As scholars formulate race beyond the black-white binary, immigrants classified as “honorary whites” have proven both crucial and elusive. Current racial formulations delineate three main categories: whites, honorary whites, and collective blacks. Whites and collective blacks represent the binary poles of a racial hierarchy, where practically all attention to race has fallen. Honorary whites are minorities who approximate or even surpass whites along many important measures, such as incomes, educational attainments, and the like. In that category are many Asian Americans, light-skinned Latinos, and Middle-Eastern Americans. What are the meaning and relevance of race for such groups? Contrasting points of view frame them as either victims of extreme discrimination or as assimilating. Drawing from primary and secondary data on Asian Americans, this paper elucidates how honorary whites experience racial ideology and racial structure. Such groups blur the boundaries of whiteness and create significant separation from other minorities. But, it is a mistake to interpret such trends as signaling the declining significance of race for them or others.
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Pawan Dhingra is a Professor of American Studies and is affiliated with the Department of Anthropology/Sociology at Amherst College.