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Behind the Headlines: APA News Blog

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

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

August 14, 2008

Written by C.N.

Spain Basketball Team’s Racist Gesture

Several Asian American bloggers (thanks to AngryAsianMan for first pointing it out) and now, major news organizations such as ABC News and the New York Times, have been covering this emerging controversy: Spain’s Olympic basketball team making a racist, anti-Asian gesture before the start of the games:

Mangled bus that flipped, killing 15 Vietnamese American © Herald Democrat/Associated Press

A pre-Olympics “slant-eye” pose by the Spanish men’s basketball team could leave the gold medal contenders with a black eye as they compete in Beijing. . . .It’s a racially pejorative pose not often associated with goodwill in the United States and many other countries, where a similar gesture is more likely to be seen on a school playground than coming from Olympic statesman.

“It’s something that I haven’t seen since I was a kid,” said Sarah Smith, a spokesman for the Organization of Chinese Americans in Washington, D.C. “I can’t speak for what is considered funny in Spain. I don’t know if it has the same impact that it would here. It’s clearly racist, and not even in a jovial way.” . . .

This is not Spain’s first racial controversy involving sport. In 2004, FIFA, the world ruling body in soccer, fined the Spanish Football Federation nearly $90,000 after Spanish fans showered black English players with racist chants during a “friendly” match in Madrid.

The governing body for Formula One auto racing announced in April an anti-racism campaign after British driver Lewis Hamilton, who is black, was racially taunted by racing fans in Madrid. A group, wearing dark makeup on their faces, wore shirts that read “Hamilton’s Family.”

As any Asian American will tell you, this “chink eye” gesture is deeply hurtful and offensive to us. Many of us have experienced the pain and humiliation associated with this racist gesture throughout our entire lives, whether it’s in the playground of our elementary school, or as we walk down the street even as adults. For Asian Americans, it is the visual equivalent of being called a “nigger.”

With that in mind, as the ABC News article mentions, this is not the first time that Spain has been in the news for making racially offensive gestures. While I cannot make a blanket generalization about the racial sentiment of the Spanish people in general, I can say that combined with the previous soccer and Formula One/Lewis Hamilton episodes, this “chink eye” incident does not reflect well on the country.

At the same time, for the sake of argument, I can accept that in this specific circumstance, Spain’s basketball team did not intend this “gesture” to be ridiculing or offensive to the Chinese or Asians in general. For now, I am willing to accept that they were not aware of the cultural meaning of this gesture for Asians and Asian Americans.

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

But when they do so based on their ignorance of Asians and Asian Americans, they only reinforce and perpetuate their racial privileges as Whites. In other words, because Whites are the demographic and cultural majority in the U.S. (and in Europe), they have the privilege of not having to think about their racial superiority — it’s a given, based on their country’s history.

That privilege also gives them the “right” to not have to worry about saying or doing offensive things about other racial groups because basically, who cares about Asians? That is, their racial privilege gives them a larger “comfort zone” to say and do things that they think are funny or harmless but ultimately, minorities find very offensive.

Even if most Whites don’t have this consciously or even unconsciously in their minds when it comes to Asians, this climate of racial ignorance is a reality and functions to “protect” and “insulate” Whites — whether or not they’re even aware of it — at the expense of people of color.

Of course, many Whites will respond by basically saying that even if the Spanish basketball team meant it as a joke, Asians should just shrug it off, that it was harmless and that we Asians should just lighten up and not take things so seriously.

The problem with that argument is that it ignores the larger historical and cultural context. What we need to recognize is that there are fundamental institutional power differences inherent in situations in which Whites denigrate minorities.

Each time an incident like that happens, it reinforces the notion of White supremacy — that Whites can say and do whatever they want toward anybody at any time without facing any negative repercussions.

Ultimately, suggesting to us that we should just “get over it” only serves as another clear illustration of White privilege — of those with in an institutionally superior position telling those below them what to do and what they should think.

Within this larger sociological context, the Spanish basketball team’s gesture, unfortunately, is really nothing new.

August 4, 2008

Written by C.N.

The Return of the Confederate Flag

As I’ve written about before, visual images can be very powerful forces in influencing our thoughts and actions. Most recently, we’ve seen this idea illustrated in regard to the controversy over The New Yorker’s cover cartoon depicting Michelle and Barack Obama. As another example, the Vietnamese American community continues to struggle with how to deal with images perceived to be associated with the communist government back in Viet Nam.

In this context and as the Christian Science Monitor reports, there seems to be a resurgence in displaying the confederate flag in various parts of the southern U.S. The flag’s supporters again claim that the flag is not about promoting White supremacy but about commemorating “southern valor” while its critics say it is inextricably tied into White supremacy:

Confederate flag raised in Georgia © Don Gleary/Christian Science Monitor

Despite years of boycotts, schoolyard bans, and banishment from capitol domes, the Southern battle colors are flying, higher than ever.

Indeed, the Tampa Confederate Veterans Memorial and its 139-foot flagpole features one of at least four giant “soldier’s flags” flying over bumper-to-bumper interstates in Florida and Alabama. [M]ore [are] planned in Tennessee, Georgia, Kentucky, and possibly South Carolina. . . .

Unlike the flags that were taken down from the capitol domes in Columbia, S.C. and Tallahassee, Fla., these new auto dealer-sized flags – sewn in China – may be legally untouchable. Raised on private property, the Tampa flag was OK’d by county zoning officials and the Federal Aviation Administration.

“It’s not going to go away,” says Jim Farmer, a history professor at the University of South Carolina at Aiken. “There is a subculture within the white Southern population, of which the SCV is the most visible voice, that feels besieged by modern culture in general, and they identify the Old South and Confederacy as a way of life and a period of time before the siege began to really hit the South.”

To Confederate sympathizers, opposition to the flag is misguided. They say the “soldier’s flag” represents not slavery, but the valor of Southern men in their lost cause. As proof of the flag’s universality, SCV officials point to a tableau at the June 1 flag-raising ceremony in Tampa. As several older white men huffed trying to raise the 72-pound flag, two black men stepped in to finish the job.

“We have Indian, Hispanic, black, and white members of our camps, and if anyone espouses anything hateful or racewise, you’re gone [from the SCV],” says group historian Robert Gates.

Flag opponents say the real offense is that Southern governors raised the flags during the Civil Rights era as a provocative gesture against attempts to desegregate Southern schools.

There are a couple of sociological lessons here. As I wrote regarding the New Yorker/Obama and Vietnamese American art controversies referenced above, visual images have an almost irrational power over many Americans. Secondly, just as statistics do not speak for themselves and can be interpreted in many ways, such visual images can also be used to support two complete different and opposite viewpoints and world views.

Such is the case with the confederate flag. It is also a given that the battle over whether the confederate flag represents southern valor or White supremacy will continue to rage. I won’t go into the details of that particular debate because people will continue to have their own interpretations based on emotion and personal experiences.

For me, what’s more interesting is the confederate flag’s resurgence and emergence as a reaction to and backlash against globalization.

As the article above notes, the confederate flag seems to enjoying greater acceptance these days, not necessarily because of its association with White supremacy, but because it represents a kind of yearning and nostalgia for how not just the south, but how America in general used to be, before the uncertainties of globalization.

In other words, the resurgence of the confederate flag can be seen as the latest illustration of America’s struggle to find or redefine its position and supremacy in the 21st century international and globalized stage. As many scholars will tell you, globalization has not been kind to many Americans, particularly those in the working class — the same demographic usually associated with confederate flag sympathizers.

So for them, as they struggle to come to terms with the effects of globalization on their lives, it is understandable that they would embrace the confederate flag as a symbol of America’s past dominance and supremacy.

As I’ve written about before, there are other examples of this kind of “backlash” as well. Probably the most visible up to this point has been the emotional debate regarding illegal immigration, but others include heightened criticism against China (although did you notice the irony in the article that the modern “supersized” confederate flags are actually made in China?).

The bottom line is, with many Americans struggling to adapt to globalization, nostalgic symbols of America’s past supremacy are inevitably going to become more popular and that, in such culturally and economically uncertain times, even “moderate” Americans are willing to overlook a particular symbol’s unfortunate association with racism.

July 31, 2008

Written by C.N.

Congress Apologizes for Slavery and Jim Crow Segregation

In an earlier post, I wrote about how the Australian government has issued an official apology to their native aborigine population over the historical and systematic practice of forcibly separating aborigine children from their parents and subsequently trying to raise and socialize them as Whites.

That post also included a news story describing Senator Sam Brownback’s (R-Neb) introduction of legislation that would officially apologize to the Native American Indian population over our country’s systematic discrimination of them over the decades and centuries.

Along the same lines, as MSNBC reports, the House of Representatives has just passed legislation that officially apologizes to African Americans for the history of slavery and Jim Crow segregation:

The resolution, passed by voice vote, was the work of Tennessee Democrat Steve Cohen, the only white lawmaker to represent a majority black district. Cohen faces a formidable black challenger in a primary face-off next week.

Congress has issued apologies before — to Japanese-Americans for their internment during World War II and to native Hawaiians for the overthrow of the Hawaiian kingdom in 1893. In 2005, the Senate apologized for failing to pass anti-lynching laws.

Five states have issued apologies for slavery, but past proposals in Congress have stalled, partly over concerns that an apology would lead to demands for reparations — payment for damages. The Cohen resolution does not mention reparations. It does commit the House to rectifying “the lingering consequences of the misdeeds committed against African-Americans under slavery and Jim Crow.”

It says that Africans forced into slavery “were brutalized, humiliated, dehumanized and subjected to the indignity of being stripped of their names and heritage” and that black Americans today continue to suffer from the consequences of slavery and Jim Crow laws that fostered discrimination and segregation.

My first reaction is — to echo Jay Leno’s comments in his monologue yesterday — wow, it’s not a moment too soon! What’s it been — a 150 years now? It’s a good thing they did this right away, so that there wouldn’t be any lingering problems or bad feelings, right?

More seriously, as I wrote in that earlier post, I commend the House for taking this courageous, albeit largely symbolic step. As I and many other human beings can attest to, one of the hardest things to do in any kind of relationship is to apologize.

In fact, there seems to be an inverse relationship between the severity of the wrong committed and the likelihood that the perpetrator will apologize for it. With that in mind, Rep. Cohen and all those who voted in favor of the resolution have earned my gratitude.

I will also point out that this apology actually seem to go against the larger trend in American society in which many Americans (particular White Americans) increasingly see the U.S. as a “colorblind” society in which racial minorities are perceived to be equal to Whites in terms of their socioeconomic opportunities. This mindset is reflected in recent opinion surveys which seem to show a lingering divide between Whites and Blacks over various social issues and perceptions about American society.

As I’ve written before about this colorblind trend, in theory, the motivation to be colorblind is very noble — treating people equally without regard to their skin color, race/ethnicity, or national origin. The problem is that this individual-level motivation is not reinforced at the institutional level, where people of color are still disproportionately underrepresented in positions of power and in fact, still encounter many forms of discrimination and inequality.

It is worth noting that as quoted from the MSNBC article above, the apology resolution explicitly acknowledges this ongoing inequality. In other words, it seems that at least in this case, Congress actually seems to know more than what many Americans would probably give them credit for.

With that in mind, my hope that our government can once again lead the way in facilitating a more racially equal society has been rekindled — for now.

July 15, 2008

Written by C.N.

Michael Chang’s Significance to Asian Americans

As many of you already know, one area in which Asian Americans have slowly been achieving success and popularity is professional sports. Although many athletes from Asia such as Ichiro and Yao Ming have become superstars, only a few Asian American athletes have climbed to the top of their sports. For members of Generation X like me, one of the earlier such star Asian American athletes was professional tennis player Michael Chang.

Michael Chang turned pro while still a teenager and most famously, in 1989 dramatically beat the heavily-favored and #1 ranked men’s player Ivan Lendl to become champion of the French Open. In the fourth set of that match, Chang experienced severe leg cramps that would have led most players to quit. But Chang doggedly persevered and used unorthodox tactics such as hitting “moon balls” and underhand serves to disrupt Lendl’s timing, finally winning the match in five sets.

Chang was never as flashy or a media superstar like his modern Asian/Asian American contemporaries such as Ichiro, Yao Ming, or Michelle Wie, let alone like his main tennis rival at the time, Andre Agassi. Instead, through his athletic talent, numerous charity work for the sport and the Asian American community, and his quiet but confident demeanor off the court, Chang focused on “walking the walk,” rather than just “talking the talk.” In other words, his actions spoke for themselves.

This past weekend, Michael Chang was inducted into the International Tennis Hall of Fame. In addition to summarizing his career, the ESPN article links his achievements as a Chinese American to China’s hosting of the Summer Olympics later this summer and how Chang’s 1989 French Open win took place during the Tiananmen Square uprising.

But for me personally, Michael Chang’s significance goes far beyond that. At a time when Asian Americans were still firmly associated with being computer nerds (the “Long Duk Dong” stereotype), Michael Chang quietly but firmly showed American society that we could be equally accomplished in other professionals and pursuits as well. He was a role model to many young Asian American males like myself, who finally saw a successful professional athlete who looked like us.

I will also associate Michael Chang with one particular moment in my life — the moment in which I changed from being a quiet and passive young American just looking to fit in, into a proud and angry young Asian American who finally became tired of being the target of racism and was now going to stand up and resist.

That moment came in the early 1990s as I was nearing the end of my college career. I was just beginning to become “re-ethnicized” after switching my major from pre-med to political science with a minor in sociology. After taking my first sociology course in race and ethnicity, I was finally learning the true history and nature of American race relations and the inequalities and injustices that groups of color such as Asian American had and continue to face.

At that time, I also became more aware of prejudice and discrimination perpetrated against Asian Americans like myself and many of my White friends were taken aback by my new “militant” and “angry” attitude. This situation finally came to a head one day as my roommates and friends and I were sitting around our apartment watching TV.

A commercial came on that featured Michael Chang endorsing the Discover credit card, if I recall correctly. At the end of the commercial, one of my roommates, a White male named Owen, just casually remarked, “So the nip has sold out, I guess,” a derogatory reference to Michael Chang.

Upon hearing that comment, something in me snapped. I immediately became enraged and yelled back, “F*** you, Owen! Is that what you think of me? Am I just a f***ing nip to you?!?

Owen sheepishly apologized by saying, “Oh sorry, C.N.” Clearly, he considered me to be invisible, literally and figuratively. The room immediately became silent and the other four or so people in the room (all of them White) all lowered their heads, hoping that things would calm down. But I was still furious and was ready to escalate the situation by physically confronting Owen.

In the end, I decided to leave the apartment and go for a walk to clear my head and calm my anger. As I was walking around the apartment complex, I vowed that I was never going to sit by and quietly take that kind of prejudice — that kind of racism ever again. When I returned to the apartment about 30 minutes later, everyone had left and from that point on, my relationship with them changed forever — for the better.

While there were many significant moments in my personal and intellectual development during that time, that was definitely the turning point in my personal identity as a Vietnamese American, an Asian American, and a person of color.

Thank you Michael, for your quiet but firm dignity and determination to define yourself, rather than letting others do it for you, and for serving as a pioneer and a role model for all Asian Americans.

June 26, 2008

Written by C.N.

Disneyland: A Metaphor for Fitting In

Regular readers to this blog may have noticed that I have not posted often as of late. As you might have guessed, it’s because I’m on vacation — visiting my parents and friends in southern California. As part of my trip, we also did the Disneyland thing the other day by going there with some friends and their families.

Overall, it was a fun experience, especially for my daughter, who never objects to a trip to the Tragic, err Magic Kingdom. However, there were a couple of “incidents” that — unexpectedly — stood out as interesting metaphors for the sociology of being “American,” a theme about which I’ve often blogged on this site.

Specifically, my wife, daughter, and I were part of a large group that included two of my best friends (Jim and Tony) from high school and their families, Jim’s ex-girlfriend from high school (Kim), and Jim’s sister (Michelle) and her family. For the record, they are all White while of course, my wife, daughter, and I are Asian American.

The “incidents” in question were when we were about to board a particular ride or attraction and the Disneyland attendant would determine who was in which party and therefore, how many people to let into each car for the ride in question.

A couple of times my family and I were at the tail end of the group and as such, when we reached the ride attendant, s/he would close the gate before we could enter, thinking that were were not part of the group that s/he just let in, when in fact, we were. We would immediately let him/her know that we were part of the group s/he just let in and the attendant would say, “Oh ok, sorry about that” and let us in.

For us, we did not think that much about it because quite frankly, we’re used to being thought of as “outsiders” or not part of the “normal” or “mainstream.” But each time these incidents happened, my friend Tony noticed and by the second time, he remarked that he found those incidents to be a little jarring for him to see how we were automatically thought of as “outsiders” in everyday situations like being at Disneyland.

One of the reasons why Tony and I have been friends for so long is because long ago, he understood my identity as an Asian American, a person of color, and some of the challenges that I face on the individual and institutional levels of American society as a result of these identities. So it’s not as though he is completely clueless about such issues.

But when he admitted that he found those incidents to be rather disconcerting, I realized that for many White Americans, they may have an intellectual understanding of racism, or at the least, implicit racial assumptions that function to exclude people of color, but until they actually see it happen right in front of them, they really cannot appreciate just how such incidents can accumulate in the psyche of people of color and for the perpetrators of such racial exclusion.

Ultimately, these incidents — the actual “closing of the gates” as we were about to enter and my friend Tony’s reaction to them — serve as an interesting and useful metaphor for the status of people of color, particularly Asian Americans, in American society in the eyes of many Whites.

That is, we are frequently and automatically seen as outsiders and not “real” or “authentic” members of the mainstream and second, that our White allies sometimes don’t fully understand or appreciate our position in American society until they see it happen right in front of their eyes.

As you can see, sociology can happen in many places — even Disneyland.