Wednesday, April 30, 2014

Asian-American Reactivism

Engineering Our Own Demise.

Anyone who has been around kids would probably agree that you can tell a child anything, but unless you actually model the behaviour that you insist upon in the child, then they will just begin to think that you are just a hypocritical adult bullshitter. "Do what I say, not what I do" does not get you very far. But this principle holds true in all human interactions - if  you go through life not practicing what you preach then, soon, you will lose credibility. You have to practice what you preach as individuals but it is also especially pertinently significant for a racialized group, like Asian-Americans.

A couple of events that have taken place in recent weeks have left me wondering if Asian-America can be criticized for not walking its talk, and failing to provide an appropriate model of behaviour of a kind that we insist mainstream America follow. We want our dignity to be respected, we want to be seen as individuals and we want (at least I know I want) reason and nuance to guide attitudes towards us. Yet, I think that all too often in our intra-Asian dialogue we seem reluctant, unable, or simply fail, to model this very thing.

I came across an extremely well-written and witty article, written by Arthur Chu - of Jeopardy fame - in which he very cleverly gave his thoughts on the "#CancelColbert" movement and its initiator, Suey Park. Viewing Park as a necessary and welcome evil, he writes the following....
I’m glad that we’re increasingly living in a world where nice people can be nice people and jerks can be jerks and game show villains can be game show villains without the need to be a “credit to your race.” That, slowly, haltingly, through a lot of debating and arguing and fighting and hashing tough shit out, we’re finding the freedom to just be ourselves.
Sounds good, except that earlier in the piece Chu wrote the following...
Suey Park is crazy. She does not represent us. She does not speak for us. She doesn’t speak for anyone except her fellow denizens of Angrytweets, USA, a community whose sole import is random entertainment news and whose sole export is intoxicating outrage.........I’m glad she’s out there. Because Asians need more villains.
What I find difficult to reconcile here is this idea that somehow being angry makes Park into a villain. Even worse, Park is crazy because she is angry. What seems to be happening here is that Chu is celebrating some kind of eccentricity that is not usually associated with Asians - which is true - but instead of letting Park's actions and behaviours speak for themselves - as he seems to want - , he actually seems to want to shape perceptions of her, so that it does not reflect back on him. He accomplishes this by stereotyping her as villainous and crazy.

Although I am critical of white celebs contextualizing America's race dialogue by getting it completely wrong, I have not agreed with the manner of Park's activism but she is not crazy for being wrong, and she certainly is not a villain for taking the wrong approach. The problem here is that Park is a living breathing human being who - by my reckoning - made and makes mistakes and I am simply uncomfortable with her being labeled because of it. Doing so does not sound like being genuinely open to a diverse, warts an' all conception of Asians because part of that process of acceptance of our warts is to leave open the possibility and hope that as individuals who make individual choices, some wrong, some not, we have the capacity to change. After all, isn't racism predicated on the idea of immutable, often negative, racial characteristics?

But there is a more profound issue here that I find troubling - even in cases where minority anger is justified, America still manages to stereotype it and mock it. We have stereotypes about the Angry Asian  Man (and now, perhaps woman), and we have stereotypes about black anger, and we laugh at them, and in the process diminish any legitimate concerns that  sparked the anger. Yet, white anger is taken seriously and given weight, and in no way is implied to reflect on any one other than the person expressing it, and rarely, if ever is white anger mocked via stereotype.

Of course, the cherry topping is the caveat that Park "does not represent us" and "she does not speak for us". Shouldn't it go without saying that it is reasonable to presume that Park's opinions represent little more than her own thinking? Why would Chu have to even say such a thing...unless...unless...there is some kind of process by which Asians are held to accountability as a group for the actions or behaviour of one of them? Maybe Park isn't so crazy after all.

But this tendency to pile in and beat each other down - even when we think we are doing the opposite - took an even more sinister and disturbing turn more recently when Korean-American artist, David Choe, told a story on his internet broadcast show that left many listeners believing that he had committed rape. Basically, the story goes like this; Choe claimed that in a "high-class spa" - that is a legitimate non-sex oriented spa - he pushed his female massage therapist's head onto his penis to make her perform fellatio, after which she proclaimed her previously unspoken sexual attraction for Choe, and requests his telephone number so that she can, you know, make it happen again - nudge, nudge, wink, wink. Of course, Choe is not interested, and gives her a false number.....uh-huh. That sounds believable.

My first reaction when I heard Choe telling the story was that he sounded like a fifteen-year-old boy, boasting to his friends about sexual encounters that never happened except in his own fantasies, or as an embellishment of a story he read in his dad's Playboy mags. Nothing about the story rings true, nothing about it made me think that I should take it seriously as a reflection of an actual incident, and even the manner of the telling came across like Choe was improvising the whole thing - badly - such that all I could think was "it did not happen".

But in the aftermath of the broadcast a furore erupted with accusations being made that Choe had actually committed rape and was effectively admitting to doing so. In the wake of this wave of repugnance for Choe, a petition was created - here - requesting that the White House remove Choe's paintings from its walls because.....
On 10 March 2014, David Choe aired an episode of a podcast called "DVDASA" describing a sexual exploit at a high-end massage parlor. Choe commented how the massage therapist, "Rose", did not want to be physically touched, responded "no" to his requests, and ultimately resulted in him physically pushing down her head onto his erect penis............While Choe has since recanted his remarks, stating he had made up the story, his commentary still has a significant impact due to his fame and perpetuates the myth that there is a rape spectrum, that no doesn't mean no, and rape is not always rape, but merely "rapey".......Choe may not be a rapist, but his painting of our President Obama does not deserve to represent his community at the White House.
Choe may not be a rapist, but his painting of our President Obama does not deserve to represent his community at the White House.
A previous version - the above has been updated, I believe - called on the White House to issue a statement on its stance regarding "alleged rape" (incidentally, what are the ethical considerations when one asks people to sign a petition and then one changes the wording of the petition after it has been signed?). Whilst I can certainly understand the negative reactions to Choe's comments and decry his gross insensitivity on a subject that is painful and very real for women, the fact is that he has not actually been proven to have committed or even charged with a crime.

In a court of law, the concept of reasonable doubt serves as a guiding principle for how we judge the accused - we apply reason, logic, and rational arguments to evidence and subsequently judge impartially. Furthermore, reasonable doubt also safeguards against abuses of judicial power by ensuring that evidence itself is not arbitrary (I feel, without evidence, that someone is guilty, is not reasonable evidence, for example), or that charges do not serve a political agenda. So, reasonable doubt is a hugely important aspect of guaranteeing our rights and protecting them from abuse.

With that in mind, it is disturbing that anyone would participate in a petition try to leap-frog the judicial process by calling on the Executive Branch of our government to basically treat Choe as though he were already convicted of a crime, and do damage to his reputation and possibly his livelihood by removing his work from the White House. In other words, the Executive is being asked to mete out punishment to Choe, effectively in lieu of his right to due process, and all based on a dubious story (subsequently retracted), and (somewhat) popular outrage.

Asian-Americans, of all people, should be painfully aware of the dangers of populist outrage, and popular sentiment in relation to the denial of due process, and I would not be surprised if many of the Asians who signed the petition would - with a completely straight face - decry Japanese internment and their denial of due process during World War 2. They too were punished without ever being convicted of any crimes, and it was done via an Executive order and with popular consent. We cannot have it both ways.

Sure, people are free to choose to boycott Choe, but to demand that the White House play a part in punishing or censuring someone who has not even been convicted of, or even legally charged with, any crime, does a greater disservice to Asian-Americans than Choe's stupidity. The petition states that Choe "does not deserve (emphasis mine) to represent his community", which carries with it an implicit call for the White House to make what amounts to a moral judgement - to be accompanied by a "punishment" - on a civil society matter, thus expanding the scope of the Executive role to include moral proclamation. It is a staggering irony that people who casually demand that an individual's right to due process be infringed upon by an Executive that also issues moral judgements, could somehow believe themselves to be the arbiters of what, or who, could be a deserving representative of our community.

No, these folks are far, far, far, worse, and Asian-America should distance itself from any hint of vindictive action that unapologetically seeks to punish someone who has not even been charged with a crime, and who seek to muddy democratic principles because someone said something upsetting. And this is what is so disappointing; by participating as Asian bloggers, writers, or signatories of a petition, in any activity that supports steamrollering someone's democratic rights, then we have effectively set the standard for how we ourselves can and should be treated in the eyes of the law and society in general. That is not to say that those angered by Choe's douchebag story should merely let it go (on the contrary feel free to take action within the realm of normal civil society activity if you wish), but it does mean that we should shoulder a responsibility to insist that nuance and reason guide behaviours towards any Asian, not emotion and vindictiveness.

This is because nuance and reason are the qualities most often absent from the behaviours and actions of mainstream America towards its Asian minority. We saw this during Japanese internment, and more recently in the Wen Ho Lee case. If Asian-Americans are not prepared to approach issues relating to Asian people with nuance and reason (and modes of interaction that uphold human dignity), then how can we demand it of others? In other words, if we want to be treated with respect and have our human dignity respected (even in cases where there is potential for crime, more so in cases where a crime has only been inferred to have been committed), then in a society that makes a point of not respecting our human dignity, we must surely be obliged to provide that model of behaviour that we insist mainstream America abide by?

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

The Irony Of Failed Satire

More On The Suey And Colbert Saga.

It has been a few weeks since Twitter erupted in a storm of frenzied outrage incited by Suey Park in response to a tweet published by the Comedy Channel's Twitter page that quoted - out of context - a line from a Stephen Colbert skit. In short - since most readers will probably know both the contents of the offending tweet and the response to it - Colbert did a skit on his comedy show that satirized the use of the term "redskins" by an NFL team by parodying its insensitivity using terms and slurs which are derogatory and dehumanizing to Asians thusly......
I am willing to show the Asian community I care by introducing the Ching-Chong Ding-Dong Foundation for Sensitivity to Orientals or Whatever.
The background to this is that the target of the satire - the NFL team's owner Dan Snyder - had voiced his intention to start a foundation to help native people and that he would use the term "redskin" naming it. So, the satire is obvious; mocking the absurdity of claiming to respect and help a group whilst simultaneously using a term that implicitly demeans them. Simple, fun, and obvious, with no hint of racism targeting Asians on Colbert's part. Of course, the terms and slurs used in the skit and tweet are derogatory terms for Asians but the context here is obviously not to attack or demean Asians.

Now in the aftermath of the "blow-up" in which Suey Park came out strong to condemn liberal racism (well, somebody's got to do it), and was subsequently beaten down by both the mainstream media and a flurry of Asian responses seemingly embarrassed that she had gotten her criticisms so wrong, I think that it is worth stepping back and examining the events because I think that we can glean some insights into the Asian experience of race in the US.

I will begin by saying that accusing Colbert or the skit as racist towards Asians is pointless and as I suggested here  (and here) using the language of accusation is a flawed approach, although it might be reasonable to wonder if the guys who published the tweet - which Colbert had nothing to do with - might have been looking to create controversy, or troll Asian-Americans. So, although there is no racism directed at Asians, I would argue that the skit was still potentially damaging to America's dialogue on race in general, and harmful to both Asians and Native Americans in particular, simply because the satire was poor and unconscious.

To understand why, let's look briefly at the meaning and components of satire.

Via Wikipedia.......
Satire is a genre of literature, and sometimes graphic and performing arts, in which vices, follies, abuses, and shortcomings are held up to ridicule, ideally with the intent of shaming individuals, corporations, government or society itself, into improvement.[1] Although satire is usually meant to be humorous, its greater purpose is often constructive social criticism, using wit as a weapon and as a tool to draw attention to both particular and wider issues in society.........A feature of satire is strong irony or sarcasm—"in satire, irony is militant"[2]—but parody, burlesque, exaggeration,[3] juxtaposition, comparison, analogy, and double entendre are all frequently used in satirical speech and writing. This "militant" irony or sarcasm often professes to approve of (or at least accept as natural) the very things the satirist wishes to attack.
From the above we can see that Colbert's satire parodied Snyder by using strong, sarcastic irony, to caricature (burlesque) Snyder's racism by utilizing an exaggerated analogy of his position. All pretty classic seeming stuff. The problem is that Asians are almost as invisible as Native-Americans in American culture, and anti-Asian racism is not taken that seriously by Americans to such an extent that it might be true to say that it is taken less seriously than racism against Native peoples.

What this suggests is that what should have been the most powerful component of Colbert's skit - the caricatured exaggeration - was actually no such thing. Where is the exaggeration in analogizing two groups who share similar invisibility? In fact, Colbert does a disservice to Native Americans by comparing their experience of racism to a group whose claims of racism are most often met with skepticism, indifference, or just plain old denial. If dehumanizing Native people is as serious as the Asian experience of racism, and our experiences of racism are typically downplayed, then that can only mean that Snyder's racism is not that bad. Do you see the problem?

In order to use exaggeration to satirize racism, you would have to actually utilize a racism that people would be outraged by and one that is an actual exaggeration, and anti-Asian racism is not it - how do you exaggerate a racism that so many people are just plain comfortable living with?. The irony is all on Colbert. It is even the liberal media whose cultural products in film and television contribute greatly to the normalization of dehumanizing ways of conceiving of Asians and the demeaning behaviours that follow. We hear "Ching Chong" all the time being broadcast nationwide in film and television, if not in deed, then certainly in sentiment. Characters like Han Lee from 2 Broke Girls are merely the Ching Chong taunt with added dialogue.

So, because we live in a culture that views mockery of Asians as the norm and racist behaviours towards Asians as well within the bounds of what is socially acceptable, Colbert may have actually diminished the perception of the severity of the racism experienced by Native Americans and consequently the dehumanizing nature of using the term "redskins". The term and the racism that fosters it just cannot be that bad if anti-Asian racism is an exaggeration of it. Clearly liberal America has gotten itself into a bind - anti-black and anti-Hispanic racism is out of bounds, and anti-Asian racism is tolerated and even brings the mainstream enjoyment (thanks to our liberal friends in the arts), so where will the liberal hipsters get their racial satire fix to make them feel that they're with the program? It is a dilemma.

In some sense, there is an element of what I would call the "Charlie Chan" treatment about Colbert's use of the trappings of anti-Asian racism. The Charlie Chan caricature is problematic for a number of reasons, one of which is the fact that his depictions - at least in the films I have seen - allude to racism, but diminish the severity of anti-Chinese racism at the time, effectively whitewashing it. If you bear in mind that Chinese people were not allowed to testify in courts against white people, the whole idea of a Chinese cop arresting white men - albeit criminals - is an absurdity.

Likewise, the implication in Colbert's skit that anti-Asian racism is taken seriously, also effectively whitewashes the fact that it absolutely is not - do I want mainstream America patting itself on the back because they believe that their society abhors anti-Asian racism when we all know that anti-Asian racism is almost celebrated as a beloved and subtle means of defining what America absolutely is not? My sense is that Asian-America missed an opportunity to point out the ironic absurdity of Colbert's inadvertent misrepresentation of perceptions of anti-Asian racism and the irony of a liberal pretending to be a conservative trying to point out the severity of racism by utilizing anti-Asian racism that no-one takes seriously because of dehumanizing representations produced in the liberal bastions of Hollywood and the studios of New York.

Colbert's satire failed simply because his skit seemed to be out of touch with America's tolerance for derogatory representations of Asians. If he wants to put himself forward as a commentator on America's race then he owes it to the people whose experiences he seeks to contextualize to actually understand the context of their experiences and acquaint himself with those dynamics. As such, Colbert's skit did absolutely nothing to further mainstream  understanding of the experience of racism outside of the black/white narrative, except to suggest that dehumanizing Native Americans is as morally problematic as America's dehumanization of Asians - which is something America seems to be very tolerant of.

Sunday, April 20, 2014

What Is An Asian To Do?

America's Asian Problem.

I came across an online news article in the Guardian that surprised me because it was written by an Asian-American (Jennifer Lee), on the subject of Asian-Americans - the Guardian is a British news outlet. In the article - written, somewhat, in response to the recent Amy Chua claims on how culture affects success, and based on studies conducted by Lee and Min Zhou - Lee suggests that "we" need more US Asians - US Chinese in particular - to move away from the rigid definitions of success that have typically driven their apparent economic and academic successes. The gist of the article was - as the article's title suggested - that Asians should expand their definition of success beyond the "limitations" implicit in presuming success to mean a high educational attainment leading to a successful professional career and the financial rewards that such a career brings with it and move into the arts.

I have heard this sentiment being expressed several times before elsewhere and it seems to be a common feeling in Asian-America that somehow seems to based on an assumption that succeeding in the arts is a piece of cake. Whilst I believe that real social change occurs mainly through the process of changing attitudes by means of a strong cultural voice - that is, a creative voice - I also think that we have to be aware of the prevalent culture that seems to condition a negative knee-jerk response to any Asian successes and find fault with it at any cost. Or, on the flip-side, find Asian successes problematic because Asians are simply the wrong kind of minority.

Consider this.....
But this narrow framing of success comes at a price: young people who don’t “make it” are made to feel like failures and under-achievers, often leading them to isolate themselves from their ethnic communities and reject their ethnic identities. These “under-achievers” told us that they “don’t feel really Chinese”, “aren’t like other Asians”, or have become “the black sheep” of their families because they haven’t met what they perceive to be the expected levels of achievement for Chinese Americans.
This is somewhat insulting.The implication here is that a career in the arts is somehow not measured by financial success and academic achievement is less of a necessity, or, even worse, that failure in the arts is somehow less devastating than failure to make it in the professions. This is plainly false.

In truth, in order to succeed in the arts, one has to work extremely hard just to outperform competitors, and then hope that an agent or patron of some kind can find an angle for your work and then pitch it to the right people to pitch it to the general public. In the meantime, the artist often lives a life in which financial uncertainty becomes a way of life. Of course, if you are lucky and manage to make it, then the rewards are probably worth the effort, but for every successful artist there may be dozens more who don't make it. It is that hard, even if you don't add in the ingredient of prejudice that Asians may encounter - as the article says - working in a field where rewards are often derived from the subjective whims of audiences, who may be swayed by prevailing racialized attitudes. How this describes a less stressful career choice or one that carries a "softer" failure I don't know. I would not be surprised to discover that most artists - writers, fine artists, classical musicians and the like - actually do achieve at least a master's degree or above, and that these folks even excelled in their studies.

Even popular musicians - including the self-taught - typically will spend hours in practice, and years performing in dives gaining vital experience. The point is that for every painted masterpiece there are dozens of sketches and rejected ideas, for every hit song, there are dozens of bad takes and rejected verses that never see the light of day. And even when - or if - an artist does produce a masterpiece, there is no guarantee that the world will recognize it as such until well after the artist dies. So, to suggest that a career in the arts leads to more happiness, or is in some way a better way to define success is simply nonsense. The point is that regardless of whether one chooses a professional career or a career in the arts, the application and drive to succeed are fundamentally the same, and success often follows a successful academic career. The only difference between those who choose the professions and those who choose the arts is the vehicle that people are using to get to the same end of financial security and acclaim.

Clearly, regardless of which career choice one makes, the fact is that to succeed in that field, one has to work equally hard, put in thousands of  hours of practice and apply oneself in education,the goals of which are fundamentally the same as they would be in a professional career. To imply otherwise is misleading - the arts require an extremely high degree of educational attainment so I am always somewhat puzzled when I hear Asians speaking about a career in arts as though it is a breeze to achieve.

But there is another aspect to this way of thinking that I find troubling. This what the article says....
Americans often measure success by the three M’s: money, Motorola, and Mercedes. Most Chinese immigrant parents, on the other hand, define success as getting straight A’s, graduating from an elite university, pursuing an advanced degree and becoming a doctor, lawyer, pharmacist or engineer.......Could this be why the children of Chinese immigrants are, on average, better educated and wealthier – with higher paying jobs – than the general US population?.......
Given these consequences, why do Chinese and other Asian immigrant parents frame success so narrowly?.......They do so because they come from countries where education is one of the only paths for mobility. And, as non-white immigrants in the United States, Asian immigrant parents fear that their children will experience discrimination in their careers. So parents shepherd their children into conservative, high-status professions in which they may be most shielded from potential discrimination by employers, customers and clients.......
Based on our interviews with the children of Chinese immigrants, we learned that their parents believe that careers in writing, acting, fashion and art are risky because these professions involve subjective evaluation, thereby making their children vulnerable to bias. By contrast, careers in medicine, engineering, law or pharmacy require higher credentials and advanced degrees, which protects their children from the usual types of discrimination.
What strikes me here is that the article is suggesting that because some people struggle or ultimately fail in their attempts to enter the professions with impeccable educational credentials that this is somehow a good reason to re-define the terms of success. As I explained above, success in any field is fundamentally measured by the same criteria; acclaim from peers and community and financial security so, in reality, success is not actually being re-defined. It is merely the means by which these goals are achieved that has been changed and that carries with it the same, or greater, risk of failure.

But even though the article outlines clearly that perceived and real experiences of prejudice and discrimination have already shaped Asians practices and attitudes towards careers and success - that is, Asians have already re-defined success to adapt to these experiences - Lee's piece somehow manages to avoid the elephant in the room by suggesting that Asians should reappraise of how we define success as a separate dialogue from the factors of prejudice that largely shape them. In effect, Lee is saying that Asians should put their heads down and unilaterally adapt - again - to the obstacles of racism and prejudice that shape how we may approach career choices without, presumably, addressing the issues that have limited, and caused Asians to self-limit, their career choices.

What I am getting at here is that if we know and acknowledge that stereotypes, discrimination, and prejudice, play a significant role in shaping or limiting the avenues for opportunity that Asians feel are available to them, then any reappraisal of this has to be culture and society-wide, and include a reappraisal by society of its attitudes that limit Asian participation in all aspect and areas of the culture.

Certainly it could be argued that by making the decision to strive for success in fields where Asians are not "traditionally" to be found could create a shift in attitudes, but as Jeremy Lin has shown in sports, and several Asian actors have shown in film, even if you have abilities to succeed outside the Asian norm, the deeply ingrained attitudes can and will hold you back. But in both Jeremy Lin's case and that of Asian actors not being given opportunities, it could be argued that the support of the larger Asian-American community who have attacked head-on and basically stopped the overt dehumanizing stereotyping  and characterizations of Lin has helped to smooth his path somewhat, and Asian responses to poor representations may have slightly improved opportunities for Asian actors.

The point here is that the combined efforts of  of Lin's pursuing an "outside of the box" career and the head-on confrontations of the community to the racist backlash against him may have served to highlight the societal conversation about anti-Asian racism, and softened America's cultural conceptual barriers that see or accept a very limited definition of what it means to be Asian. Lee is fundamentally describing a shift whereby Asians act like a "model minority", by changing their own behaviour without necessarily rocking the boat of mainstream racist attitudes, despite the evidence that with a combination of personal application and community will we can soften, slightly, the blows of racist presumption.

Now the irony here is that Lee's piece was written almost as a refutation of Amy Chua's supposed model-minority-celebrating-new-novel in which she cited cultural characteristics as the cause of the successes - as defined by financial and academic achievement - of various American ethnic minorities, including, naturally, the Chinese. Oddly, Lee seems to be a champion for Asians to model-minority their way out of career and choice limiting prejudice in much the same way that Chua has been accused of doing. Even more funny, is that Lee actually reaches the same conclusions that Chua reached - cultural factors are responsible for the success of some minority groups, which is exactly what Chua has asserted. It seems odd to rebut an idea by seemingly agreeing with it.

My sense, though, is that Lee's piece is but one manifestation of the widespread embarrassment amongst Asians that Amy Chua has chosen - by default, perhaps - to not be contrite about Asian success and put it out there as - again perhaps not by design - something that deserves praise in and of itself without it being framed as an implicit affront to the cause of social justice and anti-racism. I'm a little fatigued by the constant reminders that Asians should be ashamed that being successful supposedly makes other minorities look bad, or that our successes are some kind of leverage to justify racism against other groups. On the contrary, the model minority stereotype first and foremost is used to justify racism against Asians, or diminish its importance.

Some suggest that we should throw off the model-minority stereotype for these reasons, I say that by allowing the stereotype to loom large in our consciousness we are giving in to the power of stereotypes to shape our lives. The fact is that regardless of who you are, if you believe stereotypes then you have accepted and utilized racist thinking. This holds true for the white racist who justifies racism against non-Asians by citing the model-minority stereotype, but also for the non-white person who allows themselves to develop racialized resentment towards Asians because they may have been told that they should "do what the Asians do".

We are not responsible for the stereotypes that are created about us and trying to not seem to be that stereotype is to allow racism to shape your actions, when the focus should really be on developing original approaches to shaping identity, our cultural footprint, and our inclusion in more aspects of the culture. Shaming ourselves about Asian successes is to accept the principles of racial prejudice. This is because anti-Asian racism manifests as a refusal to accept Asian-American accomplishments or view them as implicitly threatening, suspicious, or as a justification for resentment which are foundational aspects of anti-Asian racism.

How odd that it is being suggested that we can strike a blow against racism by encouraging shame and suspicion about successes that are largely shaped by that very racism. This behaviour allows the virus of racism to persist because, paradoxically, the carrot of economic success through academic achievement and a career in the professions is still largely held up as the goal for every other group but Asians who, apparently, should be questioning it. This means that decrying our successes supports the racist perspective that is threatened by, and suspicious of, Asian success.

Tuesday, April 8, 2014

The Zeitgeistenstein

We Have Created A Monster!

It might be fair to say that in recent weeks the normally invisible Asian-American community - and one Asian-American in particular - has received an unusual amount of mainstream attention. I am referring, of course, to the media frenzy initiated by Suey Park via the platform of Twitter. Using the social media platform, Park has brought attention to some very real issues of stereotypes and prejudice experienced by Asians in the US, and in so doing raised some questions about the viability of Twitter as a meaningful tool for activism. A new phrase is even floating around to describe this kind of Twitter activism - "#hashtag" activism.

The first such "campaign" began under the hashtag of "#NotYourAsianSidekick", which received considerable support amongst Asian-American twits - is that the right word? - and was followed more recently by a campaign targeting noted liberal satirist - and apparent anti-racist - Stephen Colbert, under the hashtag "#CancelColbert". For this second campaign, Park was interviewed by the Huffington Post, and received quite a beatdown after basically spewing what could only be described as a racially antagonistic series of comments about white people. The interview did not end well.

Apart from being extremely uncomfortable to watch, the interview shows, perhaps, the limitations of Twitter activism. As Suey Park and the rest of Asian-America has discovered, tweeting can get you a lot of attention, in a short amount of time, and even propel you into the full glare of the mainstream media, but it is what happens once you have been given the space to expound on your beliefs that determines the effectiveness of Twitter. This means that Twitter should be thought of as a means of transport to get you to a place where - once there - one can seize the opportunity to win over the viewing public to your point of view. Clearly, Park faltered - but why?

First and foremost, the idea of "offendedness" that Asian-Americans often cite in their response to media racism has come back to bite us. As I have written about elsewhere - here, and here - this approach to engaging with mainstream America on its media and cultural racism is ultimately futile, because our being offended is ultimately our own problem. What, do we think that America should jump up and down and change its racialized attitudes towards Asians because we are upset? The problem with this approach is that there is an implicit privilege and childishness in this narrative - I am offended and upset, so you have to do something about it!

Of course the irony is that it is often Asian-American self-proclaimed justice activists who chide the Asian-American community for not "owning their privilege" who will display this privileged thinking that their offence should somehow be a great motivating force to create social change. Let them eat cake I say! In short, utilizing the mobilizing power of Twitter to earn yourself a spot on a mainstream show to say "I'm offended" might not be the stuff of social change.

But, strangely, at the end of the day, Park was actually correct about one thing; utilizing slurs that are typically used to demean Asians is the lazy and safe approach for comedians wanting to be edgy - if you want to use racial humor to show that you are not a racist, then utilizing anti-Asian slurs is the one means you can be guaranteed to get away with without being saddled with the stigma of being a racist. Furthermore, this comfort with utilizing these slurs speaks to a bigger picture of comfort with anti-Asian prejudices in American culture in general. Park's mistake was to wade in with fists clenched and swinging, making blanket accusations of racism against an entire group (which Park did against white males) which left little room for Park to actually talk about this very real issue of the tolerance for anti-Asian racism in American culture.

I wrote about the necessity to utilize language and communication in a way that inspires and unites in a previous essay. The gist of that post is that there seems to be a tendency to use combative language in intra-Asian debate and dialogue that typically fails to foster understanding, and more likely fosters mutual distrust and antagonism between various Asian-American demographics. This seems to have become the habit and means by which Asian-Americans engage with one another, and it is in this way that we have created the monster of combative engagement exhibited by Suey Park on the HuffPo show.

Asian-Americans might recognize the manner of Park's engagement as a resemblance to the manner of engagement between Asian-Americans on issues as varied as SCA5, "Asian sexism", and inter-racial dating. The lesson here is that if we hope to engage meaningfully and powerfully with mainstream America about our issues, then we would do well to raise the level of dialogue within our community so that we don't make a habit of coming at people who disagree with us with derogatory labelling or sweeping generalizations.

Meanwhile, one ironic moment to emerge from Park's Folly was that supporters of Colbert's anti-racist satirical approach poured forth in raging reaction with abuse for Suey Park utilizing the kind of anti-Asian racial slurs that America spews out with regularity and casual abandon - but only in the name of humor! In truth these supporters of Colbert seem to be genuinely raging that Park did not seem to comprehend the brilliance of their idol's satire, by utilizing the very behaviour that Colbert seems to genuinely abhor. Maybe the racist (and sexist) abuse being hurled at Park is all part of the joke?

Or maybe the satire is lost on the very people who support this genre of anti-racist satirical comedy, in which case, one has to ask if Colbert's own supporters fail to grasp his message of anti-racism that he delivers via clever satire, then perhaps we need to consider whether such satire in the context of America's racial mire is as harmless as the liberal media would like us to believe?

On a final note, let us spare a thought for the real losers in all of this - Native Americans. The skit on the Colbert show from which the offending tweet was derived was a satire on the ongoing, unapologetic use of a racial slur by the Washington NFL team. Naturally, Native peoples feel demeaned by the casual use of such a slur, particularly its usage in such a brazen manner. Read what they have to say about the whole thing, here and here - as you can see, #CancelColbert didn't help them much.