Monday, January 2, 2012

Silence Isn't Golden

But Speaking Up Is.

I came across this post via the Angry Asian Man that was written by an Asian-American man describing his experience of being on the receiving end of some verbal racial abuse on San Francisco's public transport system. You can read the full post here. In short, the post describes how, whilst riding the BART train, the blog writer was subjected to several minutes of racial abuse and harassment by another passenger, yet chose not to engage in an altercation with his harasser. What I found interesting are the reasons the writer gives for his decision to not confront the other passenger as well as his general reading of the situation.

The Asian-American experience of the 21st Century can be characterized as being similar to the experience of a society under the threat of terrorist attack. As I've alluded to here and here, the routine dehumanization of Asian people in American culture, coupled with political rhetoric that blames Asia for all the economic woes of America, combine to create an environment in which the bomb of racial violence or abuse can go off at any time. Much in the same way that extremist madrassas produce individuals who are conditioned to believe that blowing themselves up is a path to Paradise, American culture and society conditions Americans to normalize feelings of hostility towards Asian people - as well as normalizing the notion that their hatred and hostility is justified.

As the writer of the blog post relates.....

I don't know if I did the right thing, but I didn't exercise my freedom of speech to speak back directly. I remained silent. I kept quiet because I remembered that when Vincent Chin retaliated when he was called a chink, two white men chased him down, clubbed him to death with a baseball bat, and then got off scot-free by the legal system.
This to me is a clear indication of terrorism having a succesful outcome. Just like after the terrorist attacks of 9/11 when so many people were terrified by the thought of getting on a plane, or even working in a high-rise building in a downtown area, for some Asian-Americans, the threat of random violence or racial abuse stemming from the unaplologetic culture of anti-Asianism that pervades American society is a very real concern.

As you can see from many of the remarks in the comments section in the article, the general attitude seems to be that the writer should have utilized some kind of physical retribution against his abuser. I don't really agree with this for a several reasons.

I generally tend to see those who resort to physical violence to win arguments as being intellectually limited. Don't get me wrong, being able to defend oneself against physical attack is natural, and devleoping this ability is an necessary aspect of developing confidence. As I suggested here, physical empowerment is essential. But most of the time, it should be the last resort. This is because all conflicts are won or lost on the strength of ideas and beliefs, and the person or group who has the last word is always the winner. That's why battles can be lost, and peoples subjugated, but the ideas of the subjugated can change the conquerer more profoundly than the violence of the conquerer is able to change the subjugated.

Because negative and hostile mainstream social and cultural attitudes that promote this type of (sometimes violent) behaviour is designed not to offend but to keep Asians in their disempowered place, keeping silent is tantamount to an acceptance of this lower social value that is placed on Asian men. This, in turn, means that for the Asian guy on the train, a verbal retort instead of a physical one, would most likely still have resulted in his being attacked. This is why being able to defend oneself gives one the freedom and confidence to not stay silent for fear of attack - the emphasis here is on developing the physical prowess that would give one the confidence to use the mind to win battles.

That is why I believe that eloquence in speech and language, and the ability to utilize these qualities to articulate compelling argument, are some of the most important qualities for any group or individual faced with prejudice. It is the voice that cannot and should not ever be made to go silent, physical resistance is often easily vanquished, but the voice can go on resisting. True empowerment means having the courage to not be shouted down, and I think that one of the biggest problems facing our community is an apparent aversion to the culture of argumentation. It is one of the reasons that people like Frank Chin become pariahs - argumentation seems to be discouraged. The problem is, without the culture of argumentation, you can't develop the qualities that I believe are necessary to empower the individual.

The ability and confidence to argue compellingly, means that the mind is on a path to emancipation, which in turn means that whatever psychological barriers instilled in Asian men by the conditioning of mainstream culture no longer have power over us. That is a terrifying thought for mainstream America - more terrifying, even, than the idea of physically empowered Asia men. Thus, having the capacity to talk enemies down is more empowering than beating them down.

I think that for some Asian people there is a tendency to rest on the belief that a strong community voice empowers individuals - this seems logical. Positive media representation, an influential political voice, or a charismatic leader, are some of the things that we believe will empower Asians. Regardless of whether this is an accurate projection, the fact remains that unless individuals accept the responsibility of personal empowerment - success in these areas become meaningless. Just as many Americans are starting to understand that democracy is more than simply picking a candidate, and is an ongoing task of participation in political and social life, Asians have to realize that empowerment is also about participation and involves asserting one's self respect in every day interactions with the mainstream.


  1. why should the burden be on the Asian man to change, instead of the racist society needs changing by the racists?

    if that's not white privilege then I don't know what is.

  2. Hi crazy...

    How does society change for Asians without Asians themselves making it happen? Change won't occur without a catalyst which means we have to be the catalyst.

    It doesn't uphold white privilege because what I'm suggesting is that Asian men need to become a community of leaders - that in itself is a challenge to white privilege.

    But in order for it to happen, we have to be able to be the last man talking.

  3. I'm not against upping the game for AM, but it's like that meme about movies with white protagonists that have colored folks in the background: PoC exist solely for white men to learn a lesson on racism.

  4. Crazy...

    I can see where you are coming from, but that's definitely not what I'm saying.

    Asian men as leaders is normal - it happens all the time in Asia - it's just us Asian-Americans who don't seem able to believe it.

    Developing these qualities is simply a way of re-connecting with something that I think Asians already possess.

    The change I'm talking about is changing back to something that we don't accept in ourselves mainly because western culture (and some Asian feminism) doesn't want us to know we have this power because they are afraid of it.

    Asian men need to reconnect with this power because it's natural, not because it is something that white people have shown us.

  5. I don't get what you're trying to say.

    sure, leadership skills need to be developed, but it's always there. there are plenty of APA leaders.

    but the numbers are low because we know it's about media racism and institutionalized discrimination.

    I'm saying APAs don't need to change as much as it's the racist system that needs to go in order for APA to show their potentials.

  6. Crazy

    I think that our potential can be expressed without the racist system changing - in fact, realizing our potential as individuals is essential if the system is to change at all. This is what I'm trying to say.

    The community voice, charismatic leaders, and positive media, can only carry people so far -average people have to accept responsibility for creating change in their own day to day lives.

    The fact is that many of us don't seem to be willing to understand this idea and seem to hope that positive media etc, will create some kind of rule against anti-Asian racism that will be strictly adhered to my the general population. I doubt this will happen

    The truth is, that at some point, if we are to call ourselves empowered, we have to start acting like it, which means not tolerating the casual racism many of us experience on a daily basis, and the mind is the most devastating weapon that we have to accomplish this.

    I'm not sure why you see this as a concession to the racist system - it isn't.

  7. I didn't say it's capitulating to the racist infrastructure, but it's the same old about minorities having to cope with white racism.

    I don't see why people of color have to change. If somebody wants to improve themselves that's fine, but why does somebody who's happy with who they are have to change to react to the racism?

  8. Crazy

    You can call it and acquisition of a skill set if you wish, or game, or whatever. But the fact is that racism changes people - if it didn't we wouldn't have an issue with it.

    The choice is between having no control over how you are changed, or taking the responsibility for the change that you will inevitably undergo and turning it into something that can improve your situation and the situation of others like you.

    This is a natural progression of events - you face a challenge in life, you either meet it and come out on top or you sit back and don't.

    I'm also not talking about reacting, I'm talking about a shift in ways of thinking. It will take much more than positive media rep and the like to challenge anti-Asian attitudes - it will require that individuals assume the responsibility of their empowerment in their day to day interactions with the mainstream.

    Don't think of it as POC having to change, think of it as POC taking control of their voice, one voice at a time.

  9. If people want a strong positive community voice that supports a group of people, more often than not that drive begins with one voice - the actions of one person.

    Take Rosa Parks for example. She basically said "f-you" to the white bus rider who told her she had to sit in the back because she was black. MLK later took up the cause and eventually the buses in Montgomery, AL were desegregated. You can argue that without MLKs timing Rosa Parks would have been done for - but she was the spark that ignited the then unknown battle.

  10. Hi dragonrider0ne

    Welcome and thanks for your comment.

    Yes that is absolutely right, it is individual voices that will have the most impact, and the voices that are the most eloquent and persuasive are the ones that will get heard.