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.
By now, you’ve heard of the controversy surrounding how all the acting nominees at the 2016 Academy Awards were entirely White, with no actor of color nominated. And you probably saw host Chris Rock’s take on the situation throughout the Oscars awards ceremony. And hopefully you saw the skit in which three Asian American children were used as props for a rather weak and ultimately offensive skit.
Lots of people and many Asian Americans have rightfully called out Chris Rock’s skit as downright racist. One of the best critiques (in my biased opinion) comes from fellow Asian American professor, UMass Amherst colleague, and my wife Miliann Kang in her piece at Contexts magazine, titled “An Asian American Mother’s Question to Chris Rock and the Academy.” An excerpt:
Out walked three Asian American children, wearing tuxes and thick glasses. Chris Rock introduced them as accountants from the prestigious firm of Pricewaterhouse Coopers—Ming Zu, Bao Ling, and…David Moskowitz? Then anticipating the pushback, he added that if anyone was upset they should “just tweet about it on your phone that was also made by these kids.”
I looked over at my sixteen year-old daughter who looked stunned. Was this really happening? She loves Chris Rock. She loves movies. We were right there with him, so what happened? . . .
These are the oldest tricks in the racial playbook -— kick the next person down on the rung. Divide and conquer. Shame and blame. Dump the pain on someone else. I know Chris Rock did not create these problems, and he has done much to try to address them. And whether or not Chris Rock made racist jokes about Asians, Hollywood would still have a race problem. But on this night, he also added to them. . . .
I thought we were further along than this. I thought my child would not have to endure the same inane, stupid racist jokes that I grew up with, not on the playground, not in the movies, not on a night that was supposed to highlight the importance of diversity in the movies.
Again, I am obviously biased since the author happens to be my wife, but I think her valuable contribution to the discussion of this incident is to both put it in the larger institutional context of the U.S. racial landscape while also personalizing its effect on our family as well.
The following new books look at the intersections and connections between race, ethnicity, immigration, and community and how different groups of color/immigrants negotiated the political, economic, and cultural landscape of U.S. society through the years, the impacts they’ve had on their new surroundings, and vice versa. As always, a book’s inclusion is for informational purposes only and does not necessarily mean a full endorsement of its contents.
While newly arrived immigrants are often the focus of public concern and debate, many Mexican immigrants and Mexican Americans have resided in the United States for generations. Latinos are the largest and fastest-growing ethnic group in the United States, and their racial identities change with each generation. While the attainment of education and middle class occupations signals a decline in cultural attachment for some, socioeconomic mobility is not a cultural death-knell, as others are highly ethnically identified. There are a variety of ways that middle class Mexican Americans relate to their ethnic heritage, and racialization despite assimilation among a segment of the second and third generations reveals the continuing role of race even among the U.S.-born.
Mexican Americans Across Generations investigates racial identity and assimilation in three-generation Mexican American families living in California. Through rich interviews with three generations of middle class Mexican American families, Vasquez focuses on the family as a key site for racial and gender identity formation, knowledge transmission, and incorporation processes, exploring how the racial identities of Mexican Americans both change and persist generationally in families. She illustrates how gender, physical appearance, parental teaching, historical era and discrimination influence Mexican Americans’ racial identity and incorporation patterns, ultimately arguing that neither racial identity nor assimilation are straightforward progressions but, instead, develop unevenly and are influenced by family, society, and historical social movements.
From the earliest colonial newspapers to the Internet age, America’s racial divisions have played a central role in the creation of the country’s media system, just as the media has contributed to—and every so often, combated—racial oppression. News for All the People reveals how racial segregation distorted the information Americans received from the mainstream media. It unearths numerous examples of how publishers and broadcasters actually fomented racial violence and discrimination through their coverage. And it chronicles the influence federal media policies exerted in such conflicts. It depicts the struggle of Black, Latino, Asian, and Native American journalists who fought to create a vibrant yet little-known alternative, democratic press, and then, beginning in the 1970s, forced open the doors of the major media companies.
The writing is fast-paced, story-driven, and replete with memorable portraits of individual journalists and media executives, both famous and obscure, heroes and villains. It weaves back and forth between the corporate and government leaders who built our segregated media system—such as Herbert Hoover, whose Federal Radio Commission eagerly awarded a license to a notorious Ku Klux Klan organization in the nation’s capital—and those who rebelled against that system, like Pittsburgh Courier publisher Robert L. Vann, who led a remarkable national campaign to get the black-face comedy Amos ‘n’ Andy off the air.
Based on years of original archival research and up-to-the-minute reporting and written by two veteran journalists and leading advocates for a more inclusive and democratic media system, News for All the People should become the standard history of American media.
In the final years of the nineteenth century, small groups of Muslim peddlers arrived at Ellis Island every summer, bags heavy with embroidered silks from their home villages in Bengal. The American demand for “Oriental goods” took these migrants on a curious path, from New Jersey’s beach boardwalks into the heart of the segregated South. Two decades later, hundreds of Indian Muslim seamen began jumping ship in New York and Baltimore, escaping the engine rooms of British steamers to find less brutal work onshore. As factory owners sought their labor and anti-Asian immigration laws closed in around them, these men built clandestine networks that stretched from the northeastern waterfront across the industrial Midwest.
The stories of these early working-class migrants vividly contrast with our typical understanding of immigration. Vivek Bald’s meticulous reconstruction reveals a lost history of South Asian sojourning and life-making in the United States. At a time when Asian immigrants were vilified and criminalized, Bengali Muslims quietly became part of some of America’s most iconic neighborhoods of color, from Tremé in New Orleans to Detroit’s Black Bottom, from West Baltimore to Harlem. Many started families with Creole, Puerto Rican, and African American women.
As steel and auto workers in the Midwest, as traders in the South, and as halal hot dog vendors on 125th Street, these immigrants created lives as remarkable as they are unknown. Their stories of ingenuity and intermixture challenge assumptions about assimilation and reveal cross-racial affinities beneath the surface of early twentieth-century America.
Whiteness and Racialized Ethnic Groups in the United States, in order to account for the never ending discrimination toward racialized ethnic groups including First Nations, blacks, Chinese, and Mexicans, revisits the history of whiteness in the United States. It shows the difference between remembering a history of human indignities and recreating one that composes its own textual memory. More specifically, it reformulates how the historically reliant positionality of whiteness, as a part of the everyday practice and discourse of white supremacy, would later become institutionalized.
Even though “whiteness studies,” with the intention of exposing white privilege, has entered the realm of academic research and is moving toward antiracist forms of whiteness or, at least, toward antiracist approaches for a different form of whiteness, it is not equipped to relinquish the privilege that comes with normalized whiteness. Hence, in order to construct a post white identity, whiteness would have to be denormalized and freed of it of its presumptive hegemony.
Farmers in Laos, U.S. allies during the Vietnam War, refugees in Thailand, citizens of the Western world—the stories of the Hmong who now live in America have been told in detail through books and articles and oral histories over the past several decades. Like any immigrant group, members of the first generation may yearn for the past as they watch their children and grandchildren find their way in the dominant culture of their new home.
For Hmong people born and educated in the United States, a definition of self often includes traditional practices and tight-knit family groups but also a distinctly Americanized point of view. How do Hmong Americans negotiate the expectations of these two very different cultures?
In an engaging series of essays featuring a range of writing styles, leading scholars, educators, artists, and community activists explore themes of history, culture, gender, class, family, and sexual orientation, weaving their own stories into depictions of a Hmong American community where people continue to develop complex identities that are collectively shared but deeply personal as they help to redefine the multicultural America of today.
Before the Khmer Rouge takeover of Cambodia in April 1975, Sao Bounchoeurn and San Bounriem grew up in idyllic, though vastly different, circumstances. After a secondary education, Bounchoeurn entered the army, joined the Special Forces, and worked for the Americans. He became a slave laborer after the fall of Phnom Penh and eventually escaped to Thailand. In another part of Cambodia, Bounriem lived happily spoiled and uneducated.
Fleeing from the advancing Khmer Rouge, she arrived at the same refugee camp as Bounchoeurn, where they met, married, and immigrated to America. This riveting memoir chronicles the couple’s childhoods, their lives under the Khmer Rouge, their journeys to Thailand and later the United States, and their efforts to forge a new life. This remarkable tale offers an intimate look inside the terrors of the Khmer Rouge and an inspiring portrait of the immigrant experience in America.
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.
You might be interested to read the following posts from October of years past:
2009: Asian American Students Acting Like Idiots A fight and arrests of Asian American students at a party hosted by the Lambda Phi Epsilon fraternity brings up troubling questions of race, hyper-masculinity, and accountability.
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.
In prior year Top 100 analyses, we have noted how the representation of African-Americans and Hispanics tends to decline with increasing degree levels. The first two charts of this analysis show that this is still the case with one notable exception.
African-Americans compose roughly 12 percent of the U.S. population and are represented among associate degree recipients at this same level. The level of African-American representation declines to just over 9 percent for bachelor’s degree recipients but increases to over 10 percent among master’s degree recipients. The downward trend is then notable in the first professional (7 percent) and doctoral degrees (6.1 percent).
Hispanics show the consistent downward trend we’ve noted in past years, ranging from just under 12 percent among associate degree recipients to just over 3 percent for doctoral degree recipients. . . .
Asian Americans have a much different pattern of representation. They are found in lowest proportion among associate degree recipients (5 percent), in slightly higher proportion among master’s and doctoral degree recipients (6 percent and 5.7 percent, respectively), higher still among bachelor’s degree recipients (7 percent), and then significantly higher among first professional degree recipients (13 percent).
There’s much more data to digest in the full report, but the gist of the results show that we need to pay close attention to the unique and specific needs and issues of each racial/ethnic group if we are to make the institution of higher education more equitable and just for Americans of all backgrounds.
Specifically, African Americans and Latinos are still disproportionately underrepresented as bachelor’s, master’s, professional, and doctorate degree recipients. And while Asian Americans are overrepresented in these categories, the data also shows that most of these recipients are international Asian students, as opposed to U.S.-born or raised Asian Americans.
As we move forward into the 21st century and as American society becomes increasingly globalized and integrated into the international community, one of our most important social institutions — higher education — needs to do a better job at reflecting these face of our nation and world.
The San Francisco Chronicle has an article and commentary by Jeff Yang about the current state of Asian Americans trying to achieve stardom on television:
The CBS sitcom “King of Queens” takes place in a region of New York where one out of five people is Asian, yet none of the regular or recurring characters is Asian American. You won’t find any of Orange County’s half a million Asians on Fox’s “The OC.” And though the WB’s “Charmed” is set in San Francisco, the three witchy Halliwell sisters seem mysteriously oblivious to the fact that a third of the city’s population — the Asian third — has magically vanished.
In fact, although Asian Americans make up about five percent of the U.S. population, we represent just 2.7 percent of all regularly appearing characters on prime-time TV and have only a handful of the starring or recurring roles in television’s traditional staple commodities: dramas and situation comedies. Oddly enough, hope has come from an unlikely source: reality TV, which has offered a backdoor means for some of Asian America’s most dynamic talents and, uh, colorful personalities to finally find a spotlight on the world’s biggest stage.
On ABC’s breakout reality hit “Dancing with the Stars,” Carrie Ann Inaba was showcased as one of three professional judges evaluating the fancy footwork of celebs like Evander Holyfield, “Seinfeld”‘s John O’Hurley and “General Hospital”‘s Kelly Monaco. And NBC’s much-buzzed-about new reality program “Three Wishes” features Diane Mizota as one of its three “angels,” who travel across small-town America, making dreams come true.
Yang notes that ironically, the one Asian American personality who’s been able to achieve the most fame and stardom is actually the dreaded William Hung — a pretty depressing thought. Yang’s article also gives a nice breakdown of some of the most notable Asian Americans who have appeared on reality TV in recent years and what they’re doing now. So I guess we’ll just have to keep doing what we’ve been doing — doing the best we can given the opportunities we have, and at the same time, trying our best to open our own doors.