Monday, February 27, 2012

More Afro-Asian connections in sports and US culture

Mark Anthony Neal has to be one of the smartest people I know who thinks about, writes about and talks about issues of race, especially on his blog, New Black Man. Neal also has a weekly webcast, Left of Black, and today he had on two scholars who look at race and sports, and they discuss Tiger Woods -- the original "Cablinasian" and apt symbol (and apt problematics--and by this I mean the problem of being read as mixed race in the U.S. not that I think Woods is a "problem" although his golf game is currently problematic, but that's a different post for a different audience) of a Mixed Race America. Watch now.

Monday, February 20, 2012

The Invisibility (or Linvisibility) of Asian Americans

My friend and colleague Tim Yu has a piece on CNN's Opinion Page, "Will Jeremy Lin's Success End Stereotypes?" It is a very smart and very thoughtful piece, and I hope you will all take a look at it. I had also been queried about the topic of racism and Asian Americans related to Jeremy Lin--although my piece didn't get placed with CNN (honestly I think Tim's piece is much better, so I'm glad it got picked over mine) I figured I'd share my own 800 word essay with everyone here. After all, the great thing about blogs is that you can have multiple voices chime in -- and Jeremy Lin's ascent in the NBA has touched on so many arenas of Asian American and critical race studies--it's really been a wonderful 2 weeks!

Three weeks ago, before the world knew the name Jeremy Lin—before all of the punning word play (Linsperational, Linsational, Linbelievable) that pays homage to Lin’s incredible 7 game winning streak (and most recent win over NBA champions Dallas Mavericks), before the world could chant the basic details of this Linderella story—led his high school team to a state championship but wasn’t recruited in college, ended up at Harvard but wasn’t drafted immediately, eventually picked up by the Golden State Warriors but then let go and picked up by the Houston Rockets but then let go and then ended up at the Knicks , where he slept on the couches of his brother and teammate, but were it not for a series of tragedies and accidents among his teammates, he could have found himself without a contract, his NBA hoop dreams dashed—before Linsanity had swept the globe, my college classroom in North Carolina said that they had no idea that the the acronym F.O.B. (fresh-off-the-boat) was an offensive term directed, primarily, at Asian Americans.

I begin here because, like my students, there are a lot of people who may not understand that words like “FOB” and “Chink” have a history, a very particular racist history. ESPN found itself under fire when one of their broadcasters, following the Knick’s loss to the Hornets, asked whether there was a “chink in the armor,” and then later that night on the ESPN mobile app this same expression appeared in a headline with a picture of Jeremy Lin underneath—the implication, and distasteful allusion, being that Lin is now the “chink,” both in terms of being a potential weakness in the strength of the Knick’s defense and because he’s the target of this racist slur as someone of Asian ancestry. I think that when people try to give the benefit of the doubt to ESPN by saying that it’s a harmless phrase, we miss the point that words are never harmless, and context is always everything. The word “chink” does mean a rift or crack, but its more insidious meaning has been with us for over a century. To call someone a “Chink” in the U.S. or to insinuate that someone is a “Chink” is always to invoke a history of systemic, institutional racism.

This is what has been missing from a lot of analysis about race and Lin. There’s a whole history of Asians in America that is simply missing from our general knowledge base. And this history is one in which Chinese men were lynched on the West Coast in the late 19th and early 20th C. because of fears that Chinese laborers were taking jobs away from white men or that Chinese men were a danger to the purity of white women. And as Lin himself has recounted, slurs like “Chink” were used to demean him while he played basketball for Harvard. And I’m sure that Asian Americans, regardless of ancestry, have had this term used against them. The fact that we don’t talk about this, that racism against Asian Americans goes almost unnoticed outside of select circles, is a result of the persistent invisibility of Asians in America – or a limited visibility in which Asian Americans are known only through dominant stereotypes: we’re good at math, we speak broken English, we know martial arts, we’ve overly sexualized (if we’re women) and we’re overly feminine (if we’re men), we built your railroads, washed your laundry, and now we do your nails, sell you coffee at the corner store, but we do not show up on prime time t.v. except as your sidekick best friend or your nerdy co-worker. And this invisibility of Asian Americans on the U.S. media landscape is a result of systemic, institutional racism. It is a result of not believing that Asian Americans have multi-dimensional lives—that we are more than Tiger Mothers pushing and punishing our children to be Carnegie Hall prodigies. That we are more than model minorities who took your son or daughter’s spot in college admissions. That we are more than what mainstream media has shown us to be.

Except now we have Jeremy Lin. Now we are fast; we are athletic; we are strong; we are mentally tough; and we’re smart (we’ve always been smart, remember Jeremy did go to that ivy league school in Boston, I mean Cambridge). Yes, we’re humble. Yes we are people of faith. Yes we are close to our families. But we can also strut and swagger with the best of them. And we have confidence in ourselves; we can dominate and lead. And by the way, did we mention, that we can dunk? We are Asian Americans. We are proud. We are loud. Get used to us.

Sunday, February 19, 2012

Black History Month & the 70th Anniversary of Executive Order 9066 -- why both matter, together

It is Black History month, a time when we (as a nation) remember the significant contributions to American history, culture, and society of people of African heritage to the United States. At Southern University there has been additional programming highlighting various aspects of African American history, culture, and people/communities. While there are some who criticize the idea of "heritage months" because there is no "white history" month (to which I say, isn't everyday white history month?) and there are those who say why single out single month when we should be acknowledging African American contributions to U.S. society everyday (to which I say, well of course, but a month of programming and remembering is still a good and worthy thing), February is none-the-less the month in which those of us who care about issues of race, racism, white privilege, white surpremacy, and most important anti-racist practices, recognize the importance of honoring and celebrating African Americans.

And 70 years ago today, February 19, 1942, Franklin Delano Roosevelt signed Executive Order 9066, which nullified the constitutional rights of every single person living on the West Coast of the United States. It allowed for the military to interpret and restrict who could remain on the West Coast--and the military, under the auspices of EO9066, targeted one and only one ethnic group: people of Japanese ancestry. There was no mention of race in EO9066--which is significant because it gave great power to the military to interpret who was a threat and who needed to be evacuated from the West Coast due to "military necessity."

By now, many people have debunked the idea of "military necessity" surrounding the Japanese American internment/incarceration, and I have written about this issue many times before, especially in this post. So I won't rehearse all of the standard reasons why it is important to remember the 70th anniversary of this infamous date (although I would encourage people to go to this link to an article in Colorlines Magazine).

But I do want to note a connection between EO9066 and Black History Month. Because I think there are more things that unite Asian Americans and African Americans than divide them, despite ridiculous recent comments by Floyd Mayweather and Jenny Hyun. The Afro-Asian connections and points of solidarity are ones that Dr. Sarah Jackson has tweeted about (click here). Asian American activism (of which the Japanese American Internment redress movement was part of) owes a debt to the modern civil rights movement for African American enfranchisement. Asian Americans and African Americans can and should join together to confront issues of white supremacy and white privilege -- and should join with all others who want to be anti-racist allies.

Social justice issues should give us all an opportunity to recognize the intersections of oppression and the possibilities for solidarity across racial lines. We should celebrate Black history month and recognize the injustice of Executive Order 9066 and the unconstitutional incarceration of Japanaese Americans during WWII--and we should continue to see why we are stronger thinking of both together rather than separately.

Friday, February 17, 2012

Why I love Michelle Obama

There's a lot of reasons to love Michelle Obama, but one of the best ones that I can think of is that she really understands why she is such an important symbol for so many people, especially African American women. She is a beautiful, intelligent, elegant, funny, and strong black woman who is the partner to the President of the United States.

On February 16 she surprised a tour of White House visitors (along with First Dog Bo)--it's a long video link, but it's worth going to time stamp 37:00 -- that's where she encounters a group of African American women, and it's so moving and powerful to watch their reactions--to see how much they love, admire, and respect her.

Click here for the link.

Thursday, February 16, 2012

I've caught the fever and it's called LINSANITY

I've been wanting to write, for over a week, about the phenomenon we now refer to as "Linsanity" -- the rise of NY Knicks point guard Jeremy Lin.

If you live in the U.S. or China/Taiwan, you have not been able to not hear about, read about, and watch the highlight reels of Jeremy Lin tearing up the court at Madison Square Garden and at basketball arenas around the nation (and across the border in Toronto). The general rhetoric is that he came out of nowhere, an underdog who was underappreciated and undervalued, and now he has risen to stratospheric heights, saving the Knick's season, reinvigorating fans in NYC (and around the nation), and inspiring Asian Americans to claim Lin as Ours--he is one of us.

One of us.

That's a very powerful notion for Asian Americans--that we are seeing, EVERYWHERE, the face and body of a male Asian American athlete on a national stage--that we are watching Jeremy Lin hold his own night after night, quelling the nay sayers (and the haters) about being a fluke and showing that he had always had talent, but it was obscured by the stereotypes and misperceptions that people associated with college and professional basketball (and really mainline college and professional sports) have about Asian American athletes: we aren't really real.

And it's painful to not be really real. It's not just Asian American athletes who suffer from this perception--it's the way in our 21st Century society has made "real" what you see on a screen--whether it's the tv screen, the movie screen, or your computer screen. If it's not an image for mass consumption, it doesn't exist. If you aren't being represented on a sitcom, opening up a blockbuster movie, passing a ball or playing at the Grammy's, you're not real.

Asian Americans have not, historically, had a lot of positive screen time--and certainly haven't had screen time outside of pretty stereotypical roles--the martial artist, the geisha, the enemy soldier or war refugee, the nerd.

But now we've got Jeremy Lin!

And while I don't want to overstate his importance, there is no escaping that we are in a moment--and that particularly for Asian Americans, there is a sense that finally we have someone--someone who is getting a lot of screen time. Someone who defies stereotypes. Someone who has grabbed the nation's attention and is succeeding in an arena reserved for the most masculine of athletes (and this is additionally significant in terms of the way that Asian American men have traditionally been portrayed, especially in the media, as feminized and weak).

There's an especially astute post by my friend and colleague, Timothy Yu--it's long but it's definitely worth reading because Tim really gets at the heart of why Jeremy Lin is so important to Asian Americans at this particular moment, especially Tim's last line:

"This is why Asian Americans love Jeremy Lin: he's everything we are, and he's everything we've been told we can never be."

I don't know how long Linsanity will last--like all things, there will be a time when the Knick's winning streak will end and at the very least if the improbable happens and Lin keeps winning and winning, the basketball season will come to an end. And I know that there's also going to be the inevitable racist comment (there have been some minor ones already)--and certainly Lin has already faced racist taunts before. But what is important in the here and now are all the ways that Lin is inspiring to so many. And while I know I've concentrated on how he is an inspiration to Asian Americans, I feel really gratified to see that at least among some journalists, there has been an effort to do real racial analysis that is thoughtful and that recognizes all the ways that Lin has been overlooked and underappreciated because of society's stereotypes of who can play basketball. In other words, Lin's race matters.

Then again, I always think race matters!

Monday, February 6, 2012

Peter Hoekstra--PLEASE take an Asian American history class!

A student in my Asian American in the South class just sent me a link to a New York Times article that discusses an ad that ran in Michigan during the Superbowl--I've included it below and you can click here for the article itself:

Not sure where to begin with this one. The fact that the actress is Chinese American and NOT Chinese and certainly even in the ad, although she's speaking in this strange broken English she does so without a clear Chinese accent. The fact that this ad was filmed in California--probably in the Delta of California (which is northeast of SF) and NOT filmed in the rice paddies of China. And, oh, the fact that this ad is clearly playing off of fears of exporting jobs to China--which is a return to yellow peril rhetoric that American politicians have been using since the mid-19th C.

In fact, I just got through teaching the concept of "yellow peril" in both my Asian American classes a few weeks ago.

So here's the sad but true thing of it all: my students (who range from 18-22, generally speaking) are much more saavy and sensitive and smart about issues related to Asian Americans in this country than this Republican contender for the U.S. senate.

Shame on you Peter Hoekstra! Shame on you! If you really want to do something for the civic good of this nation, get yourself enrolled in an Asian American studies class at the University of Michigan. Go out and buy a history book about Asian Americans or Chinese Americans, like this excellent one by Peter Kwong and Dusanka Miscevic.

I cannot BELIEVE we still have to talk about yellow peril rhetoric and that Asians are still being linked to the loss of American jobs. AGHHHH!!!!!

Wednesday, February 1, 2012

Mutated Meanings -- Can Racial Slurs Ever Stop Hating?

In my last post I wrote about the Chinese American immigrant teen who was attacked by seven of his classmates in what appears to be retaliation for another beating rather than for what the YouTube video makes it appear to be--a racially motivated attack--a hate crime.

Yet, as I noted in the post, it may very well be that race and hate are involved, especially in the idea of the teen as a "FOB," an acronym which stands for "Fresh off the boat."

Yesterday I had a very lively discussion with my Asian Americans in the South class

[Aside: Yes, that's right--I'm teaching a class on Asian American Southern literature--it may well be the first of its kind in the nation, although if anyone else knows of someone who has taught a version of this class before, I'd love to share and compare notes! Also, I have to tell you that these students were so smart, candid, and thoughtful in their discussion of very controversial and provocative topics--I really commend them and I also appreciate how they help me push the boundaries of my thinking.]

about this video and about the situation of the teen being beaten up by other Chinese American youth, and especially about the racial slur, "nigger," used by his attackers (and one masked attacker in particular it seems) as they beat, punched, kicked, and pummeled his face, head, and body.

A very interesting discussion ensued, particularly about the use of the term "FOB" and "nigger" (and I do apologize about my use of this racial slur--I'm not trying to replicate hatred or feelings of discomfort, but following Randall Kennedy, I believe in using the word, contextually, instead of masking it and giving it more power by saying "n-word" -- it's like Harry Potter's rationalization for saying "Voldemort" instead of referring to him as "He who shall not be named"). Several of my students said that the word "nigger" or in its more colloquial form "niggah" had taken on a life and usage that is seemingly separate from its original term as a word of ultimate racial hatred. And they didn't just mean the way it has been appropriated within certain African American circles as a term of in-group affection and solidarity. No, what they meant is that non-African Americans used the term as a pejorative but not as a racial pejorative--more as a term to denote someone who is acting like a jerk or a punk. In youth parlance, a "hater" if you will.

Similarly, the term "FOB" or just "fob" and "fobby," didn't have any negative meanings, for them--it simply was used to refer to a recent immigrant who maintained ethnic-national times to his/her homeland. So in referring to a recent Korean American who enjoys Korean music, someone might say, "He's a real fob--he's totally into K-Pop." Or in talking about Cuban immigrants in Miami you might say, "She's so fobby--she only speaks Spanish and hangs out with other Cuban fobs."

I decided to see if I could find the origins of the word "F.O.B." since I had grown up, in the 1970s, believing that this was a term used to make fun of recent Asian immigrants--specifically it was often used to denigrate Southeast Asian (Vietnamese, Cambodian, Hmong, Laotian) refugees from the war in Viet Nam. Although I assumed that it wouldn't be in the OED, I decided to start there (since it's the gold standard of English language etymology) and lo and behold, I found an entry:

FOB, n.4

Pronunciation: Brit. /fɒb/ , /ˌɛfəʊˈbiː/ , U.S. /fɑb/ , /ˌɛfoʊˈbi/
Forms: 19– F.O.B., 19– f.o.b., 19– FOB, 19– fob.
Etymology: Acronym < the initial letters of fresh off the boat ...
slang (orig. and chiefly U.S.). Chiefly depreciative. [my emphasis]

Categories »

A recent immigrant.
1968 Los Angeles Times 6 May ii. 12/2 The FOBs don't know English when they get here and their parents move to Chinatown so the family can live with people like themselves.
1991 J. Raban Hunting Mr. Heartbreak 256 If you passed Mr. Han on the street, you'd mistake him for a still shell-shocked newcomer; an FOB.
1994 Filipino Express (Electronic ed.) 11 Dec. 11 They call the Vietnamese F.O.B.s‥. We can call them S.O.B.s, but that would be stooping down to their level.
2004 K. W. Keltner Dim Sum of All Things 139 In Stephanie's world, Lindsey's blatant disregard for sock perfection made her look like a fob—a fresh-off-the-boat immigrant.

They key phrase above is "Chiefly depreciative" -- meaning, disparaging and belittling. In other words, the general tenor and tone of this word/phrase is negative--it's a pejorative--it's not used as a term of affection, endearment or respect. It's used as a term to pass judgment, to highlight difference, to otherize: to racialize.

I don't think, like with the word "queer," that there has been some kind of mass movement by recent Asian immigrants to take back and appropriate this term. Instead, I think that the term has evolved over time to the point where my college-aged (roughly 18-22) students who use this phrase simply believe it refers to recent immigrants without any negative overtones or values--and that it doesn't have a specific racial connotation.

Yet, as I reminded them in class yesterday, we don't apply the term "FOB" to recent arrivals from Canada or Ireland or Australia or Western Europe in general. Would we refer to a French immigrant as a FOB? Would we talk about a New Zealand transplant as a FOB? Would we assume that the English immigrant who continues to eat bangers and mash for breakfast is acting fobby? This seems like a term that is primarily used to describe Asian immigrants (although one student who grew up in Florida noted that it was a term he heard applied to Cuban immigrants), and certainly its origins and primary usage in the 1970s and 1980s was as a pejorative.

So can the word "fob," in the 21st century, now take on a deracinated, neutralized form--so that it simply refers to someone who is a recent immigrant who prefers to keep the culture of his/her natal land alive?