Tuesday, September 25, 2012

Konishiwa Bitches.

The Upside Of Racial Exclusion.

As some readers may remember from a couple of previous posts, living in a Muslim country has highlighted some interesting commonalities between the experience of being an Asian in the US and being an ex-pat in the  Muslim world. Although I live in a city that is considered to be something of a European cultural centre, in a Muslim country that has for the past nine decades been ferociously secular, the past several years have seen an increasing identification with the Muslim identity and with it a subtle, but significant, shift towards a more conservative social order with an increasing emphasis on Islamic sensibilities that blends secular principles with social mores informed by religion.

One factor that has remained constant throughout this process is the country's fiercely independent sense of self and sense of identity. Although technology has opened the country up to cultural influences from the west, so far the influence seems relatively superficial and there is a tension concerning the degree to which western culture should be incorporated. As an individual who has grown up in a society that insists on racializing every aspect of the Asian experience, it  is not surprising that one result of this independent mindedness is that many of the racial stereotypes and prejudices against East Asian people that are casual in the West don't seem to have deeply affected the worldview of the people here. What I mean by this is that although my race and ethnicity are obvious this fact, unlike in the US, there seems to be little or no presumptions (or certainties) about my character based on my racial characteristics.

The recent outbreak of anti-American protests throughout the Muslim world (including peaceful protests here - so far!) have served to highlight this experience. Even though an American, I can walk through a hundreds-strong anti-American protest (as I did two Fridays back on my home from a evening out) and feel relatively safe knowing with great irony that the deliberate exclusion of Asians from America's cultural identity also means that the world also cannot view me as an American. It should be noted that in this culture, even if I had been obviously American the threat of violence against me would likely have been much less than it would be for an Asian-American getting caught up in an anti-immigrant protest in the US.

What has been amazing to notice is how American ex-pats seem to respond to this culture which has a general disregard for white America's cultural self-worship as well as an undercurrent of distaste for the footprint that the US has left in the Muslim world. As a general observation, there is a distinct lack of swagger amongst American ex-pats here, many of whom seem intimidated, or even hurt, by the reality of living in a culture that is indifferent or has negative feelings towards their country of origin. I have never seen so much self-doubt (or even self-criticism) being shown by Americans about themselves or their culture. Of course, the degree of negativity towards America over here comes nowhere close to the degree of hostility that American culture routinely expresses towards its Asian minority, but even more notable is how the hostility towards America over here very rarely becomes personal. Whereas America's cultural anti-Asian prejudices becomes personal and often manifests as violence and individual acts of spiteful prejudice, over here, any negativity very, very, rarely (if at all) manifests into acts of personal hostility.

What is happening here is that due to cultural pressure some ex-pats here are exhibiting a form of internalized "hostility" towards themselves - or what America's ethnic minorities refer to as "self-hatred" or internalized racism". It is startling to realize how easy it is for a group or individual to develope this quality in their worldview - and disturbing to realize that even adults can so easily adopt a mindset that is self-effacing at best, but self-denigrating at worst even though they have the full experience of growing up in their own culture which nurtures their positive self-image. How much more intense this process must be, then, for the Asian child growing up in an American culture that propagates anti-Asian hostility by saturating society with extremely demeaning images and dehumanizing notions about their race.What Asian children see from the time they can sit up is a steady stream of negative images and stereotypes that normalize hostile attitudes within American society.

This is especially significant when considering a stereotype that is especially demoralizing for Asian men in America - the notion that we have some kind of innate or culture specific characteristic that makes us timid or mentally weak, and often our masculinity is diminished by comparing us negatively to the innately more confident American male. Often, it is Asian-American men themselves who will talk about their own racially specific diffidence. Yet, this quality of American confidence that is claimed to be innate disappears rather rapidly in a culture that is skeptical of it. If Asian-American men are timid (which is only true because many of us believe it to be true) it is because American culture has conditioned Asians to think of themselves in demeaning ways - that is the only real way that Asians are accepted into mainstream America, through self-denigration and abdication of our masculinity.

All of this tells me that if a group of people who have grown up with extremely positive feelings about themselves can be so easily dissuaded from their self-belief, then the reverse must be true too - changing our attitudes towards our own masculinity must be as easy as making a personal choice to do so.

Monday, September 3, 2012

A Lesser Racism?

Choosing Your Poison.

I came across an article on a website called "Jade Luck Club" written by a Chinese-American woman named Ying Ma. Ma has written a book called "Chinese Girl In The Ghetto" (which I haven't read), in which she describes her experiences growing up as an immigrant in the pre-dominantly black neighbourhood of Oakland, California. In the book Ma describes how she and other Asians were (and are) targeted for racially motivated violence and harassment by some members of the black community, and how this often violent anti-Asian racism seems almost universally present where Asian and black minorities find themselves living in close proximity to each other in America's inner-cities. Ma is also an economist and runs a blog (here) in which she writes on the ideologies behind the economic systems of China and the US as well as expounding further on black/Asian racial disharmony and racism.

Although I find plenty of points on her website where I disagree with her - her overzealous (and apparently xenophobic) anti-China commentary, and her economic and social conservatism, - her article on Jade Luck is a straight-forward account of what seems to be an increasingly pervasive phenomenon of black on Asian violence, as well as honestly highlighting the apparent evasion and indifference from Asian-American activists and community leaders when it comes to speaking out about this problem. It is this aspect of the issue - the lack of  an assertive Asian-American voice in addressing the problem - that I will focus on because of the many things it reveals about the experience of being Asian in America.

To begin, here are some excerpts describing Ma's experiences and accounts of African-American anti-Asian racism......
At age ten, I immigrated from China to Oakland , California , a city filled with crime, poverty, and racial tension. In elementary school, I didn’t wear name-brand clothing or speak English. My name soon became “Ching Chong,” “Chinagirl,” and “Chow Mein.” Other children laughed at my language, my culture, my ethnicity, and my race. ......... 
........But even when I sat in the front, fire crackers, paper balls, small rocks, and profanity were thrown at me and the other “stupid Chinamen.” The label “Chinamen” was dished out indiscriminately to Vietnamese, Koreans, and other Asians...... 
.......My English was by now more fluent than that of those who insulted me, but most of the time I still said nothing to avoid being beaten up. In addition to everything else thrown at me, a few times a week I was the target of sexual remarks vulgar enough to make Howard Stern blush. When I did respond to the insults, I immediately faced physical threats or attacks....... 
........The racial harassment wasn’t limited to bus rides. It surfaced in my high school cafeteria, where a middle-aged Chinese vendor who spoke broken English was told by rowdy students each day at lunch time to “Hurry up, you dumb Ching!” On the sidewalks, black teenagers and adults would creep up behind 80-year-old Asians and frighten them with sing-song nonsense: “Yee-ya, Ching-chong, ah-ee, un-yahhh!” At markets and in the streets of poor black neighborhoods, Asians would be told, “Why the hell don’t you just go back to where you came from!”....... 
......In poor neighborhoods across this country Asians endure daily racial hatred just as I did. Because of their language deficiencies, their small size, their fear of violent confrontations, they endure in silence.......
Harrowing, yet experiences of this kind have come to almost define the character of black/Asian relations in recent years, with stories of anti-Asian violence against children and adults alike becoming an ever more frequent phenomenon. The accepted (and acceptable) narratives - as Ma notes - cite economic disparities as the motivation for the violence, yet as Ma points out.....
In any case, the economic disparities rationale falls apart in the many instances where racism flourishes in the absence of class differences. At San Francisco’s Hunters Point public housing complex, for instance, low-income Southeast Asian residents, who are in the minority, have consistently encountered racial harassment from their black neighbors. Racial slurs, physical threats, violence, and destruction of property have festered for years. Philip Nguyen of the Southeast Asian Community Center, who has worked on the case for years, notes that there are no economic differences between the Asian and black families in the complex. The Asians, he says, are very quiet and have made every effort to befriend the black residents, yet serious friction has persisted for ten years. 
Even worse (and this is an argument put forward by many Asians themselves) is the accusation that Asians are racist and therefore bring the prejudice and racial violence upon themselves. I have to give kudos to Ma for having the courage to write on this subject when so many of us in the Asian-American community simply avoid the issue altogether or deflect legitimate dialogue on the subject by making Asians responsible for anti-Asian prejudice. 

What I think Ma misses is the larger context of anti-Asian racism in the US (and the western world in general)  within which black on Asian violence thrives. In fact, looking at some of the content of Ma's blog I would say that  she has actually followed the lead of those Asian activists whom she criticizes by downplaying (or not even mentioning) the anti-Asian attitudes that pervade mainstream American culture and society. So although Ma should be praised for speaking out about the reality of the black/Asian conflict, the failure to place black anti-Asian prejudice in its proper social context dilutes her effectiveness.

There is no difference between an American politician (blue or red, and most usually white) goading American society into boycotting the products of an Asian economy by stoking xenophobic attitudes that create resentment and hostility for political gain, and an on-the-make black community leader goading a black community to boycott the local Asian-owned 711 for the same reason - all based on largely unfounded and never proven claims that Asians (both in the US and in Asia) are somehow cheating Americans out of their economic prosperity, or exploiting Americans in some way, or simply taking wealth that rightfully belongs to Americans. Likewise, there is no difference between a popular and well-loved American celeb pulling his or her eyes into slits and ching-chonging their heart away, and an African-American doing the same to an Asian on the school bus, Asian restaurant, or on the street. 

Furthermore, it is almost impossible not to consider a likely connection between America's acceptance and depiction of casual violence towards Asians (men in particular) in the media and the increasingly casual and seeming normalization of anti-Asian violence in society. This cultural depiction of gratuitous violence against Asians is typically sadistic in nature, and is portrayed as the almost preferred mode of dealing with conflict with Asian people. Sometimes - as was the case in Men In Black III which re-enacted and made the racial murder of Vincent Chin into a cartoon to be enjoyed by America's children- the sadistic violence is presented as something that is funny and comical. Yet, always this violence is shown to be something that is deserved and therefore justified - just like in American society in general and mirrored in black on Asian violence in particular - anti-Asian prejudice is somehow legitimized by the assertion that it is various qualities in the Asian character itself that causes the violence against them.

What is even more perplexing is that Ma herself engages in demonization of China and Chinese people and this is where she shoots herself in the foot and defeats her own crusade against anti-Asian violence in the black community. A peculiar feature of anti-Asian prejudice is that it is heavily driven by a "bleedover" of resentment stemming from the combative and xenophobic political or economic nature of America's foreign policy agenda with various Asian economic powers. By making such simplistic, jingoistic, and inflammatory, observations on China and its people, Ma mimics those who propagate and legitimize that aspect of American culture that demonizes Asians and leads to casual prejudice (and violence) towards them. 

The screaming irony is deafening. Ma criticizes Asian activists for their reticence on (and blindness to) black on Asian violence - and rightfully so! - yet she is guilty of blinding herself to the larger picture of white America's incessant cultural expressions of xenophobia that legitimizes and normalizes the very casual anti-Asian violence that exists in black America. Anti-Asian racism in the black community is simply a subset of the general culture of anti-Asian prejudice that characterizes America's attitudes towards Asia and its peoples.   American culture models behaviour towards Asians that makes mockery and harassment the cultural norm - why should we expect African-Americans to have different values than the general culture? It makes no sense to complain about the black racism coming from the back of the bus, but ignore the white racists who are seemingly free to broadcast their racial harassment into your living room on a regular basis.

Now one might argue that we don't see white people going around violently attacking Asians for no reason (I don't necessarily believe this is true) and thus American culture plays no role in how people behave towards Asians. But this is where the unique experiences that divide the races plays a role in how America's culturally promoted anti-Asian racism manifests in society. If you are live in an environment that is violent, hopeless, and offers you little opportunity, then your anti-Asian racism will manifest as violence. If you have the privileges of opportunity that being white offers then your anti-Asian racism might be likely to manifest non-violently - but it does manifest. The racism of the tenured college professor who limits Asian enrollment because he doesn't like Asians causes as much damage as a black thug in the hood.

This doesn't justify black on Asian violence by citing poverty as a cause, it simply means that because American culture nurtures and promotes a culture in which demeaning behaviours and ways of conceiving of Asians through mockery, celeb harassment through the mass media, and ubiquitous fantasies of sadistic violence in film and television, society sees this as the acceptable mode of interaction. This is why there is little outcry against anti-Asian racism from mainstream America - it is simply considered normal to mock, harass, and, if necessary (or desired), violently attack Asian people. Clearly, there is no way that black on Asian racism can be divorced from the phenomenon of mainstream American anti-Asian prejudice and addressing one without acknowledging the other is a self-defeating exercise.

What all of this highlights is the lack of an autonomous Asian-American narrative or point of view that stands separate from the black minority narrative of social oppression, as well as separate from the white narrative of  opportunity and privilege. The truth is, that the Asian experience has and does traverse both these narratives in a way that makes it impossible to make sweeping generalizations about Asian-Americans and their experience. As illustrated by Ma in her essays and her own experiences of dealing with apathetic and seemingly indifferent Asian "leaders", Asians seem to polarize between the black and white extremes and take sides accordingly - victims of black racism seek white allies, victims of white racism seek black allies. In either case (and as followed by Ma), the price is that each side downplays the anti-Asian racism of the ally with whom they have chosen to align. This approach offers refuge - somewhat - but cannot possibly address the underlying issues that lead to anti-Asian prejudice.

Choosing between two different types of racism is not really a choice but it is a feature of the Asian-American struggle against prejudice that we have to seemingly accept racism in one form or another because we have not successfully forged an all important "third option" that recognizes the specific narratives of anti-Asianism as a unique historical phenomenon that lies at the root of much of the inequalities and conflicts we see not only in the US but across the world. It is fundamentally the same as a choice between poisons.

Black racism can only disappear simultaneously as white racism - we can't pretend that because white anti-Asian racism isn't violent (is that even true?) that it is less damaging - the framework of anti-Asian racism as it manifests in the US is a construction of white power without which black racism could not propagate. Overall, Ma must be praised for her willingness to speak out on a subject that many Asian-Americans find taboo - black on Asian violence - but at the same time her seeming blindness to ingrained white cultural anti-Asian prejudice contributes little to a meaningful solution to the problem.