Friday, December 3, 2010

The Office - racist or revolutionary?

"The Office, Season 7, Episode 10 – “China”
After reading an article about China growing as a global power, Michael decides China must be stopped before they take over the US. Everyone in the office complains about Dwight’s building standards and Pam threatens to move Dunder Mifflin to a new building."

I haven't watched it yet (queueing it up to stream right now, though...), but I'm already half-concerned, and half-hopeful, about the content of this week's Office episode about China.

Nationalistic and xenophobic "Yellow Panic" is just a reality of the times in which we live, where outsourcing and "The East" find themselves the scapegoat for Western concerns both economic and social. So it's natural that a show that has been increasingly explicit in capturing the American zeitgeist (the Glee episode from this season, anyone?) would turn its mockumentarian sights on Sino-American relations.

The Office is usually fairly on-the-mark with their biting look at middle-class middle American ignorance and panicked reactionism. So I'm hopeful that this episode, while probably not winding up in a treacly after-school-special message of hope and reconciliation, could actually turn out to be a fair treatment of the topic, if not even openly scornful of the ever-worsening tone of American public discourse regarding my country of residence.

Still, I've seen enough of how Asia has been treated in American media to be concerned. Once bitten, twice shy.

More to come after I've watched the episode.

Wednesday, April 21, 2010

The Price of Exotification

This image (an advertisement for VH1's newest celeb-fronted "educational" vehicle) is problematic.


Three "ethnic" women - arrayed in traditional/ceremonial garb worn rarely, if at all, in modern-day Africa, South Asia, and East Asia - stand, heavily-made-up, behind Jessica Simpson, whose muted clothes and "natural" makeup suggest that she is the default - absent symbols of "color" or "ethnic" culture, we see her as the de facto norm, the standard by which "regular" beauty is judged.

The shot - progressing from "darkest" to "lightest", including a white-painted Asian woman - also supports the very unhelpful concept that race is reducible to skin color, which falls on a continuum between two extremes: Black and White, and everything in-between is precisely that, caught in between two points. The Asian woman isn't White, you see, but her face is painted white - with the White woman placed in front of the others, on the right side of the continuum, the implicit suggestion is that there is a progression, from native, uncivilized, exotified beauty, to the civilized, progressive, and modern.

Of course, Asian and African women very often do not dress like the women portrayed in the shot. But actual trends and fashions in Asia and Africa would actually clothe women of all colors similarly - and that just won't do, because this is a show about a White woman - who is, you know, normally beautiful - serving as tour guide on our little television expedition to the wacky, exotic ideas about beauty that those other cultures hold to.

If Ms. Simpson were to be wearing, say, a corset and lead facepaint, this ad would be significantly less problematic - simply a cross-section of historical fashion trends from all points across the globe. But as it is, Jessica Simpson stands, our modern (read: White, Western) touchpoint against the costumed, made-up exotic women of Somewhere Else.

Friday, April 2, 2010

A Prelude: "Race Doesn't Matter"?

In prelude to any discussion of race, the question must be addressed:

Why talk about race?

another form of which is stated,

Why do you people always have to make it about color?

For starters - simply by the fact that this piece is going up where it is - I strongly suspect I'm gonna be preaching to the choir.

I don't want to, though.

(If you already see the effects of race on society - if you have come to a realization of the role of discrimination/objectification/disenfranchisement around you - if you have done your reading - I'm so thankful for you, but this isn't really "for" you. Please do stay and hang out, though.)

Instead, this one goes out to anyone who hasn't been thinking about race all that much - but might?

Who Are You?

Maybe you've been (A) lucky enough to never have it thrown in your face in a violent way - you grew up in an area where your ethnic group/culture was dominant, or you were fortunate enough to steer clear of the ugliness so often associated with the mixing of cultures. And so you haven't had to see the world through the lens of race and ethnicity.

Or maybe (B) consciousness of race has been forced on you in the past - you've had moments where issues of race have been insistently - even violently - brought up in ways that hurt or discomforted you. You were asked - "Where are you from?" - and when you replied, "New Jersey" or "Colorado", the response was - "No, I mean, where are you from?" Or one of the other thousand and one quirks of culture, upbringing, or family were brought up and used to mock or even simply separate you from the "normal" kids.

If this is so, perhaps your experience of engaging with a public racial identity has been so uniformly hurtful or uncomfortable that disengaging from race as a topic of discussion seemed to be the best way to move forward: to blend into dominant culture, with any differences from that culture fading away into self-selected obscurity.

If either of these cases is true - or, for some other reason, you've been withholding your voice in the discussion of race- then you may have the biggest part to play in the fight for justice. You see, the desire for equality and the value of human life, regardless of the circumstances of birth, growth, and death, is the kind of thing that is best promoted - and only maintained - when even those who are naturally disinclined to partake in or enjoy such a discussion agree that travesties of a gross and fundamental nature have been perpetrated and are continually affecting the body politic.

The reality, however, is that this very realization brings with it a laundry list of associated issues: admitting that things are Not As They Should Be entails, by the very moral diction therein, that one ought strive to restore the situation to things As They Should Have Been, even if doing so brings inconvenience to oneself. So if racism does exist as a Big Problem, then we as willful moral agents are compelled to act.

Beginning the Discussion - Where Are You Coming From?

The problem with addressing Race in America - and perhaps most pertinently for this community, addressing Race and the Asian-American Experience - is that a discussion of Race must be linked with an understanding of the context and history of race in this country. Experiences that may seem merely unfortunate are revealed as systematic, falling into a pattern, when seen with a broader perspective. Insults and stereotypes that seem arbitrary and confusing make sense when the history of racial conflict and oppression is considered.

One of my clearest memories of the past few years comes shortly after Mixed Company - a male/female a capella group from Yale, whose members included four Asian women and no Asian men - performed (and later released a music video online of) an reworking of Beyonce's "Single Ladies" - Single Asians. The entire song simply trots out one stereotype of Asian female sexuality after another, with verses like:

"Let’s make some noise
For all the boys
Who have yellow fever.
I’ll be Lucy Liu
Or Sailor Moon
A geisha just for you."

Of course, once the video leaked out beyond the walls of Yale - not to mentioned the furor caused within the Yale community - an enormous public debate erupted, with some people calling the video out for blatant racism, and others excusing it as collegiate humor, kids being kids, and so on. For their part, the group excused itself by retreating to the well-worn hideaway of closet racists and shock humorists everywhere: claiming that the song was, in fact, parodying the points of view presented. "It's not about being racist! It demonstrates how dumb racism is!"

At some point during the height of the controversy surrounding the "Single Asians" video, I was riding in a car with two other Asian-American Yale students. Discussing our responses to the video, I recall that both of them were highly confused as to why the song would be so hurtful to many of their classmates. Trying to discuss my own negative reaction, I realized that we approached the content of the song from very different perspectives: it offended me because it employed hurtful stereotypes (the sexually submissive ("geisha")/aggressive ("dragon lady") Asian woman, the one-dimensionally-academic Asian-American, etc.) for amusement without explicitly contradicting or dismantling those stereotypes.

On the other hand, my two friends didn't quite understand what to make of the video. One of them remarked that he was a little confused, but found it somewhat amusing; and the other simply didn't know how to respond to it. Discussing it, we realized that I, coming from suburban Delaware, grew up in a situation in which I often found myself as the sole Asian-American in a social setting, while they - having spent most of their formative years in Asian-dominated regions of California - were more familiar with engaging with race in situations in which they were members of the dominant culture. To them, these stereotypes were obviously untrue, even to the point of causing confusion, largely because they understood - and were surrounded by people who understood - them to be invalidated by daily experience. They could much more quickly assume that the song was an obvious and even harmless parody because, from their perspective, these stereotypes are precisely that: only stereotypes, with no real-world thrust behind them.

Continuing the Discussion - Why Are We Where We Are?

We realized something else, that day: both of these friends also had little understanding of the evolution of the sexual typecasting of the bodies of Asian males and females. For me, a large portion of the offensiveness of that video had to do with the historical role of the Asian female as sex object, from Madame Butterfly to military prostitution throughout the 20th century and the current trend of "Asian trophy wives". That Chinese men and women were referred to in the debate about the 1875 Page Act as "cheap Chinese labor and immoral Chinese women" has cast a long shadow over the rest of the history of Asians in America: Asian men as an emasculated work force, Asian women as promiscuous, submissive, and sexually exploitable, and both as subhuman. Jokes about Asian women's sexuality - or a perceived lack of Asian male sexuality - have to be handled cautiously, in ways broader jokes about dominant-culture sexuality don't have to.

Similarly, to make a joke about a friend's family dying is cruel - to make a joke about a Jewish friend's family being burned to death is tasteless in a much more complicated way, for reasons having to do with the complications of history. The Holocaust is well-known, and incalculably horrendous - the struggle of Asians in America, and its own share of blood and suffering, is less publicly acknowledged.

Why is this?

One of the chief views shaping the portrayal of Asian-Americans over the past 50-70 years has been the status of Asians as the American "model minority" - by which is meant, Asian immigrants are supposedly generally successful, with community stories of financial success, low crime rates, and familial stability. This view of Asian-Americans is, in some ways, a fabrication - and, in other ways, comes from the way that Asian social norms read into and are understood by general American society (for further background, read the above linked article). Regardless, for whatever reason, Asian-American complaints about limitations placed on their success are often marginalized by use of the model minority rhetoric - that, as Asian-Americans don't face the same degree or type of racial limitations that other American minorities do, we have less basis to view American society as treating us unfairly.

This is really the essence of the whole question:
Why keep bringing up race? Well, we keep bringing it up because it is still a continual source of hurt and anger. And as long as society's approach to race really impacts human lives and experiences - our own, or those of whom you love - we continue engaging with it.

But what if we deny the premise? What if race doesn't have to be a source of tension? Maybe I am just too sensitive. Asian-American activists should get the chip off our shoulder, lighten up, and contribute something to society instead of dredging up the wrongs of the past.

Well, I think that race is and should be an arena within which Asian-Americans continually seek justice, for two reasons: (A) past injustices still remain to be amended and (B) very real, very present, wrongs still continue to be freshly committed.

(A) Many will admit that America's historical dealings with people of all ethnic backgrounds, including Asian immigrants, has been a horrific tale. And many of these people will concur that, when confronted with vast and horrific injustice, the reaction of a responsible government and populace will be to make amends for that injustice. And many will also agree that America's policy has since markedly improved - no longer can Asians not immigrate or become American citizens, are there large-scale massacres of Asian-Americans, and so on. But even granted this shared historical perspective, two viewpoints diverge: either American policy and public sentiment has been sufficient to make amends for the evil perpetrated on Asian-Americans, or it has not.

So here, we come to a question of standards: one might say, by way of analogy, suppose my father had beaten your father and taken his car. Later, he used that car to get a job. That job purchased him a house, which supported his family, and so on - and in the meanwhile, your carless father had descended into vagrancy, coped with alcoholism, etc. Now, if I were to make amends to you - to what degree do I owe you for the sins of my father?

Do I owe you your father's car, which is all my father technically took from him?

Do I owe you my childhood home? My childhood memories? Your lost childhood?

It's a difficult question. Certainly I owe you something - but I also cannot heal perfectly the sins of my father. What do I owe you? (for more on this subject, an excellent body of literature on White Privilege exists)

One area of great success in Asian-American activism has been the Japanese-American fight for internment reparations. It has been widely and publicly acknowledged by the American government that the internment of American citizens of Japanese descent during World War II was illegal and unconscionable, both by means of official apology and financial redress.

But it's not so simple as that (it never is, is it?). Some scholars still see the official position on internment as lacking - apologizing for bureaucratic oversight, but not for racist intent, as though the entire Japanese-American internment was a mere clerical error or hierarchical miscommunication. And even within the past month, conservatives in the Texas Board of Education - a particularly influential state Board whose decisions guide curriculum development across the nation - have selected a curriculum that de-emphasizes the racial aspects of internment, claiming that wartime sentiment against Japanese-Americans was no more severe or exacerbated by racial tension than anti-German or anti-Italian feeling. All this, despite the fact that there was no institutionalized, loyalty-blind internment of German- or Italian-American citizens.

(B) And the sad truth is that anti-Asian feeling still runs high, breaking out in ugly and shocking ways. A recent wave of violence was launched against first- and second-generation South Asian students in a South Philly school, Asian homes and businesses are targeted for crime, and, at least as recently as the mid-90s, the US Commission on Civil Rights acknowledged that Asian-Americans are "frequently victimized by violent crime" [Civil Rights Issues Facing Asian Americans in the 1990s].

And even when it isn't active harm that is being perpetrated against Asian-Americans, external limitations and boundaries are presented to Asian-Americans in ways that are subtle or invisible to outsiders. While Asian-Americans are perceived as highly successful in many fields, we find ourselves portrayed in media as "window dressing" - useful in ad backdrops, as supporting (or adversarial) characters, or as ever-young erotic objects.

And Whence From Here?

If you've stuck with me this far - well, thanks. You definitely didn't have to. But we have not reached the end of our conversation, I hope: this was merely the beginning.

Outrage, grief, and an awareness of the need for reconciliation are not themselves the products of the healing process, but the initial motivators toward it. In the following installments of this series of articles, I will address specific areas of communal brokenness in the shared American consciousness of Asian-Americans: specifically, the perception of (1) American men and (2) women of Asian descent, asking about the ways that perception - sexual, social, and more - has, is, and can be molded.

This is a conversation. I've just talked a lot - said my piece - but you also have much to say. The Asian-American experience is not a bad one, and it's not only characterized by grief, outrage, and righteous anger. To present it as reactionary in this way does as good a job as dehumanizing and flattening out our communal history and reality as Asian-Americans as any racist caricature. I have here presented a particularly difficult and painful side of our shared past and present; and I have done so only in the hope that, by bringing such a topic to light, our future progress might be buoyed up.

So if you agree, disagree, or wonder - please add your voice and thoughts in the comment section.

As Zac Efron once said, we're all in this together.

Our experience is coloured through and through by books and plays and the cinema, and it takes patience and skill to disentangle the things we have really learned from life for ourselves. - C.S. Lewis

Friday, February 19, 2010

Even the 3 Musketeers can't stop the whitewashing...

The main man Combat Jack goes in over at his site, daily mathematics, about how the biopic for influential, iconic, and acclaimed French author Alexandre Dumas is whitewashing this noted Haitian-French figure's life.

Sunday, February 7, 2010

well this is charming.

In a stunning demonstration of a lack of self-awareness, Christopher Hitchens labels North Korea "A Nation of Racist Dwarfs" in a recent piece for

He does make some good points - but ultimately, I'm afraid, succumbs to pervasive hypocrisy. I don't see how Hitchens' rhetorically charged description of North Koreans - labeling suffering North Koreans "a sort of new species. Starving and stunted dwarves, living in the dark, kept in perpetual ignorance and fear, brainwashed into the hatred of others..." - is any different from North Korean propaganda used to dehumanize "Western imperialist pigs" in the inculcated minds of North Koreans who buy into the party line about the Western world.

By utilizing such loaded language in discussing the situation in North Korea, Hitchens actually talks at odds with his implicit goal: he wants, it seems, to make the reader sympathetic to the plight of the North Korean citizenship, physically and idealogically abused. But employing such lurid descriptions - attention-getting though they may be - evokes revulsion and distaste rather than empathy and compassion. Reading through his piece, it seems that Hitchens believes, somehow, that the oppressed North Korean citizenry, having adopted the worldview of their government by coercion, now presents a threat to first-world/Western hegemony. This is akin to victim-blaming: rather than addressing the oppressor (the North Korean regime) as the instability inherent in the oppressor-victim system, Hitchens' language aggregates the system and creates a monolithic problem out of both the oppressor and victim. Rather than attempting to heal the victim by removing the influence of the oppressor (admittedly an incredibly [impossibly?] difficult task), such an approach removes the problem by simultaneously denying the victim's innocence/suffering and (hopefully) removing the oppressor.

Thursday, February 4, 2010

A discussion (prologue)

This is a discussion that begins with a controversial question:

Why are Asian men emasculated and Asian women fetishized?

[dead. awkward. silence.]

Please, please, please. Try to trust me: I want to listen to you. To be humble. I promise that I will be as loving and open as I know how.

But I also want - need - to have this conversation. So, for my sake, if not for your own, please humor me.

This is a discussion that I know is incredibly rude, on several levels. I don't know all of them, but I think I am aware of some of them:

1) It's uncomfortable to talk about sex. Even more when it's about other people having sex. And especially when it's someone else [me] talking to you [you?] about the sex you're having [or aren't. Or will, maybe?].

2) It's uncomfortable to talk about physical bodies, or our perceptions and stereotypes, and how they affect our attraction to (potentially) significant others. It's hard to talk about attractiveness when we prefer to think that attraction is a mystical, innate, function of personal character and divine providence. I do think it is all of that; but I also believe that nurture and social pressures play a role in viewing certain qualities - or, even worse, certain people irrespective of their qualities - as "attractive" or "unattractive".

3) It's impolite (read: uncomfortable) to talk about race. More generally, it is always easier to leave well enough alone. Bringing up awkward questions about how structures of racial and social power function is a high risk proposition: I could easily offend or hurt someone whose opinion or well-being actually matter to me. Sometimes this is because people are benefiting from systems of marginalization that they - directly or indirectly - maintain. Sometimes this is because people are turning a blind eye, whether consciously or unconsciously, to systems that are hurting them.

To bring up race risks offending both sides of the coin: it reminds certain people that they are being hurt, and it challenges others, saying that they might be hurting others. No one wants to be thought of as cruel; and few people want to uncover abuse that lies in their past, or even hidden in their present. Ignorance, after all, is bliss.

4) This is not a traditionally "Christian" subject. For some of my audience, who don't give a hoot [or any more interesting -noun-] about religion, this point is moot [rhyme. ha.]. But for some of you, this is a very, very big objection. After all, isn't the duty of a faithful Christian to turn our eyes away from the world, and its petty concerns, and to fix them on Jesus Christ and His Gospel - His Good News?

Talking about this subject is a high-risk proposition: I fear that, even in the best case, I become typecast as "sensitive about gender and race issues". Already, I know, I have been treading that line care...- who am I kidding? I have been willfully hurtling towards the characterization that "JASON MAKES EVERYTHING ABOUT RACE" for the past year. Still, I fear that this discussion will just be another reason for me to be cast as a fringe, extremist, or - at best - highly biased voice.

At worst? I burn bridges, collapsing relationships with friends and family members. Friends of mixed race think that I condemn their parents for falling in love with one another; friends in interracial relationships think that I don't respect, admire, or appreciate their love. I lose jobs, respect, or even a future career in ministry because what I am bringing up is thought to be hateful, bigoted, or just too much trouble to deal with.

I know I can be hateful. It's one of many, very many, weaknesses. But I am hoping - praying - that this discussion is not one that comes from hate. I am hoping - praying - that this discussion comes from love. From wanting to understand why we are where we are, and wanting to talk with you about how we can go where we should.

In this discussion, I want to tread carefully. I don't want to fall into the traps of dehumanizing anyone: and it is very, very easy to dehumanize everyone. Please bear with me.

This discussion - a virtual who's who of embarrassing dinner table talk, from Race to Gender to Sex - is a high-risk one. But it is also, I think, a potentially high-reward one. If I - you - we - are able to keep our wits about us, be honest, and be humble enough to listen to one another, I think that this discussion can be one where we grow in love, understanding, and compassion and even, perhaps, start to change the world just a tiny bit for the Good.

This will be a discussion in four parts:

0) Prologue. This piece, introducing the theme and begging your continued attention and good humor.

1) "Race, Sex, and Gender Don't Matter"? - why should this conversation take place? I present social, moral, and religious reasons why open, even provocative, discussions of race and gender politics (politics being broadly defined) need to exist.

2) What If Asian Men Were Men? - inspired in part by Alienated Conclusions' What If Black Women Were White Women?, I begin with the question: why am I an "Asian Man," and not just a "Man"? And what does that mean?

This last piece will be the trickiest part. As a man, I am immensely unqualified to write about any female issue. I don't know how I'm going to do this. I might need someone's help. Does anyone want to volunteer? But for this discussion to be true to itself, it needs to be addressed.

3) Beautiful Asian Wives - All the Single Asians slapped us in the face with it, a comedienne is making a career trumpeting it, and even Marie Claire noticed. From "yellow fever" to "rice queens", what's going on with the fetish for feminized Asians?

I want this discussion to truly be a discussion. Please offer feedback via the comment section or a personal email, particularly if you feel like you are a subject in this discussion (i.e.: asian man, asian woman, or someone in a relationship with an asian man or woman). I will try to shape my discourse in such a manner that it addresses your concerns.

Thursday, January 28, 2010

Hip-hop Is Saving Asian-American People...

New York streetwear staple Mighty Healthy recently dropped this tee on an unsuspecting public... but really when you think about it, it was only a matter of time.

Inspired in part, at least, by this tee, the homey Dallas Penn went in over at, his new jumpoff, with a blog article titled "Asian people are saving hip-hop..." (for the record, Dallas is Mighty Healthy extended family via the legendary 40 Diesel).

And you know what, I think Dallas is more right than wrong. Sure, hip-hop is bigger than race - after all, while dominated by Black culture, Hip-Hop's roots in 1970s inner-city New York sprang from a mixture of African, Latin American, and other cultures and influences - but our people have been getting it in in a major way, from streetwear (BAPE, Mighty Healthy, The Hundreds, Staple Design, and far more are Asian-owned, -designed, and -founded) to DJing (Qbert, Neil Armstrong, and Babu, to name some prominent heads) to hip-hop journalism and media empires (king of the hip-hop internets Miss Info, columnist/author Jeff Yang, the homegirl sooey). And while we have been slacking on the prominent emcee tip, don't get it twisted: Asians and Asian-Americans are out there hustling.

I'm not going to front like we were in the frontlines from the beginning though. The pioneers of hip-hop - while diverse - were, primarily, Black and Latino, with some White faces mixed in, and others representing occasionally.

The Asian-American population has existed for around 150+ years , since the mid-19th century, when Chinese and Japanese men came streaming over to the West Coast in search of opportunitites for railroad work and comparatively well-paying menial labor. With a high cultural value placed on the concept of "saving face", not to mention racist and aggressive barriers placed around new Asian immigrants - and even those Asian-Americans whose families had been in the country for generations - the Asian-American population adapted to its surroundings by, well, adapting. We shifted, settled in, got in where we fit in, and generally became a population that fit the role in Western society of the polite child: "seen and not heard".

For much of the history of the Asian-American, this was the role we played: silently adaptable, accomodating of social norms and roles. Cast as muscled brute labor, Asians in America labored and died working on railroads and washing clothes. Later recast according to the whims of society, Asians in America adapted, shifting ideas of success towards the sciences: computer scientists, engineers, medical doctors.

But the voices of Asian-American men and women were, throughout this process of casting and re-casting, broadly silent in the public forum. People spoke about Asian-Americans; they spoke at and even to Asian-Americans; but rarely, very rarely, did people bother to listen to Asian-Americans. The silent adaptability that had so long functioned as a strength of the community at large now found itself a detriment, that calm silence and careful studiousness taken as meek acceptance - even welcome! - of domination by larger cultural forces.

Of course, there have always been exceptions to the cultural stereotype, individuals whose voices spoke of the internal strife caused by the pull towards social conformation and the push toward individual dreams. But those voices rarely found an outlet; and when they found one, they were far too often unsupported - alone, with no one to carry on their movement once it had passed.

In recent years - at least since the early 90s - Asian-Americans, especially those growing up as children of poor, recently-immigrated families, have found themselves in the same urban environments as the fathers - and successors - of hip-hop, many attending the same poorly-funded inner-city schools as Black and Latino children. Raised in these surroundings, it is no surprise that the Asian-American population in the 1990s and 2000s found itself increasingly identifying with hip-hop culture.

The most beautifullest thing in the world is that hip-hop has a quality that provides the exact cure to the problem of silence and marginalization which so many Asian-American voices suffer.

The culture of hip-hop - including all its elements, from emceeing to deejaying, bboying to graf writing, beatboxing to fashion - is grounded exactly in the kind of brash and confident outspokenness that Asian-American voices long for. Emotion and expressiveness is a key component of Asian art, but often in an internal, community sense: pouring out one's heart and soul is respected, but to do so to the world at large is not seen as brave, but rather weak. However, American children of Asian families understand that, in the American public discussion, you have to project your voice to make it heard; sitting back and waiting for your turn is an invitation to be ignored and neglected. Our forefathers' silence may have set the economic foundation for this generation's existence, but now it's time to speak up - that our voices, rapped, written, scratched, and worn, can set the social foundation for the next generation's progression.

Asian America has been a people searching for a voice, a message searching for a medium. In hip-hop, we may have found all of that.

And Dallas is right, too: hip-hop in 2010, and throughout the last decade, has been a medium in search of a soul. While cats claim to worship authenticity, hip-hop is - and has been ever since the Sugarhill Gang bit rhymes from Grandmaster Caz to get bank - perpetually in a state of losing its heart to material interests.

But remember that silent adaptability that helped the first Asian-Americans survive? Similarly, Asians and Asian-Americans have quietly been working their way into the lifeblood of hip-hop culture. I have ridden around town in Beijing 8 Mile-style, bumping Tupac with a gang of Chinese kids - born and raised - who knew every overstressed rhyme (and not a word else of English). South Korea is home to some of the sickest bboy crews and battles in the world. And everyone knows that, right now, hip-hop fashion is entirely dependent on the Japanese street scene, with names like Nigo and Hiroshi Fujiwara ringing cash register bells in "streetwear" stores from DC to LA to NYC to Berlin. A few months ago, flipping through's style section, I came across a young Brooklyn kid who, when asked "Who inspires your style?", responded, "Koreans at my school."

Hip-hop has gone from Brooklyn, Staten Island, Philly, Detroit, and Atlanta to Beijing, Hong Kong, Taipei, Seoul, and Tokyo; and, even more impressively, it has gone from the South Bronx to the Asian enclaves in Flushing; from Black communities to Asian communities in Atlanta; from Southlea to Korean hoods in Houston. In the process of doing so, it has been both preserved and updated. There is something about its essence that has been specially loved and embraced by the Asian-American communities, even as its mainstream face goes from backpack to trap to crunk to snap; and, in return, it has given young Asian-American men and women a voice and a space for personal and financial empowerment and growth.

Asians may be saving hip-hop; but hip-hop may also be saving Asian-Americans.

Murders for gold in El Salvador

A friend from church has been involved in some volunteer work in El Salvador, supporting local activist leaders in their struggle against an encroaching - and aggressive - development by the Pacific Rim mining company.

The El Dorado gold mine that would essentially rape their land and natural resources, pollute their water table, and destroy the local ecosystem. And of course, all the money and resources flooding out of the country would leave it even more impoverished than it already is when the company finishes and leaves. Naturally, Pacific Rim has its numbers in order: the feasibility studies, the details about development and profitability, and so on. Of course they can make the "high grade, vein-hosted El Dorado gold project" look reasonable and even justifiable.

But what is absolutely intolerable is the fact that, in the past 8 months, three protest leaders have been shot dead in clear assassination-styled killings, including an activist who was kidnapped, dismembered, and left in a well and a pregnant woman shot in the stomach in front of her two-year-old child. In all, five deaths have been chalked up to this struggle, five lives ended because (legally) exploiting a country's natural resources for corporate profit is more valuable than the lives of that country's people.

It is clear that this is not defense of a legitimate operation, but an organized campaign to terrorize and bully local citizens and peaceful families - and even an entire government. I don't want to speculate why it is ignored by mainstream American media; that's not my place. But if you and your communities aren't hearing about this through other sources, then passing information hand-to-hand must suffice.

David includes some information below, but I felt moved enough by this issue and the research I did into it that I wanted to pass it along with a personal note. After all, I do a lot of talking around here about being anti-imperialist and post-colonial; but talk is valuable only insofar as it leads to real, concrete ways to put love and righteous anger into action. There is a petition - what good it can do, only God knows - but just as if not more importantly, if this situation calls out to you, please pray and spread awareness to others.

---------- Forwarded message ----------
Date: Thu, Jan 28, 2010 at 12:31 PM
Subject: request

hey peeps,

some of you all may have already received my semi-campuswide email, but i wanted
to send a specific email to you all about a matter. i spent several weeks over
the summer working with community organizers in the rural northern region of el
salvador, and over the past several months, due to their opposition to mining
projects in the regions, several of them were brutally murdered (one woman was
shot point blank while washing her clothes in the river).

all i'm asking is for you to sign a petition that will get sent to the mining
company to take action against the incidents. the website is:

though it's not much, we hope to receive enough signatures on the website for
them to feature it on their weekly emails, which will hopefully snowball and
generate more support.

thanks guys,

Wednesday, January 27, 2010

From first things.

Even the humblest of things can spring from a humble beginning; and, as I have no ambition or desire to produce anything but the humblest of things, I'm hoping my audience (imaginary or no) might forgive me the humility of our settings - blogspot, of all places (not even a custom domain!) - and the content: thus far, merely a litany of recycled posts from my personal blog, the quality of which is redoubtably dubitable.

But I ramble on.

The title of this blog - Iason de Silentio - comes from the pseudonym of Danish existentialist philosopher Søren Kierkegaard, Johannes de Silentio, referencing the Biblical John the Baptist: a voice coming out of the silence, speaking into the world about him. A silent world, literally and prophetically: the backdrop of John's prophetic existence was the wilderness of 1st-century Judea, far from the urban centers of his time; and his voice came into the public sphere following four hundred years of prophetic silence, the oracular voices of the past growing increasingly distant and dim. John's voice - strident, urgent - was the wake-up call preparing the people for a new revelation.

Kierkegaard thought himself facing similar circumstances in 19th-century Denmark: in his case, he faced a doddering and overbearing church hierarchy, a numb national congregation, and inadequate, distant theologies. Kierkegaard's voice - writing under various nom de plume - awoke, aroused, and enlivened his people, Church, and philosophy forever, in his role as the Father of (Christian) Existentialism.

I hope that this blog will serve as one such wilderness voice. Though there is not, now, the deafening silence of John or Kierkegaard's time, still there is room, I think, for reasoned and reasonable inquiry into many issues. There are many allies in this work - but much work to be done.

And so I am so bold - I even dare - to raise my small voice and utter out what I can.

The long and short of it:
-Topics in ethnic studies, particularly Asian and Asian-American studies, hip-hop culture, and philosophy (primarily ethics).
-1 or more medium (1000-2000) to long (2000+) pieces a week. Short pieces as they arise.
-I am distinguishing this, my professional space, from my personal blog and my faith/theology/ministry blog.
--My personal blog will continue to exist as a photoblog and space for posts of personal interest (hip-hop, rap, streetwear, etc.).
--All (more or less) formal work on ethnicity, culture (Asian, Asian-American, and hip-hop), and philosophy will be directed to this very site.
--And last, reflections on the Evangelical Church, ministry, scripture, and faith will be found here. - 50 Most Racist Movies

Full disclosure: my homegirl sooey is on her hustle over at Complex mag's digital division, so I have a personal stake in this...

Still I am not gonna front like's commentary is anything but 50/50 (at best) in their track record... half of the time, they're profiling dope outfits, brands, personalities, etc.; and the other half of the time, it's puerile attempts at lowest-common-denominator frat boy comedy that blow up in their faces (sorry, "ironic" misogyny is still misogyny...).

And this time, it looks like they got one mostly right, calling out 50 flicks that (more or less) deserve to be called out for their B.S.:'s 50 Most Racist Movies.

I'm not all that crazy about some of their choices - Passion of the Christ, for one - but all in all, I'll shoot off some props (none) where they're deserved.

Friday, January 22, 2010

I Don't Want To Be Racist Against White People.

All my White friends, here's one to you.

Am I Being Racist Against White People?

There is a twofold concern for me as I explore ethnicity and the systematic, generational sin of oppression and cultural violence: (1) Am I demonizing and objectifying Whiteness, Western tradition/authority, and European culture? And even if I am not, (2) am I being perceived as doing so?

This question concerns me for several reasons: (A) if I am, I am being hypocritical. Hypocrisy is not only bad in itself, but it (B) leads to me, and other similar critics of power, being discredited or invalidated. This all contributes to (C) a widening divide of miscommunication or silence between those who are set to inherit the reins of traditional structures of power and contemporary voices who seek to point out the outstanding flaws in those systems.

If you'll bear with me - I'll try to be humble - let's examine these points:

The Natural Response to Violence or Assault

(1) A natural response to injustice is to render the unjust oppressor as inhuman. No one wants to think that someone who is in any way like me could do something so horrific to another; no, there must be something about a criminal, about a rapist, about a murderer, that makes them fundamentally different from me. This mental distance works both ways: slave masters, in order to justify the status of their slaves as property, dehumanized them along racial and cultural lines. If an African exists in a lesser form of being - whether a vastly inferior species of humanity, or not even as human at all - then, in a literal sense, it is not inhuman to claim possession over an African man or woman. Psychologists and historians who worked with post-war Nazi soldiers have noted that one of the ways that the German people coped with the horrific actions of the Holocaust was through a willing dismissal of the shared humanity between German Jews and German citizens of Germanic descent. [1]

Similarly, if, say, a close friend were to be murdered, I know that my temptation would be to see his murderer as a horrific, bloodthirsty, psycho bastard with no humanity, and nothing shared in common with myself. I think it's a general rule: we don't like to admit that we could share anything, even the slightest trace of fundamental humanity, with someone who could do such a thing. It is a natural coping mechanism, tinged with a trace of moral self-righteousness: how could anyone do such a thing? combined with well certainly, I would never be capable of such horrors.

This Is Wrong - What's Going On?

The problem here is twofold, both a problem of reality and effectiveness: first, the reality is that no entity or individual is blameless, and responding to evil by mentally distancing oneself from it is just wrongminded. Brokenness and perversity, when glimpsed in others, should not elicit my recoiling from them as diseased and inhuman, but rather my embracing them, knowing and acknowledging that I too have had my times of ugliness, hatred, anger, and violence. The reality is, as much as White, western cultural imperialism has hurt many people and cultures, I too, even in my short 23 years, have insulted, demeaned, and objectified many. To pretend that I am not also a participant in brokenness is to lie.

Secondly, by creating distance between myself and my oppressor, I lessen the possibility for her to reconcile herself with me and make amends to me, even if she desires to do so. As the saying goes, two wrongs don't make a right, and responding to a slight by slighting another only draws both parties further from reconciliation and mutual growth. Even if I were perfect, and my enemy were an incredibly spiteful person, distancing myself from him - while perhaps a useful coping mechanism, and a helpful step towards healing from the injury - ultimately does nothing to prevent the recurrence of the exact same slight, whether towards me or another.

Of course, the burden should be on the oppressor to make amends to the oppressed; even if the oppressed does not ask for apology, it is common human courtesy that if one has created a problem, one ought to fix it. If I kicked down your fence, appropriate apology is not to return bearing a hammer, hand it to you, and let you fix it; it lies on me to return, hammer in hand, and repair the broken fence.

But the simple and sad truth is that many people - myself included - are blind to the wounds we create for others. So to those of us who can be gracious - who have received grace from One who has been wounded by us, and are thus in turn in position to go to those whom we have wounded - it makes sense to do so. Just because I didn't create the problem, doesn't mean I can't be part of the solution.

In the Eye of the Beholder

(2) Tragically, even if I am just telling the truth - or, at least, the truth insofar as I understand it based on fact, evidence, and reasonable inference - I can be perceived as demonizing others. This is difficult.

One thing that I have learned, through reading accounts like Tim Wise's incredible White Like Me, is the unforeseen degree to which people coming from different backgrounds actually possess vastly different experiences. I am not talking about simple social distinctions, like a family only being able to afford bus passes vs. a family being able to afford an SUV. I am talking about completely different perceptions of social order. For example, I grew up with the explicit understanding that police exist to protect me and my friends: I was constantly instructed, in school, at home, and at church, to go to a police officer if I was scared, on my own, in trouble, or lost.

How far is this from the experience of an undocumented immigrant child growing up in, say, downtown Los Angeles! Disregarding the legality of her immigration, an undocumented immigrant girl not only cannot trust the police, but will likely actively distrust them - after all, the legacy of the LAPD is rife with scandal, corruption, abuse, blatant brutality, and more.

Imagine if eight-year-old middle-class suburban Chinese-American me could talk to that Los Angelena. When told about her view of the police, I would have considered her ill-informed, crazy, making up stories, and worse. And while, perhaps, her view of the police would be no more true than mine, I hesitate, now, to say that it is less worthy of consideration.

This is something that often concerns me when I disseminate information into the aether, as it were. I have no way to tell whether my audience is receptive or dismissive; and, while the information that I have uncovered is damning and even sickening to see, it is most terrifying to think that my desire to share the truth could be easily read as simple reverse racism. You can't handle the truth!(?)

After all, it is easiest to respond to an unpleasant message by disengaging from it: writing it off as fallacious, exaggerated, or irrelevant. Whether because a voice is too uncomfortable, too hypocritical, or personally offensive, it is very easy to be discredited, especially in circles into which you are speaking as a critic.

Vision for Reconciliation

But this is distinctly not what I want to do. I do not think that it is the time - at least, in the arena of racial reconciliation - for voices to only be present in the wilderness, crying out to those few who are attracted to them and who are willing to put up with their personal quirks. In this age, I think that the call is to go before not just those who want to listen, or are willing to listen, but especially to those who do not want to listen, and to convince, persuade, or somehow beg them to lend an open ear.

If the persecuted speak only to the persecuted, they cannot proclaim on behalf of the hurt and those crying out for justice. Proclamation comes into a community, and prophetic [2] voices and communities do not retain or hold in prophecy, but share it and spread a message of truth. The difficult, sad, and exhilarating mission for those of us who want to speak truth in love is that communication requires speaking to others, not merely at them.

[1] This is usually how it goes in war crimes: the object of one's transgression is seen as not human and, therefore, not possessing value on par with the subject's humanity. An alternative occurs in the case of child soldiers in Africa: there, instead of being taught that the targets of their violence are subhuman, the humanity of victims is often acknowledged, but simply devalued. Child soldiers are forced to rape, kill, and maim friends and family members, resulting in a general devaluation of all human life, rather than a specifically targeted dehumanization.

[2] Here I use "prophecy" in the general and original sense of "a true proclamation or statement," rather than the more contemporarily common sense of "a true statement about the future".

Thursday, January 21, 2010

Repurposed words: Context and Content

[In the hopes of continued agility of thought, and to spite mental atrophy, a present hope is to dedicate myself to writing of a substantial character. Once a week, generally on Thursdays, I will be sitting down to hash out some brief comments of varying rigor. Your mileage may vary.]

Words are undoubtedly powerful. Biblically speaking, the Word - Hebrew Dabar (), or Greek Logos (λόγος) - is centrally located. One could reasonably say, in fact, that the very essence of Christianity (and the Judaism from which it springs) lies in a theology of words: divine words given to humans from God (Inspiration/Revelation), words used by men to represent to themselves those divine words (Scripture), and words used to systematize, explore, share, and find application for those divine words (philosophical theology, mystical texts, etc.).

Socially speaking, as well, words bear power. Creating terms for systems of oppression and dismissal can serve to reinforce and legitimize them through lexical acceptance, as labels guide identity both overtly (i.e., "Illegal" vs. "Undocumented" immigrants) and subtly (i.e., the normative-neutral "White" versus the marginal and umbrella term "Colored").

This latter point may be unfamiliar to some of my readers, and - though initially I was hoping to cover this in a footnote - it is interesting to explore. You see, beyond the obvious connotations in Western societies - snow, purity, cleanness, and light - White is a generic default, aesthetically a "blank canvas". By creating Whiteness and identifying it with people of Anglo-Saxon European descent as White (rather than, say, Pink, Tan, etc.), the connotative implication is that non-Anglo/non-European persons are less of a blank slate.

I would like stress here that this is not a uniquely White, American, European, or even Western pattern, either. The same is present in modern Chinese: Anglo people are White (白人, bai + ren = white + person) [1], people of African descent are Black (黑人, hei + ren = black + person), but Chinese are 中国人, people of the middle kingdom. And humility is far from a trait of dominant cultures (Consider also the other common term for the Chinese diaspora, 华人, hua + ren = magnificent/splendid + person).

Whether identifying ourselves at the center of all things, or as White (and hence pure/unsullied/adaptable), so long as we have the power to do so, we nearly always ascribe normativity to ourselves. This is a fair move to make internally; after all, processing external input would be highly confusing were it not for the normative presumption of our own internal processes. However, to ascribe normativity to our own points of view in a broader sense overwrites and overrides the experience and authentic reflections of others, creating dissonant systems for those who are not-Us but subscribe (willingly or through coercion) to that prescription. For a majority member [2], most such suppositions pass unquestioned; but, for a minority member, it raises significant existential - even ontological - questions that express themselves as internal anguish and confusion.

Of course, words can also be recontextualized, forcefully and defiantly if need be. The homosexual community (and, increasingly, other communities as well), in accepting, embracing, and finally repurposing the label "Queer", has demonstrated, it seems, a praiseworthy amount of perseverance and deliberate, systematic, activism. It is also one of the rare examples of a community embracing marginalization, for the very etymology of the identifier names its referent as on the fringe.

The N word (as if you're going to get me to spell it out for you... get outta here) is an example of a slur with a far more controversial present usage. While some advocates of the word claim that the same process of acceptance-embrace-repurposing has been undertaken successfully, it is hard to successfully argue that the word has been rehabilitated in the same fashion as the Q word (if you would). To nudge this intuition, let me point to two pieces of evidence: first, that I am myself hesitant to type out in full "the N word", while having no such qualms about "queer" [3]. Second, the ongoing dialect debate over "the N word with a -a" and "the N word with a -er" suggests that the process of linguistic evolution and drift away from offensiveness towards repurposing is far from complete [4].

What separates the two? Without entering into a rigorous discussion, the apparent answer seems to be that "Queer" is a word that preceded its use as a slur, while the N word - though possessing a historied and not entirely negative etymology - springs up in its proximal form as a slur. When those who self-identify as Queer (or queer-allied) do so, they are actually not re-defining the word, but instead actually maintain the definition of the word while re-defining the moral landscape within which it is situated, shifting from normativity to a non-normative field. Not being queer is therefore descriptive, rather than normative, and so queerness becomes as normal as non-queerness.

My (self-)allotted time is drawing to a close and is, indeed, even now nigh. Interestingly, all the above was initially only to be a brief footnote to a larger discussion; at this point, I will turn to a summary of my intended discussion, and pick up on it when next we speak.

So, why all the thought about Words? A natural response would be: the author's hubris leads to an egotistical confluence of form and content, wherein his verbosity is buoyed by the ostensible topic of exploring the power of words.

But no.

Actually, the choice of topic upon which to spend my meagre reserves is prompted by some reflections on the recent Malaysian religious scandal. In short, Malaysian courts recently ruled that it was within the civil rights of non-Muslim organizations (read: Christian churches) and individuals to freely use the Arabic term "Allah" to refer to God - God the concept and God the being. As far as I understand, certain elements within society - pre-radicalized, and definitely not all of Muslim Malaysia [5] - seized upon this ruling as a foothold from which to launch an extremist agenda, including vigilante attacks on various Christian churches and schools.

Malaysia is, of course, a country with a complex history of diversity along ethnic, economic, and religious lines. I am ill prepared to speak on it in such fields, and thus reticent.

While the proximally inciting incident of word usage seems to be more a case of finding excuses than of actual outrage, I am still interested in the idea that word usage can be made into an excuse for action; an excuse that is, at the very least, not horrendously implausible. And even if, in this case, the implausibility of gross offense through word usage is very high, there are definitely cases - slander, defamation, and libel - in which words alone are legally acknowledged to have the power to harm and damage.

To be continued.

[1] It is undeniable that other societies also associate people of Anglo descent with the color white. An interesting study would be a linguistic excavation of Whiteness in other cultures: for example, modern Chinese refer to Anglos as White People. Was this phrase introduced by cultural transmission along with the concept of Whiteness during the opening of Sino-American relations, or does it stem from a natural response to skin tone? Consider also the association of white with death in Chinese cultures (hence, red wedding dresses and white in funeral rituals): in this case, arguments for the nonpreferential nature of white-connotative language seem to obtain more readily.

[2] Majority here, of course, does not necessarily connotate numerical majority, but instead a majority of power. As examples, the racial politics of South Africa and the religious politics of Hussein-era Iraq come to mind.

[3] This does beg the question: ought I be so free with my diction? So far as I understand, queer-sensitive allies are allowed to use this word in such contexts. I may be wrong.

[4] Naturally, as a straight Asian-American male, I am an outsider to both these debates, and I may be reading social cues entirely wrong. This raises another question: do Asian-Americans have a repurposed label? I suspect not. Why not? Interesting.

[5] I hope not to evoke a sense of the Muslim Panic all too familiar in Western rhetoric.