Monday, April 15, 2013

Word To Your Mother.

Asians And Hip-Hop Machismo.

I came across this article written back in 2005 by African-American activist/writer, Kenyon Farrow, in which he explores the (to him and others, probably) irritating appropriation of rap music and culture by wannabe Asians.

I won't go into great depth about Farrow's charge of appropriation of culture simply because most culture is appropriated in some way or another (and is not an implicitly bad thing), often with the result that those who have appropriated a style, art form, or belief system, have taken it to new heights it may not have reached otherwise. For example, the "hand-gun machismo" present in hip-hop culture wouldn't be possible without the anonymous Chinese alchemists whose culture produced both the gunpowder and the first guns. What we would be left with, instead, is the more absurd notion of "popping arrows", or "slingshot" in opponents' asses instead of "caps".

Facetiousness aside, short of authoritarian legislation enforcing strict cultural segregation of those deemed unworthy to participate in a particular form, the idea of "illegal" or "unfair" cultural appropriation is too vague, and simply, silly, to foster any meaningful discussion. Unless you are stealing specific works or limiting opportunities, then trying to limit the transaction of cultural ideas or structures is little more than petty posturing.

But what most interested me about the article, is the idea that young Asian men are looking to the hyper-masculinity of black hip-hop as a potential model for their own burgeoning masculine identities. This would make sense; a group that is culturally emasculated would logically be attracted to the most opposite extreme of the hyper-masculinity of hip-hop. Yet, strange as it may sound, despite what may seem to be obvious displays of masculine power, I think that "hip-hop masculinity" is actually nothing of the sort, and, in fact, is too limited in scope to offer Asian boys (and perhaps any boy) a meaningful masculine identity that can foster their maturity into manhood.

Ostensibly, this sounds odd - ghetto-spawned hip-hop evolved out of a culture of want, discrimination, toughness, and rebellion, producing men who were confrontational, aggressive, sexualized, tough, and uncompromising. These men would rip your head off if you so much as looked at them the wrong way. And if we look at the present-day ghettos of the US, we might see that this type of masculinity seems dominant; confrontational, aggressive, and uncompromising. Of course, hip-hop - especially in the popular perception of it - reflects these characteristics.

Yet, my sense is that what is portrayed or perceived as hyper-masculine is not really as masculine as we think. In the course of my internet travels I happened across an article called "Myth Of The Ghetto Alpha Male" I believe written by a black blogger. The gist of the post is that ghetto hyper-masculinity is largely over-rated. The reasoning is that due to the circumstances of the ghetto, young African-American males are largely raised in environments controlled by women because most of the older men are either dead or imprisoned. Men - importantly older men - are largely absent in the fostering of young black male identities, leaving young African-American boys to scavenge their masculinity from their innate testosterone, and a masculinity learned from women. He describes the consequences thus.......
Supermacho, obnoxious, fearless to the point of knuckleheaded, overaggressive…basically the parody of manhood we see in gangster rap. It’s overcompensation to the worst degree.....But even though they are doing their best to be superthug, they still end up doing things in a subtly feminine (not effeminate) way because feminine influences are most of what they know....

.....Most of their role models and involved family members are women, and the few men in their lives were likely raised by only women too. And it shows in how they handle conflict: grudges are held forever, they never know how to let anything slide, they think primarily with emotion and are prone to outbursts, drama and confrontation and most importantly, they don’t know how to choose their battles. True male behavior isn’t being a drama queen, emotional outbursts and holding onto grudges...
A chick in the hood can get away with all the drama queen meltdowns and public displays of emotion and confrontation....When guys are the ones getting overly emotional and confrontational, it’s a lot scarier and it invites a much more serious retaliation, because now the behavior’s coming from a man, which means possible escalation into serious, possibly fatal, violence.
Although I agree that lacking older male role models and guides wreaks havoc with masculinity, I don't necessarily agree that what the author has described above can truly be said to be feminine. Yes, the emotionalism is feminine, but whereas what is being described above is emotionally confrontational, women tend not to use their emotional skills in that way. I think it is more accurate to say that this kind of behaviour is juvenile, or even childish, and childlike, as opposed to feminine. Boys who who come into manhood without the input of older, wiser, mature, men, remain childish adults.

Children and juveniles are impulsive, sometimes unreasonably aggressive, overly emotional, seldom utilize rational thinking to choose reasonable actions, poor at compromise, argumentative, and are poor at managing their emotions. This corresponds more closely with the type of behaviour described in the quoted piece, as well as more closely resembles the kind of affect and attitude present in much popular hip-hop; ostensibly masculine posturing, but if we were to be honest we would admit that it is actually juvenile (and to be fair, I tend to see all popular culture as juvenile in some ways). It would seem obvious then, that hip-hop's childishly aggressive posturing parading as pseudo-masculinity is a poor basis upon which to build a genuine masculine identity for Asian boys and probably even for young black boys. You cannot learn masculinity from juveniles.

Strangely enough, Asian-Americans also have a similar process of femininizing and infantilizing how Asian men interact with mainstream America. Because it is the voices of Asian females that have reached the mainstream consciousness, Asian men have adopted the feminine manner of commentary. As I have pointed out in several previous posts, our tendency to continually frame our commentary of race issues through the framework of our passive emotional responses - notably by being "offended" - illustrates just how profoundly we have adopted the passive and unthreatening feminine voice as the voice of our masculinity. It may be that the hyper-aggression of hip-hop is speaking to an aspect of Asian youths' innate masculinity that our own Asian-American culture may not cater to.

So, although I can see why hip-hop's charismatic pseudo-masculinity would appeal to young Asian boys who notice their cultural invisibility in mainstream America, it seems to be little more than the immature parody of true manhood. This is not to say that Asian-American boys should reject hip-hop as a means to explore their cultural voice - culture can sometimes be utilized as a tool for self-exploration. Plus, despite the prickly negativity of Farrow's article, Asians exploring the culture of African-Americans - particularly in light of black/Asian racial tensions - can only lead to good things. Farrow has this to say....... does the presence of Asian Americans in hip-hop, this black cultural artform, look any different than that of white folks in Jazz, Blues, and Rock & Roll?
By referring to the historical exploitative appropriation of black culture by white people Farrow paints an  understandably bleak, yet, incomplete picture of the phenomenon. Yes, white people stole black artists' songs, styles, and adopted their culture, but it was also a small minority of whites who brought black music to the public consciousness in genuine ways that could be said to have led to the explosion of mainstream black artists into the mainstream charts in the 1960's. It was white British musicians of the late 1950's and early 1960's  who were fans of obscure black blues and R&B musicians that brought these styles and their black originators to the public attention and which might be said to have contributed to the softening of attitudes such that it fostered opportunities for black artists where they didn't exist previously.

So as uncomfortable as it might be to admit, the white "presence" in black culture has been both mostly extremely negative but also positive - and who can say whether, overall, the white presence won't turn out to have been resulted in something that was ultimately positive? I see no reason to see why the Asian "presence" in black culture would not or should not be a positive thing - just don't take the hyper-masculinity too seriously!

Wednesday, April 3, 2013

We're All Model Minorities.....

....When We Achieve Success.

In a previous post I outlined some issues surrounding the way that some people in the Asian community view the model-minority stereotype and how it seems self-defeating to focus on the specific label instead of the underlying culture that produces it. By focusing on the resentment apparently stirred amongst other minorities,  and making it our responsibility to soothe this resentments, we are denying ourselves the opportunity to bring the issue of our profound cultural marginalization to the table. This means that we are failing to address the fundamental issue that causes the problem in the first place; the culture of casual anti-Asian racism that has marginalized the Asian voice to such a degree that it can create - on a whim - an entire false identity for a group of people and make it the definitive mode through which that group is conceived, even though it is false on so many levels. That is the true issue, not the petty resentments created by it.

In the study that I referred to in that previous post, the interviewees voiced their frustrations with Asian-Americans that they claimed have "internalized" the model-minority stereotype and supposedly exchanged a political and social consciousness for economic acceptance. As one interviewee put it.....
One person, an academic, said that the model minority myth bound those who accepted it to certain “tacit agreements” in exchange for privileged racial status. “You don’t have the same kind of churning and dislocation necessarily with middle-class Asians and middle-class whites. .......provided that they behave themselves… [which] might mean not getting too involved in the political process, accepting the role of the junior partner.”
Given my general skepticism about the interviewees' generalizations, it may surprise readers that I actually think that there is some merit to this point - to be successful and gain acceptance into mainstream culture, many Asians do abdicate their political and social consciousness. What is problematic about the antagonism that we mete out towards such Asian - as well as the implicit invitation for other groups to join us in this - is that this phenomenon is not unique or specific to Asians. There is an implicit suggestion that this is an Asian problem that impedes the progress of fellow peoples of colour and both explains and, perhaps, justifies some of the resentments  directed at us by these other minorities.

This, of course, is nonsense for a couple of reasons. Any resentment caused by any racial stereotype is racist, plain and simple. It is makes no difference that those expressing the resentment are black, Latino, or white, if you judge an entire group of people because of a made-up stereotype, then that is racist. The second, and more significant problem with this way of thinking is that abandoning political and social consciousness once economic or social acceptance is attained is something that all minorities do. For example, few black celebrities will speak out about police harassment and brutality in the community or high incarceration rates of black men, or the appalling indifference to the quality of education in urban schools affecting black children. As Harry Belafonte put it.....
From the highest pinnacles of Wall Street to the kings and queens of entertainment, to the gods and goddesses of sports, never before at these levels have we boasted such large numbers of Black participants. All this at the same time Black America is condemned to be the harvest of the largest prison population on the face of the earth, the most destroyed by the diseases of poverty, the most undereducated, the most diminished for lack of self-worth and the most punished by the prejudices of an unworthy justice system. The list goes on...
Clearly, any suggestion that  Asian-American are alone in abdicating political or social consciousness is untrue and as damaging a stereotype as any - the difference is that it is an idea that is put forward by Asians themselves.

Of course, the real issue - which we fail to address in our rush to soothe unfair resentment directed at us - is that it has to be the unspoken rule that in order for minorities, of any colour, to be acceptable into the white mainstream, they must not bite the hand that feeds them. In other words, most ethnic minorities who succeed in the mainstream have to - and do - abide by this unspoken rule, meaning that such all such people are effectively assuming a "model-minority" identity. That is, they get to take a share of the prosperity, and in return they avoid inconvenient political and social commentary.

This may be why few black sportsmen and entertainers seem to mention high incarceration rates of black males, police brutality and harassment, and the poor quality of education that seems characteristic of mainly poor, black, neighbourhoods - to do so in a meaningful way would break the rules. Sportsmen might lose popularity and maybe endorsements, entertainers might notice their record sales sliding, or face a backlash in the press.

The point here is that many Asians seem to have internalized (funnily enough) this aspect of the model-minority stereotype in this unique way; the implication is that acting like a model-minority by avoiding "controversial" politics and social commentary in exchange for a place at the table of success is specific, or even limited to the Asian minority. Of course, the problem here is that there is little evidence for this - in fact, all the evidence suggests that most successful minority individuals will assume this role and avoid activism against the poor treatment of minorities in America.

It should go without saying that any attempt to foster alignment between Asians and other minorities is fatally flawed if we base some of our presumptions about our own community on an idea that is simply untrue. The reality is not that the Asians-as-model-minority label contributes to maintaining the status quo of racial oppression, but that all minorities who achieve success are required to assume a "model-minority identity" to some degree - even, apparently, African-Americans. This is a significantly different proposition that makes all of our shame and embarrassment about being the "elevated" minority somewhat misplaced. In fact, it could be even worse that no-one recognizes this acquiescence to the status quo from successful figures in the black community - not noticing this phenomenon means that we don't realize there is a problem which only enables the problem to continue.

The key thing to understand here is that if these model-minority identities do, in fact, contribute to maintaining the status quo of racial oppression, then any minority individual who achieves success but fails to advocate for justice is guilty of this - and as I have demonstrated it is not just Asians (as individuals or as a group) who do this. Taking on this burden that is based on a false premise only enables anti-Asian racism to persist, not only in the mainstream, but also amongst the other minorities with whom we seek to align.

And that is the biggest issue with our unfathomable unchallenged acceptance of model-minority identities as something unique to the Asian community. Yes, we are labeled as such - again mostly, apparently by ourselves these days - but the reality is that for any minority to succeed means a de facto acceptance, to some degree, of this model-minority identity. Paradoxically, by taking on this burden as a specific problem that Asians alone should address, we are actually allowing the the status quo to continue because such an acceptance implicitly denies that this phenomenon exists beyond Asian-America, when very clearly it does. If minority success brings with it a responsibility to advocate for racial justice, then by denying that this problem exists as a structural issue by which all minorities must abide, is to absolve any non-Asian minority from the responsibility of actually engaging in advocacy - which must perpetuate racial injustice.

What Asian-Americans are effectively doing when they approach inter-minority relations and model-minority labeling from this position, is to get in the way of genuine dialogue on the role that all minorities play in maintaining racial injustices in return for prosperity or success. By allowing ourselves to be viewed as the sole bearers of this identity, we are side-tracking the dialogue away from a more realistic understanding of the complexities of race politics. In the process, we are also allowing what amounts to, often racist, resentment from other minorities to fester without challenging the fundamental premises from which this resentment derives.