Monday, August 26, 2013

Driven Out - An Asian-American Holocaust

The Forgotten War Against Chinese-Americans.

I bought the book "Driven Out" a couple of years ago, and tried several times to read it all the way through, but had been unable to because of the very harrowing nature of the work. The book - written by a Jewish-American academic - details the almost continuous barrage of racial attacks, pogroms, and riots, over a period of at least six decades, targeting the early Chinese immigrants to the US, beginning in the mid-nineteenth-century. I've finally, in recent weeks, made the decision of finish the book and I am now almost through it, but it is still not easy reading.

The book covers a period of American history from the 1850's through to the early decades of the 20th century, that has been completely white-washed from the mainstream and Asian-American historical consciousness alike. The first Chinese immigrants began to arrive in the US in the early 19th century following the forced opening of Chinese markets to the West. As is always the case, exchanges of products were accompanied by the transfer of people and communities, so, in part because Westerners began to colonize China and create economic and social disadvantages for the Chinese, many Chinese sought economic security and opportunities in foreign countries that were no longer possible at home. Many indentured themselves - the so-called "coolies" - and found work in far-flung places like South Africa, The Caribbean, Australia, and South America. The Chinese who came to America came as free men in search of opportunities and only a small minority came as indentured servants.

Since almost the beginning of the Chinese presence in the US, they were under attack - and it has to be said that even though it was white Americans who propagated the violence, there was some participation of other minorities. There were cases where Mexicans and Native peoples participated in the violence, and even some African-Americans took sides against the Asian immigrants in editorials in black publications (but it has to be said that other African-American commentators gave support to the Chinese). But the vast majority of attacks were initiated and carried out by whites.

The stories of violence and manifestations of hatred are almost unbelieveable - they are so savage, brutal, and sadistic, that the perpetrators and the violence that they committed sounds like little more than a caricature of a medieval warlord and his mob of rampaging peasants. If one were to write a novel - or make a movie - with these kinds of incidents, most people might find the characterizations to be too far-fetched. But these things did happen, and the sadistic brutality was real, yet, the entire episode has almost disappeared from the American consciousness. Certainly, I have heard people talking about the prejudice against the early Chinese, but it has always seemed to be strangely sterile in the telling - even Asians seem to downplay the sheer savagery of the violence. Even worse, this hugely significant episode in American, and Asian-American, history has been given no place in the consciousness of Asian-American cultural output, when in my opinion, it should form the basis for the ontology of Asian-American culture.

It is impossible to document all of the attacks against the Chinese in a single blog post - there were literally hundreds of episodes that affected thousands of Chinese - such was the level and degree of violent depravity of America's pioneers in the West.

Having come to America lured by the promise of work, or riches in the gold mines, the Chinese quickly established themselves as a more reliable and cheaper alternative than white workers in many of the West coast's fledgling industries. Fairly soon, small communities of Chinese - mostly men - sprang up throughout the West Coast. Almost just as soon, anti-Chinese sentiment began to emerge. Driven by labor movements, and local authorities, but legitimized by xenophobic politicians, the anti-Chinese sentiment played upon the sense of white entitlement to whip up hatred towards the peaceful Chinese. Significantly, then as now, the media played a huge role in galvanizing and promoting anti-Chinese feeling - using stereotypes, caricatures, and a general strategy of defamation, the media succeeded in dehumanizing the Chinese such that few people saw a moral contradiction between the brotherly love of their Christian faith, and the culture of murder and disenfranchisement that they allowed to occur in their towns, and in which many were happy to participate.

Laws came into being that made it illegal for the Chinese to own property, and they were "discouraged" or forbidden from renting near whites - the so-called "Chinatowns" were actually ghettos, that served as a means of racial segregation, in run down and decrepit parts of town, and in buildings often considered too dangerous for human habitation. Special "taxes" and "fees" were introduced with the aim of specifically targeting Chinese workers and business owners. Still, the Chinese endured. They made these areas their own, and soon Chinese merchants were in operation, providing services and products for the community. But this segregation didn't satisfy the bloodlust of the West Coast's white population. Anti-Chinese sentiment, given momentum by xenophobia of politicians, and fueled by a media campaign of dehumanization, stereotyping, and defamation, soon flared up into a full-scale ethnic cleansing that would last into the 20th century.

What is unsettling is how these actions of hatred and the methods and attitudes that drove them, seem echoed in the modern-day experience of Asian-Americans. Then, as now, American society exhibited a moral acceptance of dehumanization of the Chinese - most would not act on it, but seemed to be either apathetic about the moral dilemma at best, or at worst, willing to justify or downplay prejudice. Then, as now, Asians could build communities and businesses, and the mostly apathetic mainstream would go along with it without much fanfare. Yet, most often in the 19th century American West, a handful of determined people were able to galvanize public action, such that white Americans who had lived, worked, and become friendly with their Chinese neighbours in towns all over the west coast could either turn on them, or simply look the other way while mobs of angry white men burned Chinese communities, forced Chinese people to leave town, or simply beat and murdered them.

White agitators would protest the presence of Chinese communities in their towns, galvanize the support of the local community and its authorities, made businesses and landlords sign petitions promising to never employ or rent to the Chinese, made those who already employed or rented to the Chinese - through intimidation or simple persuasion - to promise to fire or evict them. Boycotts of Chinese businesses were used as a weapon (as it is today against Asian merchants and powerful Asian economies) to financially ruin successful businessmen. Once this base of support had been solidified, then the campaign against any given Chinese community would usually become violent and brutal. Mobs of men (but sometimes including women and children) would enter Chinatowns, forcing the Chinese out of their homes and businesses, they would be beaten (or killed) and then made to walk miles to the coast or railway stations where they would be forced onto trains and ships and removed from the town. Then the homes of the Chinese would be ransacked and burned. In some instances, Chinese homes and dorms would be set on fire with the Chinese men still inside, who were then shot at and murdered as they tried to escape the flames.

Often, local authorities would serve notices to the Chinese communities informing them of the decision to have them removed from town, and in some instances the Chinese agreed to leave, yet, sometimes, violence took place even when the Chinese agreed to leave town. By providing violent racism with the veneer of legalism, America made ethnic cleansing of the Chinese a respectable and justified endeavour. With only the most flimsy of justifications, Chinatowns throughout the west coast were eradicated, ransacked and burned, and the Chinese men who populated them were beaten, killed, or falsely imprisoned. In the six or so decades between the 1850's and the early 20th century, there were hundreds of such incidences, that drove Chinese communities out of dozens of American West Coast towns, killing many Chinese men and injuring thousands more. Following the so-called "dog-tag" laws in the 1890's that required the registration of all Chinese, the idea was floated that any Chinese who could not show that they were legal should be placed in "enclosures" - a disturbing foreshadowing of Japanese internment.

Yet, the Chinese were never passive in the face of this hostility, not only did they resist, they went on the offensive. They fought back with acts of civil disobedience, strikes, boycotts, and even used lawsuits and the legal system to win recompense for their material losses. Across the region, groups of Chinese men armed themselves with rifles and pistols, and defended their homes and properties. In some towns - such as San Jose - after repeated arson attacks that destroyed Chinatown, the Chinese community rebuilt in brick and stone, and surrounded their community with a high retaining wall accessible through a single guarded entrance gate. When local thugs tried to harass the local shop-keepers, the Chinese bought lawsuits against the perpetrators. These acts of self-defence and defiance sent clear statements of intent that they would not be intimidated into leaving, and that they were asserting their rights as American residents.

Lawsuits bought by the Chinese against local and federal authorities - several of which they won - served as the legal precedent for reparations paid to the Japanese for internment and to several native American groups. A lawsuit bought against the state of Califıornia by a Chinese family is considered one of the most important civil rights decisions in American history - it forced the states to provide public education for all of its children, regardless of their race or origin. Chinese resistance also tested the 14th amendment's provision for equal protection under the law. Yet, these civil rights precedents have disappeared form the American consciousness, and even worse, it has been forgotten or ignored in the Asian-American consciousness.

The experience of the early Chinese immigrants set the tone for America's attitude towards its Asian populations ever since. Subsequent populations of Asian immigrants - almost all male - like the Japanese and Filipinos, faced a similar campaign of violence. Both these groups faced segregation, violence, lynchings, and exclusion. Mobs attacked their neighbourhoods, and campaigns to prevent them from gaining employment and places to live were often successful. And even the big "Driving Out" - Japanese internment - can be viewed as simply a manifestation on a larger scale of the policy of excluding or driving out Asian populations from American towns.

It is almost a mirror image of the manner in which the Chinese were brutalized; agitation from local people, coupled with xenophobia from federal policymakers, resulted in notices being served that the Japanese would be driven from their homes and businesses, and their property would be basically ransacked and stolen by the white population. Japanese internment, violence against the Filipinos, and the driving out of the Chinese, reflect a single line of political and racial thinking that, because it has been forgotten or whitewashed from history, presents obstacles to any meaningful understanding of the attitudes and hatreds that lie at the foundation of anti-Asian racism that still inform America's attitudes towards Asians in the present.

It is eerie to realize that American culture still maintains this culture of dehumanization towards Asian people, that normalizes racism, and creates an attitude of low-grade resentment that can be manipulated to justify racist behaviour and violence. In this way, genuine engagement with the Asian community is never required, and society can distance itself from any moral consideration of Asian humanity, when political convenience, or economic resentments, necessitate the need for demonization of Asian people.

The latest episode in this decades-old cultural practice of maintaining moral distance from Asians, saw its most recent manifestation in the LA riots of 1992. America's cultural propagation of anti-Asian resentment of the 1970's and 80's, and the normalization of demeaning behaviours and dehumanizing stereotypes, created an environment in which a pogrom against Korean merchants and their businesses was largely deemed to be morally justified by the mainstream. There was little sympathy and almost no empathy for the Koreans, and they were even castigated for defending themselves. It is difficult to sympathize and empathize with a group of people about whom  that racial mockery, and dehumanizing resentments, are the standard manner of conceiving of them.

Understanding the experiences of the first Chinese immigrants, should help us to see how the attitudes that drove anti-Chinese violence were founded on a basis of low-grade, but pervasive, derogatory stereotypes that enabled communities to distance themselves from any moral consideration towards the Chinese. Although hatred drove the violence, it was the equally important culture of dehumanization that made possible the apathy, acquiescence and assistance of the majority. This culture of dehumanization of Asians is still going strong to this day, and the experiences of the Chinese shows me that even if you are an established community, this dehumanization leaves open the possibility for the kind moral distancing that makes violence inevitable.

I do  not think that it is coincidental that this early history of struggle by Asian immigrants has largely disappeared from the cultural consciousness of both Asian-Americans because these histories involved mainly Asian men, and in modern day America, it is the feminine voice that is the acceptable voice of Asian-America. As we all might agree, the feminine voice of Asian-America, generally defers to the importance the white male presence in Asian existence, whereas the facts of history of Asian-America implicitly marginalizes the white male as a vindictive, frightened, and violent savage, who attempted to murder, or persuade others to murder, his way to ethnic purity, and economic hegemony. This leaves no room for a history that not only shows that America engaged in ethnic cleansing against Asians, it also leaves no room for the preferred narrative in which Asian men are not the weak timid creatures who are easily pushed around. The early Chinese fought back in any way they could think of. That is probably why mainstream America prefers to forget, and Asian-Americans who strive for mainstream inclusion at all costs, generally acquiesce to pretending this history never happened.

Saturday, August 10, 2013

Moving Past The Interracial Dating Disparity.

Expanding The Narrative Of Asian Male Empowerment.

It might be an understatement to say that the so-called "Interracial-dating/marriage" disparity has been one of the most heavily discussed, argued over, and picked-apart, subjects in all of Asian-America. If I am wrong in that assessment, then at the very least it might be true to say that it is the one Asian-American "issue" that arouses the most interest both within the community and even, perhaps, in mainstream America. Although there are other issues that have, in recent years, become the subject of mainstream discussion (caps on Asians in college admissions, for instance), it is the subject of Asian women not dating Asian men, and specifically choosing white men, that has come to almost define the way that Asians are conceived of in the US. That is, "Asian" stories or issues that make it in the mainstream most often do so through the filter of the feminine Asian voice, and, of course, given credence by the authority of the white male presence of their partners.

Although the common understanding is that there is widespread hostility amongst Asian-American men towards the ubiquitous partnerships of white men and Asian women, I believe that the degree of opposition is exaggerated. Creating conflict around the disparity is a great way to generate the kind of internet drama that fosters increased traffic on blogposts and media articles. As I suggested here any apparent conflict may be largely manufactured by the media and/or an exuberant Asian female half of the IR partnership, eager to claim their dating choices have contributed to world peace. This may be because of the natural tendency in human behaviour to inflate the significance of one's own life choices. Thus, seemingly in the minds of some of those Asian women in these relationships, their choice to date white dudes is some kind of transcendental phenomena, with epic significance for our society in particular and humankind in general. Given this "axiom", there must be opposition because, as we all know, epic shifts in human consciousness are always opposed - just think of Ghandi and MLK!

Yet, sadly, the fact remains that there is a vocal minority - usually on the internet - that approaches the IR disparity with a venom and vulgarity that I think is more detrimental to the cause of Asian male empowerment than it is helpful. Often, amongst these guys, there is an attitude that Asian women marrying white men somehow weakens Asian resolve (or dilutes the blood), and that there has to be some kind of racial purity (in extreme cases) in order for Asians to be empowered. Many of these guys will also banish the idea of finding partners outside of their own race - either because they adhere to some notion of race purity, or because they will tell themselves that non-Asian women just wouldn't be interested in them. To me, these attitudes do more to perpetuate the disempowerment of Asian men than any outmarriage disparity.

The problem here is that there is an implicit notion that Asian women's dating choices are vital to the empowerment of Asian men. Not only is this nonsense, it is also itself disempowering, not to mention (to borrow a popular nineties term) unhealthily co-dependent. By tying Asian male empowerment so tightly into the actions and choices of Asian women, these guys are, effectively, saying that they have no power unless Asian women make choices that empower them. That means that Asian male empowerment is contingent upon the actions of others. I reject this notion. Although ostensibly active and angry, such an approach upon closer scrutiny reveals itself to be passive and far from empowered.

That is not to deny that there do exist some Asian women whose willingness to overlook racism  in the interest of expanding their interracial dating choices assists in the propagation of anti-Asian racism, but even in these cases, it is not essential or perhaps even desireable to want to change these people's attitudes for Asian men to empower themselves. It also doesn't mean that it is wrong to want or expect Asian women to support the empowerment of Asian men, it simply means that any movement to empower Asian men should be solid enough to achieve its goals even when Asian women seem to be actively contributing to the racism that disempowers Asian men.

In addition to this, focusing on IR relationships between Asian women and white men, by its very nature takes focus and energy away from focusing on our own stories and ideas. If you want Asian men's stories to be heard, then you tell Asian men's stories, if you want Asian women and white men's stories to be heard, then you focus on Asian women and white men. In my opinion, the sociological and cultural impact of Asian women and white male relationships is so insignificant that it doesn't even warrant thinking about. I can think of no significant changes in the way that Asians are represented culturally, or conceived of sociologically, that could be said to have resulted from the high out-marriage rates of Asian women. None. It should seem obvious then, that to make it central to the Asian-American dialogue elevates the subject to a level way more  significant than it deserves.

But, some of you may wonder, what about the suggestion that poor media representation and absence of culturally appropriate and inclusive Asian male role-models contributes to the supposed lack of desirability of Asian men and hence the high outmarriage rates of Asian-American women? It is almost certainly true, that these things may hinder the smooth integration of Asian men socially, but the problem doesn't, and won't, get resolved by elevating dialogue on the disparity at the expense of the actual problem of poor cultural representation. Doing this, in fact, further marginalizes the dialogue on America's cultural exclusion of Asian men - which is a subject that is significant in and of itself without bringing the disparity into the equation.

Even more importantly, is that we, as Asian men, have a responsibility to model behaviours, attitudes, and ways of thinking for younger generations of Asian boys. So, are we fulfilling our obligations as role-models by allowing ourselves to be distracted from addressing the structural issues that propagate anti-Asian attitudes and behaviours, which are likely to be significant factors in marginalizing Asian men even from Asian women? I think not. The Asian male voice needs to focus on the specific issues facing us. It is almost impossible to change people unless they want to change - that means if an Asian woman wants to date white men, you won't be able to change her. But it is far easier (though not necessarily easy) to change culture through cultivating and finding expression for your voice. Because people, by and large, follow the dictates of their culture, it is easier to change attitudes and behaviour through changing culture via ideas, as opposed to changing unwilling people to think differently to the cultural mainstream.

And this segues nicely into my next point. One major reason there is a disparity is that some Asian men are simply unwilling to, themselves, consider dating outside of their race. There may be several reasons for this. Naturally, because Asian men are excluded culturally, their smooth social integration may be hindered by the lack of culture-appropriate role-models who set precedents of behaviour that Asian boys can emulate. As I've written many times before, the lack of inclusive cultural representations of Asian men, in tandem with representations that explicitly demean Asians, may contribute to this lack of social confidence that many Asian boys and young Asian men experience (and, no, don't blame Asian parenting - it isn't the job of parents to teach you how to get laid or talk to girls - young men and boys learn how to do those things by hanging around other boys who model how to do those things and dare each other to do those things).

This is what makes it all the more imperative that Asian men become the role-models that American culture denies to young Asian males. Just because it isn't broadcast to the masses, it doesn't mean that our efforts as role-models are negated, and my sense is that one of the best ways for Asian men to not feel oppressed by the hostile culture we live in, is to develop that inner sense of confidence and self-knowledge such that we are bruised but not beaten by the culture of racism. Insisting - as some Asian guys do - that all is lost in life and love because stereotypes have us irretrievably beaten down, is worse than the stereotypes themselves and does little to empower Asian men.

The implication of all of this, is that it is the duty of Asian-American men to be the architects of Asian-American culture. We've tried the feminine approach, and all it has gotten us is a library of non-confrontational feminine voices in the mainstream arena, whose primary concern seems to be the avoidance of causing discomfort in mainstream America by not speaking candidly and directly about the Asian  race experience. We certainly don't have what we could reasonably call an "Asian-American" culture that results from this approach. So, assuming the personal responsibility for role-modeling behaviour and ways of thinking for younger generations, is to begin the process of culture building, and there is no room in this process for the IR discussion and all of the negativity it heaps onto Asian men.

So, the question is, how do we "deal" with the IR disparity? Here are my suggestions in no particular order of importance;

1) Stop focusing on it. By focusing on the phenomenon we are actually supporting the mainstreaming of it at the expense of our own narratives and other more significant Asian-American narratives.

2) Don't let media and cultural stereotypes hold you back. I hear too many Asian guys talking about how they stand absolutely no chance with the opposite sex because the media makes Asian men look bad. While it is true about demeaning stereotypes, it isn't true that they could absolutely prevent Asian men from having fulfilling relationships - that seems like an excuse to me. There are plenty of Asian men who show that this is not the case, and I have personally seem butt-ugly, short, Asian dudes with extremely attractive women.

3) Stop saying and believing that the fact of Asian women dating white men is an implicit reinforcement of negative stereotypes about Asian men. Or more precisely, stop believing that this can or should prevent you from being the entity that you want to be. In the minds of some people, it may be true that these relationships reinforce stereotypes about Asian  men, but so what? You don't even have to overcome or counter these beliefs - just do and be what it is you want to do and be and that's enough.

4) Stop believing that empowering Asian men is somehow dependent on Asian women's dating choices - it isn't. The more we believe that Asian male empowerment is tied into Asian women's choices, the less we will be empowered.

5) Help a brother out! One indication of empowerment is to recognize your experience in the experience of others like you, and to act on the behalf of those others. It is a vague notion that probably requires a blogpost of its own, but for this post all I will say is that at the root of this concept is the idea that you don't allow a brother to stand alone in any situation where you see them being treated disrespectfully - in other words, help to provide the space for your Asian brothers to live out their narratives by re-focusing your frustrations onto real-world situations where we can make observable contributions to empowerment.

6) Don't complain that there are not enough girls to go around and then limit your choices by refusing to date outside of your race. Adaptation is survival. So expand your horizons - difficult I know for those who have experienced racism, but there are enough girls to go around if you stop limiting yourself. I know this is not as easy as it sounds because American culture (and hence society) provides no conception of how to interact with Asians  - except for in demeaning ways - and thus, socialization for Asian men has unique obstacles. But in a way, this is a good thing because you can create your own story about who you are - you just have to develop the willpower and determination to pull it off.

7) Embrace and develop your "outsider" identity because that is what we are. It doesn't matter if you are in a six-figure job, if you are Asian and male, you are still an outsider and that is good because the goal isn't to work your way to the inside, but to understand that there is power being on the outside. Once we recognize and embrace this fact, then we can learn to understand the historical precedents that determine our modern-day experience - and an autonomous Asian-American culture could emerge. And one of the antidotes to IR is more Asian-American male driven culture.

8) And finally, just stop giving a crap about IR. Trust me! I have been in situations around IR couples where my indifference to it has enraged the female half of the equation. For some Asian women who don't date Asian men (not all or perhaps even most), the angry Asian man is an integral part of their identity - that is, their life has that effect on the world. When you remove that Asian male anger, such women are at a loss, and it can be gratifying when you realize that you have destroyed someone's pre-conceptions about you just by being indifferent. In other words, some Asian women need angry Asian men to reinforce their own "I only date white guys" identities - don't be that guy.

This in no way suggests that the IR disparity does not in some ways reflect underlying mainstream prejudices that target Asian men specifically - because I think it is pretty obvious that American culture propagates negative attitudes and behaviours towards Asian men. But my point is that it does not empower Asian men - nor offer good role models for Asian boys - to narrow the focus of the dialogue such that every other aspect and manifestation of gendered anti-Asian racism becomes lost from the narrative.