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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

Academic Version: Applying my personal experiences and academic research as a professor of Sociology and Asian American Studies to provide a more complete understanding of political, economic, and cultural issues and current events related to American race relations, and Asia/Asian America in particular.

Plain English: Trying to put my Ph.D. to good use.

March 23, 2011

Written by C.N.

White Privilege, Colorblindness, & the Model Minority Image: Asians in the Library Video

I presume that by now, you have heard about the furor surrounding UCLA student Alexandra Wallace and her ill-advised video that she posted to YouTube in which she “complains” about Asian Americans talking in the library by mocking them with such offensive phrases such as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and makes light of the natural disasters and human suffering in Japan (the video in its entirety is below).

For various reasons, there quickly followed a big backlash and firestorm against her — UCLA’s Chancellor, Dean G. Block, issued a statement condemning the video (but later and separately adding that she would not be expelled because she did not commit a violation of the school’s code of ethnics):

I am appalled by the thoughtless and hurtful comments of a UCLA student posted on YouTube. Like many of you, I recoil when someone invokes the right of free expression to demean other individuals or groups. . . . I believe that speech that expresses intolerance toward any group of people on the basis of race or gender, or sexual, religious or cultural identity is indefensible and has no place at UCLA.

UCLA’s well-respected Asian American Studies Center summed up the sentiments of many in the academic community very well:

[T]his rant — beyond the action of an individual — is clear evidence that we still have much work to do before we can claim to live in a “post-racial” society. . . . “Asians in the Library” is a travesty on many levels, representing an attack on Asian and Asian American students and their families and undermining UCLA as a global university with deep ties to communities and institutions in Asia and other parts of the world.

It entails a “new racism” by foregrounding students who speak Asian languages and have different family traditions, as it insidiously groups and attacks UCLA’s American-born as well as our international students of Asian ancestry. As the only University of California campus without a diversity requirement, UCLA surely needs to implement a diversity requirement that will expose every student to the task of living civilly with people of different origins, backgrounds, orientations, and beliefs, whether they are born here or come from abroad.

I would like to highlight and expand on some of the points raised in UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center statement. Specifically, I see this video rant as another unfortunate and dangerous example of what happens (and is likely to continue happening) when institutional factors intersect with each other, as they are doing right now: White privilege, colorblindness, Asian Americans seen as the quiet ‘model minority,’ and ‘yellow peril’ fears of the rise of Asian countries.

Lesson 1: White Privilege

Let’s start with White privilege. However difficult it is for many White Americans to hear, examples like this video clearly show that many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Whites implicitly think there’s nothing wrong with invoking cultural stereotypes to portray an entire group of color. I have written about this dynamic many times before, but needless to say, this is certainly not the first time that Whites have tried to “make fun” of Asian Americans or other groups of color on college campuses and elsewhere in society.

© Pascal Campion, Ikon Images/Corbis

In her video, Alexandra Wallace unconsciously invokes White privilege by assuming that she can say whatever she wants about Asian Americans. For the sake of argument, I might accept that she is not aware that such phrases as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and calling them “hordes” are deeply offensive and conjure up historical examples of Asians as faceless, sub-human invaders and villains.

But unfortunately, this “lack of awareness” is at the heart of the problem and in fact, forms the basis for much of the racism that Asians and Asian Americans encounter on an everyday basis. In other words, most non-Asians (most of whom are admittedly White) don’t purposely intend to be racist when make jokes or casual comments about Asians.

But when they do so, based on their ignorance of Asians and Asian Americans, they only reinforce and perpetuate their racial privileges as Whites. That privilege also gives them the ability to not have to worry about saying or doing offensive things about other racial groups.

That is, their racial privilege gives them a larger “comfort zone” to say and do things that they think are funny or harmless but ultimately, minorities find very offensive. Even if most Whites don’t have this consciously or even unconsciously in their minds when it comes to Asians, this climate of racial ignorance is a reality and functions to “protect” and “insulate” Whites — whether or not they’re even aware of it — at the expense of people of color.

Of course, many Whites will respond by basically saying that it was just a joke, Asians should just shrug it off, that it was harmless and that we Asians should just lighten up and not take things so seriously. The problem with that argument is that it ignores the larger historical and cultural context and that there are fundamental institutional power differences inherent in situations in which Whites denigrate minorities.

Each time an incident like that happens, it reinforces the notion of White supremacy — that Whites can say and do whatever they want toward anybody at any time without facing any negative repercussions. Ultimately, suggesting to us that we should just “get over it” only serves as another clear illustration of White privilege — of those with in an institutionally superior position telling those below them what to do and what they should think.

Lesson 2: Colorblindness

A contributing factor that functions to reinforce and perpetuate White privilege is the ideology of colorblindness. Again, I have written about the fallacies and failures of trying to be colorblind in U.S. society many times.

In this case, the institutional backdrop to Alexandra Wallace’s rant is the misguided belief that we now live in a colorblind society in which everyone and every racial group is now politically, economically, and socially equal, and that racial/ethnic discrimination, inequality, and racism no longer exist. Further, being colorblind also means that it’s impolite to discuss race or the U.S.’s history of racial oppression and domination — let’s just forget about them since they’re not important anymore, right?

Suffice it to say, and as this video shows, race and racial differences are clearly still very important today. They are still relevant because inequalities still exist and discrimination still takes place, and because colorblindness still provides a crucial foundation upon which White privilege can exist. In other words, if everybody is the same and on an equal playing field, it’s perfectly fine to joke about them however we want, right?

Lesson 3: The Model Minority Image

Another factor that comes into play is the image of Asian Americans as the model minority: smart and high achieving, but also quiet, passive, and obedient. While it is true that on the aggregate level, Asian Americans as a collective group outperform Whites on many measures of socioeconomic achievement, when we look beneath the surface, we see that there are notable differences between ethnic groups (some Asian immigrant groups are more self-selective in terms of their human capital while others are more likely to be involuntary refugees). Further, generalizing the seemingly positive belief that Asian Americans are successful puts extraordinary pressure on all Asian Americans to live up to those standards.

In this particular case, I will hypothesize that Alexandra Wallace (and many others like her) presume that almost all Asian Americans are smart ans successful but also passive and therefore, won’t care if she complains and mocks them. Also, I cannot rule out some degree of resentment about the success of Asian Americans as well, particularly at a university where 40% of the student population is Asian American.

This resentment leads me to my final lesson . . .

Lesson 4: Yellow Peril and Fears About Rising Asia

At the risk of being redundant, again I have already highlighted numerous examples in which U.S. society and U.S. citizens are increasingly feeling destabilized by demographic changes in the U.S. population, the negative effects of globalization, and increased competition with the rising economies of Asian countries such as China and India.

The latter is often referred to as the new “yellow peril” image of Asians “invading” the U.S. and taking over or destroying its institutions and society. It is an image that frequently gets conjured up in times of economic recession and especially when Americans perceive others to be benefiting and prospering at their expense. With the economic and political emergence of Asian countries such as Japan, China, and India in recent decades and the concurrent decline of U.S. superiority, this yellow peril image has gained new life and indeed, seems to be a growing fear, consciously and unconsciously, for many Americans these days.

When people feel that their standard of living or “way of life” is being threatened, they are likely to get defensive, consciously and unconsciously. In that situation, one way to react is to draw a more rigid cultural boundary between “us” and “them.” In this case, Alexandra Wallace invoked this nativist sentiment clearly when she said, “In America, we don’t talk in the library.” Inside Higher Education has a very well-written analysis of this entire episode and journalist Allie Grasgreen quotes Professor Joe Feagin, former President of the American Sociological Association and well-respect expert on White privilege research, on this emerging distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders”:

For Joe R. Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, Wallace made a blatant statement that Asian students are separate from — and less important than — white students. “A key part of the stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans is their foreignness,” Feagin said. “She makes the point that not only are Asians and Asian-Americans stereotyped and evaluated from the old, white vs. others — you know, racial framing — but they also face this dimension of not being American. That is, foreign vs. American.”

Taken together, all of these factors form the sociological context within which Alexandra Wallace publicly expressed her anti-Asian sentiments. The sad part of this episode is that she is certainly not the first person to engage in racism against Asian Americans and alas, she will not be the last.


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Copyright © 2001- by C.N. Le. Some rights reserved. Creative Commons License

Suggested reference: Le, C.N. . "White Privilege, Colorblindness, & the Model Minority Image: Asians in the Library Video" Asian-Nation: The Landscape of Asian America. <http://www.asian-nation.org/headlines/2011/03/white-privilege-colorblindness-model-minority-image-asians-library-video/> ().

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