Monday, March 31, 2008

Beyond the racial pentagram

I just returned from a conference, where I spoke on a panel about racial identities. I used a phrase, "racial pentagram" that someone, over lunch, asked me about. I confess--this is not a term that I coined; rather, I've seen it in more than one source, but I like using it because it conveys the sense of race that I want to get across--that we often talk, mysteriously and mystically, about race as this five-pronged entity, as if we can neatly divide people in the U.S. into these five categories: white, black, Native American, Asian American, and Latino. But of course, there are two main myths involved: these categories are not "pure"--after all, "Latino" is an amalgamation, in and of itself, of various indigenous, European, and African people who collided and co-habitated post-Columbian contact in South/North/Latin America and the Caribbean. And then there are people who bridge more than one of these prongs: mixed-race Americans.

At the conference it was clear that the people in attendance at the panel, and at the conference overall, wanted to move away from the notion of racial purity and to talk in more complex ways about race. But you know, even among academics immersed in this work, it's hard to fully realize that race is both a fiction AND a fact of everyday life. And it's hard to admit that even for those of us who make a living studying and reading and researching and writing about race--we still have our blind spots when it comes to talking about all this stuff.

But I do think it's important to do this work--to talk about it. I know that there are people who think that we are talked-out about race. And I think that there has been a proliferation of a certain type of conversation about race in the last 20 years--one that emphasizes a multicultural rhetoric more appropriate for tee-shirt slogans than honest dialogue. "Love sees no color" or "One world, one race" or "Kiss me I'm human" are nice, utopian sentiments but don't push back on where we need to be pushed and don't get at the issues of anger and frustration, fear and anxiety, that most everyone experiences when talking about race.

Interestingly enough, post-Obama "race" speech, there have been a slew of news pieces (tv, radio, print) about how we can have this "conversation on race" and how we can do it in a new way. Although there are some, who rightly are suspicious that this is just lip service and will go the way of the national dialogue on race that Bill Clinton initiated ten years ago, there are others (yours truly among them) who doesn't want this moment to pass and to really PUSH to talk about it--because people already have been talking about it. We just haven't figured out how to talk together.

Anyway, a few links to articles if you want to read more about the difficulty of talking about race but the desire to do so:

AP wire piece, "Where should conversation on race start"

New York Times editorial, "Race and the social contract"

and another New York Times article, "Who are we? New dialogue on mixed race"

Saturday, March 29, 2008

Furnishing your racist kitchen


"Gee, I wish I knew of a design store that suited my desire to inappropriately stereotype different ethnic and racial that made kitchen accessories that might offend my more politically correct friends"


Welcome to Pylones, a Parisian design store that also has a U.S. branch (and online presence). At Pylones, you can get the following:

A vegetable peeler with the face of a "Chinese" woman

A pot lid cover in the shape of a rice-paddy hat, with an "Oriental" face.

A rice bowl with an "Oriental" face, wearing, of course, a rice-paddy hat.

And for those wanting to expand their racist kitchenware beyond the "Orientalist" realm:

A peppermill of an "African" woman

*But really, you have your choice of 6 different peppermill designs, including a "Native American" woman and "Inuit" woman (see below):

To see all six peppermills (there's a "Chinese" one if you want to continue the "Oriental" motif of your kitchen), click here.

[I originally saw these this afternoon in a boutique store, that also happened to sell a line of bath products called "Miso-Pretty"--it was a banner day for "Oriental" merchandise.]

Friday, March 28, 2008

Viva el dia de Cesar Chavez!

Today I spoke with a close friend of mine in California:

Her: "Are you getting Cesar Chavez day off?"


Her: (laughing too) "Oh yeah, I forgot, you live in the South!"

If ONLY it were so. If ONLY Cesar Chavez day was a national holiday.

For more on the history of Cesar Chavez day, celebrated on March 31 in the great state of California, click here. For more on the life of the Latino labor activist, Cesar Chavez, click here.

Viva Cesar Chavez!

Thursday, March 27, 2008

Book Plug: Covering by Kenji Yoshino

I have just finished reading Covering: the Hidden Assault on Our Civil Rights by Kenji Yoshino.

Yoshino is a law professor at Yale University and his book (published by Random House) is both a work of legal scholarship as well as a memoir about growing up gay and Japanese American, and his research on issues of civil rights as a Yale law school professor.

His basic argument is that all people cover, in the sense that we hide or mute parts of our identities, our personalities, from the general public--and that this covering demand, made most explicitly on certain groups of people like gay men, racial minorities, and pregnant women, is an assault on civil rights.

Using his own life as a text for interpretation, he traces the stages of his gay identity through three stages: conversion, passing, and covering. He sees covering as a form of assimilation--and tracing the legal precedents of Title VII, he also sees the ways in which the American legal system has sought to create legal jurisprudence that emphasizes a common American culture of conformity.

There are many more things to say about Yoshino's argument and the main message of his book--which is that it is imperative, in our day and age, to think about the covering demands we are placing on people and to understand them as limiting civil rights. As Yoshino writes:

"We must find a way to protect difference that does not balkanize the country into separate fiefdoms of competing identity groups. We need a new paradigm of civil rights."

What I appreciate about his book is the elegance of his prose--the way that he weaves his gender/sexual/racial identity into the larger legal narrative he is telling. And that he makes this all very accessible to a broad audience interested in issues of identity, of assimilation, and of course, of civil and human rights.

And if you want to actually see and hear Yoshino discuss these issues (and you have a good 30 minutes to spare), you can hear his lecture at UCLA law school on this clip.

Wednesday, March 26, 2008

I approve this post

This was the infamous 3am ad that Hillary Clinton ran a few weeks ago:

[If a phone is ringing at 3am in the White House, there is NO WAY it'd continue ringing--and Obama is NOT going to be answering the phone--the White House Switchboard will--I mean, hasn't everyone SEEN The West Wing???]

This is the ad that Casey Knowles, the girl in the stock footage of the original ad (who is now 17) recently made:

Tuesday, March 25, 2008

Calling on McCain to talk about race

Calling all journalists in cyberspace: can you please start asking John McCain to talk about race? I know that there has been scrutiny placed on both Hilary Clinton and Barack Obama over the topic of "race" during this presidential election season. But has anyone asked John McCain about his views on race in America? Don't we think that he HAS opinions about race in America?

The other day a friend and I were talking about the remarkable speech on race delivered by Barack Obama last Tuesday. And she said that he was the only person qualified to talk about race in the way he did--honestly, openly, directly--among the presidential contenders. I agreed, but then I pointed out that there was one other person. I pointed out that John McCain was in a unique position to also talk about his experiences with race in America--most specifically, his relationship with the Vietnamese American community, in particular, and Asian Americans, in general, regarding his use of the slur "gook" back in the run-up to the 2000 presidential elections, when McCain's "Straight Talk Express" took him to use the racial slur, unabashedly--telling reporters that:

"I hate the gooks. And I will hate them as long as I live. You can quote me on this."

I have to say this for McCain--he is a "Straight Talker," if by straight talk you are unabashed in your use of hate-speech.

He immediately issued an apology as the Straight Talk Express headed into the multiracial (and heavily Vietnamese American populated) state of California. And eight years later, very few people (except for some random blog sites and chat boards) seem to have remembered this flap, which also received very little press eight years ago. For more on the original incident back in 2000, you can read about it in The Nation (which also details the free "pass" that McCain seems to have gotten from the news media back in 2000, and which seems to echo the treatment he's getting now), an Orange County article about a small protest by Asian American students, and a San Jose Mercury News piece that also has an excellent op-ed by William Wong at the bottom.

[Aside: if you click on the link for the chat board--the discussion (which began a month ago) is VERY DISTURBING and points to the ways in which anti-Asian sentiment doesn't seem to disturb very many people. In addition to using the phrase "gook" continually, other people have added the full list of racial slurs against Asians, and others recount stories of harassing and beating up Asian American kids they grew up with. Apparently, this is a source of humor, and yet I can't find anything funny about violence and racial profiling]

So why am I bringing it up now?

Because lets imagine that his apology was sincere--that he only meant to refer to the "gooks" he hated as his North Vietnamese torturers (the Asian American studies professor in me has to switch off the critical thinking/skeptical part of my brain here). Lets imagine that he really hasn't used that racial epithet again (or at least in public) and that he has truly worked with the Vietnamese American community in their anti-communist agenda. [aside: these are all things included in his apology--that when he used the phrase "gook" it was meant to refer to his captors rather than to all Vietnamese people or to Asians in general, and McCain is often popular among Vietnamese (specifically South Vietnamese Americans) living in the U.S. for his anti-communist positions--with some leaders going so far as to say that if you are anti-McCain you are pro-communist.]

This places McCain in a unique position to talk openly and honestly about race. To talk about the challenges of being able to distinguish between an enemy abroad during a time of war and a community of people living in the U.S. It would also give him the opportunity to descry anti-Asian violence, since much of anti-Asian violence starts with mistaken ethnic identity (like that enacted against Vincent Chin and others--like Ming Hai "Jim" Loo--a Chinese American man attacked in Raleigh, NC by two brothers who stated that they "hate all Vietnamese").

So why aren't we asking McCain how to have a clear dialogue on race in this country? Shouldn't the man riding (and running) the Straight Talk Express bus be the ideal person to talk, openly, honestly, and directly, about race in America?

Monday, March 24, 2008

Expecting more from some "others"--is it fair?

Recently I was at a conference and found myself talking to a well-known feminist scholar. She taught at Research U. in Rural Town USA but disclosed during the course of conversation that she actually lived in Big City. When someone in our group commented about the long commute, she replied that it was 15 minutes by plane. And when someone else commented that this was one way to handle a long commute, she replied, "Well what other option do I have? To live in Rural Town?"

Her tone was fairly dismissive and final. That was an end to THAT discussion.

I've never been to Rural Town USA, but I would imagine that for the people who do live there--who teach at Research U and reside in the town where it sits, they do not have the option of a 15 minute commute to Big City. And even if they did, I'm not sure that everyone would take such an option.

I was turned off. I was disappointed. My first thought when she mentioned the 15 minute commute by plane was the size of her carbon footprint and wondering if she had seen INCONVENIENT TRUTH. My second thought upon hearing her dismiss living in Rural Town out of hand (and the veiled contempt at the thought that she'd have to live there) was the outright arrogance of such an assertion--how it smacked of elitism.

And the thought I am left with--that really informs the main point of this post is: I expected more of her. Because she is a feminist scholar. But is that fair? If she was a Renaissance scholar--if she was an Economics professor--if she was a Chemist--would I be turned off? If she were an Environmental Studies researcher, I'd think she was being hypocritical or in denial, but is there anything incommensurate with what she studies and a 15 minute plane ride and dismissive attitude about Rural Town? Why was my third reaction--and the persistent nagging in the back of my head--that as a feminist scholar--someone who works on ending gender/sexual oppression--that I expect MORE of her.

Being a feminist certainly doesn't preclude one from being elitist or environmentally un-friendly. But the carbon footprint aside, it was the sheer disdain for Rural Town that rankled me--that I would have expected a famous feminist scholar to be a bit more politic and polite, perhaps? But why should my expectations of a feminist scholar be any different? It's unfair, perhaps, but it is true. It's the same sense of disquiet I have when learning that a well known post-colonial critic has her grad students pick up her dry cleaning. Or discovering that a prestigious scholar of African American literature is a notorious womanizer. I'm not trying to idealize academics--we are an all too human bunch. But I've made certain assumptions about the kinds of scholarship that people do--ones that emphasize an end to oppression--or a recognition of oppression--so seeing someone, hearing someone, witnessing someone make remarks or live in a way that seems at odds with their research, doesn't feel right to me. Even as I question whether it's fair that I ask more of these people than I do of others.

Which reminds me, of course, of the way we are talking about race in politics--directing the discourse at the Democrats while what are we expecting of Republicans--why do we hold certain others more accountable?

Thursday, March 20, 2008

Excuse me, America, can we talk about race now?

Dear America,

By now, like everyone else, I'm sure you have heard the speech Barack Obama delivered in Philadelphia (here's a link in case you missed it). It's been about 24+ hours since he ended his much heralded "speech on race," and I've read some of the punditry and reactions from the blogosphere and listened to NPR (because, you know I'm a liberal-progressive, don't you?), and I realized that I really wanted to hear from YOU.

America, what do YOU think about Obama's speech? Or, more particularly, what do you think about the issue of race? There has been all sorts of speculation about who that speech was intended for. To assure/placate African Americans. To sympathize with/pander to working class white Americans. To inspire/mollify intellectual-progressive types. People on the right have accused him of simply using pretty words and empty rhetoric to hide the fact that he sat in a church pew for 20 years listening to anti-American racist hate speech. People on the left feel uplifted by his words, but are also unsure of how this speech will help advance his presidential bid.

But beyond these kind of partisan, presidential nomination politics, what did you think about the content of his speech America? About the sense of a divided America--about the anger by black Americans and white Americans? Although he focused on working class whites, I actually think that there is a fair amount of anger and frustration that white Americans feel. And there is a certain amount of anger and frustration that the rest of the racial pentagram (American Indian, Latinos, and Asian Americans) also feel.


Why are we all so angry and frustrated over the same topic, and yet we are angry and frustrated over different aspects of the same topic? I must confess, as non-white American, I don't really understand white anger and frustration. I don't understand why a commenter who wrote in a while back (and I didn't allow the comment to go through) called me a racist for writing about race. And why others have talked about the "racialists" who want to turn everything into a matter of race when they believe race doesn't matter. Or the white pundits who claim that we are living in a post-racial society. Or questions by colleagues of mine who have asked me whether I think Barack Obama transcends race.

Why, America, do people (and it seems like the people who raise this issue are often white Americans, although perhaps non-white Americans also believe this too) believe that talking about race is the same thing as being racist? Do they just not have a basic understanding of racism--the institutional force that existed prior to race? Why don't they see race and racism the way that I do? The way that others do? Why do they act like talking about race is a bad thing--is rude--is unnecessary--that even drawing attention to race is the same as being racist?

I've already written about how we can be oversensitive about race. I know I have been extra- and over- and in- sensitive about race throughout my lifetime. But I also believe that ignoring a problem isn't going to make it go away. And we DO have a problem, America. It is a problem that half of you thinks that race isn't a problem and the other half believes that it is. And I'm not dividing your halves by "race" or along political lines--I think that these two halves, while maybe comprising more of one category than another, are also mixed.

I guess I'm asking, America--how do we really start to talk about race? And by really talking about it--I do mean to talk about it in a respectful manner. To talk about it in a way where people will, inevitably, feel uncomfortable, feel offended, feel angry and hurt and sad, and yet where a real conversation can happen--where we can really challenge each other and make something PRODUCTIVE come out of the conversation? How can we talk about race, respectfully, without name calling--agreeing to disagree, while still hearing each other?

I'm a teacher--I want to be able to hear someone who believes talking about race is the same as racism and have that person explain, to me, how s/he believes that this is true--and then I want him/her to listen to me when I explain my definition of racism and why I think talking about race is a good thing for everyone.

So America, if you have some time--please let me know. I think most people who read this blog are people who are, more or less, on the same "side" as me--but I hope that there will be some people--beyond the choir that I talk about preaching to--who will want to chime in and talk about their own frustration with race from their more conservative perspective.

[11:29am Correction: I just re-read the above sentence and it sounds so condescending--which I didn't mean it to sound like when I originally wrote it--because I am trying to get beyond this binary of a "racial divide" and the sense of there being "sides"--but I did want to try to acknowledge that for people who may have been reading my blog for a few weeks or months, you are probably people who agree with a few basic tenets I have: that racism is bad, that talking about race is good. Anyway, my apologies for the above tone--also, because I'm still a neophyte blogger, I can't quite figure out a way to do that nifty strike-out thing that shows how one is self-consciously editing--hence this odd interruption/correction.]

So to that end, I'm allowing anonymous comments for the next 24 hours in the hopes that I can reach a wider audience of people who can say what they want to say in a respectful manner, but without worrying about revealing their real (or even pseudonymous) identity. I will still reserve the right to moderate, but aside from ad-hominem attacks and really egregious comments, I'll probably let people speak for themselves.

Thanks America--I'm eager to hear what you have to say.

The Blogger of Mixed Race America

PS. Getting back to the Obama speech--I do think that one of the most positive things to emerge from his speech is that people are talking about race--and that various groups (beyond the pundits and talking-blogging heads) are demonstrating a real desire to have honest and productive conversations about race--here's a New York Times article that shows the various groups who are initiating dialogues about race inspired by the content of Obama's speech.

Tuesday, March 18, 2008

Obama's version of a mixed race America

I'm going to let Senator Obama speak for himself--it's 37 minutes long, but it's a speech that says so much about the complexity of living in a mixed race America:

Here's a link to the transcript of the speech (click here).

I'll be back tomorrow for more of my own words on mixed-race America--for today, I think Senator Obama's said all that there needs to be said.

Monday, March 17, 2008

Congratulations to David Paterson

Today David Peterson was sworn in as governor of New York State. He is the first African American governor of New York (and only the third since Reconstruction) and he is also the first legally blind governor in the nation's history.

I think that among the many "marginalized" identities that I discuss on this blog, physical impairment is one I often overlook or unintentionally ignore. And yet, within my own family, I have an awareness of visual impairment: my father is legally blind in one eye, which makes driving, for him, somewhat of a challenge (although he can, and does, drive). And one of my cousins is also legally blind--yet her visual impairment has not stopped her from living an extremely rich life, which includes traveling to Egypt (something I have always wanted to do) and belly dancing (she performed for us all at her wedding).

Now--I'm not equating physical impairment or disability with race. Once upon a time, I sat on a committee that was awarding fellowships for "diverse" (read affirmative action) candidates. One person who applied was a white American woman who was confined to a wheelchair. One of my fellow committee members was incensed that we should consider her application (she was a finalist in 2 members evaluations) because this fellowship was to increase racial diversity, and he was offended that there should be an equation of race with physical impairment--that being black would be seen as a liability akin to paralysis.

And yet, in a recent NPR piece (click here), a commentator does not go so far as to equate race with disability, but does believe that of identity factors that might impact people's understanding or ability to relate to David Paterson, it is his blindness rather than his blackness that people will find more difficult to relate to.

Anyway, in honor of David Paterson's ascendancy to the Governor's office, let me end by including two articles from The New York Times, one that gives his political profile (click here) and the other (click here) that does talk about his blindness as education and inspiration for the state of New York and the rest of the nation.

[March 19, 2008: CORRECTION: David Paterson is actually the SECOND legally blind governor in national history. In 1975, Bob C. Riley, then lieutenant governor of Arkansas, and legally blind due to, I believe, injuries from WWII, became acting governor for 11 days in 1975]

Saturday, March 15, 2008

Obama links for the weekend

A few links for the weekend about Barack Obama. Since the Democratic presidential primaries haven't been settled, yet, both he and Clinton are continuing to make headline news--especially over the increased ugliness in their campaigns.

So a few links to articles/videos I found compelling/provocative/or just humorous.

The New York Times
(click here) has a very thoughtful piece about Stanley Ann Dunham Soetoro--Obama's mother. She sounds like a really incredible woman: unconventional, open-minded, curious, and caring. Someone who wanted to make the world a better place and who seems to have instilled this desire in her children (Obama's sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng is quoted liberally in the piece). The piece ends by commenting on the strong women in Obama's life, like his mother and his sister (as well as his wife, Michelle) and I like that. Strong women are important to running the world, and we should celebrate them more.

And for more on his sister, Maya Soetoro-Ng, here is a video made by the Obama campaign that shows her talking about their childhood together, some great family photos, and her opinions about his candidacy and capability of being president.

Video Podcast: Maya Soetoro-Ng, Barack's Half Sister

[It sort've bothers me that people continue to describe her as "Barack's Half-Sister" (The video is called that by whoever put the video link together, and not by me)--I mean, I know it's accurate, but does it really matter that they share half-parentage rather than full parentage? At a time when many of us claim our family not based on genetics (like adoptees and children who are folded into families through re-marriages and other joinings) or even familial alliances (like your friends who feel more like family) then it seems saying that they are "half" siblings undercuts the strength of their family bond--and I wonder to what degree race also plays a part in this--the fact that the bond that they share, racially, is a white one?]

Racialicious has a provocative post about Geraldine Ferraro's gaffe (at least I see it as a gaffe) where she is quoted as saying:
If Obama was a white man, he would not be in this position. And if he was a woman (of any color), he would not be in this position. He happens to be very lucky to be who he is. And the country is caught up in the concept.

Go to the Racialicious post (click here) for some insightful analysis of Ferraro (and others) (mis)beliefs that being a black man is a big advantage in American politics. I was listening to NPR yesterday when Juan Williams was asked what he thought about Ferraro's comments, and he said something to the effect of "Well, you know, as the generations of black American presidents demonstrate, being a black man in this country gives you a clear advantage in running for the executive office."

Finally, a humorous look at the racial politics involved in this primary season:

Friday, March 14, 2008

Over-sensitive & In-sensitive about Race

I wanted to continue a thread of discussion begun in my March 12 (Wed) post "When a cigar is just a cigar." The comments that followed my post raised some excellent points about reading into race--why we do it, what the consequences are, the intentions behind mis-hearing and mis-interpreting actions, our subconscious biases and unintentional actions that become interpreted and racially inflected depending on the actors involved, and larger issues of the difficulty of trying to name all of this accurately and respectfully--to insist that we have a right to talk about race and racism without charges that we are being "oversensitive" about race or that others are "insensitive" to racial issues.

Let me flesh out the restaurant example I used in my March 12 post even fuller for you. It was 12:15pm when I was seated, and I seemed to be the only person eating alone (there were about 30 customers and a dozen staff, all white), and this restaurant had a bar/pub area and then a table area where a majority of the patrons were seated. I elected to sit in the less crowded area--in fact, I was the first person to sit in the bar section (there are about half a dozen elevated tables/chairs and then your usual barstools around the bar). Two white men next followed, and their order was taken before mine (at this point I had been waiting about 8-10 minutes). There was another white couple seated behind me, and the hostess noticed me looking around. I then saw her say something to two of the wait staff--a male waiter who had taken the table's order ahead of mine (and who took the order of the couple who just entered) and a female waiter. It was the female waiter who came and took my order--and, really, she was busy covering the tables at the non-bar end of the restaurant. She was very pleasant--apologized immediately--and I had very good service from her. The male waiter was also fine--he didn't "vibe" me for lack of a better word. Perhaps he thought I was waiting for someone to come, although that shouldn't have excused him not coming to my table and asking if I needed anything or was waiting for someone.

It is impossible to know why he didn't "see" me--why I was overlooked. And let me also underscore something important: THIS IS MINOR. I am not trying to make a mountain out of a molehill, not when there are real racist incidents, like the example of the reporter being attacked (see March 13 post)--but I am trying to make a larger point about the ways I, and others, try to figure out our racial difference from others--and to figure out whether our discomfort is racially inflected or coming from a different source (like the minor irritation of waiting an extra 5 minutes for someone to take your order, which, again, in the bigger picture of important things to worry about, is very low on that list--and yet, putting this incident into the context of others is important in trying to figure out how to read circumstances, racially, not just for yourself but for others. And if this restaurant HAD been discriminating people on the basis of race, well, that's something important to figure out because from a social-justice point-of-view you would want them to be held accountable for this behavior, which I think almost all of us would agree is discriminatory, wrong, and actually criminal).

Again, I'll let the comments from the previous post (which you should read--they are very thoughtful) stand for any of my own analysis of this incident. The fact is, I want to be able to talk about this. Not to cry out "RACISM! RACISM!" or to shrug this off as me being "oversensitive" or "over-determining" issues of race. But to say that while I shouldn't rush to judgment about the motives behind the male waiter (for example, I could speculate that he hates Asian women--that his former girlfriend was Japanese American and he now harbors animosity towards Asian American women), the fact that it enters my head that this *might* be racially inflected is in part my own current way of "seeing" and interpreting the world, and because "it" HAS happened to me in the past--I have received poor service and was made to feel uncomfortable at a restaurant because I (and my dining mate) were the only people of color in an all white eatery.

[Aside: Of course, any idiot could tell you that showing up on a Sunday afternoon at a small diner in Columbia, South Carolina where most of the white patrons look like they came straight from church--and to enter with your Asian American male friend and sit down in the back of the diner--when both of you are dressed in shorts and tee-shirts--is to almost invite the steely stares of white octogenarians--seriously, there were two in particular who COULD NOT STOP LOOKING AT US. Most people tried to be discreet about it--glancing at us sideways or looking and then looking down. But these two just kept staring straight at us, like paramecium under a microscope. Not a comfortable feeling]

Am I oversensitive about issues of race? Perhaps--although the way I'd phrase it is that I have an interest in issues of race/racism so my radar is tuned to a high frequency where these issues are concerned. I'm much less righteous about it than in my younger, wilder days. But I am aware of the biases that we carry around--and the privileges too. And it's the privileges that makes us forget what its like for others who don't share the same benefits--that those of us who either look like the majority of the people around us, whose class background or educational background makes us comfortable walking into any store in a large mall or dining in any restaurant, and, in my own quasi-examined hetero-privilege (I don't presume to say that I always scrutinize my straight privilege--I try to--but I know I slip up and, most importantly, I don't know what it's like to be queer because I'm not queer identified and have not had the same experiences as my queer friends--so while I can be friendly to those issues, it seems arrogant and inaccurate for me to say that I know what it's like, because I don't), where I don't have to think twice about holding hands with my partner in public or kissing him.

Let me turn the question on its head: Can we be oversensitive to issues of race? What does that, exactly, mean? That people are tired of being reminded that racism exists? That they don't want to hear about my musings about whether my treatment in a restaurant was racially inflected? That I worry too much about race, and rather than do this kind of worrying I should just go about and live my life? And what are the consequences for not being sensitive to issues of race?

It's a false binary, but I'd rather be over-sensitive rather than in-sensitive about race. It hasn't stopped me from living my life or moving about in all-white spaces or talking about race when I want to or not talking about race (because I also don't want to be overdetermined, by others, to always talk about race--sometimes I just want to talk about a great song I heard or being moved to tears by a passage in a novel). But I think the point I'm driving at is that we should try to be more comfortable muddling through with this issue and shouldn't shut down dialogue on topics of race--getting out of one's comfort zone isn't a good feeling, but it is where change can occur.

Thursday, March 13, 2008

Racism not Paranoia

Yesterday I wrote about racial overdetermination--reading into race. This morning I read this CNN article and saw footage of an African American news reporter being attacked by a group of white people in South Carolina for doing her job: reporting.

For more on this attack and the racial slurs against this reporter, click on this link for the CNN article (and you can also click on a video link for footage captured by a white film crew also in the area).

Basically, two African American reporters, a cameraman and a newscaster, were reporting on a homicide in a South Carolina neighborhood. Another news team, comprised of a white newscaster and a white cameraman, stood by and watched while the African American newscaster was attacked--filmed the whole thing.

Four people have been charged in the assault. They cannot be prosecuted for a hate crime because SOUTH CAROLINA HAS NO LAWS PROSECUTING FOR HATE CRIMES. And the two white news reporters will not be arrested for standing by and doing nothing (although I suppose we should all be thankful that this was captured on tape--maybe the white newscaster was the white man helping to hold back one of the women trying to attack the black newscaster? Or maybe he was just watching from the sidelines. Hard to tell).

Wednesday, March 12, 2008

When a cigar is just a cigar

The other day I was talking to a friend who had a head cold. He is also an English Professor and also works on issues of race (in his case, African American) and also considers himself a person of color.

Anyway, because his head was stuffed up, he kept mishearing what people were saying at the party we were at--for example, instead of hearing me say that I got a piece of birthday cake with a flag on it, he thought I said that my piece of cake had an Asian flag. Looking at my cake (which had an ordinary red frosting flag) he was confused, until I repeated myself and then he laughed and told me what he had misheard. Which led to the two of us recounting stories of how we tend to "read" race into situations in which we may just be over-interpreting/over-determining the racialized aspects.

Now, I know that in writing the above, I am confirming the very thing that more socially conservative people think about academics who research race: HA! CAUGHT YOU! YOU ADMIT THAT YOU READ RACE INTO EVERYTHING WHEN IT SHOULDN'T BE THERE!!!

So let me back up and explain, if I can (although really, it's sort've a damned-if-you-do/damned-if-you-don't situation I'm now putting myself in).

The other day I was at a computer store and there was an African American salesperson who was holding the door open for people. It appeared that this was his job--because after I exited and then passed by the store about half an hour later, he was still there, opening the door for customers. My first thought (especially given that I live in the South) was "Wow, they really need to re-examine having this guy be the doorman because it sends a bad image."

And then I paused. And then I wondered if I was putting too much emphasis on his race. I mean, perhaps, since this is, after all, "The New South" it is a sign of progress and mobility that it doesn't matter WHO opens the door for you at a name-brand computer store--today it was an African American person. Tomorrow, it might just be one of their white employees or Asian American employees (actually, probably not since I don't remember seeing an Asian American employee in this particular store, which is, perhaps, another progress sign of breaking stereotypes since wouldn't you ASSUME that the one place you'd find Asian Americans would be at a computer store? And yes I'm being *tongue-in-cheek* here).

Anyway, I shared my anecdote with my friend and we both laughed and agreed that we tend to read race into situations that may not call for such an interpretation. But then again, being hypersensitive to issues of race isn't something I think makes me ultra paranoid (although, as I've already disclosed in this blog space, I do think I have a healthy amount of racial paranoia given the fact that I am a person of color who also works on issues of race and have faced a fair number of weird racial and racist experiences in my time).

Perhaps it's my sense of social justice and righteousness (which I do try to keep in check, but it does bubble up from time to time). I just feel very impassioned on the subject of race and racism. And so I tend to try to figure out if, in a given instance, whether I'm encountering a weird racial dynamic or not.

And I think that if you have ever found yourself as a racial minority for an extended period of time (and I'm not just talking about the one time you ended up in Chinatown for dim sum--I'm talking about living in a neighborhood or attending a school in which you found yourself to be one of the only one (or two) people of your racial or even ethnic background) then you will understand this sense of paranoia. For example, two days ago I grabbed lunch at a local grill and was seated but had to wait for someone to take my order--two white men entered about 5 minutes after I was seated and were given water and had their order taken. I looked up at them, and their waiter, and looked around the restaurant and noted that I was the only person of color at this busy eatery. And I had to wait another 2 minutes until a different waiter came over to me, apologized for not seeing me, and then took my order. I can't be certain, but I think she (my waiter) was aware of me noticing that the table next to mine had their order taken first, and whether she also recognized my racial difference from everyone else in the restaurant is debatable. My service was fine--I got my food no problem--but in moments like these, I do wonder why it was I was overlooked.

I'm sure that other people, white and non-white, have had this experience. But the key difference, I think, from a reaction of a white persons's (especially since, as I said, this was an all-white environment I was in at the moment) reaction and a non-white person's reaction (mine, for example) is that when you aren't white and this happens to you, you can't be certain that it isn't because of your non-whiteness--that being overlooked may have everything to do with your being a person of color. Or it may have everything to do with a busy wait staff and being overlooked. The problem is, it's hard to tell--hard to separate--and hence, hard to figure out, whether a cigar really is a cigar (I'm playing off of Freud, now), or whether the paranoia isn't, in fact, just an accurate gauge of discrimination.

Thoughts anyone?

Tuesday, March 11, 2008

I Love New York

I have a love-hate relationship with New York City. On the one hand, I was born there, although my family quickly moved West by the time I was four, so my memories of NYC are contained to eating silly putty on a fire escape, sledding down what seemed to be a gigantic hill with my father right after Christmas (the mountain was actually a small hill at a nearby park), and learning to count to ten in Mandarin with my grandfather (regrettably, I retained none of those lessons). I hate New York because I find it to be a congested, dirty, loud, expensive space. But the truth is, I don't really hate it--I just find that the energy of this particular city is one that leaves me feeling slightly manic. I can blend in all-too-well as a rude New Yorker, not making eye contact, weaving through crowded sidewalks, and pushing my way with the best of them into and off of a subway.

[Look at the teeming masses; these people do not look like happy campers as they weave in and out of the city's traffic]

But I recently saw a film that made me fall in love with New York again. Or at least it made me miss New York, specifically, and all cities in general.

Definitely, Maybe falls into the category of romantic comedy, and if you look at this movie poster, you will note that your usual cast of Hollywood stars are in this one--and it's not a very diverse cast (except in terms of hair color--they did manage to find a blond, a brunette, and a red-head for this film).

But while the central cast is not too diverse, the way that New Yorkers are represented are. Now, I'm not putting a plug for this film--unless you are the kind of person who will watch most romantic comedies. I'm in that category (although I drew a line at P.S. I Love You)--it's my not-so-private vice, if you will. Anyway, what impressed me about this film was that it didn't have a typical *happy* ending, Ryan Reynolds character is both human and incredibly caring towards his 10-year old daughter (played by Abigail Breslin) but most of all, when I got to the scenes of him working on Clinton's NY campaign (the film is told in flashbacks and what brings young William (Reynolds character) to the big city are his idealistic dreams of electing Bill Clinton into office in 1992--so he is in NYC working on the NY primary), and when they showed scenes of Clinton's campaign staffers, it looked to be 50/50 in terms of people of color and white people.

[Aside: Interestingly enough, this mirrors the current campaign staff of Hillary Clinton. You all know that I am an Obama supporter, but one of the things that made me feel I could vote for Hillary is that when they did a report over the summer of the racial demographics among the various staffs of the Republican and Democratic contenders, only Clinton had a white staffer minority--40%; the rest of her staff was comprised of people-of-color, including a fairly high percentage of American Indian staffers--something you DO NOT see a lot of in national campaigns]

Where was I?

Oh Yes. The cynic in me, of course, wants to note that these were background extras--meant to give a sense of the diversity of NYC and that none of the lead or even supporting cast (with the exception of Derek Luke) was a person of color.

But what made me miss New York was that the film actually DID try to present the real diversity of the city in terms of race. And it made me realize that I miss that--I miss seeing, in an everyday sort've way, a mix of different people. Unlike with other televsion series and films, like Sex in the City or Friends or films like Thirteen Going on Thirty (a terrible romantic comedy I caught on tv the other day), Definitely, Maybe really tried to give a real flavor to the city as it is--in its messy diversity. And I appreciated that they made an effort to cast a wide range of people and to show the racial diversity of NYC--because if you watch these other shows, they make it seem as if NYC is populated by beautiful and glamorous white people. And, again, I'm not holding up this particular film as a reality check to Hollywoods'image making of itself, but I've gotten so accustomed to seeing cities mis-represented that it made me smile to realize that someone thought about the casting decisions, in terms of race, for the background scenes and tried to populate the film with a cast of extras that you'd actually find in NYC.

But more than just the diversity of the background cast, watching this film made me realize that I really do miss the energy of living in NYC or maybe just any city (San Francisco, Chicago, Washington DC). I miss the vibrancy of walking down a crowded sidewalk and the stimulation of sights and sounds and smells that the city brings. I miss the skyscrapers and the throng of traffic and the ability to take mass transportation nearly 24 hours a day. And, yes, I miss the diversity--the thrill of realizing that I get to blend into a crowd and that I'm no longer "the only one."

Monday, March 10, 2008

Freedom of Religion--an American myth?

Growing up, like all American school kids, I was told that I could one day be President, once I turned 35. Because I was born in the U.S. And any kid born in the U.S. can be president.

Of course, what you soon learn is that, this isn't *quite* true.

On the "face" of it, looking at the lineage of past U.S. Presidents, two things immediately appeared to make me wonder whether *I* could be President of the United States (it seems obvious, right, what those two things are--because I'm an Asian American woman and past presidents...are not). And then, of course, when you realize what has to happen to win a campaign--the amount of money involved, and the kind of political life and political connections that one has to have (and yes, I am invoking the word "Experience") it made me see that I really can't be president.

The other thing I'd have to worry about, of course, is that I'm a lapsed Catholic. And while JFK broke the Protestant barrier, he didn't break the devout barrier--at least the appearance of faith and devotion. And, along with being married (to a person of the opposite sex) and having children (because it seems, at least in the modern presidency, we also require our presidential candidates to be fertile), we also want our candidates to have faith.

But not just any faith--we want them to be Christian (and I am counting Catholic as Christian--I know in certain circles there is a distinction, but I think that both Protestants and Catholics believe in the same basics, even if they differ by points of doctrine).

Nicolas Kristof has an interesting Op-Ed piece in The New York Times about the newest form of bigotry and about Barack Obama (click here for the essay).

In a nutshell, Kristof talks about the recent attacks on Obama based on his name and the prejudiced and slanderous rumors (one is that he is the anti-Christ--because of COURSE the anti-Christ would admit to being Christian before running havoc on the world) and then there are the usual rumors of being part of a Muslim terrorist sleeper cell. [aside: I agree with Obama--I think the sound of the Muslim call to prayer is beautiful and is one of the fond memories I have of visiting Istanbul]

But really, Kristof raises a good point--if Barack Obama were Muslim, we would not accept him. It seems that many Americans who would decry racism and sexism would have no problem showing bigotry around religion (and we can look at Mitt Romney's candidacy to see that bigotry isn't contained to non-Christian faiths--Mormons are also Christians but he faced a fair amount of bigotry based on his own faith). And this is sad. We live in a country that is supposed to be free of religious bigotry--where we are free to worship in any way we like.

But is this really true? Especially in a post-9/11 world, can you really be an American Muslim in this country and practice your faith openly and without fear of censure and prejudice? I fear not.

Thursday, March 6, 2008

Guns do not make me feel safe

I know this blog is called "Mixed Race America," and I've tried to really keep this as a blog rather than a journal--which means, I try to stay "on-point" and to write about things that fit the topic of this blog.

But I've been saddened and disturbed for the last few months over what feels to be an increase in senseless gun violence, particularly on university campuses.

I suppose that as a college professor, this cuts close to home for me--that I feel this issue because I realize, all too clearly, that what happened at Virginia Tech or Northern Illinois University could happen at Southern U. I don't know what I'd do if someone came into Southern U. and began to randomly shoot people. I'd like to think I would act heroically, as so many teachers and students did at Virginia Tech and NIU. I'm reminded, particularly, of the professors in the science building at Virginia Tech who literally used their bodies to shield students from gunfire. I hope I never have to find out how I'd react in such a situation.

And I suppose I'm thinking about this, this week, because two young women were found murdered near campus in their respective Southern college towns: Lauren Burk, a freshman at Auburn University in Auburn, AL, was shot in the head and left for dead on the side of a highway Tuesday. And Eve Carson, a senior at UNC Chapel Hill in Chapel Hill, NC, a woman who was also the Student Body President of that school, was also found dead due to multiple gunshot wounds.

I know there are people who believe that if we made guns more accessible to everyone--if we allowed everyone to carry a concealed handgun, we'd make the world safer because we'd be able to defend ourselves better and that there'd be less violence, potentially, because people wouldn't know who was packing and who wasn't.

I just don't buy it. The simplest and sanest solution seems to be more handgun control.

Again, I know this doesn't relate directly to the topic of this blog. But with every news story that I read about senseless murders--especially young people--it just makes me feel heartsick. And it makes me realize that I wouldn't feel safer owning a gun. I wish more people would take away that message every time they read about a senseless murder. And there are, unfortunately, a flurry of stories in the last month about senseless murders--particularly domestic ones: a man in California murders his family in their sleep, a teenage girl murders her family in their sleep, and today in Israel, a gunman opened fire on a Jewish seminar and killed 8 and wounded 9 others.


I suppose there's nothing more to say to this except to hope that one day, we may actually wake up as a world and become civilized and stop this madness.

Wednesday, March 5, 2008

I like "Stuff White People Like"

There is a blog that is sweeping the nation. The LA Times has written about it. Kanye West put in a plug for it on his website. And I've received several links from friends telling me about

"Stuff White People Like"

Created by Christian Lander, a transplanted Canadian currently living in California, this blog is both satirical and smart about race. Because what Lander seems to be doing in this blog is to shine a light on whiteness--to talk about being "white" as a racial construction--to highlight that being "white" like being "Asian American" or "African American" or any of the other racial and ethnic permutations we can think of, has a set of cultural values and assumptions and stereotypes.

Although many of the comments have noted that the entries are oriented to a middle and upper-middle class background, and therefore aren't necessarily race-specific and should be called "Stuff Yuppies Like" or even if racially inflected, should be refined to "Stuff White Hipsters Like," Lander's point in creating "Stuff White People Like" was to call out the assumptions people have about what it's like to BE white--and part of the default to whiteness is an assumption about class--that if you are white you are middle class, college educated, and have certain cultural tastes.

(By the way, the comments are incredible--every post gets between 150-300 comments, and they range from people loving the site, both white and non-white commenters, to people who are offended by the site, both white and non-white commenters, to down-right racist and angry people who create their own "lists" of things "Black people like" which includes every egregious stereotype imaginable. This site has OBVIOUSLY hit a nerve!)

Lander was interviewed on "The Assimilated Negro" blog and you can read the interviews in two parts (Part 1 and Part 2). Be sure to check out the interview and this blog post--#81 "Graduate School" did hit home with me. Although I'm not white, I did identify with many of the things written about graduate school, especially a PhD program in English--this is my favorite quote:

"It is important to understand that a graduate degree does not make someone smart, so do not feel intimidated. They may have read more, but in no way does that make them smarter, more competent, or more likable than you."'s so true.

Tuesday, March 4, 2008

Celebrating Women

I feel slightly conflicted about the various time increments that the U.S. government has allocated for us to recognize underrepresented groups of people. I think the most well known is February, which is Black History month. Don't get me wrong--I applaud the idea of educating people about African Americans' contributions to U.S. history. But my more radical solution is to make black history or African American studies, more specifically, mandatory curriculum, at the high school level preferably, but definitely at the college level. Perhaps I'd want to broaden it to a history of race in America--again, as mandatory curriculum starting in elementary school preferably, but at least by your senior year in high school, this would be a year long course you would take, and whiteness would also be studied as a racial category too.

I just feel like one month feels like a bit of lip service--a small gesture to make up for centuries of oppression.

[Got this image from doing a google image search using the phrase "Women's History Month"--will include 3 others from this search--interesting that none of these women are from our recent past, but it is important to remember our foremothers, and I'm glad they made at stab at diversity with the inclusion of 2 non-white women]

And March is Women's History month. And, again, my more radical idea is that gender should be something we talk about and analyze starting in kindergarten. Because gender is something we digest subconsciously every waking moment. I remember reading a study years ago that the very first thing that all humans notice about another human is gender. In other words, when someone walks into a room, the first thing we are programmed to think about, in a split second, without even being conscious that we are doing this, is whether the person is male or female. When we can't do this instantaneously--when we are forced to pause and decide, this creates cognitive dissonance for us--we feel confused and troubled. Which is why those "Pat" skits on Saturday Night Live worked so well. We are not comfortable with gender ambiguity.

[Rosie the Riveter--she's feminine but also tough and she's positive!]

Now, radical curriculum ideas aside, I do appreciate the well intentioned spirit behind this gesture--that we should pause and remember the history of African Americans in this nation, and we should acknowledge the role of women in American culture.

[Rosa Parks--this image is so powerful--it speaks for itself]

So, in honor of Women's History Month I'm going to direct you to the blog, What Tami Said (click on name for link) because Tami and another blogger, Heart at Women's Space, have come together to create a Women's History Month Blog Carnival. This is the first entry in this month-long series (click here) and yours truly has entered a post that should be appearing in the next days or weeks.

[It's funny because it's true (sigh)]

What Tami Said is one of my daily blog check-ins. I think that Tami is incredibly saavy and smart and thoughtful--so if you haven't taken a look at her blog, I recommend it.

Monday, March 3, 2008

A Mixed Race Medley--Multiple Plugs

So for your viewing pleasure this morning, and to get the week started, I've got 3 plugs that also have 3 video shorts:

MUSIC PLUG: J.G. Bocella & the Modo Midi Band have released a song that they are distributing gratis in the hopes that it will help to inspire dialogue about race in America. Here is a link to the band's website (click here)--I recommend viewing the video--it's low tech but gives a good history lesson in terms of America's legacy of race relations and the lingering after-effects of racial oppression that we're still coming to terms with.

And for an Op-Ed piece written by J.G. Bocella in the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette, where Bocella opines about the presidential elections, Obama, and the need to have real conversations about race, click on this link.

RESOURCE PLUG: Mixed ROAR (Mixed Race Organizations Against Racism) has joined with a host of organizations (including the MAVIN foundation, iPride, MASC, and others) to launch a campaign in which people of mixed heritage answer the following question:

"What are you?"

For more, here is an explanation by Louie Gong, MAVIN foundation VP:

If you haven't visited the Mixed Heritage Center, I recommend paying a visit--there are many great resources for anyone wanting to explore more about mixed race issues.

INFORMATION PLUG: Finally, this isn't so much a plug as a newly found piece of information and something to provoke thought. The infamous SNL skit that Clinton referenced during last Tuesday's debate with Obama featured Fred Armisen in "black face" so to speak, playing the role of Barack Obama. This CNN article (click here) details the controversy over having Armisen portray Senator Obama (and you can also watch the original skit). I say this is controversial, because I personally think it is, at the very least it should provoke discussion about cross-racial representation, although truthfully I think few people seem bothered by Armisen's portrayal (and at least to date, it seems fairly respectful for SNL) but what I found most interesting was the racial background of Armisen and CNN's own brief mention of Armisen's mixed-racial heritage.

In the article, it notes that Armisen is half white and half Asian. I did a google search and found the trusty Wikipedia entry (click here) for Fred Armisen, which describes, in slightly more detail, his ethnic profile--he is Venezuelan on his maternal side and he is also part Japanese. Wikipedia lists him as both the second Latino actor on SNL (Horatio Sanz is the first) and the second Asian American actor (Rob Schneider, of part Filipino heritage, is the first).

There is more that I'm mulling over regarding both Armisen, Schneider and the idea of their mixed-Asian heritage being all but forgotten/glossed over, as well as the appropriateness of Armisen donning darker makeup to play Barack Obama. I suppose one could say that since Armisen seems to be of part white ancestry as well as his other mixtures, that perhaps it's the "white guy" inside him that gives him the authenticity to play a fellow mixed-race American who also has white heritage?

Saturday, March 1, 2008

Politics & the Beijing Olympics--what say you?

A frequent commenter and fellow blogger, Jason Clinksales, has a provocative post in his blog "A Sports Scribe" about athletes and politics, particularly about the role, if any, athletes should take in the upcoming Beijing Olympics given their record on human rights. For more, you should really go to Jason's post, "Apolitical" (click on title for link) and leave a comment--I know he'd like to have a conversation with folks about this, and it is an important question, one I've posed here before related to Tiger Woods and social justice issues.

Although I believe that athletes should have their sport as their primary objective and profession, the mix of politics and sports can be very powerful--particularly the symbolism of certain gestures.

I am of course referring to the 1968 Summer Olympics in Mexico when Tommie Smith and John Carlos (the gold and bronze medal winners of the 200m dash), American athletes--African American athletes to be more specific--took a stand against racism in the U.S. (and one can say around the world) and made the following gesture during the medal ceremony (see image below):

For more on this story, see the original October 17, 1968 BBC article (click here) and another article (click here) on the origins of Smith and Carlos protest, the fallout (both were banned from the Olympic athlete's village, thrown off the Olympic team, castigated by many, and received death threats when they returned to the U.S.), and the accolades they received 30 years later in 1998, when many finally recognized the courage they took in standing up for a cause they believed in. And many, at the time, also appreciated the powerful symbolism of these two men.

So I guess a question is: will we see a repeat in 2008 of any athletes taking a stand and making a statement in support of a social justice issue they are impassioned by? I guess we'll have to wait and see.