Friday, November 30, 2007

The White Spokesperson

When I was in grad school I once told a white friend from Alabama (also a fellow grad student) that there were days when I felt tired just walking into the English Department at our New England University because I knew I'd be the only person of color I'd see the whole day (at the time we were in grad school there was one black Caribbean professor who taught Creative writing and one half-Japanese, half-Jewish professor who taught Literature--there were five students of color, all of whom were either Asian or Asian American, not all of whom were still in coursework and so may have been off-campus someplace finishing their dissertations). I was trying to express to my friend the loneliness and psychic drain of being one of less than eight people of color amidst a department and grad student population numbering over sixty to eighty (give or take the vagaries of MA and MFA acceptances each year).

My Alabama friend grew quite defensive, demanding to know if I had experienced bad treatment due to race, if I had ever been a victim of racist remarks, and, quite frankly, disputing how I could feel in any way, shape, or form uncomfortable, especially since I wasn't black, but Asian and an Asian American woman at that, which means that I was not only not reviled but revered in terms of being from a valued minority group.

You can imagine my anger and frustration and deep level of hurt. This was a close friend--someone I had had numerous conversations with about race--someone who expressed, or seemed to express, a real understanding of race and racial politics, especially black-white relations, especially in the South. We argued, at length, but it was only when another friend, a white male friend, rephrased my words and explained to the Alabama friend my feelings of alienation due to race, that the Alabama friend got it.

And that made me even angrier--that it took my white male friend to reinterpret for my white Alabama friend what I was saying--that only through having a white spokesperson was I understood.

I have been thinking about this lately as I've been immersed in reading books about racial passing--especially because this is something that Black Like Me (by John Howard Griffin) does. Griffin, a white man wanting to understand real race relations between blacks and whites in the South in the late 1950s, took a drug that turned his skin dark, tanned himself, and also added vegetable dye to his skin, and traveled throughout the deep South, passing as a black man. The book charts his growing evolution from being a participant-observer to understanding his own racism as a white liberal. And although the book/Griffin does act in this "spokesman" role, in the epilogue, Griffin is also aware of the role he is playing for other whites about a black experience:

"[I]t was my embarrassing task to sit in on meetings of whites and blacks, to serve one ridiculous but necessary function. I knew, and every black man there knew, that I, as a man now white again, could say the things that neeed saying but would be rejected if black men said them" (190-91).

Unfortunately, this still goes on today--sexism is taken more seriously when men talk about it; racism more seriously when whites discuss it; homophobia when straight people take on queer issues. And don't get me wrong--I think we all need allies--we need to stand up for one another as well as ourselves, or perhaps to see that gaybashing is a form of discrimination that hurts all people and sexism hurts men as much as women, and racism impacts all of us. But it'd also be nice not to need white spokespeople to interpret the very painful experiences of racism that people of color experience.

Wednesday, November 28, 2007

I love Asian women and so can you!

OK, so yes, this is the academic caveat: I don't watch a lot of tv, but what I do watch is BRAVO and I am addicted to two of their reality shows: Top Chef and Project Runway. This is Season 4 of Project Runway and as we speak I am watching Ginny Barber, wife of Tiki Barber (a former NFL player and Today show host) talking to designers. [NOTE: Don't worry--no spoilers ahead!]

Why I'm noting Ginny Barber is the way she was introduced--it was through the voice of one of the designers, Christian, who, after Tim Gunn said that there was a special guest, described this "beautiful Asian woman (maybe he didn't say beautiful--it might have been stunning or something similar) come through the door. I love Asian women."

I love Asian women . . . what the hell???!!!

I mean, does this guy REALLY love all Asian women? [SECOND NOTE: Christian is the youngest member (21) and is openly gay (almost all of the male designers are openly gay--with the exception of the seemingly sole macho hetero who wants to REMIND viewers of how he's NOT gay. You just want to say, "Relax, dude, we get it--and by the way, the more you keep telling us you're straight the more we're just going to think that you are protesting a *little* bit too much) and I mention this because he wasn't trying to hit on her or talk about her in an overtly sexual way--but of course it still comes across as objectifying her--although perhaps it's the Margaret Cho syndrome, I dunno].

Anyway, it really bugs me--when people say things like they love Asian women. Am I being oversensitive? Of course! But I mean, the whole mass stereotyping (even if relatively positive/benign) is problematic and very specifically saying that you love Asian women (even if you're a white gay guy) is really just reinforcing all of those horrifically patronizing, "Orientalizing," and sexualizing beliefs about Asian women.

One last thing--Tiki Barber (African American) and Ginny Barber (Asian American) make a very visible mixed-race couple. So kudos to BRAVO for highlighting them.

Update, Nov. 29 (Friday): I saw a re-run of this episode last night, and I wanted to clarify the comment that Christian made. When Ginny Barber walked into the room he said "And then this fabulous Asian woman walked in. She looked gorgeous with her dark skin and hair. I love Asian people; they're fierce." Funny how I extrapolated the "I love Asian women" comment--which just goes to show what someone's hypersensitivity will do. It is still problematic, however, to love Asian people because we're "fierce" but it does temper the orientalized tone by saying "people" and qualifying it with "fierce" (rather than just leaving the comment about the woman's great skin and hair). Of course perhaps what I'm really reacting to is that Christian is to Project Runway what Marcel was to Top Chef season 2: young, cocky, and annoying. And one more comment--the other very public but absent inter-racial couple on Project Runway is, of course, Heidi Klum and Seal. So PR really is a show that is promoting inter-racial love.

Tuesday, November 27, 2007

Bruce Lee Lives!

On November 27, 1940, Bruce Lee was born in San Francisco, CA. His parents, Hong Kong denizens and entertainers, were performing in the U.S. when Bruce was born. They all returned shortly to Hong Kong, where he was raised, until his late teens, when he was sent to Seattle to live with some relatives because of the "gang" activity he had become involved with in Hong Kong. The rest is, essentially, history. He studied at the University of Washington, where he met his wife, Linda, and began teaching his unique style of martial arts, jeet kune do. He relocated to Oakland, CA to open a martial arts school and then moved to Los Angeles to begin his Hollywood career. But racism and stereotypes kept him out of the series he co-created, Kung-Fu (which infamously starred David Carradine in yellowface) so he moved back to Hong Kong and began his international film career and became a martial arts action movie star, until his early tragic death on July 20, 1973.

Bruce Lee is the enduring icon of Asian American subjectivity. He is a transnational citizen. He is an embodiment of Asian American masculinity. He is a figure of justice in his films (he's always fighting for the underdog) and a figure of fighting for racial equity and equality in his life.

Happy Birthday Bruce--you would have been 67 this year. May you rest in peace--may your legacy and legend live on.

Bruce Lee's gravesite in Seattle

Monday, November 26, 2007

Teaching Tolerance

I have a certain fondness for films with teachers. You know the kind--the ones where the teacher is truly inspirational and reaches out and makes a difference. I'm thinking of films like Stand and Deliver or Lean On Me. Maybe it's because I'm a teacher myself, and I secretly harbor a wish to make that kind of impact on my students (but truly--can I make that much of an impact teaching at a research university? Then again, we shouldn't belittle any kind of teaching--and the problem with Hollywood is that they overly romanticize the teacher (oftentimes white and middle-class/privileged) who comes into a poor public school and transforms the unruly and poverty stricken children into model citizens and straight "A" students).

Anyway, in the last two weeks I happened to catch 3 different films about teachers on Cable TV (two were shown on the Ted Turner's TCM station).

Mr. Holland's Opus, the first of the trio, features a beleaguered public school music teacher (who really wanted to be a great American musician/composer and only took to teaching as a way to pay the bills but of course discovers that he loves doing it and his students love him) over the course of his career, which starts in the early 60s and moves us into the mid-90s.

Then there was Mona Lisa Smile, set in Wellesley College (an all women's college--and still around to this day--and it's Hilary Rodham Clinton's alma mater) of the mid-1950s and starring Julia Roberts as a California transplanted Art History professor trying to get her students not to accept the limitations of their gender. She is revered and reviled by both teachers and students because she pushes at boundaries and won't accept the limitations placed on her or her teaching.

But perhaps the greatest of all the films that I saw recently was To Sir With Love, starring the magnificent Sidney Poitier. I cry every time the end comes--seeing Poitier react to his students' kindness (I don't want to give away the end in case anyone hasn't seen this fantastic film).

To Sir With Love is set in a working-class West End London neighborhood of the mid-1960s. Poitier is a West Indian transplant teaching at this school because racism prevents him from the engineering job that should rightfully be his--and he's just biding time until he can get a "real" job. You can guess what happens in the meantime.

Although I feel sheepish putting To Sir With Love in the same category as the other two films I mentioned above (because the other two films are problematic in certain ways--but what can you expect from mainstream Hollywood media?), all three, besides fitting into the whole "inspiring teacher" genre, are also films with the message of teaching tolerance. In Mr. Holland's Opus, it is the title character who has to learn to adapt and accept his deaf son, as well as the intolerant administration who must learn to adapt to and accept more contemporary forms of music (like jazz and rock and roll) as part of a music curriculum. In Mona Lisa Smile, there is a small sub-plot about a lesbian nurse who is ousted by the administration, not for being lesbian (although it's clear that being queer didn't help her to stay) but for distributing birth control to undergraduates (in violation of MA law of the 1950s), and of course there are the various plots featuring Wellesley women and their quest to find their own identity--whether it is within or without the bonds of marriage.

But of course the film that really teaches tolerance is To Sir With Love. It's overly idealistic, it defuses racial issues in the 1960s by putting Poitier in London, and the racism is really on the mild side, so it's not perfect. But it is so well done--and it feels real--or maybe it's just that Poitier's acting is really so marvelous. Anyway, it strikes me that this film really holds up well--which is sad, of course, because it means that there is still a fair amount of racism and intolerance of difference--and fear about racial others and mixed-race people (again, I don't want to spoil the film by saying too much, but Sidney Poitier's class is not monoracial; there is a mixed-race white-black character and an Asian girl in the class). But it's also so great to see a film in which a teacher, who is a person of color, is teaching tolerance and really changing his students' attitudes--and they are largely all white.

What I wish is that we had a film featuring an African American teaching at an elite boarding school to a largely white, privileged class. What would tolerance look like then? How much difference could a teacher of color--someone with a real social justice bent, make to a group of really privileged students? I wonder when Hollywood will make that film.

Sunday, November 25, 2007

Segregated Sunday

I had lunch at my favorite Chinese restaurant with my boyfriend (who is a white Southerner). We were the only interracial couple in the restaurant (not unusual for the South) but what WAS unusual was that my boyfriend was the only non-Asian person (and almost every table was full) for the first half-hour we were there (eventually a white family of four came in). When I realized the different racial dynamics at work, it dawned on me that not only is this a rare occurrence in the South for anyone Asian American, outside of restaurants (seeing a majority of Latinos in a Mexican restaurant or African Americans in a Caribbean restaurant would not seem unusual), is there any place where the patrons would be mostly non-white?

According to my boyfriend, Sunday is the most segregated day of the week--at least in the South--because apparently white Southerners go to white churches and black Southerners go to black churches and with the burgeoning immigrant population, there are also special Sunday services held in Spanish at Catholic churches for the largely Mexican-Spanish speaking population and Vietnamese for the Vietnamese immigrant population (there is a local Baptist church that holds services in English, Spanish & Vietnamese).

Apparently segregation also follows you into death because funeral homes also cater to specific communities--black people go to black funeral homes and white people go to white funeral homes.

I can't quite believe that this is true--and yet, this is the South and as I am constantly reminded by people, I live in an academic liberal bubble and life outside my college town is very different. Perhaps, but I can't help wondering, especially as rates of inter-marriage and mixed-race children increase, what does the half-white, half-black person do? Or the trilingual English-Spanish-Vietnamese person of mixed Mexican-Vietnamese ancestry? I suppose you have your pick of any of the three services, and yet, it seems like the ongoing difficulty of where you fit in is ever-present. And if the rates of inter-racial couples and mixed-race people increase in the South, will there eventually be an option--beyond black, white, Spanish, Vietnamese, English? A mixed-race America church--wonder what it would look like, sound like, feel like...

Thursday, November 22, 2007


If "Mixed Race America" were a real country (and not simply a blog or an abstraction, although one can argue that the concept of a mixed-race America is a reality) then today, the 4th Thursday in November, THANKSGIVING, would definitely be its national holiday--because the history of Thanksgiving is so mixed. It is a secular holiday, although it has some religious connotations and roots (traditionally a harvest festival, giving thanks was seen as something you did for God and not just for the earth or for one another). It is a relatively commercially benign day--it's just about food and not about buying stuff, although all those "day-after-Thanksgiving" sales makes this seem like yet another consumerist (in more ways than one) holiday. And although American Indian groups see this holiday (and the really awful stereotypes surrounding Native American groups that get depicted and, more importantly, the reality of the horrific mistreatment that various tribes have suffered in this land--their land) as a day of mourning, it is a day where all people of all ethnic and religious backgrounds gather with those they love to appreciate one another and (if religious) whatever faith they give thanks for. And of course it's about the food.

Gurinder Chadha's film What's Cooking? demonstrates the promise of a mixed-race America and the various ethnic American celebrations around this holiday, as well as the tensions and secrets that families keep (among others, a pregnant lesbian Jewish couple, an inter-racial Vietnamese-Mexican American pair, a black American family dealing with varied political affiliations and a recent affair).

So "Happy Thanksgiving" -- it's not a perfect holiday, but then again, we do not live in a perfect country. And that's OK--because humans aren't perfect. But perhaps, at least for one day, we can try to appreciate our lives--to be thankful and to give back to others. Thanks & Giving.

Tuesday, November 20, 2007

I'm Asian, You're Asian -- Let's Be Best Friends

Imagine this scenario: You are Asian American and in a social situation/gathering in which Asian Americans are definitely in the minority. At this social gathering you spot someone with an Asian face. Do you immediately go over to him/her? Do you make eye contact? Do you give the head nod? Do you ignore him/her and just mingle with other people?

I had this question put to me a few years ago by an Asian American friend who didn't understand why I was so fixated on issues of race. She, in this scenario, would not feel any special reason to go over to the fellow Asian person. I, on the other hand, would have definitely made an effort to find my fellow ethnic/racial counterpart, if not immediately than at some point during the gathering.

Now, having said that, I fully realize that just because we share a racial (and possibly ethnic) identity doesn't mean we'll be best friends. That we'll even like one another or have things in common to talk about or share common experiences.

So why make an effort to talk to the Asian American person? Because it's lonely to be the only one. Because we may, in fact, have common experiences as Asian Americans. Because as irrational as it may seem to be drawn towards someone based on race, it is a category one uses to make distinctions in a crowd--to organize the world.

Monday, November 19, 2007

Talking about race in the Blogosphere

About a week ago The Boston Globe ran an article about bloggers of color called "Blog is Beautiful: Bloggers of Color Challenge Mainstream Views On-Line." (Thanks to CN Le & Angry Asian Man for the heads up on the article).

There has been some discussion on various blogs (like Racialicious) about how to have real conversations about race--debating about where these spaces are (because they don't seem to be happening in mainstream media). I guess one of the questions I wonder about is: will it make a difference? I want to believe that it will--that blogging about issues of race will lead to larger social justice in the world. But like all things that are proactive or preventative, it's just hard to know what the real effects will be.

Sunday, November 18, 2007

Missing Leadership

Last night I saw the film Bobby (2006), produced and directed by Emilio Estevez. It received mixed reviews by critics when it first came out, but I really liked it. I think one of the things I appreciated about it was the sense of anticipation--excitement--that RFK's candidacy held for people. People had a sense of hope--they needed that hope and that excitement: they needed leadership. One of the main themes throughout the film was how divided the U.S. had become, over the war in Viet Nam, over racism--Ceasar Chavez's strikes for the United Farm Workers, MLK Jr's assassination and the struggle for equal rights for African Americans (and all Americans), and just the sense of conflict and despair that seemed omnipresent--but which Bobby seemed to dispel, at least this is what the film and archival footage would have us believe.

A sense of hope and optimism--a belief that the country can do better and will do better under the leadership of a new president. The film reminds me that we are missing leadership in so many ways.

Friday, November 16, 2007

Making a Difference--Part II

I have never written 2 blog entries in one day--but there's a first for everything. In the last paragraph of the blog post below I encouraged everyone to try to do something that will make the world a better place, even just as small as writing an email message to someone.

Now, I wanted to share something really cool that I found through one of David Pogue's technology videos on The New York Times website:

The $100 Laptop

Actually, it currently costs about $200 (and I'm not certain how much of that is subsidized) but they are hoping that as production increases and word about the laptop spreads, that it will be get down to $100--and this is an important figure for affordability because these laptops are designed for children in developing nations. It's not meant for a U.S. or Western market. The creators of this laptop are trying to address the widening information and educational gap between the first and third worlds and this is part of the solution.

I won't be able to do this justice, so I recommend going to the David Pogue article (where you can see one of his videos on the laptop--which gives a great demonstration of how it works) -- click here.

And please visit the "One Laptop Per Child" website. Because this is where you can make a difference. From now until November 26 (that's next week Monday I believe) you can buy one of these laptops. Or more importantly, you can donate $400, which means that you get a laptop but you also donate money to have a laptop shipped to a child who needs one. $200 of that $400 is tax deductible. And this is the only time (as far as the website states) that these laptops will be available for purchase in the U.S. And honestly, as much as I love the altruism and the spirit of the "One Laptop Per Child" movement--the laptop itself just seems SO COOL and so I'm curious to see what it does. Also, T-Mobile is donating a years wifi in their "hot spot" zones to anyone who donates in this 2 week window (the laptops were available starting Nov. 12).

OK, so to recap. $400 means that you help to support a really innovative and important philanthropic project to help children in developing nations become better educated as global citizens or simply to have the same access to education that children in the U.S. take for granted (and I know there are huge problems in public education, but seriously, if you start to look at conditions in certain regions of India and Burma and Burundi then you start to realize how privileged we are in the U.S.). You also get to have a pretty innovative computer--albeit one that won't rival Macintosh or Dell for quantity and quality, but for what it was designed to do--it is absolutely amazing. Click here to see for yourself: ONE LAPTOP PER CHILD.

Making a Difference--Part I

Two weeks ago, at my uncle's memorial service, I got up to speak towards the end of the evening--to be one of the "family voices" to commemorate his life. I had actually been asked, by my eldest uncle, to represent the family, and even before he asked me to do this, I had been thinking about what I wanted to share about my uncle--things along the lines of what I wrote a few blog entries back when I first learned that he had died (my own on-line tribute to his life). I ended up being an incoherent mess, which is disappointing both because I tend to be fairly articulate (I do teach for a living) and don't have a problem speaking to large crowds, yet for some reason, this was entirely different--probably the emotional aspect. I also relied on reading the last 2 pages of a freshman composition essay I wrote about an Annie Dillard essay, "The Deer at Providencia" because my uncle features prominently in my essay, and I thought that given the message of Dillard's essay--to understand that there is suffering and pain in the world--to understand that life isn't fair but not to be blind to that unfairness--well, I believed it spoke to the end of my uncle's battle with cancer as well as his own attitude in life. Because in the freshmen composition essay I wrote about how he interrogated me about race at UC Santa Barbara (late 80s) and when I said I didn't think race was a problem (HA! How naiive my younger self was!) he told me that I was choosing not to see that racism existed and that things are far more complicated than their surfaces suggested.

I'm not sure that my remembrances and commemoration of my uncle were well received; in fact, one aunt actually asked me why I chose to talk about racism at the memorial--subtly suggesting (or am I being oversensitive...) that it was an inappropriate topic. But even if she hadn't said this, I could tell.

But here's the thing. Maybe this is not how people wanted to think about my uncle, but for me, he was someone who helped me to understand race and racism in the U.S. and, more importantly, he was someone who wanted to make a difference in the world. He was constantly seeing inequities and injustice and commenting on these issues. And in his own way, I think he also tried to act -- I certainly think he donated to causes and supported people he believed were working to make a difference.

And so, in that spirit, I wanted to invite everyone to think about how they can make a difference in the world. Although this blog is focused on issues of race, and more specifically "mixed race" (although I know I haven't written specifically about mixed race issues in a while, but don't worry--I'll return to this soon!) I also think this blog is about trying to make a difference. It sounds cliche and grandiose to say that I want to make the world a better place. But I think that's the reason my interests led me here. Although big gestures are important for big problems (and we have A TON of those), doing something as small as writing an email message to someone out of the blue to tell them that they are in your thoughts is also about making a difference. We hear so much bad news and feel so powerless to stop the evil of the world. But I think that when we can act, we should--even if it's just to send an email.

Thursday, November 15, 2007

The American Dream

For the last few days I've been engrossed in a novel by Min Jin Lee, Free Food for Millionaires (Warner Books, 2007). The novel isn't for the faint of heart--at least in terms of length, for it clocks in at 562 pages. And while it's probably a stretch to call it "epic" (the last novel I read that I truly felt was epic was Vikram Seth's A Suitable Boy which was nearly three times the length of Lee's and I was so taken by it that I was staying up until 3am to finish (this while I was in grad school) because I didn't want to do any of my other reading until I completed it--it doesn't disappoint) it does remind me of a rambling Russian or Victorian novel, something along the lines of Anna Karenina (Tolstoy), Nicholas Nickelby (Dickens), Far from the Madding Crowd (Hardy). It focuses on Casey Han, 1.5 generation Korean American Princeton grad, a girl who grew up in a 2 bedroom apartment in Queens, whose parents manage a dry cleaning business in Manhattan, and who is struggling to find her place in the world. But the novel also traces other families, boyfriends, girlfriends, friends, and acquaintances through omniscient narration. It actually reminds me, most keenly, of Tolstoy.

Which is why it was odd to read that one reviewer described the plot as one in which Korean immigrant families pursue the "American dream."

What is the American Dream? This continues the discussion of class from the previous post, because it seems as if the American Dream is about upward mobility. About achieving more than the previous generations--more education, more wealth, more access to leisure time, more material goods. The American Dream is a 3 bedroom house in the suburbs with a 2 car garage and a nuclear family and a dog and holidays at the seashore or mountains and college savings accounts. Or is this simply one middle-class version? Perhaps it's having more than where you came from before--which is especially true in terms of certain immigrants. Bigger living spaces. More job opportunities. A wide selection of cereal in supermarkets. Or just supermarkets versus markets. Or perhaps just not worrying about basic survival and safety (I think this is especially true for people who are war refugees).

But if the American Dream is about upward mobility, what happens when you are at that pinnacle--when you have the house in the suburb are your children supposed to also have a country home, and if you own two homes, then is the following generation supposed to become millionaires? And if you are a millionaire, must your progeny try to top that as well? When does it end? When is enough, enough?

There is a dark side to The American Dream and to class issues in America--and although class isn't always tied to race, anyone who examines the history of how America came to become such a rich nation and a superpower must contend with the legacy of free and cheap labor that came at the cost of dark skinned bodies (African slavery, Chinese coolie labor, and currently exploited Mexican farm workers).

Wednesday, November 14, 2007

Forgetting Class

Last night I had my monthly Paul Gilroy reading group and the text under discussion was Against Race. There are some intriguing ideas in this book, especially the central thesis, which is that in order to really attack racism, we need to discard "race" as an analytical category once and for all because it's not doing us any good to replicate these notions of "race" that are perniciously associated with fascism [caveat: some of these ideas Gilroy spells out and others, like the links to fascism, are a result of last night's discussion and my own interpretation of this text].

One of the things that frustrated me about Gilroy's text was the central question of how we are to do this--how to rid ourselves of race as an analytic--a major difficulty within the academy and an impossibility outside of it. And another of my group members (a very astute colleague from History) pointed out that one of the things that Gilroy doesn't do enough of in this work or in other works is to pay attention to class.

I think we centered mostly on class as economics, but ala Pierre Bourdieu (French sociologist/cultural critic) class can also be thought of as your educational level, your regional/geographic location, as well as your economic earning power. A plumber may make more than a junior faculty member but may not have a college degree. The professor will be perceived as having a higher class status (higher cultural capital in terms of education) but a lower financial class status (money in the bank)--of course this is also dependent on people realizing that assistant professors get paid less than plumbers on average, and the type of school (Research I vs. community college) and region (plumbers in CA I wager make far more than in NC, especially in rural areas). Of course, you could argue that depending on the discipline, the earning potential of someone with a PhD is much greater than a high school graduate with a certificate/qualifications in plumbing. (but if you are in the humanities then this argument tends to fall apart).

All of which is to say, class is tricky--and not talked about enough--and especially the intersections of class and race. I've started to assume that when people talk about people living in "urban" areas they are racially coding people and what they really mean are black (and sometimes Latino) people, but rarely does an image of an Asian immigrant come to mind. References to "ghettoes" or "projects" seem to be references to black and Latino people living in these spaces, while "trailer parks" seem to be the domain of poor whites.

NPR's Juan Williams just did a piece about a study released by the Pew Research center on how African Americans are divided by class issues--for more, go to this link here.

I do think that as much as we don't talk about race in our society, we REALLY don't talk about class issues and differences. Almost everyone I know is part of America's "middle class" but the range of who either self-identifies or gets told that they are part of the middle class includes a couple, both doctors and another couple, a nurse and a data manager (neither of whom ever went to college) and whose household incomes are, respectively, just under half a million and just over one hundred thousand. This seems to me a very wide middle class indeed.

Monday, November 12, 2007

Dressing White

This weekend I went to a party and was describing my research on passing to a party guest I had never met before. He told me he knew someone in his MBA program who was passing--a young woman who had a black father and a white mother. I asked him how he knew she was "passing"--and he said that she had disclosed her family background to him and that since she "dressed" and "talked" white then it seemed as if she was passing as white.

I know I said I would write more about bigotry vs. institutional racism, but I thought I'd start with this anecdote because in some ways it reflects both in nuanced form. I'm not necessarily calling this person a "bigot" but I find his remarks problematic and steeped, at heart, in a rhetoric of racial hierarchy. Because what does it mean that she "dressed" and "talked" white? Especially in the context of being in an MBA program? The unspoken element was that she was not "dressing" or "speaking" as a black person--but what does that mean? And if she were acting "black" would that be more or less appropriate in an MBA program? Do people who act "black" have less resources in gaining an entry into a Fortune 500 company upon completion of an MBA program? This kind of thinking--subtle beliefs in the essence of whiteness and blackness and the implicit hierarchy and privileging of this coding, especially in certain spaces like MBA programs shows the deep effects of racial and racist thinking.

I mean, lets think about it. This guy I was speaking to (who, should I mention, presented as a white American man, but since we're talking about passing, I suppose I can't say for certain how he identified since it never came up) graduates, gets a job, is responsible for hiring people: is he going to be more or less likely to hire an African American person who fits with his conception of "whiteness" which he equated with "normalacy" (this came out when I pressed him about what he meant that she dressed and talked white--like everyone else--like every other middle-class normal American). Doesn't this imply that if you don't present as a white-middle-class American that you are labeled as "other" and will therefore be less likely to be hired? And if normalcy is, indeed, equated with whiteness, then isn't this an example of how, institutionally, racism gets perpetuated at the micro level? Can we imagine Condoleeza Rice, with the same set of credentials and ideologies, wearing cornrows? I'm not a fan of Rice but I did sympathize HUGELY when she caught all the flack she did for just wearing knee-high boots a few years back when she went touring Europe (there's that famous photo of her with the boots at a US army base in Germany). What would happen if she started wearing more "ethnic" clothing or letting her hair go natural?

Sunday, November 11, 2007

Individual Bigotry & Institutional Racism

The first time I remember hearing a formal definition for racism was in my freshman year black studies class, which was an introduction to race class. The professor was clear about defining racism (in the U.S.) in terms of a system of power--in terms of institutions. And that because the system of power (at least in the late 80s although really it is true to this day) was skewed towards white people (and more specifically straight white men), people of color could not be racist. They could exhibit internalized racism or individual acts of bigotry, but because, on the whole, people of color did not have access to systems of power and institutional influence (if you just look at the U.S. government, people of color are either absent or in extreme minority in every branch--executive, legislative, and judicial--and we haven't even talked about the scarcity of people of color who own Fortune 500 companies, major media outlets, or who act as presidents of universities), then they could not be racist.

Although I'm not sure I entirely agree with this definition now (things have *slightly* improved in 20 years, although depending on who you talk to, they may have gotten worse, but more importantly thinking and theorizing about race has also become more nuanced and tried to account for the complexity of race to acknowledge that there are some people of color who actually do wield some institutional influence and a measure of power in which they could act in a racist fashion--let alone hold racist beliefs--Omi & Winant (see list of favorite books to the right) are really great in terms of these issues).

I know I've written about these things before, but I suppose in a blog devoted to mixed race issues, it's not a bad thing to repeat, especially in light of the recent posts around judgment.

Because I think the central question that people have (or that gets debated) is whether people of color can be racist. And the funny thing is, I think for many people there is an automatic answer (either yes, ie: "I know lots of black people who hate white people and treat them badly" or no, ie: "black people may hate white people but they can't force them out of a job").

And we can go back and forth on this question, but the real issue is about history & power. Because history has a long reach and power is nebulous--it isn't just about who holds public office or runs Fortune 500 companies. It's about social and cultural beliefs related to race--and these are harder to overcome than just appointing an African American to be Secretary of State.

Yes, each person is able to discriminate on an individual basis--to perform individual acts of bigotry and hatred--to voice them and in some instances act on them. But racism--this is about the combination of history and power and the residue of that. It's about racial hierarchies and a belief in who fits into a norm or standard--it is about believing there IS a norm or standard to fit into--racially.

I think this post is already long enough so I'm going to save the rest (particularly some examples and why this is even an important topic to talk about) for Part II tomorrow. But as always, feel free to chime in with your comments.

Thursday, November 8, 2007


I know I said the next post would be about the difference between individual bigotry and institutional racism, but I just finished Eric Muller's book American Inquisition: The Hunt for Japanese American Disloyalty in World War II (UNC Press) and I just wanted to put in a plug for it. First of all, it weighs in at a slim 216 pages, which includes notes and bibliography, so it's just under 150 page pages of text. Second, it's extremely well written. Muller writes elegantly and with precision--I suppose it's his training in legal writing. What impresses me about this type of concise writing is that it's not dry. Particularly when Muller tells the stories of Japanese American people whose lives were irrevocably impacted through their internment/incarceration, it's a very moving account. And finally (but this should probably have been the first thing I wrote) it's an important book--because it systematically goes through the process that the various military and non-military agencies used to evaluate who was "loyal" versus who was "disloyal" and therefore, who was deemed a threat to national security and a danger to the war effort. Muller's work is important because he clearly lays out how arbitrary, in many ways, the various cases for "loyalty" were made by the different agencies and in the last chapter in particular, he makes clear that the idea of loyalty as a barometer for who is not dangerous, or to put it a different way, to equate disloyalty with someone who is dangerous or someone who will betray the country is based on faulty logic in many ways.

I also think the book is important for the links it makes, at the end, with what happened in the past regarding civil liberties and civil rights for a specific ethnic group and our current situation, post 9/11 for Muslim and Arab Americans. In particular, there is one quote from American Inquisition that makes this link clear, and it's in a chapter that describes a case brought against the U.S. military by an internee and Nisei, George Ochikubo, who believed that his exclusion from the West Coast and detainment in an internment camp was illegal. Here is a small excerpt from Muller's book:

"For the WDC [Western Defense Command], it seems the Ochikubo case was not really about George Ochikubo, or his loyalty to the United States, or the danger that he--or, for that matter, Japan--actually posed to the West Coast. The Ochikubo case was instead mostly about making law. It was about creating legal precedent favorable to the unfettered deployment of military power against American civilians on American territory, at a moment that the military deemed an emergency" (Muller 133).

If you are interested in reading more about the book or ordering it from UNC Press, you can go to their website here.

Take a look at it--or take a look at other books that talk about the Japanese American internment. I really do feel this is an important piece of U.S. history that we should ALL know about, wherever we are in the country or wherever we are in the world. Because the Japanese American internment, from the moment it was conceived and implemented to the reparations movement and formal apology, to the current day, is one of the most American stories I know--it's one we should all know and remember.

Wednesday, November 7, 2007

Judgment Part II

I want to make a clarification from the previous post on "Judgment." A friend wrote me privately and expressed dismay at what he believed was my unfair prejudice against white people and my unconditional embrace of people-of-color. More specifically, he was dismayed that I would not have locked my door against a person-of-color acting in the same manner as the young white man because I would not have been afraid of the person-of-color in the same way that I was afraid of the white man.

Actually, I would have been equally nervous due to the circumstances (nighttime) and the behavior (approaching cars, erratic hand gestures) whether it was a white person or a person of color. But the difference, I think (because this is all conjecture) is that I would not have locked my door consciously because I would be too aware that my actions would be tinged and possibly regarded as a reaction of race rather than circumstance. It goes back to the helpful comments posted from the last blog entry--I am being too hard on myself about judgment because it is natural to have some anxiety driving in an urban area at night and being approached by a man who is acting in a somewhat erratic behavior.

I wrote the post (as I write many of the posts) both to be provocative (in the best sense of provoking discussion and thought) but also to really challenge myself (and possibly others) to consider the kinds of quick judgments that we make about people--and how oftentimes they are based on race.

I do believe that I may put myself in danger one day by having this kind of reaction--that there may well be a person of color acting in an erratic manner who may do violence against me and I may second-guess my reaction due to the kinds of anti-racist thinking and training I've been doing over the years. In fact, a friend of mine shared a story that I think illustrates this quite well. She once owned a store in Boston, and this friend is a white Jewish American woman, educated and trained in anti-racist thinking and practice. A young black man entered her store, and she felt nervous, but quickly dismissed her fear as residual white racism. The young man, after browsing for a bit and waiting for the other people in the store to leave, pulled out a gun and demanded money from her register. After some years had passed, and she told me this story, what she came away with was the fact that racism did inhibit her instinctual judgment. Because her visceral response to the man was that there was something wrong--in his body language, in his manner of walking into the store--but she believed it was her internalized racism coming out rather than seeing the man for the threat that he was. This is part of the legacy of racism, because she was trying to account for his race in a different manner rather than to see him as a man who is threatening.

The legacy of institutional racism is such that we often second-guess ourselves about people either living up to or defying the stereotypes. It goes back to the Vietnamese nail salon post--there are many nail salons owned by Vietnamese people. I'd even say that whether they are owned or whether they simply work in them, my anecdotal evidence places it to be about 70-50%, which is definitely higher than the population of Vietnamese Americans in the Bay Area let alone the nation. This doesn't mean, however, that every Vietnamese woman you meet works in a nail salon. Yes, black, Latino, and Asian people commit violent crimes and robberies. And there are many white people who live and practice anti-racist values. And there are certainly many people of color who hold bigoted and even racist beliefs. But there is a difference between a system of racism and individual acts of racism and bigotry, which is going to be the subject of my next post.

Monday, November 5, 2007


I've been thinking a lot about judgment, primarily about being judgmental and judging others. It's easy to be judgmental because it's a human thing to judge--to form opinions. But there is a line between having an opinion and making a judgment (and then there's being righteous, but that's the topic for another post). I don't want to get too personal about why I'm thinking about judgment, although anyone who has returned home and been around large numbers of your extended family in an emotional time can understand that this is a topic that may come up.

I do want to share something I did yesterday that I wasn't proud of. My brother and I were driving at night in San Francisco. I haven't driven in the city in a while and always get a bit frazzled with the traffic, one way streets, and aggressive drivers (I've lived in the South too long now and am used to a slower pace). We were stopped at an intersection near the Civic Center and there was a young white man with dreds, who may have been homeless and may have been mentally unstable (he was making certain repetitive hand gestures in an odd fashion). He was panhandling along the median, approaching the drivers of the stopped cars, and as he approached our car, I locked my driver side door.

That's the first time I've ever done that. Did I really think I would be harmed by this guy? Did I really feel so unsafe? It was an automatic reaction and I've wondered what kind of judgments I was making in that split second. I also wonder if I would have done this if he was a person of color. I don't think I would have. I think I've tried to train myself in anti-racist practices that even though I may have been inclined to do it if the man had been black, Latino, or Asian, I wouldn't have because I would have felt I was perpetuating certain racist beliefs. And yet a white guy with dreds is someone I can be free to make judgments about because I think he may be a bit crazy and therefore a threat.

Again, perhaps I'm overthinking the whole thing. But still, my automatic reactions and judgments don't reflect well on me. Perhaps I need to be thinking more about compassion, because that's really the flip side of judgment--to find a place of common humanity and compassion.

The Amazing Race

I caught a glimpse of the premiere of Season 12: The Amazing Race. It's a CBS reality show about pairs of people racing around the world trying to be the first pair to cross the final finish line (I think there are about 10 stages of elimination to match the 12 competitors) and win a million dollars. The interesting thing about this season are the competitors. Having never watched an episode before, I don't know if this batch is more or less diverse than previous episodes, but I can tell you that what caught my eye was the scene of two middle-aged white women kissing on national television during prime time. They are Kate & Pat, one of a set of diverse pairs, which also include a goth couple, a father-daughter Asian American team from Spokane, and an African-American brother-sister team from New Orleans. For more on the contestants, you can see their profiles on CBS's official website:

The Amazing Race

I don't know if I'll actually end up watching the show (I only caught the first 20 minutes before my brother put on Spirited Away, a Miyazaki film that is absolutely gorgeous!) but I must admit that any show that features a pair of lesbian ministers in their 50s kissing is a show that I'm interested in keeping tabs on.

Saturday, November 3, 2007

Chinese Jamaican Diaspora

If you closed your eyes at my aunt's house last night, you would have heard a cacophony of different accents: London British, Jamaican, Canadian, Japanese, Californian (or is that just the generic "American" accent?). All of these are people in my family--part of a larger Chinese Jamaican diaspora. As I've already mentioned before, yesterday was my Uncle's memorial service. It was a very emotional time, but it was also very celebratory--and it was one of the few occasions that has brought together my family from so many different regions. And really, as I sat at the kitchen table, listening to reggae music playing in the background, eating the leftover Chinese food from the memorial service dinner, watching family members play mah jong at one corner and Texas hold'em in another, I was struck by just how diverse all of us are: in our tastes, in our accents, in where we live, in what we do. And yet, we are all part of this thing called the Chinese Jamaican diaspora. Our skin tones range in color, from dark to light. Some of us (like my dearly departed Uncle) identified with Jamaica in his heart and soul to his dying day, some of us (myself included) haven't set foot in Jamaica since I was a toddler. And although a few of my relatives continue to tease me about how I can't possibly be Jamaican since I have an aversion to hot peppery food (I just can't take the heat!) there are times when I identify very strongly as a Chinese Jamaican. Certainly last night was one of those times.

Friday, November 2, 2007

Red Ban

You can no longer wear the color "red" at my old high school. This is something I learned when I was running around the track one morning. The big school rally, "Monarch Day" was Friday--and back in the day, I used to be into the spirit thing (embarassing to admit, but I was actually "Spirit Commissioner" two years in a row, which meant that I was in charge or organizing the damn thing).

For nostalgia sake, I decided to stop by and see it. I ran into two old high school teachers, who caught me up on the many changes that have happened in the last twenty years: the changing racial demographics, the school test scores that have gone down, shake-ups in the administration, and the banning of the color "red" as a way to cut down on gang violence (which they claim, actually works).

It seems so odd to me that you would ban a color from school--and in the case of red, very sad since it is such a happy color. And with the large Asian population at this school, Chinese New Year and Tet seem to be times when red would be the natural color to wear (not to mention Christmas, Valentine's day, and if you are a Red Wings fan). Is banning red really a smart school policy, an over-reaction, or a cultural oversight? Or does it just seem sad?

Thursday, November 1, 2007

The Vietnamese Touch

Today I got pounded on the back by a middle-aged Vietnamese woman at a nail salon. I went with my cousins and an aunt for some female bonding and manicures. There were a string of about three different nail salons on one block, all of whom looked to be run by Vietnamese/Vietnamese American women. And this is, I have to say, a commonality in the Bay Area--nail salons run by Vietnamese people.

It's an interesting ethnic niche market--the Vietnamese nail salon. I can't quite figure out how they make any money since it was $10.00 a manicure, which included, as I alluded to above, a sound back pounding, neck rub, and full arm massage, along with the manicure. It feels as if nail salons in CA are almost synonymous with Vietnamese Americans. And yet, I do wonder if I'm stereotyping--and I don't mean to be. So I suppose it does raise the question: when does something cross the line between being a description to being a stereotype?