Category Archives: media

It Was Inevitable: Racial Ignorance Against Jeremy Lin

In my recent post titled, “Jeremy Lin Mania and How it Relates to Colorblindness,” among other things, I noted that Jeremy’s emergence as a media sensation and explosion onto the center stage of mainstream U.S. popular culture does represent a small step toward the eventual ideal of colorblindness. At the same time, I also argued that the reality is that unfortunately, we are still a long way from being a truly colorblind society.

This past week, several public incidents have solidified the sad fact that many Americans still think that we are already in a colorblind society and as such, they can basically say anything they want about Jeremy, including offensive references to him as a Chinese American. Unfortunately there have been several examples of racial insensitivity in the past couple of weeks, but in this post I will focus on two in particular.

First, after the Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in which Jeremy scored 38 points, FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock tweeted “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.” Whitlock later apologized for the remark, but you can’t unring that bell — clearly he thought it was perfectly acceptable to invoke the emasculating racial stereotype about Asian men having small penises.

But wait, there’s more.

A few days later, after Jeremy committed nine turnovers in a game that the Knicks eventually lost, thereby snapping their 7-game winning streak, the following headline made it onto ESPN’s mobile website (screenshot below): “Chinks in the Armor: Jeremy Lin’s 9 Turnovers Cost Knicks in Streak-Snapping Loss to Hornets.”

'Chink in the Armor' headline on ESPN mobile website

The headline was apparently taken down after being public for 35 minutes but again, the damage was done — the editors at ESPN apparently had no idea or did not care that the term “chink” is a blatantly racist term against all Asian Americans but particularly and deeply offensive to Chinese Americans. I might expect people outside the U.S., such as Spain’s national basketball team, not to know that the term “chink” is racist, but it is very disappointing to learn that many Americans still think it’s perfectly fine to use in reference to a Chinese American.

Disappointing, but unfortunately not really surprising.

That is because many Americans already believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we are already a colorblind society. As such, they have been taught, socialized, and desensitized to naively think that all racial groups are equal now, that no racial discrimination ever takes place nowadays, and therefore, it’s fine to casually use terms such as “chink” in everyday conversation.

These particular incidents may not be as blatantly offensive as the racial taunts Jeremy encountered back when he played for Harvard, but they nonetheless illustrate a woeful level of ignorance and lack of sensitivity about Asian Americans, our history, and our community.

Imagine what the public’s reaction would have been if Jason Whitlock was referring to a Black player and his remark invoked the racial stereotype about Black men having large penises. What would the public’s reaction had been if ESPN went public with some headline that referred to a Black player using the ‘N’ word? I think it would be safe to say that the American public would be shocked, outraged, and furious if these hypothetical examples occurred in reference to a Black player.

To Whitlock’s and ESPN’s credit, they both apologized and in ESPN’s case, fired the person responsible for the website headline and suspended one of their sportscasters, Max Bretos, who repeated the “chink in the armor” phrase on air. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and decisively ESPN acted in regard to these incidents. In the past, more than likely, ESPN would have taken days to issue a half-hearted apology and probably would not have disciplined any of their staff involved. I suppose ESPN’s actions in this matter do represent an encouraging sign of progress.

Fortunately, there are others in the mainstream media who “get it” — those who understand the contradiction and inequality that exist when such racial/ethnic stereotypes are in reference to, say Blacks, versus when they reference Asian Americans. Specifically, leave it the crew at Saturday Night Live to use comedy and satire to deftly illustrate this contradiction:

So I suppose that it does represent progress that when these types of racially ignorant incidents happen, the mainstream media nowadays does recognize it and take disciplinary action (or use satire to point out the absurdity of such ignorance) more quickly than in the past. Now if we can just get to the point where such incidents don’t happen in the first place.

This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

Jeremy Lin Mania and How It Relates to Colorblindness

Back in 2010, I wrote about Jeremy Lin, who was leading Harvard University to a league title, a birth in the NCAA postseason tournament, and was poised to become one of the first Asian American players in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Back then, I pointed out how he represents an example of Asian Americans balancing both model minority expectations with an extracurricular passion, and in doing so, is expanding the definition of success for Asian Americans.

Jeremy Lin, point guard for the New York Knicks © Anthony Gruppuso/US Presswire

Since then, Jeremy went undrafted in the NBA after graduation but has now landed with the New York Knicks and is now exploding onto the basketball scene, as this New York Times article describes:

On Saturday night [Feb. 4, 2012], Lin came off the bench and powered the Knicks to a 99-92 victory over the Nets at Madison Square Garden, scoring a career-best 25 points with 7 assists. Two nights later, he made his first N.B.A. start and produced 28 points and 8 assists in a 99-88 win over the Utah Jazz.

Knicks fans now serenade Lin with chants of “Je-re-my!” and “M.V.P.!” while the franchise uses his likeness to sell tickets and teammates and coaches gush with praise. . . . Lin is raising expectations, altering the Knicks’ fate and redefining the word “unlikely.” On Twitter, fans and basketball pundits are using another term to describe the phenomenon: “Linsanity.”

[H]e became the first player in more than 30 years to record at least 28 points and 8 assists in his first N.B.A. start. . . . When the Knicks claimed Lin off waivers Dec. 27, he was fourth on the depth chart at point guard. Now he is No. 1, continuing a long pattern of low expectations and surprising results.

As another example of the accelerating Jeremy Lin bandwagon, ABC News just named Jeremy its “Person of the Week” and profiled him in the following news segment video:

Needless to say, Jeremy’s explosion into the U.S. cultural mainstream has inspired many Americans, and particularly Asian Americans. Beyond the mainstream media’s ever-increasing proclamations of him as “Linsanity,” “Lincredible,” “Going All Lin,” “Lin Your Face,” or “May the Best Man Lin,” Jeremy has also been described as Asian Americans’ version of Tim Tebow, both for embracing his Christian faith and for the media sensation and “Linspiration” that he has become for so many Asian Americans. For the record, Jeremy is the first monoracial (that is, both his parents are Asian) Asian American (either born or raised in the U.S.) to play in the NBA, and one of the few monoracial Asian Americans to play professional team sports in the U.S. at all.

In so many ways, Jeremy represents a big step forward for Asian Americans and U.S. society in general in terms of racial inclusion and being considered part of mainstream U.S. culture. Jeremy’s success actually follows a similar breakthrough moment for Asian Americans last year, as the hip-hop group Far East Movement became the first all-Asian American musical group to hit number one on the music charts with their single “Like a G6.” As another example of the “mainstreaming” of Asian Americans, the creators of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” are apparently in the process of creating a version that features an all-Asian American cast, to be called “K-Town.”

From a sociological point of view, the cultural emergence of Jeremy Lin, Far East Movement, and K-Town demonstrate that Asian Americans are indeed increasingly part of the U.S. mainstream. Up to this point, because of the relative scarcity of Asian Americans in the mainstream media and popular culture, it was usually a shock when we did see an Asian American on TV, in the movies, or on the music charts.

But as Asian Americans becoming increasingly common in these areas of U.S. popular culture, are we headed for a day when it is no longer a “big deal” when we see Asian American faces in the media, just like it’s taken for granted when we see White faces or Black faces? Ultimately, yes, that is the goal — for us as a society to no longer consider it “strange” or “unusual” to see Asian Americans in the media or in other prominent positions in U.S. social institutions.

If this idea sounds familiar, you might know it by its more common name — colorblindness.

In other words, part of being colorblind is what I just described — an ideal situation in which everyone in U.S. society is considered equal and when social, political, and economic distinctions based on race or ethnicity are no longer important or carry any sort of advantage or disadvantage. So in many respects, Jeremy Lin’s success gives us hope that, as a society, we are moving a little closer to the ideals of colorblindness.

Having said that, as I have written repeatedly in this blog, in order to eventually attain this ideal of true colorblindness, we first have to recognize that despite the progress that our nation has made in eradicating racism, the practical reality is that inequalities based on race and ethnicity unfortunately still exist and that groups such as Asian Americans still experience much ignorance, intolerance, and outright discrimination because of their identity and position as a racial minority group.

Therefore, much like the idea of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” I think we should definitely embrace and celebrate the emergence of Jeremy Lin, Far East Movement, and other examples in which Asian Americans are recognized for their success. Their accomplishments reflect how it is not a contradiction to recognize both their racial/ethnic uniqueness and their position as an integral part of mainstream society.

At the same time, we should also keep in mind that while we are getting closer to the ultimate ideal of colorblindness, there is still a lot of work to be done. Along with that, in order to keep working toward a time when true equality exists across all racial/ethnic groups, we need to understand that racial/ethnic distinctions still exist and still matter, and that the success of one person or a few people within that racial/ethnic minority group does not yet mean that members of that group no longer experience any injustice or discrimination.

In the meantime, despite my roots as a Los Angeles Lakers fan, I will definitely be rooting for Jeremy to keep lighting up the scoreboard and the “Lin-magination” of all Americans and beyond.

This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

More Asian American Faces in Advertisements: The Double-Edged Sword

In recent years, it has become more common to see Asian American actors in mainstream U.S. advertisements and commercials. This trend is notable for a two reasons. First, it represents a significant change from decades past, in which Asian American faces were almost completely absent from such advertising campaigns. Alternatively, when they were included, more often than not, Asian Americans were depicted in racially offensive and stereotypical caricatures, many of which were based on Orientalist perceptions of Asians and Asian Americans as exotic, mysterious, dangerous, inferior, and/or hypersexual.

Second, this increased visibility of Asian Americans in mainstream advertising seems to reflect the growing political, economic, and cultural influence of Asian countries and of Asian Americans within the U.S. Within the current climate of increased globalization, economic instability, and demographic changes, Asian Americans, other racial/ethnic minorities, and immigrants are in a unique position to leverage their individual and community resources to make important contributions to help move the U.S. forward into the 21st century.

With this in mind, and with the recognition that the Asian American population has an estimated $452 billion in purchasing power, advertisers and their corporate clients are increasingly including Asian American actors in their ads and commercials. As summarized on Asian American-focused sites like 8Asians.com, recent examples of television commercials that feature Asian Americans include eSurance, Target, Verizon, Staples, Hewlett Packard, Subaru, and McDonalds, to name just a few.

Orientalist ad for Motorola Razr

However, even though the level of blatant Orientalist stereotypes has declined, there are still numerous examples in which perceptions of Asian culture and Asian Americans as exotic, mysterious, and slightly dangerous are used in the advertising industry. For example, to the right is a relatively recent advertisement for the Motorola Razr cellphone that appeared in mainstream U.S. magazines such as Newsweek. Unfortunately, its Orientalist depictions are clear, particularly as applied to Asian women in clearly sexualized terms.

Specifically, the ad uses a woman of Asian descent dressed in an outfit that suggests a ninja-like image and striking a subtly menacing pose in which, rather than a sword, she wields a “Sharper Than Ever” Razr cellphone in her right hand, implying that the user of it can become a dangerous weapon in the figurative sense. Further, the woman’s curvaceous figure, Cleopatra-like eye makeup, skin-tight outfit, and long flowing hair again builds on the Orientalist image of Asian woman as seductive and sexually alluring. The result of these historical and ongoing Orientalist images of Asian Americans is that they are seen only within a narrowly-confined box of popular images and racially-tinged caricatures, rather than as normal citizens or even as Americans.

Opportunities and Dangers Ahead

In more recent years, portrayals of Asian Americans in mainstream ads and commercials has generally been less prone to such Orientalist images. Nonetheless, even as more advertisers incorporate more Asian Americans into their marketing campaigns, there is still the danger of promoting stereotypes, as the above-discussed Motorola Razr advertisement exemplifies. Further, a recent article by journalist Paul Farhi in the Washington Post describes a recent television commercial in which a White customer learns about a few multipurpose cellphone from an Asian American Staples sales clerk:

When Asian Americans appear in advertising, they typically are presented as the technological experts — knowledgeable, savvy, perhaps mathematically adept or intellectually gifted. They’re most often shown in ads for business-oriented or technical products — smartphones, computers, pharmaceuticals, electronic gear of all kinds.

The stereotypical portrayal reinforces a marketing concept known as the “match up” theory, which states that consumers respond more favorably to products advertised by an actor or spokesperson who “fits” the product. Just as consumers expect cosmetics to be sold by a supermodel or athletic equipment by a professional athlete, in the minds of the U.S. public, Asian Americans are strongly associated with technical know-how. . . . Variations on the theme have appeared in numerous TV commercials in recent months:

  • Staples advertises its computer-repair service with images of laptops flying like gulls into one of its stores. When one of the laptops crash-lands, the fix-it technician who comes to its “rescue” is an Asian American.
  • CVS’s TV ads feature a lab-coated pharmacist of Asian descent dispensing advice about medication to a baffled Caucasian lady.
  • A mother and her teenage son shopping at Best Buy learn that the store offers “Geek Squad” techies, who are packaged and displayed like life-size action figures on the store’s shelves. One of the tech guys is an Asian American.
  • IBM’s commercials feature brainy IT consultants, including a young Asian American woman who talks up the company’s efforts to create “a smarter planet.”
  • The article goes on to note that recent advertisements (such as this one from Staples) that feature Asian American actors can be a double-edged sword. That is, on the one hand, it is encouraging to see more Asian American faces in the mainstream media and in positions of authority or knowledge, rather than in the kind of blatantly demeaning and offensive roles that Asian American are used to seeing about themselves. On the other hand, the predominance of such roles that cast Asian Americans as tech experts has the danger of creating another narrowly-defined, one-dimensional stereotype – of Asian Americans as technically proficient, but nothing more.

    In other words, to market to Asian Americans, advertisers and their corporate clients should remember that the history, culture, and socioeconomic characteristics of the Asian American population is complex, three-dimensional, and intricate. Like all other racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious groups, the Asian American experience cannot be reduced into a limited set of media and popular culture images, no matter how seemingly “positive” such portrayals may appear to be. Similar to model minority perceptions of Asian Americans, we need to both recognize the successes as well as the ongoing challenges and multiple levels of diversity within the Asian American community.

    Indeed, when it comes to this trend of incorporating more Asian Americans into mainstream ads and commercials, there needs to be a diversity and wide range of images and marketing approaches that highlight both the unique characteristics and contributions that are specific to the Asian American population but that no not rely on Orientalist stereotypes, in addition to “race-neutral” ones that illustrate that Asian Americans are just regular, normal citizens and reflect their identity and position in society – just another part of the American mainstream.

    Toward this goal, Asian Americans can have also a direct impact in facilitating positive change. Some time ago, I had with a student in which she mentioned that, as an advertising major, she also has a strong commitment to use her experiences and training to work toward greater racial equality and justice for Asian Americans and people of color. But she also expressed reservations about entering the advertising industry with its history of portraying people of color in very narrow and even stereotypical ways.

    One of the things that I told her was that if students like her self-select out of these kinds of industries, everything will just be perpetual status quo and no positive change would ever occur. Instead, I encouraged her to bring her determination toward activism and passion for social change with her into the advertising industry, build a critical mass with others who share similar goals, and to fight for the change that she wants to see happen.

    Hopefully, that time is now.

    This article originally published at Asian-Nation.org and is copyrighted © 2013 

    Jeff Yang’s Profile of an Asian Male Porn Star

    This past weekend, I was invited to give a talk at Syracuse University as part of their celebration of Asian Pacific American Heritage Month (although APA Heritage Month is actually May, many colleges celebrate it in April because their finals and end of the semester is at the beginning of May). I had a great time there as I got a tour of their beautiful campus from my guide Jonathan, had lunch with many Asian American student leaders, and interacted with numerous staff and faculty.

    I also had the opportunity to finally meet Jeff Yang, who was also invited to give a talk on the same day. Jeff was publisher of A. Magazine, one of the most popular and influential Asian American magazines during its run from 1989-2002. Since then, Jeff has published several books including co-editing Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology and is widely recognized and respected as an expert on Asian and Asian American pop culture. I have admired Jeff’s work for a long time but only finally got the chance to meet him at Syracuse.

    Keni

    Jeff and I had a great chat over dinner and he mentioned to me that in one of his recent columns for the San Francisco Chronicle, he profiled Keni Styles, the only heterosexual male porn star of Asian descent. I understand and respect that many people have different (and strong) objections to pornography and I’m not here to defend or promote porn. Instead, I only to point out that many of Keni Styles’ observations on Asian Americans have a lot of sociological value (full transcript is here). Some examples from Jeff’s article:

    “I get tons of e-mails from Asian guys who want to get into porn, and I always e-mail them back saying, ‘If you really did, you’d be doing it,’” he says. “Nothing is blocking anyone from getting into this business — Asian, white, or black.” It’s obviously not an industry for everyone — the physical challenges are demanding, the lifestyle can be grueling and, for those prone to the worst temptations, self-destructive. But Styles thinks that the real barrier Asian men face, in porn and in society, is in no small part self-created.

    “I often interact a lot with Asian American guys in online forums, talking about the issues they face. And many of them really feel hard done by American culture — they feel unattractive, they feel defeated,” says Styles. “While I have a lot of empathy, there’s a sense in which this is self-inflicted. I didn’t grow up in the States; I don’t know first-hand what they’ve been through. But I can say, I didn’t have an easy street of it myself, and you know, I’ve overcome.” . . .

    [F]or someone who works with it every day, Styles’s attitude toward his penis is remarkably blase. “The whole size issue is ridiculous,” he says. You don’t just [have sex] with your penis, you use your whole body, your attitude, your presence. The moment you say, ‘Oh, I’m X inches long,’ you’ve let society win the battle of thinking it matters. And it just doesn’t. I’m not the biggest there is, and I’m not the smallest, but I’ve never measured my penis against anything other than a girl’s vagina. If it fits and she’s happy, I’m happy.”

    As I describe elsewhere on this site, Asian American men have been subjected to a lot of demeaning stereotypes by the mainstream media and on the group level, are frequently overlooked and marginalized when it comes to dating and marriage. Having said that, Styles make some very good points in terms of recognizing the barriers in front of you but then doing something about it, instead of just internalizing the stereotypes and the racism and living your life with an implicit or even explicit self-defeatist attitude.

    With that in mind, I think that Asian Americans as a whole but particularly males can learn from this approach. However, I don’t recommend that we become porn stars, or embrace the whole “playa” womanizer persona, or that we need to act hyper-masculine and risk making fools out of ourselves. Nonetheless, there are many ways in which we can personify our sense of pride and confidence and break out of the “traditional” roles we’ve been limited to, or have limited ourselves to.

    Yes, there are still plenty of institutional barriers out there for Asian Americans and other historically-marginalized groups to overcome. But we’ve encountered them before, we’ve mobilized our individual and collective resources to confront them, and we’ve lost some battles but have won many others. Through it all and within many walks of life and personal endeavors, and we’re still here and moving forward.

    Yellowface: Different Levels of Offensiveness

    As many of you presumably already know, “Blackface” is the practice of non-Blacks using dark-colored makeup or other materials to darken their face and skin so that they appear to be Black, usually for the purpose of impersonating a Black person in a public setting. The history of this practice is a long and sad one and almost always is associated with reinforcing and perpetuating racist stereotypes about Blacks. In fact, I recently wrote about a high-profile Blackface incident in Australia and commended entertainer Harry Connick Jr. (who is White) for calling it out as racist.

    Similarly, “Yellowface” is the practice of non-Asians impersonating Asians in a public setting, usually by dressing them up in traditional “Asian” garments, altering their eyelids, or donning some other prop such as buck teeth, all of which again serve to reinforce and perpetuate racist stereotypes against Asians and Asian Americans.

    Recently, there was a skit on Saturday Night Live (SNL) that included actor Will Forte impersonating Chinese President Hu Jintao, along with Iranian American actor Nasim Pedrad playing the role of an interpreter. The video of the skit is below:

    Since Will Forte is in fact White and is portraying an Asian character, this is technically Yellowface. But the question then becomes, is this racist and offensive? I know that many Asian Americans do find this particular portrayal offensive and they certainly have a right and reason to do so.

    For me however, I will go out on a limb and say that I personally don’t think this particular portrayal was that offensive. It would be one thing if SNL had an Asian male cast member who could have played Hu Jinato but was passed over in favor of Forte, but obviously this was not the case (although it would be nice if SNL eventually had an Asian American male cast member). Further, Forte’s portrayal of Hu did not include the racist characteristics usually found with offensive Yellowface portrayals.

    In other words, Forte did not artificially alter his eyes or eyelids or wear traditional garments to look more “Oriental.” Nor did he use racist caricature features such as buck teeth. Further, even though Forte did impersonate Hu speaking Chinese, it was very muted and not a central part of his portrayal, as opposed to the traditional exaggerated and blatantly offensive “ching chong” artificial dialog that we’ve seen in the past.

    Further, the SNL skit did not include any elements or activities that have been associated with offensive Asian characters through the years, such as performing kung fu, working as a cook or waiter, or as an evil villain. Also, Forte did not try to portray Hu speaking English with a Chinese accent, which would have been much more offensive. Further, Pedrad’s portrayal of the interpreter did not include an exaggerated Chinese accent either.

    In fact, fellow sociologist blogger Lisa at Sociological Images has just compiled an excellent video retrospect of White actors playing Asian characters through the years. If you watch the videos included in her post, you will see that all of them include at least one of these offensive characteristics that I listed above.

    The larger point I am trying to make is that there are different degrees of offense when it comes to Asian Americans. Regular readers to this blog know that I’ve spent plenty of time pointing out different individual- and institutional-level incidents and examples of that I have found offensive and racist toward Asians and Asian Americans. But ultimately, American society and the world in general are not simple either-or, black-or-white, yes-or-no dichotomies. Instead, we need to realize that there are varying degrees of oppression, inequality, and in this case, potentially offensive media portrayals.

    Asian American actors are likely to tell you the same thing when it comes to which roles they accept or reject. As this clip from the Turner Classic Movie series “Race in Hollywood: Asian Images in Film” shows, even well-respected Asian American actors will take on roles that have them playing a sweatshop worker or one that has them speak with an Asian accent, if other aspects of their character are more nuanced and substantive:

    Similarly, even Asian American writers and filmmakers have been criticized when it comes to how they portray members of their community. Relatively recent examples include when author Amy Tan and director Wayne Wang were criticized for promoting gender stereotypes in the otherwise critically-acclaimed and watershed Asian American book and movie The Joy Luck Club, or when director Justin Lin was criticized for his less-than-model-minority portrayals of Asian American high school students in another breakthrough Asian American film Better Luck Tomorrow.

    In the end, yes, it would have been nice if SNL had an Asian American male cast member who could have played Hu in this particular case. But given that limitation, I did not find their skit to be nearly as offensive as past portrayals that have made me wince in disgust. Maybe this just means that I’ve been desensitized by so many blatantly racist portrayals through the years. But more likely, I think it just shows that there are different levels of offense when it comes to how Asians and Asian Americans are portrayed.

    Harry Connick Jr., Blackface, and Recognizing White Privilege

    Earlier this week, musician, actor, and community activist Harry Connick Jr. was a guest judge on the Australian talent show Hey Hey It’s Saturday. One of the acts was a skit featuring a group of White men wearing blackface (using dark-colored makeup to appear racially Black), doing an impression of the Jackson Five. As ABC News reports and this video segment shows, Connick’s reaction to their performance was swift and sharp:

    [Connick] was visibly shocked by the skit, in which [five] men with afro wigs and blackface sang and danced behind a Michael Jackson impersonator wearing white makeup. Connick, 42, gave the performance a zero score and told them that if it had been done in the United States it would have been pulled off the air.

    Blackface was a traditional trope of minstrel shows in the U.S. that dates to the 19th century. Whites playing stock black characters — usually offensive stereotypes meant to demean — rubbed coal, grease or shoe polish on their faces. . . .

    Public reaction to the “Hey Hey” performance in online forums was mixed. Some Australians said they were embarrassed such a racist sketch had been broadcast, while others said detractors were too politically correct and that the skit was funny. . . . Anand Deva, the frontman of the “Jackson Jive” act, said it was not meant to cause offense but added he would not have performed it in the United States.

    White teenagers in blackface

    There are two interesting sociological points to note here. The first is the apparent differences in racial attitudes between the U.S. and Australia. That is, even though many Americans still are rather ignorant of the racial significance and racist legacy of blackface and still wear it from time to time (especially around this time of year, Halloween, as seen in the photo on the right), for the most part, I will presume that most Americans understand that blackface is offensive (or at least the reactions and criticisms to it are much more intense).

    With that in mind, it is notable to see that in Australia, this sensitivity and recognition of blackface do not exist to the same level. In fact, despite the Australian government’s recent official apology to the aborigine population for centuries of racism, in general the racial attitudes of the Australian public seem to be a few decades behind that of the U.S. in terms of racial understanding.

    This diminished level of cultural knowledge comes through in the responses by Anand Deva in defending his group’s skit with the usual refrain, “It wasn’t meant to be offensive, it was just a joke.” What he and other Australians do defend the skit don’t understand is that whatever the intent, the result was that it definitely came across as racist and offensive.

    Secondly, the reason why they don’t understand why it was offensive is because as Whites in a White majority society, they have the position of being able to make fun of non-Whites while claiming that they did not intend it to be offensive. That, my friends, is the quintessential definition of White privilege.

    As it relates back to Harry Connick Jr., as the video segment notes, he has been accused of being hypocritical because he participated in a previous comedy skit (apparently from MadTV) in which he played some kind of witch or voodoo doctor that some argue also makes fun of Blacks, although Connick counters that his character in the skit was actually White.

    Despite this criticism of Connick, I give him credit for speaking up in the moment and denouncing the skit as racist and offensive. It takes courage to recognize such racial ignorance first of all, and second, to speak up and stand in opposition to it, rather than just keeping quiet, as many Americans from any racial background but particularly Whites, are more likely to do.

    I know that as a native of New Orleans, Connick was affected by how his city and particularly the Black community were both devastated after Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the disaster, he organized several benefits and other activities to begin rebuilding the city and its inhabitants.

    At this point, I can only speculate, but I suspect that as a result of Hurricane Katrina and perhaps after understanding the cultural consequences of such media portrayals as his MadTV skit, he “got it” — that as an affluent entertainer and as a White person, he is very privileged person and has a lot of power and influence that can be used to make fun of people, or to help uplift them.

    In other words, Connick’s actions — in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and in regard to this blackface skit — are a great illustration of what I tell me students all the time: for racism to continue, individual Whites like you (referring to my students) do not have to commit racist acts yourself. Instead, for it to continue year after year, generation after generation, all you have to do is to sit by and accept the consequences of discrimination committed against others.

    In other words, silence equals acceptance.

    Young Hip-Hop Asians: Promoting Diversity or Stereotypes?

    A reader sent me a link to a recent article from the Seattle Weekly that follows and describes in detail the late-night activities of young Asian American hip-hop club goers in the Seattle area. The article itself is relatively long and to understand the debate that I’m going to discuss below, you should read it in its entirety. Here are just a few excerpts:

    Pham is Vietnamese. He’s invited several friends to his Tukwila townhome that Friday to pre-funk before going out to one of their favorite Seattle clubs: Venom. All the 20-somethings pre-funking at his house are also Asian—most of them Vietnamese or Cambodian. Almost every weekend, they hit up Venom, a Belltown dance club that draws a predominately Asian crowd. . . .

    “I have some white friends who won’t even go [to Venom],” [22 year old Cambodian American Somealear] Mom says, laughing. “It’s too Asian for them. For us, it’s like family. Everybody knows each other there.”

    That’s exactly what club promoters targeting the Asian demographic are going for. The nights that draw the most Asians are the ones that have a crowd within “two to three degrees of separation,” according to Tony Truong, managing partner of the Seattle office of Visionshock, the largest Asian-American nightlife company in the country. . . .

    “Asians are like neon tetra fish—they travel in schools,” Truong says. “You always see masses of them together. Once you get the group leader to come, you get the entire group. Then you get the friends of people in that group, and so forth.”

    The trend has become increasingly visible in Seattle’s Asian nightlife scene over the past several years. Promoter Nam Ho of Steady Productions organizes weekly parties at Venom, War Room, and Sea Sound Lounge—all notorious hot spots for Asian club-goers. He attributes the rise in popularity of these parties to the fact that Asians have long had to create their own nightlife scene.

    “A lot of Asian-Americans that you see out there don’t go to a four-year university or have a scene they really fit into,” Ho explains. “They aren’t going to frat parties or dive bars or sports bars. But many of them have been born and raised here, so they’re incredibly in tune to the city. The club is a good comfort zone for them to go out with other Asian-Americans.”

    It may be familiar territory now, but the club scene is a far cry from the atmosphere in which many of these 20-something Asians were raised. They grew up accustomed to having their strict first-generation parents forbid them from engaging in the social activities of their teenage peers. . . .

    “Traditional Asian culture is very conservative. Our parents teach us to study hard and to work hard. They want us to be doctors or lawyers or to start families. Sometimes, they forget to teach us to live. That’s why Asians get extravagant at the bar. We’re constantly going out and pounding Grey Goose like there’s no tomorrow because we’re playing catch-up,” [Truong says].

    As I said, the article includes many more details about the activities of these young Asian Americans, which as the article’s author writes, includes using the stereotype that all Asians look alike to get underage patrons into a club. Overall, the article spends a lot of time implicitly and explicitly focused on this “neon tetra fish” analogy — how young Asian Americans clustering together during the weekends has developed into this emerging trendy club scene in the Seattle area.

    Therein lies the controversy. As illustrated by the readers’ comments at the end of it, this article seems to have unleashed a debate about whether it promotes racial/ethnic diversity by publicizing the real-life activities of an institutionally underrepresented ethnic group such as Asian Americans (particularly Vietnamese Americans) who have been traditionally ignored by the mainstream media, or whether the article promotes cultural stereotypes and a one-sided view of Asian Americans as clannish and materialistic alcoholics?

    As a Vietnamese American myself who is also a sociologist specializing in Asian American Studies, I will first say that, at the risk of copping out, the answer is quite complicated and that ultimately, it does both.

    On the one hand, I have to give the Seattle Weekly credit for doing a story that specifically profiles Asian Americans. It is indeed true that even in areas where Asian Americans are increasingly becoming more prominent demographically, politically, economically, and culturally, they are still frequently ignored by the mainstream media and other social institutions.

    In other words, sadly we are still the “invisible minority” in a lot of areas of American society. With that in mind, articles like this at least show the rest of American society that in many ways, Asian Americans are just like everybody else — after a week of working hard at their jobs, we want to cut loose on the weekends, have a good time with our friends, and from time to time, indulge in some drinking and partying.

    I also credit the article’s author for quoting the Vietnamese American party promoters and their observations that in many areas of mainstream American social life, Asian Americans have felt left out, unwelcomed, and even excluded. With that in mind, the party-goers in this article have sought to develop their own sense of community. In fact, their actions continue the long history of Asian Americans reacting to systematic discrimination by forging their own communities and institutions.

    However, creating their own communities have paradoxically led to and perpetuated the stereotype that Asians are insular and cliquish and only want to hang out with “their own kind.” What this criticism doesn’t acknowledge however, is that Asian Americans had to associate within their own group because they were directly excluded from participating in mainstream American society in many cases. In other words, they had to choice but to cluster together.

    Fast forward to today and we can recognize that almost all examples of direct, systematic segregation against Asian Americans are a thing of the past (although not entirely, at least when it comes to other groups of color). Nonetheless, in many instances where Asian Americans congregate together, we are still accused of being cliquish. The other point to consider is that in almost all cases, these young Asian Americans spend their entire workweek completely integrated and assimilated into mainstream American society. Nonetheless and sadly, old stereotypes are hard to kill.

    So, like I said, I think that this article can serve a positive purpose in promoting the wider inclusion of Asian Americans in mainstream American society and to make other Americans think hard about this sociological question of what it means to hang out within your own ethnic/cultural group.

    On the other hand, the picture that this particular article promotes may not be a positive one for the Asian American community. Specifically, a casual reader might read this article and come away with reinforced stereotypes that Asian Americans are like cliquish “neon tetra fish” as I just discussed, but also that we’re superficial and materialistic, closet alcoholics who can’t hold their liquor and like to relieve ourselves in parking lots, and/or that we all look alike.

    That is exactly the drawback of this particular article — it presents only one picture, one example of Asian American life. In other words, it is only one set of observations about the Asian American community. But in its defense, it was not meant to be anything more than that — it was not intended to be a comprehensive portrayal of all Asian Americans, young Asian Americans, or even young Asian Americans in the Seattle area.

    Nonetheless, the danger that some Americans will see this as representative of all Asian Americans is real.

    In other words, the potential that this article will perpetuate stereotypes is especially pronounced precisely because Asian Americans have been and continue to be ignored by mainstream American media. Because of this exclusion, many Americans do not have a diverse picture of who Asian Americans are and therefore, are more likely to rely on the few images and portrayals that do exist, many of whom are rather biased or, at least with this particular article, unrepresentative of Asian Americans as a whole.

    Like many portrayals of Asian American experiences, this article is a double-edge sword that can both help and harm our community.

    Playing the Caucasian Card

    In her “The Last Word” column at Newsweek this week Anna Quindlen gave us a new and useful concept to describe what many whites do—the “Caucasian card” (H/T Jose Cobas). When African Americans object to racist framing, antiblack commentary, or antiblack practices, whites accuse them of “playing the race card.” This is a white-framed, whitewashed phrase designed to deflect objections to everyday racism. It was doubtless invented by whites for that purpose. (Can anyone tell me its first use?) (photo: kevinthoule)

    Quindlen cites the way that African Americans carry a heavy load of racial hostility and discrimination on their shoulders:

    When one of the white guys blows an account, the office line is that he’s a loser. But when a black guy does it, it means that they—that’s the all-purpose “they,” sometimes used interchangeably with “those people”—don’t seem to be able to close the deal.

    This burden of everyday racism makes a black person’s life quite different from that of a white person. Somehow most whites assume their lives are the same. They assert that blacks have equal opportunities compared to whites–in education, employment, housing or health care.

    She later notes that Senator McCain justifiably likes to cite his long trials in a Viet Cong prison with it torture of a physical and psychological kind for five years. That, he and his supporters plausibly assert, “builds character.” But they forget or intentionally ignore the huge burden of contending with white hostility and discrimination that black men and women face (as well as other Americans of color). They face it for lifetimes, for far more than five years. This heavy burden often involves physical and psychological torture of its own kind. This should be fully recognized by the white media and voters, but is not.

    Quindlen then comments on the McCain campaign’s reaction to Senator Obama’s recent and reasonable commentary on being viewed by many (whites) as not looking like other presidents on U.S. money and as being portrayed by McCain supporters and others as somehow foreign and “other.”

    The man is black. His candidacy is indivisible from that fact, given the history and pathology of this country.… The suggestion of [his doing] something untoward was pandering to stereotypes and fear. Senator McCain was playing the Caucasian card.

    She nails it this time. Whites invented the racist system of this country and have maintained that system, with great white privileges, since the 1600s. They have “played the white card” in every era. They played it in the abolitionist era of the 1850s-1860s, and they played it in the civil rights era of the 1950s-1960s. With no sense of irony, privileged whites (coming from what one blogger bobbosphere calls the “deal”) still play that white card today when they regularly accuse African Americans who critique the racist system and try to bring it down as “playing the race card” and being unfair to our “really democratic” system.

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