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.