Dying To Be An American; The Asian-American Paradox.
It goes without saying that the Asian-American experience of racism has been, and continues to be, a complex affair. Even at the height of institutionalized anti-Asian prejudice during the late 19th and first half of the 20th centuries, when strict and uncompromising immigration legislation, along with laws forbidding miscegenation and limits on legal and citizenship rights, some Asian immigrants into this country still managed to lay down roots and build some degree of prosperity. Altough beset by roving mobs of angry white men who were jealous and fearful of the Asian man's capacity to endure through the most hateful of atrocities, and in constant danger of the lynch mob, Asian men still managed to work their way to a (admittedly) precarious economic empowerment that formed the basis and blueprint for success emulated by subsequent generations of Asian immigrants.
Even today, our experience is paradoxical and the way that various members of the community conceive of this experience with its remarkable diversity of opinion and perception is a clear reflection of this paradox. On one end of the spectrum we have Captains of Culture, Political Pacesetters, and Jocularity Jockeys, for whom racism may not have been an obstacle, non-existent (in certain cases), or is something so far out of their experience that it doesn't even get a mention in their discourse. On the other end of the spectrum we have the Japanese tsunami victims - whose suffering elicited an outpouring of racist gloating from America's mainstream online communities thus highlighting pervasive anti-Asian attitudes. There's also Private Danny Chen, the Chinese-American army volunteer who died recently of racism.
Bizarrely, Asian-Americans are admired, but also feared and disliked for the very things that we are admired for. We are respected but are largely demeaned by American culture. Most importantly we are protected by legislation that makes it illegal to discriminate against us because of our race, yet, we live in a society whose culture actively promotes personal hostility, dislike, distrust, as well as negative demeaning attitudes and behaviours towards us. As I pointed out here, even though it is illegal for institutions to exhibit racist practices and attitudes, American culture itself promotes these very things in its depictions of, and attitudes towards, Asian people. Thus, although no longer permitted by law, it is now propagated by private institutions and individuals - most notably in the mass-media and entertainment industries - the result of which is a normalization and mainstream acceptance of anti-Asian behaviours and attitudes.
This means that institutional prejudice may have diminished, but personal dislike as fostered by American culture, continues unabated. Thus the paradox; legislation to combat institutional racism is off-set by a private sector propagation of anti-Asian hostility as a matter of personal taste. Often the result is the same - the promotion that never comes through, the pay-raise that never materializes, the unsuccessful job interviews of a highly qualified applicant, violent beating, or even a failed college application, all of which depend on the personal tastes of an individual from the mainstream who has been conditioned by his culture to dislike Asians. This normalization of anti-Asian attitudes manifests in other ways too; blasé declarations of distaste, casual harassment, and racially inflected mockery have become accepted ways of interacting with Asian people as modeled by glamourous celebrities, or on-the-make politicians, via the platform of popular culture.
The case of Private Danny Chen is a clear of example of this process in action. The army as an institution opens its doors to all people. In fact, although under-represented in proportion to the Asian population of America (not surprising when you consider that most Asian-Americans are foreign born and many are unable to speak English), there has been a healthy representation of Asian-Americans in the military, many of whom served with distincton both in the past and present. It is almost impossible to say, therefore, that the army practices institutional racism towards Asians since it seems that they are accepted into the ranks without much hoopla.
Yet, what is clear from the Chen case, is that racist attitudes and behaviours towards Asian people can be casually practiced and accepted as normative within the structure of a non-discriminatory institution because such actions derives from culturally conditioned personal distaste - just like in mainstream American culture. As this article suggests, Chen's success or failure became something of a crap-shoot; if he was lucky, then he might have been put into a unit that might have allowed him the opportunity to prove his value as a soldier. If not, then he faced attitudes from peers conditioned by their culture to believe that racism is the normal mode of interaction with Asians. Sadly, most of the soldiers understood this dynamic except for Chen, who seemed confounded and confused by the harassment (Asian-American culture bears some degree of blame for that).
And this is the crux of the Asian paradox. Because promoting personal distaste for, and negative attitudes towards Asians is an almost intrinsic aspect of the conditioning that occurs in American culture, Asians can simultaneously reach the heights of success whilst experiencing casual racist attitudes. It is why some Asians are fortunate enough to experience very little racism, whilst for others it defines their worldview, with neither side really able to understand the other's point of view. Common to both is that what they both experience is considered normal - being harassed by someone who may smash your head in with a baseball bat if you talk back becomes as normalized a potential experience as someone saying good morning.
What happened to Danny Chen is the natural outcome of America's cultural antagonism towards Asian people in general and Asian men in particular. Because personal distaste (via dehumanizing depictions and attitudes) is propagated as the normal and accepted way of conceiving of Asians, the moral compass of mainstream America is skewed in its behaviour towards us. Since dehumanization implicitly diminishes the moral agency of the target group, it by necessity diminishes the obligation of the mainstream to apply the same moral consideration to Asian people as they would to their own group or groups. Whether it is school administrators turning a blind-eye to violence against Asian children, big-name directors promoting the idea of racial abuse of children as a means to integration, or torturing a fellow soldier because he's Asian, the necessary outcome of America's skewed moral attitudes towards Asians is apparent.