Ms. Geek Speaks: Why US Citizens Don’t Recognize West Asia as…Well Asia

People seem to be confused on what is Asia. I know this because of a Twitterstorm around just where Egypt is (Hint: It is both in Asia AND Africa) and because I know where Asia is (including Israel) and I know the definition of Asian American (according to Merriam Webster: “an American of Asian descent”).

Asians were once dumped together with North Africans in a term like “Oriental.”  According to Merriam Webster Orient was “formerly understood to include regions (such as the Middle East) lying to the east and southeast of southern Europe but now usually understood to refer to regions and countries of eastern Asia.” This is why you have something like the “International Congress of Asian and North African Studies.” Oriental studies at places like Oxford show this as they cover “Arabic, Chinese, Egyptology and Ancient Near Eastern Studies, Hebrew Studies, Japanese, Jewish Studies, Persian, Sanskrit, Turkish” and is advertised as: “Among subjects in the humanities, Oriental Studies is unique in introducing students to civilisations that are different from the Western ones that form the basis of the curriculum in most British schools and colleges.”

If you don’t know about the US Chinese Exclusion Act and subsequent acts, you’ll be puzzled about why in the US one strives to separate out West Asia and even Central Asia (India). The Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882 was followed by other exclusion acts such as the Immigration Act of 1924 that targeted the Japanese and Chinese and others who were ineligible to become citizens, but also limited Southern Europeans– Italians, immigrants from countries with Roman Catholic majorities, Eastern Europeans, Arabs and Jews.

Other acts defined who could be a US citizen such as the Naturalization Act of 1906 which allowed only “free white persons” and “aliens of African nativity and persons of African descent.” African Americans had more rights than Asian Americans because Asians could not become US citizens.

The important factor became: Who could become a citizen?

United States v. Wong Kim Ark (1898): Wong Kim Ark was born to Chinese immigrant parents and SCOTUS decided that people born in the US were automatically citizens.

California v. Shishim (1909): George Shishim, a police officer in Venice, California (Lebanese Maronite) was decided to be “white.” Thus he was eligible for citizenship. Shishim said, If I am a Mongolian, then so was Jesus, because we came from the same land.”

Dow v. United States (1915) affirmed that people from parts of West Asia, including Syria, could be considered white and thus become naturalized citizens.

Takao Ozawa v. United States (1922): A Japanese man living in the Alameda County of California could not become a naturalized citizen. Unanimous.

Takuji Yamashita v. Hinkle (1922): A Japanese man who has passed the bar in Washington state, was denied citizenship. Yamashita was not able to practice law because he could not become a citizen. Yamashita was interned and eventually returned to Japan in 1957.

United States v. Bhagat Singh Thind (1923). Thind was an Indian Sikh who felt that under the Naturalization Act of 1906, he should be allowed to become a citizen because he was “high cast Aryan, of full Indian blood.” The unanimous SCOTUS decided he was not white. Indians could become naturalized citizens after the Luce-Celler Act (1946) which would be followed by the Hart-Celler Immigration Act of 1965.

Oyama v. State of California (1948): Can people ineligible for citizenship buy land for their children (Fred Oyama) who were citizens by birthright.

It is also important to remember that at the time Latinos were considered white  in California. The Perez v. Sharp case before the Supreme Court of California was about whether a white woman, Mexican American Andrea Perez, could marry a black man, Sylvester Davis–both of Los Angeles.

According to Sarah Gualtieri, an Associate Professor of history at the University of Southern California, author of “Between Arab and White: Race and Ethnicity in the Early Syrian American Diaspora” (University of California Press, 2009), Syrians in Los Angeles often came after residing in Latin American countries. She also pointed out that “the petitions of citizenship of Syrians in Los Angeles reveal that those who served as witnesses (testifying that they knew the applicant and that she or he was in good standing) very often had Spanish surnames.” At the time, Latinos were considered white. 

While West Asians and Arabs were able to gain rights from distancing themselves from other Asians, they became lost in whiteness that might not embrace them. Currently, there is an attempt to add Middle Eastern and North African (MENA) to the US Census but that has failed for the 2020 survey.

Doubtless, there is an effort to distance Jesus Christ from Asia in the US. Few people realize that Jesus Christ is West Asian just like Mohammed. Because of way that ancient history is taught in US schools, few people realize that Mesopotamia, the so-called “cradle of civilization” is located in West Asia *in what is now  Iraq (also parts of Iran, Syria and Turkey). Mesopotamia is only one “cradle of civilization” along with the Indus River Valley in India, the Nile River Valley in Egypt and the Yellow River (Huang He) in China. Note that three of these four cradles is in Asia. Other histories add Mexico and Peru because these civilizations emerged independent from Asia and North Africa.

European civilization and the so-called Western civilization depends upon West Asian cultures and Egypt (an intercontinental country) as part of its foundation and the narrative of white superiority in today’s world doesn’t recognize West Asians–Arabs and Persians and even Turks (Ottoman Dynasty), as being white or white enough. Even in terms of whiteness, the view of Chicanos and Latinos has shifted from the Perez v. Sharp case.

The Civil Rights movement by Asian Americans is not commonly taught in US history courses, otherwise, these legal cases would be better known and there would be a better understanding of Civil Rights in the US and even racism beyond black and white.

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