In past posts, we have spoken a lot about how race is not a biological concept but a social construct through which people with power have assigned social categories to others to create a hierarchy. But that begs the question, is race real?
I like to ask this question in my social justice workshops because truly, there’s no easy answer to this. I have met those who believe very strongly that race is not real and that the sooner we accept that race isn’t real, the sooner we will move away from structural racism. These are not people who for political or personal reasons want to deny racism; rather, they are people who truly believe that such education will lead us to greater equality.
Race as an Experience
However, I struggle with the idea that race is not real. To say race is not real negates the very experience of people who fall victim to racism every day. It negates my daughter’s experience when her Kindergarten classmate threw a Black doll across the playroom and said that she didn’t play with Black dolls or Black children because they were ugly. My daughter, who at the time recognized only two races, Black and White, and identified with the former, took the comment personally and came home with her feelings hurt. (To be fair, the after school teacher in charge had a long conversation with the little girl who I assume was repeating what she had heard at home.) Did race play a role in my daughter’s experience that day? Absolutely. If race were not real, would my five-year-old child have felt so personally attacked that afternoon? I don’t think so.
To say race is not real negates the experience of many Americans throughout history. Race has been a very real experience for Native Americans who lost their lands to the White settlers, who were given small pox-infected blankets after being moved to reservations, and who continue to lose their lands as treaties are disregarded even to this day. Race has been a very real experience for our African American brothers and sisters who were forced into bondage for centuries and then, subjected to Jim Crow. It continues to be real for them as police officers disproportionately target Black males. Race was a very real experience for Japanese Americans who were herded into concentration camps by White Americans during World War II. And it continues to be real for all Asian American and Pacific Islanders who have paid the price for the Great Pandemic of 2020 having originated in China.
Vaishno Das Bagai – His Experience With Race
To say that race is not real negates the story of Vaishno Das Bagai. Vaishno Das Bagai was an Asian Indian of means who, due to his opposition of British rule in India, moved his young family to California in 1915. He was excited to come to the US, where he dreamt of freedom. However, he was detained upon entry for several days. Many Indians had been denied entry because the local authorities believed they would become a burden on American society. Nevertheless, Vaishno was from a rich family and had sold inherited land to bring with him $25,000 in gold. Impressed by his finances, authorities were convinced that he and his family of five would not be a public charge and allowed him into the country.
Vaishno assimilated easily to the American way of life. Because of the British rule in India, Vaishno was already accustomed to wearing western clothing and spoke the King’s English. He opened a store in San Francisco called Bagai’s Bazaar. On the other hand, Vaishno’s wife found it more difficult as women had less formal education in India at the time and therefore, less exposure to English. Nevertheless, she too learned the language. In spite of their efforts to assimilate, the family still faced discrimination. For instance, they purchased a home in Berkeley that neighbors boarded up so that the Bagais could not enter. Not getting discouraged, Vaishno and his family chugged along. They moved into an apartment above their San Francisco store. And eventually, in 1921, Vaishno became a US citizen.
Then, everything changed. Two years after becoming a US citizen, the US Supreme Court declared in U.S. v. Thind that the average man would not consider the Asian Indian White, and therefore Asian Indians could not be American citizens. Vaishno not only lost his citizenship but lost all his property, including his store, as he became subject to California’s Alien Land Law of 1920, which prohibited Asians from owning land. Vaishno no longer had the means to support his family, but could also not return to India since, in order to get his US citizenship, he had renounced his British passport.
Feeling guilty for having placed his family in this situation, Vaishno Das Bagai found no solution but to commit suicide, leaving his wife widowed and his three young boys fatherless.
So is race real? I think so. I imagine Vaishno Das Bagai and his family did too.
Do You Think Race Is Real?
What is your experience with race? Do you believe that race is real? Leave your comments below.