In India, you might be a one-in-a-million kind of person but then there are still 1,300 people exactly like you), but they welcomed those of Chinese origin, who are comparably numerous and make the Taiwanese kids nervous. So, my Indian pal couldn’t be Asian but now he’s a “person of color” whether he likes it or not.

The naked us-and-them power politics implicit in the idea of “people of color” is both creepy and ghastly.

The naked us-and-them power politics implicit in the idea of “people of color” is both creepy and ghastly. It assumes a social situation in which a white-majority society necessitates that everybody who doesn’t look like Robert Redford’s third cousin must band together against the Man and his five-irons and his gin-and-tonics and his penny loafers and his whole having-a-job thing. But we’re a mixed-up country, as Charles Barkley noted when he marveled in the pages of the New York Post: “You know it’s gone to hell when the best rapper out there is a white guy and the best golfer is a black guy.” You just never can tell, which is why microaggressions are everywhere: Meeting with the scholars of the American Enterprise Institute, the Dalai Lama was describing the conditions of his home-in-exile in India when he looked down the table at National Review’s own Ramesh Ponnuru and said: “You know what it’s like.” To which came the perfectly Ponnuruvian reply: “I’m from Kansas.”

Which was, as they used to say, mighty white of him.

#related#But of course it is critical that we classify people according to their ancestry for the purpose of ensuring that their views and perspectives are adequately represented in the media and in political discourse. We all know that people of South Asian origin, such as Reihan Salam and Aziz Ansari and the late Saggy Tahir, see the world more or less identically, and that they are obviously “people of color” like Michael Jackson, Representative Tom Cole (R., Okla.) of the mighty Chickasaw Nation, Ricky Martin, Governor Susana Martinez (R., N.M.), Ben Carson, and Louis Farrakhan, all of whom obviously have so much in common.

On second thought, that’s a pretty lumpy category. If only there were some other obvious way to think about people and their ideas . . . 

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