Tuesday, June 29, 2010

Hating the Airbenders!

I started this blog only this month mainly to present a series of essays and commentaries on some of the issues facing Asian-Americans, particularly Asian-American men. One such issue is media “whitewashing”, i.e., the habitual use of white actors to play characters who are Asian, both fictional and historical and usually it is Asian male characters who are whitewashed out. Another aspect of this phenomenon, as it relates to Asian men, is the issue of whitewashing Asian men out of relationships with Asian women, i.e., an apparent ubiquity of onscreen partnerships involving white men and Asian women, yet very few involving Asian men and Asian women (but this is another story!).

As an Asian man, I’m fully aware of how invisible we are in the media, and I get it that invisibility increases the influence of negative stereotyping. I also get it that challenging invisibility in the media and media misrepresentations is a necessary part of the struggle to end dehumanizing images of Asians. Unfortunately, my feeling is that as much imbalance there is in the media, the response to it by Asian-Americans is equally out of balance. It seems to me that there is a movement of sorts within the Asian-American community that seeks to elevate issues with the media over that of real civil rights issues. I think of this as something of a “populist” movement – populist in the sense that there is an ability to mobilize apparently large numbers of supporters across the nation to protest and engage in demonstrations against whatever media issue is at hand. The Airbender issue is a perfect example of this populism in action.

Most people reading this will probably be familiar with the issue. Briefly, many Asian-Americans (i.e. East Asian-Americans) are peeved that a live action movie re-do of a Nickelodeon cartoon has used non-East-Asian actors/actresses to play characters who were apparently East-Asian in the original cartoon. The response has been immaculate! Letter-writing campaigns, demonstrations, accusations that the director is being racist, and calls for a boycott. I have been amazed!

Recently, I wrote a post (here) about the ongoing struggles faced by Asian-American children in South Philly High School. What seems to be happening there is that Asian children have been targeted for harassment and violence. Beatings of Asian children are routine, and racial baiting is reportedly initiated in some instances by teaching staff. School admins are and have been fully aware of the problem, yet apparently continue to permit an environment of anti-Asian bias in the school. Evidently, this seems to be a major issue that suggests the civil rights of Asian children are being abused.

What is remarkable is the seeming lack of prolonged outspoken national support for these beleaguered children. In the first few days that the story broke, somewhat nationally, several Asian bloggers carried the story, there was some degree of national support in the form of monetary donations (I believe), but since those first few days, the issue has quietly slipped from the popular Asian conscience (although some Asian bloggers continue updating the situation). By and large, the kids and civil rights advocates at South Philly are apparently on their own.

Compare now the response to the Last Airbender whitewashing issue. Since the casting for the movie was announced in 2008, the issue has been kept fresh in the hearts and minds of Asian-Americans across the U.S with repeated calls for letter writing campaigns, boycotts, protests, and so on and so forth. There’s even a website devoted entirely to the campaign. Yikes!

Here is my confusion; why aren’t we getting this worked up about our kids being basically lynched in South Philly? Where are the one day walk-outs by Asian kids across the country in support? Where are the thousands of letter-writers? Where are the weekly demonstrations around the country that keeps the pressure on the South Philly school district? Why aren’t we more angry about it?

Whilst I empathize with the frustration and pain of media whitewashing, I find it hard to understand how the Airbender issue can assume so much importance that it eclipses an overt case of institutionalized racism. People and societies form ideas about people in many ways. The Asian community is extremely concerned about its image in the media, yet, I can’t help but wonder what kind of image we are presenting with our apparent failure to get our priorities straight. I think that prioritizing media whitewashing and misrepresentation over civil rights issues is ultimately as detrimental to our very real cause as the media whitewashing itself.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Good-Looking for an Asian guy!!!

If I had ten cents for every time I had seen or heard this statement I would probably be quite well off! We all have a sister, cousin, aunt or even our mothers(!) who would routinely state something along the lines of; “(he) is quite good looking……for an Asian!” or it’s several variations – “(he) has a nice nose…..for an Asian”, or “(he) is strong/fast/tough…….for an Asian” etc. You get the picture. In fact, it would probably be accurate to say that most, if not all, Asian-American men grow up hearing this so many times throughout their childhood and on into adulthood that they believe that it’s entirely unusual that anyone would consider Asian men to be attractive.

What is the standard by which these guys, who may be attractive despite being Asian, are measured? Of course, the answer is the Caucasian standard. The reality is that for many Asian women involved in raising Asian boys, the attractiveness of Asian men is dependant upon the degree to which their physical characteristics resemble those of white men. Few even recognize the underlying prejudice this statement entails. It’s not that these women are being wicked or deliberately racist, they have somehow deemed it acceptable to impart to their sons and brothers the idea that Asian characteristics aren’t as desirable as those of Caucasian men, and that when Asian men do measure up to the white standard, that this something extremely unusual and is something to be admired.

Although the examples given above are specific, this phenomenon seems to be part of a wider problem that exists amongst Asian-Americans. It seems to me that as a community we seem to permit ideas and attitudes which if we were to apply to those outside our race or community, we would consider extremely offensive and racist. One of the most prevalent yet casual expressions of this racism is of course, the attitude and its ubiquitous reinforcement that it’s unusual or unbelievable that Asian men can be attractive or desirable. These attitudes will typically suggest that Asian men are, almost by definition, less than. Asian-Americans would disown and lynch their own mothers if they were to say perhaps that Denzel Washington is good-looking for a black man. They wouldn’t tolerate it. Yet, we tolerate this attitude when speaking about our own brothers.

Much is written and discussed on the subject of the emasculation issues of Asian-American men. What seems to be the most common belief is that the media emasculates Asian men through derogatory stereotyping. Whilst I don’t deny that there is a media war being waged against Asian men, I question whether this is enough to cause the sense of emasculation and disempowerment one seems to see expressed by some Asian men. It seems obvious to me that if an Asian boy grows up in a household where it is believed and reinforced that Asian men are typically unattractive or that Asian men are unable to compete physically with his non-Asian peers, then that boy will develop a pretty profound sense of inadequacy about himself. The media simply provides the icing on the cake.

Certainly, it makes sense to challenge media stereotypes that are detrimental to the psychological well-being of Asian boys, but to pursue this course without challenging the negative reinforcement that many Asian boys receive from within their own families is like building a house on a weak foundation. Even if we were to persuade the media to change its representations of Asian men, the issue of confidence and emasculation would remain because a good deal of these problems stems from the negative messages Asian boys receive in their formative years.

This must be the first step to Asian male empowerment; to challenge and overcome commonly held beliefs within Asian families themselves that are fundamentally demeaning for Asian men, and contribute to the sense of emasculation that many of them experience.

Sunday, June 20, 2010

South Philly and lessons from the Jena 6.

The API Movement blog recently wrote an update on the latest obfuscations of the South Philly School District who are engaging in an apparent campaign of deceit in an attempt remedy their tarnished image and stave off criticisms of their (lack of appropriate) handling of ethnic violence in South Philly High School. Here is the API story, read it and weep.

It's rare to see institutionalized racism against Asians so blatant and transparent as we are witnessing from the goons of the South Philly administration and teaching staff. These are the people who have the responsibility to raise the next generation to be productive citizens, and the bearers of the torch of American freedom and democracy. Given their evident dishonesty, and criminal indifference in upholding the civil rights and safety of our children (both Asian and black) it seems more likley that  they are working hard to raise the next generation of criminals and racists.

It is ominous in the extreme to realize that South Philly administrators and teachers apparently seem completely comfortable with ignoring any sense of morality and feel empowered to ignore apparent criminal violence amongst their student body. Worse still is the apparent willingness to obstruct the process of justice by destroying reports describing the continuing violence.

While this case (and others like it, remember Lafayette?) has met with a strong response from Asian civil rights groups and local advocacy groups, and has been reported by several Asian-American bloggers, the case has remained a largely local affair. Could it be that the staff and administration of South Philly are empowered by the fact that advocacy for our kids in the school has been allowed to be contained within a relatively small geographical area, and has similarly met with relatively little national attention even from Asian-Americans?

Compare, for instance, the case of the so-called “Jena 6” in Louisiana. Briefly, six African-American high school students had been arrested for beating a white student amidst rising racial tensions and confrontations at their school. The subsequent arrests of the six, gave rise to outrage and accusations of racial injustice by civil rights groups and black advocacy groups. The outcry against this perceived racial injustice became a national phenomenon. Most notable was a rally on the day one defendant was to be sentenced that was attended by around 20,000 people – this in a town of less than 3,000. Thousands of demonstrators had been bussed in for the rally and several local demonstrations of support took place around the country. The message was loud and clear; the Jena 6 were not alone and the nation was watching.

The lesson here is clear. The Asian-American community doesn’t seem to realize that it is being outmaneuvered and contained by a South Philly staff that is motivated to keep the status quo and uphold the institution of anti-Asian racism in the American public school system. By allowing the problem to be contained and localized we are disempowering our activists. Why aren’t there more rallies of support across the nation? Where are the letter writing campaigners? Surely if we can muster the motivation to act on a national scale over issues such as media stereotyping, and whitewashing of Asian characters, we can also find the motivation to rally in support of our kids miles away in South Philly.

There are numerous Chinatowns and Asian enclaves throughout the U.S.A - I urge Asian-Americans to take up their banners, and march peacefully through your local Chinatown and help draw attention to this injustice being committed against our children.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

“Dollar a Day, Dime a Dance”

Asian men; America really needs you!

Readers may recognize the title of this essay from a chapter out of the Ronald Takaki book “Strangers from a Different Shore”. The chapter outlines the experiences of the mainly male Filipino immigrants to the U.S in the 1920’s and 30’s. What is most interesting about the account is how, in many ways, the Filipino experiences were vastly different from that of Chinese or Japanese immigrants.

A primary difference seemed to be a relative lack of a cultural aversion to ethnic/cultural/social mixing with outsiders. Whereas, according to Takaki, Japanese and Chinese immigrants possessed a drive to maintain ethnic/cultural purity, the Filipinos seemed to have no such notions of cultural or ethnic purity. Consequently, Filipino immigrants of the time regularly and brazenly defied anti-miscegenation laws to consort with white women. Of course, this outraged white men and threatened their apparently fragile sexual prowess and led to terrible racial violence, harassment and victimization of Filipino men with white women. Many mixed race couples simply didn’t go out in public together, even if they had children together, because it was deemed too dangerous.

Carlos Bulosan (the great Filipino-American writer, who was also an immigrant to the U.S.A during this period and witnessed first-hand much of this anti-miscegenation hostility) in his book “America is in the Heart” records many incidences of violence and discrimination directed at Filipino male/white female couplings. Reading some the accounts is heart-wrenching. Discrimination, harassment and violent attacks characterized the lives of those Filipino men brave enough to cross the racial divide.

Both books describe the hostility of white men to the fact that white women found Filipinos to be extremely attractive, sexually preferable and that Filipino men were pursued by white women. What comes through in these accounts is the degree of fear of the Filipino male’s potent sexuality. Subsequent laws limiting any further immigration of Filipinos were enacted with this sexual fear in mind. What a remarkable contrast to the way that Asian men are perceived in America today!

At the present time, Asian men are well and truly discarded, disregarded and demeaned by many in American society. Our value as partners has been diminished – even by some within the community itself. Our masculinity itself is regularly demeaned and relegated as substandard. To me, this shows that the fear of our sexual potency that was so openly expressed in the 20’ and 30’s still exists and is now expressed as media ridicule and enabled by social marginalization. Now the fear of Asian men’s sexuality is hidden behind the bravado of sexual posturing of an insecure mainstream. This is supported by media misrepresentations, , and negative stereotyping, which are sadly endorsed as truth by some within the Asian community.

The truth is that mainstream America has this fantasy about Asian men. It really needs for us to be weaker, less attractive, less masculine and less potent. It needs us to be strange and ridiculous. It needs us to appear weak so that it doesn’t have to face the fact of our potency. Asian men; the mainstream fears you and really needs for its misrepresentations of you to be true.

They fear that you will prove that you are equal in every way.

Friday, June 11, 2010

Giving Credit Where It's Not Due!!

Are media stereotypes responsible for identity crises in Asian-Americans, and do they contribute to social diffidence in Asian men and the high rate of out-dating of Asian women?

This is certainly a loaded question! It is a topic that gets debated, analyzed and thrashed out by any Asian-Americans seeking the societal and political advancement of their community in America. I think it would be fair to say that most Asian-Americans are dissatisfied with how Asians are depicted in the media and film, and many believe that these depictions contribute to anti-Asian discrimination.

There are still yet others in the Asian-American community who go further than this in suggesting that stereotyping leads to crises of identity for Asians, a supposed diffidence amongst Asian men (if indeed Asian men are generally diffident!), and causes Asian women to fawn over white men! This seems to be a somewhat popularly held belief within the general Asian-American population. I agree entirely that negative media stereotypes foster racist attitudes, and perhaps even desensitize viewers to the inhumanity of racism toward Asians; but, can media depictions be implicated as the major cause of diffidence, identity issues and sexual obsession to the degree that some in the community would suggest?

I don’t think it would be inaccurate to say that many – perhaps most – Asian-Americans see media depictions as one of the major, if not the major, stumbling block to the advancement of the community. In this essay I will explore these ideas and present a solid case for why I believe that so much focus on the idea that changing the media will be a resolution to these problems may itself hold back the community.

For me, there is no doubt that Asian-Americans experience identity and assimilation issues. A sense of not belonging, being an outsider and perhaps even isolation are somewhat common experiences for Asian-Americans. Media rejection of images of Asians as Americans may certainly exacerbate this problem. The issue of confidence levels amongst Asian-American men is often cited as evidence of media emasculation, and that stereotyping leads to disempowered Asian men. Certainly the most contentious issue is that of interracial dating and the role the media plays in the high outdating rates of Asian women. The media is often cited as being responsible for brainwashing young Asian-American girls who subsequently grow up craving white men.

All of these phenomena are real; many Asians do experience identity crises, many Asian men have a sense of disempowerment, and a substantial percentage of Asian-American women do show a preference for non-Asian men. But is it too simplistic of an assessment to blame media depictions for these realities? I believe that this thinking is inaccurate and perhaps even damaging. Individuals do not derive their identity entirely from what they observe in the media or film and the drives that motivate any human being seem to be far more complex (and often subconscious) than simple reactions to media depictions would suggest. In a strange twist of irony, suggesting that Asians can be so easily influenced in this way is itself a negative depiction, and in some ways, may contribute to the sense of disempowerment that Asians experience. If media depictions aren’t the primary culprit, then what can explain these phenomena? For me the answer is obvious; persistent racial harassment throughout childhood is more likely to result in identity and confidence issues than negative media stereotypes.

To illustrate, I’ll briefly describe some of the experiences common to Asian-Americans who are raised in the United States, and I have very little doubt that many Asian-Americans reading this will be very familiar with the experiences I describe. Most American children of Asian descent will experience racism in varying degrees from the moment they enter the school system aged five, until they graduate high school and perhaps even beyond into college. The nature of this racism will vary; name-calling, vulgar imitations of “Asian” accents, and mockery of Asian physical ethnic characteristics on one end of the scale, with violence, and physical intimidation on the other (although these days harassment seems to be slowly developing a more violent character). This type of harassment is often a regular ordeal, occurring daily for many.

Sadly, for many Asian-American children, the adults whose job it is to ensure their safety (teachers and administrators) seem unable or are simply reluctant to create an environment where harassment of Asians is marginalized or addressed in any meaningful way. In fact, the sheer routine prevalence and apparent acceptance of harassment of Asian children as normal casts an almost surreal sheen on the whole subject, since for the most part it is ignored or swept under the carpet. Thus, the trauma of such experiences are often underplayed, not believed, or simply denied.

It seems more plausible that these experiences of racism and denial play a much larger role in shaping what Asian-Americans believe about themselves, their identity, and perhaps even influences their dating choices, more than any media depiction possibly could. What could be more obvious? Through the medium of racially motivated harassment young Asian-Americans are given the clear message that they are deficient, physically unattractive, unwelcome, and generally less than. The problem is further exacerbated by the attitude that these anti-Asian attitudes are not abnormal.

It is generally accepted that individuals form much of their sense of identity, self-perception, self-esteem and ideas of their place in the world during childhood and adolescence. Given that the experiences of many Asian children are dominated throughout their school lives by demeaning harassment and even threats of violence from their non-Asian peers, it seems far more reasonable to propose these factors as more primary causes of confidence and identity issues, and which in turn may even offer some partial explanation for high out-dating rates amongst Asian women.

It’s clear then, that the experience of racism in childhood is likely to be more damaging to the psyche of Asian-Americans than media depictions ever could be, and the issues under discussion that are often associated with negative media influence may actually not be the result of media stereotyping. It is evident that this explanation is obsolete and that striving to change media depictions in the belief that this would address these issues would actually fail to accomplish this goal.

By conflating the two issues and assuming a common resolution, we are in some ways ourselves failing to acknowledge the gravity of the effects of school racism on young Asian-Americans and how this may affect them throughout their lives. This presumption may also smother any perception that there may even be a need for more thorough exploration and study of how racism affects Asian children and thus deprive them of the depth of community support and mentoring they may need in learning to overcome prejudice. Furthermore, it is impossible to address these issues effectively if the causes are misidentified.

It seems evident then, that although media stereotyping is an important issue that has negative effects on the Asian community and the way that we are perceived by the mainstream, its role in shaping the self-perceptions of young Asian-Americans is often over-rated and its power of influence is often overblown. I see no good reason to believe that media depictions have more power to influence the self-image of Asians than any negative experiences of discrimination that they may have grown up with.