Tag Archives: Asian American

Somebody On TV

29 Jun

The news of Ann Curry’s departure from the Today Show hit me surprisingly hard. I get most of my news online, and I almost never tune in to Today or any of its competitors. Sure, I take a look now and then. After all, these shows are among the drivers of American culture – they help to shape the American worldview.

I guess that’s why losing Ann Curry as a host of one of the more watched TV news and entertainment programs felt like a loss to me. Asian Americans are next to invisible in popular media, especially strong, intelligent Asian American women.

Each time an Asian American appears on TV, even as a weather reporter or occasional guest, it feels like a bit of a win. The more visible Asians are, the logic goes, the harder it is to marginalize or vilify us, even when, as in the case of Ann Curry, being Asian and addressing issues of special interest to Asian Americans isn’t the main event.

These appearances remind me of a time when any person of color appearing on TV was cause for excitement. As a child growing up in Hawai’i, I still remember neighbors yelling, “somebody on TV!” anytime a person of color popped up on a national program. As a kid, I was aware of the Civil Rights, Black Power, and farm worker movements because features on black and brown people as real life leaders on national TV were special events.

But my favorite somebodies on TV were people like Gail Fisher who played the character Peggy Fair on Mannix, and Connie Chung, a woman who was in charge of news, making her seem to me to be one of the smartest people in the world. And I remember cheering on Latina tennis star Rosie Casals. I was proud of her victories and inspired by her bold belief that she could climb to the top of a very white and male sport.

Of all the somebodies on TV, my favorites were Kam Fong Chun and Gilbert Lani Kauhi who played Chin Ho and Kono on Hawaii Five-0. I paid very little attention to the details of their characters. To me, what mattered was that they were like us, but they dressed up for work in a fancy office. They helped me see that there was a world outside the little plantation town I grew up in that included people who looked like family, expanding my imagination of the things I could be and the places I could go.

Mind you, this was Hawaii. Even in the 1960s there were lots of images of people of color on local TV, especially on the news. But national TV was special. Even as a child, I understood that what appeared on national TV shaped the nation’s consciousness. Moreover, I understood that the absence of people of color in white dominated media was an indication of something deeply wrong with how we were viewed by society.

It may not be the 60s anymore, but Ann Curry is still somebody on TV to many Asian Americans. That’s why the criticisms driving her dismissal – being cold, aloof, too remote – mirroring stereotypes concerning Asian women, feel personal, hurtful.

So, while I can honestly say I don’t give a rip about the Today Show, and I certainly know nothing about Ann Curry as a person, about her values or her personal commitments, I feel sad that she’s being cast aside. In a world where few visible leaders look like us, people like Ann Curry are important markers of the possible.

Constructing Race: Pew Center Report On Asians

21 Jun

The June 19 release of the Pew Research Center report, The Rise of Asian Americans is generating buzz that is, frankly, giving me a headache.

The report summary opens with the following:

Asian Americans are the highest-income, best-educated and fastest-growing racial group in the United States. They are more satisfied than the general public with their lives, finances and the direction of the country, and they place more value than other Americans do on marriage, parenthood, hard work and career success….

Asian Americans trace their roots to any of dozens of countries in the Far East, Southeast Asia and the Indian subcontinent. Each country of origin subgroup has its own unique history, culture, language, religious beliefs, economic and demographic traits, social and political values, and pathways into America.

But despite often sizable subgroup differences, Asian Americans are distinctive as a whole, especially when compared with all U.S. adults, whom they exceed not just in the share with a college degree (49% vs. 28%), but also in median annual household income ($66,000 versus $49,800) and median household wealth ($83,500 vs. $68,529).

The National Council of Asian Pacific Americans (NCAPA) responded with a statement summed up by the line,

We need to move beyond one-dimensional narratives of exceptionalism about Asian Americans in order to better understand and address the diverse experiences facing our community members…

NCAPA’s response is a good start, but I’ll take it a step further.

The problem with the Pew report is that it constructs an idea about race that is very problematic. Bear with me here and I’ll explain.

The racial category Asian lumps together widely diverse groups with no common language, phenotype, or culture who come to the U.S. under vastly different circumstances. How, exactly, do you arrive at a “distinctive whole” from which you can deduce an average experience of, say, Japanese Americans and Laotian Americans?

The first wave of Japanese immigrants to the U.S. came through Hawaii in the 1800s as contract laborers lured by lies about grand opportunity and riches. The more recent wave of Japanese immigrants is being recruited to the U.S. as highly skilled workers or business investors.

The vast majority of Laotian immigrants on the other hand, came to the U.S. since 1973 as refugees of war. Here’s what that means for them, according to the Laotian American organization Legacies of War,

From 1964 to 1973, the U.S. dropped more than two million tons of ordnance over Laos during 580,000 bombing missions—equal to a planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years. The bombing was part of the U.S. Secret War in Laos to support the Royal Lao Government…

Today, about one third of Laos, a country about the size of Utah, is contaminated with unexploded ordinance. Civilian contact with these unexploded weapons has resulted in 20,000 casualties since the war ended.

How do you mash together Laotian war refugees and Japanese business investors and come up with an average or mean experience?

Much ink is also spilled on the subject of how highly educated the new wave of Asian immigrants are. But this statistic reflects bias within the immigration system as much as anything else. Visas are fast tracked for highly skilled workers and business investors. The elite immigrants who come to the U.S. on these visas are from economically diverse countries, many with extraordinary levels of poverty. Yet the suggestion is that high levels of education are the product of racial or cultural characteristics.

So let’s get it straight. The term “Asian” in the U.S. was chosen by Asian American activists as an alternative to the pejorative “Oriental.” The Oriental is the creation of Europeans for whom the Orient was an object of curiosity and a source of riches to be studied and exploited. In modern times, the study of the Orient, especially in contrast with the civilized world of the Occident (aka Europe), solidified an idea of Orientals as exotic, potentially dangerous Others.

Activists back in the 1960s decided they wanted to reject the label Oriental and call themselves Asian American instead. Subsequent generations of Asian Americans have gathered as a coalition under the Asian American banner in order to resist being treated like Orientals. But don’t get it twisted, the idea of an Asian or Oriental race is a creation of white people, not of Asians.

There are many problems with the Pew report. Chief among them,

  1.  lumping us together tends to trivialize the very real service needs of those who are less well-off and,
  2. reports like this are powerful molders of Asian racial identity, popularizing ideas about Asian traits, capacities (and threats), and, of course, always in comparison with the supposed failures of Blacks, Latinos, and Native Americans.

On that first point, Hmong and Vietnamese immigrants are among the poorest ethnic groups in the U.S. There are real consequences to characterizing them as part of a “distinctive whole” with more successful groups when it comes time to seek funding for poverty alleviation programs.

That’s not to say that Asians don’t enjoy racial privilege over other groups of people of color. We do. The widely divergent histories of how different people of color entered the U.S. (or in the case of Native Americans, how the U.S. entered them) have resulted in very different contemporary realities. But studies like this marginalize those important historical differences and strengthen racist stereotypes and racism, not just against Asians, but against all our interests.

Asians are the Wedge

29 May

On Sunday before Memorial Day, I tuned in to MSNBC to watch Melissa Harris-Perry lead a discussion about Asian American voters. The show started out with some promise. But as it progressed, I found myself descending into a rant. By the end, I was full-on pissed. For all of the good intentions, one subtle but unbroken thread ran through the discussion – Asian Americans are the model minority.

In response to the relative absence of Asian American stars in Democratic Party politics, panelist William Schneider said, “…they have not relied on politics to get ahead as many other disadvantaged groups have…”

So how is it that we supposedly got ahead? Schneider used the example of another panelist, comedian Margaret Cho, citing her “talent and determination” as the ingredients of her success. He also talked about Asian American success in “business, professions… science…” all, apparently, without working the political system.

I’m not sure what qualifies Mr. Schneider to speak to the issues of Asian Americans, but he’s wrong. Asian Americans are politically active. Asian Americans have also ridden the coattails of the Civil Rights Movement, benefiting from the Voting Rights Act, Affirmative Action and The Higher Education Act of 1965 among other gains.

While we can’t claim these achievements as our own, they were won through political protest and are among the ingredients of our supposed “success.” We did not just pull ourselves up by our bootstraps.

In about 15 minutes, I saw a demonstration of the ubiquity of anti-Asian racism. It is so commonplace, in fact, that we don’t even see it as racism, making it a powerful wedge dividing Asians from other people of color while maintaining white dominance of politics.

Here’s what I mean -

First, let’s get it straight. The model minority myth is just that, a myth.

The myth first entered the popular consciousness of Americans in the 1960s, shortly after the passage of federal civil rights legislation. It started with a 1966 New York Times article, “Success Story: Japanese American Style” that argued that Japanese Americans, just 21 years after virtually the entire community was interned, had risen to success through quietly working hard and making sacrifices to create opportunities for their children.

U.S. News and World Report’s “Success Story of One Minority Group in U.S.” in 1968, and Newsweek’s “Success Story: Outwhiting the Whites” published in 1971, sealed the deal.

The model minority myth is rooted in the backlash against the Black civil rights struggle. When Federal legislation resulted in programs like Affirmative Action, the media abruptly pivoted from Asians as sneaky foreigners to the model minority stereotype. The myth served the purpose of isolating African Americans in particular, and provided cover to those using coded racism to attack social programs and civil rights gains. The myth allows conservative policy makers to characterize these gains as dependency breeding crutches.

Ever since, the model minority myth has been one of the pillars of color blind racism.

The reasoning goes something like this: Asians (who, after all, are people of color) relied upon hard work and cooperation to overcome racism, and that’s made us especially successful. In fact, overcoming racism through hard work rather than through protest and policy making is the true sign of character, so taking away social programs and civil rights protections is the compassionate thing to do.

On the flip side, the model minority stereotype also makes racial inequity for Asian Americans invisible.

Here’s an example. Asian American household income was higher than white household income in 2011. However, per capita income of Asian Americans is lower than for whites. Asian households make more because they contain more earners, probably as a result of living in households that benefit from the retirement incomes of elders.

More troubling, according to the report A Community of Contrasts, the 2011 per capita income of Taiwanese Americans was $38,312. However, per capita income of Hmong Americans was only $10,949. That makes the Hmong the lowest per capita earners by ethnicity among all Americans. And Vietnamese, Cambodians, Laotians, and Bangladeshis are pretty much in the same boat, earning even less than African Americans.

Worse yet, the model minority myth is dehumanizing. Casting us as super human is the flip side of casting other people of color as less than human, making all of us strangers to a normative standard that is white.

As long as we are treated as exotic others, the script can be switched, and Asians may find ourselves back where we started, cast again as foreign invaders. Either way, we’re still a wedge in the hands of white supremacy.

Regarding Blackness is the Fulcrum

16 May

Blackness is the Fulcrum continues to be, by far, the most read post on Race Files. Many of the conversations I’ve had about it begin with the assumption that Asian Americans are less likely or even unlikely to step up on issues of racial justice. The suggestion is that I’m an exception to a rule that generally applies to Asian Americans who, a few imply, get off easy where race is concerned.

I think this deserves a response.

I didn’t mean to imply that Asian Americans are opting out of fighting racism. Neither did I mean to present myself as exceptional in my concern about racism.

I’m no exception. The reality is that many Asian Americans are leaders in the movement to win racial equity in the U.S. My firm, ChangeLab (website on its way), recently conducted interviews with 80+ Asian American activists to get their takes on race and racial justice. Those interviewed are active on criminal justice reform, civil rights, environmental justice, health care, labor organizing, and humane immigration policy, among other issues.

Many of those interviewed work in communities that are made up of people of color from across the American spectrum. I am humbled by their commitment to the cause. And they are just a small sample.

The interviews generally indicate that there’s a problem with racism in Asian America. Many spoke to the prevalence of anti-Black racism in some Asian ethnic communities. But, my hunch is that interviews with any group would have revealed racist attitudes. The reality is, there is a problem with racism in America and it affects everyone.

One of the particular challenges facing Asian American racial justice advocates is the lack of educational tools and strategies designed to reflect the many specific and diverse ways in which Asian ethnic minorities understand racism in the U.S. and the world. For instance, many Asian Americans came to the U.S. as war refugees. In order to address racism among these groups, we must understand and respond to their experiences with foreign armies, including the U.S. military.

Equally important is the history of European and/or American colonialism of India, Vietnam, Korea, the Philippines, and other parts of Asia. Many have been subjected to white supremacy. Many  have also been infiltrated by right wing evangelical television and radio ministries.

A lot of Asian immigrants watched American T.V.  in their countries of origin. Those countries often include few if any African Americans or Latinos. How would any of us feel about Blacks and Latinos if our main source of information was U.S. television?

My current work involves calling Asian Americans to action not because I believe we’re less active or more determinedly racist. I’m reaching out to Asian Americans because I believe it’s my responsibility do my part where I can be most effective.

I was politicized on race as a teenager in a rural sugar plantation community. The plantation was based on a racial caste system, the legacy of which was still obvious even in the 1970s. There were neighborhoods known as Filipino Camp or Japanese Camp. I remember only one white kid in my high school class. The few white families still living near the plantation usually opted for private school, considering our public schools dead ends, leading only to low-wage labor.

Like most of my peers, I cleaved strongly, even militantly to my family and community. When I finally left Hawaii for the U.S. mainland, I was shocked by the overt racism I experienced. Outside the embrace of my community, I was exposed to harassment, intimidation, even a couple of incidents of violence during the years of the U.S.-Japan auto wars.

In my 20s I made my way into college for a year and that changed my life. In college, I met people of privilege. Some of them used that privilege to help me create a professional career in human rights. The happy accident of college, something I never planned for, led to a life I could not have imagined as a boy.

As my life in human rights progressed, I found myself working on what many perceive to be “Black” issues – countering vigilante white supremacist groups, fighting the drug war, and advocating for criminal justice reform, even teaching at a school for activists in Appalachia and the Deep South.

But I didn’t do this work because there was no basis for action on racism in the Asian American community. I did this work because I considered it strategic to ending racism for all of us. I did this work because I believed, as I wrote, that anti-Black racism is the fulcrum of white supremacy.

The Privilege Game

27 Apr

In the classic book, Faces At The Bottom Of The Well:  The Permanence of Racism, legal scholar Derrick Bell put forth this proposition: “Black people will never gain full equality in this country. Even those herculean efforts we hail as successful will produce no more than temporary ‘peaks of progress,’ short-lived victories that slide into irrelevance as racial patterns adapt in ways that maintain white dominance. This is a hard-to-accept fact that all history verifies. We must acknowledge it, not as a sign of submission, but as an act of ultimate defiance.”

I consider Derrick Bell a racial justice hero. To acknowledge the permanence of racism is indeed the ultimate act of defiance because this fact, once we acknowledged, leads necessarily to the conclusion that simple reform (what another great hero, the Rev. Mac Charles Jones, once told me leads only to re-formation of a broken system) will never lift us out of white supremacy. To end racism, we must look beyond reformation to transformation.

It’s a radical notion, but I’m a believer.

On the other hand, I’m also a practical sort. If we are to one day find ourselves at the threshold of radical transformation, we need a map to help us find our way, and then focus on getting there one step at a time.

On any map there are many paths to one’s chosen destination. For racial justice advocates, I think one path is the changing racial demography of the U.S.

By the year 2042, it is predicted that we will be a majority minority nation, with Latinos representing about a third of the population by no later than 2050. That means whites will soon no longer constitute the majority ethnic group. Even the Southern Baptist Convention, the largest Protestant group in the country and a bastion of whiteness and conservatism, is in decline.

What that means is that pretty soon, white supremacy may meet its greatest challenge. If we can get it together, people of color won’t have to ask whites for permission to create policies that address the destructive legacy of racism. But, the big question is, will we get it together and act as the majority, or will we remain divided and allow whites to remain in control as the largest minority?

To me, all of this hinges on something called privilege.

Racism endures in spite of generations of resistance because it is enforced by violence and intimidation, and empowered by privilege. It’s a carrot and stick situation. Without the carrot, the stick isn’t enough to keep us all doing our little bits to maintain white dominance.

Privilege, as I and and the Free Dictionary understand it, is special permission, special rights, or exclusive benefits granted as prerogatives of status that are exercised in order to exclude or harm others. Because privilege is given, it can also be taken away. And, because privilege always comes at someone’s expense, it keeps the majority of us who don’t have the power to grant privileges acting like a bunch of divided minorities.

Throughout history, white privilege has been granted to folks who didn’t used to be white. They Irish were labeled sub-whites to exploit them, and then were whitened to get their help in exploiting someone else even more. Around the middle of the last century, they decided Jews were white. And not too many years later, they began a process of whitening Asian Americans by granting us the status of “model minority” in order to promote the idea that if Asians can make it, the cause of poverty and lack of opportunity for Black and Brown people isn’t racism, it’s Black and Brown people.

And now they’re trying to do a job on Latinos by playing the good immigrant vs bad immigrant game. If you’re a “bad” immigrant, you’re “illegal.” That’s right, you’re illegal, you know, like crack cocaine or an unregistered gun or something. As an illegal person, you have hell to pay and more. Intimidation, violence, arrest, indefinite detention, deportation, and the list goes on.

But, if you’re a good immigrant, you get… Well, okay, I guess there’s not much of a carrot in this case. It’s mostly all about the stick. But at least you’re exempted from being treated like you’re illegal. So it pays to allow yourself to be cast as the good immigrant and allow the bigots to persecute the so-called bad guys and avoid the label “racist” by calling you “friend.”

You don’t get to have privilege without that nasty downside, whether you want it or not. And that downside is something we all pay for. It diminishes our humanity and it keeps us all vulnerable to being losers in the privilege game.

What If Trayvon Martin Was Asian?

4 Apr

In a Daily Kos article, Laurence Lewis asks the provocative question, “What if Trayvon Martin had been white and George Zimmerman were Black?” I’m guessing you to get the point. Clearly, if the races were reversed, things would be very, very different.

But this got me to thinking, what if Trayvon Martin had been Asian, say Japanese American for example? Would he have been profiled as a potential menace? Would he have provoked George Zimmerman to say, as revealed on the 911 recording, “These a**holes always get away”?

I’m guessing, no. Moreover, a Japanese American Trayvon would be exempt from the kind of character assassination being attempted by right wingers. No one would be combing his school records for evidence that he was a troublemaker. And if it turned out he was once caught with a little pot, it’s not likely he’d be labeled a drug dealer.

And would White conservatives be defending the adult Zimmerman by presenting evidence that an Asian minor, described by his teacher as a cheerful A and B student, was suspended from school? I doubt it.

Nor would Bill O’Reilly speculate that an innocent verdict for Zimmerman “could very well lead to violence as we saw in the Rodney King case.” The Japanese American community up in arms rioting is not exactly the nightmare vision keeping conservative white folks up at night.

In fact, imagining the victim of this tragedy as Asian American makes our society’s negative stereotyping of African Americans especially apparent. Why? Because Asian Americans are subject to a different kind of stereotype that was created as a foil to the racist, victim-blaming narrative of African Americans that continues to serve as a justification for attacking the welfare state.

That stereotype casts Asian Americans as the model minority:  a group of mathletic (though not athletic) super-achievers, overcoming prejudice and economic disadvantage not by protest, but through hard work and uncritical patriotism.

The model minority myth popped up in the media during the Civil Rights era in a 1966 New York Times Magazine article entitled, “Success Story:  Japanese American Style.” Until then, Asian Americans were mostly labeled as evil outsiders in order to justify immigration limits and Japanese American internment during World War II. But in the midst of Black uprisings and protests, the  article recast Japanese Americans as a group that had quietly and politely pulled itself up by its bootstraps in spite of terrible obstacles (like being put in a concentration camp because, well, you’re making white people nervous ‘cuz you’re Japanese American).

The article made the claim that Japanese Americans have a strong culture that values work, family and education which prevents J.A.s from becoming a “problem minority.” Problem minority? W.T.F! But the idea caught on, and over time, the myth expanded to Asians in general.

By the 1980s, Ronald Reagan twice publicly congratulated Asian Americans for their success, while smacking down African Americans for supposed dependency on welfare. And in a “some of my best friends are Black” move, Reagan used Black conservative Alan Keyes as a wing man in this strategy. Reagan’s crazy false logic says that if Asian Americans can succeed in spite of terrible obstacles, then persistent poverty among African Americans must be a product of a defect in Black culture or Black people.

And while Reagan was praising Asian Americans, the architects of the Reagan revolution were confounding attempts on the part of Black people to achieve success by ginning up anti-Black racism in order to attack welfare. I’d call Reagan a genius, except, well, that would be a compliment, and I just can’t go there.

Nowadays, the model minority myth is just accepted as truth, even by lots of Asians. In fact, many Asian Americans commit what they presume to be a victimless crime by taking cover behind the myth of the model minority. But there are victims, and they aren’t only non-Asians.  The victims include 54% of Asian American kids who claim to be bullied at school, at least in part, as a result of stereotyping. And, it includes the members of Asian ethnic groups that haven’t been so successful, such as Bangladeshis, Laotians, Cambodians and the Hmong, all of whom have lower per capita incomes than African Americans. The model minority myth marginalizes, even makes invisible, their suffering.

But the greatest danger of anti-Asian stereotyping, whether it is “positive” or not, is that it continues to hold Asian Americans separate from other people. And this makes us vulnerable to the flip side of the myth of Asian exceptionalism:  the idea of Asian Americans as a threat to “American” jobs. It was this kind of stereotyping that led to the murder of Vincent Chin, a Chinese American man who was beaten to death by displaced auto workers in 1982 during the U.S. vs. Japan auto wars. And, BTW, neither assailant ever did any jail time.

And today, as China’s rise as an economic superpower inspires anxiety, even hatred, of the Chinese, the specter of more Vincent Chin’s ought to get us wondering, is it ever a good thing to be used, no matter what the pay off?

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