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.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience, and for readers who like to keep on top of the latest sociological research, I highlight new research and studies in academic journals about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them. An article’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its complete contents.
The following articles focus on different aspects of Asian Americans portrayed as the “model minority” and how such perceptions on the part of White society and social institutions affect how Asian Americans are treated in daily life.
Chao, Melody Manchi, Chi-yue Chiu, and Jamee S. Lee. 2010. “Asians as the Model Minority: Implications for US Government’s Policies.” Journal of Social Psychology 13:44-52.
Asian Americans are often perceived as a ‘model minority’– an ethnic minority that are high achieving, hardworking, self-reliant, law-abiding, as well as having few social and mental health problems. Although the impact of the model minority image on the US government’s redistributive policies is a widely contested topic in public discourses, there has been little research on the association between the model minority image, people’s worldviews, and attitudes towards the US government’s redistributive policies.
In an experiment that measured American participants’ worldviews and manipulated the salience of the model minority image, we have demonstrated that those who believed in a malleable social reality were relatively unsupportive of government policies that help the Asian American (vs African American) communities. Theoretical and practical implications of this finding are discussed.
Brettell, Caroline B. and Faith Nibbs. 2010. “Lived Hybridity: Second-Generation Identity Construction Through College Festival.” Identities: Global Studies in Culture and Power 16:678-699.
Recent research suggests that the children of recent immigrants, the so-called second generation, no longer choose to emphasize one identity over the other but that their identities are more fluid and multifaceted. College campuses are often the arenas in which a new hybrid identity develops.
This article addresses how South Asian American college students make sense of and control their various identities through the celebration of Diwali, an event sponsored each year by the Indian Students Association (ISA) on a college campus in the Dallas-Fort Worth metropolitan area. South Asian students use performative space to help them make sense of their backgrounds in ways that both differentiate them from and allow for association with the majority student population.
They also use this space as a safe place for ‘coming out,’ that is, for communicating their hybrid identity to their parents. This hybrid identity is expressed through a discourse of ‘brownness’ that marks something distinctive and that reflects the process by which the children of immigrants choose among a range of identities to create integrated selves. The campus Diwali festival is the expression of those selves.
Johnson, Brian D. and Sara Betsinger. 2009. “Punishing the “Model Minority”: Asian-American Criminal Sentencing Outcomes in Federal District Courts.” Criminology 47:1045-1090.
Research on racial and ethnic disparities in criminal punishment is expansive but remains focused almost exclusively on the treatment of black and Hispanic offenders. The current study extends contemporary research on the racial patterning of punishments by incorporating Asian-American offenders. Using data from the United States Sentencing Commission (USSC) for FY1997-FY2000, we examine sentencing disparities in federal district courts for several outcomes.
The results of this study indicate that Asian Americans are punished more similarly to white offenders compared with black and Hispanic offenders. These findings raise questions for traditional racial conflict perspectives and lend support to more recent theoretical perspectives grounded in attribution processes of the courtroom workgroup. The article concludes with a discussion of future directions for research on understudied racial and ethnic minority groups.
Oh, David C. and Madeleine Katz. 2009. “Covering Asian America: A Content Analysis Examining Asian American Community Size and Its Relationship to Major Newspapers’ Coverage.” Howard Journal of Communications 20:222-241.
This study attempts to determine whether 4 decades after the Kerner Commission, newspapers report more accurately on an increasingly diverse population. Specifically, it studied whether the size of the Asian American population covered by a newspaper influences the coverage of Asian Americans in newspaper articles.
It appears that although newspapers situated within larger Asian American communities report more frequently, at more depth, and with more prominence on Asian Americans, the quality of that coverage is not influenced by the size of the Asian American community. In cities with larger Asian American populations, newspapers have responded with increased stories and length but not with increased quality of coverage.
This is likely because of newspaper fears of alienating European American readers, leading to a ‘White flight’ in circulation and because of news practices that lead to distorted reports of Asian Americans. These findings renew calls for the newspaper industry to more fairly represent the diverse range of its readership and not just its most favored demographic.
As many of you presumably already know, “Blackface” is the practice of non-Blacks using dark-colored makeup or other materials to darken their face and skin so that they appear to be Black, usually for the purpose of impersonating a Black person in a public setting. The history of this practice is a long and sad one and almost always is associated with reinforcing and perpetuating racist stereotypes about Blacks. In fact, I recently wrote about a high-profile Blackface incident in Australia and commended entertainer Harry Connick Jr. (who is White) for calling it out as racist.
Similarly, “Yellowface” is the practice of non-Asians impersonating Asians in a public setting, usually by dressing them up in traditional “Asian” garments, altering their eyelids, or donning some other prop such as buck teeth, all of which again serve to reinforce and perpetuate racist stereotypes against Asians and Asian Americans.
Recently, there was a skit on Saturday Night Live (SNL) that included actor Will Forte impersonating Chinese President Hu Jintao, along with Iranian American actor Nasim Pedrad playing the role of an interpreter. The video of the skit is below:
Since Will Forte is in fact White and is portraying an Asian character, this is technically Yellowface. But the question then becomes, is this racist and offensive? I know that many Asian Americans do find this particular portrayal offensive and they certainly have a right and reason to do so.
For me however, I will go out on a limb and say that I personally don’t think this particular portrayal was that offensive. It would be one thing if SNL had an Asian male cast member who could have played Hu Jinato but was passed over in favor of Forte, but obviously this was not the case (although it would be nice if SNL eventually had an Asian American male cast member). Further, Forte’s portrayal of Hu did not include the racist characteristics usually found with offensive Yellowface portrayals.
In other words, Forte did not artificially alter his eyes or eyelids or wear traditional garments to look more “Oriental.” Nor did he use racist caricature features such as buck teeth. Further, even though Forte did impersonate Hu speaking Chinese, it was very muted and not a central part of his portrayal, as opposed to the traditional exaggerated and blatantly offensive “ching chong” artificial dialog that we’ve seen in the past.
Further, the SNL skit did not include any elements or activities that have been associated with offensive Asian characters through the years, such as performing kung fu, working as a cook or waiter, or as an evil villain. Also, Forte did not try to portray Hu speaking English with a Chinese accent, which would have been much more offensive. Further, Pedrad’s portrayal of the interpreter did not include an exaggerated Chinese accent either.
In fact, fellow sociologist blogger Lisa at Sociological Images has just compiled an excellent video retrospect of White actors playing Asian characters through the years. If you watch the videos included in her post, you will see that all of them include at least one of these offensive characteristics that I listed above.
The larger point I am trying to make is that there are different degrees of offense when it comes to Asian Americans. Regular readers to this blog know that I’ve spent plenty of time pointing out different individual- and institutional-level incidents and examples of that I have found offensive and racist toward Asians and Asian Americans. But ultimately, American society and the world in general are not simple either-or, black-or-white, yes-or-no dichotomies. Instead, we need to realize that there are varying degrees of oppression, inequality, and in this case, potentially offensive media portrayals.
Asian American actors are likely to tell you the same thing when it comes to which roles they accept or reject. As this clip from the Turner Classic Movie series “Race in Hollywood: Asian Images in Film” shows, even well-respected Asian American actors will take on roles that have them playing a sweatshop worker or one that has them speak with an Asian accent, if other aspects of their character are more nuanced and substantive:
Similarly, even Asian American writers and filmmakers have been criticized when it comes to how they portray members of their community. Relatively recent examples include when author Amy Tan and director Wayne Wang were criticized for promoting gender stereotypes in the otherwise critically-acclaimed and watershed Asian American book and movie The Joy Luck Club, or when director Justin Lin was criticized for his less-than-model-minority portrayals of Asian American high school students in another breakthrough Asian American film Better Luck Tomorrow.
In the end, yes, it would have been nice if SNL had an Asian American male cast member who could have played Hu in this particular case. But given that limitation, I did not find their skit to be nearly as offensive as past portrayals that have made me wince in disgust. Maybe this just means that I’ve been desensitized by so many blatantly racist portrayals through the years. But more likely, I think it just shows that there are different levels of offense when it comes to how Asians and Asian Americans are portrayed.
2007: New Research on Race and Genetics New scientific research on genetics may challenge some long-held beliefs about whether there are distinct and inherent biological differences between members of particular racial groups.
Earlier this week, musician, actor, and community activist Harry Connick Jr. was a guest judge on the Australian talent show Hey Hey It’s Saturday. One of the acts was a skit featuring a group of White men wearing blackface (using dark-colored makeup to appear racially Black), doing an impression of the Jackson Five. As ABC News reports and this video segment shows, Connick’s reaction to their performance was swift and sharp:
[Connick] was visibly shocked by the skit, in which [five] men with afro wigs and blackface sang and danced behind a Michael Jackson impersonator wearing white makeup. Connick, 42, gave the performance a zero score and told them that if it had been done in the United States it would have been pulled off the air.
Blackface was a traditional trope of minstrel shows in the U.S. that dates to the 19th century. Whites playing stock black characters — usually offensive stereotypes meant to demean — rubbed coal, grease or shoe polish on their faces. . . .
Public reaction to the “Hey Hey” performance in online forums was mixed. Some Australians said they were embarrassed such a racist sketch had been broadcast, while others said detractors were too politically correct and that the skit was funny. . . . Anand Deva, the frontman of the “Jackson Jive” act, said it was not meant to cause offense but added he would not have performed it in the United States.
There are two interesting sociological points to note here. The first is the apparent differences in racial attitudes between the U.S. and Australia. That is, even though many Americans still are rather ignorant of the racial significance and racist legacy of blackface and still wear it from time to time (especially around this time of year, Halloween, as seen in the photo on the right), for the most part, I will presume that most Americans understand that blackface is offensive (or at least the reactions and criticisms to it are much more intense).
This diminished level of cultural knowledge comes through in the responses by Anand Deva in defending his group’s skit with the usual refrain, “It wasn’t meant to be offensive, it was just a joke.” What he and other Australians do defend the skit don’t understand is that whatever the intent, the result was that it definitely came across as racist and offensive.
Secondly, the reason why they don’t understand why it was offensive is because as Whites in a White majority society, they have the position of being able to make fun of non-Whites while claiming that they did not intend it to be offensive. That, my friends, is the quintessential definition of White privilege.
As it relates back to Harry Connick Jr., as the video segment notes, he has been accused of being hypocritical because he participated in a previous comedy skit (apparently from MadTV) in which he played some kind of witch or voodoo doctor that some argue also makes fun of Blacks, although Connick counters that his character in the skit was actually White.
Despite this criticism of Connick, I give him credit for speaking up in the moment and denouncing the skit as racist and offensive. It takes courage to recognize such racial ignorance first of all, and second, to speak up and stand in opposition to it, rather than just keeping quiet, as many Americans from any racial background but particularly Whites, are more likely to do.
I know that as a native of New Orleans, Connick was affected by how his city and particularly the Black community were both devastated after Hurricane Katrina. In the aftermath of the disaster, he organized several benefits and other activities to begin rebuilding the city and its inhabitants.
At this point, I can only speculate, but I suspect that as a result of Hurricane Katrina and perhaps after understanding the cultural consequences of such media portrayals as his MadTV skit, he “got it” — that as an affluent entertainer and as a White person, he is very privileged person and has a lot of power and influence that can be used to make fun of people, or to help uplift them.
In other words, Connick’s actions — in the wake of Hurricane Katrina and in regard to this blackface skit — are a great illustration of what I tell me students all the time: for racism to continue, individual Whites like you (referring to my students) do not have to commit racist acts yourself. Instead, for it to continue year after year, generation after generation, all you have to do is to sit by and accept the consequences of discrimination committed against others.
2004: Affirmative Action: Beginning of the End? Recent political and educational trends suggest that the use of affirmative action programs is declining, although the need for such programs is still open to debate.
A reader sent me a link to a recent article from the Seattle Weekly that follows and describes in detail the late-night activities of young Asian American hip-hop club goers in the Seattle area. The article itself is relatively long and to understand the debate that I’m going to discuss below, you should read it in its entirety. Here are just a few excerpts:
Pham is Vietnamese. He’s invited several friends to his Tukwila townhome that Friday to pre-funk before going out to one of their favorite Seattle clubs: Venom. All the 20-somethings pre-funking at his house are also Asian—most of them Vietnamese or Cambodian. Almost every weekend, they hit up Venom, a Belltown dance club that draws a predominately Asian crowd. . . .
“I have some white friends who won’t even go [to Venom],” [22 year old Cambodian American Somealear] Mom says, laughing. “It’s too Asian for them. For us, it’s like family. Everybody knows each other there.”
That’s exactly what club promoters targeting the Asian demographic are going for. The nights that draw the most Asians are the ones that have a crowd within “two to three degrees of separation,” according to Tony Truong, managing partner of the Seattle office of Visionshock, the largest Asian-American nightlife company in the country. . . .
“Asians are like neon tetra fish—they travel in schools,” Truong says. “You always see masses of them together. Once you get the group leader to come, you get the entire group. Then you get the friends of people in that group, and so forth.”
The trend has become increasingly visible in Seattle’s Asian nightlife scene over the past several years. Promoter Nam Ho of Steady Productions organizes weekly parties at Venom, War Room, and Sea Sound Lounge—all notorious hot spots for Asian club-goers. He attributes the rise in popularity of these parties to the fact that Asians have long had to create their own nightlife scene.
“A lot of Asian-Americans that you see out there don’t go to a four-year university or have a scene they really fit into,” Ho explains. “They aren’t going to frat parties or dive bars or sports bars. But many of them have been born and raised here, so they’re incredibly in tune to the city. The club is a good comfort zone for them to go out with other Asian-Americans.”
It may be familiar territory now, but the club scene is a far cry from the atmosphere in which many of these 20-something Asians were raised. They grew up accustomed to having their strict first-generation parents forbid them from engaging in the social activities of their teenage peers. . . .
“Traditional Asian culture is very conservative. Our parents teach us to study hard and to work hard. They want us to be doctors or lawyers or to start families. Sometimes, they forget to teach us to live. That’s why Asians get extravagant at the bar. We’re constantly going out and pounding Grey Goose like there’s no tomorrow because we’re playing catch-up,” [Truong says].
As I said, the article includes many more details about the activities of these young Asian Americans, which as the article’s author writes, includes using the stereotype that all Asians look alike to get underage patrons into a club. Overall, the article spends a lot of time implicitly and explicitly focused on this “neon tetra fish” analogy — how young Asian Americans clustering together during the weekends has developed into this emerging trendy club scene in the Seattle area.
Therein lies the controversy. As illustrated by the readers’ comments at the end of it, this article seems to have unleashed a debate about whether it promotes racial/ethnic diversity by publicizing the real-life activities of an institutionally underrepresented ethnic group such as Asian Americans (particularly Vietnamese Americans) who have been traditionally ignored by the mainstream media, or whether the article promotes cultural stereotypes and a one-sided view of Asian Americans as clannish and materialistic alcoholics?
As a Vietnamese American myself who is also a sociologist specializing in Asian American Studies, I will first say that, at the risk of copping out, the answer is quite complicated and that ultimately, it does both.
On the one hand, I have to give the Seattle Weekly credit for doing a story that specifically profiles Asian Americans. It is indeed true that even in areas where Asian Americans are increasingly becoming more prominent demographically, politically, economically, and culturally, they are still frequently ignored by the mainstream media and other social institutions.
In other words, sadly we are still the “invisible minority” in a lot of areas of American society. With that in mind, articles like this at least show the rest of American society that in many ways, Asian Americans are just like everybody else — after a week of working hard at their jobs, we want to cut loose on the weekends, have a good time with our friends, and from time to time, indulge in some drinking and partying.
I also credit the article’s author for quoting the Vietnamese American party promoters and their observations that in many areas of mainstream American social life, Asian Americans have felt left out, unwelcomed, and even excluded. With that in mind, the party-goers in this article have sought to develop their own sense of community. In fact, their actions continue the long history of Asian Americans reacting to systematic discrimination by forging their own communities and institutions.
However, creating their own communities have paradoxically led to and perpetuated the stereotype that Asians are insular and cliquish and only want to hang out with “their own kind.” What this criticism doesn’t acknowledge however, is that Asian Americans had to associate within their own group because they were directly excluded from participating in mainstream American society in many cases. In other words, they had to choice but to cluster together.
Fast forward to today and we can recognize that almost all examples of direct, systematic segregation against Asian Americans are a thing of the past (although not entirely, at least when it comes to other groups of color). Nonetheless, in many instances where Asian Americans congregate together, we are still accused of being cliquish. The other point to consider is that in almost all cases, these young Asian Americans spend their entire workweek completely integrated and assimilated into mainstream American society. Nonetheless and sadly, old stereotypes are hard to kill.
So, like I said, I think that this article can serve a positive purpose in promoting the wider inclusion of Asian Americans in mainstream American society and to make other Americans think hard about this sociological question of what it means to hang out within your own ethnic/cultural group.
On the other hand, the picture that this particular article promotes may not be a positive one for the Asian American community. Specifically, a casual reader might read this article and come away with reinforced stereotypes that Asian Americans are like cliquish “neon tetra fish” as I just discussed, but also that we’re superficial and materialistic, closet alcoholics who can’t hold their liquor and like to relieve ourselves in parking lots, and/or that we all look alike.
That is exactly the drawback of this particular article — it presents only one picture, one example of Asian American life. In other words, it is only one set of observations about the Asian American community. But in its defense, it was not meant to be anything more than that — it was not intended to be a comprehensive portrayal of all Asian Americans, young Asian Americans, or even young Asian Americans in the Seattle area.
Nonetheless, the danger that some Americans will see this as representative of all Asian Americans is real.
In other words, the potential that this article will perpetuate stereotypes is especially pronounced precisely because Asian Americans have been and continue to be ignored by mainstream American media. Because of this exclusion, many Americans do not have a diverse picture of who Asian Americans are and therefore, are more likely to rely on the few images and portrayals that do exist, many of whom are rather biased or, at least with this particular article, unrepresentative of Asian Americans as a whole.
Nikki Randhawa Haley, 37, who is in the fray for the post of governor of South Carolina in the US, says she is in the race to win. If she gets elected, Nikki will be the first Indian American woman to become governor in the US, and the second Indian after Bobby Jindal of Louisiana state. A member of the South Carolina state assembly since 2004, Nikki is one of the three candidates to seek nomination from her Republican party for the 2010 elections. . . .
Asked whether her Indian background will matter in the race, she said: “What matters most in South Carolina — and I imagine elsewhere in the country — is not the personalities of the candidates but the message they carry.” . . . Reminded of her maiden campaign in 2004 when her opponents had raised the issue of her ethnic background, she said: “I imagine my opponents will throw everything they can and more at me over the course of the campaign.
“That said, those opponents will not be the focus of our campaign — we will keep our focus on reforming the backward way South Carolina’s government operates and bringing good government back to the people.” Nikki added: “I am very proud of my background and how I was raised. Just as in 2004 I will hold my head high and focus on what I can do for the people of this state.”
To be honest, this is the first that I’ve heard of Nikki Randhawa Haley. It is interesting to see that like Louisiana Governor Bobby Jindal, she is both Indian American and a Republican. As with Jindal, being a Republican makes her a minority within her own ethnic group, who strongly lean Democratic and with the overall political preferences of Asian Americans in general.
Nonetheless, as with Jindal, I think it’s great that more Asian Americans are participating in the political arenas on the state and federal levels and that they are increasingly vying for — and achieving — the highest political offices and positions available (as a reminder, in addition to Jindal, we have Secretary of Energy Steven Chu, Secretary of Veterans Affairs Eric Shinseki, Secretary of Commerce Gary Locke, Joseph Cao (the first Vietnamese American elected to Congress), Michelle Rhee (high-profile Chancellor of Washington DC’s public schools), and most recently, Councilman Sam Yoon running for Mayor of Boston, Judy Chu, the first Chinese American woman elected to Congress), and Jacqueline Nguyen, recently nominated by President Obama to become our country’s only current Asian American federal judge.
I find it very encouraging that Asian Americans are becoming more fully integrated into mainstream American institutions such as politics. This actually leads me to the second news story that caught my eye: I was watching the CBS Evening News the other day and the following segment came on, profiling Edward Tom, Principal at the Bronx Center for Science and Math, a magnet school in New York City:
After watching the segment, I basically thought, “Hey, that’s pretty cool — a principal who gave up a cushy job to work with inner-city kids and to try to help them succeed in life and overcome the obstacles in front of them. Good for him.”
It only dawned on me a little bit later that he was Asian American.
I had to take a few minutes to reflect on this quick realization. Combined with the first part of this post about the emergence of new Asian American politicians, I struck me that perhaps I am now beginning to see what I hoped I would see one day in my lifetime: Asian Americans are so much an integral part of American society that it’s no longer a surprise when I see them in the news or in other media.
In other words, perhaps we are beginning to see that mainstream American society no longer thinks of Asian Americans as perpetual foreigners, as “the other,” or as completely invisible altogether. Instead, with the recent examples of Randhawa Haley, Jindal, Chu, Shinseki, Locke, Rhee, Cao, Yoon, Chu, Nguyen, Tom, and other Asian Americans increasingly attaining high-level and high-profile positions, maybe we as a community have turned the corner in our quest for true integration into American society.
Having said that, I am under no illusions that we no longer experience racial prejudice or outright discrimination or that our identities as “real” Americans will no longer be questioned (you only have to read my recent posts for examples of that). There is still plenty of statistical and anecdotal evidence that Asian Americans are still underrepresented and under-appreciated in many aspects and institutions of American society.
Nonetheless, I think these are very positive developments and it gives me hope that despite the struggles still to come, American society is moving in the right direction.
The third installment of the Fast and the Furious series of movies is out (Tokyo Drift), sporting a few changes from its first two predecesors. The most obvious is that it is set in Japan and features a large Asian and Asian American cast. Part of the reason may be due to its new director, Taiwanese American Justin Lin, of Better Luck Tomorrow fame. Here’s MTV’s take on the film and on Justin Lin’s career up to this point:
The result is — as you’d expect — an eardrum-assailing, lightning-paced, adrenaline-pumping thrill ride that might send your bag of popcorn flying through the air. The real shock, however, is that it’s the first “Furious” movie with a brain under the hood.
“It’s a self-discovery movie,” Lin insisted, equating the story of street racer Sean Boswell (Lucas Black) to his own experiences as an Asian filmmaker navigating Hollywood. “This is really, at the end of the day, about this kid who is outside and comes into town. . . .
“It’s still funny sometimes,” Lin added, saying that as passionately as he felt about exposing American audiences to his world, he realized on day one of the “Drift” shoot that he was still working in theirs.
“The first day of my big movie, I drive on the set and the security won’t let me in. They thought I was a P.A. [production assistant]! It happens all the time. Every time I go to a meeting, they’re like, ‘So, what are you delivering?’ “It constantly slaps me in the face, that I’m still perceived as a bit of an outsider,” Lin lamented.
I haven’t seen the movie yet, but will try to soon. It’s nice to see Justin Lin moving up in the Hollywood hierarchy, from unknown independent filmmaker to director of feature-list mainstream studio movies. It’s also good to hear that he had enough power to demand — and get – major changes in the storyline and plot to make it more realistic and professional, and not just a retread of the first two movies and of tired stereotypes of Asian culture.
At the same time, it’s frustrating to hear about Justin’s experiences of still being treated as an outsider in the moviemaking industry. Unfortunately it just goes to show that although Asian Americans have made nice strides in penetrating the silver screen (or is that white?), there is apparently a long way to go until we are seen as regular, legitimate players in the industry.