|Asians in the Jim Crow South
examining what she calls “partially colored” people – Asians, American Indians and Latinos.
Focusing specifically on Asian Americans, Bow says she is interested in seeing the ways in which Asians were positioned and
understood in a culture that saw mainly black and white, especially in legal terms. Bow explains that she wants to know how Asians were
treated under the black-and-white system and how American culture accommodated their differences. “How did culture deal with the idea of
racial intermediacy?” Bow asks.
In order to conduct her research, Bow examines literature about Asian life during this time period, pieces like John Jung’s, “Southern
Fired Rice: Life in A Chinese Laundry in the Deep South,” a memoir about isolation, personal experiences, and prejudice in the South. In
addition, Bow refers to other media such as the 1984 documentary, “Mississippi Triangle.” The documentary clearly records the segregation,
discrimination, and racism faced by Asian Americans who lived in the Mississippi Delta.
Inspired by her own family background, Bow explains that her family, which is Chinese, was from the Jim Crow South. How her family
was racially placed” was something Bow’s parents never talked about openly, Bow explains. “They never considered themselves as
anything other than Chinese, and so either being like blacks or like whites, or even the consciousness of them being understood within that
schema or racial binarism, was something that they themselves never really articulated,” says Bow.
Like Bow’s family, many Asian Americans in the South did not fit into the black-and-white system and did not see themselves fitting into
either groups, which allowed them to have dignity and a sense of “norm.”
With her research, “Transracialism and the Anomalies of Segregation,” Bow hopes to understand how social status is determined.
Professor Bow believes that social status depends on many factors, including economics and race. She explains that she wants to look at
the intersections of potentially competing forms, “where your class position causes you to rise, but your racial position pulls you back down.”
So far, what Bow has found most interesting is that people are very invested in maintaining a sense of dignity, even in unjust situations like
segregation. With segregation, people are careful not to cross the lines created by culture because they too have internalized these separate
racial categories and have found ways to rationalize the situation. Professor Bow adds, by internalizing these categories, people then tend to
shy away from interracial relationships and remain in the categories that are already created from them. Although Bow’s research is not a
psychological study, Bow says that this is psychologically interesting because anybody unfamiliar with the situation can relate to the “sense
of where do I fit in and what are the determinants of belonging or affiliation.”
Leslie Bow has been working on this research for four years now and says, “The University is one place, and there are very, very few
places, that are actually invested in talking about social differences and talking about disparities between people.” She goes on to say that
Americans believe there are equal opportunities for everyone if everyone works hard, but there are many real inequalities which are
disguised under this belief.
That is one reason that Bow believes research such as hers is so important: it reveals the inequalities in society.
Professor Bow hopes to compile her research into a book within the next two years.
Bow is no stranger to literature; she is also the author of “Betrayal and Other Acts of Subversion: Feminism, Sexual Politics, Asian
American Women’s Literature.” Her research will hopefully help reveal more understanding of race, cultural positioning, and social status.
By KaBao Lee
(Reprinted from AWiz July 2006)
In a time when there was widespread segregation, these Americans too
were confined to their own kind. When there was discrimination, they were
victims also. As racism spread, they took a share of the burden as well.
However, they were different because they were neither black nor white. They
The Jim Crow Era, which spanned from the 1800s to the mid-1960s, was the
height of American racism. Named after the stereotyped African American
minstrel show character Jim Crow, this era created racial segregation between
blacks and whites through the establishment of Anti-Black laws. These laws
treated African Americans as second-class citizens. For African Americans, the
effect of the Jim Crow Era was profound, but severe consequences were also
prevalent among other minorities as well.
Leslie Bow, who directs the Asian American Studies program at the
University of Wisconsin-Madison, is currently studying the implications of racial
segregation in the South during the Jim Crow Era, and the legacy of that
segregation in contemporary times. Instead of looking at the positioning of
African Americans and Caucasians during that time period, Professor Bow is
|Leslie Bow’s family, which is Chinese, was from the Jim
Crow South. How her family was racially “placed” was
something Bow’s parents never talked about openly.