Friday, February 14, 2014

Dreaming Of A Non-White Winter Olympics

Things Unsaid....

I came across an interesting article in the Washington Post about the lack of diversity at the Sochi Olympics. Bemoaning the lack of African-American and Hispanic athletes, the piece highlights the almost absolute "whiteness" of the games....
Don’t listen to your friends back home saying the Winter Olympics are just for white people who like the cold and vacation in Aspen. This is the most inclusive Winter Games ever. Why, there are Caucasians here from almost 88 different nations......this place is whiter than an episode of “Downton Abbey.”
Fair enough, black and Hispanic underrepresentation in winter sports is something to ponder, but not, in my opinion any more or less worth pondering than the general underrepresentation of Asians in sport - more on that later. Whilst the dearth of black and Hispanic athletes in winter sports is certainly something that requires attention, the fact that Asians have traditionally not been associated with sports and, thus, generally not considered as "sporty" - which may be reflected in the relative dearth of Asians in sport - is something that I think also warrants some degree of inquiry.

So, surely, Asians who do make it in sport is a subject worthy of its own investigation and story - after all, Asians are a racial minority affected by racism and stereotypes (particularly, perhaps in sport) that seeks to limit their prosperity? Well, maybe not........
Look, I don’t care about the color of the competitors. And I don’t think the paucity of black or Hispanic athletes should cheapen any gold medal, as if somehow this were a cold-war Olympics that didn’t include some of the greatest sporting nations......The fact is, despite Vonetta Flowers becoming the first black person to become a Winter Olympic gold medalist as a bobsledder in 2002, despite Davis becoming the first male African American to win individual gold in 2006, there hasn’t been a whole lot of carryover.
Yes, more minorities, more colour, more diversity........yes?
Aside from the large contingent of Asian athletes and a smattering of Jamaican bobsledders and Tongans, the Opening Ceremonies’ Parade of Nations is as white as a von Trapp family reunion.! That's right, apart from the large contingent of non-white Asians and a few blacks and Pacific ─░slanders, there is just no diversity at the games. Why the writer of the article apparently feels as though a large contingent of Asians is somehow a lesser quality of diversity isn't specified. Given stereotypes about Asian physical weaknesses and inaptitude for sports, surely the fact that there is a "large contingent" of Asians participating in a sporting event at the highest level warrants a more enthusiastic commentary. Instead, I can't help  but feel as though the writer is suggesting that the Asian contingent is a kind of disappointing diversity that is only worth the effort of inclusion in the discussion only to further highlight that, well, there are few blacks at the games.

To me, the fact that Asians are present in numbers at Sochi is, in fact, a huge victory against the racialized thinking that stereotypes Asians as nerdy, unsporty, weaklings and is something that deserves to be celebrated - particularly in light of the fact that several of those Asian athletes are Americans. A more interesting question may be, perhaps, why Asians are present in numbers at winter sports and what that may tell us about the complexities of American attitudes towards race and stereotypes.

It could well be that - for the Asian-American athletes at least - the very lack of black dominance in winter sports has offered breathing space for the consideration of Asians for inclusion. What I mean by this is that stereotypes about the sporting prowess of black athletes coupled with opposite stereotypes about Asians may conspire to leave little room in sporting programs for Asians to be included, no-one expects to find  good Asian athletes, so no-one is looking. Since winter sports don't seem to be looking for a "Michael Jordan", there is room for Asians to taste the waters of athletic competition and compete at the highest level since they are also not competing against stereotypes of superior black sporting aptitude.

The point is that the typical stereotypical modes of thinking that have discouraged the idea that Asians have the physical capabilities to compete at the highest athletic levels are almost certainly being overcome and belied by the very presence of Asians at the highest level of competition at Sochi. This is a cause for celebration, it is certainly worthy of far more than a single disappointed throwaway line that diminishes the value of the Asian component of diversity.

But perhaps the biggest point of concern - and disappointment - is the implication that Asian athletes participating in lieu of white ones is somehow cheating America (and possibly blacks and the whole world) out of true diversity, which really should mean black and Hispanic athletes competing in lieu of white (and possibly Asian) ones. There are some disturbing echoes here of the debate over college admissions in which Asians have become something of a bogeyman and stumbling block for the liberal narrative of diversity and its recent addendum that too much success amongst Asians is a threat to black empowerment.

In summary, the piece illustrates that Asian-Americans are the blindspot of America's race dialogue - our "successes" are not the kind of race-dialogue that America welcomes, even when it is a clear illustration of overcoming racialized adversity. The fact is that it is in the field of sports that black and Hispanic integration has been quite pronounced, such that these groups dominate or are on an equal footing in mainstream American sports. Ironically, it is aspiring Asians who need encouragement to participate in sports and whose presence is underrepresented - so why is a large contingent of Asian athletes only worth mentioning in the context of how few black and Hispanics there are?

True investment in diversity should lead us to ask balanced questions and think, well, in more diverse ways. In the interests of genuine diversity in sports it is fair and balanced to ask; how do we expand the involvement of Asians in sports so that they are more equally represented in sports outside of winter competition? But that would mean that America would have to start thinking about the Asian experience of race, racism, and racialization - something it presently generally prefers to dismiss.

Sunday, February 9, 2014

Fighting For Children's Rights

Helen Gym

I just thought that I would highlight someone whose focus might be - in my opinion - one of Asian-America's most significant issues today. Helen Gym is an Asian woman based in Philadelphia, who although an advocate for school reform in the Philly area, came to my attention back in 2009 when she was instrumental in the advocacy for Asian-American kids who had been suffering severe racially based bullying and harassment.

Her advocacy is significant for two reasons; firstly she is challenging apathetic attitudes towards dysfunction in the school system, and secondly (but most importantly from an Asian-American perspective) she has been, and continues to be, instrumental in defending the casually abused civil rights of Asian kids in Philadelphia High Schools. I have written about the experiences of the Asian kids in South Philly in several previous posts, and, in fact, it was my feeling that there seemed to be little interest in the violence directed at these kids amongst Asian-Americans that motivated me to start a blog. Of course, my writings explore issues beyond this, but it was my sense that there was a dearth in interest not only in the specific events in South Philly High School, but also there seemed to little exploration into the phenomenon of anti-Asian racism in American schools.

More specifically, my interest covers the intersection of Asian depictions and attitudes in American cultural endeavours, and the experience of racially inflected bullying, harassment, and violence that seems almost universal amongst Asians kids going through America's education system to one degree or another. For me, the possibility of universal casual racism perpetrated by non-Asian kids on their Asian peers in schools, ranks as one of the most significant issues that Asian-America needs to address. The reason is simple; if the casual anti-Asian racism (often in the form of casual retributive violence against deindivuated masses) modeled by American culture is emulated or reflected in the behaviours and attitudes of children, then these attitudes may easily form into habits of prejudice that manifest as casual anti-Asian discrimination in adulthood.

Certainly, addressing media racism directly is one avenue for changing this state of affairs, but I also believe that seeking accountability from school admins, teachers, and any other adult involved in the "care" of Asian kids in the school environment warrants some thought. All too often, anti-Asian racism in America's schools is dismissed as merely the actions of ignorant or insensitive kids, or is simply put down to the fact that "kids can be cruel". These might be sufficient explanations under normal circumstances, but, for Asian-American kids, not only are they dealing with "cruel kids", but with a culture that actually models (through media depictions) many of the racist behaviours that they are experiencing. That is a whole different ball-game.

In effect, America's casual cultural racism can only be normalizing the kinds of racist behaviours that are directed at Asian children, and because this process can actually be viewed as a conditioning process, what it means is that negative behaviours and attitudes towards Asian people become and remain ingrained. This is why I think school racism is one of the most important issues that we as a community need to highlight and address.

Sunday, February 2, 2014

Killing Us Softly With Words.

Storytelling Asians To Death.

In a previous post I touched upon the idea that Asian "maleness" has, at best, a second-class status in American culture. For Asian men growing up in the US, the stories that American culture tells itself about us are typically demeaning and xenophobic, or combative and hostile. Naturally, many Asian men feel a sense of cultural and social marginalization that their humanity is demeaned, and their masculinity is afforded scarce cultural space to find expression or validation. Subsequently, ideas of masculine identity seem to recur as themes amongst Asian men and with it notions of their "place" and sense of acceptance in this society. One way that culture fosters an inclusive identity is through the narratives of storytelling.

Stories and narratives ground people in culture providing a profound sense of connectedness and identity by offering readers, listeners, or viewers, the opportunity to identify with characters - and the scenarios they find themselves in - so they are able to firmly place themselves into that narrative and hence the culture it reflects, represents, and describes. On the flipside, in order for these narratives to have cohesive power, they must provide a narrative of what this identity does not represent - that is, a set of contrasting qualities that clearly define what they are not equally as strongly as depictions which powerfully reinforce and shape ideas of what they are. Often, this set of undesirable qualities are embodied and visualized in the form of Asian men so, naturally, they perhaps find little sense of inclusion, and certainly little sense of visibility, in this cultural narrative.

One thing is certain, many Asian men feel that there is scarce acceptance of them save for specific situations where they fit the pre-conceived notions of the mainstream (and mainstreamed) community around them. But while Asians have long campaigned against the culture of stereotype and the media that propagates it, new research highlights the degree to which constant, one-sided and one-dimensional, media depictions might profoundly condition society to hold deeply ingrained racist attitudes (and, hence, behaviours) towards Asians. All of this happens through the very simple process of storytelling.

According to this article, new research presents the intriguing possibility that narratives actually create biological changes in a reader or listener......
[after reading a given passage] fMRI....scans showed....heightened connectivity in the left temporal cortex, an area of the brain associated with receptivity for language, on the mornings following the reading assignments.....[and]..Heightened connectivity was also seen in the central sulcus of the brain, the primary sensory motor region of the brain. Neurons of this region have been associated with making representations of sensation for the body, a phenomenon known as grounded cognition. Just thinking about running, for instance, can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running.
What is not known is how long these changes remain in effect, but if these changes are temporary, it seems reasonable to wonder if a continuous narrative on any given subject might effectively prolong these biological changes.

As stated above, "grounded cognition", is a physical response created merely by thinking about something; if you "think about running, then you can activate the neurons associated with the physical act of running". It should follow that if the majority of narratives about Asians denigrate and dehumanize, then you think of Asians as dehumanized, and as little more than a collection of demeaning and distasteful qualities, and that there would be a corresponding physical reaction of distaste that reinforces the emotional and ethical distancing from Asians with every depiction?

So, given that American culture runs a repetitive narrative that depicts demeaning attitudes and behaviours towards Asians as normal, ethically neutral, or morally justified, it raises the possibility that this is, in fact, an "association" process that ingrains anti-Asian attitudes down to a physical level. This means that if Asians are repeatedly depicted most forcefully and memorably in ways that portray them as a threat and, therefore, as the recipients of justified violent retribution, or as objects of ridicule, then any physically conditioned responses - "gut reactions", if you will, albeit unconscious - would surely be ones of distaste and withdrawal of moral empathy merely as a consequence of this conditioned response.

This is clearly and inadvertently illustrated in an interesting video on YouTube (pertinent part starts at 8:20) in which Chinese-American award-winning journalist - Ti Hua Chang - talks about his experiences trying to make it in the media industry. At one point in his career, he is told - by a well-meaning mentor - that audiences would not embrace him because whenever he sees an Asian man, he has an uncomfortable physical response that he associates with distasteful notions about Asian men.

Other research into the human mind provides us with even more food for thought. According to research done at the Max Planck Institute, decisions (and, therefore, I would presume, responses) are made several seconds before we become conscious of them. That is, whatever conditioning we may have received throughout the course of our lives - and that must include neurolo-physiological conditioning of narratives - must play a role in how we respond to, and make behavioural decisions about, people and things around us. But it is seemingly a mostly unconscious process.

So, human beings become aware of decisions several seconds after they are made, these decisions are thus largely physiological processes (becoming conscious later) and thus probably, at least, in part conditioned by cultural narratives. Such narratives elicit a physical response in listeners, and America's cultural narratives concerning Asians are largely one-sidedly dehumanizing and demeaning. That means that casual, even "jokey", anti-Asian cultural racism has the potential to shape and condition racist behaviours on an extremely profound level, such that it gets to the point that even when Asians are not depicted negatively, the physically reinforced emotional gut-reaction is, because of conditioning, a negative one.

One way that Asians have responded to these demeaning depictions has been to protest racist media narratives, although it has to be said that given the possibilities outlined in this essay, it seems like a terrible mismatch of comprehension to respond to ingrained, physical response-inducing derogatory narratives, with our usual ubiquitous meek challenge of "we're offended". Although this advocacy has been valuable in the extreme, my sense is that there has to be a "second arm" to the struggle against dehumanizing narratives, which consists of a kind of personal responsibility. What I mean by this is that, as individuals, we can take responsibility of our own personal narratives simply because a good way to overcome powerful denigrating stories is to tell better stories about ourselves. Another way of saying this is that fostering creativity (and the narratives it produces) is possibly one of the most powerful avenues to supersede the denigrating narratives that this culture tells about us.

Strangely, the goal here is not to change the minds of people who have, perhaps, barely conscious ingrained racist responses to us, but rather, create an equally powerful ingrained conditioning within ourselves that contextualizes our experiences as men within this society. After all, these derogatory narratives must also leave their mark on young Asian boys growing up in this culture which conceives of them as the embodiment of all that a man should not be. This process would involve creating personal narratives in the form of metaphors that serve as the basis for the kind of heroic "myths" that any conscious being must hold about themselves which serve to provide an all-important sense of transcendent purpose that is integral to the human condition.

That, in a nutshell, is the nature of this culture's prejudice against Asian men - cultural marginalization and its narrative of dehumanization offers scarce space for cultural participation in one of the most fundamental aspects of human life; transcendence myths that are the basis for aspiration, and which assists in the formation of a contextual identity. Oddly, it seems that one of the best possibilities for advocacy for Asian men, comes in the form of simply telling more compelling stories.

H/T Alpha Asian for Ti-Hua Chang video.