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.
Although there are differences in hairstyle and dress, at least when it comes to the contestants’ faces, I have to say that I agree with the page’s consensus that all the women look virtually the same.
Physical Homogeneity and the Yellow Peril
As such, this brings up a few different implications. The first, as mentioned in several of the Reddit comments, is that it seems to reinforce the unfortunate stereotype that all Asians look the same. On the one hand, there tends to be a certain degree of visual conformity and homogeneity in beauty pageants in general, but as many Asian Americans can attest to, this particularly stereotype about all Asians looking the same unfortunately feeds into the image of us as the Yellow Peril — the depiction of Asians as a faceless and almost sub-human mass bent on attacking, taking over, and/or destroying U.S. society, its economy, and culture.
This imagery of Asians as the Yellow Peril can be seen in the graphic below from the 1800s, which is actually a magazine advertisement for soap (that’s what Uncle Same is holding in his left hand). The image’s main focus however, is on him kicking out the Chinese out of the country toward the squinty-eyed sun in the horizon. Just as important is the imagery of physically indistinguishable Chinese scurrying into the background, the Yellow Peril vanquished by American might and superiority. As described elsewhere on this blog, this stereotype that all Asians are the same has also led to many tragic instances of blatant bigotry, discrimination such as racial profiling, and even violence.
Conformity to Western Beauty Standards
Secondly, the image of the Miss Korea 2013 contestants brings up the question of whether Asians and Asian Americans are implicitly or explicitly conforming to dominant western standards of physical beauty. Within the Asian American community, this question has taken the form of the debate about the cultural implications of Asian Americans getting cosmetic surgery and in particular, whether procedures such as double-eyelid surgery, breast augmentation, and using products to whiten one’s skin represent conforming to western standards of beauty. This question is highlighted in a segment from ABC’s NightLine from a couple of years age:
Of course, there are passionate opinions on both sides of this debate about these particular cosmetic procedures represent conforming to western standards of beauty, but more generally, I would venture to say that most people, Asian American and otherwise, would agree that westerns ideals of beauty are still a dominant force in the media and fashion industries in industrialized nations around the world and do indeed exert an influence on how young Asian American women judge themselves and their physical appearance.
The downside to such pressures can often be disastrous for Asian American women and take such forms as eating disorders, depression, and when combined with other pressures to conform to the model minority image, even suicide.
The Ironies of Multiculturalism
The irony in all of this is that, in the context of globalization, multiculturalism, and increased racial/ethnic diversity in U.S. society, our society has generally been more open and likely to recognize and celebrate more diverse forms of cultural representation. But one area in which this does not seem to be the case is standards of physical beauty where western and White images and idealizations still predominate. Even in the ABC NightLine video segment above, while the overall trend is toward greater inclusion of Asian and Asian American models in the fashion industry, the reality of their portrayals have included an underlying profit motive to tap into the burgeoning Asian consumer market and (inadvertently?) homogenizing the models.
Going back to the contestants of the Miss Korea 2013 pageant, like most people, I would certainly concur that the young women are all attractive just based on their physical appearance. Nonetheless, I hope that Korean and western societies in general will eventually acknowledge and appreciate that beauty can take many diverse forms and can wear more than just one face.
I am very pleased to report that this post is the 1,000th post published on the Asian-Nation blog. Thank you for helping to keep Asian-Nation going strong since 2001 and here’s to the next 1,000 posts and beyond!
A couple of weeks ago, I made my first ever visit to China and I wanted to share some sociological observations with you about what I saw and experienced while I was there. My trip was under the auspices of my university’s International Programs Office (IPO) that’s in charge of all the study abroad programs on campus. From time to time, the IPO visits various study abroad sites around the world to make sure that they are high-quality programs for our students. Normally, the different staff at the IPO conducts these visits, but this time around, they asked me if I wanted to go to Beijing to check out the Council on International Educational Exchange’s (CIEE) programs in Beijing. It was an offer I could not pass up, so I jumped at the opportunity.
Specifically, the CIEE programs that I visited were based at Minzu University and Peking University. As the CIEE staff described to me, Minzu University was established in 1951 to basically assimilate members of China’s 56 ethnic minority groups (such as Tibetans, Uyghurs, Zhuang, Manchus, Hui, Miao, Yi, Mongols, etc.) into the majority Han culture. However, through the years, its focus and curriculum have evolved to become more tolerant and now promotes the retention of many aspects of culture and tradition among such ethnic minorities. Peking University is frequently called the “Harvard of China” and is considered to be the crown jewel of China’s university system. In its 2011-2012 ranking of universities around the world, the Times Higher Education listed Peking University as number 49 overall and as the top university in China.
Although I do not have anything to which I can compare these study abroad programs since this was my first such site visit, overall I found the CIEE programs at both universities to be comprehensive and impressive. There was a wide variety of academic and field opportunities for U.S. students at both schools to learn about Chinese language and culture inside and outside of the classroom. I found the staff there to be very friendly, professional, well-skilled, and enthusiastic about their programs. I also talked to a number of U.S. students currently studying abroad in these two CIEE programs and they all raved about the positive experiences they’ve had there. From what I saw during my site visit, I would certainly recommend these programs to my students.
While I was in China and in my conversations with the CIEE staff and with both Chinese and U.S. students, a recurring theme was that China seems to be at a crossroads in its history and that there are two important issues within which China is struggling to find its balance in terms of where it wants to position itself politically, economically, and culturally within the global community. Each of these issues that I’ll discuss in more detail below represent a paradox or set of interesting contradictions that are playing themselves out within modern Chinese society.
I am certainly not the first observer, analyst, or scholar to discuss these issues, nor can I claim to have comprehensive expertise on such issues. Nonetheless, I would like to share my observations as a sociologist who wants to apply my academic interest in how Asians (and China specifically) fit into the contemporary global community in the 21st century and how Asian Americans fit into these international dynamics as well.
The first paradoxical issue concerns the growing sense of nationalism in China. This nationalism was most recently manifested in angry and sometimes violent protests against Japan over some small islands that lie between China (Diaoyu in Chinese) and Japan (Senkaku in Japanese) and are claimed by both countries. More generally, nationalism directed against foreigners has been evident in China for a while and from time to time, flares up and can turn ugly.
In my conversations with different people in China, they mentioned that a famous Chinese philosopher named Lu Xun observed about a hundred years ago that China frequently see themselves as either superior or inferior in relation to foreign powers, but never equal to them — it’s either a feeling of superiority or inferiority. With this in mind, nationalist feelings of superiority or inferiority need points of comparison. In modern times, China has two main international points of comparison — in Asia, it’s Japan and in the western world, it’s the U.S.
My contacts also observed that in most cases, the average Chinese citizen will rarely express such nationalist feelings directly to a foreigner, there was one instance in which this nationalism was directly visible to me and other site visitors in this trip. Specifically, a group of us (all from the U.S. involved in the CIEE site visit) was walking through Peking University when a Chinese male in his mid-40s came up to us and started speaking Chinese to us. Unfortunately none of us spoke Chinese, but even after we said that to him in English, he still kept speaking. We then pulled a Chinese American study abroad student (let’s call him ‘Keith’) who was accompanying us while we were at Peking University into the conversation. The Chinese man then turned his attention to Keith and as Keith relayed to us later, went into a tirade against the presence of foreigners in China. Although this man was not shouting, he was obviously very assertive in expressing himself. Considering the recent protests against Japan, this was probably a relatively mild form of nationalism that we experienced.
The contradiction here is that China very much wants to attain a position of respect and status within the international community and wants to continue attracting international investment and promoting global trade. In other words, it needs to engage with the international community. But on the other hand, a large part of the national discourse within China emphasizes China’s superiority over foreign powers and in fact, advocates limiting or even eliminating the presence of foreigners inside China.
An interesting component to this emerging nationalism in China is that much of it was initiated and encouraged by the Chinese government, at least in the beginning. As other analysts have pointed out, when it comes to particular issues such as the disputes with Japan, Chinese government officials have tried to maintain a sense of diplomacy in public while behind the scenes, frequently allowed or even facilitated nationalist rhetoric and citizen protests to serve their political interests. The problem however, is that the Chinese government may be losing control over this nationalist monster that they’ve created. As one of my contacts noted, when you keep feeding the citizens ‘wolves’ milk,’ eventually they’ll grow up to be wolves.
I have written about this kind of “cultural schizophrenia” in China before. On the institutional and national level, this sense of fluctuating between two extremes while trying to find your identity is actually similar to what many Asian Americans face on the individual level as they try to balance the ‘Asian’ and ‘American’ sides of their identity. In China’s case, as it tries to solidify its position in the international community, it’s likely that such internal struggles will continue to take place and it remains to be seen how the emerging contradictions between the government’s ‘Dr. Jekyll’ and the nationalists’ ‘Mr. Hyde’ will play themselves out.
Where Do Chinese Americans Fit Into China?
The second sociological dynamic that I observed while in China relates to where Chinese Americans fit into modern Chinese society. Like a number of other Asian American scholars, I have a growing interest in looking at how Asian Americans fit into Asian societies and how they use both their Asian and American identities to potentially bridge the political and cultural gaps between the U.S. and Asian countries. As such, I was very interested in hearing from Chinese American students and their experiences studying abroad in China.
In addition to ‘Keith’ (mentioned above), I also spoke at length to another Chinese American student; let’s call her ‘Kathy.’ They both described similar experiences of feeling caught in a “cultural limbo” while in China. That is, on the one hand, their physical appearance is Asian and more specifically, Chinese. But on the other hand, their nationality is American. This frequently means that upon first contact, most Chinese nationals assume that they are Chinese. But once they start talking, they are quickly seen as American, even though they speak Chinese pretty well.
Both Keith and Kathy noted to me that once this happens, more often than not, Chinese nationals lose interest in speaking to them. I asked them why and they said that Chinese tend to be more interested in talking to ‘regular’ Americans — i.e., White Americans. In other words, even within China, while they are treated generally as Americans (rather than as Chinese), Chinese Americans are generally not seen as representing the ‘normal’ image or perception of what Chinese think of as ‘American’ — i.e. they are not White.
Nonetheless, Kathy and Keith told me that once they got used to this cultural dynamic, they were eventually able to create and embrace their own “Chinese American” identity that is neither completely Chinese nor completely American, but a fluid combination of both. Upon doing this, they said that they felt more comfortable using this identity to begin bridging the cultural gaps between China and the U.S. in small ways during their stay in China.
This process of creating an ‘Asian American’ identity that combines and bridges two sets of cultures is what Americans of Asian ancestry have been doing for centuries. It is with this understanding in mind that I think Asian Americans are positioned to take make tangible contributions toward applying their globalized and transnational characteristics and experiences to bridging the political and cultural gaps between the U.S. and Asian countries. In fact, scholars are beginning to examine and describe examples of Asian Americans in different social settings acting as ‘cultural ambassadors‘ in Asian societies.
Therefore, if countries such as China continue to pursue a position of respect within the wider international community while still retaining elements of their national identity, they can learn from Chinese Americans who have have years of experience and expertise in doing exactly that — integrating themselves into mainstream U.S. society while keeping elements their Chinese culture intact. This is not to say that it has been a seamless or smooth process and in fact, Chinese- and Asian Americans have been and continue to face suspicions and challenges regarding their ‘real’ identity.
Nonetheless, institutional changes taking place, such as the ongoing effects of globalization, greater transnationalism, and increased multiculturalism, have transformed the racial, ethnic, and cultural landscape of both U.S. society and the world in general. Within this new social environment, there are new opportunities for minority groups such as Asian Americans to assert an identity that legitimately incorporates elements of, and for the benefit of, different societies and cultures.
There is an old Chinese saying that goes, “May you live in interesting times.” From a sociological point of view, this is indeed a very interesting time for China and there are a number of interesting ways that Chinese Americans (and Asian Americans as a whole) can participate in forging a more inclusive path forward into the 21st century.
As many of you already know, on August 5, 2012, a gunman opened fire on a worshippers at the Sikh Gurdwara temple in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, killing six and wounding three others before killing himself. The shooter has been identified as Wade Michael Page, an Army veteran and a self-avowed White supremacist.
Clearly, words fail to convey the nature of sadness, loss, and tragedy of this event. My thoughts and heartfelt condolences go out to the families of those killed and wounded, to the Sikh American community in the area, and to all of us as human beings that have to live with the specters of hate and violence all around us.
Many, particularly our political leaders, have called this incident “senseless,” implying that it was an irrational and mindless act of a clearly deranged and mentally ill individual. Unfortunately, this sentiment fails to acknowledge that rather than being an isolated incident, these killings have a cause and origins beyond just the state of mind of the person who pulled the trigger.
In other words, there is an entire sociological context to why the killer did this and multi-level factors that, without a doubt, influenced the killer’s thinking and pushed him to go on his murderous rampage.
War on Terrorism an its Collateral Victims
We can start with the legacy of 9/11 and how the subsequent “war on terrorism” has left thousands, perhaps even millions, of innocent bystanders in its destructive wake. Specifically, I am talking about groups such as Muslim Americans, Indian Americans, and particularly Sikh Americans who have been and continue to be perceived as terrorists. In the case of Sikh Americans, much of this unfortunate association is tied to the turban that the men are required by their religious faith to wear. In other words, in the mind of racists, they’re just another “towelhead” and therefore, a terrorist.
Unfortunately, this is not the first time that Sikh Americans have been murdered as a direct result of 9/11 hysteria — four days after the events of September 11, 2001 and as illustrated in the excellent documentary “A Dream in Doubt,” Balbir Singh Sodhi was similarly gunned down by a person who perceived him to be a Muslim and therefore, a terrorist. On top of that, political “leaders” such as Peter King, Michelle Bachmann, and Joe Walsh continue to use their public positions to fan the flames of suspicion and hostility against all Muslim Americans, all of which lends more credibility to equating Muslim with terrorism.
Combined with the recent killings at Oak Creek WI, these incidents of racial and religious hate against anyone perceived to be Muslim are not isolated. Instead, they are part of a clear pattern of mistaken identity, irrational guilt by visual association, and jingoistic hysteria that unfortunately is still alive and well almost 11 years after 9/11.
Anti-Immigrant Nativism and Xenophobia
Related to this is the nativist and xenophobic climate that has also strengthened since 9/11. Much of this anti-immigrant sentiment is seemingly directed at undocumented immigrants but unfortunately, since hate and intolerance cut a wide path, has also been directed at legal immigrants and racial/ethnic groups that have a large immigrant contingent such as Latinos and Asian Americans.
The foundation of this nativist and xenophobic climate is the belief that immigrants (legal and otherwise) are not “real,” “legitimate,” or “official” Americans. In turn, much of this belief about who is a “real” American is based on the “traditional” image of those who are perceived as “real” Americans — White, Protestant, and born in the U.S. Those who lack one of more of these traits are seen by many who do as being inferior to them and therefore, less deserving of the identity of “American.”
As I tell my students, one of the most time-tested and historically consistent patterns in U.S. society is that whenever there is economic competition, almost always, it will lead to racial/ethnic hostility. This pattern has played itself out over and over again, and has involved basically every group of color throughout American history. Unfortunately, it is also rearing its ugly head once again today as the current recession has led to heightened competition for increasingly scarce economic resources between Whites (who have been used to enjoying a relatively stable standard of living but are now fighting just to stay in the middle class) and groups of color and immigrants (who many Whites perceive to benefiting at their expense).
Unfortunately, the conditions for heightened economic competition seem to be the “new normal” as the gulf between the rich (i.e., the top 1%) and everyone else (i.e., the 99%) widens, as powerful financial corporations continue to exploit their political influence and gain unfair advantages in their quest to maximize profit, and as ordinary Americans fight even more among ourselves for an ever-decreasing piece of the pie. With all of this in mind, the bottom line then becomes more clear — when people feel threatened, they become defensive at guarding whatever they have left and hostile towards those who they feel are try to take what is “rightfully” theirs.
This lashing out is part of a larger “White backlash” movement that I have described before. Faced with changing demographics and how the U.S. population is gradually but surely becoming less White, the emergence of people of color, the continuing consequences of globalization and decline of U.S. superiority around the world, and the normalization of economic instability, it is not hard to see why many Whites have become quite angry that their position at the top of the American racial hierarchy is being politically, economically, and culturally threatened.
At the moment, many White Americans are feeling very threatened and upset by the changes taking place around them — their economic stability and standard of living are on the decline and, unable to see the institutional forces that have created this situation, their immediate reaction is anger and to lash out at “those other people” — minorities and immigrants.
This individual and collective anger has emboldened many Whites to publicly, forcefully, and passionately lash out at people of color and immigrants, with examples across the spectrum of violence. The institutional shifts and societal changes that influence these examples of backlash are not going away any time soon, and unfortunately, neither do I expect such examples of White backlash to decline any time soon.
And Yet, There is Still Hope
In the midst of all this, there is still the bright glimmer of humanity — the power of shared suffering to bring us together and for friends and strangers to unite and help each other out. No doubt you have seen examples of this in the aftermath of natural disasters as our fellow Americans donate what little discretionary funds we have to help those who have lost everything, and for friends, neighbors, and total strangers to help rebuild the devastated communities.
The same thing can happen in the wake of acts of violence like this. As the NBC News clip below shows, the memorial service to honor the six Sikhs killed was attended by about a thousand people, with Sikhs and non-Sikhs united in grief, sympathy, and hope.
Ideally, no, it should not take mass murders and hate crimes like this for us as Americans to wake up, recognize how our social environment and many of our national leaders are fanning the flames of hostility and hate, and to unite as human beings to change things are the better. But it seems that sometimes it takes a spark to light a fire, something Asian Americans have known for a while now.
Maybe this is that spark and hopefully, there will be a silver lining to this tragedy.
For those who missed it, the Pew Research Center recently released a report titled, “The Rise of Asian Americans” that, among other things, attempted to provide a demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural summary of the Asian American population, using a combination of Census data and the Pew’s own telephone survey of over 3,500 Asian American respondents. Some of the report’s notable findings are:
In terms of total population, there are over 18 million Asian Americans as of 2011 and they represent 5.8% of the total U.S. population.
Asian Americans are the fastest-growing racial/ethnic group in the U.S. in terms of percentage growth. This is also reflected in the most recently-available data from 2010 that shows that 430,000 Asians (legal and undocumented) immigrated to the U.S., compared with 370,000 Latinos.
Confirming current patterns, Asian Americans also have the highest proportion of adults 25 years or older who have a college degree and have the highest median household income.
The Pew report also spends much of its time discussing the “cultural” characteristics of Asian Americans and unfortunately, it is at this point where things start to hit the fan. As the New York Times summarizes:
In the survey, Asians are also distinguished by their emphasis on traditional family mores. About 54 percent of the respondents, compared with 34 percent of all adults in the country, said having a successful marriage was one of the most important goals in life; another was being a good parent, according to 67 percent of Asian adults, compared with about half of all adults in the general population.
Asians also place greater importance on career and material success, the study reported, values reflected in child-rearing styles. About 62 percent of Asians in the United States believe that most American parents do not put enough pressure on their children to do well in school.
Soon after its release, numerous Asian American scholars, community organizations, and academic associations began roundly criticizing the report. For example, the Japanese American Citizens League stated, “While our community reflects diversity, this research does not; instead, it sweeps Asian Americans into one broad group and paints our community as exceptionally successful without any challenges. This study perpetuates false stereotypes and the model minority.”
Another nationally-recognized Asian American group, the Organization of Chinese Americans, wrote:
“What is particularly disturbing is that these types of broad generalizations can have serious implications in public policy, civil rights, as well as perpetuation of bias, discrimination, and racial tension between communities of color. Even though the study fills a void for more statistics and information on the APA community, the framing of the contextual data in the report is troublesome. . . . The assertions that our community enjoys an exaggerated level of privilege are simply and unfortunately not the case.
Other statements of criticism and even condemnation of the Pew report came from organizations such as the Association for Asian American Studies, the Asian American Pacific Islander Policy and Research Consortium, the Asian & Pacific Islander American Scholarship Fund, the National Commission on Asian American and Pacific Islander Research in Education, Leadership Education for Asian Pacifics, and numerous Asian American Studies departments and programs around the country, to name just a few.
Perhaps the best critique came from Professor Karthick Ramakrishnan, Associate Professor of Political Science at the University of California Riverside, and ironically, a member of the Pew’s faculty advisory board on Asian American issues:
Unfortunately, [the report] prioritized questions asked of Asian Americans — regarding their parenting styles and their own stereotypes about Americans — that seemed more concerned with Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother than with the priorities of Asian Americans themselves, either as revealed in past surveys or as articulated by organizations serving those communities. . . .
More concerning than the Pew report, however, was the sensationalist headline on the press release that introduced the study to news media: Asians Overtake Hispanics in New Immigrant Arrivals; Surpass US Public in Valuing Marriage, Parenthood, Hard Work. These few words carried sway in hundreds of newspaper articles in the first two days of the report’s release, provoking outrage among broad swaths of the Asian American community, including many researchers, elected officials, and community organizations. . . .
As one of 15 advisors to the project, I felt blindsided by the press release. Words failed me as I read it for the first time, as we had not gotten a chance to review it. The dominant narrative in the release reinforced the frame of Asians as a model minority, stereotypes that the advisors had strongly objected to in the only meeting of the group two months ago.
Generally, the Pew Research Institute produces useful, informative, and reliable data and reports. However, as Prof. Ramakrishnan points out in the full text of his critique, this is not the first time that Pew has mischaracterized, sensationalized, or even misinterpreted its own data. Further, as I pointed out before, on occasion, Pew has inexplicably excluded Asian American respondents in some of its previous studies.
With that point in mind, I suppose we should be somewhat thankful that Pew has been more inclusive of Asian Americans as a valuable source of study lately. Nonetheless, simply including Asian Americans is not the same as accurately representing our community.
Pew might argue that their methodology and data are valid. Technically, I suppose they are. But as the above-referenced criticisms consistently point out, many of the questions they asked were sensationalist and not representative of the real, substantive issues and concerns that the Asian American community have identified themselves.
In the end, this Pew report teaches us a couple of valuable lessons. First, that biases can come in many different forms. That is, most of us thinking of biases in the form of direct and blatant statements that clearly favor one ideological viewpoint over another. But the Pew report shows us that biases can also manifest themselves in the questions researchers ask and how they frame the results of their data, based on the misfocused questions, to emphasize certain interpretations over others.
Second, the Pew report shows us that even something that is initially framed as a positive portrayal of Asian Americans can turn out to be just the opposite — a skewed misrepresentation that actually reinforces negative and damaging stereotypes. This lesson is at the core of the model minority image of Asian Americans and how some naively think that they are paying Asian Americans a compliment by commenting how well-educated we are, or how we’re so good at math or science, or how hard we tend to work. While there is obviously some truth to these observations, the problem is that such characterizations are easily and often generalized to the entire Asian American population. When that happens, they mask the demographic, socioeconomic, and cultural diversity among Asian Americans and marginalize the continuing discrimination, inequalities, and injustices we still experience.
The Asian American community deserves to be represented better than this and research organizations such as Pew need to do a better job at asking us about the issues that we, not they, care about.
Today, June 19, marks the 30th anniversary of the day Vincent Chin was beaten into a coma because he was Asian. As summarized in my article “Anti-Asian Racism,” Vincent Chin was a 27-year-old Chinese American living in Detroit, Michigan. On this date in 1982, he and a few friends were at a local bar celebrating his upcoming wedding. Also at the bar were two White autoworkers, Ronald Ebens and Michael Nitz.
Ebens and Nitz blamed the Japanese for the U.S. auto industry’s struggles at the time and began directing their anger toward Vincent. A fight ensued and eventually spilled outside the bar. After a few minutes, Ebens and Nitz cornered Vincent and while Nitz held Vincent down, Ebens repeatedly bludgeoned Vincent with a baseball bat until he was unconscious and hemorrhaging blood. Vincent was in a coma for four days until he finally died on June 23, 1982.
Ebens and Nitz were initially charged with second degree murder (intentionally killing someone but without premeditation). However, the prosecutor allowed both of them to plea down to manslaughter (accidentally killing someone). At the sentencing, the judge only sentenced both of them to three years probation and a fine of $3,780. The sentence provoked outrage among not just Asian Americans, but among many groups of color and led to a pan-racial coalescing of groups demanding justice for Vincent.
Vincent’s supporters got the U.S. Justice Department to bring federal charges against Ebens and Nitz for violating Vincent’s civil rights. In this trial, Ebens was found guilty and sentenced to 20 years in prison while Nitz was found not guilty. However, the verdicts were thrown out because of a technicality and a second trial was ordered. The defense successfully got the trial moved away from Detroit to Cincinnati OH. In this second federal trial, an all-White jury acquitted both Ebens and Nitz of violating Vincent’s civil rights.
Vincent’s death and the injustices he, his family, and all Asian Americans suffered still stand as a stark and sober reminder that, in contrast to the image of us as the “model minority” and the socioeconomic successes that we have achieved, Asian Americans are still susceptible to being targeted for hostility, racism, and violence. We only have to look at recent incidents in which Asian American students continue to be physically attacked at school, and other examples of Asian- and immigrant-bashing and White backlash to see that we as society still have a lot of work to do before Asian Americans (and other groups of color) are fully accepted as “real” or “legitimate” Americans.
The silver lining in Vincent’s case was that it was a watershed moment in Asian American history because it united the entire Asian American community like no event before. For the first time, different Asian groups began to understand that the discrimination committed against other Asians could easily be turned towards them. In other words, for the first time, Asians of different ethnicities, cultures, and nationalities united around an issue that affected them all.
As a result, the Asian American community mobilized their collective resources in unprecedented ways and Vincent’s death was the spark that led to the creation of a network of hundreds of non-profit organizations working at local, state, and national levels to combat not just hate crimes, but also other areas of inequality facing Asian American (i.e., housing, employment, legal rights, immigrant rights, educational reform, etc.). Vincent’s death has had a powerful legacy on the Asian American community — as a result of the collective action demanding justice, it contributed to the development of the “pan-Asian American” identity that exists today.
This is why it is important for all Asian Americans, and all of us as Americans, to remember Vincent Chin — to mourn the events of his death, to reflect on how it changed the Asian American community forever, and to realize that the struggle for true racial equality and justice still continues today.
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 regular readers to this blog know already (and as I write in the top section of every Asian-Nation post I write), I feel very strongly “public sociology” — to make sociological theory, research, and data as accessible to as wide of an audience as possible, and as applicable to real-world issues and situations as possible. I recently received an email that gave me just that opportunity.
Specifically, one reader wrote to me:
I am a full time elementary school teacher and I will have a new student in a few days from China. He and his family do not speak English–they are opening a restaurant in our small community. In our community, he will be the only Asian child. What can I do to help him not feel so alone and alienated? I know language will be a problem, but what could I as his teacher do to help? I was scanning the internet trying to find resources and found your site. Thank you for your time.
I replied back:
I commend you on trying to find ways to make this new student feel welcomed. Although my expertise is not in education, these are some suggestions that come to mind:
(1) Some time ago, there was a commercial (I forgot what the actual product or service was), but it showed a young Chinese boy about to enter a predominantly White school for his first day. Before entering, he was speaking in Chinese with his mom outside and told her, “My English is not good. What if the other students hate me?” His mother calmly replied, “You’ll be fine.” As he entered his classroom escorted by the principal, the teacher introduced the new student to the class. Then the entire class welcomed him by saying in unison, “Ni hao [student's name]” — translated, it means “Hello [student's name].” It was very sweet and it would be great if your class would do the same.
(2) You may already have plans to do so already, but I’ve heard from many educators that it helps new students if one or two other students are assigned to be their “guide” or someone who will spend time him the new student, show him around the school, eat lunch with him, introduce him to other students, and basically act like an ambassador for him to make him feel more comfortable.
(3) You may know Google Translate already , but if not, it’s a great tool to assist in translating between different languages. In the meantime, you’ll probably be surprised how quickly the student will learn English. Just stay patient and positive while he does.
(4) Perhaps some time in the future, your class can make a field trip to his parent’s restaurant to learn about Chinese food, running a small business, etc. This would be a great way to welcome the family to the community and to show the other students that he is welcomed in their class.
(5) Finally and perhaps most importantly, I hope you and the rest of the teachers and administrators can do whatever possible to stay on top of any incidents of racial teasing. Nothing will alienate the new student more than if other students start making fun of him because he’s Chinese — because he’s different than everybody else around him. With that in mind, it is absolutely critical to let the other students (in your class and elsewhere) that it is not acceptable to make fun of him because he’s Chinese and that any such incidents will be punished. This how we start to break the cycle of racial prejudice — one student at a time.
The teacher wrote me back and thanked me for the ideas and seemed very excited about them.
This question of how a school, administrators, teachers, and students can best welcome new student who is both an immigrant and a racial minority to their class got me thinking that, rather then just giving her my ideas, I should “crowdsource” this question and ask all of you for your suggestions on how to best welcome this new student.
If you have been in this situation, either as the new student, one of the existing students, or the educator, what were some ways to make this new student feel welcomed and comfortable? Or even if you were never in this situation, what are some strategies to try? If you are a researcher who is familiar with this issue, what are some “best practices” that have been shown to be effective? I would love to hear from others with your ideas and suggestions.
Last week, the U.S. commemorated the 70th anniversary of the attack on Pearl Harbor by the Japanese military that led to the U.S.’s entry into World War II. Of course, the attack was a watershed moment in U.S. history — Japan’s unjustified and heinous act led to the deaths of 3,000 human beings, united the U.S. like never before, and in the end, was the start of Japan’s downfall as a imperial military power.
Unfortunately, the Pearl Harbor attacks also prompted the U.S. government to strip 120,000 Japanese Americans of their legal rights and imprison them without any due process, based largely on the “fear” that Japanese Americans would be loyal to Japan and engage in espionage or treason against their adopted U.S. homeland.
This entire “internment” episode has been recounted and analyzed over the years, most notably by the bipartisan Congressional “Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians,” which ultimately conducted a thorough investigation and in their final report titled “Personal Justice Denied: Report of the Commission on Wartime Relocation and Internment of Civilians,” finally concluded that the imprisonment of Japanese Americans during World War II was a “grave injustice” and resulted from “race prejudice, war hysteria, and a failure of political leadership.” Congress then approved and distributed a reparation payment of $20,000 to all surviving Japanese Americans who were imprisoned. To my knowledge, this is the only instance in which the U.S. government has officially apologized and provided monetary reparations to any of the injustices that they’ve committed in its history.
As it turns out, this week’s anniversary commemoration unfortunately prompted some to once again bring up the old argument that there was a logical rationale to the U.S.’s imprisonment of Japanese Americans, or that it was even completely justified. For example, in a museum review of Heart Mountain Interpretive Center (in Wyoming, site of one of the prison camps) in the Dec. 9, 2011 edition of the New York Times, ‘art critic’ Edward Rothstein engages in such musings.
Specifically, Rothstein uses a few historical examples of misdeeds by Japanese and Japanese Americans to argue that “the threat was palpable” and that therefore, there was a “rationale” for the U.S.’s subsequent imprisonment of 120,000 Japanese Americans. While Rothstein does state, “I am not suggesting that such factors justified the relocations,” the tone of his piece displays an ignorant accounting of the entire collection of historical facts surrounding how isolated incidents of Japanese and Japanese Americans misdeeds were exaggerated and generalized to an entire population, how many allegations of espionage and sabotage by Japanese Americans were never substantiated and even completely fabricated, and how similar and even more pernicious acts by Germans and German Americans were largely ignored.
Unfortunately, Rothstein’s piece is a sad example of selective memory, if not outright revisionist history. The examples he cited as providing “rationale” for the mass imprisonment are of dubious historical accuracy and value and even if valid, only reinforce and perpetuate the tired notion that the acts of a few can be taken out of context and generalized to an entire population. In response to Rothstein, I would like to share the responses of some of my colleagues who provide a more clear and comprehensive picture of the supposed “palpable” threat of Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attacks:
In his attempt to understand the wartime removal of Japanese Americans, Edward Rothstein (“the How of Internment, but not all the Whys”, NYT, December 9) repeats a set of falsehoods and distortions about its causes. He insists that because Japan engaged in widespread espionage, and decoded Japanese messages (in reality a mere handful) spoke of contacts, surely Japanese Americans were implicated in espionage. In fact, Tokyo’s spymasters shied away from using Americans of Japanese ancestry, whose loyalty to Japan they rightly suspected, and made use of non-Japanese. Col. Kenneth Ringle, the prewar agent of the Office of Naval Information who broke the most important Japanese spy ring in Los Angeles and was in a position to know the facts, was an outspoken defender of the loyalty of Japanese Americans.
Similarly, Rothstein declares that the Japanese “threat was palpable” since a Japanese submarine had sunk American shops and shelled a California oil field. In fact, only a single American ship was sunk, compared to the hundreds sunk by German submarines off the East Coast, and the single shelling incident took place after the order to remove Japanese Americans had already been issued. Worse, Rothstein argues that the “treasonous” conduct of a Nisei couple in Hawaii validated the fears of government authorities about West Coast Japanese Americans. The absurdity of this statement is easily demonstrated by the fact that there was no mass roundup of the large Japanese community in Hawaii itself.
Although he insists that he is not justifying removal, cultural critic Rothstein sadly displays not only a carelessness toward history, but reveals how much the baseless ideas about “Japanese” disloyalty that led to mass removal still remain in the culture.
Associate Professor of History
Université du Québec a Montréal
I write this disappointed letter in response to Edward Rothstein’s December 9, 2011 piece, “The How of an Internment, but Not All the Whys.” Notwithstanding the express reason for this piece (as a review), I was particularly struck by Mr. Rothstein’s incomplete and incendiary reading of not only U.S. history but Japanese American history. Dismissing the “now standard” evaluation of the internment as the “result of wartime hysteria and racism,” Mr. Rothstein offers an allegedly “clearer understanding of the prewar Japanese-American population” rooted in familiar characterizations of yellow peril takeovers, perpetual foreign frames, and traitorous subjects. What is especially remarkable and distressing is that Mr. Rothstein manages – quite irresponsibly — to take NYT readers “back in time” to aforementioned “wartime hysteria and racism.”
Cathy J. Schlund-Vials
Assistant Professor, English and Asian American Studies
University of Connecticut
I teach Asian American Studies to graduates of this city’s k-12 system, and I am continuously disheartened by the many young people who have never heard of Japanese American internment, or, if they have, possess no meaningful understanding of the nature of the event. With that lack of information in mind, I was appalled to see your paper repeat long since discredited misinformation in apparent disregard for rigorous scholarly work, and the trauma inflicted upon thousands upon thousands of individuals and families who did nothing but look like “the enemy.” Despite his assurance to the contrary, Edward Rothstein’s review of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center implies that we should explore long since debunked (dare I say “fringe”) theories that justify the racial stereotype of Japanese Americans as inherently treasonous, and thereby make excuses for what scholars agree is a racially motivated and shameful event in U.S. civil rights history.
Director, Asian American Studies Program
Hunter College, City University of New York
In Edward Rothstein’s review of the Heart Mountain Interpretive Center (“the How of Internment, but not all the Whys”, NYT, December 9) he declares that the unconstitutional incarceration of over 110,000 people of Japanese ancestry was “a geographic rationale, not simply a racial one.” Yet Mr. Rothstein fails to account for the fact that mass removal and incarceration of Japanese Americans did not occur at the site that propelled the U.S. into WWII—Hawaii. Indeed, all reputable scholars of the Japanese American Internment note that it was war time xenophobia and racism that spurred Executive Order 9066—an order that never specified ethnic ancestry and that effectively nullified the constitutional rights of every person living on the West Coast during WWII. FDR ordered the military to target Japanese Americans using EO9066. If that’s not a racial rationale, I’m not sure what is.
University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill
Unfortunately, as a country, we are now poised to repeat the same mistake that was committed 70 years against Japanese Americans. Specifically, Congress is currently debating the National Defense Authorization Act for fiscal year 2013. One of the proposed provisions is to give U.S. government authorities the ability to arrest and indefinitely detain anybody who they deem to be a threat to national security — including U.S. citizens — without charging them with a crime or giving them a trial. In other words, it would basically legalize what happened to Japanese Americans after the Pearl Harbor attacks.
Fortunately, there is opposition to these provisions from both sides of the political spectrum. If you also oppose these provisions, I urge you to contact your Representative and Senator and tell them to vote against these provisions. As George Santayana’s quote goes, “Those who cannot learn from history are doomed to repeat it.”
One of the most popular and controversial articles on my Asian-Nation.org site is the one on Interracial Dating and Marriage. This is a topic that has provoked much discussion and debate among Asian Americans through the years and continues to do so today. Within the larger range of opinions on interracial dating and marriage, many Asian Americans and non-Asians alike consider dating and marrying someone outside of your racial/ethnic group as a natural progression of Asian Americans becoming more integrated into the mainstream, while others see it as renouncing one’s Asian identity.
As the saying goes, you are entitled to your opinion, but not your facts. In that context, as a sociologist, I try to make an empirically-sound and objective contribution to this debate by presenting updated data and statistics from the 2010 U.S. Census American Community Survey (ACS) on the racial/ethnic marriage patterns of Asian Americans for both men and women and the six largest Asian ethnic groups. The full tables are presented in my Interracial Dating and Marriage page, but below is a summary of recent trends and changes from 2006, the last time I updated these statistics:
Consistently, rates of marriages involving Asian Americans and Whites have declined. Specifically, among those marriages in which both spouses are U.S.-raised (either born in the U.S. or immigrated before age 13, and thereby socialized within the U.S. racial/ethnic landscape), for five of the six Asian American ethnic groups, the rates of having a White spouse for both men and women declined from 2006 to 2010. Among men/husbands, the largest decline involved Asian Indians and Koreans. For women/wives, the largest decline was for Filipinos and Koreans.
The only exceptions to this trend of declining rates of White-Asian marriages were for Asian Indian women/wives (whose rate slightly increased from 2006 to 2010) and for both Vietnamese men/husbands and women/wives. For Vietnamese men, their rates of having a White wife increased from 15.0% to 21.9% while for Vietnamese women, their rate for having a White husband jumped from 28.3% to 41.3%.
Strangely, the population sizes for U.S.-raised married Vietnamese American men and women declined from 2006 to 2010. For example, in 2006, there were about 40,500 and 45,200 U.S.-raised Vietnamese men and women respectively who were married. In 2010, those numbers declined to 26,795 and 34,998. Some possible explanations are that many who were married in 2006 got divorced, U.S.-raised Vietnamese men and women are delaying getting married, and/or many U.S.-raised Vietnamese have changed their ethnic identity to some other ethnic group, such as Chinese or Hmong.
In contrast to the declining rates of Asian-White marriages, the rates for Pan-Asian/Other Asian marriages have increased notably from 2006 to 2010 (having a spouse of a different Asian ethnicity). This increase was almost universal across all the six ethnic groups and for both genders (the only exception was for Filipino women). Among U.S.-raised men/husbands, Vietnamese Americans experienced the biggest increases in having a pan-Asian spouse — from 5.8% in 2006 to 13.7% in 2010 for men and from 7.8% to 12.2% for women/wives.
It’s Halloween time again. Around this time every year, many people — particularly high school and college students — think it’s “all in good fun” to dress up as a member of some racial, ethnic, religious, or cultural minority group as a “costume” for Halloween. As some examples, they might dress up as a geisha, or a Muslim terrorist, or a Mexican border-crosser, or in blackface as a rap star. Unfortunately, in virtually all cases, these kinds of “costumes” end up reinforcing and perpetuating offensive imagery and racist stereotypes against such minority groups.
Inevitably, when members of that minority group protest and criticize them, the costume-wearers reply that it’s just a joke, that they don’t mean to offend people, or even that the costumes are meant to “celebrate” that particular personality or culture that they’re portraying. The problem of course, is that it may just be a joke to them, but to the minority group being portrayed in such a stereotypical manner, it is deeply offensive and does nothing more than promote the naive and misguided idea of colorblindness — that since we now have an African American president, that we’re all equal now and as such, it’s perfectly fine to make fun of minorities and not suffer any consequences from it.
Fortunately, many young Americans around the country are fighting back. Specifically, a student group at Ohio University named Students Teaching About Racism in Society has put together an awesome campaign to encourage everyone to think twice about Halloween costumes (thanks to AngryAsianMan for first mentioning it). Some of their posters are below.
Please help to circulate their message as widely as possible.
In recent years, it has become more common to see Asian American actors in mainstream U.S. advertisements and commercials. This trend is notable for a two reasons. First, it represents a significant change from decades past, in which Asian American faces were almost completely absent from such advertising campaigns. Alternatively, when they were included, more often than not, Asian Americans were depicted in racially offensive and stereotypical caricatures, many of which were based on Orientalist perceptions of Asians and Asian Americans as exotic, mysterious, dangerous, inferior, and/or hypersexual.
Second, this increased visibility of Asian Americans in mainstream advertising seems to reflect the growing political, economic, and cultural influence of Asian countries and of Asian Americans within the U.S. Within the current climate of increased globalization, economic instability, and demographic changes, Asian Americans, other racial/ethnic minorities, and immigrants are in a unique position to leverage their individual and community resources to make important contributions to help move the U.S. forward into the 21st century.
With this in mind, and with the recognition that the Asian American population has an estimated $452 billion in purchasing power, advertisers and their corporate clients are increasingly including Asian American actors in their ads and commercials. As summarized on Asian American-focused sites like 8Asians.com, recent examples of television commercials that feature Asian Americans include eSurance, Target, Verizon, Staples, Hewlett Packard, Subaru, and McDonalds, to name just a few.
However, even though the level of blatant Orientalist stereotypes has declined, there are still numerous examples in which perceptions of Asian culture and Asian Americans as exotic, mysterious, and slightly dangerous are used in the advertising industry. For example, to the right is a relatively recent advertisement for the Motorola Razr cellphone that appeared in mainstream U.S. magazines such as Newsweek. Unfortunately, its Orientalist depictions are clear, particularly as applied to Asian women in clearly sexualized terms.
Specifically, the ad uses a woman of Asian descent dressed in an outfit that suggests a ninja-like image and striking a subtly menacing pose in which, rather than a sword, she wields a “Sharper Than Ever” Razr cellphone in her right hand, implying that the user of it can become a dangerous weapon in the figurative sense. Further, the woman’s curvaceous figure, Cleopatra-like eye makeup, skin-tight outfit, and long flowing hair again builds on the Orientalist image of Asian woman as seductive and sexually alluring. The result of these historical and ongoing Orientalist images of Asian Americans is that they are seen only within a narrowly-confined box of popular images and racially-tinged caricatures, rather than as normal citizens or even as Americans.
Opportunities and Dangers Ahead
In more recent years, portrayals of Asian Americans in mainstream ads and commercials has generally been less prone to such Orientalist images. Nonetheless, even as more advertisers incorporate more Asian Americans into their marketing campaigns, there is still the danger of promoting stereotypes, as the above-discussed Motorola Razr advertisement exemplifies. Further, a recent article by journalist Paul Farhi in the Washington Post describes a recent television commercial in which a White customer learns about a few multipurpose cellphone from an Asian American Staples sales clerk:
When Asian Americans appear in advertising, they typically are presented as the technological experts — knowledgeable, savvy, perhaps mathematically adept or intellectually gifted. They’re most often shown in ads for business-oriented or technical products — smartphones, computers, pharmaceuticals, electronic gear of all kinds.
The stereotypical portrayal reinforces a marketing concept known as the “match up” theory, which states that consumers respond more favorably to products advertised by an actor or spokesperson who “fits” the product. Just as consumers expect cosmetics to be sold by a supermodel or athletic equipment by a professional athlete, in the minds of the U.S. public, Asian Americans are strongly associated with technical know-how. . . . Variations on the theme have appeared in numerous TV commercials in recent months:
Staples advertises its computer-repair service with images of laptops flying like gulls into one of its stores. When one of the laptops crash-lands, the fix-it technician who comes to its “rescue” is an Asian American.
CVS’s TV ads feature a lab-coated pharmacist of Asian descent dispensing advice about medication to a baffled Caucasian lady.
A mother and her teenage son shopping at Best Buy learn that the store offers “Geek Squad” techies, who are packaged and displayed like life-size action figures on the store’s shelves. One of the tech guys is an Asian American.
IBM’s commercials feature brainy IT consultants, including a young Asian American woman who talks up the company’s efforts to create “a smarter planet.”
The article goes on to note that recent advertisements (such as this one from Staples) that feature Asian American actors can be a double-edged sword. That is, on the one hand, it is encouraging to see more Asian American faces in the mainstream media and in positions of authority or knowledge, rather than in the kind of blatantly demeaning and offensive roles that Asian American are used to seeing about themselves. On the other hand, the predominance of such roles that cast Asian Americans as tech experts has the danger of creating another narrowly-defined, one-dimensional stereotype – of Asian Americans as technically proficient, but nothing more.
In other words, to market to Asian Americans, advertisers and their corporate clients should remember that the history, culture, and socioeconomic characteristics of the Asian American population is complex, three-dimensional, and intricate. Like all other racial, ethnic, cultural, or religious groups, the Asian American experience cannot be reduced into a limited set of media and popular culture images, no matter how seemingly “positive” such portrayals may appear to be. Similar to model minority perceptions of Asian Americans, we need to both recognize the successes as well as the ongoing challenges and multiple levels of diversity within the Asian American community.
Indeed, when it comes to this trend of incorporating more Asian Americans into mainstream ads and commercials, there needs to be a diversity and wide range of images and marketing approaches that highlight both the unique characteristics and contributions that are specific to the Asian American population but that no not rely on Orientalist stereotypes, in addition to “race-neutral” ones that illustrate that Asian Americans are just regular, normal citizens and reflect their identity and position in society – just another part of the American mainstream.
Toward this goal, Asian Americans can have also a direct impact in facilitating positive change. Some time ago, I had with a student in which she mentioned that, as an advertising major, she also has a strong commitment to use her experiences and training to work toward greater racial equality and justice for Asian Americans and people of color. But she also expressed reservations about entering the advertising industry with its history of portraying people of color in very narrow and even stereotypical ways.
One of the things that I told her was that if students like her self-select out of these kinds of industries, everything will just be perpetual status quo and no positive change would ever occur. Instead, I encouraged her to bring her determination toward activism and passion for social change with her into the advertising industry, build a critical mass with others who share similar goals, and to fight for the change that she wants to see happen.