92 posts categorized "asian american"

February 22, 2013

There ARE Second Acts in American Blog Posts

It seems my "damned if you do, damned if you don't" post about white writers writing about POC has been Tumblred and hit some sort of critical mass. It even reached people I know who missed it the first time around. Someone even emailed me today for permission to use it in a presentation. (The same day I deleted a comment calling it "reverse racist." I don't allow that term to be used on my blog.)

So I went to the original Tumblr post and read through all the comments (I still don't get Tumblr. Why make it so difficult to see people's responses?) and I find I have a couple more things to say.

  1. This is a "shut up and deal with it" post. It's not a post telling you what or what not to do with your life. It's a post telling white writers who have been fortunate enough to complete a book, find a publisher, find an audience, and have a public discussion happen about their work to "shut up and deal with the negative criticism in the midst of your good fortune." Shut up and deal with it.
  2. Dude, you don't know any of these people who might be criticizing you. Why would you let my saying that a few nameless, faceless (literally, this is the internet) POC will criticize you stop you from doing anything?

...

Yeah, that's pretty much all I had to say. Beyond that, whoever doesn't get it, doesn't get it. Maybe someday they will.

Also, here's a good rephrasing.

And here's a moment of perspective.

And, if anyone was wondering, here's an ideal response from a white writer.

March 03, 2012

Reading Update: Tired of Urban Fantasy?

Raven Cursed Faith Hunter
A Perfect Blood Kim Harrison
Sins of the Demon Diana Rowland

All of these are the latest installments of urban fantasy series I've been devouring since last year. I love the combination of mystery, horror, fantasy, and romance in the genre -- not too much of any one of these genres, each of which -- except for mystery -- is largely a turn-off for me. And I really dig that the wish-fulfillment in these series can only be fulfilled by that particular combo of elements. Because it's not something simple like needing the perfect man, or needing to be vindicated by solving a crime, or needing to cleanse the Earth of an evil, or needing to find a MacGuffin. It's all of those together, plus the complicated need of a not-super-young, urban, professional woman for self-actualization ... whatever that means.

Guilty pleasures though they be, good books in this genre manage a real socio-cultural balancing act in pushing so many buttons at once, but not pushing them too hard; and in moving the character arc forward book-by-book, without either resolving too much, or repeating the central conflict over and over.

However. I'm starting to get tired of the genre. None of these latest installments really got me excited. Maybe it's because I read the series that each of them belongs to all at once, and then had to wait for the next book and kind of forgot the last book in the meantime. But I also think I've sucked the genre dry, and am sated. Pun intended.

Also! I'm tired of Kim Harrison using mixed-white-Asian features as an attention-getter, without any culture backing it up. And duuuuude, Diana Rowland actually wrote "oriental" in reference to her mixed-white-Asian character's featurs at the end of Sins of the Demon. That is SO not okay. Dude, hasn't she read Said?

I'm feeling a need for nonfiction right now. I've got a couple of ideas lined up. Stay tuned.

March 13, 2011

The Apocalypse Artist on Stretcher

ShieldsSeeSaw

Hello everyone! A collaboration I worked on has just been posted on Stretcher, the local San Francisco arts webzine.

The feature is called See|Saw, and features works by artists and writers responding to each other. I was supposed to look at artist Christine Shields' work and respond to it, but she and I decided to get a little more complicated than that. She showed me a couple of her paintings, then I wrote a story responding to them. Then she read an early draft of my story and made a painting responding to that. (That's, of course, the painting you see above.)

Here's the post.

It was a really fun project and I look forward to seeing future See|Saw projects!

March 12, 2011

Reading Update: Bestiality and Violence

Patricia Briggs Bone Crossed
Patricia Briggs Silver Borne
Chuck Palahniuk Fight Club
Malinda Lo Huntress
Robin McKinley Beauty and the Beast
Seanan McGuire Late Eclipses
Patricia Briggs River Marked

Not gonna comment much here, except to say that Fight Club, which I finally read, is the male version of the woman-centered dark urban fantasies I've been bingeing on. Think about it. I might have more to say about the genre later.

McKinley's Beauty and the Beast was very readable, but not much of a departure, after all the Beauty and the Beast stuff that's happened since. Maybe this is the book that started it, who knows.

Huntress was fun, and it's always great to visit Lo's fantasy world in which same-sex relationships are a simple fact of life. But I was expecting more of an Asian fantasy world, and the world was still dominated by western fairy myths and monsters and magic. So I was disappointed there. But still good, solid YA fantasy, and beautifully written to boot.

November 15, 2010

I'm Reading This Friday!

Fire flyer full color lo-res

September 07, 2010

Reading Update: Serial Killing Hello Kitty and (update) Feminist Swedish Mens

Angela S. Choi Hello Kitty Must Die

Stieg Larson The Girl with the Dragon Tattoo

Hello Kitty: Recommended. Can't say too much more since I'm reviewing it for Hyphen. But I asked for their lit editor to request this book, because I suspected it of being a genre-buster ... and I wasn't disappointed. Hie thee, Asian America, to a bookstore, to support the downfall of Azn Chicklit! Yee haw!

One note: she busts the genre, but doesn't bust some of the problematic tropes involved, such as the pushy Asian parents, the abusive Asian uncle, the thousands of Asian American men who are all losers, and the white men who rescue Asian girls from all of it. Argh.

Also, she stoleded the last image directly from Heathers and it didn't really fit that well. Well, actually, she stoleded the whole plot from Heathers ... kinda. Anyhoo.

Dragon Tattoo: an addictive read, although the writing was only competent. Interesting stuff in there: not white guilt but male guilt. I'm in the middle of the next book and Larson seems to be motivated entirely by misogyny ... I mean by his mission to combat misogyny, as if that were the only thing wrong in the world. All the mens are either older, enlightened, feminist mens who handle women perfectly and are always mentoring (and sometimes fucking) younger, brilliant women who look like children ... or they're older or younger vicious misogynists who think all women are cunts and whores. There's no in between, and no subtlety or nuance in his understanding of how sexism actually works in society. Sigh.

June 25, 2010

Reading Update

Shailja Patel Migritude

A. Lee Martinez The Automatic Detective

Talking about Shailja's book would break two rules: reviewing a friend's book and reviewing a book I'm publicizing professionally. But I will mention that it's a book made from a performance made from spoken word poetry. And that I've seen the performance twice (and loved it!) And that I was surprised at how well the book read on paper. That is all.

The Automatic Detective is a lot of fun. I dragged out the reading of it by only reading it on the BART, otherwise I would've gotten through much sooner. But keeping it to a BART reader gave me something to look forward to on the BART. I even chose BART over driving the other day so I could spend my travel time with this book.

The novel revolves around the protagonist robot, Mack Megaton, who has been acknowledged as having the free will glitch in his programming that confers sentience, and who is four years away from completing his probation -- at the end of which time he'll become a fully recognized citizen. Mack requires probation because he's actually a killer robot created by an evil genius -- a killer robot who then refused to serve his purpose. There are worries, not least in Mack's own conscience, that Mack may break one day and start killing people.

Anyhoo, Mack is a bit emotionally distant from the world, but he does have a few friends, chief among them the wife and daughter of the family next door. The wife ties his tie every morning (he doesn't have the manual dexterity to do it yet.) One day, he surprises a thug in the act of terrorizing the family, and in the confusion, the prescient (mutant) daughter is able to slip him a note telling him to look for them. Then the family disappears and someone blows up Mack's apartment.

From this point on, we're in a classic noir, except for the cartoony sci-fi world ... and the fact that the femme fatale isn't fatale. It's, as I said, a lot of fun, and seamlessly pulled off. Loved it and highly recommend it as pure entertainment. No redeeming social value.

May 16, 2010

Reading Update

Nami Mun Miles from Nowhere

Cynthia Kadohata Kira Kira

Sarah Rees Brennan The Demon's Lexicon

I don't really know what to say about Miles from Nowhere. Or more accurately, I don't know how to approach writing about this book. Just thought it was very good, without it being a book that I would want to read, necessarily. Mun's prose is great: not quite transparent, but well able to fall to the background when it's time for us to see what's going on inside the page rather than on it. And when she does step forward and use prosey-prose, it's to pick out a vivid moment or image -- usually image -- either because it lights up the scene, or because she's found a particularly great way to do it. The images or moments aren't always -- or usually -- important in themselves or even symbolic. But they all do connect to the viewpoint character, either physically or through her noticing them, at key moments. The effect is of a generally grey or monochromatic landscape, well rendered, with occasional bright objects, rendered photorealistically, in full color.

I still don't like linked stories, but this one worked because she allowed herself to skip over the connecting tissue. No boring or dead spots in the narrative. Of course, you couldn't always tell if the stories were in chronological order, so you couldn't tell where or when they were happening. But that didn't distract much.

Kadohata's Kira Kira was very well done all around. A good portrait of immigrant parents and their American born kids in the 50s. A tear-jerker, too. But the ending was weak and mushy, just like the ending to Outside Beauty. I think Kadohata needs to work on her endings.

Loved The Demon's Lexicon! Very well done character study of what seems like someone teetering on the brink of sociopathy. Here's the thing: first person and close third (I've said before that these are virtually indistinguishable, right?) are wasted if the viewpoint character takes what is essentially the author's view. That is to say, when you're seeing things through a character's eyes, you should be seeing things through that character's opinions, too -- with that character's passions, desires, limitations, and blindspots. Which one of the reasons I'm usually so frustrated with contemporary "literary" fiction: it's dominated by 1st person and close 3rd, but doesn't limit the narrative to only what that character would be able to see and to understand. Which is why these characters end up feeling so flat.

In Demon's Lexicon the close 3rd narration follows just the "sociopathic" protagonist, Nick. It might be called an "unreliable narrator," since he's something of a naive viewpoint. But I don't really believe in "unreliable" narrators. All people are unreliable narrators by virtue of their limited perspectives. If you're doing 1st or subjective 3rd properly, then your narrator is necessarily unreliable.

Anyhoo, great book.

May 09, 2010

API Heritage Month Reading Update

It's May, API Heritage Month, and I'm drowning in books. Lessee ... I read:

Ed Lin This is a Bust

Ed Lin Snakes Can't Run

Robin McKinley The Hero and the Crown

The McKinley is an early one, and fairly standard fantasy, except with a female hero. Entertaining.

The Ed Lins I read because I finally found This is a Bust (I lost it after I bought it at his reading about two years ago at Eastwind books. But after buying Snakes Can't Run at our recent reading, I really had to find it so I could read both.) Two very different books in the mystery novel vein, using the same detective. This is a Bust is much more indie, develops slowly and is much more interested in the milieu it's depicting than in the nominal mystery. It felt very much like a New York version of Chan is Missing, with the mystery being merely an excuse to follow a dysfunctional, alcoholic police officer around on his beat. Loved it! Loved being in that place and time, and could feel the seventies film grit on my skin. (I actually had to stop reading at one point and go watch Serpico, which made the whole experience better. (I also went and watched Chan is Missing again. Both are watchable online at Netflix.

Snakes Can't Run, on the other hand, is much more standard genre mystery, although it still focuses a lot on the milieu, and the mystery, although meatier, was still not as muscular as the genre would generally demand. I still didn't want to leave that world after I finished, though. I hope this becomes a series.

I binged at various bookstores and now have a small stack of Asian American fiction to plough through. I think I'll try to focus on that this month.

April 26, 2010

Reading This Friday!

Hey Bay Area Friends!

I'm doing a reading this Friday with NY novelist Ed Lin, whose second mystery novel SNAKES CAN'T RUN is coming out.

Info:

Friday April 30, 7:00 pm

Eastwind Books of Berkeley
Ed Lin reading with Claire Light and Joel B. Tan
2066 University Ave.
Berkeley, Calif.

(510) 548-2350

Hope to see some of you there!

March 18, 2010

Updates: Reading and Writing

Okay, since I hate writers' blogs that are just post after post of "look at my reviews!" I've decided to combine updates on my writing stuff with posts about other things. Ready?:

And in reading, I just disposed of Georgette Heyer's Friday's Child and The Reluctant Widow. Like I said before, I tend to consume Heyer books in threes. I enjoyed Friday's Child a great deal (although I feel like I've read it before ... probably because it's so similar in plot to others of hers) but didn't like The Reluctant Widow at all. The hero and heroine were neither of them attractive, interesting, or likable. So now I have to read a fourth one to finish out my Heyer fix.

March 08, 2010

Reading Update

Outside Beauty by Cynthia Kadohata

The Nonesuch by Georgette Heyer

Outside Beauty  is interesting to compare with Hiromi Goto's The Kappa Child, since both are about Japanese American (or Canadian) families of four sisters, who are trying to survive difficult parents. But they are almost the opposite story. I mentioned before that The Kappa Child approaches the world from a pov of disgust. Something I explain to my students is a part of world-building or setting: the narrator's attitude towards the world. It infuses the world and determines what is and isn't possible in it. The daughters, beaten down by their abusive father, their ineffectual mother, and their alienation from familiarity, accept the disgusting things of the world with blankness and a dull lack of surprise. It makes the book difficult to read, because there's no hope in this point of view. The action of the book is for the girls to try to find hope, or some sort of motivation to live, in a world that is full of "no" and disgust.

Outside Beauty, on the other hand, approaches the world from the point of view of delight. The four girls, daughters of a beautiful JA mother, each from a different father, are raised with the flighty, manipulative, superficial, commitmentphobic mother's view of the world as an endless adventure. The action of the book is for the girls to understand what happens when the thin veneer of delight and adventure gets broken and the real world intrudes. The girls, taught to revere beauty and the joy that comes with it, don't respect most of the fathers, who present them with conventionality, irresponsible passion, and eccentric geekiness. The only father they like is the good-looking one. Of course, it turns out that the strangest father, the eccentric, geeky, foreign nonentity, is the best father of them all, the one who ends up taking responsibility for them.

The book ends up being a little too light. Things are resolved too easily. I think that's a problem with too much YA: the desire to introduce realistic conflict, but not to scare young readers by making the conflict too difficult to resolve. And The Kappa Child does show the danger of that: its unrelenting disgust can disgust the reader to the extent of driving her away (as it did to me.)

Georgette Heyer: I tend to read three of her books in a row when I get on Heyer bender and it seems I'm starting a new one now. Love her! Although this one seems like it was unusually poorly edited.

January 26, 2010

Reading Update

Canyon Sam's Sky Train: Tibetan Women on the Edge of History, which I will review in the next issue of Hyphen.

Jane Yolen Wizard's Hall: a middle-grade Harry Potter lite, except that it preceded HP. Fun and cute.

December 16, 2009

White "Privilege"

I'm writing this because it came up in a conversation I had with some friends recently. I don't want to get back into race blogging, but I've been thinking about making this distinction between "rights that not everyone has" and "privileges" for a while. And now that it's actually come up, I think I should put it out there.

In the conversation, my friends, who are white, protested that white people mostly don't use white privilege ... at least the white people that they know: by implication, the "good" white people. I was a bit shocked, and said, in essence, yes they do, all the time. They gave each other the "I'm not going to dispute this with a POC even though she's wrong" look. I couldn't shake off the feeling that we'd been talking at cross purposes ... again.

So I went back later, when there was an opening, and started talking about what I had meant by "white privilege." And judging by the reaction (listening rather than disputing,) my friends clearly had been working with a different definition of "white privilege" than the one that I was using. They also had clearly been working with the idea that "white privilege" referred generally to one thing, and that one thing was absolutely negative, and something all people could do without.

Their definition of "white privilege" seemed to be the one  in which "white privilege" becomes a less murderous version of "racism." Somehow -- not sure how -- all whites have access to white privilege, but only the bad whites actually use it. And when they use it, it's always a negative thing: pushing non-white opinions aside, taking credit for the work of POC, ignoring POC voices, etc. In this definition of "white privilege," the privilege is like an arsenal to which you have a key, but which you don't ever have to enter, much less take weapons from. This is the most basic level of understanding of white privilege.

But there are more levels to this issue. The next level of understanding white privilege, beyond the actively malevolent racism most people think of in the race debate, is "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack." If you're unfamiliar with this idea, please read the article. In essence, the knapsack is about understanding that white privilege isn't necessarily something you choose, but something white people are born into (in this society) and walk through life with, without ever realizing it. The knapsack demonstrates that there are aspects of white privilege that you have no choice about. The article says that you can choose to give up your privilege, but it doesn't say how. And, really, how do you give up the privilege of, say, "taking a job with an affirmative action employer without having coworkers on the job suspect that I got it because of race?" That's not a privilege you can give up or fail to use, because it's a privilege that is bestowed upon you by others, not one you take for yourself.

There are two dichotomies happening here that are confusing the issue. The first dichotomy is between active use of privilege and passive possession of privilege. Most white allies have no trouble understanding this dichotomy. (If you do, read "Unpacking the Invisible Knapsack" again.) But the second dichotomy is between a privilege that is good to have, but that nobody needs, and a right that everyone needs and should have, but which not everyone has.

So, at the third level of understanding white privilege, you have to understand the difference between those things that should be given up by the "privileged" and those things that should be extended to everyone, and NEVER given up. Here's where the term "privilege" gets very confusing, because we associate it, in our hysterically class-phobic society, with upper classes and that great American sin: unfairness. A "privilege" calls up images of yachting, and private tutors, and ivy-covered neo-gothic compounds in which secret societies choose future presidents at the age of 19.

"Privileges," strictly speaking, are things that are either earned, bought, or inherited. They are not "rights." Back in school, our teachers would make a distinction between  what we had a right to (an education, to walk down the street) and what was an earned privilege (a driver's license, permission to leave campus during school hours.) But when we talk about "white privilege," we're talking about a complex of things, not just the one thing. This complex includes (but isn't limited to):

  1. The ability to get away with tormenting and discriminating against people of color in small and large ways: from lynching and job exclusion to racist media representation and social stereotyping
  2. The ability to ignore the complaints of POC about being tormented and discriminated against; in essence, to live in a world in which this kind of discrimination doesn't need to breach your consciousness
  3. Easier access to "privileges" or luxuries, that are more difficult for POC to access, such as admission to clubs and elite schools
  4. Relatively unobstructed access to universally acknowledged rights, such as good health care, decent education, a fair chance in applications for jobs and schooling, decent housing, freedom from harrassment and danger, opportunities to thrive.
  5. General social acceptance of the legitimacy of what you say and do
  6. A sense of entitlement to fair or good treatment, that allows one to take effective action to receive fair or good treatment
If you'll notice, numbers 1 and 2 are simply negative: "privileges" that exist solely in a society in which a racial hierarchy exists. Without a racial hierarchy, numbers 1 and 2 would be impossible. They are solely bad, and are the most obvious form that a racist society takes. It's relatively easy to avoid number 1 if you are racially conscious, and relatively easy to tackle number 2 as well, which many white allies do by simply never disputing POC complaints of racism, and by making an effort to pay attention to racial discussions among POC. (It's a start, anyway.) I think we can all agree that these "privileges," if that's really what they are, can be done away with without further concern (were it only that easy!)

Assuming that number 3 is true (and I'm not asserting this unequivocally), this is where we're dealing with the actual "privileges" of wealth, status, and social power. As long as we are people living in groups, there will be such privileges. It's impossible to get rid of them. I don't argue with people who say that these kinds of privileges are unfair, but I'm also not super-exercised about acquiring them for everyone. I'm more interested in making sure that everybody gets a decent education, than in making sure that everyone gets a shot at getting into Harvard. These are privileges that people can resent, but until everyone has their basic rights and freedoms, these privileges won't--and shouldn't-- be the main business of social justice movements, because they sit above the basic rights that social justice movements are still trying to gain for everyone.

And that brings us to number 4. These things are called "privileges" because not everyone has them. But what they really are is rights. This is where the "white privilege" discussion really starts to get tangled up. Because these aren't "privileges" and they aren't things that white people who have them should give up. You can achieve social parity by taking away whites' ability to discriminate against POC. But you can't achieve social parity by blocking whites' unobstructed access to, say, a good education.

Now, of course, no one is blocking whites' access to these things. But the language of "white privilege" constructs this very simple dichotomy between things whites have that they shouldn't have, and things POC don't have that they should. So when greater access to jobs and schools results in a white person not getting the place they wanted, they revert back to this paradigm of access to a job or school being a "white privilege" that has been taken away by POC. They don't realize that:

  1. it was never a privilege, it was a right;
  2. the right wasn't getting the job or the school acceptance but rather having equal access to it;
  3. and that the right wasn't taken away by a POC, but rather extended to POC in general, thus making the pool of applicants larger and the chances of getting in smaller.

This is where the language of "white privilege" really starts to fail.

Numbers 5 and 6 are more complex still. Having what you say and do generally accepted as legitimate is a good thing. It's one of those things that POC should acquire, without whites having to give it up. But on the other hand, it's also not a right. We don't have the right to be believed. We don't have the right to be considered credible. We don't have the right to have all of our actions applauded. This, above all, is a privilege in human society that must be earned. The injustice isn't that people must earn credibility, it's that in disputes between members of different races, some people automatically have greater credibility and some people have an automatic lack of credibility, in both cases, unearned. In this case, social justice would not be automatically granting everyone credibility, but rather making sure that everyone has an equal chance to earn the privilege of credibility.

This is supremely hard to do because you can't mandate conferral of credibility. You can't tell people who to believe and who not to believe.

And number 6 is even more complex still, because the feeling of entitlement to speak up or act on behalf of yourself hangs, to a great extent, on the possession of number 5: a chance to earn credibility for yourself. POC who grow up being smacked down every time they speak up for themselves, being disrespected every time they act for themselves, will not feel entitled to speak out or to act. A lifetime -- and a community full -- of this experience, results in situations in which whites and POC are discussing or negotiating, and, because of this sense of entitlement, whites always speak up first, setting the terms of debate, and unknowingly using their greater credibility (yes, the credibility is general among whites and POC) to get more of a hearing.

POC antiracists tend to be very conscious of number 6, but number 6 is the one that white allies have the most trouble with. Because the strength to speak out and to act comes hard for everyone. It's an unequivocally good thing to learn to speak and act. And generally, people speak up when their rights are being abrogated in big or small ways, or when they have a chance to get what they really want, at no one's expense. But, at the same time, this is one "privilege" that whites often have to give up to vouchsafe POC access.

I'll give you an example, which I think I've mentioned on this blog before: I helped start and was involved in an Asian American arts festival for several years. The all-volunteer festival organizers were grouped into curatorial teams, with a team leader for each group taking point. The year after I left, a white man, who was friends with a lot of the organizers and spent most of his social time with them, joined the organizing committee, and became a member of the visual art team. When the festival coordinator asked for a team member to step forward and take point, no one did. So this white man, after some hesitation, did step up. It was apparent to him (he told me) that someone needed to do it, and that none of the others were going to step up.

He didn't know that in an Asian American group, you'll never know how much people will hang back, partly out of various Asian politenesses, and partly out of that POC lack of credibility and empowerment mentioned above. Working with a POC organization centered around self-determination is a long process of empowering yourself and others to take responsibility. Furthermore, this festival was specifically designed to give young adult As Ams an opportunity to empower themselves by doing. He didn't know that, when I was the festival coordinator, getting folks to step up to be team leader was a multi-step process, involving announcing it at a meeting where no one spoke up, calling team members individually later and asking if they *might* be willing to take point, then bringing it up again at the next meeting and delicately negotiating among the now two or three people who really wanted to do it, but hadn't spoken up before. He didn't know that, far from being frustrating, the process of empowering young folks to step forward is exhilarating, and wonderful to watch in all its slow, agonizing glory.

But, once he spoke up, there wasn't a snowball's chance in hell that anyone else would touch it. The visual arts team leader is traditionally the person who gets up at the gallery opening and welcomes the audience. And since the gallery opening was the first event, and the official kick-off to the festival, that year we had a white man welcoming a mostly Asian American audience to an Asian American-organized festival of Asian American artists. It was quite a message, let me tell you.

When I talk about empowering people to step up and speak up, it's something they have a hard time understanding, coming from me. I'm a very assertive, step-up-and-speak-out kinda gal, both online and off. But what they don't see -- and what folks in my own community even don't see, is what it took to get me here. I've always been an assertive loudmouth: it's in my nature. I used to walk into neighbors' houses as a toddler and start talking to them in Chinglish, completely undaunted by the fact that they had no idea what I was saying. But early on in school I started getting smacked down verbally, and sometimes physically, by my peers and by my teachers and other adults. I got smacked down for everything: for speaking up at all, for being a child, for being unfeminine, for not being white, for speaking up at the wrong time or for saying the wrong thing or laughed at for saying it the wrong way, for having an outsider's point of view, for NOT having an outsider's point of view, etc. There was always SOMETHING to smack me down about, but it was almost always ultimately about not wanting to hear from me, because I didn't belong. By the time I was ten, I heard my father explain to some strangers whose children I wouldn't play with: "She's shy. She's not really shy, but she acts shy until she's known you for fifteen years." By the time I got to college, I had to learn how to talk to strangers at all, and one of the biggest revelations of my freshman year was that I could go up to people and just talk to them without being slapped in the psyche.

In college I started exploring identity issues by myself. There were a few Asians and mixed Asians around, but they (literally, no joke, no metaphor) ducked their heads and scuttled sideways away from me if I tried to talk to them about any issues. When I tried to talk to my white friends, they very simply and confidently denied everything I said. The conversations usually never got past my insisting that they not call me "that tall Chinese chick" since I was "half-Chinese." (By the way, don't call me that! ;)) "It's just a way of describing what you look like," they'd say dismissively, already losing interest in the conversation.

It took me five years of living in Germany and reading every identity lit and theory book I could get my hands on to find any confidence in my own point of view; everyone denied that my perspective had validity, so why would I think I was right and everyone else was wrong? And I came to the Bay Area, where there were a lot of Asians and mixed Asians, and spent a couple of years on online discussion groups with people like me, before I really felt comfortable speaking up on any of these issues, both within and outside of my community.

It took me, in fact, until I was past thirty to really feel like I could speak up in confidence and dispute other people -- particularly white men -- without getting hysterical or feeling smacked down. And I still get over-aggressive. Over-aggression is the reaction of someone who is afraid that she will be unsupported and attacked when she speaks up. And that fear is justified: it was my usual experience for the first thirty years of my life, and it's only because I'm a natural assertive loudmouth that I was able to (mostly) overcome it.

(Think about that the next time you think a POC is being overly loud, angry, assertive, aggressive, or just generally hysterical. Maybe they are. And maybe they need to be, to speak up at all. And the POC you'll see speaking up and taking leadership positions are often (not always) people who, like me, are natural assertive loudmouths who reconnected with their voices after discovering that they were externally silenced for political reasons. It makes for an explosive kind of leadership.)

Back to working in POC groups: The example of the white guy who stepped up to a leadership position that put him in the forefront of a POC org is relatively rare. But lesser examples of this happen all the time: for example at panel discussions organized by POC groups with mixed audiences. Often, when time comes for Q&A with an all-POC panel, the first audience members to raise their hands are white. It's not that they don't have the right to speak first, but whoever speaks first gets to set the terms of debate, and often gets to set the topic for debate. There are times when it's better to hang back and let the debate go someplace where you didn't want it to go, for the sake of the greater good.

This is what I was talking about above when I was discussing "white privilege" with my friends: those moments of mild culture clash, where whites are doing the unequivocally good things they were taught and empowered to do -- stepping up, speaking out, volunteering, taking responsibility -- not realizing that they are stepping on POC's opportunities to do the same. This is the one area in all of the above where whites would have to consciously give up a "privilege" that is good and beneficial so as to protect the empowerment of POC. 

And it's a hard thing to do, to keep your mouth shut and your rump in the seat, to trust that eventually someone will speak up or step up ... and that if they don't, it's their right--their privilege--to fail.

In breaking this down, I'm realizing that it's not just a battle of definitions we're talking about when we talk about "white privilege." It's a failure of nuance and complexity. And, yes, there is genuine sacrifice asked of white allies here: the sacrifice, in fact, of some of your most precious rights. Because white allies tend to be politically conscious activists who have had to go through a process of empowering themselves to speak and act. For these allies, finding themselves in a world where everyone had the same rights and privileges as they did would be no hardship -- quite the reverse in fact. But giving up -- even only occasionally -- the right to speak and act so that others may have it ... well it doesn't necessarily make sense. And it's not going to feel right.

This is what happened in The Autobiography of Malcolm X, when Malcolm is approached by a young white woman who asks him what she can do, and he says "nothing." He acknowledges later that it is true that she couldn't do anything from within a self-determinist black power movement, but he was partly speaking out of bitterness. And it isn't true that she could do nothing; she could be active for social justice in white communities. This is not the perfect solution. In my world of anti-racism, although we seek to create and maintain safe POC-only spaces sometimes, the ultimate goal is an integrated -- not assimilated -- society that respects and celebrates difference and offers equal opportunities to all. In such an ideal world, no one would have to shut up and sit down, no one would have to keep to "their own" community to be active,  no one would have give up their own power to protect someone else's.

But we don't live in that world yet, and sometimes, compromises that feel wrong have to be made.

That's all for now, except to say that there is a lot of hurt in all of this activism, and there's plenty of hurt to go around. Even when no one is trying to hurt or exclude anyone, the dictates of a certain kind of justice means that sometimes allies have to step back to let Others step forward. Not doing so doesn't mean that they are bad people or racists, but that is sometimes what POC mean by an exercise of white privilege.

October 25, 2009

Lost in Battlestargate: Voyager

So, I've gotten addicted to the new Stargate: Universe series, and, just as quickly, started losing interest in it.

It steals storytelling and camera styles from the BSG playbook. Don't mind that. But there's no actual characterization involved. The much-touted lesbian Ming Na character didn't actually turn up a single characteristic until episode five. Her personality point? Craven manipulativeness. Ah so, Madame Ming Na!

Also, the black character is an out of control, violent brute who first shows up imprisoned, emphasis on "prison". But With A Heart Of Gold Of Course! And the high-status white girl? A slut. A slut who sleeps with one man while using another (the requisite Seth-Rogan-a-like Mary Sue geek.) The other two white women? A hot blonde whose hair never gets out of place, and tough cookie with huge bazoombas, who is first seen fucking the same guy the high-status slut later fucks. Oh and that guy? He's the honorable, young, white lieutenant we all love. Plus, this universe is full of wives who stay at home and reject their honorable, white husbands, or are too dependent on their honorable white husbands so that they fall apart when they die, or who die themselves, driving their formerly honorable, genius, white husbands mad (potentially.) But what else would a woman do? Unless she's a dyke, of course, or a slut?

Also: the good colonel is a white guy and teh bad colonel is Lou Diamond Phillips.

The good news: an early conversation between the hot blonde and Ming Na puts the Bechdel Save on this series. Unless it's just a setup for them to have hot lezbo secks. The bad news: see above.

Plus, did I mention? No characterization. We have a volatile genius scientist guy who may be manipulating everyone and everything and may have put them all out in space in the first place (Dr. Longhair, I know Gaius Baltar, and you, sir, are no Gaius Baltar.) We have an honorable, white captain leader type. (Sir, I know Captain Picard and you are no Captain Picard.) We have the honorable lieutenant (see above), we have the supposed hottie all the guys are starting to want (the not-so-hot and very annoying Senator's daughter, but high-status!), we have the dykey, cowardly, Asian bureaucrat, we have the scary, violent black soldier, we have the potentially dykey hot blonde medic (Ma'am, I know Izzy Stevens and you are no Izzy Stevens), we have a bunch of ineffectual, white, male geeks (Sirs, I know Joss Whedon, and you are no Joss Whedon. Whedons), and ... uh ... yeah.

Characters? We don't need no stinkin' characters!

Is it sad that this is my best SF of the season?

October 23, 2009

Octavia Butler Panel Podcast

Okay, so I did a piss-poor job of advertising my LitQuake Octavia Butler panel appearance here, so I'm trying to make up for it now.

The Agony Column podcast came to the panel, which was part of the SF in SF series hosted by Terry Bisson, and recorded both the panel discussion, and separate interviews with each of the panelists: awesome black-lesbian-vampire-novelist Jewelle Gomez, awesome Latina-chicklit-vampire-novelist Marta Acosta, and non-vampire-novelisting me (but wouldn't it be cool if I had written Asian vampires and was able to complete a trifecta?)

The reading and panel was a tribute to Octavia Butler and a fundraiser for the Butler Scholarship, which is administered by the Carl Brandon Society (which I'm on the Steering Committee of.)

The podcasts have been posted now and here they is:

Yee haw!

September 09, 2009

Reading Update

Revenge of the Mooncake Vixen by Marilyn Chin

Read it for a review I wrote for Hyphen. You'll have to buy Issue 19 to read my review. Short version: not a good book.

August 14, 2009

Four Years in the Life of John Hughes, Fascist

(I wasn't gonna write anything about John Hughes, but then my friend Joel Tan called for submissions on Facebook for a little Facebook anthology of John Hughes/80s memorials. I will post a link when it's ready.)

At first it seemed like John Hughes was just bad timing for me.

I was fourteen when "Sixteen Candles" came out and sixteen was too far away. I was also, at the time, going to an all girls' school, and had never known what it was like to have a devastating crush on somebody in school. And let's not even talk about Long Duk Dong. I blocked him out and had to be reminded of his existence, frequently. I also suspected that the character I most resembled was Anthony Michael Hall's. Ugh.

When "The Breakfast Club" came out, I was in a brief fresh-faced phase, not popular, but at the height of my high school popularity, only an average student, the first cut from the team, and unable to identify with any of the stereotypes therein represented. A year later, I'd turn into The Basket Case, but by then the movie had ceased to matter, and the dandruff thing just grossed me out anyway. I never got dandruff until after college; it was a distant, adult thing.

When "Pretty in Pink" came out, as I said above, I had moved to a more Hughes-like public school and morphed into the Basket Case, and was watching Stephen Frears/Hanif Kureishi movies and reading Paul Celan. The previous year the movie would have spoken to me. The previous year I was buying skippy little sixties dresses with my best friend and strategizing how to sneak into clubs we never tried to sneak into. Now I was dropping out of school and trying to ignore how the furniture moved every time I looked away from it. Now the movie appeared to be exactly what it was: a cheap knockoff of an outsider life.

I laughed at "Ferris Bueller's Day Off" along with everyone else: it was funny. I never could articulate then -- nor can I explain even now -- the dread feeling in the pit of my stomach that movie gave me. I still feel it. It had a cold, existential edge to it, and the characters, aside from looking like adults, were so unpleasantly alien to me as to kill any enjoyment aside from that of purely cynical entertainment.

When "Some Kind of Wonderful" came out, I was -- miraculously -- in college, with a blonde bob, and my dream of being a drummer blossoming (it was to peak two years later when I actually bought a used drum kit for $60.) But ... I was in college. I couldn't even bring myself to express the wish of seeing the movie in front of my friends. I waited until I got home for winter vacation and went to see it at a second run theater by myself, a throwback to my Basket Case year. I did not allow myself to love it, even though the misfit finally got the misfit and this was perhaps the only John Hughes movie I could ever have loved; I was too grown up.

But, it turns out, it wasn't timing at all. I never fit the schedule; I never fit the mold. I was not pretty and graceful and cool like Molly Ringwald or Mary Stuart Masterson, and strangely, I never quite wanted to be. I was not exactly the white kid down the block, either; and the goofy and neglectful parents of this universe were nothing like my involved, overeducated, transnational pair. The characters I wished myself into were Maria from "West Side Story" and Alex from "Flashdance": parentless, urban, racially ambiguous girls who risked being shot for love, being fired for art. Self-sufficient girls who made up their own minds and were leagues away from the shallow problems of suburban high school popularity contests.

John Hughes movies were themselves the round hole I never fit into. They ruled my teenaged years like bullies, like Reagan, like the eighties. John Hughes fading out of the consciousness of my age group was a fact akin to the mainstreaming of alternative rock and Bill Clinton: the decline of a set of ideas that had poisoned the end of my childhood; the cultural accession of values more closely in alignment with my own; a huge weight off my chest.

I've been moved by the outpouring of emotion at the death of John Hughes, as I was by the fallout from Michael Jackson's death. But I was moved by the emotions of others, not by the deaths themselves. MJ meant nothing to me, but he was harmless. There was nothing in his message (such as it was) that hurt me. I can't say the same of John Hughes, whose shallow examinations of class distinctions in suburban high schools were a throwback to the geography of the fifties and sixties -- when different classes were still being schooled together.

Hughes never understood real power dynamics as they played out in American public schools. His blithe assurance that a drunken party could achieve social parity between two groups with vastly disparate levels of power was the teenaged version of the blithe assurances that if you laughed along with them, bullies would stop torturing you, or if we stopped talking about color, we'd see that racism was over, or if we squirted more ketchup on our tater tots, we'd get the nutritional equivalent of vegetables.

I was so glad to be shut of John Hughes, that I never thought about him from that day to this, except to murmur unconsciously insincere agreement when somebody nostalgized about one of his deathly movies. But now that he's dead, and I have to look squarely at his legacy, that's over for me. Time to let out the dead, grey feeling in my gut that his movies always birthed. Time to wash away the worst of the previous bad era.

Now, how do we wash away the Bush years?

August 12, 2009

Reading Update

Read the first Buffy comics omnibus; not the season 8 series but the comic based on the original screenplay.

Then I read Waylaid by Ed Lin. It's a Kaya Press book. It's about a twelve year old Chi-Am boy growing up in a sleazy motel on the Jersey shore, where he and his parents live a really marginal existence. It reminded me of Hiromi Goto's The Kappa Child, in that there's a fascination with disgust and the disgusting. A lot of descriptions of gross food that makes people sick in gross ways, and details of pores, and hairs, and sweat and body odor.

Makes me wonder if the authors live their lives in disgust, since they've written books so interpenetrated by it. Depressing. A good book in many ways, but depressing.

June 16, 2009

Breakin' Up Iz Hard 2 Do, Part II

So what I wanted to do -- about a month ago now, in the weeks leading up to WisCon, when I was considering "breaking up" with the antiracist blogosphere as a result of RaceFail and MammothFail -- was write a series of posts about how antiracist action online actually works, and why I have problems with it.

But a number of things intervened.

*****First, right before WisCon, Al Robles, an elder in my Bay Area Asian American activist community, died suddenly. His family organized a memorial event and I was asked to help, so I took over volunteer coordination for the six-hour event. The event took place at the venue where we had staged the Asian American arts festival I ran for its first few years; being there as a coordinator reminded me of that work and of the atmosphere of common purpose and mutual help that can arise out of creating a "real world" racial community. It also reminded me that I had a real world community in the first place, that I had been neglecting, partly in favor of my online stuff.

Also, being at Manong Al's memorial really made me think a lot about Al. The sort of elder whose memorial event draws thousands of people, requires ten tables to hold all the food, and has trouble restricting the stories, poems, and testimonials to six hours, is a very particular person. Al was a leader, not in that he put himself and his agenda first, nor in that he had great managerial skills he used to organize people. Al was a leader by example. He was everywhere he needed to be to get the work done. He was physically there; he put his hand on your arm when he saw you. He knew everyone in the community because he talked to them, partied with them, and remembered them whenever he saw them next. He never lost his interest in individuals, never lost his excitement about the new (and old) things people were doing, never failed to connect the creative life (he was a poet) with the activist life, and the activist life with the good life.

The consideration that makes my eyes well up, both in love for Al and in shame for my own failures, is the memory of Al as someone who always gave respect, gave face, to everyone, from the most snot-nosed, fist-pumping teenager, to the oldest, out-of-commission elder.  He made you want to earn the respect that he gave you unconditionally. He loved whatever it was that you did. Thousands of people turned out to say goodbye to him because people like that are so rare.

It makes me really think about who is going to take over for Al. Less than two years ago we lost another elder, Manong Bill Sorro, who had a similar role in the community as Al Robles, had a similar way with people, although the two were very different. As I said, these people are rare. Manong Al and Manong Bill were my touchstones in the community and now that they're both gone, I'm all out of touchstones. They were it for their generation. Who will be it for my generation?

I'm not that kind of person, but I can try to be more of that kind of person. I don't have to be the Manong Al or Manong Bill of my generation, but I think we can split up those duties a little more evenly, especially if we believe in community and continuation. But to do that, I have to get off the fucking internet and get my butt down to where the community is.

***** Second, I went to WisCon. Given the atmosphere surrounding RaceFail and then MammothFail, I was expecting WisCon to be emotionally fraught, stress-filled, and conflict-ridden. Instead, what I found was that there were more POC there than ever before, and that the POC there were organizing, coming together, and also connecting outside the POC community with a confidence and interest and even joy that I hadn't seen at WisCon before.

I realized that the online fights that had stressed me out so much, make my stomach tie up in knots and feel like all was sick with the world, had energized a lot of other folks. I was forcibly reminded of how I felt eleven years ago, when I first joined battle -- in a very limited and constrained way -- with folks online on the multiracial list-serv and the Asian American writers list-serv I joined. It was energizing; it did make me want to do stuff. And, because I was in San Francisco, I just went right out and did stuff: joined orgs, started programs, etc. It was a wonderful cycle of discussion and action: I discussed ideas online, and then took those ideas out into the real world and acted on them.

Of course, the energizing aspect of the arguments and sometimes fights had a limited efficacy. They were only energizing as long as they were still new to me, and still had something to teach me about that particular way of viewing the issues. Once I had been through the cycle of argument once or twice (and had experienced intelligent, articulate opponents who just plain didn't listen to you) the argument stopped energizing me and started to stress me out. Eventually, I had to quit the two list-servs, and I didn't miss them much when I had. That was mainly because the people I "knew" on the list-servs were just usernames. I was also spending time with folks in meatspace and many of those folks are still my friends; I'm not still friends with a single person I interacted intensely with online at that time, even the people I met in person and tried to work with there. But what I got out of those discussions didn't go away. The results -- the ideas and ability to articulate arguments -- stayed with me.

***** Third, I went back to Berlin, where I spent much of my twenties, and saw a lot of my friends, ten and fifteen years later. I saw that my friends had taken one of three tracks: folks who hadn't quite gotten started on a career and were still struggling to figure out where to go and what to do; folks who had started a career, then started a family and were now negotiating the limitation on their career that a young family imposes; and folks who were well into a creative career, some simply moving forward and others wondering if they wanted to stay on this track or make an adjustment.

I'm with the last group. I've spent the last decade plowing ahead full steam in ethnic-specific arts and culture, and I've accomplished much that I'm proud of. But I've definitely reached a point where I'm trying to make an adjustment in my direction, and that's a difficult thing to do. While in Berlin, I got a rare perspective on where I am in life, by seeing my peers dealing with being in that same place. And I think I can take this adjustment more quietly -- be less manic and bewildered about it -- and focus in. I think that's the key: letting some options go, and focusing in on what's most important to me.

*

I came back to online antiracism a few years ago with my interest in speculative fiction, and with working with POC SF communities that I had connected with through Clarion West and WisCon. And the community here is wonderful, and vibrant, and full of energy and purpose. I've learned a lot from reading blogs, and getting into discussions ... and even from some of the less pleasant fights I've gotten into. Some things I've learned couldn't have been gotten at another way.

But there are also problems with it ... and it was my intention to tease out those problems in a series of posts, as I said above. But after Al's memorial, and after WisCon, and after my visit back to the site of my young adulthood, I think I'm realizing that I don't need to do that right now. What I'm feeling is particular to me and my situation. Maybe down the road I'll have some perspectives that will be useful to someone else, but I don't think I do right now.

I've been upset and angry at an argument that I've heard too many times before that doesn't have the power to inspire me anymore, but that doesn't mean that this discussion isn't inspiring anyone else to new and great things. I think I'm probably best off shutting up and getting out of the way.

*

One thing I do want to clarify: when I said in an earlier post that the best thing that came out of RaceFail was the smart posts published early in the incident, a few outraged people pointed to Verb Noire (which has just announced its first publication, which makes me want to pee with excitement) as a direct result of RaceFail. I was surprised by that perception. Having been involved in so many start-ups (APAture, Hyphen, the San Francisco Hapa Issues Forum chapter, the now-defunct Digital Horizon afterschool program) and seen so many from a peripheral viewpoint, it's second nature to me to assume that any start-up or initiative has its roots in longstanding dreams and long planning processes ... that then come together around a particular opportunity.

Yes, I believe that RaceFail brought on a convergence of a number of things that led to Verb Noire being launched right then, but I don't believe that without RaceFail there would have been no Verb Noire. (Please tell me if I'm completely wrong here; I have no telepathic connection to the publishers, and no idea what specifically got them going.) Furthermore, I'd be worried if I really thought that RaceFail was the only or main impulse to starting Verb Noire. Last straw, yes; main thrust, no. It's a terrific project, coming at the right time, but it's larger than just RaceFail. The language and direction of the project already seems larger -- seems to fill up a space that has to do with more than just a failure of the general SF community to understand cultural difference and appropriation.

Basically, until it was pointed out to me, I didn't connect Verb Noire directly with RaceFail. RaceFail to me is just an incident: an incident that got drawn out way too long and produced some good writing, some bad writing, and a lot of bad feeling ... but still just an incident. Verb Noire is ... an organization, a long-term program, an institution of new perspective in the making. The two are bound up together, certainly: all good organizations, programs, institutions have their roots in unacceptable circumstances, or ongoing failures, and series of incidents that demonstrate these circumstances and failures.

But the two are distinct. One is discussion; the other, activism. For me, there does come a time when the discussion that inspires activism starts to get in the way of activism, and I have to opt out of direct discussion for a while.

*

I don't know what this means for me on a practical level. I have an online presence that takes some work to maintain and that brings me a lot of pleasure, aside from other things. But it also, I have to admit, sucks too much time away from my writing and my working in my community. I might have to cut back on being present online for a while, but I'm not sure how or how much. I'm not making any quick decisions.

I have no conclusions yet, no declarations to make. I think I'm going to be reading less from blogs, and participating less in any sort of online discussions in this area for a while. But at this point, I'm just thinking out loud.

June 12, 2009

First Book Trailer!

Wow! I'm super proud of this book trailer we produced for Kaya Press (Sam Arbizo did the work.) After having a look at the field, it seemed there was a lot of room for improvement. What do you all think?

(By the way, I'm still working on some longer posts. Just recovering from jet lag and getting back into the swing.)

June 06, 2009

News from Asian America

Just a quick note to those interested in the broad trends of Asian America: Read this.

May 16, 2009

Outrage, Pullback, Punishment: The Structure of One Common Antiracist Post

ETA: Please note! This is my personal blog and, although I draw on my experience with the organizations I work for, I write on this blog as a private citizen, and not as a representative of any organization! In these posts it's especially important to remember that I'm not speaking for the Carl Brandon Society, but only for myself.

So, to kick off my out-loud consideration of if and how to "break up" with the antiracist blogosphere ...

I'm going to start with organizing some observations about how racism is talked about on the POC antiracist blogs I've been reading for the past six years and laying out the basic structure of one type of typical antiracist post.

First, most POC A/R blogs rarely take the bull by the horns, that is to say, they rarely take the initiative in introducing topics of discussion and setting the terms for the discussion. Instead, most POC A/R blogs are reactive, that is, they keep watch on what is happening in the world and especially in the media, and respond to incidents or discussions initiated by people out in the world, or by the media.

The way this works is what I call "Outrage, Pullback, Punishment" (and yes, it is a plus that it compresses to "OPP"). How it works is as follows:

Outrage: something racist happens in the world. A blogger or group of bloggers pick up on it. They note it in their blogs and express outrage at it. The item gets passed on from blog to blog.

Pullback: of the bloggers who post on this topic, less than half will express anything other than outrage. But a subset of these bloggers will spend a little time pulling back from the outrage to contextualize this incident of racism and explain why it's a problem. They will go into the history of these types of incidents, they'll go into academic theories of X, they'll give talking points on why this sort of thing is bad for people of color, bad for justice, and bad for the world in general.

Punishment: of the bloggers who pull back and contextualize, an even smaller subset will propose or initiate action. This action is dual: it proposes advocacy of a particular view, action (usually apology and some sort of remediation), and threatens punishment if this action isn't taken up immediately. I call this step "punishment" because punishment is advocated at two places: often the remedial action is punishment of the original offender (as in asking a radio station to fire a racist DJ), and the action threatened if this remedy isn't taken up is usually a punishment as well (official complaint up the chain of command, formal boycott, or bad publicity, and the hanging of the "racist" label on the totality of the offenders.) The action is then picked up by the other bloggers and passed around.

Lest anyone think I'm trying to hurl accusations from a glass house, I'll give an example from my own oeuvre. (I'm actually critiquing all of POC antiracist blogging, including my own, which is part of the whole and speaks the same language.) The recent example is the Avatar casting controversy:

You'll notice here that the structure not only makes the information easy to understand and assimilate, but it also makes the basic conveyance of the information easy to adapt to each blog. Each new blogger who picks the story up simply gives a spin to the same blog post and passes it on.

This structure of communication has been effective in the past for specific purposes. The best example would be the Jena 6 controversy in 2007 where a group of black teenagers were unfairly prosecuted for an assault on a white teenager that was provoked by a series of racist incidents. Originally ignored by the mainstream media, outrage in the POC blogosphere contributed heavily to the story being picked up nationally. Additionally, the "punishment" phase of this story advocated action that was less punitive and more justice-oriented, and resulted in large demonstrations in Jena and all over the country, that have succeeded in bringing about a more just resolution for many of the defendants than would have happened otherwise. Here's a post from the Angry Black Woman which demonstrates OPP and links to other posts you can check out as well.

An earlier example was the Abercrombie and Fitch controversy (2002/2004), which involved first a series of t-shirts with racist images of Asians on them, then a lawsuit (later settled) that alleged that A&F gave visible jobs to white employees and restricted POC to the stock rooms. The online campaign against the t-shirts -- organized with a speed that surprised even participants -- led to real-world protest outside the stores, which in turn caused the company to withdraw the shirt and issue an apology. The t-shirt protest was actually organized via email, list-servs, and discussion boards, more than via blogs. But if you look at the discussion boards link, you'll see one of the origins of OPP structure. The continuing online scrutiny of A&F's racial attitude helped keep pressure on them that contributed to the favorable settlement of the lawsuit.

As has been rightly said since the Jena 6 protests, online social networking has created a world in which effective protest can be organized quickly and nationally to address even local injustices. OPP is a great launching point for these kinds of effective protests: OPP informs and arouses a sense of outrage very quickly, and creates a sort of information tree or hierarchy which people can follow back to a source of organization if they wish to get involved. People are no longer dependent on being reached by recruiters, they can recruit themselves to act. And POC communities, if they know how to leverage the hinges of the Tipping Point, can control to a great extent the spread of their mobilization effort.

This structure of communication also makes it easy for the mainstream media to pick up on POC responses to national incidents. Reporters don't have to dig through a lot of discussion and process its implications to know what POC bloggers are thinking. They just aggregate the most popular bloggers and do a keyword search for the controversy du jour, and bingo, insta-quote. So in this way, POC can come closer to the mainstream media.

All this is great. But.

The negative result of this is that POC A/R blogs tend to accept, without thought or discussion, that the white-dominated media and mainstream culture gets to initiate action and discussion, and the POC A/R online media's role is merely to respond to this discourse, and not to control it or be a partner in shaping it.

This is fine when an injustice happens -- as in Jena -- and must be addressed quickly. These sorts of things happen all the time, so having a structure in place to deal with these things -- to remedy actual injustices as they happen -- is important. But it does not move the discourse on race forward. It unconsciously takes for granted that POC have no initiative in the world. In the call and response of the mainstream media discourse, POC have only a response, not a call. And as we all know, whoever calls, rules.

I say _________, you say "racist"

Mr. Patel!
Racist!
Airbender!
Racist!

If you look back on any effective movement of the 20th century (suffrage, civil rights, Vietnam) their communication structure all had these things in common:

  1. A clear, articulated overall goal towards which all participants were willing to work for years.
  2. A set, but evolving discourse and vocabulary, which the movement controlled.
  3. Media: alternative media organs (papers and magazines) dedicated to promoting this message and discourse; and, over time, allies in the mainstream media dedicated to promoting this message and discourse.
  4. The necessity of responding deliberately and thoughtfully, owing to the lack of instantaneous communications technology. Because everything written was printed and had to be edited and proofread, everything broadcast had to be accepted by media corporations and could be heavily controlled, the message and discourse were very polished, thoughtful, respectful, and carefully tailored to appeal to listeners who may have held a differing opinion.

If you think about it, OPP simply cannot exist in a movement in which the above conditions obtain. Chaos and Freedom are the twin faces of the same internet beast. The viral responsiveness and speed of protests like Jena 6 and A&F owes to the Freedom face. The lack of a goal, a message, a discourse, and deliberate or thoughtful response owes to the Chaos face. Although there's more than one argument to be made here, I would contend that the POC Antiracist blogosphere is not a movement, it is merely a community.

As such, it can facilitate the creation of temporary movements (like the Jena 6 protest movement), but it cannot change, or even affect, the national discourse on race. All it can do is respond to it.

In my next post, I'm going to talk about initiatives that do shape, or attempt to shape, national discourse on race, and how these work together with online OPP.

May 15, 2009

Breaking Up Is Hard To Do: How To Handle Antiracist POC Communities

ETA: Please note! This is my personal blog and, although I draw on my experience with the organizations I work for, I write on this blog as a private citizen, and not as a representative of any organization! In these posts it's especially important to remember that I'm not speaking for the Carl Brandon Society, but only for myself.

WisCon starts in a week, and, as a result of RaceFail and the more recent resurgence of controversy around race, I've been thinking a lot about the issue of how antiracist action is handled on the internet. I'm going to spend the next week on a series of posts about my thoughts on this topic. I need to clear my head and -- not knowing what to expect from WisCon this year -- prepare my thoughts for whatever comes.

(One quick caveat here: I despaired years ago of getting through to ignorant, privileged whites on the internet through argument, and haven't engaged in that sort of argument for a long time: because it kills me, and because it doesn't seem to do much good. The only thing that works, in my experience, is providing copious resources that someone, who wants to seek and understand, can find and use in his/her own way, so that they can choose to prepare themselves to join a discourse, rather than argue their way into knowledge.

So if I seem to be only criticizing the antiracist POC side here, it's because I am. No amount of tantrums, unprofessionalism, and bad behavior from the privileged side surprises me anymore, and I find it pointless to even criticize it. At the latest, after last year's Rachel-Moss-WisConFail, and the conscious delight privileged white males (and females) took in baiting feminists, people of color, differently abled, and transgendered people, I have refused to engage with such perspectives, which I consider a continuum. I only now engage with "our" responses to such perspectives, or more accurately, with a broader-based strategy to combat ignorance and prejudice in our media and in our society. Doubtless RaceFail blame falls much more heavily on the side of baiters and privileged idiots. But they can't bait those who won't be baited. They can't enrage those who won't be enraged.)

Back in February, around the time I thought that RaceFail was going to die down, I started writing a series of posts on this topic. But RaceFail didn't die down then, nor for another couple of months. The residue of a contentious and conflict-soaked election campaign, and of a devastating economic collapse, the impact of which we'll be unraveling for years, was like jetfuel to the usual flame. Whereas internet blowups usually only last a couple of weeks -- a flash flood -- the almost palpable panic and fear and weariness cracked open the levees we'd been ignoring for so long, and our little corner of the blogosphere was overwhelmed. What started as an initially salutary repeat of a discussion that had never quite been put to rest, soon turned into a community eating itself.

Not coincidentally, February was the time the Carl Brandon Society's Heritage Month book advocacy campaign kicked off. We'd chosen one recommended reading list in January -- immediately before RaceFail had started -- and were trying to put together a second list in February as the tone of the discussion got ugly. The difference was dramatic. In January our members were joyfully and actively participating, just like last year. By mid-February, our list-serv had fallen silent: everyone was too busy at work or in their lives to participate. For the first time since I joined the Carl Brandon Society Steering Committee, our members actually ignored direct requests for participation. And I have to say: I don't blame them one little bit.

Heartsick and anxiety-ridden over the tone the public discourse began to take on, I bowed out of the discussion and abandoned the posts I had started. I did save them, though, and, although I'm even more heart-sick and anxiety-ridden now, I have to talk this out, if only with myself. Essentially, I have to decide, in the next couple of weeks, if I'm going to "break up" with the antiracist blogosphere.

This is not the first time I've had to make such a decision. In the year 2000, I had to "break up" with the discussion list-servs I was on in 1998/99, that helped me learn and understand so much about my own identity and community, and that helped me formulate my own thinking about race and organizing and why these are important. Without those list-servs and those discussions, I could not have become an effective community organizer, teacher, and advocate. I would not have been able to articulate to myself or anyone else why building a community voice is essential to racial justice.

But the discussions on those list-servs stayed in one place and cycled around that place over and over again, like a ferris wheel. Staying in that discourse after I had completed a few cycles was not merely annoying, it actually militated against progressive action. It made me anxious and sick to my stomach, it made me angry, and -- whereas initially it had brought me closer to my fellow community members -- it began to drive a wedge between us, emphasizing small differences in opinion, and sucking energy and air away from broader-based action.

I thought I would miss it too much. I said I'd "take a break" for three months and then see if I could go back and take part in a more rational manner. What happened instead was that, within a few weeks, I had nearly forgotten about the list-servs, and had discovered a pocket of free hours that I could now dedicate to more real-world action.

But those were purely discussion list-servs; not only were they not intended for action, but calls for action and event announcements weren't allowed on those lists. Breaking up with the antracist POC blogosphere is a much more complex proposition, because it exists not just for discussion, but also for discourse, not just for expression of outrage, but also for action and organizing. And there are people in this community who are so geographically far away, I can't access them any other way.

So this consideration is not just a "in or out" proposition. Being on the CBS Steering Committee requires me to use online organizing and keep up with what's going on in the communities. Writing for Hyphen blog requires me to participate in POC bloggery. I'm not quitting these organizations, so the question is: how to tailor my participation in online POC antiracist action so as to curtail the negative influence of discussion loops, while keeping me in the loop?

This is what I'll be considering over the next few posts. I probably won't respond to comments until I'm through, since this is a longer thought process than usual, and I don't want to break it off or argue until I've gotten through it. Be advised that anything that smacks to me of attack (in comments) may well be deleted. (That's another tactic I'm going to be considering.)

May 13, 2009

Al Robles Memorial On Sunday

For those of you who knew -- or knew of -- Al Robles, and who are in the Bay Area, please come down to his memorial event this Sunday:

WHEN: Sunday, May 17; 12 - 5 PM

WHERE: SomArts Cultural Center, 934 Brannan Street (btw. 8th & 9th) in San Francisco

WHAT: A community memorial for poet and activist Al Robles. There will be readings, performances, and testimonials from folks from all eras of his life. Plus food and drink.

VOLUNTEERS: We'll need a lot of people to help out. If you'd like to volunteer, please contact me at claire at the domain of hyphenmagazine with a dot com.

May 11, 2009

Can We NOT Do Racefail Again, Please?

I'm sticking my head out of its hole here (please note: my head is NOT wearing its CBS hat) to make a plea ... and realizing that I'll probably either get ignored, or get my head bitten off. This plea goes out to my fellow active and activist PoC and white antiracist SF/F fans. Anyone who doesn't fit this description, please refrain from commenting below (I will probably delete you.)

Apparently, Patricia Wrede has written an alternate history YA in which American Indians/Native Americans simply never existed, replaced by magical mammoths. If you don't immediately see what's wrong with this, read this list of links. (I also surfed through from this post and found a buncha stuff that wasn't on the links post above.) The posts linked often link to further reading, so go knock yourself out surfing.

Okay. I, for one, think this list of posts offers a perfect summation of what the problem with Wrede's premise is. What I'm asking for now is for PoC and white antiracists to take a REALLY DEEP BREATH ... and to fail to have a massive, collective, monthslong comment thread freakout like the one that happened this January/February/March/April (a.k.a. RaceFail '09.)

I know you guys are tired of it. We all are. I know the ignorant and vicious attempts to block and derail discussion are making you crazy. But responding to them in comments didn't do much good a few months ago ... and I think it'll do even less good now that the clueless are still smarting from the pileups at various whitepeople blogs which caused everyone to freak out and f-lock and delete their blogs and out each other's real identities and and and ...

What good did any of that do? What good will it do to go there again? The best thing that came out of RaceFail was a list of good, thoughtful posts about cultural appropriation that we can point out to people who want to be educated. Unfortunately, as much as people during RaceFail were linking to these great posts, they were ALSO engaging in increasingly angry comment threads with flamers and trolls who weren't interested in learning anything, and wouldn't have learned anything even if they were BECAUSE THEY WERE ON THE DEFENSIVE, AS EVERYONE IS IN A COMMENTS THREAD BATTLE.

So my suggestion -- my plea -- is to avoid engaging in comment threads as much as possible. You can't argue someone out of their ignorance. You can only lead them to water and WALK AWAY, hoping they'll drink after you've gone. There are some links pileups starting already. Let's contribute to them, and then make some private pledges to simply link to the links posts in comments and NOT COMMENT FURTHER.

WisCon is a week and a half away. I DO NOT want to walk into WisCon wondering who has put themselves in the wrong now. I DO NOT want to have to navigate sudden, new schisms having to do with random ignorant comments-thread comments. We DO NOT have to use this opportunity to excavate every ignorant corner of our fellow SF/F fans' racial consciousness. Let's put the info out there and let them do what they want to with it.

(A suggestion: those of you planning your own blogpost about this, please consider closing comments, so that anyone who wants to respond cannot do so anonymously, but MUST respond by posting something on their own blog. This will cut down on a lot of opportunities for people to enrage you from the safety of anonymity. I'm leaving comments on this post open because I'm hoping we can discuss ways and means of NOT engaging in a RaceFail 1.5.)

*****

In other news, (putting my CBS hat on): the Carl Brandon Society is sponsoring a "Cultural Appropriation 101" class at Wiscon (Friday afternoon during The Gathering -- it will only take up part of the Gathering time, so you can still attend.) The class will be taught by Nisi Shawl, Victor Raymond (both CBS Steering Committee members) and Cabell Gathman.

This will be a SAFE SPACE for anyone who suspects they may be missing some of the basics to come to and learn and discuss, and ask the questions you're afraid to ask for fear of being jumped on. We strongly recommend that anyone who feels a little shaky in the basics, or who doesn't agree with what a lot of PoC are saying about cultural appropriation, come and attend this class BEFORE going into any panels on race or cultural appropriation. Forearmed is forewarned.

May 08, 2009

Busy Today


Brian 1 color300dpiWofford2

Brian Castro and Jenifer Wofford in conversation tonight at SomArts.

Now I have to go pick up Brian from the airport. Will be a headless chicken today.

April 29, 2009

Traditional Immigrant Story

Shipping_routes_national_interest

Pacific shipping routes.

This is just one thread, but it's confusing, so pay attention.

Great-great-grandfather went to San Francisco to pluck duck feathers and carve candles. Great-grandfather didn't join him in the States. Why? It's possible that, returning to Zhong Shan, Great-great blew all the money he had saved on gifts and banquets and couldn't afford to bring his only son over. Another possibility is in the timing: Great-grandfather would have been only 14 in 1882, so perhaps it would have been impossible for him to go, son of a duck-plucker that he was.

Older Cousin, who was going to Costa Rica in 1885, got off the boat too soon and had to establish himself in Colon, Panama instead. Import/export/retail. Cousin offered to pay young Great-grandfather's way to Panama. Skip Ahead.

The year the Canal construction began, now rich enough to support two families, Great-grandfather got a new wife, Great-grandmother, and brought her out to Panama. With three children, and Grandfather on the way, the family moved to Macau, the Portuguese colony off of Hong Kong. Two years later they returned to Panama. Don't know why. Move on.

Great-grandfather and Co returned to Macau in 1922 following his retirement, then Grandfather:

  • studied engineering in Indiana,
  • taught math in Shanghai, where he met Grandmother (who was from Hong Kong, but that's a whole other thread,)
  • settled in Hong Kong until the Japanese invaded,
  • worked for the Chinese nationalist government in Chong Qing until the communists came down,
  • went back to Hong Kong,
  • retired to Vancouver, Canada, and died there.

Which brings us to Mom. She grew up entirely in Hong Kong and mainland China, went to the States to go to graduate school and married there. ... Or something like that.

So my question: if the family makes a good faith effort to return to country of origin, does it all reset? Does Mom get to be a traditional immigrant?

Familypicture

Grandfather is fourth from the far right, last row, holding Youngest Uncle. Mom is seventh from the far right, last row. Oldest Uncle is first on the far right, standing, Second Uncle is seated fourth from the right in front. Grandmother is second row from the top, second from the far left. The rest is family.

For the Joy Luck Hub blog carnival, which I'm running over at Hyphen blog. If you're of Asian diasporic extraction, please submit your 300-word immigrant story, which is NOT like The Joy Luck Club!

April 17, 2009

On Bullying

While I appreciate efforts like this one to bring attention to bullying, particularly bullying that happens around homophobia and other prejudices, I think the organizers are still missing some essential points about bullying, how/why it happens, and how to stop it. (Not surprising: many very smart commentators are missing the point.)

"-Isms" like racism and homophobia are one issue, and bullying is an entirely separate issue. You can address an "-ism" effectively and still have terrible, soul-shattering bullying. (Likewise, you can stop bullying and still drive people to suicide with your prejudice.) The "day of silence" and similar efforts are doomed to only partial success, or outright failure, because they conflate homophobia (or prejudice) with bullying behavior, and assume that addressing prejudice among school-age kids will stop the bullying behavior.

It will not.

***
I was always an unpopular kid in school--precocious (put in school a year early), nerdy, outspoken, uncontrolled ... and multiracial. I was occasionally bullied in grade school, but I went to a small parochial school where everyone knew everyone. I was a nerd, but I was their nerd, and god help anyone from outside the school if they wanted to talk down to me.

So it wasn't until we moved to Ohio when I was ten that I encountered really bad bullying. The school was public, and bigger--30 kids per homeroom and two homerooms--and the neighborhood was all white except for us, one other Chinese family, and one other multiracial white/Japanese family. All the Asian kids were considered nerds. The boys started calling me names and harrassing me physically, and no one stopped them. So they kept doing it. Every day. All day long. For a whole year.

Now, when I say "no one stopped them," I don't mean that my parents didn't try anything. From what I understand now, they were on the phone to the principal almost weekly. At one point the school arranged to have one of those theater groups sent to our class to do a role-playing workshop around bullying. It was embarrassingly bad and actually helped me out only because for a week afterward we all spent our bullying time making fun of the theater group. No one (including me) connected the theater group to what was happening to me because their program was so divorced from reality that it didn't get any hooks into our actual behavior (the roleplay centered around taking someone's lunch money.)

At another point, the homeroom teachers suddenly introduced a new item into our curriculum: a family biography, in which we were to get our parents' help in writing a paper on where our families came from. Then a handful of us were asked to do a presentation in front of the class. Guess who was picked to do a presentation? And my family history is really very interesting, so everyone was interested and had a lot of questions for me afterwards. But it didn't stop the bullying because, guess what? The bullying had nothing to do with why I was different and everything to do with how my difference made me less socially powerful. Explaining why I was different was interesting for everyone, but didn't change the fact that I was less socially powerful.

In desperation, the school had me sent out of class while the assistant principal went up there and told the class point blank to stop harrassing me. That lasted about a week. Guess what happened then? When they started, tentatively, poking me again, and no consequences were forthcoming, we were soon back to a full-blown bullying schedule.

Early on in the year, the boys started calling me a "chink." That lasted for maybe two weeks and then stopped. I wasn't there when it was stopped, but in retrospect, I think some adult heard the boys calling me that, was horrified, and put an immediate stop to it. After all, racism was not tolerated at my school. At all. You really never heard any racial epithets at my school, very few racial jokes. Everyone revered them some MLK and Rosa Parks, which was made easier by the utter lack of any black people in a 10 mile radius of our neighborhood. So the "racist bullying" lasted for only two weeks and was effectively stopped. But the non-racist bullying lasted a year (until my parents pulled me out of the school) and intensified throughout.

No, they didn't need to call me a "chink" to make my life hell. They called me "dogie" when we sang cowboy songs in music class. They called me "Nebuchadnezzar" when we studied the ancient world. They'd just say my name in a really nasty voice. They didn't need to know why I was socially weak, they just needed to know that they could get away with tripping me, calling me names, spitting on me, pointing at me whenever somebody said the insult of the week. They just needed to know that the teachers and administrators didn't value my daily presence enough to punish, or even notice, the daily harrassment. They didn't need racism. They didn't need homophobia (early on, someone tried to call me a lesbo, but for some reason it didn't stick. I'm not sure if they were heard by a teacher, or if I was just so not bothered by that that it wasn't worth it. In either case, they didn't need it.) All they needed was to not be stopped. And they weren't.
***

Bullying is no more or less than a person or group of people with social power, expressing their social power over a person or smaller group of people with less social power. Bullying requires two conditions only:

  1. A social hierarchy in which varying degrees of social power are delineated;
  2. An immediate community in which bullying is considered acceptable.

If you have a situation in which both of these conditions exist, you WILL have bullying, regardless of the prejudices or social enlightenment of the group. A group of all white, straight boys, for example, who have been raised to tolerate racial and sexual difference will still bully within their group if the two conditions exist. Bullies do not need an "-ism" as an excuse.

The first condition is impossible to combat. Human beings of all ages will find ways to create social hierarchies. If you make kids wear uniforms to prevent them from using wealth as a measure, then they will structure the hierarchy not around what clothes you wear, but how you wear your clothes or how you behave. The socially powerful will set trends in how to color on your shoes with magic marker, or how high to roll up your pants cuffs, or which lunch dishes to eat and which to treat with disdain.

It is utterly pointless to try to dismantle hierarchies of social power. But you can change the way the hierarchies work, to make them livable. There are two things you can do: one is to create smaller social units (smaller homerooms, or mandatory club membership) so that every individual belongs to a unit small enough that their participation is necessary, and therefore valued. The other is to make sure that every member of each social unit has a role in the social unit that both suits them and is recognized as valuable by the whole unit. (For me, it was art. When my class discovered that I could draw well, suddenly I had my place and a small amount of respect. A couple of classmates actually commissioned me to paint portraits of their pets.) The powerless will still be low on the hierarchy, but they will not be considered expendable, and they will have a small measure of social power that they can leverage to negotiate better treatment.

The second condition is what really needs to be addressed, though. It is both mutable and extremely difficult to change. When a community decides that a certain type of behavior is unacceptable, and imposes consequences for that behavior, the behavior stops immediately. Look at how quickly the racist bullying was stopped in my case. My community had a huge stake in not seeing itself as racist, and would go to great lengths to stop the appearance of racism.

They didn't have any stake in stopping bullying, though. In fact, I think they relied on bullying, as most American communities do. Because societies rely on their members buying into conventional behavior to maintain stability. There aren't enough police in ANY society to patrol all unconventional behavior. Stability is achieved by getting people to police themselves. This can be difficult if you have to convince individuals to adhere to convention with good arguments and rewards. Punishing unconventional behavior is much easier. Bullying is the quick 'n' dirty version of policing the borders of conventions. The bullying punishes the worst offenders, and serves as an example for those who might consider straying. It's easy to do: just step back and let the bullies do their work.

And they will, because the socially powerful have many ways to express their power, and will use them all if left to their own devices, exercising power by:

  • using their social connections to connect disparate groups to each other (networking) or make resources available unilaterally (thereby making themselves indispensible to everyone);
  • selecting an elect group and rewarding that group with privileges;
  • offering their friendship as a favor to those of lesser status, and
  • withdrawing that friendship at their own whim to show that they can;
  • occasionally offering privileges to the whole community as an exercise of noblesse oblige;
  • setting activities and agendas for the whole community, particularly if they're fun or rewarding;
  • selecting an ostracized group and forcing the whole community to ostracize them;
  • squashing challenges to their authority on an individual basis, or empowering proxies to do so;
  • etc.

Only some of these exercises of power lead to bullying. There's no way to stop the socially powerful from being powerful or from exercising their power. But a community CAN get together and stop the bullying that results; i.e. certain exercises of power can be made unacceptable. This requires that the entire community be able to see the advantage to them of stopping bullying, and that the entire community participate in imposing consequences on bullies.

I don't recommend addressing bullying as a whole phenomenon, because it is so misunderstood. The simple fact that people still call bullying "teasing" is a testament to how misunderstood bullying is.

"Teasing" is to "bullying" as "sex" is to "rape."

Teasing is a general term for a method of communication -- a type of mockery that people use in social situations. Sex is a type of intercourse between people ... essentially a way of communicating or being together, or an activity that people share socially. Bullying is abuse that often leverages a kind of mockery that is similar in form to teasing. Rape is a violent crime that leverages sex as a method of coercion and humiliation. Just as rape uses sex to commit violence, bullying uses mockery to commit abuse. The point of both is an expression of power by the bully or rapist over the victim.

I think if you'd asked my bullies why they bullied me they couldn't have given you a terribly articulate answer. It wouldn't have had anything to do with race in their minds, although, of course, race is always a factor, especially in a neighborhood where the only people of color just happen to be the outcast nerds. No, they would have told you that I was a nerd, or a geek, or stupid, or didn't know how to behave. They would have a thousand ways to say it: I was was beyond the pale. What pale, they probably still don't know. But they could zero in on my, and everyone else's, relative power in our shared community. And I had the least power.

And if you ask kids at one of these homophobic schools where kids are bullied for their sexual orientation--or their perceived sexual orientation--you'll get a hundred variations on "he's a fag!" as a reason. But listen to the tone, watch the body language. The problem is not that "he's a fag!" What they're really saying is: "Because he's weak! Because I can!" And because no one has stopped them. Put a really effective gay-straight alliance in place and people will stop calling people "fags" and "lesbos." But the bullying won't stop.

I think, rather, that bullying has to be addressed piecemeal: by breaking up bullying into component parts and addressing each individually. Break it up into a set of rules that don't mention bullying, for example:

  • No name calling: of any kind. This includes making fun of people's names. Online or off.
  • No mockery of your peers. Online or off.
  • No ganging up on people. Online or off.
  • No practical jokes. Online or off.
  • No poking, pinching, hitting, kicking, punching, tripping or any kind of physical violence.
  • No spitting, squirting, or otherwise throwing anything on anyone.

If this sounds overly restrictive: it is, in a way. But it's very clear: these are the things you don't get to do. Find another way to be social with your peers. And it's very clear for the adults who monitor kids, too: you see one of these behaviors, you cut the kid from the herd immediately and put them in timeout. In two weeks, all those behaviors will stop. Most people can't imagine kids socializing without these behaviors because they've never seen kids (or sometimes, adults) socializing without these behaviors. But I have.

When my parents took me out of the bullying school and put me into an (expensive, private, all-girls) school, I found myself for the first time in a community where bullying was utterly unacceptable. No one called me names. No one mocked me. No one ganged up on me. No one played nasty practical jokes on me. No one poked, pinched, hit, kicked, tripped, spit on, or threw things at me. And I was still unpopular, I was still an outcast. People still had plenty to do and plenty to say to each other, and were still very clear on the fact that I was beyond the pale; weird; ridiculous, nerdy. No one said anything about it. They didn't have to. When I said something nerdy, people nearest me would roll their eyes and then move quickly on to the next topic, excluding me. If I tried to join a more popular group by standing or sitting near them, they'd ignore me. If I got too close, someone would glare at me or ask me directly what I wanted until I went away. My position hadn't changed. The only thing that had changed was that I wasn't being abused.

It took me two years to recover from that awful year of bullying; two years to not wince when someone asked me what my name was, two years to stop cowering away when someone approached me; two years to start trusting my teachers enough to do the work they asked me to do; two years to feel like life was worth living again. And during those two years, I had no friends. But what I had was peace. I had quiet. I had a chance to recover. And two years later I started making friends and collecting social power, and a few years after that I had put myself beyond the power of bullies forever.

I hadn't put the racism behind me, though, or the sexism. I still had to deal with that ... in fact, the more social power I had, the more people wanted to be around me because I was cool now, the more I had to deal with their prejudices and misconceptions and fears. But I was able to manage the -isms myself -- find a group of people like me, study and understand the phenomenon, advocate for my racial group (or for women) -- because I had social power and personal confidence as a result of being taken out from under bullying behavior.

****

Now, none if this is by way of saying that prejudice shouldn't be addressed early and often. You can stop bullying without addressing prejudice, but then you'll still have an active prejudice that will come out in other ways. Even if a gay teen isn't being actively bullied, that teen can still be ostracized, ignored, earnestly told that he is immoral, wrong, or bad, told that his very being disappoints his parents and embarrasses his family, and generally put into such extremes of cognitive dissonance that can cause depression, suicidal tendencies, and the like. Bullying isn't the only social behavior that kills.

I'm just saying: recognize the difference. Prejudice is one thing, bullying is another. Address them separately if you want to get rid of both.

April 13, 2009

Weekly Roundup: April 5 - 11

Okay, I'm calling it: Life has jumped the shark. Suddenly, everything's been about Charlie? The whole thing has been about getting Charlie into whatever their organization is? Please. Oh, and also, now he and Danny are oogly over each other? Because she was in danger? There's nothing like a damsel in distress, right? Am I right? And he's the perfect ... cop, gangster, guy, whatever? You can't hold him cuz he can kill you with a karate chop to the throat? Too bad none of the rest of those fools who do time have learned that jailhouse trick. Argh. Stupid show.

Food poisoning this week. That was fun. Sad thing was, I was so doped up from illness that I actually got two good nights' sleep.

Then I went in for a sleep study. Very weird sleeping in a hotel room with about fifty wires glued to my skull and chest and four down my pant legs, plus elastics around my chest and waist. Very creepy. But maybe I'll get to sleep right now. Here's hoping.

Got through another season of The Wire. Now I'm just waiting for season five to show up in my mailbox. Omar is definitely still my favorite character.

Posted about Koreatowns on atlas(t). So I live in Oakland Koreatown now. Whatever.

Two birthday parties this weekend. Fun.

I'm reading Proust Was a Neuroscientist, a birthday gift from Pireeni. I'm not throwing it across the room so much as writing "dumbass!" in it frequently. The dude is a good popular science writer but he doesn't seem to understand how novels work at all. Will have more to say about it when I finish the book.

Went for a walk in the Oakland hills this weekend with Jaime. Very beautiful in springtime. Didn't know there were so many colors of green. But part of one path was along a very steep cliff and had a near panic attack. Funny moment during the worst part when we had turned back and I was talking myself through it: "It's okay, you can do it. It's not a problem. It's okay. You can do it ..." and then a dude came barreling towards us on a mountain bike and I almost lost it. Weird that it was bad when the cliff was on my left side, but when we turned around to come back and the cliff was on my right side it was much, much worse.

I'm putting together a carnival of 300-word Asian American immigrant stories for API Heritage Month on Hyphen blog. This is also to celebrate the 20th Anniversary of the publication of The Joy Luck Club. The idea is to get non-Joy-Lucky immigrant stories. Here's the link.

Also, the Carl Brandon Society's API Heritage Month book list will be the same as last year's. Here's that link.

And posted a review-ish piece on the current 21 Grand show on KQED. Here's the link.

April 05, 2009

Weekly Roundup: March 29 - April 4


My folks were in town for a while but left this week. And I've been having trouble getting to sleep, which is making me tired and bad-memoried.

I had to scramble to finish my Asian American women profiles for Hyphen blog this week, before Women's History Month was over. It was a good project, but a lot of work. I asked the readers for suggestions, and most of the suggestions were for artists and writers, which tells you what kind of readers we have, but wasn't terribly helpful. So I had to curate the profiles for age, ethnicity, and field of endeavor. That also meant I had to do some research to actually find a range of women to profile. But I'm glad of the result. You can see all the posts here.

By the way, I'm going to be asking Asian Americans to send in 200-word family histories for me to post on Hyphen Blog for May, which is API Heritage Month. Spread the word!

Also, currently working for Kaya Press and putting together book tours for Australian novelist Brian Castro and Japanese documentary filmmaker Kazuo Hara. We've been watching Hara's films lately, and I have to say, although I would never have sat through one otherwise, I'm glad I was forced to: this guy's a genius. For writers out there, you HAVE to see A Dedicated Life (which you can get on Netflix). It's a documentary about a Japanese novelist, famous for one particular book, who used to be a member of the Japanese communist party and was excommunicated for kicking off his novel writing career by writing a book criticizing it. But that's not what the film is about. The film, an amazing 2.5 hours long, is about narrative and how people build their lives. That's all I can tell you, because it's the kind of film that does what only film can do ... so you can describe it. Watch the film and if your jaw isn't on the ground after the first half hour, and STILL on the ground two hours later, I'll buy you dinner.

I didn't really like his Goodbye CP, which I think was his first film, and which is basically about forcing the audience to watch endless footage of people with cerebral palsy moving through public space and being ignored by others. But definitely see The Emperor's Naked Army Marches On, which is about a super-crazy protester in the 80's who tries to kill his former WWII commander for reasons best understood by watching the film.

Katherine Mieszkowski, probably my favorite writer at Salon, has an article about a couple in Berkeley who acquire most of their stuff by scavenging. It's really interesting and has some tips for down 'n' out East Bay Areans. The irony here is that this couple has written a book about scavenging, which you have to buy new, because presumably most people who buy it aren't going to toss it out.

My friend Jaime said last weekend, after the funeral of the four Oakland policemen, that he thinks a city can reach a point where its reputation is just broken, and there's no coming back. I've been watching The Wire on netflix these past few weeks, and Oakland feels like that right now: broken beyond repair. The anger that Oscar Grant's killing unleashed was one side of the violence coin -- and the police DO have a lot to answer for, over the years and right now. But these killings are the other side, an indication that when violence gets this out of control, no one is safe. The one thing everyone can agree on is that Mayor Dellums is an asshole. The feeling in Oakland right now is sadness just on the edge of despair; there's no real anger, just shock. And the violence continues.

I saw the William Kentridge show at SFMOMA last weekend and highly, highly, HIGHLY recommend it. Don't wanna talk about it right now, though. Also saw the Nick Cave show at YBCA. Candylicious!

And I've started revisions on Draft 3 of da nobble. And started writing dates with other writers. If this works out, I might have a way of sticking to it. I have to get this sleep issue resolved, though, because I don't have much brain power this week.

Saw Amber Benson, who played Tara on Buffy, on BART last weekend. At first I thought she was someone I knew down the way, so familiar did she seem. I stared a little, but tried not to bother. She was with a group of geek girls, which is cool.

Been watching the first season of 21 Jump Street on Y*O*U*T*U*B*E. Yeah, it's cheesy (the music is truly horrible), but the storytelling is actually pretty decent. I remember LOVING this show back in the day: it started the year I went off to college. I was still seventeen when I first went: still a teenager in a lot of ways. So I watched it off and on until Johnny Depp left. The gender and racial dynamics are so clear in this show, it makes me understand the 80's much better. Holly Robinson's character is the only woman on the force (there are no female extras in uniform). She's depicted as being just as capable as the men ... but she never has to fight anyone. Whenever there's a shooting or an accident that she's involved in, all the men get this look of concern on their faces and touch her shoulder and ask if she's alright. God, I remember that.

As far as the racial dynamic goes, the only black characters on the show so far are bad guys, except for Robinson and the captain. There's even one episode where a rich white kid gets hooked on smack and is forced by his black dealer, also a teenager, to rob stores to pay for his dope. The black dealer gets put away and the white junkie gets off scot free with no explanation. Everyone feels sorry for him. And yet, there's some sophistication in the way the individual characters interact racially. In the pilot, Johnny Depp's character is surprised that Holly Robinson's character owns an MG. She laughs at him and asks him if she should have a pimpmobile instead. No pretty-boy cop-show hero nowadays would ever be allowed to make racist assumptions like that.

Pireeni gave me Proust Was A Neuroscientist for my birthday (very belatedly) and I've started reading it.

Will do a sleep study next week.

That is all.

March 15, 2009

On "Hapa" And Cultural Appropriation

Fulbeckhapa

Image by Kip Fulbeck.

I'm not interested in participating in RaceFail '09 in any way, and I don't want to compound the folly by inscribing yet another diatribe about cultural appropriation when everyone is running around screaming, with their fingers stuck in their ears. But I do think that the Asian Women Blog Carnival is a good opportunity to kill a few birds: my thinking on a particular close-to-home topic, which will also offer a cautionary tale to the clueless, the allies, and the POC alike.

For those of you just joining us, "hapa" is a word currently used by many/most politically conscious Asian Americans to refer to mixed-race or multiracial Asians. The word is Hawai'an, and is actually part of the term "hapa haole," meaning literally "part foreigner," but connoting people who are half or part Hawai'ian and half or part white. Hawai'ians still use "haole" to refer to whites.

Sounds like a politically correct word, and it has been a "word of power," as Wei Ming Dariotis puts it (see below). But, it turns out, it's a strange example of cultural appropriation: cultural appropriation by Asian Americans, against native Hawai'ians, for the purpose of empowering Asian American multiracials in a context in which we have been historically disenfranchised. This isn't what we usually refer to as "cultural appropriation," but I think it's illuminating, and may help some white Americans who are resisting being labeled "appropriators" to understand what's at stake.

I want to talk about what the word means to people who use it -- especially to me -- and why the word might be problematic and ripe for retirement. This is about using words to express disadvantage and marginalization ... and it's about your words disadvantaging and marginalizing others. It's about walking your talk and why that isn't as easy as it sounds.

Before I discuss the word and its problems, here are some points of necessary information (I hope I don't need to say this, but these points are from my personal perspective and experience, and have to do with my own opinions and understanding, not universal truth):

  • Why multiracials need their own word: Multiracial organizing only really started in a big way in the late eighties, when Generation X was coming of age. Gen X is also known as the "multiracial baby boom," the result of a boomlet in interracial relationships following the Civil Rights Movement, related Chicano and Asian American movements, and the 1967 Loving v. Virginia decision, which reversed centuries of anti-race-mixing laws. On the Asian side, the multiracial boom also followed the Immigration Act of 1965, which substantially increased the flow of Asian immigrants into the US.

    Previous to the "multiracial baby boom," people understood as multiracials did not constitute a significant minority in the US. Although the African American community has always been multiracial, owing to the type of power dynamics that made black women sexually available to white men, due to the "one drop rule," anyone with African blood was considered black, and multiraciality was not recognized per se. (A similar situation is true of Native American communities, for somewhat different reasons.) So a great deal of the initial organizing around multiracial identities had to do with rejecting the one drop rule and reclaiming all identities, or constructing a third identity.

    Also, multiracial African Americans were a much larger group than multiracial Asian Americans, and the history and nature of their issues was and remains very different. During the first twenty years of constructing a "Multiracial Movement," a great deal of the work was simply sharing and discussion. Because As Am multiracials were numerically overwhelmed by Af Am multiracials in the organizations, and felt as if their issues were less urgent, they often felt that they didn't have enough space to talk about Asian-specific issues in general multiracial organizations. On the other side of the question, multiracial Asians were finding themselves under the gun in their Asian communities, being invalidated or outright told that they were a threat to the racial and cultural purity of their communities.

    For all of these reasons, multiracial Asian Americans needed, for a time, to differentiate themselves from other multiracials to discuss their particular issues, and to create a power base for themselves to use in their Asian communities to reclaim membership and a stake. A word for specifically Asian multiracials was essential to this effort.

  • Asian and Pacific Islander American organizing: In the eighties and nineties, Asian Americans and Pacific Islander Americans were grouped together officially, and so pan-Asian organizations were actually pan-API (Asian Pacific Islander) and made a greater or lesser point of reaching out to Pacific Islander communities and being inclusive in that way. In the 2000s, though, the two categories -- Asian and Pacific Islander -- have been split off from one another and the urgency in pan-Asian organizations around including Pacific Islanders has dropped off to a certain extent. (For example, Hyphen magazine, which I co-founded, was established in 2002 as specifically Asian American and not API, because the other founders felt that our entirely Asian staff couldn't do justice to Pacific Islander issues. I dissented but was overruled, and they were, as always in such cases, partially correct: we couldn't do Pacific Islander issues justice if we weren't going to do them justice ... and we didn't.)

    This is both good and bad. It's good because in the former scenario, the vast differences in cultures, experience, perception, and privilege between the two groups were often glossed over or outright ignored. It's bad because Pacific Islanders are a small group compared to Asians, and did have some access to a stronger power base and some public attention through being included in API organizing. Also, the inclusion was both a challenge and an opportunity for illumination to an Asian American organizing class that was often ignorant of what was going on in Pacific Islander American and recent immigrant communities. Splitting the two groups off from each other has not led to greater attention being paid to Pacific Islander-specific issues and many incoming young adult As Ams remain very ignorant. (Please note that some API orgs remain genuinely and sincerely API.)

    (An example: Last year the de Young Museum in San Francisco had a Pacific Islander artist from New Zealand in residence and produced a performance evening including two Pacific Islander artists from the Bay Area. Ten years ago, such an event could and did turn out substantial numbers from the Asian American arts-loving crowd. This event, though taking place at a major venue, didn't turn out any Asians that I saw, besides myself, and I only went to support my friends whom I hadn't seen in a while.)

  • How hapa got here: As I understand it, "hapa" as a general term for Asians and Pacific Islanders of mixed heritage was being used in Hawai'i before the Second World War, and might have made its way to the mainland as a result of Japanese Americans from both Hawai'i and the mainland fighting together in the war. In any case, on the continental US, the word was first used in the Japanese American community, and stayed there until the late eighties or early nineties when mixed race Asian Americans of all ethnicities started organizing around a mixed race identity together, and needed a general word that could refer to everybody, which had no bad connotations for Asian Americans.

    Previous terms used are:
    • "Eurasian": which arose in European colonies in Asia to refer to the children of mostly white European men and native Asian women through a variety of types of sexual liaisons, from rape and prostitution to marriage. The word has always had a disreputable cast, a negative connotation that suggests that the Asian mother is a prostitute or easy woman, and the child is a bastard. Eurasian women tend to be viewed by both whites and Asians as sexually available, and Eurasian men as untrustworthy. Tragic mulattism ensues.

      The word is also problematic because it declares the mixed race Asian to be part European, and nowadays in the US many multiracial Asians are Asian and African American, or Native American, or Latino, or Middle Eastern, etc. What to call them?

    • "Amerasian": arose to refer specifically to the children of soldiers in Asian wars of the latter half of the twentieth century. I'm not sure if it was being used post-Korean War, but it was definitely what the children of Vietnam War soldiers were called. The term has occasionally been applied to multiracial Asian Americans from some other context, but never really stuck or gained any mainstream recognition as such. It also has an unsavory, prostitute/GI connotation, and a tragic mulatto implication, given the dire political situation of Amerasian children in their country of origin at wars' ends. 

      Also problematic because it implies that the Asian parent is not American, and the non-Asian parent is.

    • "Multiracial": has no real negative political connotations, but is also not specific enough, as I explained above.

    • "Cablinasian," "Blackanese," "Korgentinian," and the like: There's definitely a value in the Multiracial Movement that holds personal descriptors -- i.e. personally invented descriptors -- in high esteem. Therefore: Tiger Woods' famous "Cablinasian," or the fairly common (among Black and Japanese multiracials) "Blackanese," or the very specific "Korgentinian," which I got from former Hapa Issues Forum Director Sheila Chung, who is Korean and Argentinian. However, unlike "multiracial," these are all too specific. They're great used on an individual basis, but you can't build a movement or group identity around them.

  • Do we need "hapa" now?: in 2007 Hapa Issues Forum, the main organization collecting hapa-centered clubs and associations together, officially closed its doors. It had been latent for three years. There were a number of reasons for this, the first being that the generation that started HIF, my generation, were now on the doorstep of middle age, marrying, having kids, and generally backing away mightily from nonprofit volunteerism. It happens. Another reason, though, was the the next generation of organizers, who always came up through student associations, were no longer organizing under "hapa"; they were now organizing under general multiraciality. This meant that they would transition (if at all) from general mixed race orgs in college to general mixed race orgs out in the world, of which there are many.

    What had happened in the interim was that mixed race Asians had radically increased in number, and our issues had become "mainstream" within the Multiracial Movement. Thanks to HIF and other hapa-based orgs, the materials (books, films, plays, artwork, music, performances, etc.) available to explain us had exploded. We were no longer ignored and marginalized. We had a seat at the table, at least, at the table of mixed race and Asian American organizing. Our advocacy had worked. The word "hapa" had worked.

Okay, do you feel caught up? I feel caught up.

So, I've just spent a lot of bullet points explaining why the word "hapa" has been so important -- to Asian America, to the Multiracial Movement, and to multiracial Asian American organizing. I've also hinted at how Asian American organizing may have gotten in the way of Pacific Islander organizing.

Okay, now read this article by Dr. Wei Ming Dariotis, a specialist in Asian Americans of mixed heritage. In it, she talks about how the word "hapa" has been her "word of power," how it freed her to identify herself in a powerful way, and also to find a community of free choice rather than a community of shame:

It has given us a space of our own, a place where we can be us, without having to explain ourselves. Anyone entering the space created by the word accepts our identity. In this way it works opposite from Bilbo and Frodo's ring of power, which makes the wearer invisible; the word “Hapa” makes my community visible, that is its power.

But:

power, as we all know, always creates the seeds of its own destruction.  The very success of the word “Hapa” has been in some ways its downfall.  What I mean to say that the word “Hapa” as it is used now can never go back to what it (or what “hapa”) once meant: a Native Hawaiian word meaning mixed or part or half, as in the phrase hapa haole.

... Increasingly, many Native Hawaiian people object not only to the way the word has been changed in its grammatical usage, but also to how it is applied to anyone of mixed Asian and or Pacific Islander heritage, when it implies Native Hawaiian mixed heritage.  This is not merely a question of trying to hold on to word that like many words encountered in the English language has been adopted, assimilated, or appropriated.  This is a question of power.  Who has the power or right to use language? 

She goes on to point out that Asians are not native to Hawai'i but rather settlers. Although they were exploited and mistreated on Hawai'i and the mainland, their settlement was a choice, and their subsequent success came through supporting and bolstering European/American hegemony on Hawai'i. Let me repeat that: Asian American success on Hawai'i came through Asian American collusion in the colonization of Hawai'i.

So this admittedly symbolic usage of "hapa" by Asian Americans feels to many native Hawai'ians like the appropriation of land and culture perpetrated by all Hawai'ian settlers and colonizers. Further, that mixed race Asian Americans appropriated a word to find their own power is an item of their own blissful ignorance ... and privilege. As Dariotis points out in her article, Asian Americans appropriated "hapa" because it had no negative connotations for Asian Americans. But that was because the word arose out of a colonizing situation between Europeans and native Hawai'ians. The fact that Asian Americans saw no negative connotations in the word had to do with the fact thatn in this colonizing situation, Asian Americans played a helping role on the side of the colonizers. That's about as ironic as it gets.

When I first read Wei Ming's article, I was just as resistant as she said she was to giving up the word "hapa." It had a similar meaning to me as it did to her. I had experienced some pretty bad bullying as a child based largely on my racial identity (if you want to get the flavor of it, read this; it's pretty much exactly my experience, except that I'm Chinese and my parents were both on the spot), and like many multiracial and monoracial As Ams, I grew up isolated from "people like me." Having a word that identified me accurately, and conferred power on me instead of taking it away was more important than I can explain to anyone who has always had the right to name themselves without question (ask me sometime about how bullies use names to take away your dignity and self esteem, how any word can be turned into something that hurts you.)

Wei Ming's article first appeared on Hyphen magazine's website (I can't find it there now) in late 2007 and I rejected the argument out of hand. "What do they expect us to use then, huh?" I thought. "We have no other word, and the meaning has already changed. It's too late. Besides, a lot of Hawai'ian words, and a lot of Asian words, too, have been incorporated into English without anyone's explicit permission. These words honor the contributions of Hawai'ian and Asian cultures in the American mainstream. Plus, this word is being used to give non-whites power. Don't these hysterical Hawai'ians get it?" At the time it seemed a pretty unanswerable argument. Yeah.

I didn't think too much about it over the next year or so. But then I got into an argument a couple weeks ago or so with a Korean American friend about US Americans' use of the word "American" to refer to ourselves. Don't get me wrong. I think the argument that all people in the Americas are "American" is pretty obvious and silly. If a Bolivian wanted to refer to herself as "American," she'd be totally within her rights, as far as I was concerned. Of course, that's ridiculous, though. She already has a country name, Bolivia, which she can use to refer to herself, whereas our country name IS "America." "the United States of" is a modifier, and it would be grammatically problematic to call us "Unitedians" or "Statesians" (then everyone else could argue that they're also united or they are also states.) And having other people assign to us the name "USians" is inappropriate and goes against all my principles; people name themselves, and people outside of the group don't get any say in it at all.

But then, on the other hand, the USA declared itself caretaker and patron of the entire Western Hemisphere nearly two centuries ago, without anyone else's say so, and has been running around like it's all agreed ever since: setting up murderous dictators, couping out popularly elected officials, and generally acting like anything in the Americas is ... well ... American, in the sense of "United States of." I don't believe that the original use of "American" to refer to British colonists in the American colonies was at all intended to claim hegemony over the entire hemisphere. No USA citizens intend that our use of the word "American" confers hegemony on us. Not even our government intends that. But the fact remains that we've wreaked might-makes-right havoc on the entire hemisphere, and that we dominate it in such a way that all other countries in the Americas must define themselves in alliance or opposition to us. I mean US.

So the jury is very much out on that issue. On the one hand, it would be ridiculous for me and other bleeding hearts to say "Hey, we'll stop calling ourselves 'American' because we don't want to offend our fellow Americas-ians," when nobody else wants to use the word to refer to themselves. On the other hand, maybe none of us should be using the word as a national signifier, since it belongs to all of us. And on the foot, what do we call ourselves then?

Which brings us back to "hapa," and that debate, which broke back over me in the past week as a result of the San Francisco Asian American Film Festival declaring a hapa theme this year. In this case, it's not a matter of us trying to share a word with Others that we all have equal right to, and that they don't particularly want to use for themselves. In this case, it's a matter of trying to get the power of a name by ignorantly taking the power of a name away from someone else.

See, the history of "hapa" is that it was a term specifically created to refer to the children produced by European/American hegemony in Hawai'i. Without the colonization, you don't need the term "hapa haole." And it's a specifically positive Hawai'ian word for mixed children, a word created to include mixed children into native Hawai'ian society, to find a place for them. You can't have power in a Hawai'ian word for multiracial Hawai'ians if it doesn't exist solely for multiracial Hawai'ians. Having this word appropriated by Asians who settled or were settled on Hawai'i only after it was literally stolen from the Hawai'ian people -- having this word stolen by Asians brought over to work the plantations that the haoles stole Hawai'i to create -- would be pretty damn hard to take, wouldn't it?

What we've done here is stolen the power of the word. Period. This is not like the whole "American" thing where we didn't steal the word, and the power in it now is something that has accumulated with time. This was a straight-up decision that was made in living memory to use this word because there was nothing standing between us and it ... kinda like the decision made in recent times to simply take Hawai'i because there was nothing military standing between us and it.

This is no longer acceptable to me. Yes, it took me over a year of subconscious mulling to get here but I'm here now. I don't want to use the word anymore; its power is gone and its savor has soured for me.

And at the same time, multiracial Asian organizations have re-assimilated (word used advisedly) with general multiracial organizations; mixed race Asians now have an important seat at the table of both Asian America, and Multiracial America. We don't need the word "hapa" anymore, not to organize around, anyway. So maybe we're able to say "let it go" because we don't need it anymore.

But that doesn't make the letting go any less difficult, or any less necessary.

And what, if anything, do we call ourselves now?

January 15, 2009

Defining and Identifying Cultural Appropriation

Here's what's going on and why I'm doing this now.

First of all, I'm not gonna deal with global cultural appropriation, but rather focus on American appropriation of cultures brought into the US either by immigrants or by Americans who went abroad and brought stuff back. Okay, here's a brief and incomplete definition of "cultural appropriation" I wrote in this post a couple of years ago (you have to read the whole post to really get where I'm coming from.):

Cultural Appropriation: The unhealthy aspect of multiculti, where a more powerful culture raids a less powerful neighboring culture ... and appropriates aspects of that culture without proper acknowledgment of the "home culture" or understanding the cultural context from which these aspects spring. Examples: yoga, Buddhism, hip hop and ebonics-derived slang, graffiti art, etc.

I think that's adequate as a basis, but I DO think I need to distinguish between two concepts so that people get it. The two concepts are:

  • Cultural Appropriation
  • Cultural Syncretism

Syncretism generally refers to the process of reconciling or melding of differing views or beliefs or uses. This can happen intentionally, or by a natural, unconscious process.

More or less discrete cultures that come into contact with one another, either through geographical proximity, migration, conquest, trade and exploration, or in other ways, will start to syncretize aspects of each culture. This is inevitable, and neither undesirable nor preventable. Cultural items tend to get taken on in a new culture if they are useful, convenient, resolve a problem, or appeal to a value that already exists in the host culture. Examples of this would be:

  • the adoption of potatoes into the European diet after contact with the new world (the introduction of potatoes was more or less deliberate, but the spread of potatoes was a natural cultural movement)
  • Christianity becoming a cult (one of many) in ancient Rome, a culture that tolerated multiple gods from many cultural origins, and incorporated them into its pantheon
  • the partial adoption of Japanese corporate organizing practices in the US auto industry in the eighties, when Japanese auto companies began building factories in the States

And of course, small things like words and whole slang idioms, small gestures or sets of gestures, rituals and ceremonies, manners, clothing and accessories, music, visual design elements, etc. can get taken on deliberately or without thought.

This is just how we are. US mainstream culture is a mass of syncretism, from our political culture, to our language ("ketchup" is Chinese, "frankfurter" and "wiener" are German, "chili" is Nahuatl, "onion" is Latin, and "soda" is Arabic, so your standard chili dog and coke is about as syncretic -- and American -- as you can get), our religions, our design, our ... etc.

HOW syncretism happens is not defined under the term. It can be forced (Indian boarding schools, Catholic church incorporation of local gods as saints), it can be friendly, or it can happen unconsciously. Cultural appropriation is actually, therefore, a subset of cultural syncretism -- one way that syncretism happens.

It's a strange, post-colonial way of making syncretism happen, though. Whereas previous to modern decolonization, no one was truly uncomfortable with the idea that the Other was "barbaric" (it was only the argument over who constituted the Other, us or them), it's only since the 20th century that we've consciously moralized this position, and created an understanding of Otherness as having value and even virtue, simply because it is Other. This is the "noble savage" point of view, the exotifying point of view, the model minority point of view, that elevates Otherness rather than denigrating it. It's still a process of Othering, though.

It's also only since the 20th century that groups of people have accepted their identity as Other to the mainstream or dominant group, and turned it into a power position.

Today, in the United States, we have groups, tribes, cultures, of people whose primary identity is that of Other. Although we spend a lot of time saying "we are not Other," people of color ... African Americans, Asian Americans, etc. ... are people and Americans who must define themselves using a modifier. This is an Other identity, not a mainstream one. You can see the difference when you talk to my mom, who immigrated in her twenties and has been a US citizen for half her life: she'll tell you she's Chinese. Not Chinese American, Chinese. She has a mainstream identity from a different country. Here, she's a foreigner or immigrant, but there's a place where she is not an Other. I, on the Other hand, am Chinese American and multiracial. I was born an Other in the world, and have no home ground to go to where I'm not Other.

I make this point because accepting and claiming an Other identity, which has politically empowered a lot of people of color, has been largely misunderstood on the white side as meaning that "it's better to be colored than white." This is an unconscious understanding, but it feeds into the noble-savaging and Othering of POC. This comes about because it's accepted and empowering to be outspokenly proud to be "black," "Asian," "brown," "Latino," what have you, but it's not okay to use the same language to be outspokenly proud to be "white." So this gets translated into the following set of principles:

  1. whites have no 'ethnic' identity because being proud of one's whiteness is just racism
  2. people of color are the only ones with real ethnicity
  3. having an ethnicity is better than not having an ethnicity

Which brings us to cultural appropriation.

Cultural appropriation is a method of cultural syncretism that is specific to our primary-Other-identity, post-colonial, identity-politics era. It arises when a dominant culture, as I said above, raids a subordinate culture for cultural items that it then pulls out of context. The dominant culture -- in our case, white Americans -- doesn't properly acknowledge the borrowing -- or else the dominant culture makes a complete hash of the borrowing and then tries to pass it off as authentic. This happens for three reasons:

  1. Whites want/need ethnicity, so they find or make up a nonwhite ancestor and go acquire aspects of that ancestor's culture (see "1/16th Cherokee" or "we're southern so we must have a black ancestor") which they weren't brought up in and haven't acquired in ways that people generally consider to be "authentic."
  2. Whites want/need ethnicity, so they decide to strongly identify with a nonwhite culture and then acquire aspects of that culture (see "I taught English in China for two years," or "I'm blacker than you are!")
  3. Whites of a particular class or position need to appear worldly and eclectic -- not to mention liberal -- so they spend a great deal of cultural time "broadening their horizons" in ethnic shops and exercise/dance classes. This last one is itself an item of a liberal white American subculture: the need to have a culturally eclectic affect.

The reason I made this distinction between cultural syncretism in general and cultural appropriation specifically is that -- you guessed it -- cultural appropriation is about an exploitive power dynamic, whereas not all forms of cultural sycretism are. We see cultural syncretism everywhere in our mainstream culture because the US is an immigrant country and we really do meld a lot more than we give ourselves credit for. The power dynamic lies in the fact that the genuinely syncretic and layered culture of the mainstream is dominated by whites. That broad river of culture is considered -- consciously by POC and unconsciously by whites -- to be the home ground and domain of whites, even though everyone has contributed to it.

So when a new cultural item is added to that mainstream, it is done by whites deliberately, and in a manner that doesn't acknowledge its debt to any subculture or alternate culture. That mainstream is powerful because it is the mainstream and because it is the homeground of the white power-majority. Likewise, whites are powerful because they are white and because they control the powerful mainstream, both. It's true cultural synergy.

The principle of the mainstream is inherently melting-pot-ish, so once something has joined the mainstream, it becomes very difficult to pick out its origin and path to the mainstream. This is an aspect of the cultural mainstream that shores up its power. Likewise, people of color rarely see their cultural product make it into the mainstream intact because of the melting pot principle; it's easier to not give up power if you dismantle a subculture and incorporate it piecemeal: for every Boyz 'n' the Hood there will be twenty Colors's; for every Better Luck Tomorrow there will be twenty Fast and Furious sequels. Dismantle, then control. This is why the live action Avatar can be cast all white. Avatar already began the process of dismantling the cultures by making them secondary cultures.

Cultural appropriation is also hard for whites to understand because it's hard to distinguish between melding and appropriation when we simply don't know where each individual got it from.

For example: generation after generation, African American slang gets incorporated into mainstream white slang. At one point in this process, it's straight up cultural appropriation. But there does come a moment when enough white people are using the slang, that other white people are picking it up from whites in their own communities, without necessarily knowing its origin. At that point, it's already fused into the mainstream culture and the less "cutting edge" whites really aren't appropriating it ... because it's already thoroughly appropriated.

I'll give you a funny example: I left the US (Tucson) in 1992 and came back (to San Francisco) in 1998. During that time, a new set of "urban" slang hit the mainstream. Not a lot of this reached us in Europe during that time. So when I came back to the States in 98/99, I was working at a number of Asian American arts orgs. A lot of the volunteers had gone to ivy league colleges (model minorities) and I noticed something: all the people I knew who had gone to Yale were using this slang expression "My bad." I'd never heard that before so I pointed it out to a Yalie friend and asked if it was a Yale thing. She found that very amusing. Of course, subsequently, I heard it all over the place and it became clear that it was part of a slang set that -- once again -- came from African America. But by the time it reached me, it was so thoroughly appropriated that I was able to think -- just for a moment -- that it was an ivy league thing.

Because cultural appropriation either succeeds or fails -- that is, items are either thoroughly appropriated or they aren't -- it can be hard to tell with successful appropriations where they've been appropriated from. So a LOT of whites, who get these things from their white communities, hear POC screaming about cultural appropriation and are genuinely confused. Aren't we a melting pot? I didn't steal this from anybody! Even my Mom says it for chrissake!

There's also a lot of unconscious disagreement about a statute of limitations on accusations of cultural appropriation. For example, I still hear some Af Ams complaining about how Elvis jacked Little Richard and others. It's true, but we're so many musical generations down the line from Elvis, and most Af Am musicians wouldn't touch rockabilly with a ten-foot pole now, so can we let go of that? I'd still be willing to talk about Vanilla Ice, but there are folks who think that's over, too. So that's another issue that no one can agree on: when does it stop being cultural appropriation and just become culture?

Sadly, I have no answers for you today. Because, of course, cultural syncretism and its various methods are a spectrum, not a clearly defined taxonomy. And where your own actions fall on that spectrum will depend on your point of view.

One thing I can say, and have said before, is that when it comes to creating fictional worlds and fictional characters, you do have the opportunity to control your cultural appropriation, to step back and err on the side of not appropriating. That is not the same thing as not writing the Other, but I happen to fall down on the side of don't write the Other if you can't do it right. Rather, make sure that enough People of Color are getting published and noticed.

But that's just me.

November 30, 2008

I'm Boring

Don't agree with me!

Now that the election is over, I have nothing to saaaaaay! Argh.

But I've reshuffled some blogging dooties: I'm blogging again at Hyphen magazine, if you wanna check me out

October 23, 2008

Mono Lake Materials

Just a quick check-in: I'm up at my cousin's (bless him!) house on Mono Lake for a week (I'm halfway through the week now.) I had visitors with me the past five nights: Patty until yesterday and Sam the past three days until today. The next three nights I'm on my own. That's good, in its way, but it does mean that I'm not going to be reading Turn of the Screw in this phase of the retreat ;).

Patty was working on some sketches for her new calendar project, and Sam did some work yesterday on residency applications. I do not envy her. I've been working on an essay for Timmi, which I have no idea if it is good or not. (I also have no idea if I structured that clause correctly.) I'm hoping to get that done today so I can get at least two good days of work in on da Nobble, but I'm not sure that'll happen. This essay is a monster and it's killin' me.

Anyway, last night, after Patty was gone, Sam and I brainstormed. We are both looking down the barrel of Kearny Street Workshop's 10-year APAture retrospective (called Shifted Focus), part of which will be a reading and a performance night at the de Young Museum in conjunction with their Asian American art exhibition (called Shifting Currents, see what they did there?). I'll be doing a reading on December 3 and Sam will be doing a performance on January 23.

Anyway, we agreed a few weeks ago to a) both present new work created specifically for this event, and b) collaborate on that work by c) coming up with a set of "materials" from which we would both create our pieces. By materials, I mean characters (and names), concepts (like "fossil"), locations, (like "rooftop"), activities (like "two fisted drinking"), words, phrases, etc. The idea is that we'll come up with a short set of things--one in each category, perhaps five or less--which we will both be constrained to use in the pieces we create. (The examples I used above are probably not the ones we're going to use, by the way.)

So we're still brainstorming, but we'll have the set ready by next week. I don't think I'll post them here. I think, instead, I'll encourage you all to come to the reading (maybe I'll post a video of it on YouTube) and the performance and see the results for yourselves. Itsth an ecthperiment!

September 18, 2008

Reading Update and APAture LIVEBLOGGING!

Also, I just finished Maugham's The Painted Veil. Can't write about it right now. I'm reading it as material for an essay I'm trying to write about politics of narrative. Maybe I can work out some ideas here but not for the next couple of weeks because

I'M LIVEBLOGGING APATURE!

APAture is a festival I started with a group of people at Kearny Street Workshop ten years ago. This year is its first big anniversary and I've started a liveblog where I'll be documenting all the events. I've also put a feed to this blog in the upper left hand corner of the page you're reading now. Look over there! It says "APAture Live." That's it!

Please follow along with us, dudes and dudettes.

I gotta run now and start blogging. The gallery opening starts in 45 minutes.

August 08, 2008

Holy Moly! It's 080808!

This is velly, velly auspicious date! Eight is lucky to Chinee!

Anyway. I'm off to a cafe--in this crappy weather--to start on the last leg of da nobble. No better day to do that.

Have a lucky day y'all!

June 26, 2008

Having a Bad Week

Just finished watching the John Adams miniseries, which is terrific.

A lot is going on this week. Aside from all that, I'm realizing how wearing it is to participate emotionally in this election.

The Carl Brandon Society did a panel at Wiscon about identity intersectionality in an election year. It was called "Some of Us Are Brave" and focused on African American women.

That's how I've been thinking of intersectionality, too, and not really applying it to myself. At the same time, though, I've seen Asian Americans as a group called out for supporting Clinton, called racist. I've seen white feminists as a group called racist for supporting Clinton. I've seen my male friends, Asian Am and otherwise, supporting Obama and giving Clinton's Iraq War vote--and nothing else--as a reason. At the "Some of Us Are Brave" panel I've had a middle-aged male Asian American Obama supporter try to school me on how to manage Asian American activism--something I've been doing for ten years. And this week I got called out by an older feminist for disagreeing on a minor matter, and again schooled on issues I've been discussing and acting on for twenty years.

And another thing: I've gotten no second of public space to enjoy the ascendence of our first biracial presidential nominee because absolutely everyone, from white Republican to black Democrat and back again, is deeply invested in reading Obama as just black (except when it suits their agendas not to), despite the extremely nuanced reading of his own identity that he's offered the whole world for years now. I don't get to feel a kinship with him based on that.

I am extremely dissatisfied with every party, every Democratic campaign, and the behavior of every group of supporters in this election. There is no group, no campaign, and no candidate who has not been treated unfairly in public, and who has not also treated someone else unfairly. And because of the multiplicity of my own identity, group belonging, and loyalty, I have been able to come down nowhere.

My loyalty to Clinton has been treated as racist and suspect, because of hatred of Clinton herself, because of the stupidity of Clinton's supporters, and because of my own identities: my Asianness, my whiteness, my non-blackness, my gender, and my age. If Clinton had lost fair and square, i.e. not because she's a woman, I would be now recovering my joy at Obama's candidacy. But I feel no joy whatsoever, because I feel that every part of my public, political self has been attacked from one angle or another.

And it goes on even now. It's as if there's no joy anywhere at Obama's win, because we've already built up too much bitterness. The racial and gender watchdog machines are on red alert, the racial and gender offense-taking machines are white hot from cranking out product, but where are the liberal joy machines?

This is not all that's going on and stinking up my week. But it's a big chunk. I think I'm going to try ... try ... and take a break from politics for a week or two. Maybe that'll lighten things up a bit.

May 28, 2008

All Hail the Mighty Zuky

Racism is like a hellish mosaic whose imagery and meaning can only be seen from a certain distance and with a certain developed ability to discern the patterns at multiple levels of abstraction.

May 15, 2008

Yay!

Stuartjohn

Imagine my immense pleasure, upon hearing the good news and going to the internet, at finding on the front page of the New York Times this lovely picture of my friends Stuart and John whose marriage four years ago in San Francisco was rendered null and void, and who were plaintiffs in the test case upon which this decision was made.

Here they are in a video, with horror writer Jewelle Gomez and her partner.

Stuart, a Chinese/white hapa like me, has been very much on the record about the irony of his own family history: anti-miscegenation laws were part of the national dialogue when his parents got married, and now the Cali Supreme has used its 1948 ruling overturning Cal's anti-miscegenation law to make Stuart's marriage possible.

Congratulations to the plaintiffs ... and to all of us!

May 14, 2008

Stuff Non-white People Don't Like

A lot of people sent me links to Stuff White People Like when it first hit the wind, and, not having anything productive to say and not wanting to be a killjoy, I just plain didn't say anything about it.

But it made me uncomfortable.

I was too busy to tease out why, but Double Consciousness has done the job for me here.

The problem with StuffWhitePeoleLike.com (or SWPL) is that there is actually nothing that offensive (all though some white people have thought it that) or thought provoking within the site. The reason for this is obvious, as whites are the majority in the country that have never experienced racial discrimination, institutionalized or socially. Because of this a site such as SWPL, which purports to "make fun of" white culture, can become profitable and can garner a large book deal from a major publisher.

Whiteness is essentially an invisible and often overlooked (in mainstream culture) factor within the United States and because of this most whites are blind to their own privilege as it is never talked about all that much.

In fact, even when people of color want to bring up certain offensive characteristics of white culture, such as naming mascots after Native Americans, and try to show them how offensive certain aspects are; white people can actually shrug all of that aside and laugh it off. After all, white folks are the dominant ones in society and have all of the advantages that have been built up over hundreds of years of racial preference toward whites; so when a group of Native American students name their intermural basketball team "The Fightin' Whites" in order to point out the stupidity of naming a team "The Fighin' Reds" white people find it funny and laugh it off because it is not a real threat to whiteness.

In other words, if you're already on top, and all the media already talks about your strengths and foibles, a site that DIRECTLY addresses your strengths and foibles by racializing them is just more ego-stroke. Also, this site really addresses white, upper-middle class people.

I'm pretty sure if there was a Stuff Asians Like site for upper-middle class Asians, created by an Asian American, or the same for African Americans, or Latinos,  nobody would have a problem with it. And the fact that there isn't such a site is telling.

May 13, 2008

Register Your Bone Marrow!

Hey all, somebody else needs a bone marrow transplant.

Actually, a LOT of people need bone marrow transplants. Bone marrow is much harder to match than blood, and it's much likelier that someone will find a match with a donor from their own racial or ethnic group.

But people of color don't register as bone marrow donors in the same proportions as whites. So people of color with leukemia tend to get screwed. Mixed race people especially tend to get screwed.

I'd do it, but my diabetes prevents me from donating just about anything. So instead, I'm passing on the word, hoping that some of you will step up and do it for me.

If you're a person of color, you can get a free testing kit. Click here to register, no matter what color you are!

May 11, 2008

Quickie

I just read Good As Lily by Derek Kirk Kim and Jesse Hamm, a YA comic about an 18-year-old girl who somehow brings her 6 y/o, 29 y/o and 70 y/o selves into her 18 y/o present on her birthday.

Pretty darn good, although I was hoping for Kim's art as well as his writing and I think the art was by Hamm.

May 07, 2008

My Wiscon Sked

Is as follows:

Carl Brandon Society Update
Join the Carl Brandon Society Steering Committee for some brainstorming, some celebration of people of color in SF, and an update including information on the Awards and the Octavia E. Butler Memorial Scholarship. The gang will mostly be there: Nisi Shawl, Victor Raymond, Candra Gill, Bryan Thao Worra, 'n' moi!
Saturday, 10:00-11:15 A.M.
Conference 5

Red Beans and Rice
A reading, starring Alaya Dawn Johnson, Doselle Young, Bryan Thao Worra, 'n' moi!
Saturday, 4:00-5:15 P.M.
Fair Trade

May 06, 2008

Starship & Haiku

51nq3cjherl_sl500_aa240_ What do you get when a burned-out, English-educated, Thai composer, who sometimes resides in the United States, and has read too much Mishima, starts to write science fiction?

Well, damn. You get something bizarre and almost beautiful. I say "almost" because S.P. Somtow tried to structure his 1981 novel Starship and Haiku like haiku--or at least, to make the experience of reading it recall the experience of reading haiku in macro. But it's a novel, which is sort of the anti-haiku form. So neither form--haiku, novel--quite succeeds, and neither quite fails, either. And there's a large admixture of pulpy prose in here, making the proceedings occasionally awkward.

The story: In the third decade of the 21st century, after a devastating nuclear war has left the Earth utterly moribund, politically-neutral Japan is the only country on Earth not left as a post-apocalyptic landscape. Two aging rivals--Ishida and Takahashi--form the powerful arms of a triumvirate that has taken over Japan. The faithless Ishida is the Minister of Survival and the superficial Takahashi is the Minister of Ending, charged with assisting the people to achieve perfect suicides to expiate humanity's crime of destroying the Earth.

Ishida has a secret project. Before the millenial war, the Russians (the book was written around 1980, remember) had completed a starship and left it orbiting the Earth. Ishida has a team of mostly western scientists building a rocket that will take a group of colonists to the Russian generational ship, which they will then aim at Tau Ceti, a four-thousand-year journey. The broader point is to ensure the survival of the human race in the face of its extinction through a devastating virus and debilitating mutations. The more specific point is to ensure the survival of Ishida's own daughter, Ryoko.

Knowing that Ryoko is particularly Japanese (I know, just go with it for a minute) and likely to wish for a beautiful death, Ishida sends her on a trip to Hawai'i to view the devastation firsthand. While there, she meets Josh Nakamura, a Japanese American man, and his younger brother Didi, a "strange" or mutant. Didi's mutation keeps him physically childlike and enables him to read minds and perform a certain amount of telekinesis. He keeps this secret from Josh, for some reason, and Josh thinks Didi is a cretin. Didi is all about joy and beauty and Josh doesn't get the whole Japanese thing.

There's a bit of back and forth and stuff happens. Upshot is that Ryoko develops a relationship with a whale, who (here comes the really bizarre part) reveals to the ministers that (mild spoiler) whales are the parents of the Japanese, a human sub-species that is human-shaped and whale-minded. That's where the Japanese obsession with beauty and death comes from (I know, bear with me a moment.) The whale also outs Ishida's anti-suicide starship plan. This revelation causes the rivals Ishida and Takahashi to kick into high gear. Takahashi becomes a deathgod, hounding people into suicide to expiate their patricidal sin (killing whales) and Ishida sends Ryoko off to make the starship thing happen. And so on.

Like I said, bizarre. On the one hand, there's this insanely reductive view of the Japanese as monolithically suicide-crazy and beauty-obsessed. On the other, there's a fairly nuanced (for 1981) understanding of a Japanese American identity in the person of Josh Nakamura, who may look like he's sprung from whales, but holds no truck with killing yourself after seeing the perfect teabowl or some such shit.

(There's a bit of business about how Josh and Didi get to Japan through trading their dead grandmother's antique teabowl for passage to a Japanese ship's captain who seriously considers immediate suicide since he is unlikely to see anything that beautiful again. The captain tempers his disgust for Josh's inability to see the bowl's beauty with the reflection that Josh was not raised Japanese, so it's not his fault. I have no idea if this was intentionally or unintentionally comic.)

But you can also read this as a secondary world novel, in which the "Japanese" are not our Japanese, but rather what Japanese would be if they were descended from whales. Yeah. Because of all the interesting things about this book, the most interesting is that it's the first SF novel--or maybe even the first novel, period--that I've read that instinctively understands two things about Asian America: its pan-Asian ethic, and its cultural Japan-centeredness.

The pan-Asian ethic is implied rather than stated. The only character whose identity isn't reduced to utter silliness is the proto-JA Josh. While reading Josh's character, you can't help but be aware that the author is Thai, but of a privileged enough background to have been educated abroad and to consider himself among the international creative community. Maybe it's just me, but his presentation of Josh's JAness feels proprietary: the presentation of a hybrid identity that's shared by the author by virtue of being Asian--any Asian--and transnational.

The 80's Asian American Japan-centerness was partly external and partly internal. Japan in the early 80's was on the ascendant, economically speaking. SF was fascinated with it as the supposed culture of the future (see Blade Runner and Neuromancer), and mainstream America was both fascinated by its exotic cultural--and business--virtues (see Gung Ho and Die Hard), and angered by its smooth victory over Detroit (see Vincent Chin). So Asian Americans in the 80's were forced to deal with mainstream America's perceptions of Japan, both "positive" and negative.

On the other hand, the 80's was when the redress movement for WWII Japanese American internment really heated up. (Reparations were finally awarded in 1988.) The Asian American Movement of the 1970's, which created the notion of a pan-ethnic Asian American identity, put a lot of its energy towards redress, and as a result, many Asian Americans who are not of Japanese ancestry feel a strong identification with Japanese Americans.

So it's fascinating that this book was written during all this ferment--and written at a time when American-raised Asian Americans were struggling to find an idiom to tell their stories in. Somtow doesn't explicate this particular Japanocentric, pan-ethnic Asian American sensibility so much as embody it in the book. He might not even have been entirely aware of it.

On another track, the book is a lovely experiment that recalls for me--of all things--Ernest Hogan's High Aztech. They were written about ten years apart and share almost nothing, except--and this is important--length, and hybridity. Both are not so successful as novels, both better read as impressionistic essays on 21st Century cities, technology, and human understanding.

I loved this book, which is unusual for me. I don't often love books this close to failure. But this one has done things I never thought to do with writing: taken the Mishima-style core of beauty and suicide that I've also felt and tried to write about, and made a piece out of it that I would never have thought to make. (My solution to Mishima was to write an ugly autobiographical story about a girl who reads too much Mishima ... but the less said about that the better.)

May 04, 2008

YouTube/Asia Society API Heritage Month Project

Awesome.

The Asia Society and YouTube have gotten together to post a series of videos from Asian Americans for API Heritage Month. They've started by posting vids about "What does being Asian American mean to me?" from luminaries like Sandra Oh, Kal Penn, and Yul Kwon, but it's open to any ol' slob ... like me. And I might just do it if  I can figure out how.

Clicky here to submit a vid or just watch the other ones.

May 02, 2008

What I'm Reading for API Heritage Month

Okay, having posted the CBS API Heritage Month list, what am I gonna read for it?

Well, I've already read:

  • Ted Chiang STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS
  • Haruki Murakami HARDBOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD

Yes, it's sad. That's all I've read.

I'm going to read:

  • Sesshu Foster ATOMIK AZTEX: I've actually read about half of this book but got distracted and didn't finish. So I'm going to start over and finish it.
  • Cathy Park Hong DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION: I've got it, I've started it, and I'm going to finish it.
  • Bryan Thao Worra ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE EYE: I've got it, I've started it, and I'm going to finish it. By the way, go order this book! Bryan is a member of the CBS Steering committee and decorated the envelope he sent this to me in with a personal poem. Cool.

May 01, 2008

Carl Brandon Society API Heritage Month Book List

Hi Everybody!

It's not only MayDay, the day when everybody in the world except capitalist ol' USA celebrates labor, but it's also the start of the American ASIAN PACIFIC ISLANDER HERITAGE MONTH.

Yes, it's time once again to celebrate the Asian and Pacific Islander AMERICANS in your life. Don't hesitate also to celebrate the Asian and Pacific Islander whatever else's in your life as well, though.

The Carl Brandon Society
, per our new Heritage Month book program, has come up with a list of recommended speculative fiction books by writers of Asian and Pacific Islander heritage. (These writers are not all American.)

The idea is for you to copy this list and put it on your blog, email it to your friends, take it to your local bookstore and ask them to post it or make a display of these books, etc. We also want you to READ SOME OF THESE BOOKS THIS MONTH! They're terrific!

If you do end up reading one or more of these books, or have another API-heritage SF writer to discuss, please consider participating in the Carl Brandon Society's API Heritage Month blog carnival. A carnival is basically a "magazine" of blog posts on a particular topic. You just post something on the topic on your own blog, and then submit your post to the carnival by clicking the link and then clicking on the orange "submit your blog article" button.

Okay, without further ado,

The CARL BRANDON SOCIETY recommends the following books of speculative fiction for
ASIAN AND PACIFIC ISLANDER HERITAGE MONTH:

  • Ted Chiang STORIES OF YOUR LIFE AND OTHERS

A collection of stories from one of American speculative fiction's most precise and beautiful writers.

  • Sesshu Foster ATOMIK AZTEX

An Aztec prince or a Los Angeles meatpacker? The protagonist travels back and forth between two alternative realities, never sure which is real.

  • Hiromi Goto HOPEFUL MONSTERS

Wonderful stories by the author of The Kappa Child.

  • Cathy Park Hong DANCE DANCE REVOLUTION

The story of a Korean uprising told in pidgin poetry.

  • Kazuo Ishiguro NEVER LET ME GO

In a dystopian England, three children discover that they are clones produced to provide organs to the sick.

  • Amirthi Mohanraj (illustrated by Kat Beyer) THE POET'S JOURNEY

A young poet sets out into the wide world on a journey to find poetry; with the help of a few magical creatures, she finds more than she ever expected.

  • Haruki Murakami HARDBOILED WONDERLAND AND THE END OF THE WORLD

Mad experiments with the unleashed potential of the dreaming brain.

  • Vandana Singh OF LOVE AND OTHER MONSTERS

The main character wakes up from a fire and doesn't know who he is, but can sense and manipulate the minds of others. He is not alone in this ability. Singh takes us on a metamind ride.

  • Shaun Tan THE ARRIVAL

A wordless graphic novel about immigration and displacement.

  • Bryan Thao Worra ON THE OTHER SIDE OF THE EYE

Speculative poems that take us from the secret wars of the CIA in Laos to the secret edges of the human soul and the universe.

March 02, 2008

SNL's Fauxbama Blackface Thing

Hyphen, as usual, is where I picked up on the public controversy about a non-black multiracial actor playing Obama on Saturday Night Live. (Video above is the second sketch featuring "Fauxbama" Fred Armisen; Hyphen has the first one.)

I saw the previous clip on the SNL site (can't find it now but it's embedded in the Hyphen post above), led there by a discussion about media bias towards Obama, and noticed immediately that the actor playing Obama was wearing dark makeup for the role. My first reaction was, "Oh, boyyyyy ..."

But then, as the sketch played out, I stopped being concerned about it. Why? Why would I be concerned about it in the first place, and why would I stop being concerned after watching the sketch?

It has to do with the nature of "blackface" (or any dramatic portrayal of people of color by white actors). This requires one of my beloved, bullet-pointed breakdowns. Blackface is problematic for reasons historical, intentional, and representational:

  • Historical: blackface was used in minstrel shows and later in blackface sketches in more mainstream vaudeville to humorously denigrate African Americans. Blackface performances found their humor in depicting the worst stereotypes of African Americans. Blackface became most popular during Reconstruction, when the "threat" of black equality was most strongly juxtaposed with a formerly slave culture, and arose out of that racist fear. But these representations have found expression in every era of American entertainment since long before the Revolutionary War.

The length and persistence of this form of racial denigration means that any performance by a non-black of a black character or figure automatically draws on this history, intentionally or unintentionally, and is to be considered carefully if not fully avoided.

  • Intentional: As mentioned above, the main purpose of blackface is to denigrate blacks using humorous depictions of stereotypes.

The other big problem with blackface, after the outright racial denigration that is its purpose, is that it is the incongruity of the makeup on a white actor that creates the humor. Blackface assumes that the racial phenotype it lampoons (dark skin, big lips, kinky hair) is unattractive and ridiculous, and draws its humor from the overposition of exaggerated or imaginary "black" features on white features. It's clown makeup, with the strong implication that blacks are clowns.

  • Representational: a contemporary issue with blackface is the issue of who gets to play black roles in media. There are few enough roles specifically written for African American characters, and few enough casting directors willing to go for nontraditional casting in ethnic-non-specific roles. On top of this, many of the roles written specifically for African American characters are stereotyped and in themselves denigrating.

So having a plum role for an African American character parceled out to a non-black actor is extremely problematic, when there are so many qualified black actors out there looking for work.

Additionally, the very idea that a white actor gets to occupy a plum black role raises the question of who gets to write, embody, and ultimately determine the form and representation of blacks in the public sphere. Casting a white actor is a pretty clear answer in favor of keeping the right of representation with whites.

So, how does the SNL sketch play with these considerations?

Firstly, the sketch does not have racial denigration as its purpose, and there is no unintentional or side-effect racial denigration (in my opinion) happening here. The purpose of the sketch is to lampoon the media's apparent infatuation with Barack Obama; the actor playing Obama needs to exaggerate Obama's personal tics for humorous effect (as SNL does with every politician it mocks) and to portray a stereotype of Obama's public image.  There is complicated racial coding involved in Obama's public image, but this sketch is fairly straightforward, and does not grapple with them, nor (in my opinion) trip over them.

Secondly, the makeup Armisen uses to portray Obama is fairly subtle and clearly used to let the audience know what figure he's depicting, and not to portray Obama's racial characteristics as unattractive or ridiculous

So far so good. On the minus side, however, is the simple fact of the history of blackface and the way that blackface representation is going to play--no matter what its intentions. Putting a nonblack actor in blackface is so easy to avoid, that producers simply cannot avoid the question, "why didn't you just get a black actor to do it?" SNL doesn't have a slick answer for this.

The real answer, of course, is that currently, SNL has only one black male actor, and he looks nothing like Obama and, more importantly, has an acting style that doesn't match Obama's affect well. But that's not an excuse. SNL currently has six white male actors, two white female actors, and two multiracial actors, Fred Armisen and Maya Rudolph (the latter of whom is the only actor on the cast whose racial background matches Obama's and who apparently will not return to SNL after the strike.)

Why so many white men? Why so few black men and women? Among other things, it limits (obviously) SNL's ability to successfully represent public figures, and this tokenism is a perennial problem at SNL, which has six different faces to match to white male public figures, but must force black characters into the oeuvre of a single actor. This gets to the heart of the representation issue. Lorne Michaels has tried to play that old chestnut: we cast the best actor for the role, regardless of race. And Armisen does do a credible acting job. But that old record won't play. If you have only one black actor, he's certainly not going to be the best actor for every black role. Some other black actor would be.

But all of this is, again, avoiding the fact that Obama is multiracial. Just because America views Obama as black, doesn't mean he entirely is. And he's toned down his self-representation as biracial because he found it didn't play with either white or black. That doesn't mean he isn't still biracial. So who gets to depict a man who is half white? If they had cast Kenan Thompson as Obama, would he have had to do it in whiteface and would that have been alright?

Add to all of this that Fred Armisen, who actually played Obama, is an extremely multiracial man, part white, part Asian (Japanese) and part Latino (Venezuelan). And it seems I do need to remind people that Latinos are pretty multiracial--and African-mixed--as well, and that Venezuela especially, as a nation on the Caribbean coast, has a strong Afro-Caribbean history and population. That doesn't tell us anything about Armisen himself, but it does tell us a great deal about our own simple-minded, reductivist racial viewpoint.

So the representation piece of this little controversy? I'd say SNL needs to check itself, but so do the sketch's racially simplistic critics. And I'd say that SNL does still need to go ahead with its mockery of the current presidential candidates using the tools at hand, and learn from this controversy that maybe it would be a more interesting show with a less monochromatic cast.

February 26, 2008

Voting The Minority

Two interesting opinions up at Salon today.

Edward McClellan says in  "The Dude Vote" that a lot of men aren't copping to the fact that they won't vote for Hillary because she's a woman:

A recent Associated Press-Ipsos poll found that, among men, McCain beats Clinton by 9 points. Against Obama, he only ties. There are also plenty of guys who voted for Barack Obama in the primaries but will switch to John McCain if the lady gets the nomination -- even though they'll have to leap over a huge political divide to get there.

... I never said to myself, "I want a man for president." I said to myself, "I want a leader who can unite the country." Like a lot of guys who are about to furtively nod their heads, I think of leadership as a masculine quality, so Obama and McCain seemed like the strongest candidates. I was also leery of Clinton's association with the culture wars -- I don't want to go through that again -- but she was a polarizing first lady because she was given power over healthcare before the nation was ready to see a woman in that role. (In 1994, I walked into a religious bookstore and saw an anti-Clinton biography titled "Big Sister Is Watching You.") Ultimately, it was impossible to separate my reservations about Clinton from the fact that she's a woman.

I also told myself I wasn't dismissing Clinton because I disliked her. I was dismissing her because other people disliked her. That's a popular objection, apparently. According to a CBS-New York Times poll, 81 percent of Americans say they would vote for a woman president; only 56 percent think other people would. But it's also a convenient dodge. If I voted against Clinton because "too many people hate her," wouldn't I just be validating the haters? They are, after all, largely responsible for making her "divisive."

Gary Kamiya takes a nearly opposite position in "It's OK to vote for Obama because he's black," saying that a lot of whites won't cop to the fact that they're voting for Obama because he's black.

This reaction is understandable. It feels more racially enlightened. To baldly proclaim that you support Obama because he's black seems to diminish his real qualities and achievements -- his stellar academic career, his work in the urban trenches, his liberal voting record, his ability to inspire. Foregrounding Obama's ethnic heritage implies that you're unhealthily obsessed with race, and make artificial decisions based on it. It can be seen as patronizing, as a merely sentimental, pie-in-the-sky gesture.

... Some critics who directly acknowledge the racial nature of Obama's appeal have argued that the wave of white support for Obama bespeaks not a genuine desire to bridge the racial divide but a bad-faith attempt to escape into some post-racial never-never land.

... Obama's charisma, which is his unique political strength, is real, but it cannot be separated from the fact that he's black. When Obama speaks of change and hope and healing divisions, his words carry an electric charge because of who he is: He embodies his own message, the very definition of charisma. As a black man offering reconciliation, he is making a deeply personal connection with whites, not merely a rhetorical one.

Some observations:

  • It's easy to accuse white men of racism or sexism, when white men are rarely motivated so purely by an ism in such a situation. It's less easy to accuse poc of sexism or liberal women of racism, even when there's a healthy dose of those operating.
  • Regarding sexism vs. black/white racism in this election, I'm seeing that the sexism operating in this election is the view that men and women are two different types of technology with completely different capabilities, whereas the racism in this election is more the view that black (men) and white (men) are the same technology but at different states of the art. Men and women would be, respectively, cars and iPhones whereas white men and black men would be, respectively, Porsches and Yugos.

Hillary is an iPhone with wheels. Obama is a pimped out Yugo. The paradigm shift required to take each of these two candidates seriously is completely different.

  • This may be obvious, but people who are sexist, aren't always racist, and people who are racist, aren't always sexist. I'm sure there are plenty of Clinton supporters who truly believe that she's the best candidate, and that many women could be, and also aren't sure that a black man can get the job done under any circumstances.

And it wouldn't surprise me to find that there were voters, men and women, who believe in Obama for a plethora of reasons, but can't quite get their heads around a woman president.

  • The people who have most to lose from a more equitable distribution of power among women and racial minorities don't always put their racism or sexism first. We could safely assume that a lot of racist, sexist Republicans would vote for Elizabeth Dole, or Condoleeza Rice, or Colin Powell, before they'd vote for John Edwards. Likewise, a lot of racist, sexist Democrats, faced with a confusing choice, aren't necessarily subconsciously comparing their prejudices, but rather going with an emotional reaction to charisma, or to familiarity and nostalgia.
  • Obama's popularity among young liberals isn't questioned as possibly being motivated by sexism. Sure, there's been plenty of feminist punditry about how Gen X/Y women have sold out feminism for Obama's charisma because they're not really proper feminists. But I've seen little speculation about whether we might be looking at a generation that, lacking the strong, widespread female fiscal and political leadership second wave feminists were expecting right about now, some of the young 'uns might simply have no model of female leadership to place Hillary into. I.e. they might straight up not believe a woman can be a good president, but, lacking prefeminist language and knowing vaguely that such sentiments are not okay, might lack a language to talk about this.
  • And Hillary's popularity among older women isn't questioned as possibly being motivated by racism. It's cast entirely positively, as in: second wave feminist generation women are voting their feminism. It's never: older white women won't vote for a black president.
  • The recent nonsense about racist Latino or Asian American voters is cast entirely from a mainstream, basically white American perspective. This perspective assumes that Latino and Asian voters see themselves in a racially essentialist way--see themselves as a member of a racial group and articulate themselves as people of color--and view the American political landscape as one in which people of color have common cause.

So let's say this again, people: the majority of Latino and Asian Americans are immigrants. Most of these immigrants are coming from a position of being a racial or ethnic majority in their countries of origin, even if they are of lower class. Most of them have a majority identity in their past. Most of them are struggling toward a position of self-determination and some sort of tolerable integration into their new society, not towards the marginalization of being people of color. Yes, some might vote racism or sexism, but most will have more pressing needs. And which candidate they see meeting these needs will be at least somewhat unpredictable to a native-born American.

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