Tuesday, April 21, 2015

Sorting The Wheat From The Chaff

Or, Racial Experiences Suck - Who Knew?

I came across an interesting article from the Huffington Post written by a guy named Mason Hsieh in which he describes his experience of being asked the question "Where are you really from?". Hsieh does a great job outlining the racist presumptions that makes this line of questioning uncomfortable for Asians, as well as the socially inappropriate practice (bordering on harassment) of interrogating someone about their national or racial origins after they have already explained to you several times over that they are, in fact, American through and through.

Hsieh describes the incident thusly....
A few months back, I was at a party and was introduced to a random, white girl (let's call her Tammy). We hit it off relatively okay and began that boring, yet inevitable, game of "tell me about yourself." .........Everything was going fine until she asked me: "So, where are you from?" The conversation went as follows: 
Tammy: So, where are you from?Me: I'm from California.T: But where are you really from?M: I'm from the Bay Area.T: But, like, actually. Where are you really from?M: Oakland.T: Okay, what I mean is your face is not an "American" face.M: Excuse me?T: Like, your eyes... 
At this point, I simply fell silent and walked away from the conversation.
Strangely, even though Hsieh raised many pertinent points about the racial presumptions and ingrained racialized thinking that makes such conversations a common, uncomfortable, and sometimes a potentially dangerous experience, I can't help but feel as though he missed a golden opportunity to advance his own sense of personal empowerment from the situation.

I concur with Hsieh's views about the racial presumptions that drive such interactions, yet his own presumptions about the intent of people who engage in this line of racial interrogation is where he lets himself down both in the article and in the moment of his interaction with the interrogator. Although he acknowledges that he cannot know "Tammy's" intent, he continues as though he has judged her intent to be negative for no apparent reason other than it left him with negative feelings. Worse still, he then goes silent and then storms off, leaving Tammy's presumptions unchallenged.

To me, this defeatist behaviour is the natural, detrimental outcome of Asian-America's feminized anti-racist narrative that promotes feelings of offendedness as the foundational point from which counter-racist  commentary proceeds. As I have tried to explain many times before, our hurt feelings and sense of affront at meda slights and other hate crimes are un-compelling and un-inspirational as a means to galvanize empathy and hopelessly inadequate as a philosophical point of view to provide a strong unifying force for the community that can make coherent and compelling commentaries expounding on our racial experiences.

Amongst adults and in the world of the mature minded, feelings - hurt or otherwise - are things to be managed, and those who operate from emotion and make their feelings the subject of public debate are - often justifiably - viewed with suspicion and lose credibility. In short, Asian-Americans just don't have the privilege of making their feelings a matter of concern. We don't have the option of storming off and leaving the "fight" and we certainly don't have the privilege of allowing racialized or racist experiences go unchallenged in the moment.

To my way of thinking, Hsieh would have better helped himself if he had conveyed some of the ideas and feelings that he wrote about in his piece to the person who had actually caused him the distress. By storming off, he fundamentally conceded defeat by leaving the "floor" to the "offender" - at the end of the day the last man (or woman) standing is the one whose worldview prevails.

Don't get me wrong here, I'm not saying Hsieh should have been aggressive and responded with anger to his interrogation, but he may well have felt a greater sense of personal empowerment if he had stood his ground and made his case rather that allow himself to be driven by emotion. This is where the intent of the supposed micro-aggressor becomes important. To my mind, these situations provide a myriad of opportunities for personal growth in which we can educate those who are well-meaning, but conditioned to react this way to Asians, or conversely, we can call out and confront those who understand and utilize racialized presumptions to engage in what amounts to harassment or bullying of Asians. It is well and truly a process of separating the wheat from the chaff and that is something that has to be done in the moment on, unfortunately, a daily basis.

Some might argue that Asians should not have to educate people out of their racist conditioning and I would understand the sentiments behind that. Reality, however, has a way foiling such high-brow ideological pronouncements. By storming off and not seeing out these kinds of situations through to their conclusions, Hsieh and any Asian-Americans who react in this way are allowing such racialized conditioning to persist unchecked and unchallenged.

It doesn't really seem like it even comes down to "re-educating" people. It is more of engaging in a process of enquiry in which you assume the responsibility to shape and define the racial dialogue in your own personal spaces. In other words, you will be the one being educated and all of the ambiguity that surrounds these kinds of day-to-day interactions will fall away and you will be in a better position to judge the intent of those who approach you with this kind of interrogation. It could be that if one chooses to engage rather than storm off that one could end up with a friend who examines their presumptions. Conversely, the situation could turn into a full-on hate-crime. Either way, at least you will know where it is you stand and, hopefully, have a clearer picture of the most appropriate response for the moment. Plus, the article one writes about the encounter later is sure to be far more interesting.

To conclude, I want to emphasize that such situations are always awkward and knowing how to deal with racism is extremely difficult, particularly in the moment and when the intent is deliberately - or not - ambiguous. But that is merely an accurate summary of the Asian racial experience; there is an ambiguity about Asians as an ethnic minority that places us firmly outside of the considerations of both side of the racial equation. This ambiguity results in a wide gamut of outcomes ranging from awkward questioning and racial slurring, to employment discrimination and violent hate-crimes. So I don't fault Hsieh if he simply was at a loss at how to deal in the moment - we have all been there, including myself. It is a process and sometimes one fails.

It is in our interest to move away from the approach of haughty offence and wounded racial pride as foundations of our commentary and begin to think about and relate how we engaged in such situations so that we shed light on what it requires for us to have the kind of normal social and personal interactions that others take for granted.

Monday, April 13, 2015


The Curious Case Of Peter Yu.

Peter Yu is a Chinese national living and (previously) studying at Vassar College in upstate New York. Athletically and academically gifted, Yu was a well above average student who was popular with his college peers and seemed to be enjoying a fulfilling campus life. All that changed back in 2012 when female student and fellow rowing-team member,  Mary Claire Walker, accused Yu of rape. Undoubtedly, rape is not a light matter and although I do not have access to the details of the incident and would never seek to pass judgment from a distance, there are aspects of the case that are disturbing to say the least.

According to the accusation made by Walker, Yu had non-consensual sex with her in his dorm room - taking advantage of her state of inebriation. Walker's story is that....
[she and Yu] consumed alcohol at a team party in February 2012; one of Walker’s friends seems to have thought she was very drunk. After the party ended, Walker accompanied Yu back to his room. They started to have intercourse, but Yu’s roommate entered the room and interrupted them; Walker then said she didn’t want to go any further, and she left.
Yu was subsequently expelled from Vassar by a college tribunal for the alleged rape. Yet, the story is not so simple as it at first might seem.

Walker's accusations were made almost exactly one year to the day that the incident was alleged to have taken place (a significant point which I will address later), which doesn't diminish the possibility of her claims, per se, but it does cast doubt on them. In the intervening period - an entire year - Walker neither made a police report, nor sought any kind of medical exam in the immediate aftermath of the alleged rape. In fact, she seemed to have quite merrily exchanged Facebook messages with Yu, apologizing for her own behaviour (Yu was apparently a virgin and Walker seemed to believe that she had taken advantage of him), and ensuing messages between the two of them were cordial if not downright friendly - Walker even sending a message the following day that she had had a "wonderful time" and later, inviting him to dinner.

Although, the trauma of rape makes these kinds of actions entirely plausible, there is enough ambiguity to cast significant doubt on the accusations. But that isn't even the main problem with the case; the manner in which the accusations were made and the college tribunal's actions in response have left a major question mark over the fairness the treatment of Yu and the clear possibility that his legal and civil rights have been trampled upon. Within days of the accusations, a college tribunal had was convened and  less that two-and-a-half weeks later, Yu had been found guilty and expelled.

According to several reports, and Yu's lawsuit, the Vassar college tribunal had all the trappings of a kangaroo court in which a guilty verdict would be the only outcome regardless of the evidence. The deck was stacked against Yu for several reasons. First and foremost, his accuser was the daughter of a long-time professor at the college and the tribunal consisted entirely of colleagues of his accuser's father despite Yu's requests for a student to be on the judging panel. Yu alleges that the short amount of time between the charges being filed and his tribunal offered him little opportunity to mount a reasonable defense or have legal representation, and furthermore, he alleges that the tribunal did not allow cross-examination of his accuser nor did it give suitable credence to the cordial exchange of e-mails between Walker and himself which would seem to be significant counter-evidence to the accusations.

In light of this, the timing of the accusation has, for some, come under suspicion. Vassar has a statute of limitations of sorts which gives alleged victims one year from the date of any incident to file a complaint. By filing a complaint on the final day that the school permits claims to be made, it is suspected that Walker cleverly avoided a counter-claim that she, in fact, was the sexual predator. Walker's e-mails in which she expressed regret for "taking advantage" of Yu - who was a virgin at the time - when they were both extremely drunk are a testament to this possibility.

With the deck stacked so heavily against Yu, it is no surprise that he was found guilty by the tribunal and subsequently expelled. Yu has since applied to and been rejected by several schools and told not to bother applying by several others. The harm to the man's life has been huge and to make matters worse his lawsuit has recently been dismissed.

Surprisingly - or maybe not - Yu's case has gone largely unnoticed and ignored by Asian-American media and advocates. To me there is more than sufficient cause to view the way Yu has been treated as a major miscarriage of justice. I cannot know if Yu's race - or nationality - played a role in his case, but there are disturbing echoes of racially inflected false rape accusation from the past in which a white woman's mere allegations and a rigged jury has been enough to ensure guilty verdicts for minority men.

The silence of Asian-America is all the more acute given the apparent fearful ambivalence towards Asian men's sexuality of some in the Asian-American Progressive Reactivist Wannabe movement. Seemingly ever-ready to frame any hint of a strong Asian male sexuality as somehow threatening or implicitly unhealthy, Asian-America once again throws the baby out with the bathwater with its inability to offer a nuanced position on issues relating to Asian men's sexuality. Perhaps the intellectual process is unable to get past the fact that Yu's case cannot be framed as part of the black/white narrative that causes Asian advocacy to draw an ontological blank. Regardless, it is disturbing that Asian advocacy and commentators have little to say about Asian men's sexuality unless the sıbject is framed as fundamentally negative or reinforces racial stereotypes of the angry Asian sexual predator.

In the bigger picture, Yu's case is part of a larger problem of campus rape and how colleges are addressing the issues. Schools have been accused of not taking rape allegations with enough seriousness or sensitivity and there is a cultural history of treating rape victims poorly by authorities so in some ways, efforts by colleges to soften the process for victims has merit and may be necessary. The Yu case, however, seems to go far beyond this and there are reasons to suspect that Vassar's tribunal process denied Yu any chance of a reasonable and rightful defense and may have allegedly been biased in favor of a fellow professor's daughter.