Tuesday, May 29, 2007

My slacker blog

This is my last day in Boston, and I woke up early and thought I'd do a little email trolling. And I discovered "blogger search." Now. I know that if anyone is reading this who knows me you won't be too surprised at my lack of blog saavy or maybe even basic internet know-how. For everyone else, you'll probably just think I'm "sloooooowww" and that's OK -- it's moments like these that I *shamefully* fall back on reminding myself that I have a PhD in English and therefore can't be ALL that stupid, right? (Ok, quiet from the peanut gallery--I can literally hear derisive laughter from a lot of people, esp. those who are in Academia and know English professors).

At any rate, what I just wanted to say is that doing a quick 10 minute search yielded some pretty interesting results--I mean, first of all, I'm certainly NOT the only person writing about race and American culture. Or Asian American issues. Or even doing this from an academic pov. There are some excellent blogs and if I were more awake I'd link them in this message, but two off the top of my head are Racialicious, which used to be Media Watch, the forum for looking for race in the media, and a blog by a professor at UMass Amherst, CN Le. He's a sociologist working on immigration, census data, transracial adoptees and he's got a great site.

And the other thing about looking at all these sites is that it made me realize what a slacker I am--I don't put in labels for posts. I don't have a nifty little counter. Or tell people how to subscribe. I was mentioning to my friend Paul that I wish more people would find my way to my blog and post comments and he said to get people you have to post comments on their site and then leave your own blog address--like a little calling card. Guess it's something I'll think about in the next week. There are some things I want to do to spiff up this blog site. Because I really would like to be engaging in real dialogue and conversation with people, those I know and those I don't know.

Anyway, no real earthshattering revelations on race and America today, other than there are some people already talking the talk and I just have to find them, meet them, and figure out a way to engage them in this (new to me) blog o'sphere.

Sunday, May 27, 2007

Urban living

So I'm in Boston, my old stomping ground (I did my PhD at the citadel of tedium and woe) for a conference. And it's great being back here. I miss urban living, although not so much that I'd want to move to a city. I guess I miss the rhythm of cities, particularly Boston, and I also miss the diversity. Yeah, that's a cliche, but really, it's just refreshing to see different people. And in particular, it's refreshing to see a lot of Asian Americans. I miss that living in the South--a critical mass of people who look like me.

And why is that important?

Part of it is familiarity and an assumption (perhaps false) that others who look like me may have shared experiences with me, similar sensibilities, family dynamics. Again, not always a guarantee.

Part of it is feeling like if there is a critical mass of Asian Americans, well it suggests a certain open mindedness, perhaps--a certain "cosmopolitan" atmosphere. When there is a real diversity of various ethnic groups, it means that there is a type of ethnic and racial mixing going on, someplace, even if it's in the context of public transportation or the grocery store. Again, not always. There are so many segregated neighborhoods in Boston. And certainly Boston's own racist history is not something to be lauded. But still, the first black governor. A viable Chinatown. And a friend said Southie is getting more tolerant. So a critical mass of Asian Americans in this area, or in an area I would move to or live in, makes me feel more at home, especially coming from California.

Or maybe I just miss really good Asian food.

Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Danger of Purity

Mary Douglas, or rather Dame Mary Douglas (also Dr. Mary Douglas) the renown British cultural anthropologist, died today. Her most famous work, Purity and Danger (1966) examined the taboos surrounding the body in various cultures, particularly what we label as taboo in terms of consumption. Her work helped shape the ideas that were formative for my dissertation, and I'm sure she was influential to countless other academics, and really, just anyone interested in culture and the body.

Her work in Purity and Danger, and other essays throughout her career, charts the boundaries of the body--of what we ingest what we can incorporate as part of our body--the food we take in becomes us; therefore, we only eat that which is pure. Anything that we deem impure, offal, domesticated animals, insects (and I'm thinking specifically of American society), we do not eat.

Extrapolating beyond consumption and the body to the body politic, I think that there is a danger to purity. The social symbolism speaks for itself. Thinking of America as only a country of "pure" people has been troubling and problematic throughout its history. Thinking about policing our borders from the scourage of immigrants--legal, extralegal, illegal--seems akin to thinking about what foods are deemed taboo and thus inedible.

I wonder how we could learn from Mary Douglas's conception of purity and danger through a larger conception of what we will allow to cross the borders of our body--that being more flexible in the conception of what becomes us may just be a healthier thing in the long run. And in terms of the body politic, readjusting who we conceive of as part of the body politic of the United States seems like a necessity for us to survive as a nation and as part of the larger world we live in.

Monday, May 21, 2007

Experience for President

Last night I was listening to a community radio station dj interview a local band member (both sounded about college aged or mid to late 20s) and the conversation turned to politics, with both guys agreeing that they found all the Democratic presidential candidates problematic--Hillary was a sell-out, insider politician who panders to every group possible. And Barack, well, they like Barack, but they are concerned with his "lack of experience" and hence, they are supporting John Edwards, mostly because of his work on poverty.

So there are a few problems with their support of Edwards over Obama. First thing, Edwards only ran for one public office in the state of North Carolina (the Senate) and he didn't even serve out his full term because he was running for for President--he didn't get the nod but did get picked to serve as VP, which is something people seem to forget when they cite Obama's lack of experience as a reason not to vote for him--I mean, Edwards did the same thing, although perhaps people also cited lack of experience at his candidacy, I can't quite recall. And while I think that he has done some good public service and that, in particular, the policy he is trying to enact for funding students to go to college is admirable and far thinking in its scope, I also have a hard time swallowing how serious he is about poverty given the lavishness of his home, which was featured in Newsweek magazine (I mean, $5 million dollars--do you really NEED a $5 million dollar estate???!!!).

Finally, it's the experience charge against Obama that I find hardest to swallow. Obama has served in both the Illinois State Congress as well as the U.S. Senate (granted, he is a junior senator, but still, he is serving and is on a few impressive committees, like Foreign Relations). He worked as a grassroots communitiy activist in the South Side of Chicago right after graduation for a few years, decided he needed a law degree to do the things he really wanted to do in terms of community activism, graduated magna cum laude from Harvard in 1991 with his pick of top tier firms, but turned down these corporate offers to work for a firm in Chicago that focused on Civil Rights litigation. He has YEARS of working with different local, civic, state, and now federal committees and organizations--he has clear experience in dealing with various constituencies, and he has lived in so many different regions of the U.S.--Hawaii, California, New York, Illinois, and now Washington DC. His experience, both politically and personally, I think speaks for itself.

So when people choose to support Edwards over Obama and cite experience, what do they really mean? Edwards is only 8 years older than Obama. He has years more experience in the courtroom as a trial lawyer, a lucrative career that put his current personal worth somewhere between $12-60 million dollars (I don't know why such a wide span--I'm getting this from an internet source on Answers.com), but does his experience as a trial lawyer or his personal wealth give him experience to be President? Or is it that Edwards looks the role--has the right sounding name, the right profile, the right look to be President? Couldn't it be that people, subconsciously, just don't believe that Obama "looks" like Presidential material, and so they resort to an inaccurate assessment of his experience?

If the shoes fits....

Sunday, May 20, 2007

The Corruption of Power

Are Americans obsessed with race? My friend, Bernie, left a comment along these lines, and I have also heard this from others, both American and non-American. And I suppose we are, as a country, pre-occupied with race, either in the machinations we go to avoid thinking about or talking about race (at least in an accurate sense) or those who feel compelled (as I do obviously) to think through the implications of the fact that this country -- its riches, its greatness, its problems -- were founded through the cheap labor of others, most notably those who were deemed darker and inferior than certain European colonizers (most notably British, French, and Spanish). In a nutshell, when labor is either free (slavery) or so cheap it's almost the same as being free (indentured servitude), and when you are able to take land for free (from indigenous people) then you are going to make a profit, which will allow you to buy/take more land and profit off of it with more free or cheap labor, and before you know it, you are a captain of industry.

I remarked yesterday to a friend that it seemed as if almost all indigenous groups around the world are marginalized and figured as "darker" than the colonizers. In Japan, it's the Ainu people. In China, it's the Weigars of the West. In Taiwan, it's the indigneous Taiwanese. In each of these cases, it's not white European colonizers creating this hierarchy but the colonizing tribes or ethnicities who come in, take the land, subjugate the people. And as my friend said, perhaps this is because those who colonize need to marginalize and "other" the people they have just colonized, in order to solidify and consecrate their power.

So it's about power.

I am ,of course, simplifying things. But in a book I'm reading of the history of Chinese in America, there is a small section that discusses community organizers and the ways they get co-opted within the system--that they start out railing against the system and critiquing the government, and then they get sucked into the government--they move from being community activists to being appointed to boards and commissions and then to winning seats on city councils or mayorships, and before you know it, they become part of the system. And the system, being corrupt, often corrupts those it sucks in. The authors list some prominent former black mayors, such as Marion Barry. And I couldn't help but think about Barack Obama--he had left a lucrative job in corporate America to become a community activist in the Southside of Chicago. And he's now running for President--will power corrupt him? Has it already? Or are there politicians and leaders who can compromise, as politics require, yet keep their integrity intact--to remember the legacy of race in this country and realize that they want to stand up and make a difference?

I hope so. We need someone who can make a difference. We all need to believe that WE make a difference--and an example, a model, one who inspires, could make power not a matter of corruption but confidence.

Thursday, May 17, 2007

The melting of Greenland

Yesterday I read an article about a university researcher who had literally heard part of Greenland's ice pack crack. The article goes on to say much of what was glossed in Al Gore's film Inconvenient Truth--that Greenland is literally melting away. And last week I got an email notice from a friend about an on-line effort to have people boycott gas stations on May 15 in an effort to bring down oil prices (these efforts go on about once or twice a year--a national "gas out" day as a protest to our inflated gas prices). Problem with these boycotts is that (a) I don't think it has much if any effect on oil prices (b) we pay a subsidized rate on gasoline compared to everyone else in the world. I mean, c'mon--the US is the cheapest place to gas up your SUV or hybrid compact.

Do these things have something in common? Well, if you believe (as I do) in greenhouse gas emissions and global warming, then yes.

Do these things have anything to do with mixed-race America, the topic of this blog? Well, I suppose not really--not directly. Except that when the polar ice caps melt, we'll all really be in the same boat--one world finally.

It does make me wonder if what I do, talking about race, thinking about race, writing about race, is really making a difference to make the world a better place, or perhaps more specifically in terms of global warming, am I doing my part to stop global warming? I suppose I'm not doing undue harm, and that certainly being an educator allows me a forum to talk about these issues, even when they don't seem to have a direct bearing on my class topics. But should I be doing more? I suppose the answer is "YES" but the question is, what more should I be doing? I don't think it's feasible, at this stage, to be doing a PhD in climate change. But perhaps I should be shifting my focus from social justice to environmental justice--or maybe more importantly, linking the two--social justice and environmental justice together, to create a socially and more environmentally sustainable future.

I am going to a conference about Literature and the Environment. This could be the place to think more carefully about the ways in which race intersects with the environment. I'll be thinking about this with respect to Ruth Ozeki's novel My Year of Meats but perhaps I should extend my thinking, to a more green syllabus that also thinks about other environmental issues. Any suggested readings? Would love to hear them.

Wednesday, May 16, 2007


At a recent dinner party, my host asked me what blogs I read (I had just announced that I was beginning to blog myself), and I realized that aside from the NY Times on-line and my various email accounts, I don't read anything regularly on-line. So. I decided to educate myself about blogs and read about half a dozen accounts. And I realized the obvious: the quality of blogs out in the world is extremely variable. And most if not all of them tend towards the solipsistic. Which, again, seems pretty obvious. I mean, most blogs have a single author rambling on and on about a topic that interests him/her. Autobiographical acts. Even if they have general themes or deal with abstractions, political interests, philosophical concerns, by and large they are mediated and framed by a single point-of-view, that of the author of the blog. So it's like reading someone's diary entries. And the quality of those entries varies blog to blog.

I naturally decided to look at ones that either had a race based or Asian American theme. And then some more personal ones. One of the better ones I found was by Angry Asian Man, the same guy who does the cartoon of the same name (which you can see compliments of AsianWeek), or you can just go to his blog: http://www.angryasianman.com/angry.html

In the category of "you have GOT to be kidding me" was a blog by a Chinese American girl, somewhere in the High School to College range. I am taking a guess about the ethnicity and age, but based on the Chinese pop song that played when you entered the blog site, the fact that it was a blog written in English but had user names that reflected Chinese surnames, and the fact that the discussion on the blog was of the inane variety of "OMG--I cannot BELIEVE he said that to her," I don't think I'm too far off the mark. This particular site had a black backdrop with hot pink hearts pulsating to the beat of the pop song (didn't know you could do such things--guess I'm really old school) and I didn't spend too long reading the posts, but all I could think about is: why would anyone who doesn't know this girl bother to post anything? And yet, she had people who visited her blog, who did post things--things she didn't like, things she did. And she commented on them.

But I suppose that brings me to my own reasons for blogging. And I have to admit that it's the way in which my remarks can be seen to be a form of narcissism that gives me pause. It's probably why I don't bother to read people's blogs and why I don't expect a lot of people (if anyone at all really, other than the few random friends who are interested) to ever find my blog or comment on it.

So again, why am I doing this? The public, journalistic, internet writing? The self-confessional mode? Ideally, I want a dialogue, a real conversation about race. Practically, I thought it would give me an outlet to write while I'm writing the BIG MANUSCRIPT. But if I dug deep and thought about it, wouldn't it just be part of my own self-interested way of spouting off, if only to an audience of one, myself? But secretly, or not so secretly since I am writing this in the most public of forums--THE INTERNET--what I truly desire is a mass world-wide audience to hear my ideas on race. To be validated that my ideas are smart, cogent, insightful.

Who knows? Tap, tap, tap...is anyone out there.....

Thursday, May 10, 2007

Brown: the new black

Had a great conversation with a good friend from Boston this morning--we talked a lot about identity, in all its permutations, from race to religion to gender and nation. One of the things he mentioned was something he heard on either The Daily Show or The Colbert Report, which is that "brown is the new black"--meaning, Latinos are now facing the same kind of discrimination that historically African Americans have (and I would say still) faced. Apparently membership in the KKK has risen due to a lot of anti-immigration rhetoric/fear/anxiety--and of course it's mostly fear coming from Mexico rather than other countries (although my guess is that people wouldn't be any happier about illegal immigrants from Turkey or China or Afghanistan). And this also reminds me about a student who recently told Spike Lee (during a Q&A at Memorial Hall) that she believed that Latinos were now more discriminated against than any other racial group--that Latinos face the most racism. This, as you can imagine, was not well received in the audience, half of whom were African American (hard to guess demographic percentages, particularly because I'm horrible at estimates/abstractions and because I'm aware that we have a tendency to overproject figures when we're dealing with non-majority populations. So a crowd that is 50% African American is going to be perceived to be 75% because people, by and large, aren't used to seeing such large percentages).

But back to my point--is this true? That there is a perception that this is true, I don't doubt. And I don't want to start playing the "most oppressed" game (it's like ranking genocide--while most people would say The Holocaust was the worst, people start to debate the Armenian genocide versus what happened in Rwanda with what happened in Cambodia, and even taking the Holocaust into account, is this really productive? Isn't it all too horrific for words?) but I guess what I'm wondering is why that perception exists. And what this may be saying about a changing understanding of racial hierachies and racial affiliations at this time.

Of course Asian Americans continue to be the "model minority" so what do I know...

Wednesday, May 9, 2007

Who is your family?

There is a line in Barack Obama's memoir, Dreams from My Father, in which he quotes an aunt who says, "If everyone is family, then no one is family." The context is Obama's father, a man who included everyone in his generosity, to his financial and social detriment. The saying is meant to convey the necessity of drawing boundaries, of making a distinction between those who are closest to you and the concentric circles of friends and acquaintances that one draws.

I've been thinking about this phrase lately. It suggests the limits or indeed the fallibility of universalism--of thinking that everyone is your brother, your sister, your family. It also suggests the kinds of affiliation based on tribal lines that have gone on for centuries and that we (as in human beings) continue to follow: we affiliate first with our families (nuclear and extended) and then in concentric circles outward--our neighborhoods, towns, states, etc... But there are other modes of affiliation, ones based on religion, language, ethnicity, and of course race.

And there is the ongoing issue of who you consider to be part of your family. At a time when the whole notion of blood is called into question and we adopt to and adapt different customs and values, how do we decide, especially as adults, who our family is? If I think about my own nuclear and extended family, I'm not sure how much "in common" I have with them anymore, other than a shared family tree and early history. But in terms of the family I've "adopted"--an academic community, the circle of friends I've accumulated over the years in college, in grad school, in my current university--these are people who literally do not "look" like me, but who share many of my values and sensibilities and preferences. But does this make them my family? I may identify with them, on certain levels, more than my family of origin, but I do feel, in my heart and in my head, that at the end of the day, my family is still in my hometown in California.

Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Am I a racial hypochondriac?

A few years ago I came up with this term "racial hypochondria" to describe that feeling that people of color often have that they may be seeing things in "raced" terms when in actuality, it's just a normal, everyday circumstance. [caveat: being an academic I have to, of course, say that other people may use this term, it's not like I have a patent on the phrase]. I like hypochondria as a way of explaining this feeling rather than paranoia--because often times people who are hypochondriacs became that way due to some bad bout of illness or physical ailment. And really, for anyone who has experienced racism, from mild stereotypes to overt discrimination, you start to see the world "colored" (pardon the pun) by these experiences. You start to expect it--the remarks, the insinuations, the discrimination--or wonder if it is there.

Yesterday afternoon I was listening to "The Story" on NPR with Neil Cohen. He was interviewing a couple from Minnesota who were born and raised in the US (well, the wife was, the husband moved when he was a young child) of Middle-Eastern background (she is Lebanese American, he is Iraqi American) and they are both practicing Muslim. They described some pretty bad experiences of discrimination with a neighbor who tormented them for almost a year and some minor experiences of ignorance and stereotyping. But one of the things that they were clear about, was trying not to read "racism" or "discrimination" into everyday life. That, while difficult at times, it was important to distinguish between an action or comment that is discriminatory/ignorant and one that is devoid of prejudice/bias. And it is hard.

And I think one of the things that is hard, for anyone conscientious about race, is do you ever get to turn it off? The radar, the sensitivity, the awareness--it just always seems to be "on" for me, whether I voice it or not. And at times, I do wonder if I've become a hypochondriac, looking for comments to be racially inflected when they are made innocently or when I have, potentially, misinterpreted the comment as racially inflected or biased. Is this the curse of being an academic trained in explication/analysis or a self-aware person of color living in a race-conscious society? Or both...

Sunday, May 6, 2007

The transparency of whiteness

I just finished reading a grad student paper (I've just finished teaching a seminar on 20th C. American literature and race theory) that mentions the desire (ala Franz Fanon) to be "a man among other men" -- in other words, to be seen as white or raceless. And this idea that to be raceless and to be white are synonymous, is one of the ideas I feel needs to be debunked. Sure, people in academia (and I am one) know this and recite this, but in everyday conversations, in popular and mass culture, this is not the case. And even among academics, this isn't the case. I mean, it's one thing to preach it in the classroom, it's another to practice it in your home or at the supermarket. And it never fails to surprise me how people I know who are "sensitive" to topics of race with their students still continue to equate "race" with the non-white (among other misapprehensions). As if whiteness were transparent. Invisible. And it is true--white people have a certain type of privilege of invisibility--that their actions are those of individuals whereas non-white people often have their actions scrutinized for racial or ethnic characteristics.

Although I have to say that I've been surprised at the restraint shown by the mainstream media when covering the Virginia Tech shootings. Once it was revealed that the gunman was of Korean ancestry, I thought that there would be all sorts of coverage related to the pressures put on an immigrant Asian family, the model minority myth, or other such stereotypes. But aside from a few "robotic" comments, people have stayed away from making claims about his Korean heritage as an influence for his killing spree. He seems to be a lone gunman rather than a Korean American lonegun (actually, my pet peeve with this coverage has been the emphasis on his nationality--that he has a green card but is not a citizen and is described as Korean rather than Korean American--the guy came over when he was 8, definitely 1.5 generation). But then again, I'm not watching Fox News, so I don't know if I should be celebrating so quickly.

Obama for President

Barack Obama is my new favorite person who I haven't met but would like to one day. Or put a different way, he is my new favorite celebrity whom I'd like to have a cup of coffee with. I just finished reading Larissa Macfarquhar's article about him in the most recent New Yorker (May 7) and if you don't have the energy/will to read Dreams from My Father read this article ("The Conciliator"). I read Dreams from My Father for a book group earlier in the year, and if I hadn't already decided that Obama was prime presidential material, I am thoroughly convinced that of all the candidates running, he is the one with a vision for the U.S. beyond politics as usual. And more importantly, his sense of civic duty and social justice is inspiring.

Perhaps I'm equally attracted to the things Obama has discussed about race--specifically his own mixed-race background, but also his work in Chicago and his time spent in other places in the U.S. and in Kenya. And he doesn't shy away from talking about race. At least not in the book, which, granted, was written before he was a senator and before he announced his presidential candidacy. I don't believe Barack Obama is the best candidate because he's the first viable non-white candidate, the first demonstrably mixed-race candidate. But because his sense of race, that it is complex and thorny but need not be divisive, jibes with my own beliefs. For the first time in a long time, I feel excited about a presidential candidate. And at the very least, I think Obama's candidacy could push discussions and conversations about a mixed-race America more into the mainstream of American discourse.

Saturday, May 5, 2007

Feliz Cinco de Mayo

What IS Cinco de Mayo exactly? I did a google search (because although I did grow up in California I've forgotten what it was but I knew it wasn't Mexican Independence Day) and what the 5th of May celebrates is the defeat of the French at the Battle of Puebla, which was led by Gen. Zaragosa. Of course, Cinco de Mayo, besides being a school holiday in California was celebrated as a big drinking holiday--the Mexican equivalent of St. Patrick's Day. In fact, the analogy seems all too apt, because what both holidays have in common is a celebration of a little known ethnic/national event or person, a holiday which is more renown in the U.S. among Irish Americans and Mexican Americans than among Irish in Ireland and Mexicans in Mexico. And, of course, for the non-Mexican and non-Irish in the U.S., it's a day to drink. Weird.

Friday, May 4, 2007

Random thoughts about race

Why blog about race? Why the need or compulsion to write about race in a public internet forum? I'm not sure--perhaps this is a continuation of my experiment with the now defunct "Race to Survive" blog (a blog I began this past fall to talk about race in popular culture because the reality show Survivor had divided people into tribes by race). Perhaps I want to talk about race in popular culture and general American culture (like the upcoming presidential race). Or perhaps I want to blog in public because I'm embarking on a 15 month project of finishing my book manuscript on passing. At any rate, whether it's a conversation with random or known people in cyberspace or simply a way for me to get my thoughts on paper in a public way, I'm going to use this space to jot down my miscellaneous musings about race. And I invite you to join in the conversation.