Sunday, January 30, 2011

We ARE a Mixed Race America

There is an article in the New York Times Sunday edition entitled, "Race Remixed: Black? White? Asian? More Young Americans Chose All of the Above." The journalist interviewed several members of University of Maryland's Multiracial and Biracial Student Association on their choice to identify as mixed race and on the prevalence of others, especially younger Americans, having the freedom to identify as multi- rather than mono-racial.

And if you are a regular reader of this blog, the article is not going to come as a surprise; rather, it will be affirmation of something that you and I have known for quite some time. That the U.S. is (and has always been) a multiracial space. I suppose what seems new is the freedom with which people are choosing to identify as mixed race. That the idea that one must only choose a singular race out of loyalty or social stigma or ethnic nationalism no longer rules the day.

However, the academic in me can't help but think about these choices occurring in the backdrop of a university setting. In other words, do mixed-race people feel as much choice as to how they identify if they are living in mono-racial areas where there may be a stigma to identifying as mixed-race or perhaps more accurately, to not identify within a particular racial or ethnic sphere would mean having charges of being a "sell out" or "acting white" leaving one in a socially vulnerable position--and would this also be exacerbated by one's other, potentially minoritizing, identities, like being gay/lesbian/bisexual/non-Christian/atheist/other-abled/working-class/poor?

I'm not trying to take away from the Times piece nor from the community and identities that the mixed race college students of University of Maryland are forging as a shared collectivity of "others" who reject one-drop rule prescriptions of who they should be and how they should identify. And I think the piece was good to remind us that the idea of a mixed race American or multiracial people does not spell an end to racism or racial divisions--being multi-racial does not mean that one transcends race or has racism licked. Being multiracial becomes another identity that people are free to choose in the 21st century. I guess I just want to remind us that our ability to choose is never as simple as making the choice--that it is often constrained by other factors.

Anyway, let me just end with two other pieces from the article. First, this interactive family tree--you can see (and hear) Lou Diamond Phillips (that's right, of La Bamba fame!) describe his mixed race family tree and you can develop one of your own (click here) and finally there's this video essay about this new generation of mixed race Americans:

Wednesday, January 19, 2011

I'm glad I have a Chinese Mom

There's been a lot of hubbub in the mainstream media and in the blogosphere about the Wall Street Journal article that came out about a week ago. If the title of my post isn't a tip off, then let me give you the link here and tell you the title: "Why Chinese Mothers are Superior" by Yale Law School professor, Amy Chua. This essay is, apparently, an amalgamation from various parts of Chua's latest book, Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother, with the very log subtitle -- which you can read on the book jacket below:

Various friends and family members have sent me the link to the original WSJ essay and have asked my opinion about the whole fracas. I've seen New York Times pieces decrying Chua and her style of parenting (including this thoughtful piece by David Brooks--a commentator I don't normally agree with), comments in various forums that call Chua's mothering child abuse. I've seen Chua interviewed on CNN and other news outlets telling us that she's received death threats and that the piece in the WSJ didn't accurately represent the book and her perspective--that it was never meant to be a handbook or an ethnic nationalist treatise; rather, it was a memoir about the trials and tribulations of her parenting, particularly the conflicts she faced with her younger daughter. I've read blog posts by Asian American women recounting the trauma of their own childhood experiences with a Chinese (or Asian) parent and two very thoughtful pieces by erin Khue Ninh (lit professor at my alma mater) and Jeff Yang (SF Chronicle) about the fallout in the Asian American community on Amy Chua.

So what do I think about Chua, specifically about her book Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother and whether the WSJ piece accurately reflected her parenting ideology?

The first disclaimer is that I haven't read the book, and I'm not sure that I'll get around to reading it anytime soon. I do think that she was mis-represented in the WSJ piece--that they crafted an essay that was designed to provoke and push buttons (and boy did it!). However, I also think that in a million years I wouldn't parent the way Chua parents. Mostly because I don't think that training your kids to be #1 is necessarily a path to happiness. Greatness, sure--but I value happiness over greatness. Yet I also agree with parts of the WSJ article that there does seem to be a sense of entitlement and indulgence in certain kids and you have to wonder if this is a result of a laxity in parenting.

[Aside: As one currently child-less, I recognize that any remarks I make about parenting will be potentially discounted right off the bat, but I've been teaching for a while now and this is my opinion about some of the freshman I see coming into the classroom--especially the ones whose parents contact me on behalf of their student to talk about academic issues--which in my line of work is a big NO NO]

So I'm not really going to comment on the book so much as the firestorm that has happened in the wake of the WSJ article. And one thing that strikes me about all of the comments is the disturbing return to Asian invasion rhetoric, one that renders China and all things Chinese as mechanical, robotic, unimaginative, repetitive, in terms suggestive of a horde (or for you Sci-fi fans, the borg) versus American exceptionalism which emphasizes creativity, individuality, and most of all, the pursuit of happiness, as granted to us in our Declaration of Independence. In other words, stereotypes of model minority, Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, yellow peril, geeky Asian violin players are reinforced in the WSJ piece.

And while my colleague in academia has spoken about the dangers of the WSJ piece and Chua's emphasis on overachievement (even if she has learned a lesson from it) on the Asian immigrant parents who may see her book as an endorsement for strict parenting and excellence and achievement at all costs, what I think is truly sad and insidious about the fallout from Chua are all the Chinese and Chinese American moms, immigrant and American born, who are not the stereotype of the strict Asian parent.

Case in point: my own mother.

My mom (and my Dad) never pushed me to get straight A's. I was allowed and encouraged to go to sleepovers and to have sleepovers at my home. I was allowed and encouraged to pursue extracurricular activities like tennis and badminton and track (and I even dabbled in being a bluebird--but it didn't take). On my own initiative I played the violin for 7 years and piano for 3 years, and my parents didn't complain when I stopped playing both instruments in high school once I became more involved in student body politics. I watched plenty of t.v. (and also read plenty of books, largely fiction), and my parents didn't pressure me to attend an ivy league or tier 1 school or to major in something "practical" or to become an M.D.

In short, what Chua's article and book do is to obscure women like my mother who aren't the stereotype of the Asian mother who insists on excellence at all costs and who creates pressure-cooker tension in the home for her children. My mother never berated or insulted me--never threw homemade birthday cards back at me--she allowed me to make my own decisions and choices while still giving me structure and guidance.

Did we fight? Of course! Was it a perfect mother-daughter relationship? No way! But my mother is certainly a strong-willed woman who helped me become a strong-willed woman -- and she did this through a combination of structure and trust. So I just want everyone to remember that not all of us had overly strict Chinese mothers who made our lives miserable and forced us into doing things we didn't want to do for the same of excellence. I, for one, am very glad and very proud of the Chinese American Mom who raised me and who instilled in me a desire to succeed not by pushing me but by loving me unconditionally.

Friday, January 14, 2011

T.G.I.F. -- a Mixed Race America

By now we have all heard about what unfolded in Tucson, AZ--the horror of the mass shooting, the grief and mourning, private and public. And we've also heard a lot of finger pointing--charges of amped up rhetoric, and irony of ironies, people who use amped up rhetoric as a defensive maneuver to say that they aren't using amped up rhetoric (we all know I'm talking about Sarah Palin here, right?).

I've thought a lot about what I wanted to write, with respect to the shootings in Tucson, the rhetoric that has emerged, the politics that are being played out. And then I watched the memorial service this past Wednesday, and I was really struck by the words of Daniel Hernandez, the 20-year old intern who is credited with helping to save Rep. Gabrielle Gifford's life. In his remarks at the memorial, which were amazingly poised and articulate given his relative youth, the size/scope of the venue, and the emotion of the service.

[I mean, can you imagine yourself at twenty standing in front of a podium facing 14,000 people, countless cameras, and with the President of the United States sitting front and center?]

Hernandez rejected, humbly and respectfully, the title of hero, instead calling the public/civil servants and first responders and medical staff of the hospital the real heroes in this event.

And what I was struck by, as they panned the crowd to show Rep. Gifford's surgeon, Dr. Peter Rhee, was how important a mixed-race America is to the cit of Tucson. Gifford's is Jewish. Hernandez is Latino. Rhee is Asian American. The six victims who died were Caucasian.

[Note: I'm assuming this based on their photos, but truthfully I don't know how any of them identified or whether some of them may have been Jewish or mixed race in ways that aren't apparent using only ocular evidence]

Arizona, as Sheriff Clarence Dupnik noted, has been a flashpoint for debates about immigration and ethnic studies--a state in which bigotry and prejudice have become so clearly institutionalized through anti-immigration measures (and rhetoric) and anti-Ethnic Studies measures. The not only tacit but clear white supremacist values that these measures promote make Arizona seem like it's this bastion of intolerance.

But then you have Daniel Hernandez. And you have Gabrielle Giffords. And the members of her synagogue. And you have Peter Rhee. All visions of a mixed race Arizona. A mixed race America. And thank goodness that we do.

I was going to give Daniel Hernandez the T.G.I.F. (The Great Impossible Feat Award) solo--because he certainly deserves it, despite what he says about not being a hero.

[Aside: He was one of the first responders on the scene--he was THE first responder, in fact, and while it's impossible to say for certain, I believe that had he not rushed to her aid immediately and had the presence of mind (and the skills of his nursing assistance class) to staunch her wound and keep her calm, then I don't think she'd be making the progress that she is currently making. He really is a remarkable young man--Time magazine did a piece on him (click here) and among the other things about Daniel that have not been reported on since it's not the most important things to note about him in light of his actions of the past week, is that he is a politically active, gay, Latino man. Yet these markers of identity--being politically active (he volunteered on the Clinton 2008 campaign and then for Gifford's re-election campaign after Clinton dropped out), being gay and being Latino are important for the world to recognize not only because it's part of who he is, but it's a reminder, in the midst of all the polemical debates about gay marriage, about queer rights, about Ethnic Studies and the importance of Chicano/Latino history in Arizona, that Daniel Hernandez's very existence is a refutation to the arguments of sealing borders and teaching white-washed and sanitized versions of history and not recognizing the rights of queer people everywhere.]

But I think since Daniel doesn't want to be singled out as a hero, that what we should be grateful for, what shouldn't seem impossible but sometimes is, is the fact that we live in a mixed race America.

Thank goodness we live in a mixed race America. Thank goodness for people like Daniel Hernandez. And thank goodness for organizations like Ben's Bells--a non-profit in Tucson whose message and purpose is to spread kindness to strangers. Click here on the link to find out more about what they do and watch this piece from the New York Times:

Wednesday, January 5, 2011

Changing words . . . charged words

I'm an English professor who blogs, so it's not going to come as a surprise to read that I believe words matter A LOT. Words allow us to voice and describe our experiences--words allow us to shape and name experiences. Words, quite literally, have helped us to survive. And as someone who respects the written word, especially the published written word in book form, I take seriously anyone who wants to change or amend or (GASP) should dare plagiarize anyone else's words.

So this morning when I opened my email, I found an article sent to me by a family member, "G" about a scholar who is releasing versions of Adventures of Huckleberry Finn and Tom Sawyer in which the word "nigger" is replaced by the word "slave" and in which "Injun Joe" is not "Indian Joe" and "half-breed" is now referred to as "half-blood."

In other words, potentially racially offensive epithets/slurs have been taken out and replaced with more benign versions.

Can everyone hear Mark Twain rolling over in his grave?

The scholar in question, Alan Gribben, believes that by taking out charged words, especially THE charged word, "nigger," readers (and school districts/teachers/professors) will be more likely to teach these particular Twain works to their students. After all, Huck Finn is one of the most widely banned books in the country, because of its invocation (219 times) of the word "nigger."

Gribbens move, while seemingly well intentioned, seems absolutely wrong-headed. First, I don't think you should ever edit someone else's writing without their permission, and since Twain is dead, we should let well enough alone. Second, I think it's possible to teach Huck Finn and have a discussion of the overuse of the word "nigger" and what Twain may have been doing by having his title character evoke this epithet again and again--in other words, Huck using this word has everything to do with his class status, his regional location, and not necessarily with his attitude about black slaves or African Americans. Third, if we don't read Huck Finn anymore, the world will continue turning on its access--I am not someone who believes in preserving the "canon" of American literature--so making a more "user-friendly" version of Huck Finn just to get people to read it seems ... stupid. Do I think it's great literature? Maybe. Am I glad I read it? I needed to read it as someone who studies American literature. Can students read other works of American literature, ones that deal with slavery and the South without having the word "nigger" appear? Sure...but understanding this charged word in context--understanding the nature of racial slurs, and the extremely provocative and violent nature of this particular racist epithet, would be very educational.

Finally, I've deliberately NOT referred to the "N" word in this blog post--which I know is a controversial thing to do and something that I'm trying to sort out with how I feel about offensive language/phrases and my own usage. In general, my stance as a teacher has been to talk about the slur in context--and to explain to students that when it appears in the text, it is not meant to offend them but that we need to understand the racial climate in which the word appears. When John Steinbeck writes about "Chinks" and "Chinamen" or other authors invoke phrases like "wet back" or "half breed" or "fag"-- they may or may not reflect the attitude of the author but they definitely convey information about the character who is voicing those slurs. And within the context of the story, that is important. It also tells us something about the social attitudes and cultural milieu of the setting of the work.

But the word "nigger"--IS the "N" word--and what I mean by that is, it's not like the other slurs I just listed above. There is no other equivalent. Not even a word I absolutely hate, "cunt," comes close to the level of linguistic violence that I think the word "nigger" does. No other slur has also had such a varied and controversial current usage--popping up frequently in the lyrics of African American hip hop and rap artists, used by black comedians, and invoked, colloquially, among African Americans in terms of affection and familiarity. If you do a google search, you will come across a very disturbing array of links (I didn't click on any of them--they were too scary) to jokes--which I think is very telling because jokes are one of the insidious ways in which we, as a culture, can keep people under surveillance. No one wants to be the butt of a joke--to be made fun of--to be laughed at. And this word in particular has been invoked, very specifically, by white Americans to target black Americans. Randall Kennedy, a Harvard law professor, has written a book detailing the history of this word, and you can click here on an insightful review of it and the slur.

So should we retire the word? Should we only refer to "nigger" as the "N" word? Does even reading the word in the context of this blog post seem too jarring, too upsetting, too violent? I certainly think that it should never be used as a racial slur. I also believe that as someone who has never had to endure the pain of being called this particular racial epithet, I can't speak to the psychic damage of hearing it or seeing it in print, and the potentially recuperative power of using it as an in-group expression of solidarity. But I also wonder about masking the word by saying "N" word in its place. As someone who believes in being honest in language, saying "N" word seems to give it a power that I don't want the word to have anymore.

But let me end with this bit of stand up by Danny Glover, who does have some opinions about who should and should not ever use this word:
Donald Glover - Can't Say It
JokesJoke of the DayFunny Jokes

Saturday, January 1, 2011

New Year's Resolutions

I know I've been an intermittent blogger since April 2010 when I received my cancer diagnosis. In that time I've gone through chemotherapy, surgery, and physical rehabilitation--and lots of time in doctor's offices (and lots more time in waiting rooms).

In two weeks I will be back in the classroom teaching, and I'm excited about being back on campus and getting back into a routine. I'm also determined to get back on a work schedule--which includes more regular blogging in this space. Because I have things to say, observations to make, conversations I hope to have in the comments section on this blog.

So here's what I resolve for 2011:

*To blog at least once a week--even if that post is simply to be a series of links to other blogs or articles. After all, linking to things others are saying/thinking about is just as important as trying to voice my own thoughts in this space.

*To finish a draft of my current book project -- I've got a *very* rough draft of one chapter and need to work on the last chapter.

*To keep exercising. Even if it just means walking for half an hour--but really, I want to train for the 4 mile race I signed up for in April.

Ok, that's it. Pretty simple goals--just 3--so should be achievable.

Happy 2011 everyone--I'm hoping that it's a healthy and happy one for us all!