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.
Recent news on the higher education scene has turned attention to the Asian American case, or cases we should say. A team of education researchers led by Dr. Robert Teranishi used data from the Census Bureau’s American Community Survey and the University of California higher education system to make the case that Asian American ethnic groups are not all performing in the “model minority” way. As some readers know, Asian Americans tend to be grouped together as if they were a racial equivalent to “white” “black” and sometimes “Hispanic.”
When this kind of grouping occurs, scholars and interested citizens look for similarities and differences between racial groups on outcomes like educational attainment, household income, poverty levels, health etc. From this classification approach Asian Americans tend to appear exemplary on a number of outcomes. Take for example, last year’s Pew report on Asian Americans. Using the American Community Survey, Pew shows an aggregate figure for bachelor’s degree attainment and median household income in 2010 for Asian Americans. As the title of their figure states “Asian Americans Lead Others in Education, Income.”
Teranishi and colleagues’ report disaggregates, that is, splits into smaller groups, the Asian American classification using the same data, and this is what they find. In this first graph we see bachelor’s degree attainment across multiple Asian American groups and we find surprising differences across the board. At the one end, Taiwanese and Asian Indian Americans report over 71% within each group with a bachelor’s degree. At the other end, about 12% of Laotian and 15% of Hmong Americans claim the same educational attainment. So while it is the case that Asian Americans as a group appear to have a lot of education, the reality is that only certain groups are showing this level attainment.
Now let’s look at household income. Using the median household income ($66,000 according to the Pew report) for all Asian Americans, Teranishi et al. disaggregate that figure and show the following.
As you can see, at one extreme, Asian Indian Americans exceed the Asian American household income mean by over $21,000 on average. Hmong Americans are below that same mean by almost the same amount. In fact 9 out of the 15 groups are below the Asian American mean. And 7 of these groups are lower than the white American average.
What this suggests is that Asian Americans are highly diverse socioeconomically. To the extent that the model minority myth is applied to this collection of SES-diverse groups, it masks the evident differences among them. Read the full report here to find out more about the benefits of disaggregation especially in higher education within the University of California system. Similar kinds of analyses were conducted by Dr. Paul Ong and associates who disaggregated homeownership and cash public assistance rates across Asian ethnic groups in several different areas of the US.
The slide show report on some of their findings is here, and the regional reports are here. Like Teranishi et al.’s report, disaggregation of Asian American homeownership, other assets and public assistance shows that the rates of these socioeconomic patterns vary a lot by Asian ethnic group.
Some might ask: then why is the overall Asian American average so high to begin with. The answer is a matter of population size. Look back at the disaggregated figures. Pick out these groups: Chinese, Filipino, Indian, Vietnamese, Korean, and Japanese. These groups take up 83% of all Asian Americans. Statistically, the other groups are not numerically large enough to alter the educational attainment or household income average of the largest six groups since they take up a greater share of the population. We should remember too, sizable numbers of Asian Americans in the larger groups do not share in the picture of “success” that their same-ethnic peers experience.
In our racialized society, we like our groups to be simple; we prefer to ignore the diverse realities within the groupings we create. By using “Asian American” as shorthand for “the successful minority” we mask major differences in the outcomes that presumably all Asian Americans share. Notably, our social programs often utilize this assumption and give next to nothing for vulnerable Asian Americans. This in turn makes Asian American inequalities invisible.
Hopefully more leaders and concerned citizens will grow aware of the problem we create when we use the stereotype of “the high –achieving, hard-working minority.” Reports and studies, like the one produced by Dr. Teranishi that disaggregate the Asian American data story expand our own understanding that this story is not just diverse culturally, but socioeconomically as well.
As 2011 comes to an end, once again I look back at the major events, developments, and trends in U.S. racial/ethnic relations during the past year and focus on some of the positive highlights as well as the setbacks in terms of achieving racial/ethnic equality and justice, with a particular focus on Asian Americans (my area of expertise). This list is not meant to be an exhaustive review of all racial/ethnic news in 2011, but rather the ones that I covered in this blog and ones that I believe have the most sociological significance.
Thoughts on the ‘Tiger Mother’ Controversy The firestorm over Amy Chua’s Battle Hymn of the Tiger Mother book highlights some key lessons for Asian Americans and non-Asians in terms of parenting and cultural differences.
Many of you have probably seen The Hangover Part 2, the sequel to the surprise hit of 2009. I recently watched the first Hangover film and mostly enjoyed it, although it was not quite as uproariously hilarious as many of my friends hyped it up to be. I have yet to see Hangover 2 and now my motivation has declined even further, after reading my friend Jeff Yang’s recent article about it in his column for the San Francisco Chronicle. Some excerpts:
“H2″ made an absurd $103 million over the three-day weekend — an all-time record for a live-action comedy, despite near-universal excoriation by critics, who called it “uninspired and unoriginal,” “unclean and mostly unfunny,” and “rancid and predictable.” What few pointed out was that, in seeking to top the already over-the-top comic sensibilities of the original, the filmmakers chose the sleaziest, easiest possible solution, unleashing a relentless bastinado of abuse at the expense of Asians, a group that they presumably felt could be targeted with minimal concern about potential backlash.
If you’re an Asian who swallowed hard upon hearing that the sequel would be set in Bangkok, you’ll need to swallow harder just to keep down your gorge at what they’ve produced. The film’s depiction of Thailand transforms the “Land of Smiles” into a bizarro realm of brute violence, grim depravity and unfettered libido, populated entirely by broad racial stereotypes: Thuggish gangsters. Wizened monks. Lascivious ladyboys. Not to mention whiz-kid pre-meds, infinitely forgiving lotus-blossom brides and the Father of All Tiger Dads. . . .
As an Asian American who enjoyed the first film, I found the sequel bluntly and inexplicably offensive — with the fact that the movie opened in the waning days of May [Asian Pacific American Heritage Month] being soy sauce in the wound.
Jeff Yang could have ranted on about the various ways in which he found Hangover 2 offensive but most of his article actually focuses on what Asian Americans can actually do about this ongoing problem of Asians and Asian Americans consistently being portrayed using racist stereotypes in mainstream Hollywood films. Specifically, he offers some thoughts about the possibility of not only creating an alternative set of filmmakers who would portray Asian Americans more accurately, but also creating an alternative audience that would be able to sustain such independent efforts. But along the way, Jeff raises some important challenges that still need to be addressed:
For an indie filmmaker, you simply can’t make money with theatrical distribution. But if you’re talking a target not of theatrical distribution but direct-to-DVD, a film with a guerrilla $250,000 budget can make back its costs and return a healthy profit if it sells 20,000 units at $20 a pop. . . .
Now, there are currently more than a million Asian Americans enrolled in college — two-thirds of whom are concentrated in eight states. It would only take two percent of them collectively purchasing a book or DVD or CD to make it solidly profitable — supporting the work of a creative artist, and enabling that creator to continue doing what he or she does, with full freedom to make art that’s appealing and authentic and true to an Asian American experience.
This is the gist of something that, in our conversations, cultural critic and academic Oliver Wang has dubbed The Two Percent Project. Here’s how it might work: Get together a group of smart, influential tastemakers — journalists, critics, student leaders, bloggers. Have them select five indie Asian American creators — writers, filmmakers, musicians — from an open call that includes anyone with a brand-new, brashly different and commercially viable product.
Send these creators on a collective national barnstorming tour of the college campuses with the biggest Asian American student representation — reading, performing, speaking, and showing their work and their potential. The costs of the tour would be covered by student organization funds and corporate sponsors.
Here’s the kicker: Although attendance at these events would be free, every attendee would have to purchase one of the five products these artists are promoting on the spot, while enrolling in an online community that gives the artists long-term engagement with their consumers. The goal? Constructing an independent audience. Reinventing the Asian American brand. And creating recorded proof that Asian American artists are marketable and that a market exists to sustain them.
Jeff’s idea sounds plausible to me, especially if Asian Americans, young and old, keep railing against movies rife with racial stereotypes like Hangover 2. Jeff’s idea doesn’t even take into consideration the growing numbers of Asian American professionals who are making good money and actually have the financial means to support such independent efforts even more than college students. If there is a plan that can incorporate them into this movement, it would certainly produce positive results.
Either way, I applaud Jeff Yang, Oliver Wang, and others who are doing more than just complaining about injustices against Asian Americans — they’re proposing potential plans of action and solutions to the problem. Their specific ideas may or may not bear fruit immediately but at the least, they get the conversation started, get ideas rolling, and will hopefully lead to some innovative thinking and action to get something done.
Even if it’s a small step, at least it’s a step in the right direction.
Have you heard the hub-bub about the National Football League’s (NFL) decision to postpone the recent game between the Philadelphia Eagles and Minnesota Vikings due to the snowstorm that hit the east coast over the weekend? There’s a lot of debate about whether whether that was the right call — the NFL argues that they postponed the game due to concerns about fans safely getting to and leaving the stadium in the middle of a snowstorm.
On the other hand, others argue that football has a long history of being played in rough weather, with fans braving the elements in order to enjoy the experience involved in attending such games. For example, the Governor of Pennsylvania, Edward Rendell (a Democrat if it matters) said that the NFL’s decision shows that we’re becoming a nation of “wusses.” But as shown in the video clip from NBC News below, what got the attention of many Asian Americans was his comment comparing the U.S. to China:
We’re becoming a nation of wusses. The Chinese are kicking our butt in everything. If this was in China, do you think the Chinese would have called off the game? People would have been marching down to the stadium, they would have walked and they would have been doing calculus on the way down.”
I’m still trying to decide what to make of Rendell’s comments. In the meantime, let me ask you (you can answer in the online poll below): Are Rendell’s comments about the Chinese offensive to Asian Americans?
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them.
Recently, a reader emailed me to ask why Arab, Muslim, and other ethnic and cultural groups from western Asia are not included within the “Asian American” category. I replied that from a sociological point of view, collective group identities such as “Asian American” are based on more than just geography — there are also political, economic, cultural, and religious similarities and differences.
That is why the consensus of scholars generally separate out “Asian Americans” and “Arab and Muslim Americans” as distinct group identities. Nonetheless, I also noted that both Asian Americans and Arab & Muslim Americans share many things in common and in fact, I have written several articles and blog posts on this site on the connections between the two groups.
Below are some recent and notable books that highlight the recent histories and contemporary experiences of Arab and Muslim Americans even more:
This book is the most powerful approach imaginable: it is the story of the last forty-plus years of American history, told through the eyes of Arab Americans. Each chapter describes an event in U.S. history — which may already be familiar to us — and invites us to live that moment in time in the skin of one Arab American. The chapters follow a timeline from 1963 to the present, and the characters live in every corner of this country.
We meet fellow Americans of all creeds and colors, among them the Alabama football player who navigates the stringent racial mores of segregated Birmingham, where a church bombing wakes a nation to the need to make America a truly more equal place; the young wife from Ramallah — now living in Baltimore — who had to abandon her beautiful homeand is now asked by a well-meaning American, “How do you like living in an apartment after living in a tent?”; the Detroit toughs and the potsmoking suburban teenagers, who in different decades become politicized and serious about their heritage despite their own wills; the homosexual man afraid to be gay in the Arab world and afraid to be Arab in America; the two formidable women who wind up working for opposing campaigns in the 2000 presidential election; the Marine fighting in Iraq who meets villagers who ask him, “What are you, an Arab, doing here?”
We glimpse how America sees Arabs as much as how Arabs see America. We revisit the 1973 oil embargo that initiated the American perception of all Arabs as oil-rich sheikhs; the 1979 Iranian hostage crisis that heralded the arrival of Middle Eastern Islam in the American consciousness; bombings across three decades in Los Angeles, Oklahoma City, and New York City that bring terrorism to American soil; and both wars in Iraq that have posed Arabs as the enemies of America.
Just over a century ago , W.E.B. Du Bois posed a probing question in his classic The Souls of Black Folk: How does it feel to be a problem? Now, Moustafa Bayoumi asks the same about America’s new “problem”-Arab- and Muslim-Americans. Bayoumi takes readers into the lives of seven twenty-somethings living in Brooklyn, home to the largest Arab-American population in the United States.
He moves beyond stereotypes and clichés to reveal their often unseen struggles, from being subjected to government surveillance to the indignities of workplace discrimination. Through it all, these young men and women persevere through triumphs and setbacks as they help weave the tapestry of a new society that is, at its heart, purely American.
Four out of ten Americans say they dislike Muslims, according to a Gallup poll. “Muslims,” a blogger wrote on the Web site Free Republic, “don’t belong in America.” In a lively, funny, and revealing riposte to these sentiments, journalist Jonathan Curiel offers a fascinating tour through the little-known Islamic past, and present, of American culture.
From highbrow to pop, from lighthearted to profound, Al’ America reveals the Islamic and Arab influences before our eyes, under our noses, and ringing in our ears. Curiel demonstrates that many of America’s most celebrated places—including the Alamo in San Antonio, the French Quarter of New Orleans, and the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina—retain vestiges of Arab and Islamic culture.
Likewise, some of America’s most recognizable music—the Delta Blues, the surf sounds of Dick Dale, the rock and psychedelia of Jim Morrison and the Doors—is indebted to Arab music. And some of America’s leading historical figures, from Ralph Waldo Emerson to Elvis Presley, relied on Arab or Muslim culture for intellectual sustenance.
Part travelogue, part cultural history, Al’ America confirms a continuous pattern of give-and-take between America and the Arab-Muslim world. The rich and surprising tapestry of Arab and Islamic influence on America includes:
Architecture: from the World Trade Center to the Citadel in Charleston, South Carolina
Music: from the blues to surf music and the Doors
Philosophy and poetry: from the Transcendentalists and Henry James to Khalil Gibran and Rumi
The food we eat: from ice cream cone to coffee
Pop culture: from P.T. Barnum to the Shriners and Star Wars
Bringing the rich terrain of Arab American histories to bear on conceptualizations of race in the U.S., this groundbreaking volume fills a critical gap in the field of ethnic studies. Unlike most immigrant communities who either have been consistently marked as “non-white,” or have made a transition from “non-white” to “white,” Arab Americans historically have been rendered “white” and have increasingly come to be seen as “non-white.”
This book highlights emergent discourses on the distinct ways that race matters to the study of Arab American histories and asks essential questions. What is the relationship between U.S. imperialism in Arab homelands and anti-Arab racism in the lives of Arab Americans? What are the relationships between religion, class, gender, and anti-Arab racism? What is the significance of whiteness studies to Arab American studies?
Transcending multiculturalist discourses after September 11 that have simply “added on” the category “Arab American” to the landscape of U.S. ethnic and racial studies, this volume locates September 11 as a turning point, rather than a beginning, in the history of Arab American engagements with race, multiculturalism, and Americanization.
Two weeks ago, In-Goo Kwak, a freshman studying international relations and an immigrant from South Korea, put up a series of posters around his dormitory parodying the campaign poster of Alice Pang, another freshman of Asian descent who was running for the Tufts Community Union Senate. Kwak was not actually running for a student government position, but posted the parody next to Pang’s at the encouragement of his dorm mates. who thought he was right to poke fun at the air of political correctness he perceived on the campus.
Pang’s poster included the campaign slogan, “small person, big ideas,” with the exclamation “hurrah!” next to her portrait. Kwak’s parody poster looks strikingly similar in design to Pang’s and includes the slogan “squinty eyes, big vision.” Next to Kwak’s portrait is the word “kimchi!” — a traditional Korean dish. Additionally, where Pang’s poster read “vote on Thursday,” Kwak’s said, “Prease vote me! I work reary hard!” in deliberately broken English. . . .
Linell Yugawa [Director of Tufts’ Asian American Center] sent an e-mail to the entire Tufts community denouncing Kwak’s parody. . . .
“Many Asian/Asian Americans and individuals of other racial backgrounds have been angered, hurt, and offended by these posters,” Yugawa wrote . . . “The posters not only mocked an authorized campaign poster, but used negative and racist stereotypes that correlate with the discrimination and dehumanization of Asians. These posters go beyond affecting one individual or group, but offend all who have an understanding of how racist stereotypes impact our lives.
“Some may argue that we need to ‘lighten up’ and/or ‘reclaim’ the stereotypes and words that have harmed us and our communities. While it is one thing to mutually engage in this type of conversation, it is another to post stereotypical and racist language that is open to interpretation and hurtful to many.”
There seems to be a few different issues here. According to Kwak (the student who put up the parody poster), the main issue here is freedom of speech and his right to criticize what he perceives to be political correctness gone overboard. My response is, yes he has the freedom to criticize what he perceives to be political correctness. But along with that, other students have the same freedom to denounce him as ignorant and I agree with those criticisms against Kwak.
It is a tricky situation in that yes, to a certain degree, one strategy for us as Asian Americans to fight back against the prejudice and discrimination that we’ve experienced through the years is to appropriate the stereotypes and reclaim the derogatory slurs that have been used against us and to turn them around for our own purposes. Other cultural minorities groups have been successful in doing this, such as Mexican Americans reclaiming the term “Chicano” and gay Americans reclaiming the term “queer.”
However, this does not mean that Asian Americans should start going around spouting stereotypes left and right. Such an effort to reclaim derogatory slurs needs to be focused, coordinated, and consensual. Unfortunately, Kwak’s effort in the form of his parody poster were none of those.
Instead, as Director Yugawa noted, his effort made fun of another Asian American student and used offensive stereotypes that rekindled very painful memories for many Asian Americans. Instead of uniting other Asian Americans as allies in the fight against anti-Asian racism, he alienated them.
The lesson here is that Asian Americans have a right to criticize what they believe to be political correctness and even to try to reclaim offensive historical caricatures. But in the process of doing so, if they use demeaning stereotypes against other Asian Americans, they should be prepared to accept the criticisms and denouncements that will inevitably follow. Ultimately, freedom of speech goes both ways.
As part of this blog’s mission of making academic research and data more easily accessible, understandable, and applicable to a wider audience and to practical, everyday social issues, I highlight new sociological books about Asian Americans and other racial/ethnic groups as I hear about them.
This particular book examines a consistently controversial and hot-button topic among all Americans, but particularly Asian Americans — interracial dating and marriage. The author’s findings are not likely to end the disagreements about the racial and gender dynamics inherent within such unions and may even add more fuel to the fire, but nonetheless it is a worthy contribution to the discussion.
Despite being far from the norm, interracial relationships are more popular than ever. Racing Romance sheds special light on the bonds between Whites and Asian Americans, an important topic that has not garnered well-deserved attention until now. Incorporating life-history narratives and interviews with those currently or previously involved with an interracial partner, Kumiko Nemoto addresses the contradictions and tensions — a result of race, class, and gender — that Asian Americans and Whites experience.
Similar to Black/White relationships, stereotypes have long played crucial roles in Asian American/White encounters. Partners grapple with media representations of Asian women as submissive or hypersexual and Asian men are often portrayed as weak laborers or powerful martial artists. Racing Romance reveals how allegedly progressive interracial relationships remain firmly shaped by the logic of patriarchy and gender inherent to the ideal of marriage, family, and nation in America, even as this ideal is juxtaposed with discourses of multiculturalism and color blindness.
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.
My fellow sociologist blogger Joe Feagin at Racism Review mentions that David Segal over at Slate has a very interesting and informative slideshow of racist commercial caricatures over the years. For those who are too young to remember, blatantly derogatory and stereotypical images of Blacks, Latinos, Native American Indians, and Asians were routinely used to sell products not too long ago. Below is just one example:
Nasty stereotypes have helped move the merchandise for more than a century, and the history of their use and abuse offers a weird and telling glimpse of race relations in this country. Not surprisingly, the earliest instances were the most egregious.
This circa-1900 ad for a rodent-control product called “Rough on Rats” doesn’t just exploit the then-popular urban legend that Chinese people eat rats. It also underscores the intensity of American xenophobia of the day. There were anti-Chinese riots at the time, as well as legislation like the Chinese Exclusion Act, a federal ban on immigration passed in 1882. (It was on the books until 1943.) In the ad, “They must go” refers both to the rodents and the Chinese.
For those interested in the sociology of media and cultural images, my colleagues at Contexts magazine host a very interesting blog titled “Sociological Images” that you should definitely check out.
Unfortunately, as the Slate slideshow and captions point out, there are a few racist caricatures that are still with us today and you may be surprised at what they are.
I mentioned in my last post that like many people, my family and I were traveling over the holidays to visit relatives out of state. In these travels, one relatively minor incident in the airport security lines illustrated for me just how complex — and in some ways even contradictory — an Asian American identity is for many of us.
Fortunately, this particular incident did not involve any type of racial profiling against us or somebody else in our presence that made national news, as at least one Muslim American family unfortunately had to endure over the holidays. Instead, this incident was rather ordinary, even mundane, and probably a common occurrence in the lives of many Asian Americans.
Here’s the scene: we were at the St. Louis airport going through the airport security x-ray machines on our way to catch our flight back home to Massachusetts. A few people ahead of us were a relatively young Chinese husband and wife. Perhaps it was their first time traveling through an American airport because they were clearly “unprepared” — their luggage was too big to go through the x-ray machines and should have been checked baggage and they had not separated out their liquids into the standard three ounce containers and baggie.
As a result of this, the airport security workers were trying to explain to them that they were out of compliance with the regulations and what they needed to do to correct the situation. The airport workers were actually polite and understanding but the Chinese couple, perhaps complicated by the fact that their English wasn’t perfect, were understandably a little flustered.
The result of this was that they were holding up the other travelers behind them in line, including my family and I. Initially, everyone was patient but after a few minutes, it was clear that some were getting a little frustrated. Nobody said anything the whole time we were all waiting but there were the inevitably sighs and rolling eyes as the Chinese couple and the airport workers tried to clear everything up.
Initially, that included me as well. My first reaction was also to get a little annoyed and soon thoughts such as “Come one, haven’t ever been through an airport security line before?” and “It would help if you knew English a little better” floated through my mind. I will presume that the other people in line probably had similar sentiments as well. In other words, this was a typical reaction from Americans towards foreigners in such a situation.
But after a while, I caught myself and consciously took a step back from my initial reactions and tried to apply a little sociological thinking to the situation. In doing so, I came to have a little more sympathy for the Chinese couple. First, I kept in mind that for all Americans, each of our ancestors were foreigners to this country at one time or another. And for me personally as a Vietnamese American, that included my own parents.
I remembered that my own parents went through similar incidents in the past, especially in the early part of our resettlement into the U.S. as they tried to assimilate into American society after leaving Viet Nam. Perhaps not in an airport security line, but my parents almost certainly encountered such cultural embarrassments checking out at a supermarket, talking with a teller at the bank, ordering at a restaurant, and probably many other situations in which they were just trying to become mainstream Americans.
Along with that, even today as an Asian American, I still encounter situations in which even though I am thoroughly Americanized and speak English perfectly, other Americans automatically assume that I’m a foreigner just by looking at me, based on the persistent stereotype that all Asians are foreigners. As Asian American scholars and any average Asian American would confirm, this lingering bias is still a big hurdle for many Asian Americans to overcome as we try to live our lives here in the U.S.
Secondly, I tried to personalize the Chinese couple’s situation by asking myself, How well would I do if I were trying to navigate through a foreign airport for the first time and had to understand its specific regulations and customs, formal and informal, whether it be in China, Brazil, Russia, or any other foreign country that did not speak my native language?
Based on these thoughts in which I indirectly sympathized with the Chinese couple’s situation, I contrasted them with my initial reaction of annoyance at them and came to realize that this was a perfect illustration of just how complicated and even contradictory an Asian American identity is for many of us.
In other words, as Asian Americans, were may feel implicitly obligated to sympathize and be in solidarity with our fellow Asians (foreign and American), either for political purposes or because of our direct ties to our family, relatives, and ancestors from afar. But on the other hand, as a “typical” American, it’s hard to escape sentiments that lead us to feel aggravated when others cause us inconvenience (however brief) or run afoul of our American customs and practices that we ourselves have already internalized into our lives in our own quest to be “mainstream” Americans.
There is no easy answer here. There is no “right” or “correct” way for Asian Americans to react to or handle incidents like this that involve other Asians who are simultaneously similar to and different from us.
Nonetheless, as I reflect on this incident and my initial and secondary thoughts about it, I also see that I’m really glad that I’m a sociologist who has learned the tools to make sense of the multiple levels of factors and the intersections of so many different issues that come into play in situations like this.
That is, as I tell the students in my classes, sociology teaches you to do two seemingly contradictory things — to personalize and depersonalize things at the same time. Being able to personalize and depersonalize an issue or idea then allows you to understand that there are multiple levels of analysis for that issue/idea — the individual level, group level, and institutional level. In a nutshell, this is the first lesson of Sociology 101.
To personalize something is look at a particular idea or situation and to say something like, “Yeah ok, I see how that theory or example can apply to my personal experiences. I can relate to that.” On the other hand, to depersonalize something would be to say something like, “Hmmm, that particular theory or example doesn’t really apply to my personal experiences, but I can see how other people might look at it in that way.”
I also tell my students that the basic foundation of virtually all instances of disagreement, conflict, and even hostility around a race/ethnicity-related issue such as affirmative action, undocumented immigration, etc., is when people can’t properly personalize or depersonalize the issue and unfortunately, end up talking at each other from different levels of analysis (i.e., one person is expressing their opinion from an individual level while the other is coming at it from an institutional level).
In this instance, I personalized the Chinese couple’s situation by relating it to how I would fare in a foreign airport for the first time and by remembering my own parents’ struggles to fit into American society. I also depersonalized the situation by recalling that all of our ancestors were foreigners to this country at one time and that Americans from all backgrounds share a common set of behaviors and that it upsets our sense of a collective identity when a “foreigner” violates such customs.
In the end, I think the lessons here are (1) for anybody in general but Asian Americans in particular, it’s natural and inevitable to have complicated or even contradictory feelings about one’s identity as an “Asian” and how to relate to other Asians and (2) when such contradictions and confusion arise, there are ways to make sense of them — by knowing when to personalize and when to depersonalize and understanding that there are multiple levels of analysis to any issue.
In other words, there are many ways to “do sociology” in our everyday lives.