“Becoming American: A Historical Parallel between Chinese Immigrants and African Americans, 1868-1904”

Yi photo

by Yi Xie 19C, History and English
Fox Center Undergraduate Humanities Honors Fellow

Race, ethnicity, and immigration in American history have always fascinated me since I arrived in this country, so I write my thesis on the shaping of a white republic in the second half of the nineteenth century and the race relation between Chinese immigrants and African Americans during this significant historical period.

The major historical legislation of the nineteenth century reflected anti-Chinese agitation and resulted in the limited inclusion of African Americans and the complete exclusion of the Chinese. In Boston, California, and Washington, whites promulgated the principles of racial difference and discouraged cooperation among racial minorities for the purpose of maintaining white supremacy. Some whites juxtaposed the Chinese with African Americans and conflated their group identities as alien, barbaric, and unassimilable. Others emphasized the difference between the two groups, considering one more inferior than the other. Since the passage of the ineffective Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882, whites increased the use and threats of violence to strengthen white superiority and non-white inferiority. Internalizing this idea of whiteness, Chinese and African Americans competed for inclusion into the American mainstream culture and body politic at the expense of the other. The Chinese struggled with their declining status and tried to elevate and stabilize their social standing as racially and culturally superior. Some Chinese intellectuals and race leaders portrayed African Americans as uncivilized monsters with ancestry in African jungles. Some African Americans worked for their racial uplift by identifying against the Chinese— depicting “Chinamen” as “foreigners,” “interlopers,” and “invaders,” while others identified with the Chinese, pronouncing a brotherhood of man. An inclusive perspective for the study of the nineteenth-century racial dynamics that take into account inter-minority relations therefore is necessary. I investigate why and in which ways the “Chinese Question” and the “Negro Problem” were conflated and differentiated and analyze the dynamic and complexity of the relations between the two during the historical development of American whiteness.

The Fox Honors Fellowship provides me the time and space to discuss my research with my peers and senior scholars. I enjoyed every lunch meeting I participated at the Fox Center. Listening to post-doctoral fellows and senior scholars’ research projects help me to reflect on my own research and inspire me to further improve my research and presentation skills.

Yi Xie is a senior double majoring in History and English. She is currently working on her honor thesis, “Becoming American in a Multiracial Context: Chinese ‘Sojourners’ and African Americans’ Battle for Inclusion in a White Republic, 1868-1904.” This research aims to develop a clear understanding of the racial dynamics of the second half of the nineteenth century by studying the “Chinese Question,” the “Negro Problem,” and the relations between the two from the perspectives of abolitionists, Caucasian immigrants, African Americans, and the Chinese. She investigates why and how the “Chinese Question” and the “Negro Problem” were conflated and differentiated, and how dynamic and complex were the relations between the two. She also conducts a comparative study of anti-black and anti-Chinese violence on the West Coast. She has visited archives in Northampton, MA and will conduct more archival research in Seattle, WA.

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