Monday, July 30, 2007

Academic Privilege

Hello--if you are reading this blog, more than likely you are a friend of mine and have an invitation to view this blog. It's now Monday morning and I've had a very interesting weekend, which I'll attempt to rehash below (and I apologize for those of you, probably most of you, who talked to me and know these details already).

The blog entry below this one--Friday, July 27--is entitled "Duke Lacrosse: The Exonerated?" and as you'll see, if you go to the trouble of reading it and the 25 comments that follow (3 of which are mine) it created quite a storm. There are very strong opinions about the Duke lacrosse case. And let me now confess to some naivety on my part:

Naive belief 1: I didn't think anyone really read my blog. I certainly didn't think random people would bother to troll the depths of the blogosphere to read what I had to write.

Naive belief 2: I didn't think this was such a controversial subject. I mean, yes it is controversial and heated and I knew of disturbing stories about Duke faculty getting targeted and about the harassment they were facing from Duke students and some other folks, but I had no idea the extent of the hatred out there and the degree of harassment that Duke faculty and others were experiencing in light of this issue.

Naive belief 3: I don't think of myself as a public figure. I assumed that since I didn't specify that my affiliation was with Southern U, that I could be a professor at any other area college and just be living in "liberal college town," but furthermore, I assumed that I was writing as myself and not Dr. myself, Assistant Professor at Sousthern U's English Department. I certainly didn't stop to think about how easy it would be to find my faculty webpage and to download my cv, and of course, I forgot that my cell phone & home address are listed on my cv.

Naive beleif 4: (final point). I started this blog as a way of pre-writing (I'm writing a book on passing and mixed-race Asian Americans) and as a way to put down the things I think about related to race and American culture in a place that could be read and shared and discussed by other people. I've been complaining, lately, about always preaching to the choir and I thought that the blog could be a way to engage in dialogue about race with not just like minded people but people who were really interested in having REAL discussions about race--one's that are difficult to articulate and maintain in a respectful manner. I knew it could be challenging to do this, but I thought it was part of my larger mission as someone who teaches and researches about race.

Anyway, here are the series of events that followed:

1) Someone with the pseudonym "Wayne Fontes" cuts and pastes from my blog on the lacrosse rape case and posts it on the blog "Liespotters"--which is apparently dedicated to exposing the "lies" that liberal folk, esp. humanities professors, tell about the duke case. I was described as yet another "Angry Studies" professor and there was a link to my blog and then someone posted my UNC email address.

2) I got a flurry of blog activity, which for the first 11 posts, were civil, if a bit harsh. Some of the comments I think were fair and some made good points, at least to give me some food for thought. I may not have agreed with all of the opinions, but I did think that perhaps these people (who largely seemed to be men) wanted to really discuss this and dialogue about it, and my first 2 comments were to that effect (although I did lambast the anonymous people, because the anonymous posters were largely flaming me and I said I wasn't interested in that kind of comment, but that I appreciated people who actually raised provocative questions and points and that I would try to explain my own point of view. However, by 7pm that day, I realized that most people didn't want dialogue, they wanted to vent or to target me, and so I wrote a final comment that said that I appreciated people coming to view my blog, that they were welcome to continue reading future posts, but that I was no longer responding to this thread because I was tired, had other work to do, and I appreciated that people were polite and that they kept the conversation civil up to this point.

3) When I went to check my email before going to bed at midnight on Friday, I saw that 11 more people had posted and a quick glance revealed that they had gotten more mean spirited rather than less. Again, I naively thought that when I wrote that I was done commenting, that it would all taper off and that when I said let agree to disagree, people would accept that. I became very uneasy (perhaps a premonition of what was to come) but so far no one had crossed the line and emailed my college account. I wrote to a few friends and colleagues asking for advice on how to handle the blog situation, because I wanted to be able to get past the Duke thing and to talk about other issues, like the recent news that a mule had just given birth and vets are trying to figure out whether it's a chimera (a freak abnormality of genetics) or a legitimate mule birth.

4) I checked my email for the first time at 10am on Saturday to discover that someone named Jim Clyne had emailed me telling me that he had just impersonated me on someone else's blog. To back up, let me say that a CUNY Brooklyn History professor, KC Johnson, has a blog called "Durham-in-Wonderland" in which he blogs extensively and provocatively about the Duke case--essentially attacking anyone who doesn't agree with his position (he also has a book forthcoming in September about the mistrials of justice related to this case). He had posted my entire blog entry, but not only that, he had put a link to my faculty web page and had discussed some of my academic articles and research, mocking both the opinions I wrote in my blog as well as my academic credentials and my research. This person, Jim Clyne, then posted a response to KC Johnson by pretending to be me. KC Johnson then posted this fake response and responded to the fake me, in terms that I think were pretty nasty. I'm not exactly certain. A colleague-friend, who did read it, told me not to, after I had printed out a copy. Needless to say, I was very shaken up knowing someone had impersonated me, but I was also shaken up by the hate mail that had now found its way into my college email account.

5) What followed Saturday afternoon was a series of email message and phone calls. Again, a very supportive and enormously helpful friend-colleague immediately called and gave me great advice about how to handle everything. On his advice I wrote to KC Johnson, forwarding him the email message from Jim Clyne, which proved that I did not write a response to his blog, I then asked him to remove all mention of my name from my blog and to alert his readers that there had been a hoax going on and to stop emailing me. I also told him that he did not have permission to use the contents of my correspondence with him on his blog or any other publication, and I copied the general counsel of Southern U and the chair of my department. [Johnson did take down the fake response, his response to the fake response, and the comments to those blog entries. He included a note that said that I "denied" replying to him and that he would have to take me at my word since I wouldn't give permission to have him print my email message to him. He did leave his original blog entry replicating my posting about the lacrosse thing, with links to my faculty page and website, although he discontinued the commenting feature and he wrote a note saying that my blog was now set at "invitation only" as was my right.] I then made my blog into an "invitation only" site and, after I received a phone call to my cell phone from someone named Les Blaitz in Iowa, who wanted to "talk" about the Duke case and who said he got my cell from my cv, I had another friend-colleague take down all contact information from my faculty website and I talked to the chair of my department to let him know what was going on, in case the craziness spilled over into Monday (thank goodness it hasn't). I also did not read any of the hate mail. I did glance at it--Les, when I wouldn't talk to him, sent me a very nasty note. I don't know if it was threatening or not, because I decided for my mental health not to read any of the mail or the comments that were posted after my last comment at 7pm to my blog. I do know that regardless of whether anyone was really physically threatening in the email messages I got, that when someone starts a message by calling you a "fucking whore" what follows is not going to be nice. I did, on the advice of legal counsel and some colleagues, send a "reply" to these people, essentially informing them that their original email message had been recorded and that it was illegal to send harassing or threatening email messages and that sending such messages could result in legal action. I haven't gotten any more email messages or phone calls.

6) Let me end my numbered points by saying that I think it's over (knock on wood) but more importantly, as upsetting as all of this has been, there has been amazing support out there. I received triple the number of supportive email messages and phone calls--some from people I've never met but who have had similar run-in's with KC or over the Duke issue. I had colleagues on a weekend call me and be so helpful with giving advice and being supportive. I had people drop by my home to check up on me, and friends from far away call me to make sure I was doing OK. The positive moral support far outweighs the negative hate mail, and that was the turning point for me Sunday morning when I was still feeling uneasy and weird about everything. I realized that I had received, in total, 6 pieces of hate mail, 22 comments, and one phone call. This is minor in comparison to the overwhelmingly supportive email messages, phone calls, and in person confirmations that I received. Again, I can't judge how threatening any of the email messages were, but I have been told by friends who did read the comments that while some of them are mean spirited, none are truly threatening. And in comparison to the death threats and verbal harassment that Duke faculty get over this issue, this is nothing. It's totally minor. And while this blog is set at invitation only currently, I'm hopeful that in a month I'll put it out in the wider world of the blogosphere. I may, for protection purposes, take down the whole Duke postings. I am still not sure if that would be the right thing to do. I do know that I'm not allowing anymore anonymous postings and will put a caveat about not giving permission to cut and paste from my blog--if anyone knows about intellectual property law, give ma a ring.

So where does this leave me? I'm really fine. I've learned a lot and will write about it later, when I've had some time and distance away from this subject. I think it needs to be written about. Not even because of what I went through but just the idea, which is so angering, that someone, this KC Johnson, has incited so much hate and has been the conduit for people to attack faculty around the nation based on their progressive ideas. He has targeted Duke faculty, but he has been known to attack other progressive-liberal faculty members, at Wesleyan, for example. But perhaps the larger picture is this: there are a lot of angry white men out there. Truly, if you go to Durham-in-Wonderland (not that I think you should--I was going to put a link to KC Johnson's blog, but I don't think anyone should give him the time of day), you will find that people are angry. Some angry women, but lots and lots of angry men, the majority seem to be white. And they are nasty, not all, but a lot of them are angry and nasty and say the kind of racist and sexist things that confirm your worst fears. And it just feels discouraging, but at the same time, it also affirms, to me, that something needs to be done.

And so we finally (sorry for the length of this post) get to the title of my blog entry: Academic Privilege. Because I have A LOT of it. I have a PhD and a university affiliation--because of these things I had the support of my colleagues and chair in English and I had access to a lot of advice, most importantly, free legal advice. I do have a platform to speak about the things I want to speak about and believe in, both in this blog but also in the research I conduct and the classes I teach. On a regular basis I get to make my opinions known and heard, and for the most part it's done entirely within the realm of academic freedom of speech. I don't feel censored by what I write about or research or teach. I get a lot of support from the university, my department, colleagues and friends. I am lucky in many, many ways, but more importantly, as part of the less than .05% of the population holding a PhD, I am very, very privileged, to have a PhD, to have a tenure-track position, to have access to power and influence, to be a semi-public figure.

There is a responsibility that comes with academic privilege--and there are many things that I think I feel more strongly about--like academic freedom of speech, like doing the research I do on race, like speaking out about gender and class and sexuality issues. And I don't want to feel, as I briefly did this weekend, that I should second-guess myself with what I write on this blog or that I don't have the right to talk about issues of race or that I should bow to the hate mail or the not-so-nice-things that were written about me on KC Johnson's blog. There is a problem of dialogue and discourse--maybe I was naive to think the blog was a place to have civil dialogue and discourse about race. I don't regret trying--I am a little discouraged, but I'm also determined not to give up. I don't want to preach to the choir, but I also don't want to plead in front of the lynch mob. But somewhere in-between there has to be a space and a place where people can engage in civil dialogue about difficult subjects, like race. Where we can all be open minded, not say everything perfectly, but still manage to hear one another.

If anyone knows where that place is, let me know. I'll be there in a second.

Friday, July 27, 2007

Duke Lacrosse--The Exonerated?

Today I heard that Mike Nifong, the disgraced D.A. who mis-handled the Duke Lacrosse rape case, apologized to the three men he originally accused and said that there was not substantial evidence to link them in the rape case. And as various magazine and newspaper articles, and even a book written by the former Duke Lacrosse coach all emphasize, these young men were all victims of "racial profiling" and are, instead, innocent of the charges brought against them.

And in the wake of this media storm, I'm not sure what to think with respect to the woman who brought these accusations against the men. I certainly feel sympathy for her, because regardless of whether she made up her story or she was, indeed, sexually assaulted, she more than likely did not bargain for the reception she received at the house party in which the lacrosse players were present and she more than likely did not think when she was a little girl that she wanted to earn extra money to support herself through college by taking off her clothes for drunken college boys.

If she did lie, well, then that's a topic for another post--because it is damaging for women to lie about rape--there are so many women who are raped every day, many by people they know. And they are afraid to come forward because of the criticism and judgment they will face--most especially the idea that they are lying. And in some cases (a few I know personally) the man in question probably didn't think that he was raping a woman who was crying or saying no, as incredible as that is to believe. There were two such cases of women I went to college with, who told me their stories of male friends raping them, while they were sleeping, even after they had said no--but because they were drunk or because they were making out, or because they were friends, the idea that they could accuse these men of rape never entered their minds, and they were both clear that they were sure that these men had no idea that what they had done was rape, even though the women just lay there, and in one case, she cried the entire time. So if this woman did lie, well, she's doing a lot of damage for a lot of people.

But putting aside the veracity of her story--the larger problem I have with the exoneration of the Duke lacrosse team is over issues of race, class, and sex. There are the facts of the largely white team members and the two women, one African American, the other half-black, half-Asian. There is the overheard racist remarks outside the house ("Thank your grandaddy for my cotton shirt") and the racist comments that the women reported went on inside the house. There is the privilege that comes with wealth and with attending an elite university like Duke and with playing for an elite sport like lacrosse. And then there's the fact that this group of young men, athletes, who ostensibly represent their school, didn't think twice about hiring women to take off their clothes for them. Strippers, exotic dancers, whatever language you want to use, it's women who, I believe for the most part, are doing this to gain money, a lot of money relative to the labor involved, although perhaps not a lot of money relative to one's mental and emotional well-being. I don't know. I have acquaintances who have worked in strip clubs before, and they talk about a feeling of empowerment, but mostly they talk about how good the money is, and that the cash flow outweighs the crap they have to put up with.

What I'm trying to get at is that regardless of whether or not these men sexually assaulted this women--I don't feel the Duke lacrosse team is fully exonerated. Yes, they may not have perpetrated rape, but are they totally innocent of the white privilege, the class privilege, the very male privilege that they wear as casually as they wear their uniforms? And Duke students who support these players, do they stop and think about the larger picture--that rather than seeing themselves as embattled victims of a corrupt legal system--as victims prosecuted by the media, perhaps they need to really think about what it means to have the privilege of attending Duke University or any four-year university--of having a college degree, something only 25% of the US population has. Shouldn't Duke students, lacrosse players and non-lacrosse players alike, owe it to themselves to question the kinds of privilege they walk around with and the ways in which subtle promotion of white male superiority gets produced around not-so-innocuous parties involving dark skinned women taking off their clothes at the command of white men?

Tuesday, July 24, 2007

Color Blind Casting

NPR did a story today about the opening of yet another GREASE: the musical revival on Broadway--but this time, the twist is that the leads of Danny & Sandy (played in the film version by John Travolta and Olivia Newton-John) were selected from a reality tv show called "I'm the One that I Want" in which (ala American Idol) viewers selected the winners of the show, who would then go on to be the leads in the Broadway production.

I didn't watch any of the show, but I did remember seeing a promo for it and in the original cast of wannabe Sandys and Dannys there was an Asian and black face among the crowd. They were not the winners--and I guess it doesn't surprise me that it fell out this way. Yet, it did make me think about color blind casting and the decision of the tv producers to put these visibly marked non-white contestants in the show. Was it to highlight the idea of color-blind casting? One of the guest judges of the show, who is also a producer of the Broadway production, said that she was gratified to see the winner of the reality show be a brunette because it proved that viewers had more imagination about who Sandy was--that she didn't have to be a blonde or look like Olivia Newton-John. But of course, this is a musical set in the 1950s--could we really expect Sandy to be anyone other than a white woman? Could Danny be Asian? If color blind casting were truly a reality, wouldn't we be seeing more visibly non-white faces on Broadway? For all the Audra McDonalds who have broken down doors, there are still too few roles that go to black and other non-white actors because of the perception that the role was either originally conceived as "white" or because of a certain default to whiteness in our collective imagination.

But how do we get more actors of color out on stage? And on tv? In my version of GREASE, Danny would be Asian, Sandy would be black, Rizzo would be American Indian, Kienickie would be Latino, and Frenchy...well, Frenchy could still be white--after all, in color blind casting anyone is free to play Frenchy.

Friday, July 20, 2007

The Passing of Sekou Sundiata

The morning of July 18, 2007 (just 2 days ago) the poet, artist, activist, intellectual, Sekou Sundiata, died of heart failure. I first met Sekou as part of an inter-disciplinary honors forum my class, "Mixed Race America" was taking part in. 2 other classes, all focused around issues of identity and race, to a large degree, met with him one night as he talked about his latest artistic piece, THE 51st DREAM STATE and led us in a discussion about race and citizenship and our post-9/11 world, sharing a particularly powerful anecdote about heading to the site of the twin towers a few weeks after they fell, and finding himself confronted with his own racial anxieties, prejudices, and fears, as he imagined a man heading towards him as one with Arab features--as someone who could be a terrorist--someone who could hurt him and countless others. But as the man came closer, his Middle-Eastern features morphed into a Latino man hurrying past him, up a flight of stairs, and Sekou realized that he had turned this Latino man into a terrorist -- coloring him with his fear and imagination, because of the state of terror he had internalized.

Sundiata was 58 years old. He will be missed. We need more poets to speak our fears and to adress, directly, our internalized racism and anxieties about the "other." I'm glad I got to meet him and to see him produce THE 51st DREAM STATE.

If you would like to hear a clip of Sundiata, go to this site:

Audio clip of Sekou

Monday, July 16, 2007

Hapa Fever

This weekend I've been reading a lot about hapa issues. Hapa, for those unfamiliar with this term, is the Hawaiian word for "half" and generally speaking refers to anyone who is mixed race, with part of that mixture being of "Asian" origins. This is rather loosely taken in Kip Fulbeck's book, Part Asian*100% Hapa, since some of the participants don't seem to have any Asian ancestry (there is one person who is half African American, half Native American and there is a Japanese-Korean person, which would seem to make this person inter-ethnic Asian rather than hapa, but perhaps I'm splitting hairs since all participants in the book are self-identified, and if you tell me you are hapa I will believe you). It's a great book--and I'd encourage anyone interested in mixed-race issues to find a copy (you can easily get it on Fulbeck says it's the book he wishes he had growing up, and I see why--it's a simple book of portraits from the collar-bone up of various self-identified hapas and their answers to the question: What are you?

I also just finished a memoir by May-lee Chai called Hapa Girl (a fairly page-turning memoir, although I found the instances of naked racism in South Dakota hard to stomach--although important to remember that it went on in the 1980s and probably still does today), and in the NY Times this weekend there was an announcement that Sarah Gore, the youngest of the Gore daughters, was married to Bill Lee, a Los Angeles businessman. It wasn't until I saw this item repeated in the Angry Asian Man blog and then found a photo that I realized that Lee is Chinese American. Which means that the bio babies of Sarah and Bill will be hapa--and Al Gore will soon have non-white grandchildren (of course, perhaps he already does since his other daughters are also married and may have adopted children from other countries and heck, maybe their spouses are also non-white--surnames are misleading).

And I guess what impresses me about the quick google search I did for info on Lee & Gore's wedding was that only one site made mention of his ethnicity--and it only said that she was marrying a Chinese American businessman.

Anyway, is this a tide we're turning--that there is now a coffee table photo book, a memoir, and the man who may help stem the tide of global warming is going to be a global granddad within his own family? Or are we just proof that the model minority myth isn't so mythical and that mixing with Asians has just never been as controversial as crossing the black-white color line?

[Amendment--July 21, 2008: Since I've written this post I've had a few thoughts about the use of the term "hapa" which has come to be seen as a controversial adjective/label within the mixed-Asian community. For more, see this post on my thoughts about the use of "hapa"]

Friday, July 13, 2007

Discouraging Words

I am someone who believes, fervently, in the power of words. And yet, there are times (like today) when I wonder what difference my own words will make in the world. Whether it wouldn't be better to "do" rather than "write" or "talk." Or perhaps I am returning to a misgiving I have about academia--specifically the work of my particular field, English Literature and literary criticism: what difference will another work of literary or cultural analysis make?

I know the answer, of course. So it's not necessary to rehearse why words matter. But I am struck, today, by two stories, one emailed to me by a friend, the other I stumbled upon in the NY Times that are also reflective of discouraging words.

The first, about a Montgomery County (VA) school district who are pulling a lesson plan that was supposed to precede discussion of Harper Lee's To Kill a Mockingbird, returns to the debate in schools about how to handle the "n" word, "nigger." I should make a note here, that ala Randall Kennedy, I'm choosing to actually print, albeit in quotations, the actual epithet rather than refer to it as the "n" word. To use a pop culture analogy, it's sort've like the way JK Rowling has her characters refer to Lord Voldemort as "he who shall not be named" with another character (I think it's Dumbledore) commenting that there is a power to not-naming as much as naming. And, personally, I also think it's true--that there is a way in which we can give too much power to certain names--as well as create a hierarchy of slurs. For example, most people have no problem saying or printing the word "bitch" but "cunt" seems reserved for all but the most venemous of attacks, and "chink," "gook," "spick," and "kike," don't seem to have the same taboo-like qualities as "nigger," and yet in the right context, they can elicit just as much hatred and vitriol. Of course, I also understand that like it or not, there has been a racial hierarchy in this country, so perhaps it does make sense that not all racist slurs are equal.

But I digress. There is a larger story behind the decision to stop using this lesson plan, one based on an essay by African American author Gloria Naylor and her own musings with the word "nigger." Suffice it to say, it's a thorny subject, and feelings and issues of self-esteem as well as historical oppression are all involved. But perhaps at its very basic form, what is most telling about this story was a recounting of why one of the student's complained about the lesson plan: her white teacher's performance of African American stereotypes, adding a layer of discomfort and a signaling of difference that was not in the classroom before (apparently on the day of this lesson plan the teacher re-arranged the desks into a semi-circle and actually read the essay aloud, performing it for her students in exaggerated, some may say minstrel like gestures).

The second instance of discouraging words from the NY Times article is about the revival of Lacrosse among American Indian communities in upstate New York. After a discussion of its cultural significance among various Native communities, there is a segment that talks about how many of these new leagues do not allow girls to play and that, in fact, if a girl or woman has even touched a lacrosse stick, then that stick must be placed in quarantine for a week to banish the contaminating female essence, and in some instances, boys/men give away these polluted sticks once girls/women have touched them.

I don't know if I need to analyze any of these stories further--lets just say that I definitely categorize them as discouraging words.

Wednesday, July 11, 2007

Guillty Pleasures

We all have them--guilty pleasures. You know, the things you are embarrassed about liking. If you're a vegetarian, it'd be the occasional prime rib. If you're a feminist (like me) then you are embarrassed about receiving monthly issues of Glamour. Yes, I subscribe to Glamour. Now, here come all the caveats:

1) It's free. It was one of several options* I had in order to redeem miles that were about to expire through Northwest airlines (or Delta or American...I honestly can't remember now). [*It should be noted here that I did have options and so yes, this is why Glamour is a guilty pleasure--I chose it. I grew up reading discarded copies from my aunt, and of all the fluffy, women-focused magazines out there, it's the one I return to for my "fix" so to speak]

2) It's not that bad, in terms of negative body issues. I mean, yes, I just found an ad today about breast implants (YUCK!) and yes, there are plenty of skinny celebrities and a concentration on fashion and makeup that negatively contributes to skewed body images and consumerism. But, there are also some more intriguing things, like an attempt at feminism and global awareness by showing everyday women who are making a difference here and around the world--women who fight hunger in Columbia and female-genital circumcision and Mormon polygamy. And women who are educating others and being activists and who are trying to make the world a better place.

Now. All that being said, one of the things I find troubling about Glamour is the way in which it simultaneously tries to encourage racial diversity and sexuality while reinscribing both a racial and hetero normativity (yep, big words for a blog but what do you expect from an English professor?).

Case in point: the new Jake. "Jake" is a column written by a single guy who is supposed to give "the guy's point of view" for women--to chart his dating and relationship life, and when he finally does settle down, he passes the mantle onto the next "Jake." It's a column that has been running for the last 40 years, but for the first time, Glamour has allowed its readers to select the new "Jake," from 3 different candidates, which also means that for the first time, "Jake" will not be anonymous.

All 3 candidates were single white men. And the one who "won"--whom women voted for, was the most "guy" like or perhaps "dude" like of the 3. And I thought, what if the new Jake were black? Or self-identified as mixed race? Or identified as bi-sexual? Wouldn't that be amazing to push the boundaries of what we consider to be acceptable along a dating spectrum and a hierarchy of desirability? What if the new Jake were an Asian American man? Guess I'll just have to keep wishing and waiting.

Tuesday, July 10, 2007

My Precious

There is an article in today's NY Times about the proliferation of tea houses and tea purveyors in Portland, OR (it's in the Travel Section). And my first thought: it's all too precious. Of course this could also be a knee-jerk reaction to the subtle "Orientalism" of the whole tea fetish that seems to have swept through this section of the Pacific Northwest, with Moroccan inspired tea rooms, Japanese tea ceremonies, and people talking about the virtues of various Chinese white tea blends and Indian chais. Blah.

Is it just me or does it seem to be that certain things lend themselves to this type of preciousness--like tea--and that at the end of the day, what's so wrong with a bag of Lipton's? Of course, I am being hypocritical to a certain extent as a self-professed "foodie," but I also know that while I may prefer to have Creme Brulee for dessert when I'm out for a nice evening meal, there is also pure pleasure in a plate of Oreo cookies, and I actually prefer Log Cabin syrup to real maple syrup because that corn syrup/maple flavoring infused stuff is the taste I grew up on and therefore the taste I prefer.

Monday, July 9, 2007

Talking about race

Why is it so hard to talk about race? This may seem a naive/obvious/pointless question to ask, but I come back to it, again and again, when I find myself in situations where race is either the main issue or subtext or pretext of the issue at hand. And all of a sudden it's like there's the proverbial elephant in the room and no one wants to offend and everyone is well intentioned and no one wants to utter the "R" word (racist/racism) and so things get swept under the rug, or not, and people get tense and everyone wants to avoid the confrontation. And more likely than not, this discussion occurs among mixed groups of whites and non-whites, of people of color and non-people of color, and even among people of color and whites, points-of-view don't always adhere the way you think they will.

I'm thinking of a particular case-in-point, but professional courtesy as well as issues of confidentiality prevent me from giving particulars. Suffice it to say, the group in question are all highly educated, liberal minded, people, trained in critical thinking and dedicated in their respective activist causes. And yet, even in such a group of people there is a tendency to hide behind politeness and an unwillingness to probe further the real role of race and white privilege, in order not to offend or because people are well intentioned.

And I admit, I hold my tongue sometimes. Because tension is hard to deal with and everyone wants to be liked and respected and it's hard to be the sole person speaking truth to power, especially when there are things like pre-tenure review and politics of academia. But I also think that at heart, I sometimes hold my tongue, not only because I don't think it's an educational moment or because it's not politically expedient but because I don't want to offend--I am caught up in my gender role of compliant female, of quiet Asian American woman. And perhaps it's not gender or race, perhaps it really just is the desire not to be mired in conflict, not to create tension, to let sleeping dogs lie.

But in my classroom, I espouse and encourage my students to speak honestly about race, and I have made this my top pedagogical priority, because I think there are far too few places to speak honestly and openly about race, particularly in mixed-race settings.

I just feel discouraged over this particular professional incident, because it seems that if the best and brightest and most liberal in our midst can't come to the table to talk about race--if we continue to feel hemmed in by a need not to place blame or not to make people feel uncomfortable, how are we going to address the real issues of inequality, oppression, and racism?

Saturday, July 7, 2007

Speaking Truth to Power

I know that Americans often get labeled as being loud mouthed and rude--uncouth--but if you think about it, how often are people guided by politeness? How often do we choose to avoid confrontation or speaking out, even when we know it's the right thing to do? How often do we let protocol and decorum shape our responses?

I've been thinking about this lately because, as my last post indicated, I often feel pushed to speak my mind, perhaps even when I shouldn't, because I believe in the phrase "Speak truth to power." For those unfamiliar, it means telling your truth to others in authority, even if you think you may be at the receiving end of a smackdown. I believe it either came from the Civil Rights movement or from a black vernacular tradition (please correct me if I'm wrong!) and I want to give a shout out to Mari Oye, a rising Freshman at Yale University and a Presidential Scholar, who galvanized 50 of her Presidential Scholar peers to sign a letter protesting the war in Iraq and the use of torture and handed it to George W. Bush at a reception at the White House. For more on this story, go to
or find the link through Angry Asian Man's blog [June 30, 2007].

Mari, who is a granddaughter of two Niseis interned during WWII, is a shining example of speaking truth to power--of using her opportunity with Bush to tell him what she thinks is right and what she thinks is wrong. There were over 130 Presidential Scholars, so not all her peers agreed with her stand, and in fact, many found her activism undecorous, impolite, and improper. In other words, they felt that she should have gone to the reception in which they were being honored, made nice, and not spoke her mind.

And I suppose there is some merit to this point-of-view; to think about the time and the place for whether your message is appropriate--for when you will be heard.

But I think that Mari displayed both courage and integrity in her stance--in taking an opportunity to take her grievances and concerns to one of the most powerful people in the world right now. I mean, if you had 10 seconds to shake the hand of someone as powerful as Bush, what would you do? What would you say? How would you try to make a difference and take a stand (this is all, of course, assuming you are like me, someone with extremely lefty-liberal-progressive-antiBush/anti-Republcan/anti-war feelings)?

I often think we let politeness and propriety silence us when we should be speaking truth to power--when we should spend less time worried if we are hurting someone's feelings and more time protecting people who are truly being harmed.

Thursday, July 5, 2007

You People

So the first thing you should know when reading today's post is that I live in a fairly crunchy-liberal-progressive little town, one that currently has the highest tax bracket in the state because there is a tiny downtown area and not many businesses--largely, it's a residential community that abuts Southern University and traditionally people who lived in my small-crunchy college town were working class and affiliated with the university in the sense that they had jobs there, non-faculty ones. As the 70s and 80s came around, more graduate students and eventually faculty, from Southern U. bought homes and before you can say "gentrification" housing prices were shooting up. If anyone lives in the SF Bay Area or NYC, perhaps this will be a familiar tale, although the fact that average home prices in my town are still below $300,000 is probably laughable to anyone who has tried to buy a 3 bedroom, 2 bathroom home in the Bay Area.

At any rate, I had run-in with the phrase "you people" today as I was walking my dog around my neighborhood. It's a pretty sleepy little neighborhood, in fact, the street where the altercation happened doesn't even have sidewalks. As I'm walking on the final stretch to home, a brown dog, of indeterminate breed, pops out of nowhere and approaches us. I look around for the owner, but can't see anyone, and the dog is off leash and fast approaching. Now, the backstory to my impending discomfort about this situation is that I used to have a dog, Luther, who was very violent when approached by dogs off leash and have had some AWFUL things happen with dogs off leash approaching him when he's on leash (dogowners understand the whole off vs. on leash phenomenon with dogs. Off leash, both dogs are usually OK. On leash, it's a different story, and when one is on and the other is off, all bets are often off). Anyway, I was nervous and a the dog came over and started to sniff Bruno (and Bruno sniffed back) I called around for the owners and asked if they could please call their dog and get him away from my dog because I wasn't sure what Bruno would do on-leash to an off-leash dog.

At this point, the dog's owner, a white man in his late 40s or possibly early 50s, standing next to a white pick-up truck, calls over his dog and then starts to speak to me in an overly aggressive tone of voice, asking me if I lived on this street, and if not, I should stop walking my dog on his street because it was my own damn fault for walking my dog in front of his home (we were actually on the opposite side of the street from this man's house, but apparently, even the width of the road wasn't wide enough for my infraction of walking my dog) and that "YOU PEOPLE" should get off the damn street and mind your own damn business.

Now, as I was first sorting out all of this information, my first delayed reaction was, "Huh? You mean, he's not apologizing, he's acting hostile?" and then I of course took offense and asked him who he meant by "YOU PEOPLE" and that I had every right to walk my dog on this street--it was a public street and I wasn't doing anything wrong. At which point (because now I've engaged him and moreover, confronted him with his own irrationality) he gets even more hostile and he isn't quite screaming but he's definitely talking in a LOUD VOICE and keeps repeating the phrase "YOU PEOPLE" and "OFF MY DAMN STREET" in different variations as Bruno and I made our way back home.

And of course, I couldn't help but think, what did he mean by "YOU PEOPLE":

*Asian Americans?
*Dog Owners who used leashes when walking their dogs?
*non-Southern accented people?
*Uppity Women of Color who talk back to white Southern men?
*Overly educated, liberal, hippy, crunchy-granola, property tax raising, gentrifying, not-from-here Yankees who turn down their noses on the local people for their seemingly red neck/ignorant/racist/in-bred/no-class/no culture ways?
*All of the above?

In the flush of anger, I thought about calling Animal Services and reporting his dog being off leash, and I thought of calling the police and complaining about the verbal harassment and intimidation. But as I calmed down and came home, I decided to wait. And partly it's fear. I don't live far from this man, and my own stereotypes of white Southern men are alive and well--and perhaps it's unfair for me to classify him as an irrational bigot who would have no problem retaliating against me and Bruno for reporting him, but I do fear that. And I also realized that I also spoke up against him, as was my right, in part because I am all of the above in the "You People" column (although I'd like to think I'm not so condescending towards native Southeners, but lets face it, I'm an overly educated liberal-progressive English professor from the West), and I thought it was important for me to stand my ground against his hostile tirade and irrational anger against me and Bruno--because I didn't want to be a silent Asian American woman.

But now, where do I go from here? I'm not sure. But I don't doubt that race was a subtext for this entire encounter, even if it wasn't true for him, it certainly was for me.

Tuesday, July 3, 2007

Is Tiger black?

I was in the gym the other day reading a special issue of Sports Illustrated--one primed for the US Open (it was an old copy). And there was an editorial from an African American sports journalist about Tiger Woods--specifically, lamenting Tiger's lack of political activism around issues of race (and I would add gender). The gist of the editorial was that this black journalist was, like many African Americans, initially enthused and supportive of Tiger's golf career--seeing him as someone who had made it into the most hallowed and whitest of institutions--the PGA--and that he could lead a race revolution in the world of golf. And yet, it hasn't happened. Tiger remains the only black PGA golfer in the tour, there are no up and coming new African American golfers set to rival Tiger's record--there are not scores of African American golf athletes infiltrating lily white university golf programs, and Tiger has not taken a stand on key race issues in the public domain. In other words, he's no Jackie Robinson.

And I know I've had similar critiques about Tiger's lack of politicization--and also speculating about how fair that is--for me to want and to demand that Tiger become a political spokesperson for racial justice and gender equity. After all, we are not making these demands on Ernie Els or Jim Furyk or Phil Mickelson. Or even Vijay Singh. They get to be "just golfers" and they have their respective charities and corporate sponsors, and yes they are under scrutiny, but none of them have the pressures to be a symbol in the way that Tiger so clearly is under a media and world microscope.

Yet there was something else about the editorial that troubled me. The dismissiveness of Tiger's claim to be "Cablinasian." There was much "to-do" made when he first coined the word and when he tried to show that he was not simply an African American golfer but a person who had many different racial and ethnic strains in his ancestry. And there have been many people who have called him on his apparent lack of black pride for not claiming a mono-racial African American identity. But Tiger himself said it best when he explained that to claim a black identity would be to disavow his mother and her life, her influence, on him. His Thai mother. Which makes Tiger as much Asian American as African American.

So is Tiger black? I'm not saying he's not because the truth is, he's identified by others and perceived to be "black" because he *looks* black. In other words, if he had more Asian features, if he favored his mother's side of the family more than his father's, phenotypically, perhaps we would be calling him an Asian American or at least a mixed race, hapa, golfer and not simply a black golfer.

I actually do think that Tiger is a black golfer. It's just that he's not only black. He's also Asian American and mixed race and hapa and Cablinasian. He is a multitude and he's got a killer golf swing and so we want him to infiltrate the bastion, the fortress of white privilege--the country club--to lay waste to their belief systems and herald in a new age of racial tolerance and acceptance--to get them where they sleep, so to speak--on the fairway.

Maybe he'll do it one day. Maybe he'll stick it to "the man" and take a political stand and support a cause that is contrary to his Nike endorsement and the galleries that watch him. Maybe not. At any rate, maybe we can start by recognizing that Tiger is both black and not black and that there's nothing wrong in acknowledging the complexity of who he is, just as one day perhaps he will also recognize and embrace and act on that complexity.