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.