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Bridging Asian and Asian American Studies through critical mixed race

Bridging Asian and Asian American Studies through critical mixed race

MIT Professor of History Emma Teng. (Photo: Samantha Fletcher/ UCLA.)

Professor Emma Teng of MIT recently examined mixed-race identities in the U.S., China and Hong Kong as part of the Taiwan Studies Lecture Series of the Asia Institute.

by Samantha Fletcher (UCLA 2016)

UCLA International Institute, May 25, 2016 — The most recent UCLA Taiwan Studies Lecture examined a wide range of ideas, laws and constructs that were instrumental in shaping mixed-race identities in the United States, China and Hong Kong.

On May 10, 2016, Professor Emma Teng of the Massachusetts Institute of Technology delivered the presentation, “Traversing Boundaries: Bridging Asian and Asian American Studies through Critical Mixed Race.” The event was jointly sponsored by UCLA's Asia Institute and Dean of Humanities, with funding from the Taipei Economic and Cultural Office in Los Angeles. The Center for Chinese Studies cosponsored the event.

Professor Teng shared issues raised by critical and mixed race theory that are detailed in her recent book, “Eurasian: Mixed Identities in the United States, China and Hong Kong, 1842–1943” (University of California, 2013).

Teng’s book explores the place of mixed-race children in Chinese society by examining the stories of their families and patterns of labor migration among merchants and students between China and the United States. The endpoint of her study is 1943, when the Chinese Exclusion Act was lifted in the U.S — a time when China and the U.S. were allied against Japan in World War II.

The book seeks to bring a new perspective to the study of mixed race, in which Asian perspectives have been underrepresented, she said. In addition, Teng said that she sought to bridge the longstanding divide between Asian and Asian American studies.

Definitions and the experience of “mixed race”

Taking an historical approach, Teng focused on complex questions of gender, class, race and citizenship related to the identity of mixed-race families and persons in the United States, China and Hong Kong. To illustrate the prevalence and role of racial boundaries, she began her talk with a brief story about a woman and her baby travelling from Vancouver to China in June of 1914.

The woman, Mae Watkins, had married an exchange student from China, Mr. Franking. Soon afterwards, the couple was forced to withdraw from the University of Michigan, which they were both attending. The Chinese Exclusion laws in the U.S. furthered this injustice by stripping Mae of her U.S. citizenship. She then became a citizen of the Republic of China and embarked on what she anticipated as a one-way journey there. Her story not only provides a transnational example of the experiences of a mixed-race family, but also highlights concerns in the United States and China about mixed race.

In both countries, numerous mixed-race families would try to hide or simply deny their origins. Some would attempt to pass as white, while others would attempt to pass as pure Chinese. Beyond purely legal notions of citizenship, these mixed-race families reflected the important aspect of social identity that is tied to notions of citizenship.

By contrasting perceived legal and social notions of citizenship in the U.S. and China, Teng illustrated what she calls the notion of how “different cultures in different time periods have had very different ways of thinking about identity and who belongs.” The first notion of citizenship she discussed was the “one-drop rule,” which imposed a racial hierarchy on people of mixed race in the U.S., mandating that those of mixed race should be assigned the racial identity with the lowest status, even if they had only “one drop” of a non-white bloodline. Teng summed up the implications of this concept by stating, “if you are white plus something else…you aren’t white.”

The “one-drop rule” was commonly referred to in U.S. courts in cases of citizenship. She noted that there were some loopholes to the rule, often informed by gender, in which U.S. citizens were granted exceptions due to the privilege of being white. For example, during the era of the Chinese Exclusion Act, the family of a white Dutch man who married a Chinese woman was able to enter the United States. Teng noted that a primary objective of the contemporary multi-racial movement is to challenge the legacy of the one-drop rule, making it possible for people of mixed race to self-identify their race.

The one-drop rule contrasts with the Chinese notion of nationality and citizenship, which is based solely on patrilineal descent. Teng elaborated, “if your father is Chinese, no matter where you are born, you are also Chinese.” However, if you have a Chinese mother and a non-Chinese father, you are considered non-Chinese. Those of Chinese paternal descent have had drastically different experiences than those of Chinese maternal descent, she explained, differences that continue to this day. Here she cited an example of a “Miss Chinatown USA” application, which clearly stated “You must be of Chinese ancestry, meaning your father must be of Chinese descent” to apply.

Teng, concluded her talk by observing that while it may appear that U.S. attitudes and laws towards mixed-race citizenship lean towards being more based on “blood quantum,” and those of China, more on patrilineal descent, these concepts are oversimplified, with many exceptions to the general rule occurring throughout history.

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Published: Wednesday, May 25, 2016