Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Another stab at answering questions about race & Asian Americans

So I'm continuing to answer some questions from some great students I met while doing a workshop on race at Private U. last week. In my previous blog post, I answered 2 questions and now I'm going to tackle another two.

[Note: I hadn't intended on so much of a lag between posts but I came down with a virus and have literally been in bed the last 5 days--ACK! I'm still in bed but I have a bit more energy right now, although my doc told me that my symptoms would probably last for another week--SIGH]

1) How is having "Asian" become another overachieving racial group, like white, different from "Latino/Hispanic" or "Black? being so?

Hmmmm... I think that there are maybe 2 questions being asked (or implied). One is the assumption that Asian Americans are an "overachieving racial group" who are like "whites" (or Caucasian Americans). The second is that Asian Americans and Caucasian Americans, because of their "overachieving" status are different from "Latino/Hispanic" and "black/African American."

So first a word about terminology for newer readers of this blog. I never capitalized or use quotation marks around racial groups (yeah, I know, I just did above, but it was more in quoting from the question) like white and black Americans. And I pretty much use African American and black interchangeably, like I use white and Caucasian interchangeably. I do capitalize references to geographic spaces, hence Asian American. And I also use interchangeably Native American and Indian American (which is capitalized, I know--in general we capitalize those phrases like we capitalize Latino). I should also note that the question didn't ask about American Indians, a notable omission this time of year; unfortunately Native Americans are often left out of the conversation on race because folks think they aren't statistically relevant or they appear to be invisible. And finally I don't use the term "Hispanic"--which is a government word used to describe people whose ancestry is from South America and the Caribbean of Spanish origin. I use the term "Latino," instead, because I think it recognizes the hybridity of influences (beyond Spain) of people who are of Latin American and South American and Caribbean heritage.

OK now on to the question. I guess I'd want to rephrase it--why are Asian Americans and white Americans PERCEIVED as overachieving, and by distinction, why AREN'T African Americans/Latinos (and I'd add American Indians) PERCEIVED as overachieving (and by implication are often believed to be the opposite--lazy/not hard working, not successful).

Because I think it's about perception. The model minority myth that haunts Asian Americans declares that Asians in America are an overachieving "model" minority. But there are several problems with this myth. First, all stereotypes are damaging, in my opinion, because they are 2-dimensional portraits of people. Second, it's not true--not all Asian Americans are uber-smart/throwing off the Econ curve/science nerds. I, myself, squeaked by with a B- in pre-Calculus (and that was my last math class in high school--I took stats in college). I we WERE this incredible minority, then I pose this simple question: why aren't there more Asian American university and college presidents? If we are so good at school, wouldn't you think that we'd make it to the highest rank in the field of higher education? If we're so good at math and with money, why aren't Asian Americans dominating in the ranks of CEO's of U.S. Fortune 500 conpanies? And if we are so high achieving, why aren't we more visible/public? How many famous Asian Americans can you actually name (and I mean Asian AMERICANS.

Finally, believing that Asian Americans are high achieving, like white Americans, implies that black and Latino Americans are not--that they are NOT the model minority (and I suppose I should note that while we see many white Americans who are high achieving, I suspect that there are also many white Americans who aren't).

I guess what I'm saying is that in our current society when white American heterosexual hegemony predominates, this means that white Americans get to be rendered a fully human and individual whereas other racial minorities somehow have to "represent" or speak on behalf or act on behalf of the entire race.

2) Given that each "Asian American" group is so distinct is it accurate to classify them all into one group? Is that group too heterogeneous?

Short answer: yes. The term "Asian American" isn't a very efficient or even in many cases effective phrase to encompass a group as large as the disparate and diverse ethnicities that comprise the racial label Asian American. However, I use it and I think we need to use it and think about it because of the ways that people of Asian ancestry have been racialized and subject to institutional forces of racism (and oppressed by white supremacy/white privilege) throughout U.S. history.

In other words, racial categories exist because the system or racism needs racial categories to exist. It'd be great if we could get rid of racial categories, but that time won't happen until we can get rid of racism (see my post on this topic on the right sidebar "Getting Rid of Race"). I know folks want to see it as the other way around, but the truth is, the system of racism needs racial categories. So until we can get rid of racial inequities I don't think we get rid of racial categories.

Will the category of Asian American mutate? I think it already is. And I think depending on who you talk to, they either feel affinity with this category or they soundly reject it-and I think that's as it should be--I mean, I may believe and understand racism and racialization as a historic and institutional process that has power at its root, but my parents, who identify strongly with being Chinese (or Chinese American) may not believe that they have anything in common with their Vietnamese or Filipino neighbors. And so they may not feel like they need that label and may reject it.

And honestly, whether someone identifies as Asian American or with any racial category or not, doesn't matter to me. What matters to me is that we work towards ending systems of inequity, racism being a big one to tackle--so we need as many folks on board with this project of any and all racial/ethnic categories to work on ending this form of oppression.

Tuesday, November 16, 2010

Questions about Asian American movements & quotas

So as I noted in yesterday's post, I am going to be taking the time to answer some questions that students at Private U. had written down on index cards--I'm tackling 2 today and will try to get to the rest in three or more blog posts. I am abashed that time did not allow us to have a longer conversation about these questions and other important issues related to race/racism/white privilege, but I'm hoping that some of the students at the workshop as well as anyone else in the blogosphere, will feel emboldened to chime in with their comments/observations/questions. Just one word of caution to any new commenters--please respect the rules on the right hand side of this blog, and please respect my pseudononymous identity on this blog--thanks!

1) Why do colleges have a ceiling/quota on us? Why was the SAT's emphasis on math decreased and English increased?

I'm not sure if this was a question specifically about Private U. or colleges/universities in general. Public vs. private colleges have different criteria and restrictions/guidelines that they must follow in terms of how many students they are allowed to admit in-state vs. out of state, international vs. U.S., legacy admits, need based admits, athletic admits, etc...

Inherent in the question it the assumption that there are more Asian American college applicants than there are spaces--in other words, unlike with "other" minority groups (African American/Latino/American Indian) Asian Americans are being treated like they are "white" and certain restrictions are being put on the number of Asian American students being admitted. The other assumption in the SAT question is that an emphasis on English vs. Math is automatically going to hurt Asian students.

So let me tackle the SAT question first. I don't know if that's true--in other words, I have not read nor heard anyone in Southern U.'s office of admission that there is a change of emphasis in terms of the SAT Verbal vs. Math sections. If there has, in fact, been a national trend to de-emphasize math scores, I'd be suspicious and find it odd since math and science are being so heavily touted as something that every college student should focus on (and that U.S. students, K-college are woefully behind in terms of their student peers around the globe).

I also think the SAT question assumes Asian Americans are going to spank all other racial groups in math but that they will be at a disadvantage in terms of their verbal skills. All I can say to that is I'm a walking refutation of this since in both my SATs and GRE scores, I *squeaked* by a decent # in math but excelled in the verbal section (no surprise there I guess).

In terms of quotas, I will say that trying to keep colleges balanced in terms of diversity is very important--racial and ethnic diversity of course, but also gender/sexuality, class/region/religion. I also think that this is a red herring in terms of the model minority myth--and the U.C. system is a perfect case study for this. Over 10 years ago, the U.C. system abolished affirmative action--and the assumption was that every U.C. campus would be overrun with Asian students. But the reality of what happened was that Asian American admits did not increase in huge #s--in fact, if you broke it down by ethnicity, certain Asian American ethnic groups decreased in terms of admissions--among Filipinos, Vietnamese, Cambodians, Hmong, and Laotians. So getting rid of racial quotas means that there is a decrease in black and Latino students (which definitely happened in the U.C. case) but no appreciable increase in Asian American freshmen--the reality is, getting rid of affirmative action seems only to benefit white college students.

2) Did pan-Asian political/social movement launch the first articulation of "Asian American" as a race, or did other earlier factors/influence cause it?

Yes. Very specifically, two graduate students, Emma Gee and Yuji Ichioka, coined the phrase as a way to reject and replace the term "Oriental": as Ichioka notes, an Asian American “gives a damn about his life, his work, his beliefs, and is willing to do almost anything to help Orientals become Asian Americans” (qtd in Chinese America: The Untold Story of America's Oldest New Community Kwong and Miscevic 267-268).

But it's important to understand that political consciousness did not just suddenly appear in the 1960s--it was galvanized by the political foment of the 1960s, particularly the civil rights struggles of the African American community, but the group soon to be known as "Asian American" were agitating in legal and extralegal ways from the time of the first waves of Asian-ethnic immigration--Chinese men fought racist laws taxing them for their queues, Japanese men fought for the right of naturalization, Filipino men fought for the right to be recognized as American citizens (I could go on and on, but I'd recommend reading a work of Asian American history -- any by Ronald Takaki, Sucheng Chan, or Gary Okihiro are quite exceptional).

Anyway, my main point is that while Asian American as a term, a racial group, became solidified in the 1960s (and as part of the anti-war agitations/civil right fomentations), many other factors were in place to allow for that political agitation to come to fruition (the injustices of the Japanese American internment foremost among them as well).

OK, that's it for today's post--I'll try to blog again with more questions (and answers) tomorrow--but please feel free to leave a comment and start the conversation!

Monday, November 15, 2010

The necessity of common spaces to talk about race

So I just got back tonight from leading a workshop on Asian Americans and the politics of racialization at a college that I'll call Private U. I was invited by one of Private U's Asian American groups, and I was really awed by how many students showed up. What followed in the hour and a half of the workshop was a really wonderful conversation about race and Asian Americans. At least I tried to make it or intended it to be a conversation. Yet I confess that the professor in me tended to be a bit long-winded in my answers and because it was only meant to be an hour-long workshop, I also talked at folks more than I wanted to--because there were key points I really wanted to get to, like the fact that race is a social construct but that just because it's not linked to genes or blood doesn't mean it's not "real"--it's as real as money, and we ALL know how real money is (and what I mean by that is that the dollar bill in your wallet is a piece of paper but we have all agreed to believe that the piece of paper has a value linked to a worldwide monetary system--but at the end of the day, it's a piece of paper--just ask folks who have lived through a revolution and total upheaval of their way of life).

Anyway, what I wanted to do in this blogspace is to share some of the questions that students wrote down on notecards--my idea was that I wanted the students to drive the conversation and that they should write down topics that they wanted to talk about and we would discuss these. But because of time constraints, we only got to address a single question: Is the model minority stereotype ultimately beneficial to Asian Americans?

So regular readers of Mixed Race America, I beg your patience and invite your participation. I'm going to be posting the questions that I got below and in the following few days, I'll be attempting to answer some of these question or more specifically, to create a dialogue and invite conversation around these questions. Hopefully some of Private U's students will chime in--the ones who went to the workshop. But of course I welcome everyone in the blogosphere to weigh in--so long as they follow the guidelines on the right hand side bar.

And for any Private U. students, please note that while you know my full identity, on this blog I'm pseudononymous, so if you can edit your remarks to refer to your college as "Private U" and to not mention my full name and my university affiliation, I'd appreciate that!

OK, here are the questions [and please note, I am not editing them--I am quoting them in full and staying true to the punctuation/phrasing]:

*How are mixed race Asians classified--socially, internally, personally: white/Asian American, black/Asian American, Hispanic/Asian American?

*Did pan-Asian political/social movement launch the first articulation of "Asian American" as a race, or did other earlier factors/influence cause it?

*Why do colleges have a ceiling/quota on us? Why was the SAT's emphasis on math decreased and English increased?

*Given that each "Asian American" group is so distinct is it accurate to classify them all into one group? Is that group too heterogeneous?

*How is having "Asian" become another overachieving racial group, like white, different from "Latino/Hispanic" or "Black? being so?

*We're in this racial middle as Asian Americans, what do you see as the future for Asian/Americans in the U.S. (politically & socially)?

*How do Asian Americans solve the "perpetual foreigner" problem?

*What is the relationship between the established Asian-American community and the wave of post-racialism? How are the young people participating in and rejecting the notion of racial identity?

Thursday, November 11, 2010

T.G.I.F. Joel Burns and the "It Gets Better" project

Well the midterm elections are over, and I suppose I could write about that--but I think I'd rather focus on the positives (or at least not get into a rambling post about the state of politics in this nation and what it may or may not reflect about the state of race/racism in this nation) and so let me turn to a different topic. Because it's Friday, and this blog is overdue for another

T.G.I.F.: The Great Impossible Feat award

So let me introduce you to Joel Burns. Many of you probably know about Mr. Burns and the video that went viral on YouTube of his thirteen minute address to the Ft. Worth City Council (where he serves as a member). Burns had been haunted by the rash of suicides by adolescents and young adults that were the result of bullying and/or a lack of support because of their sexual orientation (or in one case, perceived sexual orientation). Inspired by the "It Gets Better Project"--an on-line movement of celebrities and everyday people speaking directly into the camera and telling young people, specifically young queer teens, that life will get better--that suicide is not the answer to their current pain, Joel Burns used his time at the city council meeting to address the rash of suicides and share his own story about bullying and suicide with the people of Ft. Worth and as it turned out, the world:

[Joel Burns speaking to the Ft. Worth City Council]

The aftermath of Burns' speech is told by Burns to different news programs and talk shows, like CNN and The Ellen DeGeneres show:

[Joel Burns being interviewed on CNN]

[Joel Burns on The Ellen DeGeneres Show]

One of the things I was particularly struck by is the anecdote that Burns shared about one of the most poignant and remarkable stories that emerged after his video went viral. And that is the correspondence he has had with a friend of a gay Australian teen who had been contemplating suicide that very week--and after being shown Burns's video by his friend, he realized that there was hope and he didn't go through with his plan.

One person really can make a difference. And for that, Joel Burns, the "It Gets Better Project" and the many queer adolescents and teens who struggle with finding a place for themselves--who daily endure with taunts and threats--they all deserve a T.G.I.F. award.

Because sometimes just surviving is an incredible feat in itself.

[UPDATE: 12:21pm: I just saw this very moving 2-minute spot by Tim Gunn (of Project Runway Fame) where he shares his own story of failed suicide and gives a plug for The Trevor Project--which is this AMAZING website/resource/suicide hotline for GLBTQ people, especially for youth. So here's Tim Gunn's "It Gets Better" video below:]