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.
Today we celebrate Dr. Rev. Martin Luther King Jr.’s birthday and legacy as a national holiday. I would like to use this occasion to reflect a little bit on one part of Dr. King’s dream and how far we have come toward accomplishing it.
Specifically, I refer to Dr. King’s wish that one day soon, we would live in a society in which, as he eloquently put it, people “would be judged not by the color of their skin but by the content of their character,” a vision that we commonly refer to as a “colorblind” society. This ideal has remained an ultimate goal for many in American society, from a wide variety of racial and ethnic backgrounds. But are we there yet? How close are we to achieving that dream?
Many Americans thought that Barack Obama’s election was the culmination of Dr. King’s dream and concrete proof that we have evolved into a “post-racial,” colorblind society. Unfortunately, as I and many other sociologists and commentators have argued, even in this past year, we have seen numerous incidents that illustrate just how prevalent racial distinctions and racism still are in American society.
As another example, just recently, there was the uproar over Senator Harry Reid’s comments from the presidential campaign that Barack Obama had a good chance of being elected because he was “light-skinned” and had “no Negro dialect, unless he wanted to have one.” Many conservatives charged that Senator Reid’s comments were racist and that similarly due to the racist comments uttered by former Senator Trent Lott, Reid should resign. Others pointed out that conservatives were being hypocritical in pointing out this particular example of “racism” while basically ignoring other examples of racism directed toward Barack Obama over the past few years.
Similarly, others like Professor Joe Feagin point out that Harry Reid was just verbalizing an implicit reality that still operates within American society — the “backstage” racism that still exists among many White Americans who are reluctant or unwilling to vote for an African American candidate (or even any candidate of color) unless that candidate looks and acts as “White” as possible.
The point of these examples is to illustrate that in contrast to what many Americans had hoped, unfortunately we are not yet close to living in a colorblind society. While Dr. King’s dream remains the ideal, the realities of the U.S. racial/ethnic landscape are quite different.
With this in mind, I would also argue that allies and supporters of anti-racism and racial equality should accept this reality, that race is still a significant marker of differentiation in our county, rather than naively proceeding with the assumption that being colorblind is the best approach within this context.
In other words, many Whites (and other Americans of different racial/ethnic identities) try to fight back against racism by trying to be colorblind in their daily lives. They try to treat everybody they meet, interact with, or hear about, solely as an individual rather than as a member of a racial group. They genuinely believe that ignoring race is the best way to move forward toward a colorblind society. Even worse, many Americans who otherwise consider themselves “progressive” criticize people of color for “obsessing” over race and that we somehow create our own oppression by recognizing race.
While trying to be colorblind is indeed a noble and well-intended idea on the individual, interpersonal level, the problem is that the idea of colorblindness is not reinforced on the institutional level and therefore, it is just not practical given how American society continues to be racialized, as I described above, and how racism continues to largely operate independently of individual motivations. In other words, ignoring the problem will not make it go away, nor will it solve anything.
As many educators point out, if anything, trying to be colorblind only makes racism worse because people then mistakenly and naively believe that all forms of racial inequality and discrimination have been eliminated, that everybody is now on an equal playing field with equal access to all social opportunities, and that American society is a true meritocracy.
More generally, the fundamental problem is not racial differences themselves. Instead, the root of racism is that certain racial markers or characteristics have been assigned institutional value judgments of “good” versus “bad,” “normal” versus “abnormal,” and “human” versus “sub-human.” This process has led to certain racial groups being privileged and systematically advantaged over others. Or in the words of Audre Lorde, “It is not our differences that divide us. It is our inability to recognize, accept, and celebrate those differences.”
Ultimately, the best way for us to work toward achieving the ultimate colorblind ideal is to recognize, accept, and understand that racial distinctions still matter and that they are still the basis for continuing discrimination and inequality in American society today. Only by doing so will we move forward on achieving Dr. King’s final ideal — true racial equality.
As you know already, today is Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, the national holiday when we celebrate Dr. King’s life and legacy of racial equality and justice. This year, Dr. King’s birthday is accompanied by another very auspicious and momentous occasion — the inauguration of Barack Obama to be our next President.
It is also during this time of the year that billions of people around the world prepare to celebrate Lunar New Year (occurring on January 26 this year). For Vietnamese Americans like me, our version of Lunar New Year is of course Tet. As I describe in more detail, Tet traditionally is a celebration of rebirth and renewal.
Each year, in our effort to commemorate Lunar New Year and Tet, my wife and I usually do a small presentation in our daughter’s elementary school class about the traditions of Tet. We will be doing this year’s presentation tomorrow in her class. Since the presentation will be almost a week before actual Tet, we thought we would try to do a presentation that links these important events together — Dr. King’s Day, Obama’s inauguration, and Tet.
The theme of our presentation is the title of this post — “King, Obama, Tet, and the Diversity of Change” and I’d like to summarize it here for you (fyi, the text is simplified because it’s directed at elementary school students).
Around this time, billions of people all around the world celebrate the new year, based on the cycles of the moon, which is called the lunar calendar. One of the earliest lunar calendars was invented by the Chinese around 4,000 years ago and is still one of the most widely used lunar calendars. Because the Chinese lunar calendar is the most famous, many people call this occasion the “Chinese New Year.” But we prefer to call it Lunar New Year because it’s more inclusive.
Each Lunar New Year is symbolized by one of 12 different animals and the traditional legend is that the famous Chinese philosopher Confucius called a meeting of all animals and 12 eventually showed up and he gave them each a year on the Lunar calendar. On Monday, we’ll celebrate the Year of Ox — anyone born starting Monday until the next Lunar New Year will be born into the Year of the Ox, along with anyone who turns 12, 24, 36, 48, etc.
Along with the Chinese, many other nationality and ethnic groups celebrate Lunar New Year. Because my family came from Viet Nam, our version of Lunar New Year is called Tet. Like many Lunar New Year celebrations, Tet is one of the biggest and most important holidays in Vietnamese culture, almost like New Year’s Day, Fourth of July, Thanksgiving, and Christmas all rolled into one.
Here in the U.S., you have probably seen Chinese or Lunar New Year celebrations that involve parades and Lion dances. But in more traditional terms, Tet also symbolizes “rebirth” and “renewal.” This means that whatever happened to you personally, to your family, or to your country in the past year, the New Year is your chance to start all over again to have a happy and prosperous new year.
In preparation for Tet, many families clean and even paint their home in anticipation of spring, they settle old debts and disputes, buy new clothes, and pledge to behave nicely and work hard in the new year.
This Lunar New Year occurs around the same time as another very important event that’s taking place a little later today in our nation’s capital, Washington DC — Barack Obama’s inauguration — when he officially becomes our next President.
It’s a very exciting and emotional time for many Americans. One of the reasons why it’s so exciting for many Americans is that, in many ways, Obama’s inauguration also symbolizes the rebirth of our country. In terms of his policies, he has said that he plans to do many things differently from what our last President has done, and this was one of the main reasons why so many people voted for him.
But more generally, he represents rebirth in many other ways. For example, as you probably already know, he is the first African American President of the United States. This is a very big deal — this country unfortunately has not treated African Americans and other people of color very well throughout its history. In many ways, African Americans and other people of color are still treated badly and still face many kinds of prejudice and discrimination in American society.
This kind of change was also symbolized by the person whose birthday we celebrated yesterday as a national holiday — Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. Especially as Barack Obama becomes our nation’s first African American President, it’s important to remember the life and words of Dr. King, especially when he talks about change and rebirth. Here are some excerpts from Dr. King’s famous “I Have a Dream” speech that talks about change:
I have a dream that one day on the red hills of Georgia, the sons of former slaves and the sons of former slave owners will be able to sit down together at the table of brotherhood. . . . I have a dream that my four little children will one day live in a nation where they will not be judged by the color of their skin but by the content of their character. . . . With this faith, we will be able to hew out of the mountain of despair a stone of hope. With this faith, we will be able to transform the jangling discords of our nation into a beautiful symphony of brotherhood. With this faith, we will be able to work together, to pray together, to struggle together, and to stand up for freedom together, knowing that we will be free one day.
Dr. King’s word have inspired many Americans, such as Barack Obama, to do what they can to change America for the better and in the process, to help people start anew toward a better life for themselves, their families and loved ones, and our entire world.
It’s with this in mind that we celebrate these three wonderful and important events taking place all at the same time — Dr. King’s birthday, Barack Obama’s inauguration, and Tet, the Lunar New Year celebration of rebirth and renewal.