Sunday, December 27, 2009

on lies

"the Men of the Mark do not lie, and therefore they are not easily deceived" - Eomer, The Two Towers (44).

Over the past few days, I've been re-stepping through Tolkien's epic, inspired by my weathered but ever-fond memories of youthful journeys through its pages. Having just finished the first volume, I picked up The Two Towers tonight, to begin thumbing through its pages before slumber.

In doing so, I came across the comment made here by Eomer, and thought it an interesting one. Specifically, it seems to reflect a belief about Honesty - or Deception - that opposes what I often see as the default assumption.

There is a tendency, I think, for us to think that ears too accustomed to true tales will quickly assume the truth of falsehoods - that is, that hearing only the truth will make us more gullible, and susceptible to being misled.

But I rather like the point of view that Tolkien presents here: to him (or, at least, to Eomer), hearing truth doesn't dull one's ears to lies, but rather sharpens them to the scent of what is true. The innocent, in this case, are not gullible; rather, their very innocence preserves an innate and disarmingly natural propensity towards the true and lovely over the false and sham.

That my own ears might be filled with the truth, so that the darkness of lies might recede into unfamiliarity.

Friday, December 25, 2009

Avatar thoughts: 2nd pass, post-viewing

This morning, after a round of in-house (literally) family celebration, my sister, father, and I went to see Avatar.

As you may have gathered from my previous post, I had some serious reservations about the film's narrative arc.

To simplify a host of fairly irreducible ruminations is difficult; long story short, the film is problematic, but still quite a good film. I would say that most of my concerns were found to have reasonable warrant within the film: some of them aren't so bad, but some - one in particular - are still troubling.

Just a few of the thoughts that I was having while I watched the film, and in discussion afterwards [spoilers to follow]:

1) The film's casting directors acquitted themselves well in presenting often-marginalized faces & bodies.
-While much of the primary cast is Anglo, at the same time, the protagonist is disabled (paralyzed), which is the first time that I can recall, off-hand, a film which has a - the - lead character handicapped throughout the entire film. Big thumbs up to that.
-Non-Anglo characters were present throughout the background and foreground. In my previous post, I was concerned that, of all the primary cast human characters, only two were people of color. This is true; but both had substantive roles, and Michelle Rodriguez' fighter pilot actually had my favorite character arc. There were also several minority faces throughout the background, weakening any charges that Dileep Rao and Rodriguez were token casting choices.
-Female characters were, similarly, represented well in both primary roles of intelligence, strength, and authority, as well as throughout the background.
-In short: Cameron's casting director(s) did a very good job of presenting a wide gender and ethnic spectrum, didn't shy away from presenting a handicapped protagonist, and managed to do so in a way that seemed to bypass typecasting boundaries (except poor Michelle Rodriguez, who just cannot shake the tough-girl image she's born since The Fast & The Furious).

2) I'm still unhappy with the story of Jake Sully's rise to prominence within the native tribe.
-He gets the girl, lives to see the future, rides the bad-shut-yo-mouth flying reptile-bird, and so on.
-Maybe this is more just my general concern with how Hollywood films treat their protagonists: with the universe-on-film revolving around them, every action, person, and event, whether past, present , or future. conveniently happening with them in the center of the action. If this is true, which it seems like it is, then I can't specifically cite this as a shortcoming of either Cameron or Avatar.

3) I'm more displeased than I thought I would be by the conclusiveness of the film's ending.
-The film concludes, seemingly, on a high note: the outsiders are banished from the edenic world of Pandora (an incredibly silly name for a developmentally high-priority planet, by the way: who in the universe would want to "open up Pandora"?), and the tribes, united, stand behind Jake Sully.
-First off, internally, this ending doesn't make much sense. If "unobtainium" (another incredibly silly placeholderish name) is actually so valuable ($20M/kg... although, with inflation in 2154, who knows how valuable that actually is?), then history - economics - and sociology all seem to point towards this not being a permanent victory, but rather an incredibly fleeting respite. But this is neither here nor there; it's more of a technical concern than critical commentary.
-Second, more importantly, this ending is a happy one. This is my major concern remaining after a first viewing:

-The film ends on a happy note: in a literal deus ex machina (or, more properly, ex natura), Eywa, the Gaia-figure of the film, unites the power of the planet (Earth! Wind! Fire! Water! Heart!) to save the indigenous peoples and herself from the plundering, pillaging earth-humans with their murderous technology. Even if the future is indeterminate, at least, for the moment, the victory has conclusively been won.
-This simply is not the way that things have always turned out: for most native peoples, facing encroaching empire or exploitative harvesting, there is no end to the story, and certainly no end that has turned out well. For the Australian aboriginal peoples, the North American first nations, and African native tribes, the story still continues. In some cases, progress has been made; for other peoples, however, the story is simply one of unvarying neglect, social marginalization, economic oppression, and widespread apathy towards their plight.
-This is why Cameron's Avatar is still, for me, so strongly redolent of White Guilt. To tell a story about native peoples is one thing; to mirror the true story of native peoples, as awkward, uncomfortable, or embarrassing as it may be, is quite another.

-I can understand that this film is a fantasy. But I hope that it is a fantasy that stirs us to action, rather than a fantasy that provides all-too-easy catharsis: after three hours in the movie theater, we leave feeling sympathetic toward native peoples, guilty about our own exploitative/imperialistic ways, but satisfied knowing that the Na'vi got their measure of justice - even while native and aboriginal people the world over have yet to see their reparations in kind.

But still, on this day, I celebrate with family and friends, rejoicing in - remembering - and hoping for - the presence of one among us who did not just come to save, but to suffer.
And, having suffered to the point of death, and having died, and having been given life again, he was not content that only he might have life, but did not see his work as complete until all poor, heavy-burdened, and unvalued people could come to share in that life. This is true.

Saturday, December 19, 2009

Avatar: James Cameron's colonial - racist - fantasy

This is an important one.

If you read no other entry that I ever write, please read this.


I'm sure that some - many - of you are used to me talking about racism by this point. You may have wondered:

Why is race such an issue for Jason? Does he see racism in everything?

Well, no. Not everything. But almost everything.

Can't he just get over it?

Maybe I could; but I won't.

I want to share how I see racism manifest in places that others don't; and why I am not willing to "get over it". Regardless of whether or not you agree with me: please hear me out.

What Are You Talking About, And Why?

What prompts this? Well, over the past couple days, I've been reading various commentaries [warning: both links have spoilers] on the current 20th Century Fox blockbuster, James Cameron's Avatar, and I thought that it might serve as an excellent example of how racial - racist - beliefs are interwoven into our daily lives, and exactly why I think it's so important to call them out when we see them.

Disclaimer: I haven't seen Avatar yet. I was, for a while, eagerly anticipating it, especially as I saw advance reviews - from reputable sources like Roger Ebert - excitedly calling it the best new sci-fi property in decades. But in the course of reading through various blogs and reviews, I grew increasingly uncomfortable with the film's themes, and sought out more information, hoping to be proved wrong, or at least have doubts allayed. This did not happen.

Just what are these troubling themes? Well, let's take a quick look at the narrative arc: it doesn't ruin the story to say that the film is about a race of peace- and nature-loving alien natives, who come under attack from menacing, technologically-advanced humans wanting to plunder their world. But, just as all seems lost, salvation for the natives comes from the most unlikely quarter: a human soldier who switches sides because, get this, he realizes how awesome the natives are. [Slight spoiler:] He woos their princess, out-competes their best warrior - her fiance - and takes headship of their tribes to lead them in battle against the evil imperialistic humans.

This lone hero, savior of the colored (literally) folk, is, of course, a Caucasian, Anglo-Saxon man.

In fact, all the primary Human roles are cast White, except for Latina Michelle Rodriguez, typecast as a scrappy soldier, and a single Indian-American, Dileep Rao, cast as - shocker - a scientist. The primary speaking Na'vi roles, on the other hand - the native people - are all filled by people of color, including Black, African, and Cherokee actors.

I've Heard This Story Before...

Avatar's story is, at heart, familiar. From the innocuous (Superman) to the insidious (The White Man's Burden), this metanarrative underlies much of Western thought: a community's salvation coming in the personal form of an outsider savior. Nothing is wrong with this version of the story and, in fact, it can be argued that it is derived from the Christian story, a narrative I cherish with great regard [1]. But what happens to the concept of a savior-from-outside when we write ourselves into the role of the savior? This is the root of Colonialist thought: when we begin to see ourselves as that outsider-savior figure, and see native peoples as fundamentally noble but backwards. These good-hearted but incapable (whether technologically, morally, socially, etc.) natives need someone else to map out their progress, and we do so by setting them on the path of integration into Us-ness.

This is the Colonialist story: they advance if we force ourselves on them. The twisted logic echoes the rationalizations of the overbearing boss, the abusive spouse, and even serial rapists.

Hold on, though. What I'm describing doesn't quite match what Cameron plots out in Avatar, does it? In fact, he is writing precisely the opposite kind of story: in Avatar, the literal colonizers - humans toting Science, Technology, and magnificently-rendered spaceships - are the bad guys. How is it a colonialist narrative if the protagonist turns his back on the oppressive ways of mankind and leads the Na'vi natives to victory?

Re-read that last phrase: the protagonist (who is, we are reminded, Human just like us) becomes the salvation of the native peoples.

Here, the story's thrust becomes clear: Cameron's Na'vi natives may be an exotic and attractive people, but they are still ultimately incapable, doomed without the leadership and capability of the Human outsider. And this is precisely the colonialist narrative, advanced to its next logical step. These more sophisticated works acknowledge the overt shortcomings of forced cultural conversion. But, in such cases, the reassurance that "we did it to them for their own good" is instead replaced by the more subtle triumph of seeing a character that we know is supposed to be dominant - a White, Male figure - rising to his natural place of leadership. As these stories draw near the end of their arcs, we can breathe a sigh of relief, knowing that the guy who was supposed to be the good guy, is; even if he or his people were the ones who caused the ruckus, in the end, he fixed it, atoning for his own transgressions in the process.

This is the story of white guilt, and it is a story told with increasing volume and insistence as the Eurocentric world has been brought face-to-face with the terrible legacy of the "Age of Exploration": genocide, pestilence (more), forced relocation, massive-scale theft, and more. Unable to deny the horrors inflicted by their forebears, the descendants of colonizers had to convince themselves that they could be the exception to the ancestral rule: as their fathers had destroyed lives and cultures, they would save and value them.

But What's So Wrong With That?

The problem with this is that, regardless of what the theme or internal plot rationale may be, in the end, the movie presents a White Man romancing the exotic princess and proving himself superior to the best warrior in her tribe. If we are White Men, this makes us feel good about ourselves; and if we are not, we either put ourselves in his shoes, or are forced to cast ourselves as a romantic object or inferior competitor.

In the end, Avatar still places "me" - if I understand myself to be Anglo, and Male - at the center of the story. And, in it, the oppressed native is valuable not because he is, but because I tell him that he is. If the sins of my ancestors have harmed others, whatever the damage, I am the one who has the power to set it right. Parallel arcs are traced out in a few sets of identical films: Fern Gully & The Jungle Book, where the White Male saves an exotic, magical Nature from his society's aggressive industrialization. Freedom Writers, The Blind Side, Radio, and Hardball - among many others - where an experienced, open-hearted, caring White authority figure mentors a minority kid or kids to success [2] . Films like Australia, Dances with Wolves, The Last Samurai, and The Last of the Mohicans, that all share two aspects: a White Male protagonist, and a dying, endangered culture whose future depends on him [3].

Of course, in our media, there are many stories of a person or culture in need, and not all can be traced to White Guilt. Films like The Patriot, Gladiator, Dirty Dancing, and Braveheart all share key aspects with the films listed above: a community in need, and a man who rises to the occasion. But notice two things about them: while heroes arise from within those cultures, the communities being portrayed in these films and others like them are exclusively Eurocentric, Western communities. Apparently, when the culture being portrayed is White, a cultural insider serves as a satisfactory hero. But, when the culture is not White - and instead Urban, Aboriginal, Native, or Japanese - then an outsider is needed to step in as savior. A White outsider.

At this point, I can well imagine someone saying: you're talking about the media, and the media is simply in the business of providing what sells. Since most people in the country are White, it is profitable to provide protagonists to whom a White consumer base can relate [4] . It's not about actively being a racist, but simply good business.

This objection is wrong. Is it not about race? Then name me a single film where the opposite happens, where a non-White character assimilates into a clearly White society and winds up in a position of power or leadership.

I can't think of a single one * **.

So, then, apparently the interests of the White consumer demographic are so strong that they completely drown out the interests of consumers of color. This is a problem for two reasons: first, if it were to be true, it is a textbook case of tyranny of the majority, where the dominant group exercises such complete power that the interests and even well-being of the minority are completely disregarded. Second, it suggests that the media believes that White audiences are incapable of doing exactly what they demand of their minority audiences: to relate to a protagonist who is not like them.

This may be good business; but it is immoral, unethical, and dangerous. It is not racist to the level of a hate crime or muttered slur, but negative public perception nurtures bias, and bias leads, in its own inexorable way, to violence.

In the end, for whatever reason, the message being communicated is that a White person - usually a man - will be a hero, regardless of whether he finds himself in his own culture or outside it. But rarely a woman; and never a person of color.

You're Thinking Too Much.

"Come on, Jason. They're aliens, not minorities. Why can't you just watch it for what it is: fun, entertaining, light action?"

Online humor site Something Awful has an article (note: about halfway through, it gets silly. But I points 1-9 are suitably insightful) pointing out how obviously Cameron cribbed bits and pieces of native peoples for the "invented" Na'vi culture, from their "primitive" weapons to piercings, tattoos, and more. And the phonetic proximity of the two terms (Na'vi + "ti" = native) makes for either an odd coincidence, or a clever - and damning - subliminal. And if it weren't already clear enough, Cameron himself has repeatedly drawn explicit connections between Avatar and White cultural fantasies like Dances with Wolves. He obviously wants desperately to be an auteur, producing work read as political, social, and ethnic commentary.

And, you know what, it's almost worse if this narrative has come about unintentionally. If Cameron set out to simply make the freshest, most interesting, most entertaining work that he could, and the themes of White Guilt just happened to manifest themselves in that work, this is immense justification for the post-colonialist critic. Such a scenario signals that the co-opting of other cultures has gone so far that it has ingrained itself into the grand narrative of Western culture, deeply enough that even the production of a new mythos (and there is reason to believe that Cameron hopes for an extended universe) has the fingerprints of eurocentrism and White Guilt all over it.

In Closing,

Avatar is a problem. It seems like a great piece of entertainment: eye-popping special effects (or at least, so my sister and Roger Ebert both claim), a fun ride, the event movie of the season. But, at the same time, to buy into Avatar is to perpetuate a harmful, oppressive story that silences many in favor of further empowering those who already hold power. White Men bed the alien princesses, and defeat colored alien warriors related to her (how novel), while anyone who is not a White Man... doesn't do anything, really, unless it's pertinent to the actions and viewpoint of the White Man.

And make no mistake: 20th Century Fox, James Cameron, and many others have a vested interest in our literally buying into the film. With a release not more than a week ago, the film (with a shooting & promotional budget of over 500 million $USD, the most expensive in Fox's history) has already been used to sell video games, a toy line, apparel, cross-promotional schemes, novels, and a budding franchise.

[Please comment, discuss, and share as appropriate. I am actively interested in feedback & critique.]

[1] Even if the Christian story is the original source of this trend, it has not itself been immune to whitewashing, with a White (if tanned) Jesus saving the colored Jews from their ignorance. The most recent and aggressively popularized portrayals of Jesus - Mel Gibson's Passion of the Christ and The Jesus Film - have seen the role of Jesus go to a Slovak-Irish American and Oxford-educated Englishman, not to mention the proliferation of decidedly Anglo, non-Semitic images of Christ. Such depictions raise few eyebrows, while portrayals of Christ as a colored man - usually Black - are still highly controversial in many Christian circles, despite African cultures and races being no more (and even perhaps less) distinct from early 1st-centruy Middle Eastern societies than European analogues.

I also feel compelled, as a Christian, to mention that Jesus, in utter contrast to the narrative of cultural subversion, became (a) an insider in order to (b) redeem culture, rather than removing a fetishized culture from its context as an outsider.

[2] In this genre, there have been a few films - Akeelah and the Bee and Stand and Deliver come come to mind - that provide hope, where mentors are cast with actors of color (Laurence Fishburne and Edward James Olmos, respectively). Still problematic is the proliferation of White women in this setting; initially, it may seem to be giving prominence to a female, but ultimately it winds up simply furthering another common Western trope, that of the nurturing, caring, emotional woman in opposition to the strong, aggressive, physical man.

[3] In all of these works, I notice a strong emphasis on the uniformly White outsider protagonist being termed the Last or the Best. This hints at a quasi-Hegelian progression, where a raw and basic culture (Native tribes, Samurai ways, Nature itself) gives birth to an advanced, more-evolved organism: the White man.

[4] This is, by the way, not a justifiable argument. Increasing amounts of data are available that may indicate (has this work been done?) that upper-class White consumers, while having more disposable income, actually spend less of their available leisure resources on purchasing entertainment than other demographics.

* I have thought of one: Prince Caspian, by C.S. Lewis. Take that for what you will.
**After Dallas kindly reposted this piece on his site, commenter 6 100 pointed out that Blade may stand in opposition to this trend - I think he's right, and Blade is actually, the more I think about it, a pretty great film in terms of racial statements.

Monday, November 16, 2009

An honest inquiry

In short: why do so many people who say that we shouldn't force people to "do good", say we should punish people who "do bad"?

Some musings, hastily thrown together, on a subject that I've been wondering about since the summer, provoked largely by my readings on educational and income disparity. The following is neither exhaustive nor particularly cogent, and is barely logically coherent; it is not intended to be any of the above, but rather merely to verbalize musings, provoke thought, and request further input:

One of the more convincing arguments against positive social welfare policies* that I have been presented, is that the enactment of such policies equates, essentially, to the litigation of morality: making good action compulsory for a society - as a whole and, by extension, as individuals - removes the potential for individual moral action. The argument presumes that it is valuable, if not inherently necessary, to allow individuals room for real moral choice; take, for instance, the case of welfare**.

In such a case, I've heard it argued, the government should not act to provide for unemployed or unemployable individuals, because it should lie on the conscience of every moral actor within the state to do so. For the government to dictate that state funds should be used for the provision of aid to such persons is suboptimal, because, in such a case, the government is now overstepping its bounds: instead of providing its people with a stable framework within which to make ethical decisions, the state is now making those decisions on behalf of the people. Essentially, the argument seems to run, legislating morality reduces the ability of people to make moral choices.

OK, I can ride with that, at least to a certain degree.

My question arises from the fact that, as far as I can tell, there exists a sizable population of those who would use an argument similar to that presented above to argue against positive social welfare policies, but, when confronted with a negative social welfare policy***, seem to believe that thusly legislating morality is unproblematic. For example, I believe (with little evidence beyond the personally anecdotal) that there are many people for whom generous welfare policies are repellent because they compel agents into action without moral choice, who, at the same time, oppose gay marriage, precisely because it is morally wrong.

This seems contradictory to me.

Is it? Is there some fundamental difference between positive legislation of morality and negative legislation? Perhaps gay marriage - or strict gun control, the death penalty, harsh enforcement of Reagan-era drug laws, etc. - presents a threat to the very structure of the rule of law in a way that large numbers of unsupported, unemployed citizens (or, to touch on a hornet's nest: "illegal immigrants") do not; and, as such, should be legislated against in a distinct way, being that one of the necessary components for a stable state be a code of law that supports its own enforcement, rather than being self-undermining. In such a case, I would grudgingly agree that, while suboptimal, the necessity of such negative moral legislation is manifest.

But I don't see this argument for negative moral legislation obtaining, at least not in a way that is clearly distinguished from the argument for the necessity of positive moral legislation.

To sum up: There are people who say that certain aid policies (welfare, Affirmative Action, etc.) are wrong, as giving people support decreases the need for individual agents to take morally praiseworthy action. Of those people, however, many argue that morally proscriptive policies (anti-abortion, outlawing gay marriage, etc.) are necessary. This seems contradictory.

I'm sure that I have friends & readers who have put in thought, and have well-considered insight on this particular issue. Please, your thoughts?

*i.e., those policies that actively work to provide recompense for the unduly disadvantaged, rather than to eliminate the conditions which lead to social inequality (in broad terms: think affirmative action, as opposed to abolishing slavery).

**Note: this is not the only, or even the best, argument against welfare. My intent isn't to pronounce a stance on Welfare-in-concept or the current welfare system, simply to outline a single stance I have seen articulated.

***"Negative," in this case not meaning "bad", but meaning "preventative", as opposed to "positive" meaning "constructive"

Wednesday, August 12, 2009

Personal reflections on Chinese America

A request from a friend taking a summer Ethnic Studies course at school served as the excuse to finally get some thoughts down that I've been hoping to commit to paper ("paper") for a while, now.

Thoughts are scattered, quite randomly arranged, and topics range wildly about. Many thoughts are unsupported, at best, and citations are nonexistent. This is more to have this on record and for those who care to get a stronger sense of my background and current stance on certain issues.

Reading over my thoughts - or, properly speaking, even as I typed them out in more or less stream-of-consciousness flow - I worry that I am myopic. My image of Asian America is gilded and almost universally positive: at least, my first responses to Chinese-American culture is always to assume that the minority has been victimized, is guilt-free, and has taken at most a passive part in the lead-up to the current state of affairs. I acknowledge freely, I think, that Chinese immigrants have been complicit in their own sufferings: but I do not first jump to the domestic abuse epidemic rampant in our communities (and countries of origin).

I tend to lionize the underprivileged and vilify the dominant. This is not wrong, but it is not right: worst of all, it is not true. The causes of current circumstances are manifold, and to simplify it down to Western imperialism (cultural, political, economic, and military) is to discredit my own claims. I worry about this, in the long run: I will have to become far more balanced and willing to critique China, Chinese America, and the Asian milieu if I am to be a credible and caring commentator.

I also have large holes in my discussions of gender. I make assumptions about female roles, rights, responsibilities, and representations (3 cheers for that alliterative streak) that are founded entirely on my male understanding of the female experience and role in society. This is dangerous, and I apologize if I wrongly offend. It's on my list of things to work on.

That said, the text of my response is presented below (cleaned up & edited in brief, most portions of the original text/questions remain):

1. experiences:
a. family traditions/customs/holidays
b. experiencing racism
c. basically, how was it like growing up chinese american?

(attempting to answer the breadth of a-c in one long breath:)

Basically, when I was young, being Chinese-American (which is, I might note, a different term than "American Chinese" or "American of Chinese descent") wasn't something that I thought about at all. There are a few factors that contributed to this: my parents were second- (or greater) generation, already, being born in Southeast Asia to families that had previously immigrated from China, so I was at least two degrees separated, on both sides, from direct ties to Chinese culture and heritage. I knew, on a fairly abstract level, that there was something tying my past to "China" - but that word, "China", referenced an empty concept, for me. Apart from Geography Bee-level details - the Yellow River, the Yangtze, Shanghai, Beijing, Hong Kong, etc. - I had no knowledge of China, and definitely no personal connection. The only glimpses of Chinese Culture that I received were in our shamefully irregular visits to my Nai nai/奶奶 (father's mother), who lives outside Washington, DC with her second husband (now deceased). There, I got my most transparent hints of the rich culture underlying our family's roots: conversations carried out in incomprehensible tongues; homecooked Chinese food utterly unlike my mother's Western cooking or greasy "Chinese" takeout; red envelopes of New Year money (that were, I realized much later, not months late, but simply operating according to a different calendar), watercolors of tumbling Chinese mountains, etc.

In short: our family traditions, customs, and holidays were as utterly middle-class, suburban American as one can get: dressing up for Easter Sunday, stockings on the mantle & gifts under the Christmas tree, ice cream cakes at birthday parties.

Which is why, I think, for me, racism was always a little bit of a surprise. After all, the far greater part of my upbringing was indistinguishable from your average American Dream: in the middle of the upper-middle-class, attending a Protestant church and Sunday School every weekend, straight-A report card, etc. But a few incidents stick out, in particular:

  • While growing ever-more-increasingly Westernized, my parents, throughout my youth, continued to frequent the local Asian Groceries (albeit more and more infrequently). One of the snacks they would occasionally purchase there - and which I found not so much tasty as intriguing - was made of this sort of cheeto-like material; except, instead of being coated in "cheese" and "cheese" flavoring, it tasted like shrimp. One time, during a kindergarden lunch, I made the mistake of bringing - or my mom made the mistake of packing, in the best of intentions? - a bag of them to school. The White girl with whom I usually traded sandwiches and snack foods turned up her nose at them, declaring them - I'm paraphrasing - "smelly" or "yucky". I must have been 5 or 6; that was, I believe, the first time I had ever been told that something which I considered normal - banal, even - might be Different.
  • Towards the end of my attendance of that Christian school (I realize, only at this moment, that the reason my parents probably entrusted me to them was that both my mother and father grew up going to Christian schools in Southeast Asia; and they were likely sending me to this school in hopes of my attaining the same education with which they had been bestowed), I recall that I came home one day and casually, after dinner, reading some book about geography or cultures or something of that nature, pulled my already asiatic eyes up into an exaggerated slant, telling my mom: "look. Chinese!" I can still remember her horrified response, the shock with which she realized that this so-called Christian education (I don't blame the church, of course; I do blame the ignorance and idiocy of young children, coupled with the race-blind/PC-disavowing/culturally underinformed nature of many well-intentioned evangelical communities) was actually driving a wedge between her son and her own background (I recently discovered that she had actually been planning, prior to the time she became pregnant with me, to go into law to help out asian-american and immigration issues). Shortly thereafter, for a host of reasons, my parents pulled me out of that school.
  • Something that's often echoed by various generations and varieties of Asian-Americans is the sentiment of being a "perpetual foreigner": a Japanese-American senator, whose family has been in this country for over 80 years, once remarked that he still continually receives compliments for speaking English "so fluently". As a youth, I too had these jarring encounters: trivial at the time, I brushed them off casually, dismissing them as isolated incidents of ignorance or misinformation. Of course, the fact remains, at 23, and with a far broader range of experiences in the intervening years, I can still remember, vividly, the repeated confusion of being asked by young White children, "So, where are you from?" and the frustration of having to, repeatedly, explain that I was from Illinois - or California - or Delaware. I knew who I was, and where I was from; so why couldn't these other kids? A dilemma emerged: either they were simply stupid and couldn't see the blatantly obvious (which seemed unlikely, given that my American-ness seemed to me overt), or the premises on which I had established my identity, with my internal concept of The Normal American Childhood derived from my own experience, were faulty.

2 & 3. as a chinese american, how do you identify yourself? what does being "chinese american" mean to you

Given the circumstances of my upbringing, and my parents' immigration, I think it wouldn't come as much of a surprise to hear that my view of myself, in my younger years, was basically that line about "diversity" that we were fed back in the day: "We want to be color-blind." I bought into the construal of Ethnicity that said the best way to accept everyone was to "just look at people as people, not as their skin color." So I applied this happily homogenizing view to myself, and those around me, and assumed that our points of view, personal experiences, and inculcated values more or less lined up. The emphasis in those days was definitely more on "American" than on "Chinese".

In recent years, I've been coming to hold a more subtle approach towards regarding my ethnic heritage: without running out the clock (because I definitely could), the basic outline of my thoughts go as such:
  • The term "Asian-American" is in itself dangerous, because it is an umbrella term for vastly disparate groups: in the same way that pitting inner-city Boston Irish youth with jailed parents against as Upper East Side, trust fund, private school kids is unfair in terms of social neediness, so is judging the children of Hmong, Vietnamese, Cambodian, and Filipino refugees against the kids of Chinese, Japanese, and South Korean businessmen, professors, etc. Not to mention that thinking that every Chinese immigrant is privileged, well-educated, and well-behaved - the "Model Minority" myth - is itself damaging in many ways to Chinese-American communities, for a whole variety of deep-seated reasons.
  • For those of us who identify as "American of Chinese Heritage," there is a fine balance to be struck between that "American" and "...of Chinese Heritage". It's foolish to think that I am Chinese: in China, I might be allowed to call myself a "hua ren" (华人) that is, one of the Han Chinese, but I am not a "zhongguo ren" (中国人) that is, a Chinese person. Culturally, in terms of my fundamental assumptions about the world, I am a product of the West. It's important to point out that I don't harbor unnaturally Sinocentric political sympathies, and I'm not going to be a threat to peace in the American homeland or abroad (well, I oppose American hegemony - but that's for entirely different reasons): it's important to remind myself, and others, of this, because the reality is that many still fall into the mindset of Executive Order 9066 and "Yellow Peril", where any Asiatic face is viewed as a potential defector to the long-left-behind "Motherland." Of course returning to China - or heck, even Asia - gives me a warm feeling. But I have White friends who acquire the same sense of Homecoming upon their return to England, France, or Poland; and there is no forbidding sense of fraternizing with the enemy that lies upon their journeys.
  • One interesting thing that I have realized is that "Asian America" exists: even as I decry the use of the term, the fact is, whether for right or wrong (I would say more wrong than right), we are seen as a monolithic group. But that makes certain connections possible in the American "melting pot" that otherwise may never occur: a Chinese person in China may never deign to bridge the gap and initiate a friendship with a Japanese individual. But my relationships with my Japanese and Japanese-American friends - heck, even your own parentage, right? - demonstrate that "Asian America" can serve as something of its own melting pot; even if we remain, perhaps, to the side of the rest of the "melting pot" (whether cultural, genetic, or otherwise), at least Asian America has served, it seems, to bridge divides that may not have happened in our mother countries.
There are other thoughts, but these are the ones that first come to mind.

4. how do you think "chinese american" is being represented? by AA? by the public? How accurate are these portrayals?

I think that the public image of Chinese-Americans is problematic, with the blame being distributed all around (though perhaps not equally): Chinese-Americans are at fault for playing into the role of a "Model Minority", passively or actively unwilling to speak out against a dominant and domineering culture, choosing to succeed by means of intellect or behind-the-scenes work instead of through protest and resistence (to generalize largely). Of course, Chinese immigrants' approach to a hostile culture is not to blame: given particular cultural values held by Chinese-Americans, this was the natural, moral, course. And the White media and government is at fault: anti-miscegenation laws, portrayals of the threat of "China Rising," anti-Japanese WWII propaganda (but no propaganda supporting our allies, no pro-Chinese or pro-Korean messages to counteract the inevitable conflation of our three sister cultures), E.O. 9066, all these were designed to Otherize and tokenize Asian peoples, to aggrandize the panic of American businessmen and laborers concerned with increasing competition from across the Pacific. The inherited reminders of these shackles - whether in popular culture or governmental representation - is still evident.

When talking about public, popular, media images of Chinese-Americans, three concepts spring to mind: Kung Fu Master, Exotic Asian Beauty, and Smart Chinaman.
  • These portrayals are all highly damaging. Exoticism has been dealt with in a lot of gender/ethnic studies literature, but, in brief: to describe someone as "exotic" is to claim that they are attractive because they are not-me: they are the Other. Exotification is objectification and tokenization taken, in many ways, to its height: a person no longer represents a valued individual Self, but instead an alien, unrecognizable, unable-to-be-sympathized-with culture.
  • Media obsession with Exotic Asian Beauties is particularly disturbing given that much contact between Americans and Asian women was in the form of soldiers interacting with wartime prostitutes during the Korean and Vietnam wars. The stereotypes of the Shy Asian Girl and the Seductive Asian Woman (the "Dragon Lady") conflate into a figure that is deserving of both moral scorn and sexual depredation. This is, of course, a faulty stereotype: it is an incredibly transparent attempt to remove en masse the femininity and womanhood of Asian females, in the same way that Black women were degraded by simultaneously being sexualized and defeminized by becoming the unacknowledged mistresses of slave-owners.
  • Of course, one subtype of the Exotic Asian Beauty, that deserves particular mention, is the Madame Butterfly: caught up in the wiles and victimized by her brutal countrymen, this woman must be saved by the noble White hero. This stereotype is particularly notable because it implies that the Asians can't be trusted with taking care of their own: whether the next generation, the land, the businesses, the government, or the military, the natives need to be rescued by the strong white Savior. While it's true that Asian - and, yes, particularly Chinese culture - has been incredibly behind in terms of gender parity, and while I am by no means an anti-miscegenist, I do worry about the more or less pervasive idea that an Asian woman's dream is to escape the bonds of her culture and fly away to Western civilization and, apparently, cultural enlightenment.
  • The Kung Fu Master is, in its own way, a dangerous stereotype. On one hand, it is fairly empowering and masculinizing. The downside of it is that any Chinese-American who shows strength will be associated with the Kung Fu Master. A strong Black man is not automatically compared to Mohammad Ali: but strong Chinese (or even broadly Asian) men will almost inevitably be compared to Bruce Lee. Again, this stereotype - while not necessarily negative - strips the target of his or her individuality, and places them within a narrowly defined role with little room for expansion beyond.
  • And the Smart Chinaman is the very type of the Model Minority myth: the backhanded insult, the barbed compliment. It can be simultaneously dismissive of individual accomplishment - "Of course you did well on the math test, you asian" - and concealment for more subtle racism - "OK, so maybe Chinese-Americans have some problems, but you guys are doing so well! Look at your college acceptance rates! How can you complain about a couple of movie roles and some jokes on the radio and TV?"

Friday, August 7, 2009

Reflection on Mulan (pun intended)

I don't remember much about the summer that Mulan, Disney's 36th animated feature film, was released to theaters. Wikipedia (the most accurate source of information in the world, and my go-to facts checker) indicates that it must have been the summer of 1998, when I was 12 years old.

I remember that my family - dad, sister, me, and perhaps my mother - went to watch the film together in a small cineplex, during a summer vacation spent in Orlando, Florida, one of a small handful of favorite family destinations (along with Williamsburg, VA and the Poconos). Emerging from our dark A/C-cooled haven 87 minutes (plus previews) later, I charged out energetic and hyper - not an uncommon state for the 12-year-old me - and, naturally, my 9-year-old sister found that energy infectious.

That my younger self left a Disney movie with an excess of high spirits was little surprise, and I can't recall ever since sparing a second thought in analyzing that response. However, in light of my recent reflections on portrayals of Asian-Americans in popular media, plus a spate of personally-mandated viewings of selected minority filmmakers' works, I decided to take Mulan for a second spin, possibly (if memory serves) my first full viewing since that humid Florida midafternoon.

Watching the film, I'm struck by an uncanny déjà vu, as were I communing with my 12-year-old self. Of course, I'm quite the sophisticate now: at the time, I knew virtually nothing about China/中国 (now 2 summers' experience and frequent return trips), could speak no words of Mandarin/普通话 (8 semesters' study), had never studied kungfu/功夫 (6 years). But there is still something of the chubby, bookish 12-year-old Chinese-American boy in me that watches this film and marvels at it.

At the time, I had no lexicon with which to articulate my experience of the film, and so I relegated it to the same continuum as all other pop culture phenomena with which I had sated my indiscriminate whims: located at a point, indistinct, between my parents' collection of early-80s TIME/LIFE magazines (low interest, high availability) and my budding STAR WARS/Tolkien fanboyism (high interest, low pre-Internet re-release/film adaptation availability). I had no experience within which to locate the film's effect on me, simply because it was, at the time, pioneering for me: apart from the occasional visit from relatives, or yearly Christmas visits to the grandparents' in DC, my parents, sister, and I were the extent of Chinese America to me. Apart from a single hardcover volume describing contemporary (1995!) life in China (well-worn out of interest, with a rough red fabric cover under the dust jacket), for all I knew, we were the extent of Chinese.

Now, flicking through the half-familiar, hazily-remembered scenes of the film, I'm amazed by it on so many more levels*: the colors redolent of the Chinese countryside (glimpsed in my sojourns to 西安, 河北, 广东, and the like); a character sighing with the distinctly Eastern "Ai! /哎!" phoneme instead of the Western "Oh! / 哦"; the food portrayed - rice porridge (粥), Chinese noodles (面), still staples of Chinese food/中菜. And, most of all, the distinct, plastic framework of the Disney Fairytale (as opposed to a Fairy-story) fleshed out with Chinese faces and Asian voices: the Handsome Prince, instead of a wavy-locked blondie with light eyes, an almond-eyed, black-haired "Captain Shang"; the Model Father cast in a model not entirely unresembling my own paternal figure (albeit a far more svelte and, perhaps, picturesque figure).

I can only imagine the twofold impact on the psyche of young Asian-American girls: the dual revelation that a woman could be both Asian and, without renouncing her culture, a Disney Princess (the latter being, admittedly, a dubious and debatable distinction among gender critiques); and that her handsome prince could be an Asian male (yes, I know this statement can be problematized; humor me).

I am not now who I was then; but still, tonight's viewing of Mulan has reaffirmed for me - and this time, in a primarily affective manner - the importance of strongly positive portrayals of Asian-Americans (and, in general, minorities) in popular culture and the media. Eleven years after my first viewing of Mulan, watching this film still causes emotions to stir: the sight of Real Characters - not background characters, not secondary characters, not 2-dimensional jump-kicking, med-school-graduating, lab-coat-wearing ciphers - that look like my family and me? Astounding!

And how can it be that, in the intervening years, I have still not seen anything so well-produced, well-promoted, and ethnically true to itself (with little-to-no yellowface!)? If even Disney could get it right in the late 90s, how is it that another similar production has yet to surface? When the day comes - God help us - when I have a young daughter, or son, to what will I turn for aid when teaching my child to be proud and grateful for her, or his, features, family, and culture**?

*not least of which is that several members of the cast are related to one another through the network of the highly respected East West Players, the seminal Asian-American theater ensemble.
**I am aware of, and incredibly grateful for, the Ni Hao, Kai-Lan (你好,凯兰) series currently airing on Nickelodeon, a Chinese-American version of the similarly bicultural Dora the Explorer. I saw its content briefly at a friend's house, and was astounded at the extent of the multiethnic programming now available to her daughter, which I could neither have imagined nor hoped for as a youngster.

Tuesday, August 4, 2009

Regarding Judaism and Israel

A quick thought, prompted by an exchange with a college friend, following an earlier (if not the earliest) post on hyphenated-Americans, along with beginning to watch (a process that will likely take a substantial amount of time) Spielburg's modern classic Schindler's List:

Whenever discourse includes a discussion of the Jewish people, it is vital that we separate the Jewish people and the modern nation of Israel. It is perilously easy to conflate (a) disagreement with the actions of the Jewish state in the geopolitical landscape and (b) Anti-Semitism. This is a form of an ad hominem, but one which seems to be more insidiously prevalent.

That's how it seems to me, anyways. Am I wrong, and (a) reduces to (b)? I strongly don't think so, but am open to arguments in the positive.

Monday, August 3, 2009

The question; and a thought.

The Question

After a respectable (or thereabouts) deal of reading and thought (particularly reflecting on Frank Chin's repeated critiques of Maxine Hong Kingston), this is the question that presents itself:

How to be American without being White? How to be "of Chinese descent" without slipping into reactionist sinocentrism?

Of course the cultural inheritance of The West isn't to be lightly discarded or vilified, nor is the East (or even the immigrant experience) to be mindlessly embraced and valued. The answers' typeface is far from black-and-white. But among shades of grey (not shades of greige), where does one alight?

(Hint: God is the answer. [No, this is not just a flip answer; Yes, this is still a Christian, and not only ethnic theory, blog, appearances to the contrary])

The Thought
That said, another thought occurs to me at the moment (A few minutes ago, I jokingly told a friend that tonight was my Asian-American Film Studies night): while I have previously been a proponent of the narrative-as-description(e.g., NWA's Straight Outta Compton can be justified as a descriptive, not prescriptive, outline - "not a glorification, but a presentation"), I am increasingly understanding of the need to present balanced-but-idealized portrayals in the media, serving the function of a corrective to unbalanced and two-dimensional portraits of Americans of Asian/Pacific Islander descent.

I had a fairly strong and disconcerting response to viewing, Monday night, Justin Lin's modern Asian-American crime drama Better Luck Tomorrow: there is a scene in the film, in a backyard party, where the core group of four Asian-American protagonists (portrayed as and by a varied group of Asian-American males) confront a group of White antagonists. After a brief fistfight, instigated by implicitly racial (but only indirectly racist) comments, one of the Asian-American gang pulls a gun on the lead antagonist. The subsequent beating of the White varsity athlete - leaving him bruised and bloodied, but not permanently physically harmed - both signals the core group's increasingly rapid descent into crime and materialistic excess, and foreshadows the nadir of the film, where a similar beating takes place: this time, against a spoiled Korean-American private-school kid; and this time, to the death (based on an actual incident in early-90s Southern California).

What disturbed me about my response was that, in both cases, Lim took care to portray the Asian-American protagonists as complex, well-rounded characters: morally speaking, they were on neither the high nor low ground. In both cases, there were senses of moral indignation and vindication ("getting back" at the White bullies; retaliating against the rich prep school kid who treats his girl like dirt), and also a sense of excess and transgressed boundaries.

However carefully-laid-out the mores of the film, my responses were affectively discrepant with my moral construals of the situations, and I have little choice but to admit that the distinction was likely simply because of the race of the tragic protagonists: whereas I would unhesitatingly condemn the actions in abstract, the fact that violence originating from Asian-American sources, especially against a Caucasian figure, is contradictory to my construal of the stereotype of expected Model Minority behavior (albeit a malformed and, in fact, highly inaccurate stereotype) seemed to serve as justification for my emotional consent towards the action.

This is, I willingly and mournfully agree, evidence of a shamefully akrasic mental process, the ramifications of which I'm concerned, especially regarding my vocation as a minister, a profession part of the call to which is love for the Other above the Self, love for all facets of God-created diversity, and striving on behalf of reconciliation, healing, and understanding (Gal. 3:26-29, among others). However, it is not, I would guess, a drastically atypical response to such media depicting violence from an oppressed (or, more often, nowadays, suppressed) minority directed towards the dominant majority.

One thing that I always wondered, watching the incredible HBO series The Wire, a bastion of verisimilitude and narrative-as-depiction-of-reality, was how so many Black voices (not only, or even particularly often, academic Black voices, but definitely a predominance of street voices, as seen anywhere from to the Smoking Section) could willingly applaud explicitly villainous figures, or at least what seemed to me at the time to be: the drug lords (Marlo, Stringer, Avon), shooters (Snoop, Christ Partlow, etc.), and other Baltimore inner-city hood figures (the more complex morality of characters such as Omar Little, Bubbles, etc., is of course less cut-and-dry).

Of course, what I didn't understand at the time, on a subjective level (and am now only beginning to scratch the surface of, as I begin to analyze my personal response to depictions of violence by the oppressed), is that the characters are not usually being lauded for their actions: their actions are the signifiers of a larger motivation, that is, defying power and breaking stereotype. The problem is that reactive stereotypes - the clever, tactical, chess-piece-moving crime lord as a response to the dumb, happy, bumbling Sambo - are also a system of entrapment and limitation for minorities: we sketch out extremes, but fill in no grays, leaving room for the Huxtables and the Barksdales, but fewer and fewer Redd Foxxes in between [note: by "Redd Foxx," I meant, a sympathetically- and humanely-portrayed member of the honest lower class, i.e. in Sanford & Son. Not quite sure if this was too opaque a reference.].

So, another question: where do we locate the line between audience discernment and filmmaker's discretion? Certainly the filmmaker should feel at liberty to create Art: but, and this is a topic on which I've touched before (specifically, in my senior Philosophy thesis), what is the intersection between Morally Good Work and Good Art? In that previous work, I strongly advocated for the imposition of moral sanctions on a work of art (humor, in that case), due to both a priori and a posteriori factors that seem to fall in favor of morality being a determining factor for the quality of art.

But the question then becomes one of reasonable doubt, or burden of proof: does the filmmaker (or rapper, other musician, artist, etc.) presume an audience comprised of the Lowest Common (discerning) Denominator, and simply create art that is unabashedly moralizing? In such cases, films become preachy, and subtlety is specifized out of the equation.

But the alternative seems more and more distasteful: choices of presentation content and form are, implicitly, choices to condone audiences' viewing of particular material (for this reason, I recently started but could not finish both Bret Easton Ellis's American Psycho [novel] and Jody Hill's Observe and Report [film]). Previously, I held to a reasonably extremely high view of individual volition: I acknowledged the real occurrence of akrasic mind states, but did not pragmatically concern myself over them. More and more, I regret this: both personally, discovering the truth of the saying that "once seen, you cannot un-see" certain materials; and pragmatically, in terms of furthering social progress and harmony, realizing (as I did when watching Better Luck...) that portrayals of immoral or unconscionable behavior, even when within the framework of a largely critical work, have the potential to grasp the imagination in a much stronger net than I had previously wanted to believe.

Of course, the potential remains: I may merely be particularly weak-minded, an outsider. I am familiar with the major arguments: kids know the difference between DOOM and the halls of their High School, and killing a few hundred digital representations in GTA IV won't lead anyone to the slaughterhouse. In fact, proponents of the gaming industry argue, such artificial violence, far from promoting violence, actually helps those in whom rage and anger have built up to let off some steam, destressing and potentially averting a future tragedy.

Previously, I was highly sympathetic to such claims; in fact, I agreed (as do I still now, though with greater qualification) that freedom of speech was a paramount right. But, as recent developments in the video gaming world have shown, freedom of speech, as with any other freedom, can be abused, not for the sake of art, but for the sake of commerce: in such a case, use of freedom does, I increasingly believe, actually constitute abuse or exploitation of speech, leading to negative social repercussions and, ultimately, indirect disenfranchisement of or disconnection from the Other (whether Otherization occurs by race, gender, or simple emotional distance). That such depictions constitute a legal problem, as statutes currently stand, is highly unlikely, I assume; still, my concern is not with the present legality, but rather the present ethics of the situation and, based on an increasing understanding of the ethical landscape, future policy decisions.

Several other areas remain to be addressed. Among them: a persistent question, so far as I understand, in Asian-American Film Studies is the pragmatic response to limited roles for Asian-American actors: marginalized as "wimpy businessmen... or villains with balls", several Asian-American actors have chosen to play the "villains with balls" (Cary-Hiroyuki Tagawa, The Slanted Screen). It's difficult to blame them; but it's also easy to be troubled by this response, on both sides of the racial divide (Us and Other). The Mortal Kombat villain Shang Tsung is, while not emasculated, possessor of a twisted and villainous strength: it is easy to see in him the same archetype as a Stringer Bell or Avon Barksdale, wealthy, organized, manipulative boogeymen. The choice (and I pray it is a false dichotomy) presented to Asian-American actors seems to be marginalization or villainization: is it a wonder that many chose to be villainized?

And of course, one doesn't have to look far to see why an Asian-American presence was Othered and, subsequently, villainized: the widely-documented phenomenon of Yellow Peril was a racial agenda explicitly furthered by the spread of anti-miscegenation laws in direct response to (among other factors) a fear of competition by the Other.

As a friend commented on one of my several earlier posts, the point is not to find a scapegoat: White American dominance, Asian American complicity, and industry/industrial greed have definitely all played key roles in bringing the place of Asian-Americans in the media to their contemporary position. The point is, however, to find the roots of a pernicious construal of an entire section of American society, to see how it insinuated itself into wider American culture, and to find a healthy, healing, reconciliatory means of mutual affirmation and support.

Wednesday, July 29, 2009

History lesson II: History lessons in paradise

"The cartoon was made during World War II, and reflects the United States' attitude towards one of its main enemies at the time, the Empire of Japan. In the cartoon, Bugs Bunny lands on an island in the Pacific and is pitted against a group of highly racially-stereotyped Japanese soldiers.

"Bugs shows no mercy against the Japanese soldiers, greeting them with several racial slurs such as "monkey face" and "slant eyes", making short work of a large sumo wrestler, and bombing most of the Japanese army using various explosives, including grenades hidden in ice cream bars. The cartoon's title is a play on the verb "nip" as in "bite" and "Nip", a then-widely used slur for Japanese people, based on the fact that the Japanese word for "Japan" is "Nippon." - Wikipedia: Bugs Bunny Nips the Nips. Original footage here.

One of The Censored Eleven.

More on Affirmative Action

Perusing the Wikipedia (there go any pretensions of scholarly rigor) article for Ward Connerly, I came across the following quote from Connerly, founder of the American Civil Rights Institute and, famously, anti-Affirmative-Action activist and campaigner:

"Because we have developed this notion of women and minorities being so disadvantaged and we have to help them... we have, in many cases, twisted the thing so that it's no longer a case of equal opportunity. It's a case of putting a fist on the scale."

Perhaps, Mr. Connerly. But when there is already the accumulation of generations and centuries of elite male privilege tipping down the other side of the educational scale, leaning a fist on this side is the least one might do in presenting a sporting chance.

The more I read, the more I realize the question of preextant advantage and Privilege lies near, if not at, the nexus of racial and gender activism: we all agree that the scales have been historically unbalanced in favor of a certain demographic. But what ramifications does this bias carry into the modern era? Depending on the answer to this question, continued attempts to rectify the mistakes of the past may either be an anachronistic oversight or an absolute prerequisite for continued progress in racial reconciliation.

-For added fun (think of this as the DVD extra), Connerly on the effects of the lack of an Affirmative Action policy (Sept. 2003): "I don't care whether they are segregated or not… kids need to be learning, and I place more value on these kids getting educated than I do on whether we have some racial balancing or not. [Emphasis mine]"

Tuesday, July 28, 2009

"Racism isn't 'stupid'".

Abstract: An overly broad construal of racist actions leads to the belief that stupidity plays no role in racist behavior. While I concur that some, if not most, racists are so simply by virtue of malicious hatred or immorality, there also exist some unwilling racists. For the latter group, education and knowledge actually serves as an efficacious (if not perfectly so) corrective.

Harry Allen (the original "Media Assassin" and affiliate of one of the greatest hip-hop crews of all time) recently made an intriguing point on his blog. In a recent post discussing President Obama's quasi-but-not-really-an-apologetic public statement regarding the recent Skip Gates incident in Cambridge (if you haven't already heard of it, which I'm sure most of you have by now, take a look first), Allen makes the statement,

"[this is] one of the most frequently stated falsehoods about race: That people who commit racist acts are stupid."

Allen makes the point - and it is a valid one - that discussions of racism are often couched in the language of ignorance, the specious implication being that racists are not bad people, they are merely mis- or uninformed.

Allen is right, but he is also wrong: it all depends on the specific definition of racism under which one is operating. In the same way that it is wrong to talk about oppressed or minority populations as monolithic, it is inaccurate to describe all racists as similarly motivated. Racism can - and often does - arise from blatant spite or dislike of the Other. However, to entirely rule out ignorance as a contributing factor is to oversimplify the discussion (which already bears the potential for further complication by simply pointing out that actions can stem from multiple motivations).

"Why would people believe that the race system... works through “ignorance”?"

Professor Jerry Kang, in his 1993 Harvard Law Review publication, Racial Violence against Asian Americans, makes the point that there are two kinds of construals of Others that result in racially-motivated violence against them: one is an instrumental conception, and one is a moral conception. Instrumentally speaking, violence against minorities works because minorities are less likely to have in their power the means to strike back against an oppressive majority (or, heck, as in the case of Apartheid South Africa, occupied China, modern-day North Korea, an oppressed majority against an oppressive minority).

In such cases, the reasons for racist actions are simple: oppressed people are easy to exploit. This is precisely the cases that Allen is presenting to his reader: cases in which, even despite the realization of the victim's humanity, it is simply easier to continue victimizing the subjugated. I fully acknowledge and promote the need for us to realize that these sorts of cases - where a willing, oppressive, majority turns a blind eye to the suffering of a fellow human - are unconscionable and deserve to be ferreted out, pointed out, and prosecuted with the greatest dispatch and vigor.

But there is the alternative case: in which a moral conception is the cause of racism. For example, in the late 1800s, Americans and Europeans would, despite living in China for years, never adopt native garb, the reason being that Asian culture was seen as a corrupting, insidious influence. In this case, the Othering of China by Westerners (or rather, the volitional acceptance of Outsider status by Whites in China) was not solely due to malicious intent (though, I admit, the cocktail of causes and effects is impossible to unmix). Rather, there was, I believe, a genuine misconception that Chinese culture was immoral and deleterious to the health of contemporary American "Protestant" faith-cum-state-values.

In such an environment of ignorance actually leading to distancing and Othering, increased knowledge - decreased ignorance and "stupidity" - can actually have a corrective, curative effect. In the example of China, I point to cases such as that of Hudson Taylor, the British Protestant missionary who, upon arriving in China, "was known for his sensitivity to Chinese culture... . He adopted wearing native Chinese clothing even though this was rare among missionaries of that time...." Not only did he adopt the external signifiers of decreased ignorance, but Taylor also adopted the best interests of Chinese people over the financial interests of his land of origin: "Primarily because of the CIM's campaign against the Opium trade, Taylor has been referred to as one of the most significant Europeans to visit China in the 19th Century." (source [yeah, I used Wikipedia as a source. Take away my diploma.])

Breakthroughs such as Taylor's revelation among British Protestant circles are rare, but effective in counteracting this latter form of racism: racism based not on actual racial dislike, but based on misconceptions of a race. In the same way that the televised dehumanization of the Civil Rights marchers of the 1960s drove the point of universal claims to equal humanity before a nation as never it had been before (and, perhaps, never has since, save for the Rodney King tapes and other such incidents), the insistence upon promoting knowledge as a curative for racism is not incorrect; it simply must be insisted-upon as part of a solution for racism, rather than part and parcel. It must also be realized that it is only a highly specific kind of knowledge that is efficacious in bringing about this revelation.

In Lee Mun Wah's The Color of Fear, a seminal early-90s film documenting a racial discourse among eight men of varying backgrounds, a breakthrough moment comes when a White man, who has been angrily defending the veracity of his point of view to his Black, Hispanic, and Asian counterparts, sits back in astonishment when he realizes the discrepancy between their shared humanity and the basic inequality of their treatment in society. In that moment, unwilling racism has begun to be dismantled (I emphasize: the process merely began at that step) by the revelation of a certain kind of knowledge: the knowledge of shared humanity.

It is this kind of knowledge that counters the second type of racism: Racism that says, as a fact, we are distinctly, morally, better than they. No, this knowledge will not conquer the first sort of racism, racism born of exploitative malice or willing ignorance and complicitousness. For such brands of perniciousness, no amount of human knowledge will do. But in the case of "unconscious racists," who view other races as subhuman simply because they have never been opened to the possibility of the world being otherwise, such knowledge can actually make a difference.

Allen claims: "No one says this about rude people. No one says, “Rude people are just stupid.” No one would believe such a thing as an explanation for the history of rudeness."
-This quote illustrates precisely Allen's monolithicizing of racist behavior: there is no extant "history of rudeness," for exactly the reason that rudeness is not so easily generalized. Some people are rude, yes, because they are simply ill-humored or apathetic towards the well-being of others.
-But some people are rude for the simple fact of being unaware or unknowledgeable: the White American who doesn't remove his shoes when he enters a Chinese-American house; the inexperienced busboy who accidentally rushes into the wrong side of the restaurant doors; the illiterate American who doesn't realize he is sitting on the Senior-Citizens-Only seat on the Korean subway (i.e., me). In such cases, yes. Rudeness is, in fact, caused by stupidity.

Monday, July 27, 2009

pretty much the situation as i hear it

"''There's a strange kind of infatuation [in South Korea] with North Korea,'' Professor Cha said. ''[South Koreans] see it as, at worst, a decrepit regime, or a crazy uncle in the attic; either way, not very threatening. Many people would argue there is great naïveté in that view.''"

-Man's Bridge To North Korea Is Seen as Link To Espionage, NY Times. Originally published November 5, 2003, available online.

History lesson

"One of the unique and controversial variants of the Tom Shows was Walt Disney's 1933 Mickey's Mellerdrammer. Mickey's Mellerdrammer is a United Artists film released in 1933. The title is a corruption of "melodrama", thought to harken back to the earliest minstrel shows, as a film short based on a production of Uncle Tom's Cabin by the Disney characters. In that film, Mickey Mouse and friends stage their own production of Uncle Tom's Cabin.

"Mickey Mouse was already black-colored, but the advertising poster for the film shows Mickey dressed in blackface with exaggerated, orange lips; bushy, white sidewhiskers made out of cotton; and his now trademark white gloves." - Wikipedia: Uncle Tom's Cabin

Saturday, July 18, 2009

Racial mutterings II: Electric Boogaloo.

Watching some of this footage of Pat Buchanan on the Rachel Maddow Show, one of his comments arguing against affirmative action sticks out to me:

"[because of affirmative action,] Jennifer Gratz was discriminated against and kept out of the University of Michigan, which she set her heart on, even though her grades were far higher than people who were allowed in there." (1:24-1:34)

Because of my particular background and current expertise of employment, I feel particularly equipped to address this illustration of his greater "reverse discrimination" (the cool pejorative way to describe affirmative action) thesis. This illustration is, admittedly, one in a series of several, the others of which I am distinctly not informed about and thus must rule myself incompetent in their discussion. That said:

Buchanan's comment reflects an overly simplistic understanding of the nature of college admissions. He seems to be communicating that the thrust of Gratz's case against the University's form of Affirmative Action (Gratz v. Bollinger) lies in the idea that a student with a certain GPA or level of academic performance should always be accepted to a university

The Court's actual finding was not that Affirmative Action should be dismantled, but rather that the University of Michigan was at fault "[b]ecause the University's use of race in its current freshman admissions policy is not narrowly tailored to achieve respondents' asserted interest in diversity." In fact, arguing quite against Buchanan's point, "the Court ... reject[s] petitioners' argument that diversity cannot constitute a compelling state interest." The State is explicitly interested in affirming and creating opportunities for diverse representation in its academic bodies: the problem is not with Affirmative Action, but with monolithic and overly streamlined processes of evaluating students' racial (rather than cultural or ethnic) makeup.

The irony is that Buchanan's casting of the situation seems to reflect a similarly mechanistic understanding of grades as a factor in college admissions: that superior GPA conveys automatic superiority on a candidate's application for acceptance to a university. In an era of college acceptances becoming more holistic considerations of a candidate's "fit", personality, and resources, this is an obsolete understanding of How to Get Into College.

In fact, as I have pointed out before, I am a firm believer in the thought that a Minority Experience (whether Black American, African, Asian-American, Latino, etc.) is of positive benefit for anyone, whether that individual happens to be seeking office or, as in this case, applying to a university.

Universities in this era of college admissions are, at least according to all the resources to which I have been directed (both as a highly competitive high school student, as well as a college applications tutor), incredibly holistic: they are asking students what they bring to the campus not merely as intellects, but also as individuals; this focus benefits from reflecting a broader comprehension of the Successful Life as not merely a product of intellect, but rather of emotion, relation, and production. I personally know any number of students who were accepted to universities from which students with better grades were rejected; a few fractional points on one's GPA is simply not the only, or even the most important, factor in college admissions any more.

This construal of Success is born out in nearly every area of life, from job performance and satisfaction, to personal relationships, and even academic dialogue and progression: in all these areas, Human Intellect is not a quantity discrete from wider conceptions of Human Experience. It seems that more and more universities are happier to admit that the lone Professor, hunched over a desk producing publication after monograph - while a quaintly romanticized image - could well benefit from a better posture, better table conversation, a scion or two toddling about the nursery, and a thoughtful, doting husband [Yes, my Professor is female, confound your presumptive gender].

In short: The University of Michigan was wrong for their unsubtle and clunky handling of Race as a factor in admissions. That said, in all but the most clear-cut scenario of overt anti-White discrimination, I am very unwilling to concede that a White student with a high GPA, rejected in favor of a Black or Hispanic student with a lower GPA, has been the victim of anti-White discrimination, unless one could prove - beyond the burden of doubt - that the Black/Hispanic/other minority student has in no way brought to the table some other beneficial quality.

For what it's worth, I am similarly, though not equally, hesitant to conclude that a Black or Hispanic student in a position similar to our hypothetical White student has been discriminated against.

Friday, July 17, 2009

Racial mutterings

"And what does it say about President Obama's claiming to be post-racial when his first Supreme Court nominee is Sotomayor, his attorney general, Eric Holder is a huge reverse discrimination supporter and his education undersecretary for civil rights, Russlyn Ali, so often calls people racist when they dare disagree with her reverse-discrimination advocacy." - Marty Nemko, May 31, 2009.

What does it say? That he's willing to consider people who hold certain views for certain positions. What do you think it means, Mr. Nemko? Oh, never mind - I've deciphered your ever-so-sly intimation: President Obama is a racist. That wasn't so hard to say, was it?

Being post-racial does not mean being post-race. Nemko is making the same disturbing mistake that I've seen several other commentators making when discussing race: he assumes that "being post-racial" somehow equates to the idea that "race is no longer an issue". This is the same fallacy that equates "diversity" and "being color-blind": Diversity is not the absence of color, but the affirmation of color. And, in the same way, moving past racism does not and must not equate to "no longer caring about or discussing race"; it must mean "affirming race and issuing correctives so that the roots of racism continue to lose their grasp on America."

The Commander-in-Chief is not some political Gordian Knot that, once sundered, signifies freedom and equality throughout the land. It is a sign - as there have been many, as there will be many - that the American people are beginning to progress as a community. It's wonderful that the country voted a Black man is president; it's wonderful that some minority citizens aren't cowering under the lash. But until every minority citizen can live out a life in this country with a reasonable expectation of freedom from the dictum that Your Race Isn't Welcome Here - whether suppressive, as in the case of the Asian "Model Minority" myth; or oppressive, overt racism - "post-racial" America is still an unfulfilled process.

So, what does it mean that Obama's Supreme Court nominee is a Hispanic woman? What does it mean that he supports certain policies on race?

Might it simply be that President Obama thinks that these choices will continue the push towards racial equality?


Oh, OK.

Similarly, from right-wing blog View from the Right:

"[What does post-racial America mean?] It means a post-white America, an America transformed by the symbolic removal of whiteness as the country's explicit or implicit historic and majority identity. ..."

Guess what: America is post-white. In the last national census, 26% of responding Americans self-identified as something other than White Alone. Of course, the majority of citizens are White; English, a language with European roots, is the de facto primary language of the land. But what does it even mean for a country to have a "majority identity"? And what does it have to do with me? Sure, Whiteness is an explicitly and implicitly dominant part of this country's culture; but, and pardon my boldness in this, I assumed that the majority identity of this country was American culture.

You know: Muckrakers and Superman (created by 2 Jews), French fries (created by a Native chef), Jazz (no comment necessary), Rock (comment unnecessary again), transcontinental migration and bicoastal communication (a network built on the backs of Irish and Chinese immigrants). A melange of racial influence and scrappy do-it-yourself intuitive inventiveness. Yes, White influences served as the initial foundation for this country; and its further development was definitely fueled by waves of immigrants from Ireland, Scotland, Germany, France, and other countries in Western and Eastern Europe.

But, at some point, my dinner ceases to be a couple of carrots, two chunks of meat, a packet of spices, and a pot of water, to being a stew. A stew, a broth with distinct elements hinted-at but inextricable from the lot. Why can't "my" country be the same?

I fear - though I sincerely hope to one day be proven wrong - that the intimated answer of many commentators on ethnicity in America is simply thus: This Is Not Your Country.

This is what some say: "the anti-white policies and attitudes, from affirmative action to open borders for Hispanics to the multicultural rewriting of history [oh heavens no; History is anything but!] to endless compaigns against "white racial privilege," [a thorough myth] will remain in place. What will change is that whites will not protest these anti-white policies any more, will not mutter under their breath about them any more, will not even think about muttering under their breath about them any more. Instead, they will unreservedly embrace them, in the joy of racial unity and harmony."

And this is what I hear:

This is not your country; you're living in rented space.

This is not your country; you're living in the perpetual guest room, furnished similarly to - as comfortable as - the master bedroom, save for its lesser metaphysical status.

This is not your country; as long as you behave yourself and act like us, we'll grant you squatters' rights. But don't get too comfortable; and for (a Western Protestant) God's Sake don't put up your own decorations! Our paintings - our decorative coffeetable books - our carefully-selected DVD library are good enough for us. And they ought to suffice for you.

Well, I don't ask to remodel; I'm quite happy with the kitchenette the way it is, and the laundry machine works quite well (though the couple who used to own the house have mentioned that you've were a little underhanded in repurposing it from them). But if, as you say, this room is mine for the letting - indeed, not merely for subletting but actually leasing-to-own - can I please at least add a film or two to your library? What about removing some of the more dull or outdated magazines from the nightstand?

Can I, perhaps, cook the food in "our" kitchen - food that my wages bought - the way my mother taught me to cook?

Might I, at the least, hang up the pictures of my father from his youth?


Oh, OK.

(Update: I was prompted on facebook to further defend the connection i draw between "affirming Whiteness" and "xenophobia". I did so by drawing upon the concept of white privilege; more information is in the comments.)