Tuesday, December 21, 2010

150 years of PTSD OR South Carolina's selective historical memory

For regular readers, you know that I've *slowly* been doing a series where I answer questions from students at Private U. about being Asian American (it was from a workshop I did back in November--click here for the original post). But I'm interrupting that series for something very topical in time and to my location, namely, the sesquicentennial (150) celebrations that are being planned (and in one instance, that took place) in commemoration of the Civil War.

Very specifically, 150 years ago yesterday, on Dec. 20, 1860, South Carolina became the first state in the confederacy to secede from the Union, issuing an "Ordinance of Secession" and eventually signing a "Declaration of Secession" and finally issuing a call to other states entitled, "The Address of the people of South Carolina, assembled in Convention, to the people of the Slaveholding States of the United States."

As the last call makes clear, South Carolina saw itself as a slaveholding state, saw its neighbors as slaveholding states, and understood the common cause that it had with other states in the Confederacy as slaveholding entities. In other words, the southern Confederacy broke with the union over states' rights...and that right was the right to OWN SLAVES. South Carolina in particular was upset that the North was not going to return fugitive slaves. Throughout the Ordinance and the Declaration and the Address, there are continuous references to rights of slave owners and slave holding states. This was about the economics, society, and culture of the South...all of which was predicated on African American enslavement. Because we're not just talking about abstract slavery--where anyone could be enslaved so that it became an issue of class--we're talking about a system of racial oppression and hierachy, or literal white supremacy.

Yet for many descendants of ex-Confederate soldiers, it's like there's been generational PTSD passed down over the last 150 years that has caused white Southerners to romanticize the past, to justify the loss of life, and to conveniently forget or overlook the historic reality of exactly WHY the Civil War was fought. And in the case of certain white native South Carolinians--it's a selective amnesia about why and how the ordinance of secession came about. Because in Charleston last night, the Sons of Confederate Veterans held a ball last night, a Secession Gala where 300 guests paid $100/ticket to enjoy a 45 minute theatrical re-enactment of secession, and where table sponsors had the honor of having their picture taken with the original declaration. For the organizers and guests who attended the gala, South Carolina's secession should be celebrated as a way to honor the issue of states' rights and the valor of the confederate soldiers who gave their lives for their state, refusing to see any connection to slavery or asserting that the celebration was not a "racial" issue.

Well, this seems patently absurd. Of COURSE it's racial! Who we decided should be enslaved made it racial. And if the demographics of those at the ball and those who protested the ball are any indication, then YES, it IS a racial issue. I mean, I (obviously) didn't attend the gala, so I can't say, for certain, that everyone who attended was white (but The Guardian can) but I have to say that in the hour that I was outside Gaillard Auditorium (and yes, I'm in Charleston as we speak) I didn't see any people of color enter the auditorium--and the organizers, dressed in period costume, all appeared to be white. Whereas those of us joining in the unity rally and protest of the ball were a mixed group of black, white, and in the case of myself and another woman, Asian American protesters.

[Note: There may have been American Indian and Latino and of course mixed race and multiracial folks in attendance at the protest--but at first glance, the crowd appeared to be largely white and black, especially if you didn't notice that I or the other Asian American woman was there, as this Boston Globe reporter clearly didn't since he only noted the "black and white" protesters in attendance]

I wasn't able to march with the protesters since my energy level is still very low post-chemo and surgery (I've heard it can take a year after chemo to feel "normal" again--sigh), but Southern Man and I were there, clapping and yelling and affirming the various speakers--we were a small part of the hundred folk who had gathered--and we got to see for ourselves the audacity of the sons of Confederate veterans and the guests who showed up in period costume--like the woman in The Guardian photo. When we saw her enter the auditorium I whispered to Southern Man,

"Where do you think she got that hoop skirt? Antebellum R Us?"

I wish I had brought my computer cable with me to upload photos from the protest to my laptop to show you some of the signs and some of the ridiculousness--like a band that played there who call themselves "Unreconstructed," the tag line on their trailer reads: "Keeping memories alive"

Ummm....which ones? I'd say that for the African American descendants of enslaved people, the memories of bondage and servitude and oppression are NOT ones they want to keep alive. And for women, particularly poor women? And for queer folks who were in the closet (as any queer people, black or white had to have been in the closet in the antebellum period--hell, throughout the 19th and most of the 20th century)? Or anyone who wasn't wealthy and white who had political power and wanted to keep their economic interests? What kind of memories do you want to keep alive for anyone who wasn't a wealthy white man or woman?

But let me leave the last word with Larry Wilmore, who notes that it's not just politically correct to say that the Civil War was fought over the issue of slavery, it's CORRECT correct!

The Daily Show With Jon StewartMon - Thurs 11p / 10c
The South's Secession Commemoration
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Saturday, December 11, 2010

More questions about Asians in America -- who are we?

Another set of questions (and my attempted answers) to the excellent questions posed by Private U. students at a workshop I ran a month ago (click here for the original post and set of questions). Here goes!

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

So I'm going to do the teacherly thing and spin the question around a bit--namely, just who is responsible for solving the stereotype of Asian Americans as "perpetual foreigner"? While I'm sure there are Asian Americans who engage in stereotyping of Asian Americans and/or are invested in ethnic self-hatred as a defensive posture or perhaps simply out of ignorance, in my opinion it's mainly non-Asian Americans (largely white Americans, although other minority races do it too) who believe that Asian Americans aren't "real" Americans and are simply this mass of foreign-born, pidgin-speaking, immigrants.

The truth is, there are many Asians in America who were not born and raised here, and who speak English with an Asian accent. But the belief that ALL Asian Americans or Asians in America are foreign have a lot to do with the investment that mainstream America has in perpetuating this stereotype. Some of it is just pure laziness. Some of it is based on yellow peril stereotypes. Much of it, I suspect, has to do with the idea of America being a place, first and foremost, for white Americans -- that it is white Americans who "founded" this nation and white Americans who "count" as "authentic" American -- whose ancestors worked hard to make this a great country.

Now, I don't think most people consciously think the above (at least non-tea party folks), but the idea that everyone but white Americans are generally "hyphenated" or noted as being American-PLUS (as in African American, Native American, Asian American), is a sign of white privilege and a sign of white supremacist thinking (and I don't mean the KKK or men in white sheets, I mean the ways in which our history and society is formed around promoting the history of white Americans, often at the expense of ignoring or marginalizing or silencing the history of non-white Americans--this contributes to white supremacist thinking--and it's not just white people who engage in this, almost every single person in the U.S. is subject to white supremacist thinking--we just can't help it, it's everywhere and you have to actively work to undue years of an ingrained way of thinking about the world--I suppose I should also say that Gramsci would just say this is all hegemony).

So what can Asian Americans do?

We can resist and remind. We can resist white supremacist thinking and educate people and correct them, in whatever way we're comfortable, with anger, humor, self-denigration, condescension, pragmatism, or any other tactic that gets across that the person making a comment/conjecture/observation that perpetuates the stereotype of Asian Americans as foreign is simply wrong and not true. We can be spokespeople for ourselves--by refusing to answer the question "What are you?" or "Where are you from?" by turning it around and asking others "What are you?" or "Where are you from?" For those of us who identify as Americans, we can simply give this as an answer when people ask us for our nationality. We can ask our questioners why they are asking about our race/ethnicity/culture--why do they want to know? And we can turn it around and ask about their race/ethnicity/culture. By doing all of this, we remind others that we are not the compliant Asian subject that they want us to be. We are loud and proud Asian Americans.

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

Hmmmm...very intriguing question. I guess the first thing I'd say is that while the term "racial middle" does resonate and make sense as a descriptor for Asian Americans, it is also perhaps not where we should aspire to be or that we should work against thinking of race in terms of space or hierarchies. There is a temptation to do this--to see Asian Americans as neither black nor white--to be in the middle of a linear scale of racial privilege (on the one end) and racial abjection (on the other).

But I think in terms of thinking of what the place of Asian Americans is in terms of U.S. politics and society...well, I would hope it means increased visibility--which links back to the above question about being a perpetual foreigner. The more Asian Americans take part in civic society--by running for political office or taking on leadership positions in education, business, the military, entertainment--the more visible we can be in American society and thus be recognized as fully enfranchised American citizens.

However, I also think another way of thinking of this question, because of its emphasis on race, is to think how Asian Americans can work with other groups to end social oppression--because it's not just about ending racial oppression, it's understanding how race intersects with gender/sexuality/ability/region/religion/class/education and so many other factors. So it means Asian Americans not just speaking as/for/about Asian Americans but as allies and leaders for other groups that they are either part of or are allies of.

And in this way I think Asian Americans get to contribute like everyone else in making this country to be a nation that is inclusive of all, or in the words of the pledge of allegiance, pre-1954: "one nation, indivisible, with liberty and justice for ALL."