Tuesday, July 22, 2014

Drake's Impersonation Of Manny Pacquiao

Is It Offensive?

There's a video that has been making the rounds that shows the singer, Drake, impersonating Filipino boxer, Manny Pacquiao. The skit shows Drake - as Pacquiao - in the recording studio talking about his love of music amongst other things and, well, just watch......

What do you think? I thought the skit was hilarious and not in the least offensive or racist, but the video has apparently caused offense amongst some Filipinos. The Facebook site of the Philippine newspaper, Inquirer, has asked readers if they consider the skit to be racist, to which most have answered "no". This link shows some reactions to the skit - mostly positive, but a few not so much. Another Filipino blogger has written a post explaining why he thinks the skit was racist - here - calling it a type of blackface.

Whilst I understand the sentiment of those who are uncomfortable with the skit or have found it racist or offensive I don't agree with them. Where I agree with those who are offended is that we have a responsibility to examine these kinds of representations of Asians in the media because the vast majority of the time those representations are overwhelmingly demeaning and negative. In this case, however, I think that we have to look at the context and the big picture in order to be able to truly assess the intent of the skit.

There is a major difference between the Drake skit and the typical "comedy/satire" that mock and demean Asians. We have to remember that the usual demeaning representation of Asian people de-individuates us, meaning that this kind of racism relies not so much on observation of particular individuals, but rather draws from the library of stereotypical and racist conceptions of Asians - some of which are decades old - that are based more on the product of the mainstream racist imagination than on any real interaction with Asian people. After all, you cannot know Asian people and be their friend if you interact with them the in the way modeled by the media. So, all the "ching-chong" representations of Asians are not based on observations of individuals, but are mostly drawn from mainstream-created unrealistic stereotypes the purpose of which is to demean and dehumanize Asian people.

Drake's impersonation of Manny Pacquiao, by contrast, does the exact opposite to the above. Firstly, it is an impersonation based on the observed behaviour, mannerisms, and speech of a real person and not merely a regurgitation of tired stereotypes. Manny's love for singing is parodied, and his "renaissance-boxer-man" approach to life is cleverly satirized, and it is all delivered using an accurately executed Filipino accent and a well-observed Pacquiao humility. In other words, whoever wrote the piece actually bothered to observe aspects of Pacquiao's character and demeanour and was thus able to produce a clever personalized parody of a real, individual, Asian person instead of the typical dehumanizing allusions to slant eyes, and gibberish language imitation.

That to me is the crux of why the piece was not racist; instead of saying the usual "look! An Asian! Ching-Chong!", the piece was individualizing an Asian man through parody, instead of de-individuating and dehumanizing him. Whether this was by design or if it was merely a happy accident I do not know but I think that, in a sense, the skit  is one of the most normalized depictions of an Asian man that I have ever seen, simply because it is based on the actual observation of a real, individual Asian man.

H/T FlipFob

Thursday, July 17, 2014

Weren't The First Chinese-Americans....

.....Mostly Men?

I came across an article in the Huffington Post today that reports on a photographic exhibition taking place in New York that examines the lives and contributions of the early Chinese immigrants to the US. The exhibition is called "Chinese American: Exclusion/Inclusion" and looks to be an interesting show. The HuffPo article is also very interesting, but in a different way. In light of two recent posts - one dealing with the downgrading of the anti-Asian male violence nature of the Isla Vista killings, the other dealing with the need to promote Asian-American history through culture - the HuffPo article does a good job of illustrating the tendency of commentators to do the former, as well as the necessity to enact the latter.

The article begins thus.....
It wasn't easy being Chinese American in the early days. From exclusionary laws to the racist caricatures that dotted newspaper comic pages, America wasn't exactly laying down the welcome mat.
Although the above statement is true, it is also - paradoxically - false. The falsity occurs in what is omitted in the description of the experiences of the first large-scale Chinese immigrants in America. As I wrote in a previous post - here - the lives of the early Chinese immigrants were characterized by savage violence inflicted upon them by white Americans. This is what I wrote in that post, which I titled "Driven Out - An Asian-American Holocaust"......
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...... 
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....... 
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.
Most of the information for that post was taken from a book - that all Asian-Americans should be made to read - called "Driven Out", and it paints a far more horrific picture of life for America's first Chinese immigrants. Although exclusionary laws and racist caricatures in the media were significant - and serious - issues facing the first Chinese-Americans, the pervasive violence that accompanied it deserves to be remembered, documented, and imprinted, even, in the consciousness of both Asian-Americans and the mainstream.

But why is it necessary to remember these terrible historical episodes when the Chinese men who went through it were themselves reluctant to record these experiences, preferring to forget the horror of it all? Well, firstly, if we forget exactly how extremely difficult it was made for the early Chinese immigrants  to establish communities, and then thrive, then it actually diminishes the successes highlighted in the HuffPo piece. For example, it is an achievement that there was a Chinese-American WWI pilot (highlighted in the HuffPo piece), but if all the community that she came from had to overcome were some mean caricatures and racist immigration laws (which by her very presence, she had gotten around), then her achievement seems less of one.

By contrast if we acknowledge that in order for her to be able achieve what she achieved, her antecessors had to resolve to carry on after being violently expelled from homes and businesses that they and taken years and decades to build, and watching friends, family, and acquaintances, being rounded up, beaten, and murdered, in the process, lends a whole new level of significance to her success. Overcoming racist caricatures and immigration laws to achieve success is good, overcoming a six-decade period in which your community was were subjected to expulsions from dozens of towns, pogroms, ethnic cleansing, and suggestions that they should be placed in "enclosures", is far more significant achievement.

The second reason to remember the violence perpetrated against the first Chinese-Americans is that we can see echoes of the relationship between anti-Chinese/Asian political rhetoric, racist media depictions, and racist violence and behaviours, that is still with us today. Often our racial experiences are shaped by rhetoric driven by political tensions between the US and some Asian country that manifests as racial hostility or violence against Americans of Asian descent. Vincent Chin was one such victim of this process. It is possible that political rhetoric empowers and enables the expression of casual racism against Asians in the media which in turn empowers and promotes demeaning racist behaviour and perhaps even violence towards Asian people. This process was a problem for the first Chinese Americans -with deadly results - and it remains a significant issue today, and one that we still struggle to deal with. This is a disturbing reminder that however far we think we have come as a community, there still exists in America a cultural phenomenon and process in which politics and media combine to shape behaviours and attitudes towards Asians that are still largely hostile, dehumanizing, and casually racist.

The third and final reason to remember the violence perpetrated against the first Chinese is not to do entirely with white racism, but has more to do with how we tend to collude (both intentionally and unintentionally) with the mainstream to marginalize uncomfortable history and those who experienced it. The facts of history tell us that the first Chinese communities in America were made up almost entirely of Chinese men. Of course, what this means is that the vast, vast, vast majority of the victims of the expulsions, round-ups, beatings, tortures, and murders, committed by white-American mobs all along the West Coast were men - Asian men. What this means is that by not making mention of this period of ethnic cleansing against the Chinese we are erasing one of the most monumental episodes in history that lies at the root of and defines America's cultural conceptions and attitudes towards Asian men (just think of all the Asian men we still see being slaughtered by the dozen in American films), but we are also erasing - and as a consequence, dishonouring - the bravery, steel, and determination (qualities often associated with masculinity) exhibited by these 19th century Chinese men.

They are the ones who were violently expelled from their own homes, and who did not give up but instead starting again somewhere else, sometimes several times over. They were the one's who survived beatings and violent round-ups, and witnessed their friends being murdered, but who persevered. By their perseverance and bravery, these Asian men made possible the successes of later generations. If they had not fought back against their persecutors, there would have been no "later generations" of Chinese or Asians in America worth talking about. Yet, their story is marginalized. The reasons for this may be complicated.

Some of us may have internalized America's refusal to associate Asian men with qualities of bravery, perseverance and masculinity, and are, thus, unable or unwilling to view this period of Asian history in that light. Some of us may also have internalized America's discomfort with strong Asian men, the idea of which may seem threatening. Some of us may simply be ignorant of this history. More disturbing, perhaps, is the possibility that the story of these Chinese men, who overcame extreme brutality, is somehow a victim of the Asian-American divide that places the genders in competition for a share of mainstream attention and acceptance. It could be that it does not fit the narrative to acknowledge that Asian men laid the groundwork for the subsequent growth and thriving of Asian-Americans - the preferred narrative and the one most readily accepted by the mainstream (i.e. white America), the one that defines Asian men almost entirely by their attitudes towards, or treatment of (real or made-up) Asian women.

The result is that we are left with an Asian-American culture that largely avoids the uncomfortable episode of ethnic cleansing that targeted the first Chinese immigrants but also continued in the form of pogroms and race-riots that targeted subsequent communities of mainly male Filipino and Japanese immigrants. By allowing ourselves to forget, allow our community to be ignorant of, or deliberately downplay the experience and history of Asian men overcoming decades of racial violence, then we are guilty of colluding with white supremacy. Firstly, we are basically allowing Asian-American history and thus Asian-American culture to be feminized in an unhealthy way - a type of feminization that does not uphold Asian feminine power, but rather patronizingly views Asian feminine power as somewhat passive, cute, and girly. Secondly, we are allowing mainstream sensibilities and apathetic acquiescence to racial stereotypes to be the main factor in defining the elements that are important to the cultural development of Asian-Americans and, hence, the factors that drive our identity.

It could be that the resilience of these early Chinese immigrants does not fit our own mainstream caricature-derived notions of Asian men and their masculinity. The Chinese men who overwhelmingly comprised the first Chinese immigrant communities, had to display a kind of courage and depth of determination that one would not believe possible if we were to take our references for Asian male masculinity from America's cultural depictions. Consider this; over a six-decade period, these men were targeted by mobs and individuals for violence and abuse. They were dragged out of their homes, beaten, their homes ransacked and their belongings stolen, then often their homes and places of business were burned to the ground, sometimes with the Chinese men in them.

Those who were not murdered were rounded up, and marched at gunpoint - sometimes for miles without being given food or water - and were forcibly put onto trains and ships where they were told never to return to the towns that had just expelled them. Now, remember that none of this even speaks to the daily occurrence of racism that they endured - like verbal harassment, personal violence, white customers taking goods and services from their stores and refusing to pay, not to mention racial murders, separate from those committed during the expulsions, that were never investigated, or when they were, resulted in no charges or only perfunctory sentencing for the perpetrators.

Our racist concept of Asian masculinity that is America's culturally appropriate way of viewing Asian men that we have internalized, might make us believe that the response of the Chinese men might be to slink away in fear, complaining unintelligibly in funny ching-chong accents, and cower in fear. Yet, this is not the case. Even after being threatened with death - by local politicians as well as local labor thugs - if they returned to their burned out homes and communities, these Chinese men, did just that to reclaim their belongings, homes, and even to seek justice from their attackers. Others simply re-settled elsewhere and started over, arming themselves for defense. The real nuance here is that even in that time, these Chinese men found ways to negotiate with their white neighbours - some of whom were sympathetic, others not so much - and build a strong connection and even community that included non-Chinese friends and benefactors that helped the communities to survive. These Chinese men were smart as well as tough.

This is how it was possible for Asian-America to exist and we have Asian men to thank for it and the subsequent successes that we have come to enjoy. Let's try to remember them.

Thursday, July 10, 2014

Background Noises.

The Asian Male Victims Of Elliot Rodger.

I have held off on in-depth commentary on the Elliot Rodger murder case for several weeks out of a desire to not take advantage of the suffering of grieving family and friends of the victims and push an agenda of any sort. In the first few days of the killings it seemed as though some observers were paying sympathetic lip-service to those who suffered, only to seemingly push a political or sociological agenda of some kind. From gun-control and white privilege, to pick-up artists and Asian misogyny, the analyses flowed freely. I'm not saying that people were wrong in their analyses, just that all too often, victims and those they leave behind, become the background story in their own murder case.

Anyone acquainted with my blog should not be surprised that in the Rodger murders, it is the Asian male victims who seem to have been really, really, pushed to the background in the various analyses of their murders. Of the three Asian men murdered by Rodger, two, Cheng Yuan "James" Hong and Weihan "David" Wang, were his roommates, and the other, George Chen, was a friend of the other two who was in the wrong place at the wrong time. The manner of the men's deaths warrants some attention - all three were stabbed to death, with some reports suggesting that the stabbings were so violent that they describe the bodies as having been mutilated. Elliot Rodger seems to have really hated them, doesn't he? As this article suggests, Rodger's hate was so intense, a single murder weapon did not suffice......
.....evidence taken from the apartment makes them think that Rodger may have used a machete, knives and a hammer to kill their sons.
That article also suggests that the parents of the three Asian male victims are also noticing how their son's (and the other victim's) deaths have received scarce interest in the media. It is of little surprise to me that the violent deaths of three Asian men seems to barely rouse the consideration or interest of the mainstream media, but what is saddening is that the Asian media itself has offered few analyses of the specific racial dynamics surrounding the murders. Although mention has been made of the specific cultural emasculation of Asian men and how this might, could, or did, drive Rodger's violence, it seems that the angle that Asian observers are most comfortable with is the narrative that highlights how Asian male misogyny is being fostered by gender specific anti-Asian racism. Then of course, there are the circling justice activists owning Rodger's "Asian-ness" seemingly excitedly relieved over another example of how we are absolutely not the model minority.

None of this does anything to address the fact that even in death, the three Asian male murder victims - specifically the racial dynamics surrounding their murders - are largely rendered invisible and marginalized in the tragedy of their own demise by both the mainstream and Asian-American media alike. Just as in life, Chen, Wang, and Hong, might have noticed that our American culture had little room for empathy or consideration for the experiences of men who looked like them, in death they are similarly denied a cultural voice. I can understand the mainstream media's comfort with maintaining the empathetic distance from Asian men - after all, that is what they do - less understandable is that the Asian-American media has dropped the ball on honoring the racial aspects of the men's murders and modelling the kind of behaviour towards our own that we demand of the mainstream.

It is an interesting question why as a community we have seemingly been unable or unwilling to attempt any in-depth analysis of the dynamics involved in these men's deaths. One possibility is that we are so attuned to a culture that absolutely denies - or only grudgingly affords - a specific voice for the Asian male experience that we ourselves find it difficult to find the empathy within ourselves that one might expect would naturally emerge. On the other hand, as I have written about in a previous post there is a sentiment that discussions on the experience of Asian men are only credible if they are included as part of an all-encompassing anthology that references and alludes to issues outside of the issue of Asian men's experiences, such as Asian women's issues, the black experience, or some other random issue. Given what I observed in that linked post, it comes as no surprise to me that a racially driven murder directed at Asian men, by a perpetrator whose hate was so intense that he apparently mutilated their bodies, is only approached in a holistic manner, that overstretches the narrative such that the specific act of violence towards Asian men is downplayed. That, to me is the fundamental issue here.

It seems to have escaped our notice that the brutality of the murders of Chen, Hong, and Wang, bears an eerie resemblance to the kind of casual brutal violence perpetrated in the racist fantasies of American film and television. The violent stabbings of these three Asian men has an eerie echo of the frenzied baseball bat killing of Vincent Chin, and the more recent biker mob frenzy of violence against an Asian-American motorist. This type of frenzied anti-Asian violence seems largely reserved for Asian men and is a concept that America is extremely comfortable with - it is common to see Asian men's brains being bashed in, and their bodies being shot to pieces, or the life being squeezed out of them, in some of America's most popular cultural productions. The disturbing part is that at least Elliot Rodger could claim insanity, or cognitive handicap. American culture, on the other hand, depicts frenzied violence against Asian men as an often justified norm. But we, as Asian-Americans, can't really talk about that because it leaves out issues faced by other groups or is somehow marginalizing other identities to focus on Asian men and the cultural fantasies of violence against them that occasionally bleed over into real-life.

What this means for the Asian men butchered by Elliot Rodger is that they have to make do with being the background figures of their own tragedy. The fact that the brutal manner of their deaths is one that is played out over and over again in fiction as well as fact in American culture - in which violent, savage, deaths inflicted on Asian men is normalized and, perhap, even celebrated - is a subject largely missing from the commentaries. Most commentaries that I have seen have neatly skirted around the subject - for the mainstream to do so is expected, for Asian-Americans to do so is inexplicable.

Tuesday, July 1, 2014

Reclaiming Asian History

One Story at A Time.

A call went out a while back from photographer, Corky Lee, asking for volunteers to participate in a photo-shoot that coincided with a decision by the Department of Labor to induct the Chinese rail workers who constructed the US railways back in the 19th century into their Hall Of Honor. Once the railroad was completed, the Chinese laborers were excluded from participating in the official photograph ceremony, and their contribution was more or less wiped from the historical and, more importantly, the cultural consciousness. So this is a long overdue acknowledgement of the Chinese contribution to American history and development.

In addition to the above mentioned efforts to bring Chinese railroad workers to historical recognition, other articles highlight the lack of historical recognition for Filipino activists in gaining rights for farm workers, the poorly understood and recognized atrocities of American imperial aggression in the Philippines in the late 19th and early 20th centu─▒ries. Also, recently, Canadian authorities issued an official apology for racist policies of the past, and in New York's Chinatown a street was renamed in memorial of Private Danny Chen, the US soldier who committed suicide after being racially bullied by fellow soldiers.

I am always a little shocked whenever I am reminded that Asian-American history is so invisible, misunderstood, or its general facts and details unknown, outside of the Asian-American community. For a country like the US - which is the most significant power in the Asia/Pacific region - to be basically ignorant of the Asians in their midst is frightening to contemplate. As a nation and leader in the entire Pacific basin, our policies and attitudes towards the various races of Asia can - and do - have significant repercussions in the region. Yet, America - as evidenced by its cultural dehumanization of Asians - is largely content to view Asian-Americans through the purveyance of demeaning stereotypes and certainly not through the accurate or empathetic cultural understanding of their historical experience.

There may be a number of reasons for why Asian-American history and historical experience remains so invisible and unknown in the popular cultural consciousness of America. First and foremost, there is little empathy amongst mainstream America's cultural gatekeepers for Asian subjects in general - seeming to prefer promoting demeaning images of Asians outside of any historical (or social) context at all. Secondly, Americans may have a general ignorance or general lack of interest in history of any kind. This second point is of particular significance because without a grounding in the facts of history, it may be via the platform of popular culture that mainstream ideas about history in general and Asian-American history in particular are being generated.

This is important because the third possible reason for Asian-American history being so invisible and unknown could be that Asian-Americans themselves may not, to any large degree, be promoting Asian-American history through creative cultural endeavours. Simply put, Asian-American artists seem to not be pursuing many creative historical narratives that tackle, or allude to, the extremely uncomfortable (for mainstream America) developmental pattern of violent and xenophobic anti-Asian prejudices that over the years have evolved into the kind of casual, "second-nature", anti-Asian bigotry of the present.

In order for the Asian-American historical and racial experience to be taken seriously and become integrated into the fabric and consciousness of the wider American mainstream it it is up to Asian-Americans to themselves integrate those same experiences into their own cultural consciousness. In other words, if we want our Asian-American historical experiences to become simply American experiences then we have to set about promoting that history. Of course, this presents a significant challenge for Asian-American artists of how to produce creative work that is original in scope, sufficiently interesting to attract a reasonable audience, but also stays true to the Asian-American historical narrative in such a way that it might appeal to audiences beyond the Asian community itself.

Those who think these "audiences beyond the Asian community" is a reference to white people, then give yourself a slap, because white people are not the only audience beyond the Asian community that could be potential audiences for Asian-American arts. In fact, an exploration of the Asian-American historical experience through cultural endeavours that seeks specifically to attract audiences from other minorities may well be more likely to be successful since such work might - if it were to be historically accurate - strike a chord of empathy with the shared experience of prejudice that is common to all of America's ethnic minorities.

This approach could solve two problems; firstly it would enable Asian-Americans to explore their own history of oppression at the hands of white supremacy without having to compromise historical truth in order to appeal to a white audience that simply might not want to be reminded of past brutalities committed in their name. Secondly, it seems logical that other minorities who have themselves experienced oppression would be more open to viewing historical narratives that echo their own narratives of oppression. The outcome of such an approach could be a major game-changer for Asian-Americans in that it could open up opportunities for artists that are not forthcoming from the white mainstream, but even more importantly it could serve as the basis for greater unity, understanding, and cooperation between ethnic minorities that could have positive repercussions beyond the artist/audience dynamic. In some ways, this approach is a movement towards a counter-culture that can challenge mainstream domination and control of the Asian-American historical narrative.

To summarize, true mainstreaming of the Asian-American historical experience can only occur if and when we make it integral to our own cultural endeavours. This means that Asian-American artists need to concern themselves with exploring our historical narrative through culture as a means of cementing our place in the cultural consciousness of America. Furthermore, by striving to appeal primarily to the non-white mainstream - as opposed to the white mainstream which we seemingly tend to do - we could be laying the groundwork for greater understanding and commonality between us and other oppressed groups, whilst simultaneously slowly mainstreaming our history.

Furthermore, the whims and tastes of white audiences have often been cited as explanations and excuses for the invisibility and stereotyping of Asian-Americans in the media and, thus, may itself have served as a deterrent for Asian artists who have sought to explore Asian-American history. This means that it is possible that the only avenue to disseminate the knowledge of our historical experience beyond the classroom and into the popular consciousness is by prioritizing its appeal to other minorities, as opposed to the white mainstream.