Sunday, December 9, 2007

The only one (or two)

Yesterday I attended a state political luncheon that was a good four-hours away from my liberal college town. Why I got invited, why I drove four hours there, stayed four hours, and drove four hours back is too long to get into. Suffice it to say, I found myself, at 1pm, with a plate of local food--fried flounder, grilled swordfish, clear clam chowder, cheese biscuits, pork ribs, pork loin, black-eyed peas, coleslaw, and yellowcake for dessert (I was told to try everything, so I did--have to say the black eye peas and flounder were FANTASTIC!) sitting at a long banquet table with about 300+ people, who were either sitting or standing, Christmas music blaring out of speakers, and we were all inside a huge boat warehouse (the boats were stacked 3 deep) enjoying all this free food, courtesy of our host (who was also running for re-election on the democratic ticket), State Senator X.

At some point the proceedings began and State Senator X, invited all elected officials to join him on the stage, as well as the various presidents and chancellors of the state university system. So I saw two of my bosses--the president of Southern State's University system as well as the chancellor of Southern U where I teach. And there was the governor, the lieutenant governor, various state senators from the West to the East, and more local officials--city controllers, commissioners, aldermen (or alderpeople?). The stage held the power base of my state, and as we rose for the Star Spangled Banner (sung by a local high school junior who one day hopes to attend med school at Southern U) I scanned the stage and crowd and realized:

I am the only Asian American person in this entire crowd.

Actually, it turned out not to be true. I'm not sure at what point she came in, but there was another Asian American woman I saw as my party exited the building. So we were the only two Asian American people at this event (and I did get to walk around/mingle, and meet/greet some of the politicos on the stage and power brokers in the warehouse, including our host, State Senator X, who is a very charismatic fellow).

I also noted that while there were a few women on stage (and by few, I'd say about half a dozen) largely the state power base is comprised of white men--probably straight white men (or at least not out-gay men) since there was an off-color innuendo that was made about one man being able to vote on both sides of the aisle and therefore someone who "goes both ways" (UGH). But in a Southern State with a fairly large African American population and a burgeoning Latino population, there was not a single non-white person on that stage. And even among the 300+ in the warehouse, I'd say I saw about half a dozen Latino people (or who I'd identify as Latino), and about 2 dozen African American (perhaps 3 dozen--but seriously, it did not seem like there were a lot of black people walking around). And as I noted earlier, I was the only Asian American person I saw for the majority of the event.

I should add a caveat that there may have well been a few people from a local American Indian tribe in the crowd, since the state representative from that region was there and may, himself, have been American Indian.

Perhaps because of the party I was with or perhaps because of the way I was continually introduced (as an English Professor at Southern U) I didn't get weird looks and my racial paranoia didn't kick in. But I also didn't feel comfortable. And perhaps, more than anything else, I couldn't help thinking about representation. That our government, in large part, is based on a principle of elected officials who represent their constituents. And I thought about my Asian body in the midst of this largely white sea of people and the way that I could be seen as a representative of the "Asian" race--and that as I was introduced as an English professor, the way I represented Southern U. and liberal arts in general.

And I think it's sad--that I was the only one (or two) -- that I may or may not have had to represent on behalf of Asian Americans. And I think it's really sad that the power base of my state does not reflect the racial demographics of my state, especially given its antebellum, post-bellum, and 20th C. record on Civil Rights with respect to African Americans. I did ask if there were black state senators and I was emphatically told that there were "a lot" (although no one would give me a figure and we all know how people-of-color are perceived to be over-represented) but that they didn't come today, probably because of the holidays (which makes no sense because were they saying that black politicians take a longer holiday? Or perhaps that the black state politicians were largely Jewish and celebrating hanukkah?

I don't think I'd have the stomach for politics, but I do think that there needs to be a more diverse stage for power--because this is partly how we make change happen--that the power base, whether at the university, the city, the state or the national level begins to actually represent the diverse interests of all its constituents--and start to look like the demographics of its constituents as well. I know this begs the question of whether one has to "look" like someone to represent their interests. I guess all I can say is, I don't think it can hurt. And I certainly think that making room on that stage for more women, for out queer people, and for people of color, can only make this Southern State a truly progressive place.


Cipher said...

I had a surprisingly similar experience of disbelief today in San Jose where I went to a diner called Cardinal's a found that my sister, my brother and I were the only Asian American patrons of the restaurant. Given that it was San Jose, I was a bit shocked. There wasn't the issue of "power" to speak, but certainly there was one of "demographics." I think the "Asians" were smart and having really good food while we ate greasy ass Sunday morning food to clog up our arteries.

Jennifer said...

As someone who was raised in the Bay Area and returns there often, I'm surprised at your experience because I'd say nowadays you'd have to go out of your way to find someplace in which Asian Americans were the only ones amidst a white crowd! I'm curious, was it that you were the only 3 Asian Americans amidst a white crowd or were you the only 3 Asian American amongst a mixed crowd? Because if it's the former, especially in San Jose with such a large Latino population then I'd DEFINITELY say that sounds like a surreal experience.

CVT said...

I was raised in the Bay Area, and I agree - whenever I go back home to visit my family, I get this breath of fresh air, this "Aaaaah" feeling when I see all the other Asian folks (as well as just mixed folks) around.

Currently living in Portland, Oregon (the whitest city in America - look it up), I have the experience of being the "only one" (literally - whether we're talking mixed, Asian-American, or even a person of colour) about 90% of the time. And it wears on me. I just found this blog randomly, and I'm pretty excited about it - thanks for creating it.

Jennifer said...

Thanks for finding your way to this blog and for posting a comment!

You know, the funny thing is, I think I wax rhapsodic about all places on the West Coast, because I was in Portland recently (September) and did notice that it was very white but also didn't feel uncomfortable the way I do in the South. I don't know whether that had to do with the places I hung out at in Portland (Powell's books, college campuses) or whether it was the residual glow of spending time in Seattle, WA (with very close friends and a palpable sense of Asian-Pacific Rim presence).

But I definitely agree--no matter whether it's West Coat or East Coast, the Midwest or The South, it's EXHAUSTING to be the only one--and as both your post and Cipher reminds me--it happens in lots of places for Asian Americans, even in the racial paradise of the SF Bay Area (which, I know, is not so Edenic if you actually live there, but I like to imagine it as the land of milk and honey while I'm South of the Mason Dixon line).