The views and opinions expressed on this site and blog posts (excluding comments on blog posts left by others) are entirely my own and do not represent those of any employer or organization with whom I am currently or previously have been associated.
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.
This past Friday, June 3 2016, Muhammad Ali passed away at the age of 74. More than being regarded as the greatest boxers ever, Muhammad Ali is remembered as one of the most significant, famous, and celebrated athletes of all time. His legacy transcends his accomplishments inside the boxing ring and also encompasses his tradition of political activism, outspoken support of disadvantaged and underrepresented groups, and his inspiring life history as a role model, social critic, and social conscience of U.S. society.
As with almost all public figures, Muhammad Ali was also a controversial and polarizing figure in U.S. history. Perhaps the most controversial episode for which he was known was his resistance to being drafted to fight in the Viet Nam War. His immense impact on the Asian American community is perhaps best represented by his famous quote at the time, “I ain’t got no quarrel with the Viet Cong. No Viet Cong ever called me nigger.”
After refusing to be inducted into the U.S. military on April 28, 1967, he was convicted of a felony and all of the major boxing associations stripped him of his title and prevented him from competing professionally for over three years. During this period, he was widely denounced and vilified by much of the U.S. as a traitor to the country, with the hostility magnified even more because he was a Black man.
However, in 1971, the U.S. Supreme Court overturned his felony conviction. Despite the public criticism of his refusal to be drafted, Muhammad Ali never wavered in his refusal to participate in the Viet Nam War and continued to work in support of the Civil Rights Movement and efforts toward social justice around the world. He stood his moral ground and in his own words, “He who is not courageous enough to take risks will accomplish nothing in life.”
Time eventually heals all wounds and in recent decades, Muhammad Ali rightfully became known as of the most towering and revered Americans of the late twentieth century. In addition to the multitude of statements and tweets commemorating his life from athletes, public figures, and others around the world, I would like to share some excerpts from a fellow sociologist, the well-renowned Professor Harry Edwards of U.C. Berkeley (edited for length):
It is only when a GIANT passes from among us and we stand blinking and rubbing our eyes in the glaring reality of our loss that we come truly to appreciate how much we all have really been just living in his shadow. So it is with Muhammad Ali: he was an athlete of unparalleled brilliance, beauty, and bravado at a time when black athletes . . . were expected to be silent, self-effacing “producers,” not loquacious, verbose entertaining performers in the arena. . . .
He influenced people from the most powerful (Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Robert Kennedy, for example) to the most naive students and “draft vulnerable” youths to rethink their positions on the issue of “war and peace.”
He was the model for a generation of “activist athletes” relative to the questions of athlete political relevance and involvement. He taught us all by word and example that there can be no “for sale” sign, no “price tag” on principles, human dignity, and freedom, among so many of his other contributions. . . . “The Greatest” doesn’t begin to truly capture the magnitude and measure of his broad scope, contributions and legacy.
Along with millions of Americans and billions of people around the world, I will remember Muhammad Ali as a truly inspiring, transformative, and monumental person who was a tremendously courageous trailblazer for professional athletes, African Americans, Asian Americans, and the entire human race. Rest in peace, champ.
In my recent post titled, “Jeremy Lin Mania and How it Relates to Colorblindness,” among other things, I noted that Jeremy’s emergence as a media sensation and explosion onto the center stage of mainstream U.S. popular culture does represent a small step toward the eventual ideal of colorblindness. At the same time, I also argued that the reality is that unfortunately, we are still a long way from being a truly colorblind society.
This past week, several public incidents have solidified the sad fact that many Americans still think that we are already in a colorblind society and as such, they can basically say anything they want about Jeremy, including offensive references to him as a Chinese American. Unfortunately there have been several examples of racial insensitivity in the past couple of weeks, but in this post I will focus on two in particular.
First, after the Knicks defeated the Los Angeles Lakers in which Jeremy scored 38 points, FoxSports.com columnist Jason Whitlock tweeted “Some lucky lady in NYC is gonna feel a couple inches of pain tonight.” Whitlock later apologized for the remark, but you can’t unring that bell — clearly he thought it was perfectly acceptable to invoke the emasculating racial stereotype about Asian men having small penises.
But wait, there’s more.
A few days later, after Jeremy committed nine turnovers in a game that the Knicks eventually lost, thereby snapping their 7-game winning streak, the following headline made it onto ESPN’s mobile website (screenshot below): “Chinks in the Armor: Jeremy Lin’s 9 Turnovers Cost Knicks in Streak-Snapping Loss to Hornets.”
The headline was apparently taken down after being public for 35 minutes but again, the damage was done — the editors at ESPN apparently had no idea or did not care that the term “chink” is a blatantly racist term against all Asian Americans but particularly and deeply offensive to Chinese Americans. I might expect people outside the U.S., such as Spain’s national basketball team, not to know that the term “chink” is racist, but it is very disappointing to learn that many Americans still think it’s perfectly fine to use in reference to a Chinese American.
Disappointing, but unfortunately not really surprising.
That is because many Americans already believe, consciously or unconsciously, that we are already a colorblind society. As such, they have been taught, socialized, and desensitized to naively think that all racial groups are equal now, that no racial discrimination ever takes place nowadays, and therefore, it’s fine to casually use terms such as “chink” in everyday conversation.
These particular incidents may not be as blatantly offensive as the racial taunts Jeremy encountered back when he played for Harvard, but they nonetheless illustrate a woeful level of ignorance and lack of sensitivity about Asian Americans, our history, and our community.
Imagine what the public’s reaction would have been if Jason Whitlock was referring to a Black player and his remark invoked the racial stereotype about Black men having large penises. What would the public’s reaction had been if ESPN went public with some headline that referred to a Black player using the ‘N’ word? I think it would be safe to say that the American public would be shocked, outraged, and furious if these hypothetical examples occurred in reference to a Black player.
To Whitlock’s and ESPN’s credit, they both apologized and in ESPN’s case, fired the person responsible for the website headline and suspended one of their sportscasters, Max Bretos, who repeated the “chink in the armor” phrase on air. To be honest, I was pleasantly surprised at how quickly and decisively ESPN acted in regard to these incidents. In the past, more than likely, ESPN would have taken days to issue a half-hearted apology and probably would not have disciplined any of their staff involved. I suppose ESPN’s actions in this matter do represent an encouraging sign of progress.
Fortunately, there are others in the mainstream media who “get it” — those who understand the contradiction and inequality that exist when such racial/ethnic stereotypes are in reference to, say Blacks, versus when they reference Asian Americans. Specifically, leave it the crew at Saturday Night Live to use comedy and satire to deftly illustrate this contradiction:
So I suppose that it does represent progress that when these types of racially ignorant incidents happen, the mainstream media nowadays does recognize it and take disciplinary action (or use satire to point out the absurdity of such ignorance) more quickly than in the past. Now if we can just get to the point where such incidents don’t happen in the first place.
Back in 2010, I wrote about Jeremy Lin, who was leading Harvard University to a league title, a birth in the NCAA postseason tournament, and was poised to become one of the first Asian American players in the National Basketball Association (NBA). Back then, I pointed out how he represents an example of Asian Americans balancing both model minority expectations with an extracurricular passion, and in doing so, is expanding the definition of success for Asian Americans.
Since then, Jeremy went undrafted in the NBA after graduation but has now landed with the New York Knicks and is now exploding onto the basketball scene, as this New York Times article describes:
On Saturday night [Feb. 4, 2012], Lin came off the bench and powered the Knicks to a 99-92 victory over the Nets at Madison Square Garden, scoring a career-best 25 points with 7 assists. Two nights later, he made his first N.B.A. start and produced 28 points and 8 assists in a 99-88 win over the Utah Jazz.
Knicks fans now serenade Lin with chants of “Je-re-my!” and “M.V.P.!” while the franchise uses his likeness to sell tickets and teammates and coaches gush with praise. . . . Lin is raising expectations, altering the Knicks’ fate and redefining the word “unlikely.” On Twitter, fans and basketball pundits are using another term to describe the phenomenon: “Linsanity.”
[H]e became the first player in more than 30 years to record at least 28 points and 8 assists in his first N.B.A. start. . . . When the Knicks claimed Lin off waivers Dec. 27, he was fourth on the depth chart at point guard. Now he is No. 1, continuing a long pattern of low expectations and surprising results.
As another example of the accelerating Jeremy Lin bandwagon, ABC News just named Jeremy its “Person of the Week” and profiled him in the following news segment video:
Needless to say, Jeremy’s explosion into the U.S. cultural mainstream has inspired many Americans, and particularly Asian Americans. Beyond the mainstream media’s ever-increasing proclamations of him as “Linsanity,” “Lincredible,” “Going All Lin,” “Lin Your Face,” or “May the Best Man Lin,” Jeremy has also been described as Asian Americans’ version of Tim Tebow, both for embracing his Christian faith and for the media sensation and “Linspiration” that he has become for so many Asian Americans. For the record, Jeremy is the first monoracial (that is, both his parents are Asian) Asian American (either born or raised in the U.S.) to play in the NBA, and one of the few monoracial Asian Americans to play professional team sports in the U.S. at all.
In so many ways, Jeremy represents a big step forward for Asian Americans and U.S. society in general in terms of racial inclusion and being considered part of mainstream U.S. culture. Jeremy’s success actually follows a similar breakthrough moment for Asian Americans last year, as the hip-hop group Far East Movement became the first all-Asian American musical group to hit number one on the music charts with their single “Like a G6.” As another example of the “mainstreaming” of Asian Americans, the creators of MTV’s “Jersey Shore” are apparently in the process of creating a version that features an all-Asian American cast, to be called “K-Town.”
From a sociological point of view, the cultural emergence of Jeremy Lin, Far East Movement, and K-Town demonstrate that Asian Americans are indeed increasingly part of the U.S. mainstream. Up to this point, because of the relative scarcity of Asian Americans in the mainstream media and popular culture, it was usually a shock when we did see an Asian American on TV, in the movies, or on the music charts.
But as Asian Americans becoming increasingly common in these areas of U.S. popular culture, are we headed for a day when it is no longer a “big deal” when we see Asian American faces in the media, just like it’s taken for granted when we see White faces or Black faces? Ultimately, yes, that is the goal — for us as a society to no longer consider it “strange” or “unusual” to see Asian Americans in the media or in other prominent positions in U.S. social institutions.
If this idea sounds familiar, you might know it by its more common name — colorblindness.
In other words, part of being colorblind is what I just described — an ideal situation in which everyone in U.S. society is considered equal and when social, political, and economic distinctions based on race or ethnicity are no longer important or carry any sort of advantage or disadvantage. So in many respects, Jeremy Lin’s success gives us hope that, as a society, we are moving a little closer to the ideals of colorblindness.
Therefore, much like the idea of Asian Americans as the “model minority,” I think we should definitely embrace and celebrate the emergence of Jeremy Lin, Far East Movement, and other examples in which Asian Americans are recognized for their success. Their accomplishments reflect how it is not a contradiction to recognize both their racial/ethnic uniqueness and their position as an integral part of mainstream society.
At the same time, we should also keep in mind that while we are getting closer to the ultimate ideal of colorblindness, there is still a lot of work to be done. Along with that, in order to keep working toward a time when true equality exists across all racial/ethnic groups, we need to understand that racial/ethnic distinctions still exist and still matter, and that the success of one person or a few people within that racial/ethnic minority group does not yet mean that members of that group no longer experience any injustice or discrimination.
In the meantime, despite my roots as a Los Angeles Lakers fan, I will definitely be rooting for Jeremy to keep lighting up the scoreboard and the “Lin-magination” of all Americans and beyond.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. A book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its complete contents.
This time around, I highlight several recently-released books that focus on different elements and examples of Asian American popular culture:
Racial Stigma on the Hollywood Screen from World War II to the Present charts how the dominant white and black binary of American racial discourse influences Hollywood’s representation of the Asian. The Orientalist buddy film draws a scenario in which two buddies, one white and one black, transcend an initial hatred for one another by joining forces against a foreign Asian menace. Alongside an analysis of multiple genres of film, Brian Locke argues that this triangulated rendering of race ameliorates the longstanding historical contradiction between U.S. democratic ideals and white America’s persistent domination over blacks.
Bollywood Weddings examines how middle to upper class second-generation Indian-American Hindus negotiate wedding rituals, including the dating and engagement processes. Many of these couples are (in Ramdya’s neologism) “occasional Hindus” who display their Hindu religious background only on important occasions such as the rite of passage that is marriage.
These couples (and their extended families) negotiate two vastly different cultures and sets of values inside a community that has itself largely predetermined how to mix American and Indian/Hindu elements into this ritual. As a rule, the first generation organizes the wedding, which is largely Hindu, and their children coordinate the American-style reception. Instead of choosing either India or America, or arriving at a compromise in between the two, this community takes a “both/and” approach, embracing both cultures simultaneously.
For more than a century, sporting spectacles, media coverage, and popular audiences have staged athletics in black and white. Commercial, media, and academic accounts have routinely erased, excluded, ignored, and otherwise made absent the Asian American presence in sport. Asian Americans in Sport and Society seeks to redress this pattern of neglect. This volume presents a comprehensive perspective on the history and significance of Asian American athletes, coaches, and teams in North America.
The contributors interrogate the sociocultural contexts in which Asian Americans lived and played, detailing the articulations of power and possibility, difference and identity, representation and remembrance that have shaped the means and meanings of Asian Americans playing sport in North America. This volume will be of interest to students and scholars of the Asian American experience, ethnic relations, and the history of sport.
For South Asians, food regularly plays a role in how issues of race, class, gender, ethnicity, and national identity are imagined as well as how notions of belonging are affirmed or resisted. “Culinary Fictions” provides food for thought as it considers the metaphors literature, film, and TV shows use to describe Indians abroad. When an immigrant mother in Jhumpa Lahiri’s “The Namesake”, combines Rice Krispies, Planters peanuts, onions, salt, lemon juice, and green chili peppers to create a dish similar to one found on Calcutta sidewalks, it not only evokes the character’s Americanization, but also her nostalgia for India.
Food, Anita Mannur writes, is a central part of the cultural imagination of diasporic populations, and “Culinary Fictions” maps how it figures in various expressive forms. Mannur examines the cultural production from the Anglo-American reaches of the South Asian diaspora. Using texts from novels – Chitra Divakaruni’s “Mistress of Spices”, and Shani Mootoo’s “Cereus Blooms at Night” – to cookbooks such as Madhur Jaffrey’s “Invitation to Indian Cooking” and Padma Lakshmi’s “Easy Exotic”, she illustrates how national identities are consolidated in culinary terms.
As the 2008-2009 season of the National Basketball Association (NBA) prepares to start later this week, NBA fans should already know that when Yao Ming began playing in 2002, he opened up professional basketball to aspiring Chinese back in China, and to Chinese Americans as a potential fan and marketing segment for his team, the Houston Rockets, and the NBA in general.
Following in his footsteps is Yi Jianlian, the second high-profile NBA player to come from China. After playing his rookie season last year for the Milwaukee Bucks, Yi was traded and is now set to play for the New Jersey Nets.
The Nets happen to be located in the New York City metropolitan area, home to an estimated 650,000 Chinese Americans. As the NY Times reports, these numbers and the potential revenue from the Chinese American fan base in squarely in the minds of the Nets organization:
Yi’s name recognition runs high, and people in Chinatown said they would go watch him, if time and funds allow it, but would not necessarily go out of their way to cross the Hudson River. . . .
The Nets are hopeful that Yi connects with the nearly 650,000 Chinese-Americans in the New York area and beyond, reeling in a coveted new fan base. And like Yao, the Houston Rockets center, Yi carries global appeal in hailing from the world’s most populous nation. . . .
“He has to build a relationship with the community,” said Sunny Moy, president of the Asian American Youth Center. “Right now, everybody is more into Yao because Yi is still nearly a rookie. Yi is a good player, I’ve seen him play, but he has to donate tickets, connect with the kids in order to have an effect.” . . .
The Nets are offering a four-game package aimed at the Chinese-American community for games against the Rockets, the Golden State Warriors, the Los Angeles Lakers and the Cleveland Cavaliers. The Rockets and the Lakers feature the league’s two other Chinese players in Yao and the rookie Sun Yue.
The Nets hired a multicultural marketing agency and are planning game-night promotions that include a night serving as Yi’s interpreter and a celebration of the Chinese New Year.
As I’ve said before, whether Americans like/want it or not, the world is getting smaller and the many manifestations of globalization will only continue to become more prominent in American society. In this case, it comes in the form of the Nets trying to market Yi to the Chinese Americans in the NYC metro area and the 1.3 billion Chinese back in China.
It’s also nice to see Asian athletes continue to become more popular in professional sports. At the same time, as I’ve also said in the past, it would also be nice if Asian American (as opposed to international Asian) athletes get to enjoy the same kind of popularity.
Fortunately, with the recent rise and fame of athletes like professional golfer Anthony Kim, to name the most recent example, we (hopefully) seem to be moving slowly in that direction.
Now that the Olympics have concluded, I just wanted to add my sincere congratulations to some of the Asian American athletes and coaches who achieved success in the games. They include:
Brian Clay: Gold medal in the decathlon. He is half African American and half Japanese American and was raised in Hawai’i
Jenny Lang Ping: coach of the U.S. women’s indoor volleyball team who won the silver medal
Liang Chow: coach of Shawn Johnson (women’s gymnastics), who won the gold medal in the balance beam and silver in the individual all-around, team competition, and floor exercise
Raj Bhavsar and Kai Wen (Kevin) Tan: male gymnasts who helped the U.S. team win the bronze medal in the team competition
There were other Asian American athletes who competed but did not medal and I also wanted to send my congratulations and thanks to them as well for representing their country and for competing at the highest level of their sports. In addition to the Olympics, other Asian American athletes also made the news recently:
As many of you already know, one area in which Asian Americans have slowly been achieving success and popularity is professional sports. Although many athletes from Asia such as Ichiro and Yao Ming have become superstars, only a few Asian American athletes have climbed to the top of their sports. For members of Generation X like me, one of the earlier such star Asian American athletes was professional tennis player Michael Chang.
Michael Chang turned pro while still a teenager and most famously, in 1989 dramatically beat the heavily-favored and #1 ranked men’s player Ivan Lendl to become champion of the French Open. In the fourth set of that match, Chang experienced severe leg cramps that would have led most players to quit. But Chang doggedly persevered and used unorthodox tactics such as hitting “moon balls” and underhand serves to disrupt Lendl’s timing, finally winning the match in five sets.
Chang was never as flashy or a media superstar like his modern Asian/Asian American contemporaries such as Ichiro, Yao Ming, or Michelle Wie, let alone like his main tennis rival at the time, Andre Agassi. Instead, through his athletic talent, numerous charity work for the sport and the Asian American community, and his quiet but confident demeanor off the court, Chang focused on “walking the walk,” rather than just “talking the talk.” In other words, his actions spoke for themselves.
But for me personally, Michael Chang’s significance goes far beyond that. At a time when Asian Americans were still firmly associated with being computer nerds (the “Long Duk Dong” stereotype), Michael Chang quietly but firmly showed American society that we could be equally accomplished in other professionals and pursuits as well. He was a role model to many young Asian American males like myself, who finally saw a successful professional athlete who looked like us.
I will also associate Michael Chang with one particular moment in my life — the moment in which I changed from being a quiet and passive young American just looking to fit in, into a proud and angry young Asian American who finally became tired of being the target of racism and was now going to stand up and resist.
That moment came in the early 1990s as I was nearing the end of my college career. I was just beginning to become “re-ethnicized” after switching my major from pre-med to political science with a minor in sociology. After taking my first sociology course in race and ethnicity, I was finally learning the true history and nature of American race relations and the inequalities and injustices that groups of color such as Asian American had and continue to face.
At that time, I also became more aware of prejudice and discrimination perpetrated against Asian Americans like myself and many of my White friends were taken aback by my new “militant” and “angry” attitude. This situation finally came to a head one day as my roommates and friends and I were sitting around our apartment watching TV.
A commercial came on that featured Michael Chang endorsing the Discover credit card, if I recall correctly. At the end of the commercial, one of my roommates, a White male named Owen, just casually remarked, “So the nip has sold out, I guess,” a derogatory reference to Michael Chang.
Upon hearing that comment, something in me snapped. I immediately became enraged and yelled back, “F*** you, Owen! Is that what you think of me? Am I just a f***ing nip to you?!?”
Owen sheepishly apologized by saying, “Oh sorry, C.N.” Clearly, he considered me to be invisible, literally and figuratively. The room immediately became silent and the other four or so people in the room (all of them White) all lowered their heads, hoping that things would calm down. But I was still furious and was ready to escalate the situation by physically confronting Owen.
In the end, I decided to leave the apartment and go for a walk to clear my head and calm my anger. As I was walking around the apartment complex, I vowed that I was never going to sit by and quietly take that kind of prejudice — that kind of racism ever again. When I returned to the apartment about 30 minutes later, everyone had left and from that point on, my relationship with them changed forever — for the better.
While there were many significant moments in my personal and intellectual development during that time, that was definitely the turning point in my personal identity as a Vietnamese American, an Asian American, and a person of color.
Thank you Michael, for your quiet but firm dignity and determination to define yourself, rather than letting others do it for you, and for serving as a pioneer and a role model for all Asian Americans.