Archive for April, 2010


Black AND Asian (and Jewish?)

April 28, 2010

I meant to write this post a long time ago – kept saying that I would – but it just didn’t happen, finally fell on the back-burner. Recently, however, I read another post (here) that addressed this topic, but in a manner that felt – to me – to retain the very same "Us vs. Them" theme that’s gotten us here in the first place. The angle taken, the examples given, some of the comments, etc. allow for a dangerous misunderstanding to continue (not the author’s intention, but nonetheless . . .). So I felt it’s time. Let’s do this.

A while back, I was talking to a friend of mine (a black female, which is relevant) – we’ll call her "W." She’s telling me about this guy she ran into at some store; this Vietnamese guy ("or Chinese or Korean or something") comes over and starts chatting her up, hitting on her, trying to get her number and all that. She’s not feeling it. She gets irritated on a number of levels. But her primary annoyance is that she feels like he’s just messing with her, so she ends up telling him "give me a break, you don’t date black women," and (tamely) telling him about how racist Asian guys are.

She finishes her story, looks at me, and, laughing, says "can you believe that?"

I give a one-word response. "Yes."

But my mind was reeling – because there was so much going on in this one interaction (sort of two interactions, including the re-telling) that just sum up the state of oppression-related affairs in the U.S. First, there’s a (black) woman getting hit on by some random guy, which always carries a tinge of objectification, dominance, etc. In this case, it’s an Asian guy – so we’re bringing together two notoriously "undesirable" race/gender combinations in this country. Then there’s her confusion over the exact ethnicity of this Asian dude. Then there’s her belief (based on real past experience) that he’s not really interested in dating her; that he’s more or less mocking her, because – as an Asian man – he’s probably crazy-racist against black people. And, finally, the beauty of it all – she’s casually relating this story to me, her friend – an Asian (okay, mixed-Asian) male.

And it all made perfect sense to me. Because, you see, I happen to be a sort of connoisseur of the black-Asian interracial experience, and everything that happened in that story follows the confusing, tense narrative of a relationship that has been being shaped for the last couple-hundred (maybe far more) years. It’s a long story – with a lot of loops and twists – but it’s one worth reading, so I hope y’all follow me to the end.

Prologue – "Setting it Straight" (aka "Prepare to Have Your Mind Blown")

We "all know" that there’s this big rivalry between Asian and black folks. The "opposites" of the PoC spectrum, there just is no bridging the divide. I’ve heard it a million times (from both sides).

And so the look of shock on the faces of this one particular group of Asian folks I was with shouldn’t have surprised me when I asked what should have been a stupid question: "You all realize that there are black Asian people, right?"

But, you see – that’s what this post is about. In spite of all the claimed "differences" between the two groups, there are black Asian people. There are Asian black people. There are actually quite a lot of them. When I talk about my mixed background with my students, it never fails to bring a grin to my face (and give me hope) at how many of my "black" students tell me that they have Asian blood, as well. Filipino and black mixes are the most common, but there are so many other mixed-race black/Asian people out there. Because, get this – the communities are entwined.

Problem is, we’ve been conditioned for so long to buy into the whole concept of the division between the two, that we can’t even see it. No matter what I say here, no matter the evidence out in the world, in the end you’re all still going to believe that these communities are not connected because the messaging has been so strong in the other direction. Black folks with Asian blood will just call themselves "black," and nobody ever knows otherwise, because they never think to ask (or even consider the possibility). Asian folks won’t reach out to Asian-blacks because of the same reasons. They blame each other, call each other out, and love to throw stereotypes at each other. Each group desperately clasps to racist notions to make sense of a frustrating world where they’re oppressed by racist notions.

One more situation where the epic construct of racism in this country prevails because of its genius simplicity. So huge. So obvious. We’re in the same boat. Working together would be a giant step in actually solving both of our problems. But the system’s power is in its knowledge of history, and employing the dividing tactic so brilliantly.

But I, for one, am tired of hearing (from both sides) about how different the black and Asian communities are, culturally-speaking. The stereotypes and media-based prejudices fall out differently – yes. But damnit – I lived in Tanzania (in East Africa). I currently live in China (in East Asia). I’ve lived in the SF Bay, California, Michigan, and Portland, Oregon (in central North America). I’ve run with all-Asian groups, all-black groups, all the mixes in between. I’ve mentored African refugees, Asian-American immigrants, and "at-risk" youth of both shades. There’s no epic, insurmountable divide in history and culture – it’s the opposite, actually. So often, I find myself having pieces of black (African and African-American) culture slap me in the face as being so eerily similar to Chinese (and other Asian) cultural practices. So many connections, right in front of our eyes. Yet most people are too damn lazy to see it – because accepting media-inflicted messaging is so much easier.

Because the truth is hard to dig up. It’s hard to see if you’re used to having your eyes closed and opened for you by outside teachers, mentors, newscasters, etc. It takes time. It takes some real thought.

Well – today’s your lucky day – because I’m going to give you a crash-course in history and explain to you the unbreakable ties between black and Asian folks (and others) in the United States of America. Read it, digest it – but don’t just take my word for it. When it’s all said and done, feel free to think for yourself and dig up your own truth, as well.

Part I, "Jews and the Creation of the Buffer Class"

Historically, it begins with the Jewish people and the beginnings of their persecution. A strange way to begin a story about Blacks and Asians, yeah? But stay with me – everything’s connected.

We’re in Europe, around the time of the first Crusades, early 1000s A.D. (*1) Christian scripture has been largely standardized at this point, and Jews are now – almost universally – determined to be a people rejected by God. Leaders of the European nation-states issue decrees and laws that effectively prevent Jews from being fully integrated into Christian community. However, various Christian tenets leave gaps open – jobs that "good" Christians should mostly avoid – and, out of a lack of other options, the Jewish people fill those gaps. They start handling the money – they become merchants, bankers, accountants. Would they like to hold other jobs, make their livelihoods in other ways? Sure. But they can’t – it’s not allowed. And they have families to feed.

So they get good at what they do. They make it work. And now, there are actually Jews who – in spite of oppression against them – are doing quite well for themselves. Other folks look on, and don’t like what they see. "They" shouldn’t have that kind of money. Something fishy must be going on.

Bring on the First Crusade. As the Christians invade the Holy Land, Jews shift over from "tolerated" to becoming "the enemy" (along with Muslims, of course). Suddenly, oppressive laws and decrees change to outright violence. The "huddled masses" of Christian have-nots are spurred on by the haves to take it from the Jews. Massacres. Pogroms. It has all begun.

More options are taken away, job-wise. The only "gap" left is that of "money-lender," and so the Jews take on that role. This is convenient for the ruling classes, of course, because it’s easy to deflect class-rage aimed at themselves (the true perpetrators of this inequality) by having the oppressed target the people who are seen to be directly handing out the money (and asking for it back, as well).

This method of keeping the poor and oppressed from demanding real change by encouraging them to take out frustrations on a "buffer class" works so well, European leaders more or less make it state policy. (*2) Stereotype development as public policy has begun.

Part II, "the Age of Imperialism"

Hop-skip ahead to the so-called "Age of Imperialism" (as if it’s one that ended): the UK (and other countries, but we’re focusing on Britain here) has spread its grip over the world, with colonies in Africa, Asia, and the Americas. As they murder and subjugate the more-pigmented peoples of the world, they butt up against a little problem – the more they devastate and debase the peoples they’ve conquered (and now – enslaved), the more likely it is that those people are going to someday snap and realize that there are just too many of them, and too little British, to let this continue. How to blunt that rage and frustration?

They look to the Jews and their historic use as the Buffer Class. Of course, they’ve effectively kept the Jewish population down through this technique, so there just aren’t enough alive to spread around the world like they need. So they look abroad (to their conquered peoples) and decide to import a new Buffer Class: the East Indians. Brilliant.

Suddenly, all over the British colonies East Indian folks are running little shops, small businesses. In the day-to-day, it’s the East-Indians that subjugated peoples (never mind that the East Indian people are also subjugated) see taking their money. Living a little bit better than themselves. Dots are connected (with the subtle support of the colonizers), so that now – when violence erupts – it’s mostly aimed at the new Indian buffer class, and the colonizers hold onto the spoils for a little longer.

In Africa, especially, it falls out like this: Stereotypes are created. Enforced. Inequality is demonstrated and questioned. Mistrust goes both ways (the Indians don’t trust the Africans because they’ve been attacked by them, the Africans don’t trust the Indians because they appear to be in all snug with the colonizers and are taking African money). All the while, the British are laughing their asses off and crushing both peoples under their heels.

"Independence" is eventually attained, but it’s too late. The damage has been done. To this day, tension and mistrust continues between the Indian "buffer class" and African peoples. In fact, this exact same racial scenario (between those of Asian descent and those of African descent) remains strong on a new continent.

Part III, "A Brave New World"

Okay. So now we’re ready to move over to the Americas – the "New World." The U.S. has gained its "independence," and the British monarchy no longer holds sway. But alas – their influence is most sorely felt.

In their zeal to achieve "Manifest Destiny," the government has murdered too many indigenous Americans. They wanted to use them as their slaves to handle all the manual labor, but there just aren’t enough of them left (can you see a theme developing)? So what are these barbarians to do? Well, they look to the past as their guide and they find a solution – they import their slave labor from elsewhere (in this case, Africa). Great. Plantation life can carry on as planned and "equality and justice for all" can continue for the rich white men who coined that phrase.

Absolute tragedy and mental scarification of an entire race of people ensues. More stereotypes are developed and enforced that carry their weight into the present day.

Eventually, the Civil War erupts, and black slaves become "free."

But that creates a problem – because how is the U.S. going to continue its rapid development without all that free (the only kind of "free" that really matters in a society like ours) labor it was relying on back in the day? And, suddenly, with "freedom," these black Americans suddenly want to have equal rights? Get paid real wages? Be counted as real citizens? Hell no. But how can the top keep ravaging these "free" black folks without some heavy repercussions on down the line?

Once again, the dual-pronged solution is imported from abroad: immigrant labor. In this case, largely Chinese immigrant labor (among other Asian ethnicities as time rolls on). See – immigrants are a great solution because they aren’t citizens. They have no idea what to expect out here. Hell – they don’t even really speak the language. So you can do all sorts of evil sh– to them without them ever having the ability to do something about it – because you can always threaten to send them back, send their family back, randomly imprison them, kill them . . . the sky’s the limit. (*3)

Even better – you’ve now got that buffer class you needed to keep the "free" black folks from fully blaming those who deserve the blame. (*4) Because – don’t misunderstand – black folks are still on the bottom around here. And the best way to keep that going is to deflect their frustrations – so once again, the Buffer Class plays its role. (*5) With just a tiny bit of rhetoric, the ex-enslavers get black folks pissed at the Asian folks living in more or less the same squalid conditions as themselves, so the real oppressors can focus on more important matters – like rolling in money, for example.

Due to various lack of opportunities, Asian folks start getting pushed into certain roles (ala the Jews in Europe). The power-structure encourages Asian-black interracial tensions. Asian folks are slapped around but given a few bones to seem a step "above" black folks so, from the bottom, Asian people seem to be all cozy with "the Man;" while Asian people are encouraged to look down on black people and do all they can to exaggerate their "difference" (so as not to give light to the truth – that we’re all getting f—ed).

Stereotypes are developed. Enforced. Etc.

Part IV, "The Common Era"

And now here we are: here. Now.

Black folks are still a subjugated people in the States. Asian folks are still playing the role of the buffer class/model minority – subtly pushed into filling gaps that those at the top don’t want to be in – hence, all these Asian shopkeepers in predominantly-black neighborhoods. Young black folks are rightfully frustrated and angry about their place in this country. Yet where is that rage going to go? Not to the top, of course – because you’ve got these Asian folks directly taking their money right there in front of them. Do the math. (*6)

On the flip – Asian folks living in these neighborhoods are trained to mistrust the very black folks they are relying on for a livelihood. The messaging isn’t accidental. So you get Asian shopkeepers stereotyping black folks, to the point of murdering them in perceived "self-defense." (*7)

On a less-dramatic level, you have ridiculous tensions between various Asian and Black communities throughout the U.S. You get recent spates of violence in schools. In communities at large. And the media has a field day with it all – because misdirection is the best way to keep oppressed people from doing anything constructive about it.

Because we have this tendency to throw ourselves into this one, taking sides, getting right into the middle of it. Black folks (rightfully) reference the massive color-based racism of many traditional Asian communities. Asian folks (factually) cite instances of black folks targeting Asians. You’ve got the two "least-desirable" romantic partners – Asian males and black females – lamenting their lack of love then each explaining why they "just aren’t interested" in dating the other. It’s too personal. So frustrating. Somebody needs to bear the brunt of this frustration . . .

Oppression Olympics. "We’ve got it worse than you because . . ." "You’re just as racist as white people because . . . " "I’m not racist, just telling it like it is . . ."

Bla, bla, bla – back-and-forth, forth-and-back until both sides just prove each other right and reinforce stereotypes over and over again. So caught up in how this other group of oppressed peoples is so dangerous, so racist, so different. Meanwhile, "They" are laughing their asses off because these groups are so similar that "They" can use the same simple tactics to oppress both of them. Oppressed people are just so easy to manipulate . . .

Part V, "Open Your Eyes"

So I’ll tell you what – y’all need to just back the f— up and get some perspective for a second. Because, by being so caught up in the middle of the storm, we’re missing some huge, glaring points that are just so incredibly obvious when we look at the bigger picture (which is, of course, exactly as the top wants it).

If there’s all this tension between the two communities; if there are all these incidents where they clash – in schools, communities, corner stores, etc. . . . If that’s the case, what’s one very obvious reason that that is possible? Well, because the two communities are entwined. Asian and black folks live in the same neighborhoods. They’re going to the same schools. Which means that – well, they’re actually going to be facing a lot of the same challenges. And these similar challenges are going to create a lot of the same frustrations. These frustrations breed similar pressure, and a similar mis-directed backlash . . . etc.

Historically? Pretty much anywhere there was black slavery, there were soon to be Asian immigrants living within the black communities (and, yes, living as part of those communities). And that has continued to this day.

But that can’t be true, right? Cuz "we all know" that black and Asian people are so completely different. There’s no overlap. Asian people live in the suburbs and black people live in the "inner-city." Right?

Here’s my answer to that:

F— the stereotypes. F— what "we all know." Stop watching tv shows and movies for your understanding of race in the U.S. If Asians are really doing so well on a large level – if they’re all really the well-off "model minorities" that "They" all want us to think they are- why are the majority going to the same underfunded, over-crowded, gerrymandered public schools that all the other brown folks are relegated to? If all Asian-Americans are living the "American Dream" and getting rich at the expense of black folks, why do the majority live and work in the same societally-ignored (and avoided) neighborhoods? There are Asian-American gangs, too. Violence. Poverty. Oppression.

On the flip side – if all black people are criminals and die young, how come there are so many old black people living in real houses, far from prisons? If all black folks are uneducated, what’s with all these historically black colleges and universities I’ve heard about? If they’re all poor, how come I keep hearing about all these black politicians being called "elitists"? And isn’t that "Obama" character a perfect example of a "Model Minority"? There are tons of black folks who are doing just fine. Who have never been involved in violence or any sort of crime. Black kids raised by two parents. Going to good schools. College. Yuppies. Republicans.

You getting me? In both cases, these communities are entwined. Sharing challenges and struggles – and successes.

But, in spite of that, I still have to ask stupid questions like – how can Asian people be all pissed off about false stereotypes and depictions of Asians in the media and then completely buy into stereotypes about black people peddled by the exact same media? How can you read only the articles about black criminals or violence (in relation to Asian folks) and feel satisfied that you actually know anything about what’s really going on? Asian-American organizations completely dismiss or ignore the plight of black folks in this country – and then we get mad that black organizations don’t support us?! Flip all those statements (to regard black folks with Asians), and it’s all the same damn thing. Have we all gone mad?

It’s a crazy, frustrating situation – where there’s so much reason to work together and fight against shared problems, but all this faulty history, all this brainwashing, all this careful manipulation by the dominant classes turns us into self-defeating hypocrites.

And yet . . . and yet . . .

There’s hope. Things can change. It will take a lot of work and a lot of understanding how the system created this infighting for us. But there is hope.

Which brings us all the way back to the story that began it all: "W" and her "Vietnamese" suitor. When you first read it, you probably thought I cited it as an example of the divide between black and Asian. The misunderstandings. The unavoidable conflict. How the two can "never get along." An Asian guy hitting on a black woman, and racism is assumed . . .

But that actually wasn’t it. Because that story was one of hope. It’s an illustration of how the divide just really isn’t that big. Because, in spite of all those assumptions and defenses, etc. revealed in that story, "W" was sharing it with me, her friend – an Asian guy. At the time, her first and only Asian friend. The very same Asian friend that came over and celebrated Thanksgiving with her and her family. Needless to say, I was the first Asian guy to share a special occasion with her family like that. Of course, I was the only non-black person there. And I’ve never felt more welcome.

Because we’re friends. And with friends, you’re able to get over the B.S. weight of stereotypes and other assumptions and go with what the person is actually like. What they actually know, do, etc. You give each other a real chance, instead of letting some self-interested third-party tell you who the other person is.

So all of you – take a step back. Breathe deep. Stop buying into the nonsense and open up your minds the same way you ask others to about you. Black AND Asian. And Jewish, even. We’re all connected. More so than we’ll ever even know.

And that doesn’t mean that individuals – on both sides – aren’t going to have racist notions. It doesn’t mean that communities – acting in concert- aren’t going to further the misunderstandings. What it means is that if you really want to represent, then represent – your own community AND oppressed peoples as a whole – and give yourself and others a big-picture view. It’s going to take work – but it’s far from impossible. Stop being lazy and only touching the surface. Do something real.

Stand up. Head up. Fist up.
Use your free hand to shake hands with the causes across the way,
And then – and only then – can you honestly say:
"I want to get free."

(*1) I use the "A.D." label most intentionally here.

(*2) And be damned-sure that Hitler was taking notes on that one.

(*3) That’s another standard-play that’s been in the Inequality Rulebook for centuries.

(*4) Do I really have to point out that this continues today?

(*5) At this point, you should realize that the "Buffer Class" and "Model Minority" go hand-in-hand.

(*6) It’s an indication of how the media plays into this feedback loop that I don’t need to cite anything here for y’all to know exactly what I’m talking about.

(*7) Latasha Harlins being the most well-known example.

(*8) If you’re wondering at the lack of citations for this article – I keep asking y’all to not be lazy and do the work yourselves (not even just taking my word for it), and giving you citations wouldn’t accomplish that. Because then you’ll just stick to that. So put some work in. Find your own answers (but look on both sides and in between), and then hit me up with your comments, questions and concerns: "choptensils AT gmail DOT com".


Choptensils Short: the Power of Expectation

April 23, 2010

Still crazy busy. Still slapping out half-assed posts to stall for a little bit longer (so many concepts to write on, so little brain-power). So, another unedited, off-the-top, little-analysis one:

So. I’ve noticed something about my language skills here. They’ve improved greatly. I can hold real conversations. In fact, sometimes, I seem to understand almost everything, and can even be charming and/or witty in Chinese (charm, wit, and having a real personality in a foreign language is really difficult, I’ve come to find). I have these days where I feel like I’m getting it.

But, then again. Maybe I’m not. Because there are other times when I don’t understand anything. When I can’t find any words whatsoever. When I feel like I’m just as bad at it all as when I began. Often, those times coincide with my brainpower being drained, being tired, sick, that kind of thing. Sometimes, though, that’s not it.

Sometimes, I’ll be in the middle of a "hot" streak – one of those times when I feel like I’m just rolling with it and speaking the language – when I just get stopped short. I go from 60 to zero in two seconds flat. Today I had one of those moments. And today – I realized what it was.

See – there are some folks here who I interact with on a regular basis who don’t think I understand sh– when it comes to Chinese. They like to say so, too. Somebody else will be talking to me, we’ll be having some sort of conversation, my language will be moving along just fine (thank you), and then one of these "he doesn’t understand" people will wander up and say to my conversation partner – yup, you guessed it – "he doesn’t understand." (*1)

And then – suddenly – I get all flustered. I start stammering, "yeah, I understand," but suddenly – I kind of don’t. I can’t think of the words to explain myself – to prove that I did understand and that I do understand. I stop making eye-contact. I start mumbling my Chinese, stopping in mid-sentence . . . just as if I don’t understand. Just as they said, and expected, and . . .

And nothing. That’s it. It’s just like what so many adults and teachers do to the kids I work with – they batter them with low expectations, and produce exactly what they expect to see – "at-risk" kids who have trouble learning. Expectations really do mean so much – and the low ones are so damaging. You’d think I’d be old enough, confident enough, aware enough to just "not let it get to me." But it doesn’t work like that. All my psychology background. All my pride, my self-belief, my security in my own capabilities – they just aren’t enough to push through. So for kids? They don’t even stand a chance.

The worst part of it is that the people that do this to me aren’t trying to knock me down. Not at all. They actually think they’re helping me out – by telling the other person I don’t understand, they think they’re sparing me from feeling dumb. Or from overly-complicated speech. Or something. They’re not people who dislike me. They’re not mean-spirited. They think they’re helping.

Again – just like these teachers out there who think they do these kids favors by having low expectations. Because they "don’t want these kids to shoot too high and fall short;" as if they’re saving the kids the pain of feeling like they’re failures by telling them that that’s what they are before they try. Treating kids like they’re dumb or unable, so that the kids won’t get frustrated and quit if/when things get too hard. Do you see what kind of ridiculous, faulty logic this is? But it’s so damn common.

So one more time, I will share my teaching secret – the way I got my middle school kids to drastically increase their math abilities. You ready? Here it is: I actually believed that they had math abilities.

Whoa – shocking, right? See – math is a skill that is learned (as opposed to inherited). Therefore, it stands to reason that if a kid hasn’t learned a certain level of math skills, then it’s probably because – for a number of different reasons, not just blaming teachers here – the kid hasn’t really been taught the skills sufficiently. Often, that’s because classes were too full, and they got skipped over. Maybe they were targeted as a "behavior problem" (another neat little expectation trick) and weren’t in class enough. Or maybe, due to family or environmental reasons, they weren’t in class enough.

Whatever the case, they weren’t taught the necessary skills. So does the absence of those skills indicate a lack of intelligence? Hell no. We don’t consider people stupid or less-capable because they aren’t good at basketball. But if they aren’t "good" at math? We write them off.

I know, I know – some of you then argue – but that’s different, because everybody is taught the same amount of math, not everybody is taught to play basketball.

In response, I challenge you – get to know the current school system. Then tell me that everybody is taught the same amount of math. That everybody gets the same opportunities to learn it. Taking the same class – even the same exact class – has little bearing on how much two different individuals are actually taught. Especially the farther down the road you go, when teachers are more and more likely to do kids the "favor" of holding various levels of expectation for them.

Expectations are powerful. Incredibly so. They can take a grown-up, secure (maybe overly so) teacher like me and turn him into an awkward, frustrated middle-schooler all over again. They’re enough to take an insecure middle-schooler and knock the future right out of them. And they’re enough to create class and race and gender (and so many other) distinctions from nothing.

So – for the teachers of the world – next time you encounter a student that you’re thinking "isn’t capable" of learning to a certain level, check yourself. Because what you probably mean is that you aren’t willing to teach them.

As for me? It’s all just more motivation for me to get this language down, so I can have some witty retort next time I get dismissed.

(*1) Should note here that I don’t blame these folks at all for writing off my language skills, considering all these other foreigners that have been here for years and still don’t speak or understand any Chinese.


Choptensils Short: Adventures in Hunxue’er-ness

April 19, 2010

I’m CRAZY busy these days – all with good, meaningful work, but I’m starting to think I’m trying to get my hands into a few too many pies here . . . So here’s a brief, off-the-top post to buy me some time ’til I can get back to the more time-intensive posts I’ve been meaning to get to.

So, yesterday I went shopping for a special souvenir (don’t want to identify it here, just in case the intended gift-receiver reads this), and it brought me to a cheap-market/shopping center. This is one of these markets here in Shanghai that’s full of knock-off clothes, shoes, luggage, belts, lighters, flashlights, lasers, faux-antiques, paintings, tailors, jewelry, watches, and a million other little random trinkets and cheap items geared towards the tourist-set (a one-stop shop for those who want to bring something home to the fam). (*1)

Anyway – I don’t really find myself in these kinds of areas here in Shanghai very often. There’s a very distinct "tourist-track" in Shanghai, and since I’m kind of in the "everyday living" track, I don’t go to those places. As a result, I don’t really get a whole lot of the "foreign treatment," anymore. Folks largely ignore me, or just don’t care too much about my "foreign-ness" (and, from time to time, they even buy me as Chinese).

So, walking into this shopping center was interesting for me, because I got to play the "foreign tourist" game. Sort of. Well. Let me just describe it:

I went in there with my cousin E (who is full-blood Chinese-American), who had just been in there purchasing a unit of the item in question for himself. As we’re walking through the first level, nobody really says anything to us. We hit the first elevator, and we get a few looks, a couple half-assed attempts (in Chinese) to get our attention, and we continue on. Up another elevator. Hit the third floor.

And suddenly, EVERYBODY gets lively. All the various salespeople (and their friends, just hanging out) start walking up to us, yelling out at us, trying to get us to look at their stuff. My cousin and I are in the middle of some conversation, though, so we largely ignore it.

Until we realize something . . .

Everybody is speaking JAPANESE to us.

Well – back that up. Because everybody is speaking Japanese to me. My cousin had just walked through that same area without me an hour or two before, and he had been ignored or spoken to in Chinese, because everybody just assumed he was local (which is how it normally goes for him). So all the Japanese was aimed at me. Not English. Not Chinese. Japanese.

Interesting. One look told them all I was obviously some sort of foreigner, but my hair was too dark, my eyes too brown, eyes angled enough . . . couldn’t be European or from the U.S. Must be Japanese. I have to say, I kind of enjoyed it (although, maybe that was an insult, since the Chinese still harbor a lot of enmity towards Japan).

Anyway. We get to the little shop where my target item was, and where my cousin had made friends with the lady running it, and we start chatting her up. She gave me even more of a discount than she gave my cousin (because he was her "good friend"), as promised, but she was so fun and lively, we just kind of lingered and talked with her more.

In the middle of the conversation (all in Mandarin, by the way), she turns to me and asks, "So what country are you from?" After all the Japanese, I’m feeling cheeky, so I tell her to guess.

She seems to ignore me, so I’m stuck thinking my Mandarin still sucks, and we continue to look over her ridiculously powerful lasers and flashlights that shine square beams of light.

And then she suddenly lights up and says to me, "You’re a hunxue’er (mixed-blood), right?" I respond with equal excitement and say, "Yeah! I am! Good guess. All those other people thought I was Japanese . . ." And I liked this lady even more than I had before.

I can’t explain it. This shouldn’t be such a big deal to me. Why was I so very excited about this lady guessing that I was mixed? I don’t really know. Maybe it’s something to do with being so consciously "in the middle" out here – in between those two worlds that my blood represents. I’m no longer just "American." I’m still not (and never will be) "Chinese." And I’m fine with that. It kind of feels right. It doesn’t bother me in any sort of conscious way.

But then some random lady pegs me as hunxue’er, and I can’t stop thinking about it. I’ve explained that to people a million times out here, but so few have guessed it (nobody in a number of months, for sure). I don’t know . . . it’s just nice to be acknowledged, yeah? To find somebody – in an unexpected place – ready to validate my personal identity and existence.

I know I’m making too big of a deal of this. I’ll forget about it by the end of the month.

But – for right now – I feel good about it. And I think that I’ll just let myself have that.

(*1) I should note that, in China, the vast majority of tourists are Chinese folks from other parts of the country. It seems obvious, when you think of it, but most people just assume "tourist" outside of the U.S. means "foreigners" (of course, there are also a ton of foreign tourists that hit up these markets, as well).


Black Frats, Asian-American Student Unions, etc.

April 15, 2010

This article mostly focuses on arguments regarding the formation of race-based organizations. However, you can easily substitute references to "white" and "minority races" with any number of "dominant majority groups" and "minority groups" and retain the same flow and relevance. It all applies.

By no means am I the first person to ever write on this subject. I’m probably not even the thousandth. But it’s something that I – as a teacher and person of color – am confronted with pretty regularly, and I feel that it’s time that I address it, personally. Hopefully, if I do this right, I can use it in the future with my kids and staff that I work with.

Here we go.

There are a million ways this comes up, but I’m just going to jump to it – at some point, when talking about racial inequality, white people will bring up the fact that BET, black fraternities and sororities, Asian-American and other “ethnic” clubs and the like are all “okay,” but similar “white-only” organizations, channels, etc. would be deemed “racist.” They ask – how’s that fair?

And it’s a good question. It really is. Because, if that’s how you see the world and how race plays out (which is the position the questioners are in – whether they be kids or adults), then it really doesn’t seem to add up. It seems like that good old “reverse-racism” people like to talk about.

Until you broaden the focus. (*1)

So my response to this question has two levels to it: the first addresses only the more surface level of physical characteristics and race alone; the second involving oppression and inequality in general.

Let’s get to it.

Level 1 – Race

If we’re talking only about race, which is usually how this question is addressed and perceived, we must examine the purpose(s) behind the formation of these organizations, as well as how the creation of these organizations affect other groups. (*2) I emphasize that this section is about race, and race alone. Any other factors/considerations are put aside until the second section, so please keep that focus throughout your reading of this part.

So why are these race-focused organizations formed? Put simply, they are places where members of the specified races can come together and form a majority, in order to create a comfort-zone, of sorts. These are places where members of the racial group can be surrounded (in the case of the media, it’s a virtual “surrounding”) by people that represent them, racially. From there, members of that group can talk about issues that pertain to them directly, amongst their peers, and perhaps advocate for change from within that framework.

These organizations are formed in places where white is the majority (media being no exception, of course). Places where every space is dominated by white faces. Classrooms will be a white majority. Tv shows and channels will display a majority of white faces. Non-white students will not have any unintentionally-formed spaces in which their skin-tone dominates.

But everybody deserves the right to have the feeling of not standing out in a crowd, racially – white people included. However, over the vast majority of the U.S., white people do not have to consciously create these spaces. Almost everywhere a white person chooses to go in this country (virtually or in the flesh) will be a space in which their color is the majority. And so you do not have to go out of your way to make that happen. That discomfort you feel when visiting an all-PoC space? That’s just everyday life for a person of color.

So these organizations are built to try to get a taste of that comfort that white people are lucky to get all the time – they’re a racial “home-base.” Probably the one place where participants do not have to be racial minorities. And so these organizations often help members increase their own pride, self-esteem, and sense of safety simply by existing. The same way white folks will feel more comfortable and safe when they’re the majority. A space to relax, recoup, and not feel racial identity as a weight.

Sounds pretty positive, right? But how do these organizations affect other groups? Do they take away other groups’ rights?

The fact is, these organizations do not tend to affect other groups directly. When these groups do so, it is usually in the form of protests or other attempts to bring attention to issues that affect the organizations’ racial group. Direct actions are meant to bring more justice and equality to the racial groups’ cause. An attempt to achieve "black power," for example, is simply an attempt to bring the power-base of black folks up to the same level as the power-base of white folks. Therefore, any minority race’s call for "more power" is in relative terms – as their "more power" is still going to be less than white folks’ power, on a whole. (*3)

Of course, in that situation, white folks as a group still stand to be directly affected (“negatively”) by this rise towards equality. Because you have to admit that white people mostly control this country. White people have most of the power. Therefore, if Latino people – for example – get larger representation, it’s most likely going to be white people that then give some of it up. True equality brings the bottom up – but it also entails having the top give up a little bit.

And that’s scary. Threatening, even. But it is not a situation in which giving up some power then gives another group power over white people – because the white racial group will still hold the advantage. And we need to keep that in mind, if we’re speaking in terms of justice, equality, and "fairness." It’s not taking away rights. It’s just taking away a little bit of privilege. And that’s a very important distinction that will come into play more fully in the second section (one that white readers will be happily surprised by, I believe). An increase in non-white races’ power makes things just a little bit "more equal" even if that feels (understandably) uncomfortable for white people.

On the flip side – what would a “white-only” organization be trying to obtain? It is not a necessary construct to form a “comfort-zone” for white folks because – as we’re still talking about race alone – that comfort-zone is just everyday life for a white person. Building an entire organization isn’t necessary for white folks to taste being a majority. (*4) There is no need for the existence of a “white-only” organization for white folks to get to put down the weight of race. It also doesn’t make sense as a fight for “white-rights,” because (again – we’re talking race alone) white people are the “standard” in this country. “Equality” in legislation means “getting to be equal with white people.” That’s just how it is. So any attempts for a white-dominated organization to increase "white power" is an attempt to further cripple other races – making things "less equal." And that’s unconstitutional.

So – if this is the case, then a “white-only” organization would most likely be formed as a response to other racially-focused organizations. (*5) Not for the same reasons as them, however, but as a counter-point. Basically an “in-your-face” statement, as well as an attempt to bring folks together to consider the “threat” that these other race-based organizations present. But, again, if the “threat” presented is simple equality, then a group formed to counter-act that is, in its core, built to take away other people’s rights in order to protect their own privilege– which is, of course, not okay.

At this point, however, you are probably asking – but what about me? Just because I’m white, I can’t form an organization where I can be surrounded by people like me? What about my roots? Great – white people are the majority, a lot of higher-ups and rich people are white – but that doesn’t apply to me. I grew up in a worse neighborhood, with less money, more problems, etc. than these middle-to-upper-class Asian-American kids who have their club. So who has the real privilege?

My response? Welcome to Level 2 – Oppression and Inequality, in general

If you’re in a position to make the above argument, or anything similar – you’re absolutely right. Totally. Your “white privilege” hasn’t really seemed so helpful, and the people at the top certainly don’t represent you or where you came from. So where’s your organization?

All over the place, actually. There are tons of them. You just may not realize it because you’re focusing on race here, and race isn’t your problem. Race isn’t why you’re underrepresented, or have less power, or money, or opportunities. Your whiteness has nothing to do with that. Whiteness, in this country, is the one bone that got thrown your way – but that’s little consolation when all sorts of other forms of oppression are working against you. Wearing a nice warm cap in the winter when other people don’t have one is great – but it doesn’t feel so "special" when you’re barefoot in the snow and other people have boots. (*6)

So, your issue might actually be socioeconomic class. Or religion. Or gender. Or disability. Or sexuality. Or size. Or any other of a thousand possible sources of inequality and minority status. It’s probably more than one.

So you don’t need a group by race – because a random group of white people aren’t all going to share the same source of oppression (unlike a group of a minority race – who all share that particular oppressed connection). What you need is a group that builds a space for your particular minority status. You need an organization for people that came from poverty. Or for your particular religion. Or a women’s group. Etc. That’s the safe-space and comfort zone you need and deserve. One where you’re focused on being surrounded by people with a different form of shared oppressive, minority experience (finally – people like you).

Because, in this case, a racially-focused group just wouldn’t cut it for you. It wouldn’t give you the same home-base, on the same level that minority race-based organizations are trying to provide for their members. It would also help your particular set of oppressors win. Because I promise you that “they” would be more than happy for you to form a counter-point “white-only” organization and spend your time and resources on that; instead of directly addressing what really holds you back.

You’re in the same situation as racial minorities building up their specific power-base and sense of security through these organizations – just with a different focus. Race is just one dot on the spectrum of oppression. Race-based organizations may just trigger you because race is the one area in which you hold the privilege. And these groups are built to challenge that privilege. That discomfort is perfectly reasonable – because it feels like you’re being blamed for something that you may have had no direct part of. However, if the focus is re-directed to class, and you come from poverty – you’re going to have no problem challenging rich people’s privilege, yourself. White women should have no issue with organizations that challenge male privilege. And so on.

Ultimately, any organization built to reduce another group’s dominance and/or privilege should be seen to you as a positive. That’s how justice is achieved in a democracy. On the other hand, any group that reduces another group’s rights (as in the right to be amongst a majority of peers, or the right to have equal power with other groups) is unconstitutional and a detriment to every minority group – whether it seems to be directly aimed at you, or not.

A fight against oppression and inequality is a fight against oppression and inequality. Period. If you find yourself threatened by a particular version of that fight, then it’s probably because it affects your personal privilege. And I’m not just talking about race. When that happens, then we all need to broaden our scope and focus – away from the one specific example that triggers us, personally – back to "a fight against oppression." And when you view it as a piece of a whole like that – it’s hard not to understand why it’s a good thing.

We all need organizations like this; we all need to have a home-base where we can be comfortably surrounded by "people like us," so that we can rest, stay sane, and re-enter the world. Slowly and surely, every one of these groups helps us in our particular fight against oppression. But to fully get those benefits, we have to be willing to acknowledge our own little areas of privilege, and be willing to give up some of that in the name of justice. And in doing that, we change ourselves from potential oppressors to allies – and this world needs allies.

So – if you happen to be a white person or a member of any dominant group that is uncomfortable with minority-focused organizations and you read all the way through this, you just took the first step towards becoming an ally. I’m sure it was uncomfortable to read. Probably triggered you a little bit. But you made it, and I hope it made sense. If you’re still unclear, or don’t fully buy it, please feel free to comment or – if you don’t want to make your questions/comments "public" – feel free to hit me up personally at "choptensils AT gmail DOT com."

As for everyone else – any comments/suggestions you have to better present this would be much appreciated, as well.

(*1) Incidentally, in responding to this, I am going to directly address the white folks that have this question. When I say “you,” I am referring to a white reader, unless otherwise specified.

(*2) From here on out, I will use different organizations as examples, but the basic principles apply to all of them in each scenario.

(*3) And yes – some of this is all a numbers game: white people are the numerical majority in this country, so – in theory – other races could "go back to where they came from" to achieve numerical dominance, and thus – power dominance. Of course, that ignores the fact that this nation is not where white people "come from," either, and the reason white people have achieved numerical superiority is because of their direct limiting of other race’s presence within U.S. borders (from outright killing of indigenous people to immigration laws focused more heavily on non-white peoples). So – until indigenous Americans are the statistical majority in this land, the "go back to where you came from" argument is invalid.

(*4) There are exceptions, of course, where white people are a racial minority. Generally, this will be in specific neighborhoods and schools where a different race dominates. In these cases, white folks creating a "comfort-zone" space for themselves is perfectly okay – and, perhaps, necessary. Just keeping in mind that another race’s majority status in one specific area does not change power dynamics in this country.

(*5) When we’re talking about "cultural groups," it’s a little different for white folks. There is nothing wrong or "unjust" about the formation of organizations for various "white" ethnic groups (i.e. an "Irish-American" club). Hell – "Italian" and "Irish" only recently became synonymous with "white." An organization for sharing culture . . . nothing wrong with that. As for other "white-only" organizations – if there was a group for white folks to just examine their commonalities and culture (and, possibly, privilege) without working to increase forms of white power or privilege – all good, as well.

(*6) I should state here that I am officially boycotting the "Oppression Olympics." Meaning, just because race isn’t your problem, that doesn’t invalidate the importance of race for other people. Just as the importance of race then doesn’t invalidate the importance of religion, or sexuality, or size, etc. It’s not either/or, forms of oppression are not mutually exclusive – it’s all valid, and each piece affects every other piece in different ways.


Clash of the Titans: Suspending Disbelief

April 8, 2010

I was in Hong Kong for a couple days this past week, re-upping my visa, hanging out with Hong Kong-ers (mostly Chinese, but also a Chinese-German couple and even a little mixed boy) and eating great food. So, on my last evening before heading back to Shanghai, it only seemed appropriate that I go see "Clash of the Titans." In 3d.

Wait – what?!

Okay – yeah, yeah. Strange choice. But I had fond memories of the original from when I was a kid, and even though I anticipated all sorts of terribleness, I still thought it would be fun. (*1)

And yeah – it was a terrible movie. Absolutely ridiculously awful. But that was kind of the point. The majority of my most enjoyable film-going experiences have been attending bad movies. That’s one of my favorite guilty-pleasure hobbies.

So I’m not going to critique this movie on that level – because I really don’t care that it was an awful joke of a film. I can deal with that. I’m a master of suspending disbelief to enjoy a crappy film. Strange, unexplained holes in the plot? No problem. Ridiculous plot-devices to explain why a whole gaggle of gods can’t protect themselves from thirty men with spears? Okay – whatever. Flying horses? Women with snakes for hair and the ability to turn men into stone? Of course. That’s all what I’m here for – let’s open another bag of smuggled-in snacks and enjoy the show . . .

Except . . . well. Except there’s one aspect of the movie that I just couldn’t get over. One that maybe should be easy for me, considering how common it is these days . . . but . . . I have to admit that I couldn’t buy into . . .

The fact that ancient Greece always seems to be populated by Aryan-to-the-hilt British people. (*2)

I mean – honestly – what’s up with that?! I’m watching these "beautiful maidens" with their blue-ass eyes walk around sleeveless in the Mediterranean sun, and somehow they retain their milky pallor. And how do all these Greek men have blue eyes, too? In a shot of all the Greek gods and goddesses hanging out together, I saw more than one with platinum-blond locks.

I don’t get it. Last I checked, Greek people have darker skin. Darker (and curlier) hair. Darker eyes. I had somebody mistake me for "Greek" once, and I can guarantee you it wasn’t because they mistook my eye color for blue, or my skin-tone for pale white. And the accents? I’ve met a decent number of folks from Greece, seen a couple Greek movies, etc., and I don’t recall any clipped British accents among them.

And it’s not just "Clash of the Titans." It’s "Troy." It’s "300." It’s so many other movies doing the same thing – all these British accents and pale complexions . . .

Mind-boggling. Or, at least it should be mind-boggling.

But, the problem is that – to the "majority" – this is so acceptable that it’s not even worth mentioning.

When the critics tore this movie up (as they almost all did), nobody commented on this particular ridiculousness. In all their clever word-play and bashing of the movie’s faults, nobody called out this oh-so-obvious tradition of white-washing history. (*3) Trying to be cute and cheeky is great, but what about really saying something worth reading about a stupid, bad movie? It’s too easy (and pointless) to point out the movie’s other problems.

But this problem matters. It’s one that we shouldn’t be asked to "suspend our disbelief" for. Because even a stupid movie like this re-creates history. People buy into it. When the "average" USian’s only interaction (virtual or otherwise) with different peoples is through movies like this, they equate it with reality.

Kids get used to thinking of the ancient Greeks (and Romans) as super-white. (*4) They think of them, basically, as British. They never realize the fact that real Greek people now aren’t super-white, and they were even less so in the past. They have no way to know that Greek (and Roman/Italian) people weren’t even "allowed" to be defined as white until relatively recently.

But crap like this allows people to take on the simplified view that these major civilizations were "white" civilizations. That history is based on "white" accomplishments. When, in truth, it would make just as much sense for these movies to be completely cast by Arab peoples, speaking Arabic.

Okay. I apologize – I misspoke there. That’s not true.

Actually, it would make more sense if these movies consisted of an all-Arab cast speaking Arabic.

Because ancient Greek people looked more like Arabic peoples than Aryans. Their language and accent was certainly just as similar to Arabic as to British English (and probably more so). Cultural traditions, beliefs, art, science . . . (*5)

Yet, can you imagine the reactions if somebody dared make a movie like that? If "Troy," for instance, was entirely cast with darker-hued people of Middle Eastern descent? (*6) It would actually make more logical sense than the current situation, but people would be up in arms about it. The majority wouldn’t be telling themselves to stop freaking out because it’s "just a movie." They wouldn’t expect themselves to "suspend disbelief" and just "enjoy the movie."

And I doubt that those oh-so-clever critics would remain silent on the situation (like they have now) if the script was flipped, either. I doubt their cheekiness would be reserved for the CGI or the melodramatic acting, as opposed to the fact that those mighty, revered Greeks were portrayed by non-Greek people.

Of course, that’s all just conjecture because – as far as I know – that kind of movie hasn’t been made by any major production company. Instead, we just have all these movies that push disbelief so far we come back on the other end – with people accepting it as reality.

But, this time, I just couldn’t do it. I wasn’t able to suspend my disbelief. Even though I laughed my ass off and had a great time watching "Van Helsing" (worst movie ever). Even though I watched "In the Name of the King" all the way to the end, and kind of enjoyed Burt Reynolds’ oddly-cast portrayal of a noble king. Even though the original Godzilla’s jiggly rubber suit never kept me from buying in.

In spite of all that – all my training – I couldn’t check myself for "Clash of the Titans." Maybe watching the film in a country where I’ve been constantly surrounded by non-white folks raised my standards a bit. Maybe I would’ve "let it go" more easily if I had seen it back in the States. Who knows?

All I know is that this tendency for Hollywood to portray the people of ancient Greece as Aryans with British accents is the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever seen in film – and I’ve seen an amazing quantity of ridiculous things in film.

So I beg you, potential film-makers, critics, movie-goers – please start mentioning this. Please tear movies up that do stupid things like this. Make it not okay. Call it out. Go ahead and suspend your disbelief for the plot-holes, the fantasy, the CGI, and the poor acting. Enjoy it and laugh when it’s all done terribly. That’s what the movie-going experience is about.

But stop suspending your disbelief for the white-washing of history and theft of darker-skinned accomplishments. Because when that’s done wrong or poorly – it’s not funny.

(*1) Please don’t blame my childhood self for liking the first version . . . I was so young and innocent then . . .

(*2) And I do realize there are some non-Brits in the lot (and some of the "British" accents are more Aussie or Kiwi), but I’m going with the Hollywood vision and intention of all those accents and folks being more or less the same . . . call them "Commonwealth People" . . .

(*3) The myths are, of course, not "history," but the Greek Empire being made up of darker-hued people is.

(*4) And Egyptians, as well (not "super-white" but certainly "not African").

(*5) It’s common knowledge these days that a good deal of Greek and Roman contributions to "civilization" actually originated from more advanced Arabic (and African, and Asian) cultures.

(*6) I would find that cool, of course . . . Any film-makers out there want to accept the challenge?

(*7) And by the way – the 3d was crap, too.


Cross-cultural Communications

April 6, 2010

Back from HK, some new posts forthcoming (and my first attempt at minor film-making in the can). In the meantime, some interesting perspectives from the Chinese side of things (again – I will go into this more in-depth soon):

"The true meaning of (Hillary Clinton’s) remarks was: Yes, we (the U.S. and China) are in the same boat, but only when times are bad for me."

"Obama needs to appear as a tough guy on China in order to salvage his dismal approval ratings and help his fellow Democrats in mid-term elections. For decades, China-bashing has been a popular game played by American politicians to get votes."