Intimate Citizenship: The Influence of Marriage, Sexuality, and Transience on National Membership

Sikh Temple Stockton, CA

In Spike Lee’s 2006 crime drama, Inside Man, a mysterious group of robbers with an apparent political agenda hijack a downtown NYC bank holding dozens of employees and customers hostage. Though the movie focuses primarily on the travails of embattled NYPD police detective Keith Frazer (Denzel Washington), Lee delivers a movie that encapsulates the stunning diversity of New York.  Even minor characters with small moments provide useful insights into the various racial, ethnic, and religious conflicts and tensions that embody twenty first century urban life. In particular, Lee’s treatment of Sikh American cab driver, Vikram Walia (Waris Ahluwalia) illuminates the ambivalent place of South Asians in modern America.  Though released by the Dalton Russell (Clive Owen) led thieves as evidence of good faith negotiations and despite Vikram’s protestations otherwise, “Oh, shit! A fucking Arab! – What? No. I’m a Sikh!”  New York’s finest mistake him for a Middle Eastern terrorist.  The police force him to the ground, remove his turban, and handcuff the former hostage. When later interrogated by Washington and his partner, detective Bill Miller (Chiwetel Ejiofor), Vikram’s vents his frustration over his place as a Sikh American, only to be met with cynical hilarity:

Vikram Walia: Fuckin’ tired of this shit. What happened to my fuckin’ civil rights? Why can’t I go anywhere without being harassed? Get thrown out a bank, I’m a hostage, I get harassed. I go to the airport, I can’t go through security without a random selection. Fuckin’ random, my ass.
Keith Frazier: I bet you can get a cab though.
Vikram Walia: I guess that’s one of the perks.

During the interrogation, Vikram angrily demanded his turban be returned.  Though many Americans tragically mistake turbans as somehow akin to terrorism, the public removal of Vikram’s turban pointed to a long history of forced emasculation in which Sikh turbans represented something very different decades earlier.  The role of masculinity in American life and the place of South Asians within this matrix serves as only one topic in the new book Stranger Intimacy: Contesting Race, Sexuality, and the Law in the American Northwest.   As author, Nayan Shah points out, white Americans in the early decades of the twentieth century “identified the turban as a racial and sexual difference that could become a focal point of abuse and harassment.  Removing the turban served as a form of “ritualistic violence … intended to humiliate, terrorize and shame.” (Shah, Stanger Intimacy, 38)  For Sikh men, the practice emasculated them and violated one’s sense of spirituality.  Public humiliation provided a useful means for reinforcing racial hierarchies.

Spike and Waris

In this way, Lee cleverly tackles several tensions at once – racial and religious prejudice against South Asian and Middle Eastern citizens, the limits of American tolerance in a post 9/11 world, and the increasingly complex relationship between not only whites and minorities but also non-white interracial connections — in what amounts to less than five minutes of screen time.  The fact that Lee opens the film with the song  “”Chal Chaiyya Chaiyya” (from the Hindi movie, “Dil Se”), suggests that the Brooklyn filmmaker who cut his teeth on explorations of white-black American relations appears to be embracing the influence of global economic and labor flows that have made New York and elsewhere ever more diverse, jettisoning white black binaries for more complex territory.

From Sihk cab driver Virkam Walia to East is East’s Pakistani fish and chip shopowner George Khan to the traditional Indian Middle Class parents of The Namesake’s protagonist Gogol, the image of these South Asian families includes transnational affiliations, but also rests on concepts of traditional family structures and settlement.  Yet, if one examines the North American West at the turn of the century, one finds largely rural South Asian populations, settled and transient, exerting a dizzying array of agency via interracial marriage, homosexuality, juridical practices, and public space. Despite laws that prohibited Asian citizenship and property ownership, through interracial marriage some became landowners and successful farmers and entrepreneurs in places like Imperial Valley, CA.  Yet, others resided outside this middle class, settled, heteronormative nuclear family existence. In Stranger Intimacy, the aforementioned Professor Shah has delivered a work that encourages readers to think about these issues and more. Considering the prevalence of marriage as a current debate in GOP primaries and the larger public sphere, Shah provides timely reflections on its interaction with race, capitalism, domesticity, and transience in the early twentieth century.  One finds that despite the intervening decades, debates regarding marriage look remarkably (frighteningly?) similar. However, before delving into Shah’s opus, it proves useful to see what other scholars have had to say about these issues.

Capitalism, Labor, and Marriage

“There are all sorts of contractual benefits that …anybody can contract for . . . The relationship that should be recognized in public policy that provides exceptional benefit, unusual unique benefits to society is marriage, marriage between a man and a woman who are there to join together for the purpose of continuing society, which is having children and raising those children in a home with a mom and a dad.”

Rick Santorum, 2012

“In this State … marriage is treated as a civil contract, but it is more than a mere civil contract.  It is a public institution established by God himself, is recognized in all Christian and civilized nations, and is essential to the peace, happiness and well being of society… The right, in states, to regulate and control, to guard, protect and preserve this God-given, civilizing, and Christianizing institution is of inestimable importance, and cannot be surrendered.”

— Indiana Supreme Court Justice, Samuel H. Buskirk, 1868 in Peggy Pascoe’s What Comes Naturally: Miscegenation Law and the Making of Race in America, 56.

Rick Santorum’s recent rise to top of the GOP foodchain in many ways rests on his commitment to social conservatism (though ToM contributor Keith Orejel might disagree) and perhaps above all opposition to gay marriage.  Santorum hopes to promote marriage, or at least his vision of the institution, via the federal government. The former Pennsylvania Senator presents the institution as an obvious and inherent good. However, as the hardly left wing Economist noted in a recent blog post, Santorum’s plans smack of conservative social engineering.  Marriage may be a wonderful institution but it is shot through with political, social, and economic meanings in which government has long intervened.

The Lovings

As Peggy Pascoe illustrates, a remarkably similar argument was used to deny citizens the right to interracial marriage. Moreover, the landmark decision Loving v. Virginia (1967), striking down interracial marriage restrictions, proved noteworthy not just for its civil rights symbolism, but for its significance regarding same sex marriage and affirmative action. When Pascoe delves into twentieth century miscegenation laws regarding Native Americans, she demonstrates that in many Western states like Oregon, these regulations proved to be more about protecting white ownership of property than anything else.  Moreover, such laws seemed far more concerned with interracial marriages involving whites rather than those involving minorities.  Considering the falsity of race, Pascoe points out that “the assumption that races were discrete, identifiable, and obvious was as much an illusion as the assumption that miscegenation laws were racially parallel.” (108) To put it simply, marriage laws are not and were never just about marriage.

In recent years, historians such as Nancy Cott and the aforementioned Pascoe have explored the impact and meaning of government regulation of marriage.  As Cott suggests, marriage policies hold the power to craft the cognitive possibilities while also policing national borders. (8)

In particular, ethnic or racial groups seen as somehow deviant or deficient found themselves targeted by government policies.  The importance of domestic life depended on American loyalty to monogamous partnerships. Increasingly, leaders conflated monogamy with a “government of consent, moderation and political liberty.” (22) In contrast, the harem and other non-monogamous forms of intimacy became associated with lack of consent and tyranny, while monogamy, liberty and consent were seen as consistent with the “political culture of the United States” notes Cott. (23) Interestingly, one can identify the importance of consent or at least the appearance of, in not only domesticity but also labor.

In Coolies and Cane: Race, Labor and Sugar in the Age of Emancipation, Moon Ho Jung illustrates Cott’s point, as the disputed contractual status of Chinese laborers caused many Americans to reject their presence.  Opposition to Chinese labor often related to their liminal status.  “Characterized as slaves and immigrants, rebellious and docile, male and effeminate, and neither black nor white,” summarizes Jung, “coolies were thrown back into the netherworld between slavery and freedom during the Civil War.” (72) In addition, as Adam McKeown notes in Melancholy Order: Asian Migration and the Globalization of Borders, whites often ascribed a “a discourse of slavery, corruption, and immorality to Chinese laborers that conflated migrants with opium use and exploitation of white women. However, even if cultural arguments failed, laissez-faire capitalism’s expansion gave critics another means to undercut the position of Asian migrant labor. “Anti Asian racism around the Pacific was charged with a spirit of egalitarian self government and a mistrust of big capital and elite institutions,” argues McKeown, “this racism was given concrete political shape through the conviction that self governing societies should determine their own membership and a fear that unconstrained capital would degrade the status of the working man.” Clearly, non-white migrant labor quickly discovered its marginal position in the American West and South.

In both Canada and America, the influx of landless migrant labor – whether from South Asia, the Pacific, or America – threatened local authorities. Though North American expansion (some might argue empire building), burgeoning market based capitalism, and business elites favored large unsettled labor flows, working class whites in the West resented the presence of “foreign workers.”  Of course, this goes to explain in part how “driving out campaigns,” the formation of xenophobic white workingmen’s parties, and laws like the 1852 Foreign Miner’s Tax worked to obscure the exploitation of working class populations throughout the West by large commercial enterprises.  Migrant labor, notably East and South Asian workers, provided an easy scapegoat.

Still as noted, the influence of contractual law pervaded more than labor and business. The emphasis on a contractual monogamous relationship was not necessarily the dominant form of intimacy of the time.  Rather, it existed with several others forms of cohabitation that exhibited equal levels of cultural support, yet Americans chose to naturalize marriage and monogamy.  For example, the perceived sexual practices of Native Americans and Freedmen and women of the nineteenth century scandalized many whites.  For these observers, the government needed to promote monogamy and marriage, as anything less threatened national identity.  The importance of marriage among Native American populations took on increased saliency as the U.S. expanded into traditionally indigenous territory.  Marriage law enveloped rights of citizenship and property, while rejecting tribal memberships. Following the Civil War and emancipation, similar fears regarding black sexuality emerged, placing the obligation of regulating emancipated Black intimacies under the provision of the Freedman’s Bureau. Still, though the federal government provided incentives, Cott goes to great lengths to illustrate the power of both state government and the “informal public” in shaping marriage law.

Chinese “Queer Domesticities”

Clearly gender played a key role in marriage regulation.  Women marrying non-Americans found their citizenship revoked as policymakers tied national membership to male citizenship. Still, though women remained second-class citizens, their presence in communities came to be viewed as essential for imbuing ethnic and racial groups with the proper forms of domesticity.  In his 2001 work Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Francisco’s Chinatown,  Shah explored how the nexus of race, public health, and traditional domesticity interacted to isolate Chinese and Chinese American populations in San Francisco in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Drawing upon Jurgen Habermas and Michele Foucault, among others, Shah pointed out conceptions of a modern healthy society rested upon a basic assumption regarding domestic life that privileged heterosexual couples and their children.  These families “perpetuated the race and enriched the nation.”  The failure of individuals or communities to achieve this sort of familial structure threatened the institution of family.  “Sexual and social practices by which individuals sought intimacy outside the reproductive marriage were identified as disruptive to the family,” writes Shah, “and were perceived as perversion, betrayal, and distortion of the ‘the race’ and of racially defined communities.” (77) Though hampered by immigration policies that contributed to an uneven sex ratio that resulted in far more male Chinese immigrants than women, public officials often voiced fears over what Shah describes as the “queer domesticity” of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

The focus on domesticity

Predictably, the non-traditional domesticity of Chinatown resulted in its political and economic marginalization. For politicians of the late nineteenth century Chinatown could be characterized as “an immoral bachelor society of dissolute men who frequented opium dens, gambling houses, and brothels,” argues Shah. In the shared quarters of bunkhouses, transient Chinese men formed a homosocial world, but the passage of the Page Act in 1875 only made the situation worse by preventing the immigration of Chinese women.  As a result, the Page Act reinforced the white public’s characterization of Chinese women as prostitutes. In these ways, Chinese men and women provided a distinct threat to American ideas of family and sexuality. “Together their lives were contrary to respectable domesticity and capable of undermining American morality and family,” notes Shah. (77) If one returns to Pascoe, a distinct irony emerges. Though demonized in this early era, later in the postwar period, legislators in the West, would use the example of successful interracial marriages between Indians and Whites and Asians and whites to push for an elimination of miscegenation laws.  “The emphasis on Whites married to Indians and Asian Americans, for example allowed legislators in states with relatively small numbers of African Americans to override the objections of those who wanted to continue to ban marriages between Whites and Blacks,” notes Pascoe. (244)

Still in this earlier era, state and municipal officials remained mired in prejudice, but employed “scientific measures.”  The developing city governments of the day combined Progressive era conceptions of social reform that professionalized city agencies but also unfairly ascribed negative characteristics to minority groups like the Chinese.  Public health officials created a collection of knowledge that imbued the figure of Chinese men and women with a sexual deviance that threatened Americans physically (disease) and morally (“queer domesticity”).

Shah’s most recent work moves away from the urban environs of turn of the century San Francisco, exchanging it for the smaller towns and rural areas of the North American West along with developing metropolises like Vancouver, British Columbia.  In Stranger Intimacy, Shah explores the kind of complex networks of transience and mobility that defined the lives of many South Asian migrants in the American and Canadian West.  Bunkhouses, farms, saloons, alleys, docks, train stations, and other spaces serve as the theatre for Shah’s South Asian actors.

South Asian Intimacies and the North American West

Perhaps it goes without saying that every discipline struggles with various methodological and theoretical limits.  In Stranger Intimacy, Shah sets out to upset “three conceptual stabilizations” that pervade much of historical scholarship: 1) permanence over transience, 2) the nuclear family household and 3) polarized sexuality. (6) While Shah’s earlier work dealt largely with the latter two issues in the context of San Francisco’s Chinatown, Stranger Intimacy adds the complexity of transience.  Undoubtedly, Shah’s initiative is at once ambitious and difficult.   After all, often historians can only gather data regarding transient populations through examples of permanence.  Contract negotiations, property acquisitions, marriage, school attendance and other forms of permanent settlement provide the few clues we have regarding migrant lives.  Using permanence to research transience does accomplish some level of knowledge, but as Shah points out viewing migrant networks through this lens perverts the reality of these lives, “migrant history must also take the measure of elastic and shifting movement, impermanence, and the discontinuous array of work, affiliations, places, friends and strangers.  Transience and discontinuous ties to place make tracking migrancy in conventional linear time a distortion of migrants’ actual experiences.” (6) To put it another way, the enclave settlement model does not encapsulate the full experience of immigrant lives in America.  Our understandings of migration need to include the more transient lives of laborers like the early twentieth century South Asian actors in Stranger Intimacy and their twenty first century parallel, Mexican migrant workers.

One of the strengths of Shah’s research lay in its use of official state produced knowledge.  Contagious Divides employed a variety of sources but in particular the developing public health infrastructure of San Francisco provided Shah with incontrovertible evidence of racial spatialization and state sanctioned discrimination.  In Stranger Intimacy, Shah delves into the juridical debates of the North American West, finding both flexibility and rigidness in court rulings. Judges performed the task of creating a discourse around migrating labor.  Court decisions by judges at various levels functioned as a “conduit of circulating knowledge of the particular dangers of vagrant migrants and predictions of nefarious interracial sexual encounters between migrant males and youth,” argues Shah. (76) Violence, property damage and riots related to the social activities of migrant men drew public attention but more mundane daily interactions were under the purview of authorities to police and regulate contact.  Middle class concerns regarding privacy and organized public space demanded regulation such that policing migrant sociability served as a means to comfort bourgeoisie concerns so that applying the force of vagrancy laws and the like “produced the semblance of public safety by targeting transient migrants as pathological dangers and criminalizing their public associations,” notes the author.

Why are these interactions so important?  Society’s reaction to migrant labor demonstrates the unacknowledged complexity of life on Canada and America’s western borderlands. As Shah asserts, masculinity was anything but fixed.  There existed no one standard.  Thus, men interacted in “plural contingent and situational ways,” notes the author.  Considering the diversity of ethnicities and cultures present in the North American West and the myriad ways each defined masculinity, it should come as no surprise that their existed a world of “plural masculinities” to be negotiated.  Since migrants found themselves interacting in public spaces like train stations, saloons, alleys, and elsewhere the public visibility of migrant interactions “challenged the exclusivity of normative male subjects,” thus revealing the “plurality of racial, class and socially marginalized masculinities that traversed daily life.” (54)

Even if one views transient labor as marginal to dominant culture, the treatment of migrant laborers reveals how “normative society defines itself,” writes Shah. (266)  Stranger intimacy or “strangerhood” suggests new democratic possibilities that have been suppressed by the emphasis on the heterosexual family as the only source of intimacy. To put it more simply, though the state tried to impose social stability through a normative form of intimacy, marriage, the arrival of more than 30,000 South Asian, largely male migrants, and tens of thousands of others disrupted the government’s hopes and expectations. In pre-WWII Western North America, their existed a multitude of sociality and domesticity that struggled to express itself in the face of increased state intervention.  Understanding that mass migration does not always make for stable traditional sexual and familial relations helps to thicken conceptions of transnational labor and movement. Despite encouraging movement and needing ever increasing numbers of laborers, the state chose to marginalize or criminalize such forms of intimacy, leaving readers to wonder how we might revisit the incredible scale of late twentieth century immigration.

Shah’s attention to the intersection of interracial marriage and same sex intimacies serves as one of the book’s most important contributions. Illicit sexual contact between men of South Asian, white, European, Chinese and Native American descent existed side by side with interracial marriages involving South Asian men and Mexican American or white women of the early twentieth century. In an era when gay marriage has become a new civil rights cause, legal decisions in the early twentieth century regarding sodomy often resulted in imprisonment for the “guilty parties.”  Judges and local authorities concocted new categories and sexual acts to determine just what constituted “sodomy, buggery, or ‘the crime against nature.’” (129)  Oral copulation and gross indecency emerged as two of several new “proscibed sex acts.”  Who was culpable, the level of consensuality, and the likliehood of what one might call sexual recidivism dominated the logic of rulings.  In language that sounds much like the campaign speeches of numerous GOP leaders, Shah points to the juridical underpinnings of what is today standard social conservatism: “Legal reasoning insistently affirmed the unnaturalness of sodomy and perversity and social damage of sexual relationships for pleasure not procreation.” (130) In this context, race and citizenship proved critical factors as non-white, foreign residents served as symbols of a deviant masculinity and foreignness, thus standing in contradistinction to  whiteness and native born citizenship. When South Asians and white men engaged in homosexual relations, the police and courts frequently viewed whites as victims of a something akin to sexual “oriental” inscrutability, protecting white masculinity in the process.  In other words, native born white men and boys could never willingly engage in such acts without coercion or duplicity.  Yet, as Shah details, often it would seem white grifters and conmen simply used accusations of this sexual deviance to justify or conceal their own attempts to rob South Asians of money and property.  Despite attempts by prosecutors and judges to establish a fixed border of sexuality, the agency of migrant men pushed back at attempts to “corral the boundaries of normative masculinity or contain the attributes of national identity.” (152)

In contrast, interracial marriages drew a different sort of attention. The paucity of South Asian women in the North American West meant many South Asian men elected to marry white and European immigrant, Mexican American, and in some instances African American women. Again, court documents reveal a juridical process that determined law based on race, ethnicity, and religious identity.  Repeatedly the importance of marriage served a legitimizing capacity: “The transmission of property, citizenship status, and immigrant entry was configured under the logic of marriage, respectable family formation, and the clear designation of heirs.” (154) Though Shah’s goal here is to reveal the process by which the government managed intimacy in ways that undergirded norms while interrogating deviant unions, the Southern California academic clearly demonstrates how property, capitalism, and sexuality frequently collided in the North American West. Marriage and courtship relations impacted labor and land contracts and inheritances. Accusations of sexual impropriety, domestic disputes, or overseas marriages threatened economic relationships.  The state attempted to determine which migrants proved disposable and those that deserved to stay. “Hindu marriages” and other forms of kinship, cohabitation, and intimacy came to be seen as deviant such that Christian monogamous marriage became the only acceptable “intimate union.”

As the courts developed a longer list of precedents and case law, fears over immigration in the 1920s and afterward spurred increasing attention to those seen as deviant, whether it be an interracial union or a landless male South Asian migrant. However, the importance of marriage once again surfaced.  Newspaper editors in Vancouver decried the Canadian state’s denial of family reunification for the local Sikh population arguing that as subjects of the British Empire, they deserved greater consideration.  Unlike Chinese “coolies” – whom many at the time argued were subservient, dependent unfit for democracy — Sikh me were strong, “pastoral and gallant”, thus deserving of “rescue from the dangers of “barrack life.” (211) To deny such men their families was to deny them their rights as not only citizens but “husbands and fathers.”

This hardening of the nation state meant that though fewer South Asian immigrants could migrate to American and Canadian shores, those that struggled with deportation found that their interracial marriages could save them: “[i]mmigrants facing deportation and their advocates emphasized that whatever antipathy to racial mixture the state wished to enforce it must recognize and protect the multi racial nuclear conjugal family that existed on the ground.” (256)

Certainly, one could point to parallels between the burgeoning Western economies of the pre-WWII West with those of America’s commercial agriculturalists, industrialists, and meat processing centers today.  Shah notes this congruency along with the incongruent historical narrative in which policymakers attributed the success of Canadian and American democratic pluralism to “a societal paradigm that sustained the rule of law, property rights, free expression, immigrant assimilation, diverse association, and family stability.” (4) Elites functionally erased the long history of marginalization, exclusion, and dispossession.

Really this is the point. Tropes about model minorities and the traditional domesticities ascribed to East and South Asian immigrants stand in opposition to the juridical and societal discourse that surrounded these populations in the first half of the twentieth century. Sexuality and marriage played key roles in the lives of South Asian and East Asian migrants.  Shah clearly traces the trajectory that led America to favor families and marriages in the immigration reforms established under the 1965 Immigration Reform Act (though it was not implemented until 1968).  While this act eliminated discrimination based on race, place of birth, sex and residence, it also implemented a new standard that introduced the family standard preference. In the end, in the early twentieth century and afterward, resources and protections were distributed in ways that privileged settlement for a select few, while ensuring that the transience of most migrants left them increasingly vulnerable. For a nation that has been starkly dependent on landless labor since emancipation, it raises real questions about the justice of American immigration law and the ways in which daily intimacies, race, and ethnicity intervene in determining who, where, and how we live.

Ryan Reft