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.)

Sunday, July 5, 2009


Why do we call ourselves "Asian-Americans" or "African-Americans", but I've never heard a single person described as a "European-American"?

"Irish-American," "British-American," and "German-American" all sound far more stilted than "Chinese-American" or "Korean-American," not even touching on the Black/"African-American" vs. African (Ghanaian/Ethiopian/Somalian/Nigerian/etc.) divide. (Irish-Americans, Polish-Americans, and Italian-Americans get something of a pass on this one; largely because, for much of the 19th and 20th centuries, they were also generally part of an oppressed, immigrant, working lower class)

This is largely a rhetorical question: I do understand the historical context for this distinction in usage (Caucasian Western Europeans showed up first! [well, no, they didn't]); but I would at least suggest, in the modern milieu of cultures and ethnicities that Today's America supposedly has become, that we begin to more finely distinguish between cultural heritages, and thereby both begin to assault the fallacy of a monolithic American Culture, as well as beginning to affirm the actual myriad of influences behind the widely divergent American Cultures that do exist.

This is your Fourth of July/American Independence Day blog, brought to you (a) late and (b) not from America. Feel free to leave comment or critique, but note that I've had Maino's Hi Hater on blast all day.

Friday, July 3, 2009

White Privilege

This Week in Blackness's Elon James White defines and discusses the reality of white/majority privilege in America.