Friday, March 18, 2011

Çinli Gibi!

Tsunamis and The Children Of The Corn.

As I've alluded to elsewhere, the Asian experience of racism in America bears some comparison to a campaign of terrorism. For instance, terrorists seek to manipulate, disempower, intimidate, and coerce a population into acceding to various demands and beliefs in order to empower themselves, yet, a society that promotes and normalizes racial hostility, violence, and behaviours through demeaning stereotypes and xenophobic socio-political rhetoric creates a similar relationship between the mainstream and the target minority as the relationship between the terrorist organization and the citizens it targets.

Where I presently reside, the existence of various militant separatist, anarchist, nationalist, and religious groups makes for an interesting cocktail of potential hazards of the explosive kind. Three years ago a bomb was discovered in a Burger King just down the street from my apartment, and earlier this year a suicide bomber martyred himself in one of the City's main squares. Suffice it to say that even though these types of incidences are rare, I would be lying if I were to say that the thought of being caught in a bomb blast whilst sitting in my favourite coffee shop, or shopping at the grocery store, is not always at the back of my mind.

Obscenely, this sense of foreboding that a bomb might go off is analagous to the experience of being Asian in America. Just as in a society that lives with an internal terrorist threat in which its citizens can never foresee the next martyr, but who know that one will come along sooner or later, Asians in America never really know when their race is going to be a problem for someone, somewhere. It could be in a favourite cafe, or whilst shopping at the grocery store, but sooner or later, someone will remind us that being Asian means casually routine harassment and racial baiting, and perhaps even violence.

It is precisely because American culture normalizes racist attitudes and behaviours towards its Asian minority that an environment has been created in which interactions with the mainstream often carries with it the likelihood for racial denigration or even violence. Yet, because depictions of racial violence and harassment forms the core of representations of Asian people in American culture, this is not considered an abnormal state of affairs. Hence, just like someone who is trying to live a normal life knowing that a terrorist's bomb could go off any time or anywhere, many in the Asian minority exists in a state of expectation knowing that an inevitable explosion of casual (or even casually violent) racism will impinge upon their lives. Society is set up to ensure this.

American culture (and hence American society) is abnormal in its xenophobic hostility to the epicanthic fold and the single eyelid. If you refer to the title of this post - "Çinli Gibi" - it is Turkish for "(He  looks) like a Chinese", and I heard a group of small Kurdish kids saying it about me whilst I was walking through my neighbourhood recently. I looked over at them and smiled, to which they responded in accented English, "Hello!" and then giggled. I waved and continued on whilst the kids went back to playing. Just a case of innocent curiosity - how normal! If this had occurred in America, the kids would be likely to have a selection of choice epithets to hurl at me, and the tone of the exchange would likely have been alot uglier.

This offers a great insight into how sick and aberrative American culture is when it comes to its attitudes to its Asian minority because, by contrast, mainstream American kids seem to be armed with a ready supply of racist attitudes and epithets that they are seemingly not discouraged from using in their interactions with Asian people. It is Asian-American children who experience this most intensely - yet what can it mean for American society and the place of the Asian minority within it when America's children go through the most impressionable years of their lives with the belief that it is normal to use racial epithets towards Asian people?

To me the recent outpouring of anti-Japanese feeling in the wake of the earthquake and tsunami is simply confirmation that the practice of rearing American children to think of Asians in dehumanizing ways has been a great success, and that we should not be surprised that this apparent inability to have a human connection with Asian people is so prevalent - it is how many of these people have been taught to think since childhood.


  1. The terrorists and the media manipulators are one and the same as if you didn't know. We are the target because we cannot be conquered/assimilated like the other minorities because of China. All the more reason to unite and fight back which begs the question: why arent western east asians united yet?

    Answer: we are too passive and used to sweeping it under the carpet instead of dealing with prejudice head on.

    Japan's haarp attack is enough reason for us all to unite. But will we?

  2. actually, it's more likely the Muslims and Sikhs (who wear turbans) are direct targets of violence.

    Asians are more or less easy pickings for robberies because of media stereotypes about being passive.

  3. Anon 1...

    I think that the main obstacle to having a unified consciousness is a lack of a clear ontology of our experience. We just don't have a solid philosophical basis for consciousness and it's always ideas that start the ball of change rolling.

    Anon 2...

    I think that the media does play a huge role in shaping the character of the interactions between the mainstream and the Asian minority. But, I think the issue the community overlooks is the way that media representations of Asians shape and manipulate ethical values and moral sensibilities of the mainstream to such an extent that it is considered normal and acceptable to demean Asian people - and hence disconnect from our suffering as we've seen with some mainstream reactions to Japan's earthquake.

    In this way, dehumanization of Asian people is an inherent part of the mainstream consciousness - it is how many of them are raised to think.

  4. Ben we dont need a clear ontology or philosophy to be connected. we are asian. that is enough. the more we look for differences, we will never unite and will be forever staring at the ground moaning and complaining.

    and your blog will just be an exercise in personal musing rather than having any direction of purpose. which i suppose is what a blog is.

  5. Hi Anonymous 1(?)

    Thanks for your reply.

    As I suggested in the main post, anti-Asian attitudes are so ingrained in American culture that American kids possess an extensive repertoire of racial epithets and attitudes from an early age. American kids learn that demeaning Asians is not a bad thing - in fact sometimes they seem to believe that it is a good thing.

    Empowering Asian people in the face of this deeply ingrained prejudice requires more that a recognition of ethnic similarity. This process of coming to a consciousness encompasses, amongst other things, moral, social, historical and intellectual considerations. But all of this is pointless without the vision.

    I don't think that there is much of a visionary dialogue within Asian-America. That seems to be the biggest issue.

  6. A little late to this party but thought I'd weigh in. Racial diversity breeds prejudice because of ignorance and unfamiliarity. Therefore it is understandable that the U.S. has a high incidence of bigotry and racial unrest being the melting pot that it is but things get better when a shared cultural history occurs over time. I remember when my house was the stinky house as a little kid but now Korean food (or Thai, Indian, etc.) is accepted and even in vogue in major metropolitan areas. Also, while Asians have immediately succeeded in American culture in terms of things like high home ownership rates, educational attainment etc., first generation Asians were lackluster at best in promoting a shared cultural history by sticking to themselves. I am in no way assigning blame and adamantly acknowledge the courage and strength it took for my parents to culturally displace themselves for a chance at a better life for my brother and myself. In that vein cultural assimilation is occurring progressively by generations as Asians are encouraged to succeed in the U.S. through the rules of this society by the very same first generation that exhibit cultural segregation and xenophobia themselves.

    Sure, the racism you cite exists to this day but it's not isolated in just "Americans". Many Europeans have been knocked off their high horse of racial tolerance now that their societies aren't as homogeneous as before with waves of Muslim refugees living amongst them. Even among Asians, which in my experience are extremely prejudiced, are guilty of xenophobia themselves in terms of race. Asians have also had historically intra-ingrained hierarchies among Asian countries/cultures themselves which may help explain why western Asians are not unified here in the U.S.

    Honestly, I haven't really seen much in the way of anti-Japanese sentiment in regards to the current disaster and actually quite the opposite. The absence of looting (compared to Katrina), Japanese lining up to pay their taxes during this time of tragedy, and the Fukushima 50 are impressive and admirable to a degree that transcends cultural boundaries. The unfortunate situation of the mainstream media abandoning their prime directive of dispassionately reporting the news in an unbiased way is lamentable. Sensationalism, appealing to the lowest common denominator, and inflaming geopolitical rhetoric in the pursuit of market share makes these outlets fucktards in my opinion. That's why I choose to get my news from sources like The Economist.

  7. Hi Anonymous...

    Welcome and thanks for your comment.

    You made alot of interesting points - and alot of food for thought! I tend to disagree that the insularity of first generation immigrants in some way contributes to anti-Asian prejudice - I think that is more of a rationalization.

    The fact is that even though large scale Asian immigration began after 1965, there was already widespread anti-Asian prejudice in American society that had existed since the 19th century. Don't forget that "chinatowns" began as ghettos designed to isolate and limit the Asian minority.

    Couple this with the various spikes in xenophobia and racism resulting from America's wars in Asia and economic competition from Japan, Korea and China, and it becomes a tall order to expect first generation immigrants to be able to address the nuances of any prejudices directed at them - especially if they don't speak English well.

    I agree that there is intra-Asian prejudice that may contribute to a lack of unity amongst the Asian groups. Yet, that doesn't really address the point being made and the point does need to be addressed by the Asian community and American society. American kids do grow up with an extensive repertoire of racist epithets and attitudes towards Asians. We see it in schools all over the country in every grade.

    We also see these attitudes and behaviours being reinforced by inaction or even participation of teaching staff, as well as influential politicians and the media in general. There is absolutely no moral imperative that I can see that is being followed by the mainstream that insists on respecting the humanity of Asians - in fact I think the opposite is true. I think that the moral compass of the mainstream is swayed to such an extent that it is dehumanization of Asian people is normalized.

  8. Hi Ben,

    Thanks for your response. As a clarification, I didn't mean to insinuate that the insularity of first generation immigrants actively contributed to anti-Asian prejudice, rather it was a passive response that did nothing to dispel it. American, and really human nature, is to be scared of the unknown. The Irish were vilified upon their mass immigration into this country and then the Italians and so forth. These groups also lived in ghettos but worked their way out as this country is famous for fostering an environment of opportunity. Of course, it was considerably easier for these groups to assimilate compared to Asians due to their lower variance in phenotype and culture.

    And while I acknowledge and have experienced the racism you described, I am also very concerned with dealing with it by an across-the-boards or blanket response. Anon 4:42 had a great point in that "the more we look for differences, we will never unite". Dealing with an issue as a race (or any demographic group for that matter) is counterproductive, detrimental, and is the very basis of prejudice and discrimination. That's why I believe we should not address this as an Asian American community. Political correctness, minority associations, and affirmative action based initiatives are not only prolonging the problem but adding to it's polarity.

    We as humans like to believe that the world is fair and for that reason we associate life as a zero sum game. However, the world is neither fair nor unfair and the playing field we have created means someone always has to lose. The end result is bitterness by the aggrieved party. I can see it in you and I have definitely been there myself. Phrases like moral compass scares me as it is the rationalization by many groups throughout history to justify keeping or swinging the balance back into their favor, often in a violent manner. The Taliban use morality like a weapon now just as the Christians did during the Crusades. In our situation, picking sides just validates the line being drawn in the sand by racists and playing into their frame of adversarial interaction.

    We as Asian Americans need to change that frame. Don't disagree with ideas or people because they are racist. Disagree because they are stupid. Have the wisdom to not banter with fools and the self confidence to own our differences. Being passive to racism and just plain not giving a fuck are two completely different things just like explaining our culture rather than defending it. And in things that do matter, working to solve the issue instead of trying to fight an ideology like hate (just ask Bush and his war on terror) is much more obtainable.

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  11. Anonymous....

    Despite the re-phrase, you are still actually saying that actions (regardless of whether they are passive or active) of Asian immigrants contributes to, or upholds, anti-Asian prejudice. It’s like saying that a woman who wears a short skirt or tight blouse is passively contributing to her own rape, even though she actively gives no indication that she wants to have sex with her rapist. It is still making her somehow responsible for the actions of the rapist.

    I think that, overall, we arte getting away from the gist of my post. If you allow or encourage your kids to think that it is funny and routine to harass animals, pull their tails, be violent towards them, and have a general indifference to their suffering, and your culture produces images and literature that reinforces the idea that the well-being of animals is unimportant, then you are creating a society whose moral compass toward the well-being of animals is skewed.

    This is why I don’t really think that you have understood my point. By questioning the morality of a society that does these very things regarding its Asian minority we are transcending ethnic and racial considerations because everybody has to live by some moral code. There is no appeal to any kind of moral superiority, but to the moral compass of the mainstream as it applies it to itself – these moral considerations are not necessarily extended to the Asian minority.

    You seem to be suggesting that we not explore this issue because of some vague notion that it is human nature and that you are worried that it will somehow lead to more friction. I don’t agree with this.