Two recent events had a strikingly similar theme. Kenichi Ebina won America’s Got Talent and Nina Davuluri won Miss America. In both instances, other Americans objected to their victories, claiming that they were not really American because Ebina and Davuluri are of Japanese and Indian origin respectively. Still other Americans objected to this reaction. And yet, as I’ll argue below, most of us share their bias.
These are stark examples of people who believe that only white people count as American. It’s a bizarre position, of course, because people of European descent are immigrants to America, and an overtly racist one as well. I don’t lose any sleep over publishing their identities on this blog.
But, the truth is, the majority of us — even those of us who oppose racism and embrace the idea that the U.S. is a nation of immigrants — hold the belief that America = white. We just believe this subconsciously.
Project Implicit is an online psychological test that measures implicit beliefs, ones we hold that we’re not necessarily conscious of holding. One test is of the association of Asian-ness with American-ness. It works by measuring how long it takes us to sort Asian and European faces and American and Foreign famous sites into the proper categories.
First they ask you to sort faces and places with Asian and Foreign together on the left and European and American together on the right. Like this:
Then they switch the bottom designations so that Asian and American are on one side and European and Foreign are on the other. For most people, the harms their ability to sort faces and places: it slows down and includes more errors, revealing that their brain implicitly sees Asian and foreign as one category and American and European as another.
Here’s the aggregate data. Almost a quarter of people make no association either way, 60% implicitly believe that Asians are less American than Europeans, and 17% think the opposite.
The take home message is: even though it’s easy to condemn the twits making overtly racist comments, this is a problem that is much more pervasive and pernicious. Even those of us who are horrified by those tweets likely carry the bias behind them.
Here is something quite simple, sent along by Judy B. It’s a screenshot of Gimp, an open source image editing application. An optional plug-in, created by a user, offers a series of filters for images, including ones that “beautify.” One of the options is “skin whitening.”
This is one more reminder that we live in a racist society that conflates whiteness with beauty. Remember, too, though, that someone — very possibly a set of people — had to make a conscious decision to include skin whitening as an option and position it as a sub-category of beautification. Then they had to, literally, type the words into the program and make it so.
This shit doesn’t just happen. It’s not random. Racism isn’t just an ephemeral cultural thing. It involves actual decisions made by real people who, if not motivated by racism, are complicit with it.
Trayvon Martin was a black teenage boy. He was walking home from the convenience store when he caught the attention and ire of George Zimmerman. Perceived as a “punk” and a threat, Martin was accosted by the older man, and a physical altercation ensued. Trayvon Martin died when he was shot through the heart at close range. Though Florida’s expansive “Stand Your Ground” laws were invoked in media conversations, that defense never even entered into the trial. Zimmerman was acquitted when a jury decided he’d killed Martin in self-defense. Zimmerman has since said Martin’s death was “God’s plan.”
Some Americans believe that race was not central to this killing or to the case that followed—they have believed it from February 2012 right up until today. But ask yourself: How many times you have been stopped and harassed because you looked threatening or suspicious wearing a hooded sweatshirt? For me, an Asian American female, that number is zero.
Yes, my gender alone distinguishes me from Trayvon Martin, but my partner Mike is a white male, and he, too, can only say “Zero.” We have never been stopped nor questioned, no matter how many times we’ve pulled on our hooded sweatshirts for warmth (and, in my case, to hide sea-tangled hair) after early morning surfing.
Stopping for breakfast or to run errands, Mike and I may not look polished in our hoodies, but we’ve also never had to worry that our appearance would cause suspicion. That’s privilege. It’s such a privilege, this presumed innocence of ours, that the morning after Zimmerman was acquitted, we went ignored even while acting suspiciously. Hoodies up, we casually stopped to look at a condo for rent in an affluent beach community in southern California. We knew from the online ad that the condo was vacant, so we parked outside, walked up the stairs to the unit, and peered into its windows. We sauntered around the grounds and walked into the unlocked community laundry room and garage. Several neighbors saw us, and they smiled.
I couldn’t help but think that the scenario would have been very different if Mike and I were black. Mike and I don’t have to wear our class in order to obviate being treated like threats or criminals; we can wear hoodies and board shorts without worrying that others will be suspicious, fearful, or make assumptions about our class status. Just being “not black” affords us this benefit of the doubt. It is a privilege because it is not something we have earned, but it is gifted to us every day regardless. I have always known about my privilege intellectually, but I felt it keenly last Saturday.
That some are afforded this privilege while others are systematically denied should make us all more empathetic. People perceive and experience the same event differently, depending on visible status markers such as race, gender, age, and class. Such status markers are more than just categories, they form a “system of social practices” that organize social relations. Status markers presume difference, and so people will react to and engage with Mike or with me differently than they would with someone like Trayvon Martin, even when we’re dressed the same.
We would like to believe that we don’t make assumptions based on race or gender, but evidence proves otherwise, as this social experiment of three individuals (a white male, a black male, and white female) trying to steal a bike clearly reveals:
As the sociologist Robert K. Merton insightfully observed nearly three-quarters of a century ago, “The very same behavior undergoes a complete change in evaluation in its transition from the in-group to the out-group.” As the video above indicates, the behavior of a black male (an out-group member) is regarded entirely differently than the same behavior of a white male and white female (in-group members).
The in-group/out-group divide goes further, with grave consequences in our criminal justice system. For example, Jennifer Eberhardt’s research has shown that race affects the severity of sentences that juvenile offenders receive, even for the same crime. Just the idea of a black juvenile offender leads people to imagine juveniles more like adults. Even liberal white Americans who claim low levels of prejudice project more blame onto black boys and sentence them more harshly. As Eberhardt has shown, “race has the power to dampen our desire to be merciful.”
I don’t have children, but if I did, I don’t know how I would explain Trayvon Martin’s death or the acquittal of his killer. But even just imagining being a parent to a black son makes me feel immense empathy for the parents of young black men. Can just that simple exercise make others more aware of race and class privilege, more aware of the power they have to recognize and even challenge that privilege and its consequences? As Henry David Thoreau asked, “Could a greater miracle take place than for us to look through each other’s eyes for an instant?”
Jennifer Eberhardt and Aneeta Rattan, “The Race Factor,” New York Times, June 12, 2012.
Robert K. Merton. 1968 . “Self-fulfilling Prophecy,” in Robert K. Merton, Social Theory and Social Structure, 2nd edition. New York: Free Press.
Cecilia L. Ridgeway. 2011. Framed by Gender. New York: Oxford University Press.
Jennifer Lee is a sociologist at the University of California, Irvine. Her book, The Diversity Paradox, examines patterns of intermarriage and multiracial identification among Asians, Latinos, and African Americans.
In analysis of Presidential pardons during the George W. Bush administration, ProPublica has found that whites were four times as likely as non-whites to be granted a pardon. Pardons were granted to 12% of whites, 10% of Hispanics and Asians, and zero percent of Blacks and Native Americans. The disparity remained even when investigators controlled for type of crime.
…President George W. Bush decided at the beginning of his first term to rely almost entirely on the recommendations made by career lawyers in the Office of the Pardon Attorney.
The office was given wide latitude to apply subjective standards, including judgments about the “attitude” and the marital and financial stability of applicants…
Bush followed the recommendations of the pardons office in nearly every case… President Obama — who has pardoned 22 people, two of them minorities — has continued the practice of relying on the pardons office.
Sometimes disparate decisions in pardon cases were eyebrow raising:
An African American woman from Little Rock, fined $3,000 for underreporting her income in 1989, was denied a pardon; a white woman from the same city who faked multiple tax returns to collect more than $25,000 in refunds got one. A black, first-time drug offender — a Vietnam veteran who got probation in South Carolina for possessing 1.1 grams of crack – was turned down. A white, fourth-time drug offender who did prison time for selling 1,050 grams of methamphetamine was pardoned.
ProPublica traces the disparity to age, leniency given to people who are seen as “upstanding” members of society (e.g., they’re married, have little debt), the influence of money and politics (letters from Congresspersons and donations to lawmakers by convicts’ spouses), and simple prejudice. Nevertheless:
When the effects of those factors and others were controlled using statistical methods, however, race emerged as one of the strongest predictors of a pardon.
Originally posted in 2012. Re-posted in solidarity with the African American community; regardless of the truth of the Martin/Zimmerman confrontation, it’s hard not to interpret the finding of not-guilty as anything but a continuance of the criminal justice system’s failure to ensure justice for young Black men.
Today, June 19, marks the anniversary of the day Vincent Chin was beaten into a coma because he was Asian. As summarized in my article “Anti-Asian Racism,” Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American living in Detroit, Michigan. On this date in 1982, he and a few friends were at a local bar celebrating his upcoming wedding. Also at the bar were two White autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz.
Ebens and Nitz blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s struggles at the time and began directing their anger toward Vincent. A fight ensued and eventually spilled outside the bar. After a few minutes, Ebens and Nitz cornered Vincent and while Nitz held Vincent down, Ebens repeatedly bludgeoned Vincent with a baseball bat until he was unconscious and hemorrhaging blood. Vincent was in a coma for four days until he finally died on June 23, 1982.
Ebens and Nitz were initially charged with second degree murder (intentionally killing someone but without premeditation). However, the prosecutor allowed both of them to plea down to manslaughter (accidentally killing someone). At the sentencing, the judge only sentenced both of them to three years probation and a fine of $3,780. The sentence provoked outrage among not just Asian Americans, but among many groups of color and led to a pan-racial coalescing of groups demanding justice for Vincent.
Vincent’s supporters got the U.S. Justice Department to bring federal charges against Ebens and Nitz for violating Vincent’s civil rights. In this trial, Ebens was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison while Nitz was found not guilty. However, the verdicts were thrown out because of a technicality and a second trial was ordered. The defense successfully got the trial moved away from Detroit to Cincinnati OH. In this second federal trial, an all-White jury acquitted both Ebens and Nitz of violating Vincent’s civil rights.
Vincent’s death and the injustices he, his family, and all Asian Americans suffered still stand as a stark and sober reminder that, in contrast to the image of us as the “model minority” and the socioeconomic successes that we have achieved, Asian Americans are still susceptible to being targeted for hostility, racism, and violence. We only have to look at recent incidents in which Asian American students continue to be physically attacked at school, and other examples of Asian-and immigrant-bashing and White backlash to see that we as society still have a lot of work to do before Asian Americans (and other groups of color) are fully accepted as “real” or “legitimate” Americans.
The silver lining in Vincent’s case was that it was a watershed moment in Asian American history because it united the entire Asian American community like no event before. For the first time, different Asian groups began to understand that the discrimination committed against other Asians could easily be turned towards them. In other words, for the first time, Asians of different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities united around an issue that affected them all.
As a result, the Asian American community mobilized their collective resources in unprecedented ways and Vincent’s death was the spark that led to the creation of a network of hundreds of non-profit organizations working at local, state, and national levels to combat not just hate crimes, but also other areas of inequality facing Asian American (i.e., housing, employment, legal rights, immigrant rights, educational reform, etc.). Vincent’s death has had a powerful legacy on the Asian American community — as a result of the collective action demanding justice, it contributed to the development of the “pan-Asian American” identity that exists today.
This is why it is important for all Asian Americans, and all of us as Americans, to remember Vincent Chin — to mourn the events of his death, to reflect on how it changed the Asian American community forever, and to realize that the struggle for true racial equality and justice still continues today.
C.N. Le is a senior lecturer and the director of the Asian and Asian American Studies Center at the University of Massachusetts, Amherst. He is the founder and principle writer for Asian-Nation. You can follow him on Twitter.
Earlier on SocImages, Lisa Wade drew attention to the tourism industry’s commodification of Polynesian women and their dancing. She mentioned, briefly, how the hula was made more tourist-friendly (what most tourists see when they attend one of the many hotel-based luaus throughout the islands is not traditional hula). In this post, I want to offer more details on the history and the differences between the tourist and the traditional hula.
First, Wade states that, while female dancers take center stage for tourists, the traditional hula was “mostly” a men’s dance. While it has not been determined for certain if women were ever proscribed from performing the hula during the time of the Ali’i (chiefs), it seems unlikely that women would have been prevented from performing the hula when the deity associated with the hula is Pele, a goddess. Furthermore, there is evidence that women were performing the dance at the time of Captain James Cook’s arrival in Hawai’i.
Second, while the traditional dances were not necessarily sexualized, they were very sensual. The movement of hips and legs that are seen as sexual by some visitors, and showcased as such by the tourism industry, certainly existed in early practices.
In fact, the supposedly lascivious and blasphemous nature of the hula prompted missionaries to censure the public practice of hula, and in 1830 Queen Ka’ahumanu enacted a law prohibiting the public performance of the hula. This law was highly ineffective, however, and when King Kalakaua ascended the throne he actively encouraged public hula performances and other expressions of Native Hawaiian culture, earning him the moniker “Merrie Monarch.”
Eventually, a modernized dance emerged that did not incorporate much religiosity and employed modern music rather than chants. This is closer to what you would find at a hotel luau, but differs drastically in costuming and lacks the uncomfortable cloud of objectification associated with hotel-style hula (that is, the focus is on the dance rather than the dancers). Below are some examples of the evolution:
Hula (ladies’ dance, traditional):
Hula (men’s dance, traditional):
These examples of hula, and other Polynesian dances, are vastly different from what one finds in a hotel’s “Polynesian Revue” luau.
In conclusion, it is true that the hula dances, and other dances of Polynesia, have been usurped by the tourism industry and commodified. The culturally authentic forms, however, still thrive. Native dances are impressive enough without the ridiculous costuming and disrespectful bending of the islands’ histories seen at hotel luaus; unfortunately, it is difficult to find any culturally sensitive displays of Polynesian culture due to the huge influence of tourism over these locations.
*The information in this post was gleaned from various courses I’ve taken at the University of Hawai’i at Manoa. For more information on hula and the commodification of the Hawaiian culture, see Haunani-Kay Trask’s From A Native Daughter.
Sarah Neal is currently working on obtaining her M.A. in English at North Carolina State University.
In the 3-minute video below, sociologist Jennifer Lee explains her research on “stereotype promise,” the idea that being viewed through the lens of a positive stereotype can act as a performance booster and enhance outcome. You can imagine how it might be applied to African Americans and certain sports like track or basketball, or how it might facilitate men’s acquisition of math ability.
Lee’s research is on Asian Americans and academic performance. Asians, she explains, are stereotyped as “smart, high achieving, and disciplined” and this might help explain why they are so academically successful.
It can also, however, have harmful effects. She discusses the way that some young Asian Americans will say that an A- counts as an “Asian fail,” an example of how much pressure stereotype promise can bring. She also notes that Asian Americans are often disadvantaged in college admissions because of an assumption that a school can have “too many” Asians and, accordingly, accept only students with the most extraordinary academic credentials.