Race against Ethnicity?: How Indo-Caribbeans Navigate Ethnoracial Ambiguity in New York's Political Field

Anjanette M. Chan Tack, University of Chicago

In this paper, I develop the concept of “ethno-racial illegitimacy” to describe the condition of ethno-racially ambiguous groups when they encounter essentialist racial categories baked into state multiculturalist policies. Ethno-racial illegitimacy is a form of categorical illegitimacy. It arises when a group systematically exhibits “ethnic” markers that do not conform to what the prevailing regime of governance associates with their “race”. Through the case of Indo-Caribbean political incorporation in New York, I examine the state’s production of ethno-racial illegitimacy and trace its segregating consequences in the political field. Indo-Caribbeans are West Indians of South Asian descent. They constitute one of New York's 5 largest immigrant groups. In the US, Indo-Caribbeans are read as racially (i.e. phenotypically) “Asian Indian”. However, they routinely draw from ethnic cultural repertoires that are associated with Afro-Caribbean and wider “Black” culture. The perceived mismatch between Indo-Caribbeans’ “race” and their “ethnicity” renders them both illegitimate and invisible to the multiculturalist state; and prompts these communities to disidentify from Afro-West Indian co-ethnics in the political field and to perform essentialized “Indian/South Asian” identities to access recognition, resources, and influence. Drawing from these observations, I conclude that when the state’s racial regime simplistically equates “race” with “ethnicity”, and sets this equivalence as a basis for resource distribution, it precipitates crises of illegitimacy for ethno-racially ambiguous groups. To survive, ambiguous groups are incentivized to solve their illegitimacy problem by abandoning racially integrated “ethnic” attachments to instead perform to racially segregated, but officially legible “ethno-racial” type. In so doing, I show how state multiculturalist policies can exert segregating effects on racially and culturally integrated communities in the political field.

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 Presented in Session 160. Racial Identities and Meanings in Flux