Sunday, June 5, 2011

Asian-American Culture......

....How White Is It?

Over the past year or so, Asian-Americans have been the recipients of some atypical mainstream attention due to a couple of articles written by members of the Asian minority that reported on the negative aspects of "Asian" family culture and how it has the potential to affect integration and acceptance of Asians into mainstream life. Of course I'm referring to the Tiger Mom and Tiger Cub articles which were both published in mainstream publications.

As readers will probably already know, both articles were met with a variety of responses - some expressed agreement, many more expressed resounding disagreement. Upon reading many of the negative reactions to these articles, it became apparent to me that many people were not only reacting to the fact that many negative things were said and implied about Asian people, but also to the fact that these things were said in mainstream publications to a mainstream (and let's be honest, we're talking about publications whose audience is likely to the majority white) that already has cultural structures in place whose apparent purpose is to propagate negative attitudes about us. Why waste what few opportunities that we have to present our point of view by simply repeating to the mainstream many of the negative things that they are already saying about us?

One needn't limit oneself to these two articles to notice that much of what Asian-Americans publish or write about themselves and their cultures in white mainstream platforms follows this pattern to some degree or another. Typically, this type of expression of Asian-American culture, carries with it much drama and hyper-criticism of self and one's culture. Unfortunately, it's never really made clear why we should believe that white mainstream actually gives a crap about Asian-American angst, yet somehow this idea of appealing to, or creating for, the (white) mainstream has apparently become a prominent goal of Asian-American cultural practice. Sadly, implicit in this pattern is the understanding that mainstream racisms and prejudices must be diluted or downplayed, leaving one to wonder whether this drive to manipulate Asian-American cultural expression into a mould that is palatable for the white majority relinquishes its autonomy and simply renders it a sub-category of mainstream white culture.

Of course, it can be said that since the mainstream offers the widest possible opportunity for acclaim that it would be natural to want to appeal to this demographic. Yet, this doesn't really provide us with a good reason for the tone and theme of much mainstream-in-mind Asian-American culture to be so self-denigrating or negative - in fact, it almost seems as though this cultural contrition is a requirement for acceptance by the mainstream.

This reverence for mainstream sensitivities seems, in and of itself, to be something of a cultural quagmire, capable of swallowing whole any semblence of cultural autonomy and just like a bog, fools us into believing that it is solid gound that can be safely walked over, only to leave us stuck. This is even more noticeable given the reality of the demographics of 21st Century America.  African-Americans have a population of around 40 million, Hispanics number around 50 million, yet, how many times do we hear aspiring Asian-American culture warriors speaking about trying to reach these potential markets to disseminate their ideas? One can only guess at how much more fresh, genuine, or even edgy, the product of Asian-American culture might be if it didn't struggle so hard to protect the white mainstream from its demons but, instead, expressed common experience with other minorities.

This very idea goes against the notion that works of art or products of culture exist as meaningful entities in their own right - some of the apparent goals of Asian-American culture seems to suggest that the Asian voice only has value if it has successfully appealed to the white mainstream. It would seem more conducive to the production of potent, original, and relevant works of culture if we didn't try so hard to force ourselves into modes of expression that limits creativity in the hope that the white mainstream will like it. Most ironic of all, is that this approach seems uninterested in appealing to Asian-Americans themselves, and if that is the case, then why label such an approach as "Asian-American" at all?


  1. sorry to break this to you, man. but this isn't anything new or insightful.

    "Auntie Tan" and "Auntie Kingston-Hong" writings have been around for a long time now and every other book or indie movie is trying to emulate the "chop suey" antics in order to sell to the "mainstream"

    and it's all about money *cough* Ken Jeong *cough*

  2. Perhaps, but is it being called out enough by those who want to see a change? The issue isn't that people want acclaim and celebrity, but that some Asian-Americans seem to be only able to concieve of their culture as having value if, and only if, the white mainstream says it has value.

  3. Asian America is dead methinks. The problem is not just cultural or kowtowing to whites, the demographic aspect spells out its doom. Roughly 2/3 of AAs are first/1.5 gen, and half of AA women outmarry. When the educational/financial incentives to immigrate to the US decline, there will be no more Asian America.

    Take a look at Asian American music: there pretty much isn't any, outside of concert halls. Sure, there's the Far East Movement, but they could hardly be considered representative of AA, since they are ripping off black people (hip hop). They don't ever take off their sunglasses, in order to mask their Asian identities.

    AA "culture" doesn't exist, it's directionless. If you look at other minority groups, Hispanics and blacks, they've had more or less ethnic cohesion throughout their generations, and cultural achievements recognized by the mainstream. AA has none of that. We're barely tolerated for being good little office drones.

    In short I think AA will soon be irrelevant and integrated into the white mainstream via outmarriage.

  4. @ Dali

    Interesting points but I'm not sure I entirely agree. Culture is an expression of the human condition and any "Asian-American culture" should therefore have solid foundation in those particular and unique experiences that we have as Asians living in a society that is fundamentally antagonistic towards us.

    If culturally prominent Asian-Americans dilute this experience in order to sell their product then they've undermined the very foundation and definition of the Asian-American experience and turns Asian-American culture into nothing more than frilly fairy tales.

    This might be why Asian-American culture might seem to be dead (or has it simply been aborted before it had a chance to exist?) - it doesn't actually seem to have prioritized a genuine or honest approach to representing our experiences.

    Those are very interesting points about Hispanic and black culture though.

  5. This is a really interesting discussion. I tend to think that Asian America is a problematic category too (it is too disparate, fractured and disorganized), but it might be useful to think about when the community *feels* real. When we experience it as an unsightly collage of negative stereotypes that mainstream society has about us (that UCLA girl, Hangover 2), it feels real. Otherwise how do we explain the outpouring of anger on YouTube as well as existence of blogs such as this one where people with different opinions and backgrounds meet to discuss? Yet as Dali points out we have little in the way of what might be considered "Asian American culture" in the way that African Americans, for example, have jazz and hip-hop.

    Ben I agree with your point that Asian American artists need to check the impulse to appeal to white mainstream audiences. I wonder, though, what kind of sustainable solidarity there is to make with non-Asian minority audiences *as U.S. minorities* when this kind of solidarity cannot be achieved across the lines of difference within Asian America. In addition, I think Dali's figure about 2/3 of Asian Americans being first or 1.5 generation -- if true -- very significant. This means that the common storehouse of "Asian American" experiences (from which artists forge their art) might not be American, but transnational. This is certainly true in the Hispanic community, and books like Junot Diaz's "Brief and Wondrous Life of Oscar Wao" testify to this...

  6. Hi jwc125

    Welcome and thanks for your comment.

    I think Asian-Americans may be in a vicious cycle resulting in cultural irrelevance - do we lack solidarity because some of our most prominent cultural figures perform dramatic backflips in order to appeal to a mainstream audience (and in so doing paradoxically making the Asian experience almost irrelevent), or is the drive to seek validation from the white mainstream a result of cultural solidarity? I tend to think that it is the former that has most dramatically shaped the direction and goals of Asian-American cultural endeavours.

    That's an interesting point about our experiences being understood as transnational as opposed to just American. But I think we need to discern the differneces between the products of a culture, and the culture itself. Culture is a worldview and not simply a series of creative products, and as such incorporates amongst other things such concepts as morality,and epistemological conerns.

    To my mind, experiences inform the worldview and it is the worldview that provides us with the momentum to forge creative ideas and products. The question is; does the product of Asian-American creativity accurately reflect a worldview derived from the experience of being a distrusted minority in a western country, if it trying too hard to appease the white mainstream? If not, is this a good explanation for the apparent lack of a cohesive Asian-American cultural identity?

    I'm actually working on a post about the elements that define cultural practice that will outline my thoughts on the apparent lack of an autonomous Asian-American culture.

  7. Looking forward to your new post, Ben, and I'm looking forward to continuing this very interesting discussion.

  8. "If culturally prominent Asian-Americans dilute this experience in order to sell their product then they've undermined the very foundation and definition of the Asian-American experience and turns Asian-American culture into nothing more than frilly fairy tales."

    Agree. This is one of my biggest problems with famous AAs like Far East Movement. Despite the rest of the AA blogosphere lauding them for the mainstream breakthrough, they really aren't doing anything other than copying hip hop which black people pioneered.

    Even in academia, authors such as Maxine Hong Kingston write nothing other than what amounts to 'frilly fairy tales', like 'Woman Warrior' which is loaded with inauthentic retellings of Chinese folklore to appeal to a white audience.

    AA 'culture' has never existed, now or in the past. Even the Chinese railroad workers of the 19th century burned what little written legacy they left (most were illiterate), as they felt that their experience in the West was abysmal and best forgotten.

    AA does not look down upon the dilution of their own ethnicity, particularly the high outmarriage rate. White men shun white women who elope with black men or other ethnicities (the offense that caused many lynchings), AA men are too pussy to do the same.

    Put it this way, if 1/2 of AA women reproduce with non-Asians, and the TFR of AA women is roughly 1.9 (slightly below natl. avg.), that puts the fertility rate of non-mixed Asians at around 0.9. AA will be interbred out of existence without continued immigration.

  9. We arent accepted by each other and we are rejected in western media. The best solution is to return to our own culture and enjoy that - thats something westerners will never appreciate because its not in their blood. That is unless you are a white with halfbreed children. And itll be in your children's blood but never really appreciated unless truly embraced rather than a colorful accessory. the term asian is racist anyway. do you go to china and ask them if they are asian? thats like calling a white person a european american. why is it whites get to define themselves as polish or irish tenth grandparents twice removed but we are 'asian'. until there is a clear divided line between asians and whites that is respected by everyone including the sellouts, these debates will never end.what noone seems to be seeing as we bicker amongst our asian/ east asian brothers for identity is that zionists are laughing it up at our situation. but you keep licking their ass.

    we speak english to communicate not because we are proud to be western, we make money not because we want to perpetuate worthless fiat printed paper but because its how we earn a living. why cant you apply the same practicality to identity politics: simply - if you dont make a point of rejecting zionist white culture, you will never have a chance at clear definition.

    just seems in nature of asians that we are too diverse in opinion with too many sellouts and little want to communicate with asian brothers because we are too practical and feel why should we make the extra effort when noone else needs to. well thats the hurdle. we are too lazy. because bottom line is noone believes we have a true connection/bothered to figure out why we dont have a true culture or do anything about what seems an impossible task - which is why we cant get organised and end up bitching on blogs all day long. anyway gotta go - gonna ask my italian, spanish , polish , german brothers how their european cultural development is getting on. those whiteys all look the same to me.