Saturday, December 21, 2013

Asian Guy VS White Girls

Are Asian Men Under-Valuing Themselves?

I came across this YouTube video and it reinforced my beliefs about the self-talk of Asian dudes......

As you can see, the guy wanted to find out if women - white women in this case - were truly as disinterested or closed to dating an Asian guy as we have all heard they are supposed to be. As you can see, at least enough women showed sufficient interest to provide enough material to make a video!

I understand that a YouTube video is not a scientific study with controls and what not, but it does cast some doubt over some of the ideas that Asian-American men have internalized about themselves. Namely, that we are fated to be losers in romance. Yes, it is true that American culture propagates denigrating beliefs about Asian men, but it is not unusual to hear Asian guys blaming their personal lack of success with the ladies on this fact, when, perhaps, there may be grooming or self-confidence issues which they have overlooked.

Don't get me wrong, I'm not suggesting that America's cultural dehumanization of Asian men does not have repercussions, I'm merely saying it can become too easy to use that as an excuse to either, not try so hard, or not try at all, before pronouncing defeat. That is an attitude that I think Asian men cannot afford. I think what I'm trying to say is just try and if it doesn't work, then move on and try again

Tuesday, December 3, 2013

The Unified Voice.

Asian Men And Forging The Asian-American Identity.

I recently read an entry from the AngryAsianMan blog about a charity drive by Asian-American artist (of Taiwanese descent) and entrepreneur named Martin Hsu who produces a selection of art-related goodies for sale at his online store. The charity drive was in support of the victims of typhoon Haiyan. All sales of his signature "Dragon Boy" t-shirt will be donated to the Doctors Without Borders typhoon relief fund - furthermore, total sales of the shirt will be matched by Hsu and also donated to the fund. Offer ended at Thanksgiving, so those who participated are appreciated.

Aside from the kudos for the generous humanitarian effort, one thing has struck me about this Asian disaster and others like it and the responses of Asian-Americans to them. I'm relying solely on perception here, but it seems that regardless of the particular nation that has been struck by a disaster - Japanese or Indonesian tsunamis, the Sichuan earthquake of 2008, and now Haiyan - Asian-Americans respond, for the most part, as though they have a personal "connection" to those who have become victimized.

This is especially obvious if or when such tragedies have been accompanied by gloating racist outbursts on social or other media, as was the case with the 2004 Indonesian tsunami, the Japanese tsunami of 2011, the Sichuan earthquake, and even the Haiyan disaster. In all of these cases, the response of Asian-Americans seemed to suggest a "broadening" of specific ethnic identities and identifications, and a more expansive sense of an "Asian" identity" and identification.

But it is not only in the aftermath of disasters that the "boundaries" of ethnic identification seem to become more permeable. Successful or high profile Asian and Asian-American sportsmen like Manny, Jeremy Lin, Ichiro Suzuki, Yao Ming, and perhaps even Kristi Yamaguchi, have been supported and identified with by all Asian ethnicities in the US who may, perhaps, feel as though they are represented by people who look like them in a mainstream where Asians are typically invisible. As a Filipino, I certainly feel a sense of pride whenever I see Manny in action in the ring, but I also have equal investment in seeing Taiwanese-American Jeremy Lin succeed, hoping that his success will have a trickle down effect on the American psyche and create a shift in attitudes towards all Asians regardless of ethnicity.

To me, this represents a rudimentary notion of an identity - a sense of commonality of aspiration and experience that somehow causes a unity of sorts. What is interesting is that there seems to be little expression of commonality between ethnic groups apart from unity in the face of tragedy (and I include racial violence in this category), during protests against racist cultural depictions, and in support for Asian athletes. To me, this is a different way of saying that there seems to be no unifying culture that knits various Asian-American ethnicities together in the same way that support for an Asian sportsman might. Aside from the unifying force of tragedy, it is pretty much only via athletes that Asians (of all genders and ethnicities) have expressed or had the sense of the notion that, "yes, that represents me".

The same cannot really be said of Asian artists or other cultural figures. Certainly, there have been Asian-American cultural figures whose ideas have galvanized sections of the community (sometimes against each other!), but it seems predominantly through athletes that Asians most exuberantly express a sense of commonality. But most interestingly of all, is that it is Asian male athletes who have most forcefully been the source of this unifying force.

In view of my previous post, in which I outlined the apparent discomfort that some within ouır community have with both an empowered, specified Asian male voice, and the exploration of Asian masculinity and male sexuality, this idea of Asian male athletes being the driving force that seems to unite the community presents us with something of a dilemma; whilst Asian athletes - predominantly male - with displays of masculine prowess in their field of competition, have been the figures around whom Asian-Americans feel empowered to claim as their own regardless of ethnicity, there is an apparent counter-current that views Asian masculinity either with some distaste, or a focus on the Asian male voice as an incomplete inquiry unless it defers to other issues simultaneously.

As I suggested here Asian male sportsmen - just like black sportsmen overcoming segregation in years past - are necessarily on the forefront of the fight to shift cultural attitudes and beliefs about Asian men. Coupled with the fact that Asian male sportsmen have - observably - been the fulcrum around which Asians have rallied to raise their voices in support, and with whom many have identified, this idea that Asian masculinity and male voice are somehow threatening or is an incomplete area of discussion in and of itself, can be viewed as being ultimately a handicap on the empowerment of the entire community. Displays of Asian masculinity unify - this is observably true - so it follows that exploration of the Asian male voice, and its empowerment in its own right, is essential to unifying Asian-America.

The interesting thing is that this unifying phenomenon reinforces the commonality of the "Asian" piece of the Asian-American identity - somewhat different from the usual drive to define our American-ness and highlight the "American" half of the label.

Wednesday, November 27, 2013

What About Us?

Well.....What About You?

It is somewhat amazing that in the two years or so since Wesley Yang wrote his piece for the New York magazine and I'm still deriving so much rich material from it to post about! Perhaps it is the general dearth of Asian men being given opportunities to voice strong opinions in mainstream outlets that may explain my continued revisiting of the one that stands out the most.

My original opinions on Yang's piece were critical, but I noticed an interesting phenomenon in some other responses to his piece - the fact that he had actually chosen to focus on Asian men seemed to be a source of criticism. Despite all the issues that I had with Yang's piece, the one positive that I took from his piece was that he had focused on Asian-American men. I don't think he should have been criticized for that - although I did not agree with much of what he wrote, the fact that he chose to focus specifically on Asian men is in and of itself not a good reason to criticize his piece. But some critiques seemed to find Yang's Asian-male-centric focus to be problematic.

A response piece written in Slate magazine by Nina Shen Rastogi at the time offered some valid criticisms of Yang's piece, and then threw in this somewhat leading remark in the second paragraph...
As the accompanying  Yang, recent college grad Jefferson Mao, restaurateur Eddie Huang, and "pickup artist" J.T. Tran make clear, this essay gazes up at that woody canopy from a decidedly male perspective. The 9,000-word piece profiles several young Asian-American men but there is only one woman — a marketer for IBM — who emerges as anything near a character, though she's far less vividly drawn than any of the males. What's more, male sexual inadequacy is a consistent theme in Yang's lament: Failing to master the nuances of American masculinity is portrayed as a key part of the Asian-American experience. (On the question of where that leaves us Asian-American women, Yang is silent.)
The fact that the above comment occurs in the second paragraph might suggest how important it was to Rastogi to point out that Asian women did not feature in Yang's piece. To me this is a bizarre and perhaps, petty, criticism; Yang's piece is about the Asian male experience, and that is worthy of focus and attention in and of itself without having to be all-inclusive. How mentioning Asian women in the piece might perhaps lend greater credibility is never explained by Rastogi.

The emboldened part of the criticism is especially perplexing. Asian men's masculinity issues - that is, America's cultural dehumanization of Asian men - is a key part of the Asian-American experience. Where that leaves Asian women is really up to Asian women to explain, and Rastogi would have done better to, perhaps, put forward her own ideas on this instead of offering pointless, insinuative criticisms that seem to be little more than discomfort that there exists an Asian male experience that need not require the presence of Asian women to give it validity. The fact is, Asian men have their own set of issues relating to race, or otherwise, that are deserving of their own space and opportunity for investigation and which is necessarily independent of Asian women's issues. Why this disturbs folks is beyond the scope of this piece to explain.

In another critique, which I found to be insightful overall, an Asian male blogger at a space called "Scattered Speculations" offers similar criticisms....
I ask this, following Vijay Prashad’s wonderful book The Karma of Brown Folk, because I think what Asian Americans (I hesitate to say “we” here) seem to constantly miss is how much discourses of “Asian American success” and “model minority” are used (not necessarily by us at first) for the reproduction of the American racial strata whose logic and raison d’etre is anti-Black, and largely sexist. (I need not remind you all the racist figures of “welfare queen” that began under Reagan and came to a boiling point in Bill Clinton. It is he who ended welfare after all.) And most importantly, how Asian American men benefit from this. More than anything, I’m troubled by Yang’s utter ignorance of this fact. There is no mention of African Americans or women. Hence, his piece is littered with stories about Asian American men’s inability to get what white men get—whether it be in the realm of college admissions, professional mobility, or white women. (It is on this last point that I find the non-mention of Asian American women, even just an aside, to be rather odd.)
The author of that blog - a dude named Sam Han - ups the ante in the above comment, calling Yang out for not mentioning African-Americans as well as women as, perhaps, being more harmed by the model minority stereotype and notions of Asian-American success. But, again, the implication is that Asian men's experiences don't have a legitimate claim for specific focus and that such issues are devalued without a wider context. This is like having your child repeatedly come home from school with a bloody nose, asking him or her to explain what happened and how he or she feels about it, but then criticizing the answer because they fail to mention how their bloody nose affects their classmates.

But even more problematic in the Han criticism is that it, ironically, fails to notice that many stereotypes bring benefits to varying degrees to those who are stereotyped based on one's position on the political spectrum. Asian women "benefit" from the stereotype of being passive and submissive (that is, "safe"), by being more readily accepted - at least as media figures - than Asian men, and perhaps even more so than black women. African-Americans benefit from America's suspicion of Asians by being more associated with being "American" - that is, black loyalties are rarely questioned.

Worst of all, Han's criticism implies that Asians are somehow required to answer for stereotypes that they had no role in creating. I don't think that we are required to answer for stereotypes that others create about us, especially when - as I pointed out here - it is questionable the actual degree to which the model minority stereotype actually informs government social policies, and it is mostly Asians themselves who seem to be the one's most likely to talk about it these days. More importantly, the model minority myth hurts Asians more than anyone else - a fact that gets lost in our drive to perform damage control the effects on other groups of a stereotypes that we did not create. No, it is ridiculous to insist that a discussion on the specific issues that affect Asian men should have an "all-inclusive" element. The subject is worthy of attention in and of itself, without the need to apologize for its existence.

Although it may not be the intention of the two critics above, the result of such criticisms is that it insists that Asian men's issues (and, strangely, by extension all Asian issues) are more credible or even valid only if they don't somehow only focus on Asian men. This is tantamount to saying that the Asian male voice cannot speak on its own behalf specifically, but must highlight related issues along the way. If we were to follow this policy, it would mean that Asians can have no credible autonomous voice, and that Asian men's issues are only valid relative to the issues of other oppressed groups. That is a dangerous way of thinking. Albeit unintentional, this way of thinking is actually a classic Red Herring type approach that is usually used by those opposed to any minority voice.

Occasionally, the apparent drive to tamper with and temper the Asian male experience manifests in snide ways. In an article from earlier in the year, Slate writer, Anne Ishii, offers a somewhat eye-rollingly derisive review of a biography called "Fresh Off The Boat" by Asian-American provocateur (of sorts), Eddie Huang. Ishii's review seems to go a step further and instead of insisting that there be no focus on Asian men, she seems to haughtily find the whole process of Asian men blindly sorting their way through pervasive racist stereotypes to be distasteful - who do Asian men they think they are, indeed?! In fact, it is almost as though Ishii is embarrassed that Huang has a racialized masculinity - as though it is his fault - and she is somehow losing face because of it.

In short, Asian men's stories - just like any other demographic - are significant in their own right without having to be vehicles for other oppressed groups. Yes, there is a time and place for that kind of crossover work, but given the dearth of Asian men's points of view in the mainstream, it seems petty (and repressive) for people to insist that what little time we are afforded to present a specific Asian male perspective must be shared with others who may, in fact, already possess greater opportunities and avenues to recount their experiences than Asian men could even hope for.

For all of the criticisms that have been levelled at Wesley Yang's piece, the most unexpected (and pointless) is that he was somehow at fault because he focused on issues specifically from the perspective of Asian men. Criticizing this further marginalizes Asian men, and represses their opportunities to have an autonomous voice within American culture.

Monday, November 18, 2013

A-Town Boyz Movie

Asian-American Gangsters Of Atlanta.

I just read about this on the AngryAsianMan blog. A woman named Grace Jung is part of a production team that is making a documentary about Asian-American gangsters in Atlanta. The documentary was made under the direction of award-winning director Eugene Lau, and began production with the help of a grant from Spike Lee. Writing on a website called "Thought Catalog", Grace explains why this particular subject matter...
Why Asian American Men?.......Nobody ever asks for their point of view; Asian-American males are a neglected group in our society. The subjects of our documentary are all male, Asian American and either from or currently based in Atlanta. Our subjects have a diverse background but share some similarities: raised by immigrant parents who worked long hours (parental neglect at home) and lacked the knowledge to navigate the educational systems due to the language barrier (extra pressure on the children to figure things out alone at a very young age), and struggled with racism in their schools where Asian Americans were taunted for their looks, language, culture, etc.
Hey, someone is listening! Then Jung goes on to explain further some of the factors for the alienation of these young Asian-American men...
The main point we’re addressing with subjects like these is that they felt unheard and misunderstood by everyone. The lack of proper role models at home, school and in the media (a general lack of real Asian faces that are not embarrassing all of Asian Americans by perpetuating undesirable stereotypes that are easy to poke fun at or laugh at), these young men felt let down and alienated.
I don't think I could have put it better myself. This idea of alienation - bizarrely, a word I hardly ever see being used to describe the Asian-American experience - is a recurring theme in my writing. Although this documentary focuses on a specific demographic (Asian youth joining gangs), I would add that many Asian men from all demographics experience a similar sense of alienation from society for the same reasons that these young men do; a culture that normalizes derogatory ways of thinking of and behaving towards Asians (particularly Asian men) and that neither offers few images of a healthy, dignified, culturally appropriate Asian masculinity, nor fosters an inclusive cultural identity for young Asian-American men.

Anyways, I am looking forward to the movie, here's the trailer......

And here is the documentary's website...

Support this movie when it comes out.

Friday, November 8, 2013

Lifting The Veil

The Impact Of  Stereotypes...

I came across an interesting and funny article written by a Caucasian woman named Sarah Shaw in which she writes about Asian stereotypes that she had been exposed to in the US, and which she bought into. Similar to the experiences of another American woman whom I wrote about, here, when this woman actually got to be around Asian men in an environment where the culture did  not bombard her with denigrating images and beliefs about them, she was suddenly able see that Asian men could be viable partners, and that she could be and was sexually attracted to them. Prior to moving to Seoul, she was convinced that she just wasn't attracted to Asian men and would definitely not be dating them.

This is what she writes.....
While growing up in a homogeneous white town, it was a standard perception that Asian men just weren’t attractive. I’m embarrassed to admit that I once mentioned to an friend, “Asian girls are so attractive, but I don’t find Asian guys attractive at all.” I can’t even believe I would make such a blanket statement about about an entire race of men, but now, I am fully aware that the American media vastly influenced my perception.
This is interesting for a number of reasons. Growing up in a homogeneous white town, the most likely source of her aversion to Asian men would certainly not have been based upon personal acquaintance. Shaw acknowledges that it is most likely media influences that shaped her ideas about Asian men. Sometimes Asian men (and women) are chided for seeming to place an unreasonable significance on how the popular media portrays us, yet  the fact that individuals can form belief systems that they may consider an accurate representation of reality based entirely on what the media says, illustrates its potential to shape attitudes for both positive and negative outcomes. Shaw continues....
In Western pop culture and Hollywood movies, Asian men are often de-sexualized, usually fitting into one of three roles: The asexual math geek or computer nerd; the funny ugly guy with a thick foreign accent that everyone laughs at; the badass ninja, samurai or any other type of martial artist in traditional Asian garb clutching a sword.
There you have it; popular cultural notions can and do act as a surrogate for real-world experience and foster the formation of beliefs in much the same way that real-world experience might. When you factor in conditions like one-sided depictions combined with limited personal exposure to Asians, the effects can evidently be dramatic and people can formulate a worldview and a set of beliefs about a group of people without even coming into contact with them much, if at all.

Having moved to Seoul and apparently freed from the prejudices of American popular culture, Shaw began to find plenty of dating material amongst the men of Korea, but found herself beset by confused disbelief  of friends back home at her decision to date Asian men. Citing a steady stream of stereotypes gleaned from knowledge gained via popular cultural depictions, Shaws friends express incredulity that she could date Asian men.Sadly (but perhaps not surprisingly), Shaw also encountered several Asian-American women who also expressed prejudiced attitudes towards Asian men. Noting the unique affection of Asian gender dynamics, she says.....
I’ve also met several Asian-American women who stereotype Asian men. “Someone’s gotta love the Asian men! I only date white guys,” one of my friends said last year, after I told her about the guy I was dating.
Nice. Shaw finishes with this...
No, I don’t have yellow fever (okay, maybe a little) and I don’t necessarily have a “thing” for Asian men. I’m not attracted to the Korean guys that wear BB cream and carry designer purses, but I do like smooth skin and silky black hair.
I emboldened that last sentence because it highlights something that Asian-American guys never seem to tell themselves - they possess physical qualities, like silky black hair and smooth skin, that many women find attractive. The reason may be that, unlike in Asia, Asian-American guys grow up smothered by societal messages propagated via the media, that tell them they are clownish weaklings and ugly. We talk often about how brainwashed Asian women are by the media, but I think we have to acknowledge that Asian men are brainwashed as well - many of us believe what the media says about us (even though we would deny it). Many Asian men believe that they are disadvantaged because they have either internalized prevailing stereotypes about themselves, or they feel that the sheer weight of culturally normalized prejudice is too massive a hurdle to overcome as an individual.

This latter point is understandable, because profoundly ingrained racial stereotypes are held in place by peer pressure - once an idea sticks, it's "veracity" is upheld by social habit and custom. Forget everything you have heard about the western character being one of individuals not swayed by social conditioning, and too individualistic to be pressured into conformity. That's nonsense. White people do conform, but they just often don't know it, or simply won't admit it. The Shaw article and others like it are a testament to this - once people leave the confining circumstances of their own cultural prejudices, and are away from the peer-pressure of it, they suddenly feel free to actually exercise their individualism and go against the grain of their culture's beliefs.

In another article that illustrates how cultural conditioning holds Asian men back, a Dutch blogger describes how her visit to the Phillipines was something of a shock...
[In the Phillipnes there was] Head-turning when walking by, men extending a friendly hand to me while my male partner was ignored and Filipino’s calling me miss sexy despite the fact that my male partner was right beside me. The weirdest incident happened when a child I would guess to be about 7 years old walked by me and said: hey sexy (by the way, what do you reckon, nature or nurture?)
Nowhere in American culture have I ever seen any Asian men being shown to be so brazenly flirtatious, or brazenly sexual. Even Filipinos in the US don't have that reputation - as far as I know. My take is that this aspect of Filipino culture - and I would guess, the sexuality of men from other Asian cultures - gets lost in translation during the migration process. Of course, being bombarded with denigrating images via the media probably contributes significantly to this process.

So whilst it is true that stereotypes probably do shape many people's attitudes towards Asian men, it is equally probable that Asian men don't help their own situation because they too might down talk themselves. My sense is that it need not take an entire cultural revolution for Asian men to seem more attractive - I think that individuals can make an impact also, probably just by starting to think differently about themselves.

Thursday, October 31, 2013

Why Won't Hollywood Cast An Asian Male Lead - Part 2?

This is Part 2 of a two part series. Part 1 here 

Summary And Conclusions.

Whilst there is a compelling argument for a lack of "bankable" Asian leads, the argument fails to explain why Asian actors are absent from film in prominent secondary co-starring or supporting roles which may be less detrimental to the bottom line. Furthermore, as I illustrated in part 1, Asian leads (male leads) can turn a profit for a studio, if not mega-profits, at least moderate to good profits. This makes the absence of Asian leads even in the lower echelon of the industry - that is, in lower-budget/lower profit expectation echelon of the industry where only moderate profits are the expectation - even more troubling than the lack of leads in big-budget film. Asian leads can clearly thrive in movies where the lower profit margin is expected, yet, they remain more or less absent as leads at this level of the industry also.

If we take these considerations into account and then add to it the regular production of depictions that are demeaning, dehumanizing, and xenophobic, it is difficult not to believe that there is a vein of anti-Asian attitudes running through the film and television industry. Consider this; whenever we see a representation of Asians, either as a bestial villain, or in a brief appearance in which their only purpose seems to be as the object of racial mockery, someone had to think up or collate racist ideas about Asians and fashion those ideas into a representation that is apparently accepted without much question by others in the industry. Ignorance of Asians cannot explain this - the two main hubs of film and television production are in New York and LA which have substantial Asian populations.

Given all of this, it is still impossible to state categorically that film and television are racist such that it discriminates against Asian actors. Doubtless, the regular demeaning and xenophobic depictions of Asians in film and television are racist in scope - often overtly and unapologetic - and do raise questions of whether these types of productions reflect attitudes that also manifest as discrimination against Asian actors. In short, there is sufficient reason to doubt the claim that Hollywood does not discriminate against Asians. If the issue was simply one of Asians not being given lead roles because of the vague notion of "bankability", then that might be more believable. Yet the problem is clearly far more extensive than that..

There is another aspect to this issue that is more difficult to address because it requires activism on the part of Asian actors themselves. No amount of community protesting is going to be successful if there are still Asian actors who are willing to accept roles that demean or mock Asian people, it is as simple as that. But this is a challenge; how do we persuade Asian actors to be more discerning or even assertive about the roles they are given?

Just like in every job it is the duty and responsibility of individuals to self-advocate in order to earn the best possible deal for themselves. Whether you are negotiating for a raise, pushing for a promotion, or pushing an idea, you have to self-advocate and push the reasons for why you deserve the raise, the promotion, or the new account. Those who do this come out with the goodies, and this is an important point for Asian actors; is it good self-advocacy to accept racially demeaning roles, given that there is scant evidence that doing so leads to more prominent roles? The issue becomes not one of activism through social or political consciousness, but activism through self-advocacy. In this case, personal advocacy aligns perfectly with the needs of the community.

There have been many Asian actors who have accepted demeaning roles but there are no real "A-list" male Asian actors - which suggests that accepting derogatory roles is unlikely to lead to meatier opportunities. The reality may turn out to be that by accepting racially demeaning roles, Asian actors are in fact, helping to legitimize and contribute to the demand for such roles, further limiting the types of roles that they are offered.

It is often suggested that the way those with aspirations should respond to these dilemmas, is to produce their own works of film, in the hope of getting recognized by mainstream studios. The thinking is that Asians should produce independent works of such brilliance that the industry cannot help but sit up and take notice, and once Asian actors have somehow "proven" themselves in innocuous independent films, then the ever fair mainstream studios will relent and finally cast an Asian-American male as a lead. Of course, hoping that a low-budget independent movie will perform freakishly well in the box-office and persuade mainstream studios to cast an Asian lead, is actually tantamount to saying that you have to win the lottery in order to be considered bankable. That aside, Asians making their own films is a good thing for reasons that go beyond the unreasonable expectation that they might be a winning lottery ticket.

As a part of developing an Asian-American cultural voice, producing works where Asians have complete creative control seems like a great idea. In this way, Asian-Americans can explore the history of their experience (historical experience is the basis of culture) and forge that into a cultural voice that is independent of the need to acquiesce to mainstream sensibilities. And readers might know what I am talking about here when I say "acquiesce to mainstream sensibilities" - often, Asian-American artistic output seems to require the presence of prominent white characters for some kind of credibility and any Asian voice seems to assume an almost parasitic relationship to the dominant white culture. The result is that Asian arts don't seem to push the envelope of ideas and cultural perspectives that may derive uniquely from the Asian experience.

When you apply this idea to Asian-American film aspirations, it seems contradictory to suggest that Asians can produce culturally significant works that - if we are to be true to the Asian-American experience - derive some considerable inspiration from our often negative relationship with the mainstream but also make this somehow appeal to that very same mainstream. No, that too seems like a dead-end - for Asian made films to appeal to a wider audience they must almost by definition, ignore their specific experiences of race, but in order for such films to become one of the building blocks of an autonomous Asian cultural voice, they have to avoid the trap of catering to mainstream tastes.

That does not mean that independent Asian films are not a worthy endeavour. But, I think that it would be better to produce work for its own sake, and work that stays true to the sensibilities, observations, and experiences, of the work's creator, rather than aspire to produce work that tries to meet some kind of mainstream criteria which is vague, poorly defined, and to the cynical may seem like little more than an ad-hoc rationalization of discriminatory practices. The irony is that whilst white film-makers struggle against compromise in their work, Asians contemplate embracing compromise as an essential aspect of their aspirations to be recognized. To me, this defeats the purpose of producing independent films where full creative control offers greater freedom of expression.

But where does this leave Asian-American leads? Ironically, by focusing on the lack of Asian male leads, we are missing what may be an even more significant gauge of possible Hollywood discrimination against Asian actors - the dearth of Asians in prominent supporting roles. Of course, no-one wants to play second-fiddle, but if we are to be realistic, we have to admit that we are likely to be far more successful in terms of advocacy, if we push for more Asians in prominent supporting roles, or even secondary and tertiary co-starring roles. Realistically, I don't really believe that making independent movies in and of itself is likely to produce the "break-out" Asian star of tomorrow, unless the groundwork is laid for this to happen by first having audiences become accustomed to Asians on the big screen via prominent support roles.

Mainstream movies that show Asians interacting normally and without a context of racialization (via prominent support roles) in the everyday life of America as depicted by the movies, is probably just as important to normalizing Asian faces on the big screen as would a lead, and perhaps even more so. So perhaps the goal of activism - both from those outside the industry and those within it - should be to advocate for more Asians in prominent support roles, and perhaps as the result of this, when an Asian male lead does emerge, it won't seem so alien to viewers, and will, in fact, seem like the natural progression.

If we look beyond "home-made film" as stepping stone to mainstream acceptance,  independent movies could play a role in raising the Asian voice if we think in terms of them forming the basis for an independent Asian-American cinema industry that is self-reliant and strong enough to provide meaningful careers to deserving Asian performers. Asian-Americans number around 17 million, and in the next ten years or so, our numbers should exceed 20 million. That is a significant number of people and certainly enough of a population to support an independent film industry. After all, Hong Kong has a population of around 8 million and has a robust domestic film industry, so why not Asian-America? The point here is that in the present day and age, it is not necessarily true that one need acquiesce to mainstream sensibilities as an actor or filmmaker, in order to be able to support a career in film. Those days are gone, but perhaps we just have not realized it yet. Besides, the almost parasitic attachment to white mainstream sensibilities is nauseating and quite frankly, embarrassing. There are over 40 million Hispanics, and over 40 million African-Americans - why is there no equivalent aspiration to try to appeal to these sizable groups who are, effectively, mainstream populations in their own right.

In this light, the apparently predominant aim of appealing to the white mainstream for what is essentially credibility, may well be setting too low a bar for achievement and possibility. That is to say that Asian-Americans could be aspiring to produce independent films that have an appeal beyond simply the white American market, and far beyond the cultural and national boundaries of the United States, possibly in markets where America's racial assumptions and prejudices have not yet taken hold.  So, whilst we should encourage Asian-American independent film, the scope of that concept could expand into a self-sustaining industry with an appeal and a reputation that goes beyond the tastes of white America, and which derives credibility and acclaim from its own substance, and not from the accolades of the white mainstream.

If we can envision an Asian-American film industry as part of a wider cultural genesis of Asian-American life, then this may create the space for Asians in the US to explore their full creative potential, informed by the racial bias that necessitates it, but not limited by it. Thus, we could see an Asian-American culture emerge - much in the same way as the black culture of rock and roll emerged out of the enforced self-sustaining "independence" of segregation - that might have the force to become integral to the zeitgeist of American culture. 

So to summarize, I think that, as commentators, we need to shift our focus away from the lack of male leads and onto the general lack of Asian faces in American film - particularly the lack of Asians in prominent supporting roles, which may be a greater gauge of possible discrimination in Hollywood. Highlighting the lack of visibility of Asians in even no-risk-to-the-bottom-line support roles carries with it a greater chance to bring about change - depicting Asians in the everyday life of America via the medium of film, must help to normalize the idea of Asians as integral to American culture and society. Once viewers become accustomed to seeing Asians normalized in film, then it becomes inevitable that an Asian male lead would naturally emerge, and be more readily accepted by the public. Hand-in-hand with this shift of focus, I carry the hope that some Asian actors would approach their choices with a more discerning eye.

Producing independent films may help this process, but the cross-over gamble is something that can be equated to winning the lottery. So, while I would love to see an independent Asian-American film industry emerge - for the reasons outlined above - I think that such an industry would be insipid if its primary consideration limited it scope to some kind of practice of mainstream sensibilities. An independent industry that isn't restricted by concerns of compromise, may well serve as a means to explore the potential of the Asian-American voice, and perhaps contribute to the increased visibility of Asian-Americans by becoming integral to America's cultural zeitgeist. That is to say that if an Asian-American film "industry" could become so influential in its own right that they might themselves come to represent mainstream sensibilities by superseding the archaic attitudes and prejudiced thinking of that mainstream.

Monday, October 28, 2013

Why Won't Hollywood Cast An Asian Male Lead - Part 1?

The Issues.....

The whitewashing of Asian characters out of story lines in many American movie productions is a phenomena that no-one - Asian or otherwise - denies occurs on a routine basis in the movie industry. In brief, whitewashing simply means that white actors are used to replace characters that are commonly expected to be Asian. For example, movies adaptations of novels have routinely used white actors to replace characters who were Asian in the book, or even movies that portray historical events have used white actors to play the role of someone who was Asian in real life. This is achieved in various ways; by changing the race of a character,  from Asian to white, by "Asianizing" white (but recently black) actors by using prosthetics to change eye shape, or by using ethnically ambiguous white actors who may have a "part-Asian" look. 

This has, naturally, led to accusations that Hollywood is racist and is discriminating against Asian actors. On the one side of the argument are those who point to whitewashing, in addition to the absence of Asian (particularly male) leads, and the sporadic appearance of racially demeaning depictions in Hollywood productions, as the self-evident manifestation of racism. On the other side, are those who suggest that Hollywood is merely driven by the "bottom line" and that Asians are relatively absent in front of camera simply because they are not "bankable", and won't, don't, or cannot, guarantee sufficient box-office returns. Thus, on this latter view, there is no "racism" in the sense that Asians are not discriminated against because of their race, but have limited opportunities because they have limited appeal to the cinema-going public.

What is interesting is that there are Asian-Americans on both side of this argument - some who believe that Hollywood is systematically excluding Asians, and others on the opposite side of the argument who say that it is entirely a business decision that limits the opportunities of Asian actors. I am agnostic on the issue - I cannot say that I am anywhere near certain that Hollywood is racist, but I think that the issues I outlined provide sufficient reason to not dismiss accusations of racism out of hand. In this post I will outline the main points on both sides of the argument and post my conclusions in the summary.

Whitewashing and the bottom line.

Whitewashing means that white actors are cast in roles that replace a fictional Asian character or even a historically Asian character with a Caucasian one. Going hand-in-hand with this is the practice of "Yellowface" - that is, using makeup, prosthetics, and often a feigned, caricatured, East Asian accent, to transform a white actor into an Asiatic character or caricature. The result is that even in historical films where the protagonist is Asian, the casting of an Asian actor need not be guaranteed.The industry response to this is that Asian leads don't have the box-office appeal to warrant being given such substantial roles. Filmmakers, we are told, are unwilling to take a risk on an Asian lead because they won't make money for the studio.

It is this argument that is possibly the most often cited by those who deny that Hollywood is racist. But what is the the belief based on? I have never seen any actual numbers presented that show beyond a doubt that Asian leads lose money for studios, and since the argument is based on an empirical premise - that is, the profit/loss margin - surely there are some studies showing that Asian leads always fail? Of course, it is extremely difficult to gauge the profitability of Asian leads because there have been so few attempts at it, so right up front, the premise is questionable. But the ultimate question is; is it true that movies with an Asian lead are definitively destined to lose money for studios? The answer is definitely no.

Three movies come to mind that challenge this assertion; Romeo Must Die, Dragon: The Bruce Lee Story, and Ninja Assassin. All three of these movies featured an Asian male lead and they all turned a profit. Here's a summary;

Romeo Must Die                     Starring Jet Li                             
                                                        Budget:          $25 million
  Takings                                          Domestic        $55,973,336    61.5%
                                                        Foreign          $35,063,424    38.5%
                                                        Profit              $66036578                                        

DragonThe Bruce Lee Story   Starring Jason Scott Lee    
                                                        Budget;        $14 million
   Takings                                         Domestic      $35,113,743   55.3%
                                                        Foreign         $28,400,000   44.7%
                                                        Profit            $49,513,745

Ninja Assassin                          Starring Rain                        
                                                        Budget         $40 Million
   Takings                                         Domestic      $38,122,883    61.9%
                                                        Foreign        $23,478,397    38.1%
                                                        Profit            $21,601,280

All of the above movies made a profit for the studios and they all featured Asian males in the lead roles. Granted that is only three movies (although, Jet Li also starred in a movie "The One" that also turned a profit, and there is an obscure French movie called "The Lover", that made a decent worldwide profit, and good profits in the US on limited release, but which also was nominated for an Oscar), but given that three movies possibly represent a lion share of movies that have starred Asian males, it has to be said that this is a reasonably good rate of success for movies that have actually featured an Asian male lead.

At this point it has to be noted that the "bottom line" argument is misleading in that it is remarkably vague, and this vagueness itself seems like a disingenuous approach to engaging with the Asian community on this issue, and often seems like little more than hand-waving away Asian-American concerns. The reason is that such a vague argument allows for goalposts to be shifted dramatically within its nebulous boundaries. For example, when presented with solid figures that plainly show that Asian leads can make money for studios, the goalposts suddenly shift, and the argument narrows to something like "movies with Asian leads show only moderate profits", or they "didn't do as well domestically, so they weren't 'truly' successful". And this is important to note because it highlights the fact that the dearth of Asians in front of the camera goes well beyond the problem of Asian male leads in the blockbuster.

If Asians were absent only as leads in blockbusters, then the bottom-line argument would hold more water. The problem is that Asians are absent in front of the camera at every level of the industry. Asians are rarely seen in any kind of secondary or tertiary co-starring role, or even in prominent supporting roles. The bottom line argument cannot explain this because - particularly in the case of prominent supporting roles - they have negligible affect on the bottom line. There are few critics saying a movie failed because the tertiary co-star or supporting cast were terrible  Furthermore, even if it were true that Asians cannot yet carry a lead in a big-budget blockbuster, the three examples listed above, suggest that Asians can, at least, be able to carry lead roles in the echelon of the industry where only moderate profits are the expectation. And that is another huge hole in the bottom line argument.

Low and medium-budget movies made with the express intention of limited theater release, and then quickly on to DVD, are not expected to make huge profits. In fact, moderate profits are the expectation at this level of production, and Asian leads have shown that they can carry a movie even though the profits may be moderate - although the above figures show that in the case of Romeo Must Die and Dragon, profits were well beyond moderate. But the question arises; why are Asian actors also absent from leads in films at this level of the industry, when they very clearly have been able to make the kinds of profits that this echelon of the industry expects? The bottom line at this level of the industry is different and Asians have shown without a doubt that they can turn a profit. But even worse, is the dearth, even, of co-stars and support roles for Asian actors at this - what we could call - base-level of the industry. 

If the industry were truly egalitarian, then Asians would surely feature more prominently than they do at the very least as supporting cast, in the lower-budget echelon of the industry. But, they don't. Regardless of the lower bottom-line expectations, and the fact that Asians have demonstrated that they can be the lead in profitable movies at the medium/low-budget level, Asians are still almost invisible. The bottom line argument does not explain this. In fact, in light of this, the bottom-line argument seems more like a flimsy hand-waving excuse to not engage genuinely with Asian-Americans about their concerns regarding the limited opportunities for Asian actors.

Demeaning Depictions of Asians in the media

Perhaps even more of an issue for Asian-Americans in its uneasy relationship with Hollywood, is the problem of derogatory depictions and lazy stereotypes of Asians that are produced in the film and television industry from time to time. These demeaning depictions are often simple caricatures that disparage among other things, Asian racial characteristics, manners of speech, and cultural particulars. At other times, these depictions are xenophobic and inflammatory and hatefully shows Asians as almost literal monsters with no humane qualities. Often, the depictions are accompanied by acts of random and sadistic violence, which make light of, and justify casual violence against the Asian people being depicted. So the spectrum runs from disparaging to xenophobic and sadistically violent. Often these demeaning and dehumanizing ideas are expressed without even the vehicle of an actual character who has any meaningful lines and in a manner which has little or no significance to any plot or storyline - that is, their presence serves no apparent purpose in the context of the production and would not be fatal to the plot or characterizations if the depictions didn't exist.

Naturally, racism is denied as the motivation behind these one-sided, dehumanizing, racially insensitive, and xenophobic depictions, and it is almost impossible to state categorically that racism does drive these depictions. Yet, the fact remains that even if racism isn't the driving force, the depictions themselves rely on racial stereotypes and dehumanizing caricatures.

So there are two sides to this aspect of Asian representation in film and television; those depictions that are brief but are merely a collection of all or some of the most derogatory representations that have been associated with Asian people but are irrelevant to the plot, and those depictions of depictions via characters that are integral to a plot, but are also loaded with derogatory qualities associated with Asians which demonize them via inflammatory characterizations. The former depictions normalizes racist behaviour towards Asians, whilst the latter models and normalizes racial suspicion, distrust, and hostility.

This concludes the first part of this post. In part 2 I will summarize the issues and present conclusions.

Thursday, October 24, 2013

The Western World And Asian Racism

 A Strained Advocacy.

I came across an interesting article written in 2012, by a Caucasian woman (Julia Bass) who had lived in Korea, in which she draws attention to South Korean racial attitudes towards foreigners, and all non-Koreans, and to be perfectly honest I had to laugh. Don't get me wrong, racism is a bad thing regardless of who is perpetrating it, but a fair amount of the racism that she describes seemed to be actually identical to the kind complaints about racism that Asian (and perhaps other minorities) speak out about, and for which we are told to stop being so sensitive, or "it's just a joke", or even "stop complaining, blacks have it worse". After further reading on this subject from the point of view of white ex-pats, I could not help but notice how eager these guys were to play the race card in describing their experiences.

First of all, to put the Julia bass piece in context; at the end of her piece, it is noted that she spent one year (yes, one whole year) living and teaching in South Korea. Now as an ex-pat myself, and someone who knows a lot of ex-pats, I can say with some fair degree of certainty that it is impossible to truly gauge the character and attitudes of a foreign people or culture. This is especially true when you move to a country that has a radically different cultural and historical experience to the one you came from and the language is alien or unfamiliar. Most of the ex-pats I know (many of whom have foreign service careers and move to a different country every three to five years) will tell you that it takes between six months and a full year to actually settle in and even hope to begin becoming familiar with the local culture and character of the people. So, right up front, I question the impressions of someone who most likely didn't stay long enough to even settle in properly. In reality, these observations actually sound superficial and little more than the usual litany of (ironically) racial and cultural stereotypes that get thrown around about Asia and its people.

In response to a news piece widely condemned as racist by race-sensitive ex-pats that was aired on Korean television (a video I referred to here) Bass has this to say......
"the issue has everything to do with every foreigner. Each time I walk down the street and people take a second look at me, I wonder ... I've seen the video, maybe they've seen it too ... do they think something is wrong with me? Am I actually unwanted in my quaint, peaceful town of Yeoju that I've come to call home for the last 10 months? I'm not a western man with a Korean lady attached to my arm, but that isn't the point. I'm an outsider to them, and now I'm an outsider who is associated with messages like this one. Moreover, messages that my students will see and will affect the way they see me."
I can relate. Perhaps it is true what Asian-American have been saying for years - and according to Bass, the ex-pat community of Korea agreed - that racism in the media and cultural stereotyping have the potential to shape racist attitudes and racist behaviours towards those targeted by it.

Bass also voices concern for the plight of Korean women...
"Another upsetting component in this video is the way Korean women are dealt with. Phrases like "our women" are not only objectifying, possessive, and archaic, they also paint a picture of women who lack self-respect or intelligence—a picture I can whole-heartedly argue is untrue. Women here—although a little too obsessed with skin whitening cream and hand mirrors for my taste—are decisive, altruistic, and highly intelligent."
Actually if you watch the video in question (here) you might actually think that some of those Korean women were, in fact, lacking self-respect, but also note the sly dig at Korean women in that last sentence. On the other hand, I might be a little more empathetic with the plight of white dudes if I did not already know that there is a culture of gendered racism directed at Korean men by ex-pats whose apparent aim is to control the choices of "their" western women with scary, xenophobic, racist, contradictory stories about the asexual/ sexual predatory Korean men. As I noted here, there seems to be a mode of thinking that excuses white racial attitudes towards Koreans (especially Korean men) by using sexism to justify racism.

But there are some observers trying to address the subject objectively. Here is another article in the online magazine "The Diplomat", that addresses the subject of racism in Korea, and - to its credit - the article does attempt to add perspective by noting that ex-pat complaints of racism might perhaps be attributed to mere miscommunication (and my guess is that exaggeration is a problem too) and that their complaints pale in comparison to those of the workers and immigrants from South and SouthEast Asia who bear the brunt of racism there. I also understand that Asian-Americans of Korean descent have sometimes been considered suspect by Korean society, but white culture has a history of appropriating the experiences of other groups and re-making it in their own image.

Perhaps the best and most eloquent analysis of white-ex-pat claims of racism in Korea has been outlined in a post written by an African-American woman who spent some time in the country. She writes...
What I've found is that essentially white teachers really exaggerate how bad racism in Korea. At least from the black perspective it’s exaggerated because in our home countries we have to deal with it, so when we come here, for better or for worse, we're used to it. We’re used to people gawking. We’re used to people assuming negative things about us. Of course, we’re used to discrimination based on the color of our skin.
An interesting, although not altogether unsurprising, perspective. Those who are familiar with my blog might recognize this idea of exaggerating things about Asia and Asian people as a characteristic of the way that American (and perhaps all English-speaking) cultures condition their societies with negative bias towards Asians. But it is not just Korea where the ex-pats seem race-conscious.

Japan also, receives its fair share of ex-pat complaints of racism. In a recent incident that received a fair amount of mainstream press in the US, an American teacher in Japan came under fire from so-called nationalists for trying to teach his students about Japan's history of discrimination. The first thing about this story is that the backlash came mostly over the internet after the teacher had posted a YouTube video, and that the teacher in question (an American of Japanese dissent) was given the support of his school, and - as far as I know - continues to teach this subject at the school. From my point of view the fact that the school vice-principal agreed that the lesson was a good thing, and that he received no complaints, tells a far different story than the one inferred in the article. The vice-principal says this...
The vice principal of the school said he wished more Japanese students could hear the lesson. Dezaki didn't get a single complaint. No one accused him of being an enemy of Japan.
That sounds very encouraging to me, yet, it is anonymous internet complaints that receive the attention. But, as I mentioned before, exaggeration of negative qualities in Asian people and cultures is a hallmark of how American culture conditions its people to conceive negatively  of, and behave towards, Asians, whilst overlooking positives. Compare, for instance, this story out of Seattle, in which a teacher was transferred from his post to another school after receiving a complaint for teaching American students about racism. Does America, or its people, really have anything to offer Japan about teaching racism in the school curriculum?

In a recent post, I reviewed a book called "Driven Out", which documented the hundreds of cases of pogroms perpetrated by mainly white mobs against the early Chinese immigrants to the US. During these riots and attacks, Chinese men were rounded up, beaten, murdered, and had their livelihoods destroyed by mobs driven by racial hatred, all under the watchful eye of law-enforcement officials, and with the explicit support of politicians going all the way up to the level of Congress. Yet, this period of history that lasted almost one-hundred years and ultimately paved the way for the internment of the Japanese in WWII, is absent in its entirety from American school books and the cultural consciousness, so much so, that Asian-Americans themselves are surprised to learn about it.

This is not to say that there is no racism in Japan, nor am I making the simplistic argument that "America does it too!". What I am saying is that we need to be aware that western ex-pat complaints of racism in Japan may carry with it westerners' own racial assumptions and intolerance for Asians that seem to be the standard cultural attitude in, at least, the English-speaking world. Plus, there is the ever present possibility of gross exaggeration that seems to typify western attitudes in general, and complaints in particular, about Asians and Asian racism. This is especially apparent when white ex-pats express horror at Japanese (and other Asian) attitudes towards black people, as complaints about racism towards blacks in China will illustrate.

Given that American culture seems to be geared towards suspicion of Asians in general, and recently, the Chinese in particular, it seems natural that China would receive its share of self-righteous western condemnation for being racist. What is interesting in this process is that we are able to witness the creation of racial and racist stereotypes as it happens. Apart from the generally understood meaning of "stereotype", there is another aspect of the process that goes unheralded but which we can see happening in the labeling of China as a country that is horribly racist towards blacks.

In America, (at least according to the often delusional stories the media tells about America) American quasi-values maintain that being racist towards blacks is morally reprehensible, and Americans are extremely uncomfortable accepting that anti-black racism is still an implicit aspect of American society. So, just like in every other instance of stereotyping, the worst aspects and qualities that Americans hate to see being pointed out about themselves (their prejudice against blacks), are projected onto another group, giving America the opportunity to assuage its own discomfort. In other words, in the case of American attitudes towards Asians, racism is used to justify racial stereotyping.

An article from July of this year, touches upon the experience of an African-American who lived and worked in China. He writes...
I taught English to Chinese people from all socio-economic backgrounds......By all accounts, my supervisors and other teachers respected my skills and knowledge in the classroom. Around 2003, however, I noticed a shift in the market and it became increasingly difficult for me to hold on to assigned classes. There were a number of complaints from students.......She told me I was an excellent teacher and could find little fault in my methods and teaching of the prescribed curriculum. Students just wanted a "different" teacher.....While on break, I overheard students speaking in Chinese about how they were paying so much money and wanted a white instructor. One student went so far as to say, "I don't want to look at his black face all night."
Another report from CNN, touches upon the same issues of discrimination and the uncomfortable relationship between black migrants to China and the local population. Clearly, some black people experience prejudice and discriminatory attitudes in China. Both articles go to great pains to highlight the historical background of China's attitudes towards dark skin, which they suggest may account for some of the negative experiences of blacks, reporting that white skin was considered beautiful and darker skin, not so much. While both articles - and others like it - highlight a significant issue, the focus on negative attitudes towards blacks in China indicates a simplistic, one-sided, aspect to China's ethnic story and reflects the inflexible perspectives in which America's attitudes towards race are structured.

The fact is, that even Americans of Asian descent are discriminated against in China, notably in school hiring procedures. This article from NBC News, reports on this very phenomenon, even quoting from a popular ex-pat forum on the apparent hierarchy of preferences for teachers in Chinese schools. In order of preference....
1. White Americans/Canadians  2. White British  3. White Australians/New Zealanders and South Africans  4. European Nonnatives/Black Americans/Black British  5. American Asians/Black Aussies (Australians) and Kiwis (New Zealanders)/Filipinos/Africans”
Notice that the perception amongst some ex-pats is that African-Americans are preferred over Asian-Americans. This phenomenon of discrimination towards Americans of Asian descent is documented here also. Clearly, Chinese attitudes towards blacks and race in general are far more complicated than the pejorative insinuations that China is "racist against blacks" would suggest. To be fair, the last word of the CNN article goes to another black ex-pat, who had lived in China for eight years, who has this to say....
"Yes, I've sometimes had people stare or touch my skin, as if to see whether it's going to rub off,". "But I think this comes from curiosity not negativity. Here I don't feel the racial tension I feel back home. I've done things, such as setting up my own geophysics company, which as I black woman I might not have been able to do in the States....."Yes, I'm treated differently from Chinese people. But here I'm different first, black second."
Now that is fair and it reflects the fundamental dishonesty, and perhaps ignorance, in trying to paint Chinese attitudes towards race as analogous to America's. As I pointed out in a previous post, racism and racial thinking are integral to the very identity of the concept of white, and it is contrasts of racial characteristics and supposed racial qualities, by which Europe has defined itself since the time of Classical Greece. Race is fundamental to the European (and hence "white) concept of themselves and it is racial physical and character traits that gave Europeans a sense of who they are, and their place in the world. Over the centuries, these archaic ideas of race were refined by subsequent intellectuals and race-thinkers, and gave us the modern world we have today. This is a far cry from the China's beauty standards that elevate light skin - a notion that derives more from a class chauvinism than racial prejudice - darker skin reflected poverty, not racial inferiority.

It may well be a measure of America's resistance to engaging with Asians in a genuine way that China's (as well as Korea's and Japan's) supposed racial prejudices are illustrated through its ambivalent attitudes towards blacks. America seems to be simply reluctant to acknowledge the depth of prejudice that it has had and continues to have towards Asian people. Even though it could be argued that in all of these countries, it is South and SouthEast Asians (and even Americans of Asian descent) who may well bear the brunt of racial discrimination, America's dehumanization of Asians, and its cultural proclivity to depict Asians on the margins of consideration at best, and beyond hope of commonality, may well prevent America's media from addressing Asia's race issues in a meaningful way. How can you genuinely show the plight of Asian victims of discrimination and expect empathy from your own culture when everything about your culture conditions people to actually conceive of Asians as monsters and beyond empathy? In this light, focusing on supposed anti-black racism gives America the chance to maintain its suspicion of hostility towards Asians, whilst presenting itself as the model for racial tolerance.

It is this last point that I find to be of interest; can America be a model for racial tolerance for Asian countries to emulate, particularly in the case of anti-black prejudice? Ostensibly, this is a no-brainer - after all civil rights, MLK and all that. Yet, blacks in America remain the poorest (due in part to prejudice in hiring), amongst the least educated, the most incarcerated, the most likely to be on death-row, make less money, and have shorter life-spans than whites. Plus, many police forces routinely target blacks - especially males - for harassment and random stops, and dozens of blacks die in police custody every year. Hispanics are not far behind either. In this light, I think that it is in the interests of African-Americans to beg China - and other Asian countries - not to look to America as the model for how to treat minorities.

It is for these reasons that I tend to think that the white media and the white voice has no place in the issue of racism in Asia. Firstly, what may be the most severe cases - against South and SouthEast Asians - are all but ignored, secondly, western criticisms often bear the characteristics, and are presented in a similar manner as inflammatory racial stereotyping, that is, one-sided, simplistic, and superficial, and thirdly, white Americans don't seem to have a realistic grasp of the depth and damage that white racism wreaks on ethnic minorities, so how can they advocate for something that they may not even seem to comprehend? That's not to say that all white people are like that - thankfully, there are voices of reason out there - but for the most part I would suggest that white America is out of touch with the experiences of its ethnic minorities.

Whilst I don't deny that racism may be a problem in Asian countries, I simply don't see how the west, and particularly America and Americans, can seriously present itself as a model for aspiration. In most western countries it is the dark-skinned and ethnic minorities who occupy the lowest rungs of the social ladder, and police harassment characterizes the experience of these communities. No, let's all hope that the economic powerhouses of North East Asia, look elsewhere for their model of race relations, the west has nothing to offer in that regard.

Friday, October 4, 2013

Learning Masculinity.

Becoming A Man

Emasculation of Asian men in American/Western culture is a subject of some - naturally - considerable interest for Asian-American commentators, activists, and writers. Although it is likely that racism and chauvinism form a significant foundation for this phenomenon, no discussion on the subject would be complete without its proper context of general ideas of masculinity and emasculation that exist in society as whole, and which affects the worldview and self-perception of all men, regardless of race.

As I alluded to in a very early post - here - the racial component of cultural depictions of masculinity has evolved over the decades. Present-day stereotypes hold that of the "three main races", Asian men are the least masculine of all the races - less athletic ability, lesser sexual potency, physically weaker, and lacking in other vaguely defined "masculine" attributes. Thus, widely held stereotypes, propagated and reinforced by demeaning media depictions, hold Asian masculinity with contempt. Many Asian-American men complain of a sense of emasculation (understandable under the circumstances), as well as a sense of disconnectedness from America's cultural masculinity. Yet, these ideas of race and masculinity have evolved over the decades - prior to the 1970's Asian men were stereotyped as lustful sex-beasts who used an almost demonic sexual power to seduce white women (the anti-miscegenation nightmare) and so possessed some considerable degree of potency.

It was during the 1970's that this began to change and it isn't unreasonable to surmise that our modern-day cultural emasculation in mainstream culture is a reaction to women and minority empowerment movements of the 1960's. Hence, Asian emasculation - perceived or otherwise - can be seen to be merely one aspect of this cultural sense of emasculation, complicated, perhaps, by race issues and xenophobia, and could even be said to exist as part of mainstream America's (in this case, specifically white America) need to redefine its own masculinity. Because race has always been present in white America's definitions of itself, it is expected that white America's attempts to redefine itself would also follow the dictates of a racial hierarchy.

Cultural emasculation of Asian men seems to exist as a kind of reaction to white masculine confusion resulting from civil rights, black (male) empowerment, women's empowerment. Because black hyper-sexuality emerged alongside black empowerment, emasculating stereotypes of Asian men became a way to regain a sense of relative masculinity, and in more recent years mainstream American culture has appropriated black male sexuality and attributed its qualities to white men (as outlined here). So, even though Asian men have borne the brunt of the backlash against emasculation in late 20th century America, it would behoove us to remember that this is little more than a white male media dominated attempt at damage control of their own emasculation. This is important mainly for the perspective it can offer Asian men - media attacks on our masculinity are part of a context of a general sense of emasculation in the West due to women's and minority empowerment.

In this post I will outline some ideas on how a sense of masculinity can be nurtured through cultivating a culture of personal masculinity. I believe that masculinity is an innate set of behaviours, beliefs, attitudes, forms of expression, that (because they are innate) should emerge largely as a by-product of the biological process of maturing. Additionally, this natural process should find expression, reinforcement, and support, through culture.The latter point is especially pertinent since, as Americans of Asian descent, we live in a culture that does the exact opposite of fostering our natural maturity into masculinity. More accurately, we live in a culture that seeks to retard our masculinity and separate us from our innate masculine qualities, both through demoralizing sexual stereotypes, and a general culture of dehumanization.

Yet, (strange as it sounds) I don't believe that we should even try to compete with the media to present positive alternatives to the demeaning stereotypes about our masculinity young Asian boys are exposed to on a regular basis. The simple reason for this is that our masculinity is innate and the qualities of masculinity can be nurtured without the need to see it happening on the television screen, even though, paradoxically, the media plays a significant role in creating the problem in the first place. So, although there are some who strive to change Asian male self-perceptions through countering negative media stereotypes with more balanced ones - although a noble and worthy pursuit - by itself will not create the kind of shift in the demoralized Asian-American male mentality. Much more is required, because I don't believe that it is even desirable for young Asian boys to learn about masculinity (or there own humanity because emasculation is another form of dehumanization) via the television or film. The Asian-American masculine identity has to exist separate and impervious to a hostile culture.

Why? Because masculinity is an innate biological quality that can only emerge through a process of growth achieved through experience, accomplishment, self-knowledge, education, and courage. Thus, the first step in this process is to disavow Asian men of a (apparently widely held) belief that they need to see positive stereotypes in order to regain a sense of masculinity. We will know that a true shift has taken place when mainstream America sees a movie that demeans Asian men and they are confused because it doesn't resemble any Asian men that they know. This is the power of the individual to affect a shift on a culture-wide level - thousands of individual Asian men changing social attitudes by their personal impact on their immediate environment.

So, how does one find one's masculinity? Again, I think it is a process with no specific goal (except the end result that Asian men define their own cultural identity), and no direct or definite path. Assigning definitive qualities that outline masculinity is thus a pointless exercise - there are as many "masculinities" as there are men. Sure, because masculinity is largely biological, there will be some qualities men will have in common, but what is important is the process by which we realize these qualities and as parents, brothers, uncles, or friends (but especially as fathers), what we can do to help young Asian boys to find their masculine nature is to provide the tools that will enable them to follow this process and learn the things that they need to learn about themselves that will foster a strong sense of their own masculine humanity. This process has three main components; physical, emotional, and intellectual and this process is what I might encourage any sons of mine to undergo.

First of all, boys need to develop strong minds and intellectual prowess, and hence willpower. Secondly, boys need to be able have a full emotional life without allowing themselves to be ruled by their emotions. Thirdly, boys need to feel a sense of physical strength because this gives them a sense of control over their immediate environment or space. Finally, accomplishment and the sense of achievement that goes with it are important measures of progress.


Pursue physical strength and activity. Boys need to be constantly physically active - that way they become accustomed to their own physicality and learn to be comfortable with physical competition. Boys learn the potential of their physical prowess and simultaneously learn the connection between strength of mind and physicality. I believe that many Asian men are out of touch with their physicality for various reasons. Culture and upbringing may play a role in this, but the main reason may lie in the fact that Asian boys growing up in the US are discouraged due to exposure to the single-themed message from our host culture that Asian bodies are weak. That is why getting in touch with physicality is vital for Asian boys. Three possible ways that this can be accomplished;

Martial Arts
Asian boys need to learn martial arts. Aside from the obvious advantage of conferring confidence in the practitioner, martial arts are a great way to learn discipline (physical and mental) and the all-important quality of self-esteem. It is an uncomfortable fact of human life that being able to successfully physically defend yourself (or even simply trying) is one of the most empowering feelings one can have. It is why humans are so addicted to violence, and it may partially explain why violent crime is common in high-poverty areas - with few other means for self-esteem to develope, violence becomes the easiest and most readily available method. Being able to fight people off of you (which as an Asian man you will probably have to do) reinforces the sense of control of personal space that is yours and yours alone. Lastly, and almost counter-intuitively, if you know that you have the means to physically defend yourself, then you are better able to stand up for yourself without a violent outcome because your mindset will give you a physical presence that deters physical aggression.

Develope a strong and muscular physique. It gives you a great self-image, increases your sense of physicality, and promotes confidence. You don't have to be the strongest guy in the gym - you just have to be strong enough.

Goal based physical activity is a great way to become familiar with the feeling of accomplishment and sports participation is one of the ways to do this. It doesn't matter if you are 5 feet nothing, there is still a sport for you where you can expend physical energy in constructive ways. I played rugby and soccer in school, and I learned how my physique could be used advantageously in competition with guys who were taller - very often I came out on top and was always selected for the teams.

Structured physical activity promotes a key mind-body connection, the most important lesson of which is that through physical endurance, mental and physical discipline, an individual can learn self-confidence, determination, and an acquaintance with the competitive spirit that teaches the value of not giving in, letting failures become learning opportunities, and a sense that limitations and obstacles can be overcome or by-passed. It also teaches lessons that enable an individual to lose without losing the sense of self. One of the most positive effects of physicality, is that has such a profound effect on our emotional health. If you feel physically strong, and are comfortable with your body's capacities, then you can only become emotionally stronger. On a deeper level, implicit in competitive physical activity is the necessity of pushing through pain to achieve a goal. Because life is characterized by pain (physical, mental, or emotional) learning how or when to endure it and move past it is possibly one of the most valuable life lessons one can learn.


By nature, this aspect of the human experience is intangible and not easily defined, yet, when people are centered in their spirit or emotions, the results can be as tangible as steel. Because spirituality is most often profoundly intertwined with religious belief (atheism, however, doesn't necessarily dispel the need for transcendent spirituality) it is beyond the scope of this post to expound on specific practices. Common to many (most or even all, perhaps) spiritual practices is the sense of purpose that these practices impart. The idea that an individual has a place in the universe, is valuable to existence, and has a role to play in the unfolding story of humanity, are all spiritual/philosophical propositions and beliefs that are largely attained through transcendental thinking.

For the Asian men of the Americas,this sense of transcendent purpose is a key quality in overcoming inner damage caused by racism. Because American culture actively excludes Asian men from participation in its cultural myths and stories that give America its sense of identity and purpose, developing this inner sense of purpose and value is hugely important. Developing an "inner core" of self-value that cannot be touched by hostile conditioning is the most potent quality any individual can attain.

As important as development of the spirit, is the development of the emotions. It is almost impossible not to notice how much the Asian minority of America is strangled by its own emotionalism. A simple glance at how we respond to racial prejudice from the mainstream is a great illustration of this. Fundamentally, we are always offended by media slights and insensitivities - our emotions are often wounded by America's cultural racism. The problem is that our emotions are our business - if we're upset by something, the only solution is to get over it, that is, check your emotions. The problem with this, is that America's culture of anti-Asian racism has significantly more serious effects on our lives than simply hurting our feelings. So our emotional responses to this kind prejudice cannot be adequately expressing the significance of anti-Asian racism, and this emotionalism can thus be seen to be harmful to our advocacy.

Beyond this, much of our Asian-American culture and Asian commentators displays this same sense of emotionalism. Whether it be a poorly adjusted Asian woman currying mainstream sympathy by emotively demonizing their upbringing and the Asians responsible for it, or a wannabe boheme feeling under-appreciated by the proles, or speaking about hurt feelings, Asian-Americans seem prone to self-advocate via the emotions. As I've already mentioned emotions are not the ideal vehicle upon which to carry forward personal or group advocacy because ultimately your emotions are your own personal business. As men, what is important is that we learn how to not be slaves to emotions and hence emotional thinking. This doesn't mean controlling our emotions (like Spock), it simply means not allowing ourselves to be controlled by our emotions. Adults - that is, those with maturity - have learned that too much emoting is  not conducive to living a meaningful life. For a heavily stereotyped ethnic minority the results of emotionalism - particularly in response to racism - are likely to be quite damaging.

I will only offer one specific piece of advice on how to manage our emotions, and that is to learn how to cultivate a positive emotional frame of mind. Here in Internetland (and in the real world), I see too many Asian guys admitting defeat  before they have even tried. I don't like to hear Asian men whining about how they are at a disadvantage because of stereotypes - for example, the Asian guy who thinks he can't get a date (and won't try) because he "knows" that white/black/Latina women "won't date Asians", and "all the Asian women want white dudes". Please stop. It may sound like a cliche, but the biggest barrier is often the one in your mind. That doesn't mean that there aren't challenges specifically derived from anti-Asian racism, but becoming negative is an implicit acknowledgement of defeat, and a clear indication that we have allowed our emotions to have too much control over our mindset.

I think that developing a positive attitude, starts with a choice, and can subsequently be cultivated. A positive mindset leads to self-belief, a determined attitude and, most significantly, a sense of defiance in the face of mainstream hostility. Too many Asian guys seem to talk themselves into being "losers" by focusing on negatives even when they have so much going for them. Yes, your parents were strict but all of that parental control can also teach you how much you can accomplish with discipline and application - it is up to you to apply that ability to other aspects of your life - start by choosing to be positive. Learning discipline is one of the most important lessons (and in my opinion, one of the most important goals) in life and it is something that is implicitly taught through many Asian cultural and spiritual practices.

Ultimately, cultivating a positive attitude and learning to not be controlled by our emotions, allows for the emotional/psychological state of courage to come to the fore because people are often more afraid of feeling negative feelings than they are of any particular frightening situation.


This is another set of qualities that are difficult to define and assess. Intellectual empowerment can be thought of as one of the keys that unlocks the doors of prejudice. Anti-Asian racism is supported and propagated by an uncompromising cultural "blitz" of negative reinforcement that includes dehumanizing stereotypes, limited descriptive language (and imagery) that is demeaning in nature, all of which serves to normalize racist behaviour towards Asians in society. Most significantly, for Asians growing up in the US, such a campaign of racial hostility also serves as a means of turning the mind of any young Asian person against itself. Thus, America's cultural hostility teaches some Asians to align their thinking about themselves and their communities with the negative attitudes of the mainstream, creating the phenomenon commonly vaguely referred to as internalized racism.

The challenge, of course, is outlining a path by which we can say that people are "intellectually empowered" and I think the best way to illustrate it is to identify some of the qualities and characteristics that I believe characterize intellectual empowerment.

In my observations of intellectually empowered people, the first thing I notice is that they have a skeptical outlook. To me this means that they don't react to information without first considering the subject from various points of view. For Asian men, cultivating skepticism is vital - most of what is written or said about Asian men is untrue hostility or negatively exaggerated, so being skeptical about what we see and hear mainstream America saying about us is key as it  prevents internalizing negative attitudes about ourselves.

The second thing I notice about intellectually empowered people is that they are independent thinkers. The nature of America's hostility to Asian men means that we have no choice but to be independent thinkers because our skepticism requires that we hold attitudes and opinions that are oppositional to the mainstream - if we are not, or do not, then we have internalized racism. Skepticism should lead to independent thinking, which, in concrete terms for Asian men, means that we stand in opposition to most of what our culture (i.e. American culture)  says about us and, perhaps more importantly, what it says about itself in relation to us. Thus, Asian men are by definition a potential counter-cultural force - our empowerment stands in direct opposition to the beliefs of mainstream America, which requires that we be timid and marginalized.

This segues neatly into the next characteristic of the intellectually empowered; holding unpopular opinions. For an Asian man to feel confident about himself, and to display qualities of leadership, and strength, he must, by definition, hold opinions about himself that are unpopular in the culture of America. Thus, being unafraid to hold, voice, and live by, unpopular opinions is an unavoidable manifestation of intellectual empowerment for Asian men. Furthermore, independent thinking and its love-child, unpopular, against the current, opinions (when done intelligently, and which, almost by, definition Asians must hold if they seek empowerment and racial integrity) are an implicit assertion of individuality - the very thing that mainstream America denies us.

A fundamental requirement for intellectual empowerment is an understanding of your own personal and group histories. All culture is fundamentally an expression of the historical experience - both of groups and the individual. Thus, historical experience is the basis of identity via the vehicle of the culture it informs. This is why societies and cultures - particularly authoritarian ones - do everything to control the historical record; history helps to forge a national identity and social cohesion. Significantly for Asians, the way that news and world events are spun in the media (including cultural portrayals) can be seen as an offshoot of this strategy - reporting on world events and our actions within them are spun to reinforce the national narrative that a society wants to believe about itself, allowing present-day events to fit seamlessly into the manufactured historical narrative.

I could write several posts on this subject, but for the purposes of this post it suffices to say that exclusion of Asian-Americans  is intrinsic to the American national identity narrative, which is a historical narrative that is fundamentally biased against Asia. Thus, for those Asian-Americans seeking intellectual empowerment, overcoming the conditioning of this narrative is an essential step.

Finally, one of the most important aspects of intellectual empowerment is to be able to state your case powerfully and eloquently, and for that the weapon of choice is language, and its deadly ammunition, vocabulary. The biggest fear of oppressors and bullies is an eloquently expressed novel idea - this why concepts about Asian men are limited in American culture to a few demeaning images that are recycled throughout the culture and which are expressed with limited language and concepts. One of the antidotes is eloquence.


Pursuing the types of disciplines and practices that I have outlined in the previous paragraphs carries with it an implicit notion of accomplishment and achievement. In pursuit of physical empowerment setting goals and knowing when you achieved them is relatively straight-forward. But when it comes to intellectual and emotional empowerment it is sometimes difficult to realize that you have actually made a shift closer to the place that you want to be.

For me, realization of intellectual and emotional empowerment can be seen if you develop the sense that you can impact your environment even if you are the only person in the world who holds a belief or opinion. What this looks like varies. It could manifest as simply as believing in yourself enough to approach the hottest girl in the room with enough confidence to hold her attention all evening. Or, it could manifest as having the intellectual and emotional self-belief to challenge institutions alone because you discover wrong-doing, even though it could ruin your career. The point is, that emotional empowerment requires that you overcome negative thoughts and feelings that could prevent you from becoming the man you want to be. Intellectual empowerment requires that you approach any idea independently from consensus points of view and find a way of viewing it that we could call being closer to the truth.

And that could be a kind of template for intellectual and emotional accomplishment - having the emotional strength to challenge embedded ideas and offer an alternative way to conceive of them.


It should be noted that what I have tried to describe here is not "how to be a man", but "tools to help one learn to be a man". The gist of my piece  is that masculinity is learned but - paradoxically - not entirely taught. This means that masculinity emerges through the exercise of the three components of physicality, intellect, and emotion, and thus, it is learned through practice and ultimately self-awareness, which can also be thought of as "personal culture". Masculinity comes as the result of knowing your strengths and pushing the boundaries of your limits in all these areas, and being comfortable with it. This should impart a sense of confidence and self-belief in the strength of our own minds, bodies, and emotions. So in a way, what is happening is that the process of learning about our strengths in all of these areas is itself nurturing masculinity.

On a final note, I make this disclaimer; I am not and do not claim to be a "man-psyche" expert! What I present is a layman's concept of how we might defeat damaging deep-rooted racism and stereotyping through individual endeavour. Neither do I believe that this process need only be possible for our youth - it is never too late. And by no means are the ideas in this essay complete, or even comprehensive, so if readers have ideas to contribute, then feel free to do so.