Tuesday, December 28, 2010

Where's That Innate Moral Sense When You Need It?

Forcing People To Act Right.

Earlier this month a settlement was finally reached between the Justice Department and the School District of Philadelphia which amounts to an acknowledgement that the district and school administrators overlooked racially biased harassment and violence directed at Asian children at South Philly High School. As part of the agreement it is required that........

"...the district hire a consultant focused on preventing harassment and discrimination, will serve as a nationwide standard for school systems trying to prevent bullying........[and] Philadelphia schools to develop a plan for preventing bullying; conduct training to increase multicultural awareness; and maintain records of harassment..."
A combination of indifference, alleged participation in harassment by school adminstrators as well as accusations of mishandling written reports of abuse (that is, many reports were simply thrown away), all demonstrate that school admins and the District engaged in a cynical effort to hide evidence of their own abdication of responsibility as well as their evasions in addressing racially biased abuse perpetrated by elements of the student body and staff. All of this demonstrates that racist attitudes towards Asians amongst both staff and students were allowed to foment eventually manifesting as acts of physical violence - you are what you do.

Of course, this type of black/Asian conflict isn't new both in American schools and beyond. Remember Lafayette High School? The situation there bears some eerie similarities to the South Philly conflict. It is this dynamic of minority on minority prejudice that gives this situation and others like it such a complex and almost untouchable character. By tradition it is the well documented and acknowledged oppression of Africans that has defined the dialogue on race in America and so, for many people, instances where the oppressor has African features are difficult to compute. Consequently, obvious anti-Asian racism amongst elements in the black community is dismissed for a variety of reasons - sometimes even by Asian-Americans themselves.

A common refrain is that these apparent race crimes against Asians are an unwelcome but natural consequence of economic hardship and poverty. Others suggest that the experience of racism itself leads to acts of racism. Still others will dismiss black on Asian racism on the grounds that overall African-Americans experience more oppression (both past and present) than anyone ever and are therefore excused by some unspecified logical mechanism from practising tolerance. Then there are some who assert that black on Asian violence is justified because Asians are racist.

The problem is that much white racism is fuelled by a sense of disenfranchisement resulting from poverty. Many recruits to white supremacist groups come from poor working class backgrounds. Would anyone dare to justify white racism on these grounds? Maybe we can accept that poor black students at South Philly have few hopes for a bright future and are thus able to understand (somewhat) their aggression, but what of the staff and District - what's their excuse? College educated and paid a decent salary (and in the case of the District, paid handsomely), these people should know better. You would have to do some amazing logical backflips to tie economic hardship into their racism. Furthermore, how much racism and oppression is required before your own qualifies as justifiable? Of course, if Asian racism justifies black racism then surely Asian racism is justified because there is black racism? The mind boggles.

Of course, as many Asian-Americans might agree, the issue of racial harassment of Asian children in American schools goes way beyond the ghetto and is one of the phenomena that unites all of us in a common experience. The degree may vary from racial baiting to violence, yet the intent is clear. The marginalization process for many Asian-Americans begins in school and as an experience it is perhaps the most overlooked amongst the Asian minority - the result of which is an apparent dearth of pro-active advocacy. Yet as the Asian student activists at South Philly have learned, it is by standing up and fighting back, that you gain allies. By doing this, they have empowered other black students to stand with them and hopefully improve conditions for everyone. The natural by-product of pro-active advocacy is that others become empowered to not go along with your oppression.

This is an important point because I maintain that anti-Asian racism is propagated not by extremism but by apathy and indifference. As the extreme (yet, apparently not uncommon) example of South Philly demonstrates, racism against Asians is fuelled by a willingness of others to "go along" with it, either by inaction or by dismissal of the significance of racist attitudes. Asians are harassed in the culture of the mainstream and this serves as the model of behaviour towards us. How then can harassment of Asian students in South Philly be condemned without condemning mainstream culture? It is this harassment model of behaviour as put forward by American culture that allows people to go along with anti-Asian bias up to and sometimes including the point of violence. It's no coincidence that harassment precedes anti-Asian violence in American schools.

On a final note it is important to highlight this.......

"Justice Department officials signaled that the agreement with the School District of Philadelphia, which............will serve as a nationwide standard for school systems trying to prevent bullying." 

The measures against bullying that the District is being required to take will serve as the nationwide standard. To me, this is our cue. As a community we have to set the standard for what we allow as acceptable behaviour towards our children in American schools. This is our opportunity.

Saturday, December 11, 2010

Be Like Water

Recapturing The Heart Of The Tiger.

As readers will know, this past month saw what would have been the 70th birthday of Chinese icon, Bruce Lee. Few Asians in the modern era have had such a profound influence over the consciousness of popular western culture as Bruce. To pay tribute, I present this interesting exerpt from an interview he gave in the early 1970's...........

Although he is remembered for his skill as a martial artist, and appreciated by Asian-American men for being one of the few images of masculinity for their demographic, as the video suggests, his value to the consciousness of Asian men goes beyond his onscreen personna. Clearly, even from this short clip we can see that Lee's greatness as an athlete and martial artist was grounded in a profound philosophical foundation that saw self-discovery as a means to access an existential truth and recognized the flow of self-expression as the natural product of this process.

Maybe because he experienced the frustration of being stifled by the prejudice he encountered whilst trying to break into the American film industry (in much the same way many Asian-American men today feel stifled by stereotypes and exclusion), much of what he says in this interview is very pertinent to the way we can understand our experiences as Asian men. Here İ've presented some of the quotes from this clip that İ believe have some insights for Asian-American men......


".....styles separate man, becomes doctrines/gospel truth - cultures separate man.....

....do not have [a] style, here I am as a human being - how can I express myself totally and completely, that way you won't create a style......[it is] a process of continuing growth.....

...[be like water because] running water never grows stale [it] keep on flowing - honestly expressing yourself...

....[it is] easy to put on a show  - flooded with a cocky feeling - and feel cool.....[but just like] if you learn to speak Chinese it's easy to speak the words but what lies behind the words - what brought on the feelings and expressions behind those words?..."


 It has become somewhat axiomatic for minorities to say that "going back to your roots" or rediscovering your culture can be a dramatic experience of catharsis that empowers the individual and offers an alternative world view to the white-washed perspective. Whilst I see the value of this, it has to be recognized that racism goes beyond cultural white-washing and anti-pluralism, and is fundamentally an assertion of a racial hierarchy that utilizes vaious methods to dehumanize minorities.

In fact, as I noted here, various Asian cultural practices are greedily and more readily accepted than are Asians themselves, which suggests that cultures can be and often are more easily integrated and accepted than races. What this suggests to me is that any kind of Asian-American consciousness must have as a fundamental premise the idea of reconnecting with the essence of what makes us human as opposed to cultural characteristics that defines us as particular ethnicities.

Nowhere is this concept more applicable than in the issue of reclaiming Asian masculinity. Many commentators suggest that balancing dehumanizing cultural portrayals and attitudes with more masculine versions is an essential step (perhaps the most essential step)  in correcting emasculation issues. This idea suggests that masculınity is fundamentally a product of culture and that it is cultural expression that drives the qualities of masculinity. I disagree with this - masculinity is far more fundamental than the mere cultural expression of it because ultimately the qualities that we describe as "masculine" seem most likely to be a product of various biological drives. We could call this biological drive the masculine essence, in the sense that the qualities that derive from it are fundamental to the nature of being biologically male.

Whilst this doesn't downplay the importance of sympathetic media representation as a means to defuse xenophobic and racist attitudes or the value of cultural connection, it does put into question the idea that emasculation can be remedied by these means. If we take Lee's ideas to their natural conclusion we should realize that culture - whether it be inclusive or not - reflects a fundamental tension between that which is instinctual and natural on the one hand and the need to define, describe and ultimately limit those instincts. That may sound like a dubious notion, yet as Asian men in America it's impossible to deny that we live in a culture that seeks to separate us from our masculinity, that is, whatever the things that might be instinctual and natural to us as men.

The kicker is that this is one of the purposes of any culture (including our cultures of origin) - to reign in those things that are natural and instinctual in order to render them relatively harmless and to shape them into something that doesn't threaten the social order. Having media stereotypes that represent us, as well as a grounding in our cultural roots may serve some purpose, yet we have to realize that ultimately all this means is someone else that we probably don't know - or worse, someone who cannot know us - is defining the limits of our identity.

So what all of this means to me is that discovering a masculine identity must involve a process of peeling away the filters of culture that limit and shape our nature. This might involve developing a philosophical foundation driven by the principle of inquiry and the desire for truth. In this video Lee illustrates the weakness of looking to media stereotypes to inform our characters, and the way that cultures (all cultures) can limit inquiry and stifle self-expression. So in some ways it is the striving to release the flow of self-expression that forms the basis for masculinity. Viewed in this way, the notion of masculinity transcends cultural boundaries and moves beyond the principle that identity and masculinity can, or should, be fundamentally culture specific.

All of this suggests that the assertion of an Asian masculine identity is primarily a counter-cultural endeavour. The seeds and roots of this masculine archetype must be firmly planted in the soil of oppositional thinking to all of the assumptions and expectations that are made and required of us by mainstream America and by our own cultures. Bruce Lee, the philosopher, seems to suggest that it is by moving outside of cultural paradigms that a more profound and fundamental truth about who we are can be attained.

Wednesday, December 8, 2010

Screw All Of You Guys....I'm Going Home

The Cartman Principle.

Life can be funny sometimes.

For various reasons many Asian-Americans will cringe when being called a "model minority". Chief amongst those reasons is the notion that supposed Asian-American academic achievement and economic success are often held up by some white commentators as the model for other minorities of colour to imitate in order to pull themselves out of poverty. Many minorities (Asians and non-Asians alike) view this as a strategy for excusing white discriminatory practices and placing responsibility firmly on the shoulders of minorities themselves for whatever backward social conditions they might face. The general principle is that if Asians can succeed, then why can't other minorities do the same? Many minority commentators point to this idea as being divisive and has set minorities groups against one another, increasing suspicion and mutual hostility.

Yet, as this article proves, white people should be careful what they wish for. Here's an excerpt............

In Silicon Valley, two high schools with outstanding academic reputations are losing white students as Asian students move in. Why?.........Whites aren't quitting the schools because the schools are failing academically. Quite the contrary: Many white parents say they're leaving because the schools are too academically driven and too narrowly invested in subjects such as math and science at the expense of liberal arts and extracurriculars like sports and other personal interests.....The white exodus clearly involves race-based presumptions, not all of which are positive. One example: Asian parents are too competitive. "My sense is that at Monta Vista you're competing against the child beside you," [parent, Ms. Doherty] says...........At Cupertino's top schools, administrators, parents and students say white students end up in the stereotyped role often applied to other minority groups: the underachievers.

As you may have read, many white people are refusing to play their own game and are leaving - taking their marbles home with them.

No doubt, the model minority stereotype will lose its appeal for white commentators and will quietly disappear from the dialogue.