Sunday, March 31, 2013

Barack Obama as our first Asian American President?: Part II

So it's a bit longer than I anticipated, but here is Part II of my playful querying about whether Barack Obama can be considered our first Asian American president (click here for Part I).

As I noted in Part I, I am not the first to make this speculation--both Rep. Mike Honda and Jeff Yang (during the 2008 elections) made note of the many Asian connections in Obama's biography and background (which I already elaborated on in the previous post).

What I didn't mention in Part I was that their imagining of Obama as Asian American was riffing off of Toni Morrison's essay in The New Yorker in which she famously was quoted as saying:
white skin notwithstanding, this is our first black President. Blacker than any actual black person who could ever be elected in our children’s lifetime. After all, Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas
 This quote from Morrison got a lot of play during Obama's 2008 election since it was noted, many times, that Bill Clinton was not an "actual" black person but that Obama was.

However, what is missing from this widely repeated quote is the context that Morrison was writing about Clinton--namely the Lewinsky scandal and the way that the impeachment hearings were using his infidelity as the impetus to get him out of office--the ways in which

"the President’s body, his privacy, his unpoliced sexuality became the focus of the persecution, when he was metaphorically seized and body-searched"

which Morrison saw was akin to the experience of African American men being policed and persecuted based on their sexuality.

I mention this because while one could argue that there are tropes of "Asian-ness" that we can see in Obama's life--his time spent in Indonesia, his upbringing in Hawaii, his Asian extended family--they are but symbolic gestures--figurations.  They aren't how he identifies and it's not how others would identify him either since we are still living in an age where we believe we know what someone who is "Asian" looks like, and we know what someone who is "black" looks like--and we apply these rubrics to people and call them racial identities.  

Furthermore, the truth is that Obama does not identify as Asian American.  Technically, as far as the 2010 US Census goes, he identifies as African American rather than both black and white and certainly he didn't check the "Asian" box.  And it is important for us to acknowledge that people get to identify the way they want--something folks often forget when they refer to Tiger Woods as monoracially black when he, himself, identifies as mixed-race or half-black, half-Thai.  

So why enter into this exercise at all?  I guess I wanted to think about the limits of racial ambiguity, which is the topic of my current book manuscript--the one that has been consuming me and taking me away from being able to think about blogging.  I do think that imagining race as fluid and as flexible is an anti-racist position.  But I also think that there is a historic reality to racialized bodies that we can't ignore.  And that's the tension between theory and praxis.  It's important to be able to theorize beyond our raced bodies--to imagine a place where we can acknowledge the constructed nature of race and the ways in which multiracial people especially complicate this simplistic notion that there are pure races.  But on the other hand, there are the ways that the state has regulated bodies based on believing in race.


So I will continue to think about the possibilities of what if--what if we could say that Barack Obama is our first black American, first mixed race American, and first Asian American president?  What if checked off more than one box became the norm for all of us?

Thursday, March 21, 2013

Barack Obama as our first Asian American President?: Part I

It has been two months since I last wrote a post in this blog--which is embarrassing (sigh).  For all my good intentions, I have not felt compelled to write in this space, even though I, ostensibly, have the time since I'm not teaching.

But this is, perhaps, the reason why I haven't been writing in this space--because I have been immersed in trying to finish my book manuscript on racial ambiguity and Asian American culture (which also happens to be the title of the book).  I'm fortunate enough to have a research and study leave, which means I've been reading and thinking and writing and trying to make the most of my time out of the classroom.

And then, of course, as I realized how much time had passed from when I last blogged, the pressure to write something meaningful or at least intelligible increased after so much silence (sigh)--always the dilemma of the writer--the blank page and wondering if there is an audience out there.

But as I tell my students, sometimes, whether you're feeling it or not, you just have to write it.  Good advice.  So I thought I should share what I'm working on, since it has applicability to this blog.  For the last few weeks I've been thinking about the coda to my book--which is also the title of this blog post.  If race is a social construction--if it doesn't have a basis in biology or blood, then could we imagine that Barack Obama is not only our first African American president, our first (openly) mixed race president, but our first Asian American president of the United States?

Barack Obama with his sister Maya Soetoro-Ng from their earlier days

This might seem like an odd way to end a book on racial ambiguity and Asian American culture.  Yet if we think about taking the idea of racial ambiguity to its furthest extremes, if race is not just limited to what you "look" like--if you can be Asian American without Asian American family (as transracial adoptees would seem to prove), if one's racial identity is as much about culture and community as anything else, then it would seem that there are clear markers of Asian American racialization that correspond to Obama's life narrative.  For example:

*He was born and spent his formative adolescent years in the only state in the union that has a majority Asian American population.  The local culture in Hawaii is steeped in Asian American culture from the various Asian immigrants who have come to the island archipelago from the 19th C.  He can speak pidgin, he eats local food, he grew up with his grandparents preparing sashimi for guests and with Asian American neighbors and classmates.

Obama's fifth-grade class photo from The Punahou School

*He is the child of an immigrant father who came to the US to be educated (first, a BA at U of Hawaii and then a PhD at Harvard), and his name reflects these immigrant roots, with people who find it odd, foreign, and hard to pronounce (something many children of Asian immigrants with Asian names understand all too well).

*He lived for four years in Indonesia (from the ages of 6-10) thus experiencing life in an Asian country.

*He has family members--a sister (Maya Soetoro-Ng--Indonesian-white), a brother-in-law (Konrad Ng--Chinese-Malaysian from Canada) and nieces who are Indonesian-Chinese-Malaysian-white--who are Asian American.

The Soetoro-Ng family

In October 1998, writing for The New Yorker's "Talk of the Town" about the ways that President Bill Clinton was being targeted by special prosecuters for potential impeachment after revelations of his affair with Monica Lewinsky became public, Toni Morrison famously (or infamously) wrote:
Clinton displays almost every trope of blackness: single-parent household, born poor, working-class, saxophone-playing, McDonald’s-and-junk-food-loving boy from Arkansas.
Until Barack Obama was elected to office in 2008, it was believed, in certain quarters, that Morrison had claimed blackness for Bill Clinton, thus dubbing him our first black president.  But if you read the above quote (and the entire article) carefully, you will see that it is the "trope of blackness" that Morrison refers to rather than claiming that Clinton's identity is that of an African American man.

In similar fashion, claims for Barack Obama as our first Asian American president have been made by Rep. Mike Honda and Jeff Yang -- mine is not the first observation made in this regard.  

Yet what does it MEAN for me to imagine, that Barack Obama could be considered Asian American based on the trope of Asian-ness--the ways in which parts of his life narrative contain similarities to those of Asians in America?  Is this an anti-racist move, one that can remind us that race is a fiction, a social construction designed to elevate one racial group above others?  Can knowing that race is this fluid and flexible become a means to dismantle structures of institutional racism?

Stay tuned for Part II (which I promise to write this weekend!) and, of course, if there are any readers out there, I welcome your thoughts and comments, your agreements and disagreements.  I welcome dialogue, because that's the reason I started this blog to begin with--and Barack Obama was the topic of the third blog post I wrote back in May 2007.

Sunday, January 20, 2013

Ending Rape Culture

About a month ago I received a comment on a blog post, "Are Jewish People a Race" that read:

"get raped you stupid chink cunt"

[Aside: I apologize for the racist, sexist language--or rather, for reprinting the racist, sexist language, but I also think it's important to know when people use this language and for what purpose.  I didn't "publish" it, but I did want to address this comment in a blog post.  Also, I re-read the post, and I don't think that the comment was trying to specifically address anything in the post that ruminates on anti-semitism but rather seemed to be a general note on the dissatisfaction that the commenter "an ah" felt about the blog/me in general.]

There's obviously a lot that could be upsetting about reading this comment.  But what I want to focus on isn't the obvious racism and sexism but the order that begins this comment:

"get raped"

There's so much about our society that is immersed in rape culture.  And what I mean by rape culture is the idea that women (and it's largely women although men are targets of rape and victims of rape) need to be regulated, and one way in which to control women is through forcible sex.

For this commenter, "an ah" (and yes, I did report him, and yes I believe it is a "him" although it might just be a woman--lets not forget that women can be violent towards other women, especially when you add the toxic blend of racism), my existence as an Asian American woman who speaks out about issues of racism, anti-semitism, sexism, homophobia, and other social justice issues is troubling/problematic to him, and so his idea of voicing his dissent is to tell me his desire that I be socially regulated through coerced and violent sexual violation.

I'm parsing all this out because it's important to always remember that at the heart of rape and rape culture is the idea of power.  Of people, largely men, who feel disempowered--who want to take control--who are threatened by changes in society--who feel vulnerable and don't know how to appropriately process these feelings of vulnerability.  Rape isn't about sexual desire--as the comment above should make clear, there's nothing about it that suggests real desire or lust--the commenter wants my rape to happen not necessarily at his hands but by someone anyone who can put me in my place, show me that I'm wrong, make me feel small--ostensibly because the commenter feels small himself.

I think it may be nearly impossible to get into the head of "an ah" or any other person who actively and openly endorses rape culture (although it is telling that "an ah" is a pseudonym--I did report him to Blogger & Google).  Often people hide behind anonymous comments or pseudonyms in their endorsement of rape culture--but it's there--you only need to read the comment thread of any controversial (or even non-controversial) topic to see it in action.

I've been thinking a lot about rape culture because there is an active conversation going on at Southern University in light of recent allegations and a federal complaint filed by Southern U students and a former assistant dean of students (whom I know--figure I should put that out there for the record) about the ways in which Southern U does not support students (largely women--the four students listed are all women) who have been sexually assaulted.

And here's what I know about rape.

When I entered UCSB as a freshman I didn't know anyone who had been raped.  When I left UCSB I knew several people (some of them close friends), who had been sexually assaulted.  In certain cases my friends and acquaintances did not know their attackers (but believed they were fellow UCSB students).  In some cases my friends and acquaintances were very familiar with their attacker since they were current or former boyfriends, men they were dating, men they went to a party with, friends of friends.

Since the time I have been at Southern U, nearly ever semester I hear a story about a student who has been sexually assaulted.  Either one of my students tells me a story about his/her friend, roommate, best friend, sorority sister, classmate who has been raped or I hear directly from the student about her sexually violation and why she is having problems concentrating in class, turning in assignments, coming to class at all.

The stories I hear from my Southern U students echo the stories I remember as an undergraduate at UCSB.  Twenty years have elapsed but very little has changed in terms of the lack of support that universities provide to students or, more important and more tellingly, a change in rape culture--a change in the attitudes about rape--about why men rape.  There has not been a cultural shift, not a significant cultural shift, that grants more respect to women, that doesn't sexualize them to the point of abjection and objectification, that offers the strongest condemnation and vilification for men who make jokes about rape or who in any way suggest that forcible sex and sexual violence is OK.

I'm tired.  As much as talking about racism wears me down, having to have THIS conversation twenty years later makes me sad, angry, and frustrated.  I'm, of course, not trying to pit racism against sexism--there's a fair amount of intersecting overlap between the two.  But in the ways in which I can point to progress on the institutional racism front (even though we have A LONG way to go) hearing about the potential cover-ups and the clear lack of support and the overwhelming evidence that rape culture is still alive and well makes me want to beat my head against my laptop and scream.

I don't have a solution.  But I know we need to change.  We need allies--we especially need MALE allies.  We need men to speak out against sexual violence in the US (and I haven't even touched on this issue internationally--as anyone who has been following the news in India the last month knows, this is a problem not just in the US but the world over).   We need to end rape culture.  Now.

Wednesday, January 2, 2013

Happy New Year Mixed Race America!

I had hoped to post on the first day of 2013, but posting a day late is better than not posting at all--and since I'm heading out of town to go to MLA (big academic conference for English & Lit & Language profs) and will have sporadic internet availability while in Boston, I figured I should post something that is both meaningful for a new year and something I've been wanting to post for quite some time now:

Dr. Maria Root's Bill of Rights for People of Mixed Heritage.

Essentially, it's the Bill of Rights for Mixed Race America.

Because I've just finished a draft of my Tiger Woods chapter, I've been reading a variety of essays, articles, books, blogs, and esoterica about Tiger Woods and the many opinions that people have ab out Woods.  But I think Thea Lim of Racialicious sums it up best:

“Tiger Woods seems like a jackass. . . . But that’s no reason to deny him the right to self-identify.”


Bill of  Rights  
 People of Mixed Heritage 
Not to justify my existence in this world.
Not to keep the races separate within me.
          Not to justify my ethnic legitimacy.
                    Not to be responsible for people’s discomfort with
                        my physical or ethnic ambiguity.
 To identify myself differently than strangers  
     expect me to identify.
                    To identify myself differently than how my parents
                        identify me.
                         To identify myself differently than my brothers and
                    To identify myself differently in different
 To create a vocabulary to communicate about
    being multiracial or multiethnic.
                    To change my identity over my lifetime--and more
                       than once.
                    To have loyalties and identification with more
                       than one group of people.
                    To freely choose whom I befriend and love