Sunday, April 20, 2014

What Is An Asian To Do?

America's Asian Problem.

I came across an online news article in the Guardian that surprised me because it was written by an Asian-American (Jennifer Lee), on the subject of Asian-Americans - the Guardian is a British news outlet. In the article - written, somewhat, in response to the recent Amy Chua claims on how culture affects success, and based on studies conducted by Lee and Min Zhou - Lee suggests that "we" need more US Asians - US Chinese in particular - to move away from the rigid definitions of success that have typically driven their apparent economic and academic successes. The gist of the article was - as the article's title suggested - that Asians should expand their definition of success beyond the "limitations" implicit in presuming success to mean a high educational attainment leading to a successful professional career and the financial rewards that such a career brings with it and move into the arts.

I have heard this sentiment being expressed several times before elsewhere and it seems to be a common feeling in Asian-America that somehow seems to based on an assumption that succeeding in the arts is a piece of cake. Whilst I believe that real social change occurs mainly through the process of changing attitudes by means of a strong cultural voice - that is, a creative voice - I also think that we have to be aware of the prevalent culture that seems to condition a negative knee-jerk response to any Asian successes and find fault with it at any cost. Or, on the flip-side, find Asian successes problematic because Asians are simply the wrong kind of minority.

Consider this.....
But this narrow framing of success comes at a price: young people who don’t “make it” are made to feel like failures and under-achievers, often leading them to isolate themselves from their ethnic communities and reject their ethnic identities. These “under-achievers” told us that they “don’t feel really Chinese”, “aren’t like other Asians”, or have become “the black sheep” of their families because they haven’t met what they perceive to be the expected levels of achievement for Chinese Americans.
This is somewhat insulting.The implication here is that a career in the arts is somehow not measured by financial success and academic achievement is less of a necessity, or, even worse, that failure in the arts is somehow less devastating than failure to make it in the professions. This is plainly false.

In truth, in order to succeed in the arts, one has to work extremely hard just to outperform competitors, and then hope that an agent or patron of some kind can find an angle for your work and then pitch it to the right people to pitch it to the general public. In the meantime, the artist often lives a life in which financial uncertainty becomes a way of life. Of course, if you are lucky and manage to make it, then the rewards are probably worth the effort, but for every successful artist there may be dozens more who don't make it. It is that hard, even if you don't add in the ingredient of prejudice that Asians may encounter - as the article says - working in a field where rewards are often derived from the subjective whims of audiences, who may be swayed by prevailing racialized attitudes. How this describes a less stressful career choice or one that carries a "softer" failure I don't know. I would not be surprised to discover that most artists - writers, fine artists, classical musicians and the like - actually do achieve at least a master's degree or above, and that these folks even excelled in their studies.

Even popular musicians - including the self-taught - typically will spend hours in practice, and years performing in dives gaining vital experience. The point is that for every painted masterpiece there are dozens of sketches and rejected ideas, for every hit song, there are dozens of bad takes and rejected verses that never see the light of day. And even when - or if - an artist does produce a masterpiece, there is no guarantee that the world will recognize it as such until well after the artist dies. So, to suggest that a career in the arts leads to more happiness, or is in some way a better way to define success is simply nonsense. The point is that regardless of whether one chooses a professional career or a career in the arts, the application and drive to succeed are fundamentally the same, and success often follows a successful academic career. The only difference between those who choose the professions and those who choose the arts is the vehicle that people are using to get to the same end of financial security and acclaim.

Clearly, regardless of which career choice one makes, the fact is that to succeed in that field, one has to work equally hard, put in thousands of  hours of practice and apply oneself in education,the goals of which are fundamentally the same as they would be in a professional career. To imply otherwise is misleading - the arts require an extremely high degree of educational attainment so I am always somewhat puzzled when I hear Asians speaking about a career in arts as though it is a breeze to achieve.

But there is another aspect to this way of thinking that I find troubling. This what the article says....
Americans often measure success by the three M’s: money, Motorola, and Mercedes. Most Chinese immigrant parents, on the other hand, define success as getting straight A’s, graduating from an elite university, pursuing an advanced degree and becoming a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist or engineer.......Could this be why the children of Chinese immigrants are, on average, better educated and wealthier – with higher paying jobs – than the general US population?.......
Given these consequences, why do Chinese and other Asian immigrant parents frame success so narrowly?.......They do so because they come from countries where education is one of the only paths for mobility. And, as non-white immigrants in the United States, Asian immigrant parents fear that their children will experience discrimination in their careers. So parents shepherd their children into conservative, high-status professions in which they may be most shielded from potential discrimination by employers, customers and clients.......
Based on our interviews with the children of Chinese immigrants, we learned that their parents believe that careers in writing, acting, fashion and art are risky because these professions involve subjective evaluation, thereby making their children vulnerable to bias. By contrast, careers in medicine, engineering, law or pharmacy require higher credentials and advanced degrees, which protects their children from the usual types of discrimination.
What strikes me here is that the article is suggesting that because some people struggle or ultimately fail in their attempts to enter the professions with impeccable educational credentials that this is somehow a good reason to re-define the terms of success. As I explained above, success in any field is fundamentally measured by the same criteria; acclaim from peers and community and financial security so, in reality, success is not actually being re-defined. It is merely the means by which these goals are achieved that has been changed and that carries with it the same, or greater, risk of failure.

But even though the article outlines clearly that perceived and real experiences of prejudice and discrimination have already shaped Asians practices and attitudes towards careers and success - that is, Asians have already re-defined success to adapt to these experiences - Lee's piece somehow manages to avoid the elephant in the room by suggesting that Asians should reappraise of how we define success as a separate dialogue from the factors of prejudice that largely shape them. In effect, Lee is saying that Asians should put their heads down and unilaterally adapt - again - to the obstacles of racism and prejudice that shape how we may approach career choices without, presumably, addressing the issues that have limited, and caused Asians to self-limit, their career choices.

What I am getting at here is that if we know and acknowledge that stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudice, play a significant role in shaping or limiting the avenues for opportunity that Asians feel are available to them, then any reappraisal of this has to be culture and society-wide, and include a reappraisal by society of its attitudes that limit Asian participation in all aspect and areas of the culture.

Certainly it could be argued that by making the decision to strive for success in fields where Asians are not "traditionally" to be found could create a shift in attitudes, but as Jeremy Lin has shown in sports, and several Asian actors have shown in film, even if you have abilities to succeed outside the Asian norm, the deeply ingrained attitudes can and will hold you back. But in both Jeremy Lin's case and that of Asian actors not being given opportunities, it could be argued that the support of the larger Asian-American community who have attacked head-on and basically stopped the overt dehumanizing stereotyping  and characterizations of Lin has helped to smooth his path somewhat, and Asian responses to poor representations may have slightly improved opportunities for Asian actors.

The point here is that the combined efforts of  of Lin's pursuing an "outside of the box" career and the head-on confrontations of the community to the racist backlash against him may have served to highlight the societal conversation about anti-Asian racism, and softened America's cultural conceptual barriers that see or accept a very limited definition of what it means to be Asian. Lee is fundamentally describing a shift whereby Asians act like a "model minority", by changing their own behaviour without necessarily rocking the boat of mainstream racist attitudes, despite the evidence that with a combination of personal application and community will we can soften, slightly, the blows of racist presumption.

Now the irony here is that Lee's piece was written almost as a refutation of Amy Chua's supposed model-minority-celebrating-new-novel in which she cited cultural characteristics as the cause of the successes - as defined by financial and academic achievement - of various American ethnic minorities, including, naturally, the Chinese. Oddly, Lee seems to be a champion for Asians to model-minority their way out of career and choice limiting prejudice in much the same way that Chua has been accused of doing. Even more funny, is that Lee actually reaches the same conclusions that Chua reached - cultural factors are responsible for the success of some minority groups, which is exactly what Chua has asserted. It seems odd to rebut an idea by seemingly agreeing with it.

My sense, though, is that Lee's piece is but one manifestation of the widespread embarrassment amongst Asians that Amy Chua has chosen - by default, perhaps - to not be contrite about Asian success and put it out there as - again perhaps not by design - something that deserves praise in and of itself without it being framed as an implicit affront to the cause of social justice and anti-racism. I'm a little fatigued by the constant reminders that Asians should be ashamed that being successful supposedly makes other minorities look bad, or that our successes are some kind of leverage to justify racism against other groups. On the contrary, the model minority stereotype first and foremost is used to justify racism against Asians, or diminish its importance.

Some suggest that we should throw off the model-minority stereotype for these reasons, I say that by allowing the stereotype to loom large in our consciousness we are giving in to the power of stereotypes to shape our lives. The fact is that regardless of who you are, if you believe stereotypes then you have accepted and utilized racist thinking. This holds true for the white racist who justifies racism against non-Asians by citing the model-minority stereotype, but also for the non-white person who allows themselves to develop racialized resentment towards Asians because they may have been told that they should "do what the Asians do".

We are not responsible for the stereotypes that are created about us and trying to not seem to be that stereotype is to allow racism to shape your actions, when the focus should really be on developing original approaches to shaping identity, our cultural footprint, and our inclusion in more aspects of the culture. Shaming ourselves about Asian successes is to accept the principles of racial prejudice. This is because anti-Asian racism manifests as a refusal to accept Asian-American accomplishments or view them as implicitly threatening, suspicious, or as a justification for resentment which are foundational aspects of anti-Asian racism.

How odd that it is being suggested that we can strike a blow against racism by encouraging shame and suspicion about successes that are largely shaped by that very racism. This behaviour allows the virus of racism to persist because, paradoxically, the carrot of economic success through academic achievement and a career in the professions is still largely held up as the goal for every other group but Asians who, apparently, should be questioning it. This means that decrying our successes supports the racist perspective that is threatened by, and suspicious of, Asian success.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Zeitgeistenstein

We Have Created A Monster!

It might be fair to say that in recent weeks the normally invisible Asian-American community - and one Asian-American in particular - has received an unusual amount of mainstream attention. I am referring, of course, to the media frenzy initiated by Suey Park via the platform of Twitter. Using the social media platform, Park has brought attention to some very real issues of stereotypes and prejudice experienced by Asians in the US, and in so doing raised some questions about the viability of Twitter as a meaningful tool for activism. A new phrase is even floating around to describe this kind of Twitter activism - "#hashtag" activism.

The first such "campaign" began under the hashtag of "#NotYourAsianSidekick", which received considerable support amongst Asian-American twits - is that the right word? - and was followed more recently by a campaign targeting noted liberal satirist - and apparent anti-racist - Stephen Colbert, under the hashtag "#CancelColbert". For this second campaign, Park was interviewed by the Huffington Post, and received quite a beatdown after basically spewing what could only be described as a racially antagonistic series of comments about white people. The interview did not end well.

Apart from being extremely uncomfortable to watch, the interview shows, perhaps, the limitations of Twitter activism. As Suey Park and the rest of Asian-America has discovered, tweeting can get you a lot of attention, in a short amount of time, and even propel you into the full glare of the mainstream media, but it is what happens once you have been given the space to expound on your beliefs that determines the effectiveness of Twitter. This means that Twitter should be thought of as a means of transport to get you to a place where - once there - one can seize the opportunity to win over the viewing public to your point of view. Clearly, Park faltered - but why?

First and foremost, the idea of "offendedness" that Asian-Americans often cite in their response to media racism has come back to bite us. As I have written about elsewhere - here, and here - this approach to engaging with mainstream America on its media and cultural racism is ultimately futile, because our being offended is ultimately our own problem. What, do we think that America should jump up and down and change its racialized attitudes towards Asians because we are upset? The problem with this approach is that there is an implicit privilege and childishness in this narrative - I am offended and upset, so you have to do something about it!

Of course the irony is that it is often Asian-American self-proclaimed justice activists who chide the Asian-American community for not "owning their privilege" who will display this privileged thinking that their offence should somehow be a great motivating force to create social change. Let them eat cake I say! In short, utilizing the mobilizing power of Twitter to earn yourself a spot on a mainstream show to say "I'm offended" might not be the stuff of social change.

But, strangely, at the end of the day, Park was actually correct about one thing; utilizing slurs that are typically used to demean Asians is the lazy and safe approach for comedians wanting to be edgy - if you want to use racial humor to show that you are not a racist, then utilizing anti-Asian slurs is the one means you can be guaranteed to get away with without being saddled with the stigma of being a racist. Furthermore, this comfort with utilizing these slurs speaks to a bigger picture of comfort with anti-Asian prejudices in American culture in general. Park's mistake was to wade in with fists clenched and swinging, making blanket accusations of racism against an entire group (which Park did against white males) which left little room for Park to actually talk about this very real issue of the tolerance for anti-Asian racism in American culture.

I wrote about the necessity to utilize language and communication in a way that inspires and unites in a previous essay. The gist of that post is that there seems to be a tendency to use combative language in intra-Asian debate and dialogue that typically fails to foster understanding, and more likely fosters mutual distrust and antagonism between various Asian-American demographics. This seems to have become the habit and means by which Asian-Americans engage with one another, and it is in this way that we have created the monster of combative engagement exhibited by Suey Park on the HuffPo show.

Asian-Americans might recognize the manner of Park's engagement as a resemblance to the manner of engagement between Asian-Americans on issues as varied as SCA5, "Asian sexism", and inter-racial dating. The lesson here is that if we hope to engage meaningfully and powerfully with mainstream America about our issues, then we would do well to raise the level of dialogue within our community so that we don't make a habit of coming at people who disagree with us with derogatory labelling or sweeping generalizations.

Meanwhile, one ironic moment to emerge from Park's Folly was that supporters of Colbert's anti-racist satirical approach poured forth in raging reaction with abuse for Suey Park utilizing the kind of anti-Asian racial slurs that America spews out with regularity and casual abandon - but only in the name of humor! In truth these supporters of Colbert seem to be genuinely raging that Park did not seem to comprehend the brilliance of their idol's satire, by utilizing the very behaviour that Colbert seems to genuinely abhor. Maybe the racist (and sexist) abuse being hurled at Park is all part of the joke?

Or maybe the satire is lost on the very people who support this genre of anti-racist satirical comedy, in which case, one has to ask if Colbert's own supporters fail to grasp his message of anti-racism that he delivers via clever satire, then perhaps we need to consider whether such satire in the context of America's racial mire is as harmless as the liberal media would like us to believe?

On a final note, let us spare a thought for the real losers in all of this - Native Americans. The skit on the Colbert show from which the offending tweet was derived was a satire on the ongoing, unapologetic use of a racial slur by the Washington NFL team. Naturally, Native peoples feel demeaned by the casual use of such a slur, particularly its usage in such a brazen manner. Read what they have to say about the whole thing, here and here - as you can see, #CancelColbert didn't help them much.

Monday, March 17, 2014

An Asian-American Civil War

SCA 5 And Strategic Thinking

The world of Asian-America recently erupted into an epic ideological conflict over Californian aspirations to allow state schools to reintroduce racial criteria (known as SAC5) in their admissions processes. The plans have caused a sharp divide within Asian-America - those who oppose the legislation cite fears that Asian enrollment would be unfairly curtailed as colleges strive for quotas that reflect the balance of the general population, those who support the legislation cite social justice and diversity considerations.

In this post I will not argue for or against the legislation, suffice it to say that whilst I agree that promoting social justice and increasing genuine diversity are the way forward for a racially complex America, I find the idea of affirmative action as advocated by SAC 5 as a means to remedy these issues to be hopelessly insufficient. What interests me about this subject are my observations on the Asian-American commentaries and advocacy for the legislation.

What I find remarkable is that the Asian-American voice on this issue is simultaneously loud but also strangely drowned out and lost in the bigger picture of the debate. It is hard to deny that Asians on both sides of the debate are being extremely vocal about their beliefs, but what seems to be lacking is an imaginative and creative approach to solving the underlying issues that are retarding social justice that contribute to the lack of diversity not just in college admissions, but also in many areas of the socio-economic sphere.

Whilst Asian advocates have been at the forefront of cheerleading for the legislation, I have notice a glaring lack of Asian advocates exploring alternative, ideas for social justice beyond merely relaying the standard tropes of liberal ideology. I am yet to see Asian advocates for social justice who do support the notion of affirmative action in college admissions question whether it actually will have the effect of alleviating the injustices of long-term racialized poverty amongst ethnic minorities. I have doubts, and I am surprised that even those who are passionate about affirmative action seem disinclined to explore the subject beyond what is presented by "higher ups" in the liberal/conservative ideological arena. This is sad because it means that Asians are not actually taking leadership in shaping an Asian-American contribution to the quagmire of racial justice. We are not creating ideological road maps that challenge prevailing wisdoms about how to go about advancing our and other's aspirations for diversity and equality. In short, we are placing ourselves in positions of being mere messengers of other people's and group's ideas.

Much is said about the need for Asian-Americans to step out of the conscientiousness numbing coddling of the model minority stereotype and make a difference in the advancement of racial justice, but in the absence of an innovative road map, where does the inspiration come from that will motivate us to do just that? The conservative/liberal umbrellas under which ideological battles are fought seems to have major holes over the areas where Asians are standing, and many Asians feel that they are invisible in this dichotomy, and I tend to agree. But the answer to invisibility is not to merely shout louder and become the most aggressive cheerleader, but rather to become those who shape the ideological landscape.

One way to think about it is to consider how almost to a person, Asian-Americans will agree that the lack of culturally appropriate Asian images and positive role-models creates problems of identity and sense of exclusion. Likewise, my sense is that in the realm of political action we lack meaningful role models whose approach is original and creative and who inspires ideological identification amongst Asian-Americans. What I mean by this is that - echoing the identity conflicts of Asian-America - there has been a failure of advocates to model an Asian-American political identity that reflects our unique experiences as a minority whose cultures or civilization are viewed as implicitly incompatible, or in existential conflict, with the west. It is almost as though Asian advocates want to parachute Asian faces into the middle of America's political and social landscape without first establishing the unique and specific experiences of Asian-Americans as an autonomous and worthy aspect of that landscape.

What seems to have been the preferred strategy is to act as "persuaders" for the big issues of the day as opposed to the shapers of those issues. Some might suggest that relatively low numbers of Asians makes such an approach practical, but creating original avenues for advocacy does not require large numbers of people - it only requires people willing to question political orthodoxies and look for alternative ways to solve them.

The topical issue of affirmative action in college admissions offers us a clear example of this. At the root of the conflict between the two warring sides is the issue of how the reintroduction of race as part of the admission criteria will affect Asian enrollment. Given the fact of Asian invisibility and general social resentment or indifference towards Asian achievement in American society, the fears that Asians will be unfairly negatively affected by SAC5 in favour of more "likeable" and politically influential minority groups whose achievements are more likely to bolster liberal political careers, are legitimate ones.

Some responses to these concerns have been disappointing to say the least. In what amounts to a smearing tactic, opponents of SAC5 are being labelled as "haters" purveying "lies" by Asian advocates as this piece in the very widely read AngryAsianMan blog (although not written by him) shows. This is sad in a number of ways. Firstly, it is a very childish approach to a very serious problem - "haters"? Really? The only thing missing from the piece is to gloat about "PWNING" the "haters". Secondly, this piece shows a lack of sophistication in Asian-American discourse, and that Asian advocacy also produces second-rate polemics to accompany its lack of creativity.

In conclusion, as I suggested here, people are motivated by inspiration, but, sadly, it seems as though this ability to inspire is what is lacking amongst Asian advocates for social justice. Asian-Americans are often criticized for their supposed political apathy, but the debate over SAC5 has really opened my eyes, and the problem is not that Asians are implicitly placid in politics - that is merely a racist stereotype. Just observe the months of political involvement and protesting in Thailand, labor unrest in Cambodia, rebellions in Burma, and the almost constant protesting in China, as well as the ubiquitous anti-corruption protesting in the Philippines. Asians are not politically apathetic and are quite willing to fight for what they believe in even to the point of dying for their beliefs.

This can only mean that supposed Asian-American political apathy is not the consequence of specific innate racial and cultural qualities of Asian people, but is more likely the result of poor and uninspiring leadership from Asian-American advocates, who sometimes seem to advocate for Asians by ignoring their concerns. Given that proponents of SAC5 are vague in what it entails - at one and the same time it will ensure that college populations are more representative of the demographics of the state, but somehow won't require quotas, the amendment will use race as one of the admissions factors, without telling us what someone's race tells us about their qualities, and most of all, it doesn't tell us how the legislation will improve inter-generational poverty (which is the point of affirmative action) - it is no surprise that Asian-Americans are looking uninspired by the whole idea.

Tuesday, March 11, 2014

A Modulating Racism

Prosperity, Success, And The Permissiveness Of Racism.

I came across an article in the New York Times that covered the racial experiences of minority groups at the University Of Michigan. What struck me about the piece was one comment by a black admin officer that I thought had significance in the intra-Asian-American dialogue on the model minority stereotype. This is the comment...
We’re clearly not postracial,” said Tiya A. Miles, chairwoman of the department of Afro-American and African studies. “Sometimes I wonder if having a black president lets people feel like that gives them cover. It absolves people of being prejudiced.
An interesting comment that sums up in a nutshell the experience of Asian-Americans.Whereas the the above comment mentions the "success" of having a black president serving as an excuse or cover for prejudice, for Asian-Americans, it is the notion of an economically and educationally high-achieving minority that excuses anti-Asian attitudes - what do Asians have to complain about when they are so successful?

Whereas much commentary focuses on how the minority model stereotype separates us in the eyes of our co-minorities, all too often we miss the fact that the stereotype's primary function serves to render an autonomous Asian voice invisible and downplay the fact that casual anti-Asian racism and hate crimes are regularly committed through derogatory cultural representations of Asians, normalizing such attitudes and further ingraining anti-Asian hostility into the cultural zeitgeist as the normal and acceptable mode of behaviour and conceptualization of Asian people.

While we spend our time decrying how the successes we achieve are an affront to other minorities, we fail to notice that this success - paraphrased as the "model minority" - serves as an excuse to legitimize America's casual cultural racism towards Asian-Americans. Many of the incidents cited by the article of racial intolerance and insensitivity towards black students are mirrored in commonplace experiences for Asian-Americans. In fact, not only are they common, American culture itself brazenly and unapologetically propagates this intolerance flagrantly distilling "Asian" characteristics down to a series of demeaning qualities that are recycled by subsequent perpetrators and even broadcast to international audiences.

Here are some examples of the intolerance cited in the article....
fraternity hosting the party, whose members are mostly Asian and white, had invited “rappers, twerkers, gangsters” and others “back to da hood again.”.....high-profile incidents — including a number of fraternity parties nationwide that have used racist symbols, including watermelons and gang signs....a black student at the State University of New York at New Paltz, shared a photo of a “colored only” sign that had been placed on a water fountain in his freshman year.
What is being described here echoes the kinds of media depictions that Asian-Americans complain about, the difference is that the article is acknowledging that these incidents may reflect an intolerance towards blacks, whereas the media's perpetration of the same kinds of insensitivities and dehumanization of Asians causes few eyebrows to be raised, and scarce criticism save from Asians themselves. Rarely, if at all, is the possibility raised that these intermittent but consistent depictions of Asians might reflect intolerance. The question is; what is the difference between "play-acting" at being a "gangsta" in a college frat-house and play-acting dehumanizing ideas about Asians on the television or movie screen?

One difference is that Asians are a model minority whose educational and economic achievements have enabled anti-Asian racism to find an acceptable avenue of expression - prosperity alleviates the effects of racism, so the prevailing wisdom goes, and, in fact, prosperity itself may reflect a reversal of racist attitudes such that racial insensitivities can be excused because the bottom-line has become the gauge of its prevalence. The logic is flawless and convenient; prosperity is an indicator that racism has diminished, therefore racially demeaning depictions of Asians simply cannot be racist.

The reality is that what the Asian-American experience can offer us - and it is an experience that we often miss in our attempts to distance ourselves from "internalizing" the model minority stereotype - is an insight into the future of all visible minorities who attain some level of prosperity. If we accept that prosperity is the line beyond which racism is judged to have disappeared - when our experience tells us it has not - then we have not really succeeded in changing ingrained racist attitudes, we merely allow them to exist in a more subtle or snide way that enables the permissiveness of racial harassment.

The model minority dialogue must provide more room for the exploration of this phenomenon of prosperity providing the legitimacy for the permissiveness of racial harassment. Instead of framing the Asian-American experience of achieving prosperity as primarily a story of a formerly aggrieved minority's ingratitude or indifference to other minorities who may be less successful than we, perhaps it would behoove us to explore the subtle, grudging, racisms that accompanies prosperity or even merely the appearance of prosperity, and in so doing, highlight the fact that racism does not end once a group has exhibits high college graduation or income levels. 

Friday, February 14, 2014

Dreaming Of A Non-White Winter Olympics

Things Unsaid....

I came across an interesting article in the Washington Post about the lack of diversity at the Sochi Olympics. Bemoaning the lack of African-American and Hispanic athletes, the piece highlights the almost absolute "whiteness" of the games....
Don’t listen to your friends back home saying the Winter Olympics are just for white people who like the cold and vacation in Aspen. This is the most inclusive Winter Games ever. Why, there are Caucasians here from almost 88 different nations......this place is whiter than an episode of “Downton Abbey.”
Fair enough, black and Hispanic underrepresentation in winter sports is something to ponder, but not, in my opinion any more or less worth pondering than the general underrepresentation of Asians in sport - more on that later. Whilst the dearth of black and Hispanic athletes in winter sports is certainly something that requires attention, the fact that Asians have traditionally not been associated with sports and, thus, generally not considered as "sporty" - which may be reflected in the relative dearth of Asians in sport - is something that I think also warrants some degree of inquiry.

So, surely, Asians who do make it in sport is a subject worthy of its own investigation and story - after all, Asians are a racial minority affected by racism and stereotypes (particularly, perhaps in sport) that seeks to limit their prosperity? Well, maybe not........
Look, I don’t care about the color of the competitors. And I don’t think the paucity of black or Hispanic athletes should cheapen any gold medal, as if somehow this were a cold-war Olympics that didn’t include some of the greatest sporting nations......The fact is, despite Vonetta Flowers becoming the first black person to become a Winter Olympic gold medalist as a bobsledder in 2002, despite Davis becoming the first male African American to win individual gold in 2006, there hasn’t been a whole lot of carryover.
Yes, more minorities, more colour, more diversity........yes?
Aside from the large contingent of Asian athletes and a smattering of Jamaican bobsledders and Tongans, the Opening Ceremonies’ Parade of Nations is as white as a von Trapp family reunion.
Er..no! That's right, apart from the large contingent of non-white Asians and a few blacks and Pacific İslanders, there is just no diversity at the games. Why the writer of the article apparently feels as though a large contingent of Asians is somehow a lesser quality of diversity isn't specified. Given stereotypes about Asian physical weaknesses and inaptitude for sports, surely the fact that there is a "large contingent" of Asians participating in a sporting event at the highest level warrants a more enthusiastic commentary. Instead, I can't help  but feel as though the writer is suggesting that the Asian contingent is a kind of disappointing diversity that is only worth the effort of inclusion in the discussion only to further highlight that, well, there are few blacks at the games.

To me, the fact that Asians are present in numbers at Sochi is, in fact, a huge victory against the racialized thinking that stereotypes Asians as nerdy, unsporty, weaklings and is something that deserves to be celebrated - particularly in light of the fact that several of those Asian athletes are Americans. A more interesting question may be, perhaps, why Asians are present in numbers at winter sports and what that may tell us about the complexities of American attitudes towards race and stereotypes.

It could well be that - for the Asian-American athletes at least - the very lack of black dominance in winter sports has offered breathing space for the consideration of Asians for inclusion. What I mean by this is that stereotypes about the sporting prowess of black athletes coupled with opposite stereotypes about Asians may conspire to leave little room in sporting programs for Asians to be included, no-one expects to find  good Asian athletes, so no-one is looking. Since winter sports don't seem to be looking for a "Michael Jordan", there is room for Asians to taste the waters of athletic competition and compete at the highest level since they are also not competing against stereotypes of superior black sporting aptitude.

The point is that the typical stereotypical modes of thinking that have discouraged the idea that Asians have the physical capabilities to compete at the highest athletic levels are almost certainly being overcome and belied by the very presence of Asians at the highest level of competition at Sochi. This is a cause for celebration, it is certainly worthy of far more than a single disappointed throwaway line that diminishes the value of the Asian component of diversity.

But perhaps the biggest point of concern - and disappointment - is the implication that Asian athletes participating in lieu of white ones is somehow cheating America (and possibly blacks and the whole world) out of true diversity, which really should mean black and Hispanic athletes competing in lieu of white (and possibly Asian) ones. There are some disturbing echoes here of the debate over college admissions in which Asians have become something of a bogeyman and stumbling block for the liberal narrative of diversity and its recent addendum that too much success amongst Asians is a threat to black empowerment.

In summary, the piece illustrates that Asian-Americans are the blindspot of America's race dialogue - our "successes" are not the kind of race-dialogue that America welcomes, even when it is a clear illustration of overcoming racialized adversity. The fact is that it is in the field of sports that black and Hispanic integration has been quite pronounced, such that these groups dominate or are on an equal footing in mainstream American sports. Ironically, it is aspiring Asians who need encouragement to participate in sports and whose presence is underrepresented - so why is a large contingent of Asian athletes only worth mentioning in the context of how few black and Hispanics there are?

True investment in diversity should lead us to ask balanced questions and think, well, in more diverse ways. In the interests of genuine diversity in sports it is fair and balanced to ask; how do we expand the involvement of Asians in sports so that they are more equally represented in sports outside of winter competition? But that would mean that America would have to start thinking about the Asian experience of race, racism, and racialization - something it presently generally prefers to dismiss.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Fighting For Children's Rights

Helen Gym

I just thought that I would highlight someone whose focus might be - in my opinion - one of Asian-America's most significant issues today. Helen Gym is an Asian woman based in Philadelphia, who although an advocate for school reform in the Philly area, came to my attention back in 2009 when she was instrumental in the advocacy for Asian-American kids who had been suffering severe racially based bullying and harassment.

Her advocacy is significant for two reasons; firstly she is challenging apathetic attitudes towards dysfunction in the school system, and secondly (but most importantly from an Asian-American perspective) she has been, and continues to be, instrumental in defending the casually abused civil rights of Asian kids in Philadelphia High Schools. I have written about the experiences of the Asian kids in South Philly in several previous posts, and, in fact, it was my feeling that there seemed to be little interest in the violence directed at these kids amongst Asian-Americans that motivated me to start a blog. Of course, my writings explore issues beyond this, but it was my sense that there was a dearth in interest not only in the specific events in South Philly High School, but also there seemed to little exploration into the phenomenon of anti-Asian racism in American schools.

More specifically, my interest covers the intersection of Asian depictions and attitudes in American cultural endeavours, and the experience of racially inflected bullying, harassment, and violence that seems almost universal amongst Asians kids going through America's education system to one degree or another. For me, the possibility of universal casual racism perpetrated by non-Asian kids on their Asian peers in schools, ranks as one of the most significant issues that Asian-America needs to address. The reason is simple; if the casual anti-Asian racism (often in the form of casual retributive violence against deindivuated masses) modeled by American culture is emulated or reflected in the behaviours and attitudes of children, then these attitudes may easily form into habits of prejudice that manifest as casual anti-Asian discrimination in adulthood.

Certainly, addressing media racism directly is one avenue for changing this state of affairs, but I also believe that seeking accountability from school admins, teachers, and any other adult involved in the "care" of Asian kids in the school environment warrants some thought. All too often, anti-Asian racism in America's schools is dismissed as merely the actions of ignorant or insensitive kids, or is simply put down to the fact that "kids can be cruel". These might be sufficient explanations under normal circumstances, but, for Asian-American kids, not only are they dealing with "cruel kids", but with a culture that actually models (through media depictions) many of the racist behaviours that they are experiencing. That is a whole different ball-game.

In effect, America's casual cultural racism can only be normalizing the kinds of racist behaviours that are directed at Asian children, and because this process can actually be viewed as a conditioning process, what it means is that negative behaviours and attitudes towards Asian people become and remain ingrained. This is why I think school racism is one of the most important issues that we as a community need to highlight and address.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Killing Us Softly With Words.

Storytelling Asians To Death.

In a previous post I touched upon the idea that Asian "maleness" has, at best, a second-class status in American culture. For Asian men growing up in the US, the stories that American culture tells itself about us are typically demeaning and xenophobic, or combative and hostile. Naturally, many Asian men feel a sense of cultural and social marginalization that their humanity is demeaned, and their masculinity is afforded scarce cultural space to find expression or validation. Subsequently, ideas of masculine identity seem to recur as themes amongst Asian men and with it notions of their "place" and sense of acceptance in this society. One way that culture fosters an inclusive identity is through the narratives of storytelling.

Stories and narratives ground people in culture providing a profound sense of connectedness and identity by offering readers, listeners, or viewers, the opportunity to identify with characters - and the scenarios they find themselves in - so they are able to firmly place themselves into that narrative and hence the culture it reflects, represents, and describes. On the flipside, in order for these narratives to have cohesive power, they must provide a narrative of what this identity does not represent - that is, a set of contrasting qualities that clearly define what they are not equally as strongly as depictions which powerfully reinforce and shape ideas of what they are. Often, this set of undesirable qualities are embodied and visualized in the form of Asian men so, naturally, they perhaps find little sense of inclusion, and certainly little sense of visibility, in this cultural narrative.

One thing is certain, many Asian men feel that there is scarce acceptance of them save for specific situations where they fit the pre-conceived notions of the mainstream (and mainstreamed) community around them. But while Asians have long campaigned against the culture of stereotype and the media that propagates it, new research highlights the degree to which constant, one-sided and one-dimensional, media depictions might profoundly condition society to hold deeply ingrained racist attitudes (and, hence, behaviours) towards Asians. All of this happens through the very simple process of storytelling.

According to this article, new research presents the intriguing possibility that narratives actually create biological changes in a reader or listener......
[after reading a given passage] fMRI....scans showed....heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments.....[and]..Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.
What is not known is how long these changes remain in effect, but if these changes are temporary, it seems reasonable to wonder if a continuous narrative on any given subject might effectively prolong these biological changes.

As stated above, "grounded cognition", is a physical response created merely by thinking about something; if you "think about running, then you can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running". It should follow that if the majority of narratives about Asians denigrate and dehumanize, then you think of Asians as dehumanized, and as little more than a collection of demeaning and distasteful qualities, and that there would be a corresponding physical reaction of distaste that reinforces the emotional and ethical distancing from Asians with every depiction?

So, given that American culture runs a repetitive narrative that depicts demeaning attitudes and behaviours towards Asians as normal, ethically neutral, or morally justified, it raises the possibility that this is, in fact, an "association" process that ingrains anti-Asian attitudes down to a physical level. This means that if Asians are repeatedly depicted most forcefully and memorably in ways that portray them as a threat and, therefore, as the recipients of justified violent retribution, or as objects of ridicule, then any physically conditioned responses - "gut reactions", if you will, albeit unconscious - would surely be ones of distaste and withdrawal of moral empathy merely as a consequence of this conditioned response.

This is clearly and inadvertently illustrated in an interesting video on YouTube (pertinent part starts at 8:20) in which Chinese-American award-winning journalist - Ti Hua Chang - talks about his experiences trying to make it in the media industry. At one point in his career, he is told - by a well-meaning mentor - that audiences would not embrace him because whenever he sees an Asian man, he has an uncomfortable physical response that he associates with distasteful notions about Asian men.

Other research into the human mind provides us with even more food for thought. According to research done at the Max Planck Institute, decisions (and, therefore, I would presume, responses) are made several seconds before we become conscious of them. That is, whatever conditioning we may have received throughout the course of our lives - and that must include neurolo-physiological conditioning of narratives - must play a role in how we respond to, and make behavioural decisions about, people and things around us. But it is seemingly a mostly unconscious process.

So, human beings become aware of decisions several seconds after they are made, these decisions are thus largely physiological processes (becoming conscious later) and thus probably, at least, in part conditioned by cultural narratives. Such narratives elicit a physical response in listeners, and America's cultural narratives concerning Asians are largely one-sidedly dehumanizing and demeaning. That means that casual, even "jokey", anti-Asian cultural racism has the potential to shape and condition racist behaviours on an extremely profound level, such that it gets to the point that even when Asians are not depicted negatively, the physically reinforced emotional gut-reaction is, because of conditioning, a negative one.

One way that Asians have responded to these demeaning depictions has been to protest racist media narratives, although it has to be said that given the possibilities outlined in this essay, it seems like a terrible mismatch of comprehension to respond to ingrained, physical response-inducing derogatory narratives, with our usual ubiquitous meek challenge of "we're offended". Although this advocacy has been valuable in the extreme, my sense is that there has to be a "second arm" to the struggle against dehumanizing narratives, which consists of a kind of personal responsibility. What I mean by this is that, as individuals, we can take responsibility of our own personal narratives simply because a good way to overcome powerful denigrating stories is to tell better stories about ourselves. Another way of saying this is that fostering creativity (and the narratives it produces) is possibly one of the most powerful avenues to supersede the denigrating narratives that this culture tells about us.

Strangely, the goal here is not to change the minds of people who have, perhaps, barely conscious ingrained racist responses to us, but rather, create an equally powerful ingrained conditioning within ourselves that contextualizes our experiences as men within this society. After all, these derogatory narratives must also leave their mark on young Asian boys growing up in this culture which conceives of them as the embodiment of all that a man should not be. This process would involve creating personal narratives in the form of metaphors that serve as the basis for the kind of heroic "myths" that any conscious being must hold about themselves which serve to provide an all-important sense of transcendent purpose that is integral to the human condition.

That, in a nutshell, is the nature of this culture's prejudice against Asian men - cultural marginalization and its narrative of dehumanization offers scarce space for cultural participation in one of the most fundamental aspects of human life; transcendence myths that are the basis for aspiration, and which assists in the formation of a contextual identity. Oddly, it seems that one of the best possibilities for advocacy for Asian men, comes in the form of simply telling more compelling stories.

H/T Alpha Asian for Ti-Hua Chang video.