Earlier this year I wrote about an incident at Tufts University in which a drunk White student used racial slurs in harassing a group of Korean American students. As Inside Higher Education reports, Tufts is now dealing with a new controversy regarding its Asian American students, but this time it involves two groups of Asian Americans on opposite sides:

Original campaign poster for Alice Pang
Parody poster from In-Goo Kwak

Two weeks ago, In-Goo Kwak, a freshman studying international relations and an immigrant from South Korea, put up a series of posters around his dormitory parodying the campaign poster of Alice Pang, another freshman of Asian descent who was running for the Tufts Community Union Senate. Kwak was not actually running for a student government position, but posted the parody next to Pang’s at the encouragement of his dorm mates. who thought he was right to poke fun at the air of political correctness he perceived on the campus.

Pang’s poster included the campaign slogan, “small person, big ideas,” with the exclamation “hurrah!” next to her portrait. Kwak’s parody poster looks strikingly similar in design to Pang’s and includes the slogan “squinty eyes, big vision.” Next to Kwak’s portrait is the word “kimchi!” — a traditional Korean dish. Additionally, where Pang’s poster read “vote on Thursday,” Kwak’s said, “Prease vote me! I work reary hard!” in deliberately broken English. . . .

Linell Yugawa [Director of Tufts’ Asian American Center] sent an e-mail to the entire Tufts community denouncing Kwak’s parody. . . .

“Many Asian/Asian Americans and individuals of other racial backgrounds have been angered, hurt, and offended by these posters,” Yugawa wrote . . . “The posters not only mocked an authorized campaign poster, but used negative and racist stereotypes that correlate with the discrimination and dehumanization of Asians. These posters go beyond affecting one individual or group, but offend all who have an understanding of how racist stereotypes impact our lives.

“Some may argue that we need to ‘lighten up’ and/or ‘reclaim’ the stereotypes and words that have harmed us and our communities. While it is one thing to mutually engage in this type of conversation, it is another to post stereotypical and racist language that is open to interpretation and hurtful to many.”

There seems to be a few different issues here. According to Kwak (the student who put up the parody poster), the main issue here is freedom of speech and his right to criticize what he perceives to be political correctness gone overboard. My response is, yes he has the freedom to criticize what he perceives to be political correctness. But along with that, other students have the same freedom to denounce him as ignorant and I agree with those criticisms against Kwak.

It is a tricky situation in that yes, to a certain degree, one strategy for us as Asian Americans to fight back against the prejudice and discrimination that we’ve experienced through the years is to appropriate the stereotypes and reclaim the derogatory slurs that have been used against us and to turn them around for our own purposes. Other cultural minorities groups have been successful in doing this, such as Mexican Americans reclaiming the term “Chicano” and gay Americans reclaiming the term “queer.”

However, this does not mean that Asian Americans should start going around spouting stereotypes left and right. Such an effort to reclaim derogatory slurs needs to be focused, coordinated, and consensual. Unfortunately, Kwak’s effort in the form of his parody poster were none of those.

Instead, as Director Yugawa noted, his effort made fun of another Asian American student and used offensive stereotypes that rekindled very painful memories for many Asian Americans. Instead of uniting other Asian Americans as allies in the fight against anti-Asian racism, he alienated them.

The lesson here is that Asian Americans have a right to criticize what they believe to be political correctness and even to try to reclaim offensive historical caricatures. But in the process of doing so, if they use demeaning stereotypes against other Asian Americans, they should be prepared to accept the criticisms and denouncements that will inevitably follow. Ultimately, freedom of speech goes both ways.

This is an update to the incident this past July at the The Valley Club outside of Philadelphia, where a summer camp of predominantly Black and Latino children were kicked out of the club’s swimming pools after White club members complained about their presence.

As MSNBC reports, the Pennsylvania Human Relations Commission has completed its report on the incident and has found that despite its denials, the club is guilty of racial discrimination in its actions:

The club has maintained that there were too many children for the number of lifeguards on duty and that many of the children who were at the club couldn’t swim. . . .

[Email] messages quoted in the report include one from club board member George Whitehill to the rest of the board that said in part, “Race is an issue since every email of complaint mentioned race.” . . . The state report also noted that other large groups that came to the swim club did not generate the same reaction.

For example, a plumbing company has held an annual party at the club that draws about 100 to 125 people each year, about five to 10 of them black, the report said. It found that far more children were in the pool for those parties, yet no club members threatened to quit and guests did not report “inappropriate or rude comments” from club members.

Club lawyer Joe Tucker said Tuesday night that the decision “has nothing to do with the actual facts” and would be appealed. “The die was cast by the media firestorm. They had no choice but to reach the decision they did,” Tucker said.

Apparently almost everybody except the club itself can see that it was painfully obvious that race was a significant, and probably only factor in how the children of color were treated.

The saddest part is that, in the face of overwhelming evidence against them, the club continues to deny that race played any part and instead, chooses to blame the entire incident on the media. This is just another unfortunate example of colorblindness to the extreme and racial ignorance.

Or, as many would probably sum it up, it’s racism, plain and simple.

In a recent post, I described how economic tensions seem to be making many Americans not just more stressed out, but also more likely to lash out against those around them, particularly if they are immigrants. While that post focused on individual-level tensions and hostility, a recent Time magazine article discusses the case of Cirila Baltazar Cruz, a Mexican from an indigenous background, who recently had her daughter taken away from her because she does not speak English, a case that unfortunately highlights this same kind of anti-immigrant sentiment on the institutional level:

Cirila Baltazar Cruz comes from the mountainous southern state of Oaxaca, a region of Mexico that makes Appalachia look affluent. To escape the destitution in her village of 1,500 mostly Chatino Indians, Baltazar Cruz, 34, migrated earlier this decade to the U.S., hoping to send money back to two children she’d left in her mother’s care. She found work at a Chinese restaurant on Mississippi’s Gulf Coast.

But Baltazar Cruz speaks only Chatino, barely any Spanish and no English. Last November, she went to Singing River Hospital in Pascagoula, Miss., where she lives, to give birth to a baby girl, Rubí. According to documents obtained by the Mississippi Clarion-Ledger, the hospital called the state Department of Human Services (DHS), which ruled that Baltazar Cruz was an unfit mother in part because her lack of English “placed her unborn child in danger and will place the baby in danger in the future.”

Rubí was taken from Baltazar Cruz, who now faces deportation. . . . [A]dvocates for Baltazar Cruz had charged that the problems sprang from faulty translation at Singing River. Baltazar Cruz was later joined [at the hospital] by a Chatino-speaking relative but the hospital declined his services and instead used a translator from state social services, an American of Puerto Rican descent who spoke no Chatino and whose Spanish was significantly different from that spoken in Mexico.

According to the Clarion-Ledger, the state report portrayed Baltazar Cruz as virtually a prostitute, claiming she was “exchanging living arrangements for sex” in Pascagoula and planned to put the child up for adoption. Through her advocates, Baltazar Cruz adamantly denied those claims. . . .

The social-services translator also reported that Baltazar Cruz had put Rubí in danger because she “had not brought a cradle, clothes or baby formula.” But indigenous Oaxacan mothers traditionally breast feed their babies for a year and rarely use bassinets, carrying their infants instead in a rebozo, a type of sling. . . .

In such cases, says the Southern Poverty Law Center’s Bauer, a lack of interpreters is a key factor. When a mother can’t follow the proceedings, “she looks unresponsive, and that conveys to a judge a lack of interest in the child, which is clearly not the case,” she says.

The article goes on to note that Cruz’s advocates also argue that for several centuries now, new immigrants to the U.S. who were not fluent in English have safely and successfully raised their children. So the question becomes, why is this case different and why is Cruz in danger of losing her own child now?

Unfortunately the answer is, because American society’s level of acceptance and even tolerance of new immigrants — particularly if they are unauthorized and lack English fluency — is basically at an all-time low. On top of this general sentiment and as I noted earlier, the economic recession makes Americans much more economically (and therefore emotionally) defensive, insecure, and threatened.

In this particular case, we also have another sociological dynamic — the retrenchment of a “traditional” American identity. In other words, the reality has been that in the past, in order to be considered an American, you basically had to be White, plain and simple. Non-Whites weren’t even given the opportunity to become accepted as American and this country’s history is littered with examples of systematic exclusion — the Cherokee Nation, Chinese exclusion, Jim Crow segregation, etc.

But in the last few decades and as American society has become more demographically diverse and multicultural, the definition of what it means to be an American was gradually expanding to become more inclusive such non-White and immigrant groups. However, it was also inevitable that such a change would be subtly and explicitly opposed by “traditional” Americans.

Even in the past year or so, we have seen numerous examples of this backlash, including racist reactions to Barack Obama’s election and the upsurge in threats against him, the resurgent popularity of the confederate flag, and the return of anti-minority segregation in public facilities.

As such, we can see that in this particular case, the mother’s lack of English fluency implicitly violated the authorities’ code of “Americanness” and was enough to disqualify her from not just remaining in the country, but from raising her own child as well. An equally tragic part of this episode is our society’s misguided and naive attempt to be colorblind and to ignore and in fact, deny that these racial dynamics even exist.

Unfortunately it looks like things will get worse before they get better for many immigrants in this country.

It is an unfortunate reality in contemporary American society that from time to time, an economic recession occurs, such as the one we’re in right now. As sociologists have documented over and over again, when people experience financial difficulties, many also begin to feel insecure, threatened, and defensive. In such times, it is also common for people to lash out at those around them who they see as a threat to their security or at least someone who contributes to the larger economic difficulties that they are experiencing.

Many have argued that it is this climate of social insecurity that is responsible for the overheated and often viscous arguments taking place all around the U.S. these days around issues such as health care reform. As another example and as described in a recent article from the Philadelphia Weekly, this is exactly what seems to be happening in and around neighborhoods of South Philadelphia, where there have been numerous physical attacks and assaults committed against Asian American students:

Dozens of the alleged incidents are relatively minor—name-calling, verbal threats, petty robberies, random punches in the head while walking down stairwells, and general intimidation. But according to [student Wei] Chen, at least six times last school year those minor incidents escalated into massive rumbles where outnumbered Asian students were pummeled by packs of teens, sending several of the victims to hospitals. . . .

Many Asian students continued living in fear for the remainder of the school year . . . In a cry for help, scared students signed petitions, wrote letters, held meetings, staged a walkout and pleaded with school administrators to do something about the attacks.
 But the violence at South Philly High, listed among the state’s “persistently dangerous schools” for the third consecutive year, continued.


Male and female Asian students—especially those new to the country, who speak little or fractured English—have been targeted over the past few years, in schools from the Northeast to South Philly, in elementary and high schools. Students and activists say that Chinese, Vietnamese, Cambodian, Pakistani and other Asian youth have been singled out, assaulted in cafeterias, hallways, on city streets, school buses and everywhere in between. 


Kids say the violence has often been dismissed by school safety officers as well as administrators. “This is a cultural problem,” Wei Chen claims the former principal at South Philly told Asian students on the day after the subway rumble.
 District officials acknowledge that some situations weren’t handled well.


The article goes on to note that there have been some efforts at addressing the problem through school and community forums and informal mentoring programs to assist newly-arrived immigrant students adjust to their new schools, and that such efforts seem to have had some initial success in reducing the number of physical attacks. However, as the new school year starts, many students are still very tense and apprehensive about whether the situation has actually changed.

The article also acknowledges that the overwhelming majority of attacks have been perpetrated by African American students, who collectively make up 62% of all students in the school district. Does this mean that African Americans are inherently racist and prone to violence? Or are there some community and institutional-level factors that operate in the background and contribute to tense relations between African Americans and Asians? The article offers one potential insight:

As of 2008, Asians accounted for 5.7 percent of the city’s population, up from 4.4 percent in 2000—an increase of 15,000 Asians. Many of the new arrivals move to areas populated by fellow countrymen, often in neighborhoods adjacent to longtime African-American enclaves.
 “The school may be thought of as black turf by some black students,” says Yale University sociologist Elijah Anderson, a renowned expert on black urban living.

“The outsiders—the Asians who are making inroads—can then be called into account for any moves they make within that situation. You have race prejudice developing as a sense of group position, a proprietary claim on certain areas of the home turf.” Anderson, who taught at Penn for 32 years and frequently uses Philadelphians in his research, believes that the school tensions are likely about dominance.


It goes without saying that such acts of violence can be devastating for the victims, not just physically and academically but emotionally, and can lead to depression, mental health problems, and even suicide. Being targeted also leads many Asian Americans to join a gang, initially to help protect each other from physical attacks but all too often leading to a downward spiral into criminal activity.

Professor Anderson’s explanation about demographic changes leading to neighborhood instability helps us to begin understanding the larger social forces that contribute to the problem. On top of that, once we add the effects of the recession and feelings of economic insecurity, we begin to see more clearly what sociologists have argued all along — the highest levels of prejudice occur not between groups at the very top and those at the very bottom, but between groups that are directly adjacent to each other on the socioeconomic hierarchy.

This is because groups that are right next to each other on the socioeconomic ladder are competing for the same resources — political, economic, and educational (or at least they perceive themselves to be in competition). And sadly, when groups compete with each other, racial/ethnic tensions, hostility, and violence become almost inevitable. Whether this occurs between Whites and Blacks, Whites and Latinos, Blacks and Asians, this scenario has played itself out over and over and over again throughout American history.

The situation in Philadelphia is the perfect and latest example of this pattern — African Americans have traditionally been marginalized institutionally, then begin to feel further besieged and threatened when newcomers (Asian immigrants) move into “their” neighborhoods and schools, and accuse them to to be “taking over.” Having very little collective political or economic power, African Americans scapegoat and lash out at the Asian immigrant newcomers, likely seeing them easy targets due to their lack of English fluency and familiarity with American society.

This is not to excuse or condone the perpetrators of such attacks — I feel that they need to be stopped and appropriately disciplined, regardless of their race or ethnicity. What I am saying however, is that such attacks are not entirely due to individual motives or prejudices. Instead, we need to recognize that there is an wide range of sociological factors that have directly and indirectly lead to and fueled such inter-racial tensions.

To move forward positively and decisively toward addressing this situation before someone is tragically killed, we need to treat both the symptoms and by curing the fundamental disease — the feelings of political powerlessness, economic insecurity, and culture of glorified violence that leads too many students to internalize anti-Asian stereotypes, ultimately resulting in physical brutality.