What Does It Feel Like to be a Problem?
In W.E.B Du Bois’ game-changing collection of essays, The Souls of Black Folk, he poses an interesting and bothersome question that many white people never ask black people: “What does it feel like to be a problem?” Whites often forget about the privileges associated with their race and will often subconsciously label anyone different from them as a burden to society. Du Bois explains how blacks had to live double-consciously and were never able to live out their true identities. While this collection was written over 100 years ago, its ideas, beliefs, and values are still relevant today. In the following, I will be connecting Du Bois’ question to one of America’s largest minority groups today: Asians. From centuries ago to present day, Asians have been living under an umbrella of discrimination and high pressure from American culture. Americans may not be expressing their feelings towards Asians directly, however this minority group is feeling influenced to conform to the standards of the United States.
America has a long and unfortunate history when it comes to viewing other racial and ethnic groups as a problem. The Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 laid the foundation for Asians’ problematic citizenship in the U.S. According to Golash-Boza (2014), the Chinese Exclusion Act, which was introduced in 1882, renewed in 1892, made permanent in 1902, and not repealed until 1943, targeted Chinese laborers of the working class. These individuals were denied entry into the United States even though skilled workers were needed for construction. Although Chinese merchants and teachers were granted access, this act still ties into my overall theme because it demonstrated how Americans placed the Chinese on a lower social level than themselves using lawful force. Quick were the Americans to label these international workers as a problem that could only be solved through the passing of a bill, but the discrimination did not stop there. Just a few years later, the U.S would target an even bigger group.
As stated by Golash-Boza (2014), “The Immigration Act of 1917 expanded the Chinese Exclusion Act to deny entry to anyone coming from the ‘Asiatic Barred Zone,’ which included India, Burma, the Malay States, Arabia, and Afghanistan” (p. 43). These laws were supposed to improve the racial composition of the United states but as a result deemed certain races desirable, such as Europeans, and others problematic. This fed the idea that in order to be a true American, one needed to be white and follow a strict set of customs. In his work, Du Bois states, “It is a peculiar sensation, this double-consciousness, this sense of always looking at one’s self through the eyes of others, of measuring one’s soul by the tape of a world that looks on in amused contempt and pity” (p. 8). This leads us to the next section: referring to someone as an American.
Asian-American, Asian-immigrant, or just plain Asian are the terms most commonly used when a white American is referring to someone of Asian descent. Notice how the terms always make the word American an afterthought. Individuals can never be American first, Asian second, or just simply American. These individuals constantly live in the shadows of their racial past and can never escape the presumptions that come with these labels. Asians are forced to live out their daily lives while worrying about how “American” they are appearing. The United States is often referred to as the land of opportunity however its naturalization processes contradict this catchphrase.
According to Golash-Boza (2014), it was not until 1952 that immigrants of Asian descent were given the opportunity to become a U.S. citizen. Even though Asians are allowed to become citizens today, it is not a simple process. For example, according to Korte (2012), those applying to become a citizen must score at least a 60% on a ten-question test over U.S. history. One would think this would be simple however a recent telephone-poll concluded that only 65% of native-born U.S. citizens passed the same test. Clearly these questions are not designed fairly thus suggesting that this country views Asians and other immigrants as a problem and that they are attempting to keep them out. This ties back to Du Bois’ work because even though major representatives of America such as President Obama preach that this country is a nation of immigrants which whom we welcome with open arms, our naturalization process is subtly signifying that immigrants are a problem. For those Asians who do become citizens, it is still a challenge living in their new nation while also trying to embrace their heritage.
If one were to walk downtown in a major city, it would almost be certain that they would encounter some sort of Asian influenced restaurant. The unfortunate truth is that Asian culture has become Americanized. Rather than this country being a melting pot, aspects from other cultures have been overthrown by ethnocentric Americans. U.S. culture broadcasts double standards because in one hand there are months dedicated to celebrating minority groups’ history and in another hand there are mass-marketed fast-food restaurants such as Panda Express that make a mockery of Asian cuisine by Americanizing it. Rather than embracing different cultures, America molds them into its own image thus implying Asians are a problem. Lastly, it is important to note how mass media spreads these ideas and also introduces new racial stereotypes.
As Golash-Boza (2014) notes, Asian men are typically portrayed on television as effeminate while women are shown as hyper-sexual. In other words, they are displayed as unusual and bizarre when compared to the American actors. Once again, they are not simply viewed as part of everyday American life but rather a separate group that must be treated differently and dealt with accordingly. Race is an illusion but mass media images like these reverse the nation’s progress of seeing the illusion.
In his work, W.E.B Du Bois wanted to inform people that even though they were not bluntly asking people of color the question, “What does it feel like to be a problem?”, they were treating them in a poor manner through their actions. While we would like to believe that these issues are not present today, the truth says otherwise. Asians are experiencing much of the same forms of discrimination and hatred as blacks did many years ago. Even though some may say that the present day is not as bad as Jim Crow law was, there certainly is no excuse for the exclusion acts of the past, Americanization of Asian culture today, and the ongoing displays of racial stereotypes on the television.