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Bottles of Essential Oil



PHS medical officers and U.S. politicians perceived the Chinese and other arriving Asians as ‘alien' and unlikely to ever become American citizen-subjects, the American elite ignored the subjectivity and the agency of the Chinese ‘aliens’ 

How race plays a role in processes of migration

‘Race’ plays a significant role in processes of migration and I will discuss how immigration control regimes have often used medicine and science to justify the discrimination of migrants on the basis of their ‘race’. I use two prominent ethnographic examples to highlight this, where the first ethnography by Shah (2001) focuses on how medical inspection in America during the early 20th century differs between racial groups. Similarly Rodriguez’s (2006) ethnography on immigration in Argentina beginning in the 1870s explores how certain racial groups are deemed more appropriate and desirable migrants. The contrast between these two ethnographies will reveal how ‘race’ has been seen to characterise much of how immigration border control happens. 


‘Race’ has often been defined by social anthropologists as a social and cultural construct, where the study of racialisation then comes to be defined not as the study of ‘race' itself but the process by which it is made meaningful in any given context (Garner 2010, 19-32). Racialisation is evident in processes of migration, as certain groups become subject to often times harsher treatment, which is attributed to assumptions about specific ‘races’.


Shah’s (2001) ethnography highlights how medical inspection during immigration in America differs between racial groups. Medicine became a tool to justify racial discrimination revealing how racialisation is a key characteristic of migrant medical inspections. Shah signals this geographically comparing border control regimes at Ellis Island where ‘white’ migrant groups arrived and Angel Island where migrant groups from Asia arrived. Shah reveals how Chinese, Indian, Korean and Japanese groups experienced more intense medical examinations than ‘white’ migrant groups. Migrants at Angel Island experienced “military style examinations” (Shah 2001, 179), involving the inspection of the naked body for symptoms on the skin, inspection of organs (e.g. eyes) and the examination of the body beneath the skin, which involved stool tests to detect traces of internal parasites. Suspicion around Chinese, Indian, Korean and Japanese groups revolved around the assumption that all ‘Asian’ groups carried invisible diseases and parasites that may not be overtly visible. These groups therefore often became homogenised throughout the early 20th century as one ‘race’ that threatened the “unsuspecting white American” (Ibid).


Shah further attributes racial discrimination to assumptions about the lacking potential for integration where “PHS medical officers and U.S. politicians perceived the Chinese and other arriving Asians as ‘alien' and unlikely to ever become American citizen-subjects, the American elite ignored the subjectivity and the agency of the Chinese ‘aliens’" (Ibid, 182). In comparison, ‘white’ migrants at Ellis Island did not experience as harsh nor as intensive screenings and were much more readily absorbed into the labour market unlike the supposedly ‘unintegrateable’ Chinese ‘aliens’. Racial discrimination also extended beyond American borders to white labour leaders who would use the medical knowledge obtained through immigration checks to bar immigration for non-white immigrants. This resonates with a key point raised by Sargeant and Larchante (2011) who discuss how the increasing popularisation of the ‘cultural competency’ notion has created the biomedical essentialisation of ‘culture’ that conflates “culture, ‘race’ and ‘ethnicity’ (2011, 350). While Sargeant and Larchante examine this notion in relation to mental health initiatives, I believe this theory can be directly applied to the Angel Island medical inspections. This is because ‘race’ became essentialised in such a way that it legitimised health claims that would bar immigration through the conflation of health threats with assumptions about Asian ‘races'. 


Rodriguez (2006) raises a similar argument about the role ‘race’ plays in migration in Argentina and how medicine was used in the late 19th / early 20th century as a way to justify discrimination. Rodriguez argues that the Argentinian state was able to use medicine and science as agents in assisting a larger political agenda. The state was not covert about their initiations, and would use health policy to justify and determine the type of migrants they wanted, which - like Shah’s ethnography - revolved around ‘race’ and the desire for white migrants. Popular folk belief around the end of the 19th century held onto the idea that white immigration would aid Argentina’s vision of modernity as “whites would bring their superior character traits and then… build a civilisation” (Rodriguez 2006, 358). Immigration restrictions were very limited as a result and ended up drawing in many migrants from Italy, Spain and Eastern Europe described as “the worst effects of modernity” (Ibid, 359) instead of the white migrants they desired from England or Germany. 


Following the influx of the “wrong” kind of migrants, a hygienic program was introduced to try and control the undesirable, non-white migrants who “could infect the nation with disease, poor morals, and political instability” (Ibid, 159). In contrast to Angel Island however, immigration exclusion was ineffective and the state instead focused on a homogenising mission intended to erase traces of ‘foreignness’ following the surplus of migrants. Underlying this notion of ‘foreignness’ was the common-sense belief around the potential toxicity of migrants, which was a rhetoric legitimised by medical and scientific theories against non-white racial groups. Homogenisation is however highly contested today where the plurality of Argentina is covertly evident. 


Shah describes how “PHS medical inspectors positioned themselves as detached and objective”, and Rodriguez similarly with Argentinian physicians who were “seemingly secular and objective” (2006, 378), demonstrating how medicine appears to be a completely objective and neutral discipline. However, these texts have revealed how disciplines of medicine and science are actually riddled with subjectivity especially when it comes to differences in ‘race’. 


Shah and Rodriguez’s ethnographies have drawn on how both medicine and were used as fundamental tools to justify racial discrimination, support state intentions and determine who the ‘wrong’ kind of migrants were. In the case of Shah medicine went as far as becoming something used to associate health threats with ‘race’ to bar immigration, and for Rodriguez how medical rhetoric was used as justification for a homogenising mission to clean foreign ‘races’. Both ethnographys highlight how certain migrant groups became inferior on the basis of their ‘race’, which was justified through medicine.



Works Cited


Garner, S. 2010. Racialisation. In Racisms: An Introduction S. Garner(ed) , 19-32. SAGE Publications Ltd.


Rodriguez, J. (2006). Inoculating against Barbarism? State Medicine and Immigrant Policy in Turn-of-the-Century Argentina. Science in context, 19(3), pp.357-380.


Sargeant, C., & S. Larchante (2011). Transnational Migration and Global Health: The Production and Management of Risk, Illness, and Access to Care. Annual Review of Anthropology. 40: 345–361.


Shah, N. (2001). Contagious Divides: Epidemics and Race in San Fransisco’s Chinatown. Berkeley: University of California Press. Chapter 7 ‘Making medical borders at Angel Island’.

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