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

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