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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.

March 23, 2011

Written by C.N.

White Privilege, Colorblindness, & the Model Minority Image: Asians in the Library Video

I presume that by now, you have heard about the furor surrounding UCLA student Alexandra Wallace and her ill-advised video that she posted to YouTube in which she “complains” about Asian Americans talking in the library by mocking them with such offensive phrases such as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and makes light of the natural disasters and human suffering in Japan (the video in its entirety is below).

For various reasons, there quickly followed a big backlash and firestorm against her — UCLA’s Chancellor, Dean G. Block, issued a statement condemning the video (but later and separately adding that she would not be expelled because she did not commit a violation of the school’s code of ethnics):

I am appalled by the thoughtless and hurtful comments of a UCLA student posted on YouTube. Like many of you, I recoil when someone invokes the right of free expression to demean other individuals or groups. . . . I believe that speech that expresses intolerance toward any group of people on the basis of race or gender, or sexual, religious or cultural identity is indefensible and has no place at UCLA.

UCLA’s well-respected Asian American Studies Center summed up the sentiments of many in the academic community very well:

[T]his rant — beyond the action of an individual — is clear evidence that we still have much work to do before we can claim to live in a “post-racial” society. . . . “Asians in the Library” is a travesty on many levels, representing an attack on Asian and Asian American students and their families and undermining UCLA as a global university with deep ties to communities and institutions in Asia and other parts of the world.

It entails a “new racism” by foregrounding students who speak Asian languages and have different family traditions, as it insidiously groups and attacks UCLA’s American-born as well as our international students of Asian ancestry. As the only University of California campus without a diversity requirement, UCLA surely needs to implement a diversity requirement that will expose every student to the task of living civilly with people of different origins, backgrounds, orientations, and beliefs, whether they are born here or come from abroad.

I would like to highlight and expand on some of the points raised in UCLA’s Asian American Studies Center statement. Specifically, I see this video rant as another unfortunate and dangerous example of what happens (and is likely to continue happening) when institutional factors intersect with each other, as they are doing right now: White privilege, colorblindness, Asian Americans seen as the quiet ‘model minority,’ and ‘yellow peril’ fears of the rise of Asian countries.

Lesson 1: White Privilege

Let’s start with White privilege. However difficult it is for many White Americans to hear, examples like this video clearly show that many (as in a large number, but certainly not all) Whites implicitly think there’s nothing wrong with invoking cultural stereotypes to portray an entire group of color. I have written about this dynamic many times before, but needless to say, this is certainly not the first time that Whites have tried to “make fun” of Asian Americans or other groups of color on college campuses and elsewhere in society.

© Pascal Campion, Ikon Images/Corbis

In her video, Alexandra Wallace unconsciously invokes White privilege by assuming that she can say whatever she wants about Asian Americans. For the sake of argument, I might accept that she is not aware that such phrases as “Ohhhhhhhhhh ching chong ling long ting tong ohhhhhhhhhh” and calling them “hordes” are deeply offensive and conjure up historical examples of Asians as faceless, sub-human invaders and villains.

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. That privilege also gives them the ability to not have to worry about saying or doing offensive things about other racial groups.

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 it was just 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 and 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.

Lesson 2: Colorblindness

A contributing factor that functions to reinforce and perpetuate White privilege is the ideology of colorblindness. Again, I have written about the fallacies and failures of trying to be colorblind in U.S. society many times.

In this case, the institutional backdrop to Alexandra Wallace’s rant is the misguided belief that we now live in a colorblind society in which everyone and every racial group is now politically, economically, and socially equal, and that racial/ethnic discrimination, inequality, and racism no longer exist. Further, being colorblind also means that it’s impolite to discuss race or the U.S.’s history of racial oppression and domination — let’s just forget about them since they’re not important anymore, right?

Suffice it to say, and as this video shows, race and racial differences are clearly still very important today. They are still relevant because inequalities still exist and discrimination still takes place, and because colorblindness still provides a crucial foundation upon which White privilege can exist. In other words, if everybody is the same and on an equal playing field, it’s perfectly fine to joke about them however we want, right?

Lesson 3: The Model Minority Image

Another factor that comes into play is the image of Asian Americans as the model minority: smart and high achieving, but also quiet, passive, and obedient. While it is true that on the aggregate level, Asian Americans as a collective group outperform Whites on many measures of socioeconomic achievement, when we look beneath the surface, we see that there are notable differences between ethnic groups (some Asian immigrant groups are more self-selective in terms of their human capital while others are more likely to be involuntary refugees). Further, generalizing the seemingly positive belief that Asian Americans are successful puts extraordinary pressure on all Asian Americans to live up to those standards.

In this particular case, I will hypothesize that Alexandra Wallace (and many others like her) presume that almost all Asian Americans are smart ans successful but also passive and therefore, won’t care if she complains and mocks them. Also, I cannot rule out some degree of resentment about the success of Asian Americans as well, particularly at a university where 40% of the student population is Asian American.

This resentment leads me to my final lesson . . .

Lesson 4: Yellow Peril and Fears About Rising Asia

At the risk of being redundant, again I have already highlighted numerous examples in which U.S. society and U.S. citizens are increasingly feeling destabilized by demographic changes in the U.S. population, the negative effects of globalization, and increased competition with the rising economies of Asian countries such as China and India.

The latter is often referred to as the new “yellow peril” image of Asians “invading” the U.S. and taking over or destroying its institutions and society. It is an image that frequently gets conjured up in times of economic recession and especially when Americans perceive others to be benefiting and prospering at their expense. With the economic and political emergence of Asian countries such as Japan, China, and India in recent decades and the concurrent decline of U.S. superiority, this yellow peril image has gained new life and indeed, seems to be a growing fear, consciously and unconsciously, for many Americans these days.

When people feel that their standard of living or “way of life” is being threatened, they are likely to get defensive, consciously and unconsciously. In that situation, one way to react is to draw a more rigid cultural boundary between “us” and “them.” In this case, Alexandra Wallace invoked this nativist sentiment clearly when she said, “In America, we don’t talk in the library.” Inside Higher Education has a very well-written analysis of this entire episode and journalist Allie Grasgreen quotes Professor Joe Feagin, former President of the American Sociological Association and well-respect expert on White privilege research, on this emerging distinction between “insiders” and “outsiders”:

For Joe R. Feagin, a sociology professor at Texas A&M University and co-author of The Myth of the Model Minority: Asian Americans Facing Racism, Wallace made a blatant statement that Asian students are separate from — and less important than — white students. “A key part of the stereotyping of Asians and Asian Americans is their foreignness,” Feagin said. “She makes the point that not only are Asians and Asian-Americans stereotyped and evaluated from the old, white vs. others — you know, racial framing — but they also face this dimension of not being American. That is, foreign vs. American.”

Taken together, all of these factors form the sociological context within which Alexandra Wallace publicly expressed her anti-Asian sentiments. The sad part of this episode is that she is certainly not the first person to engage in racism against Asian Americans and alas, she will not be the last.


June 15, 2009

Written by C.N.

Internet Technology, White Supremacy, & Racial Tolerance

Racial hatred and the extremist ideas behind White supremacy are not new. As my friend and fellow sociologist Rory McVeigh writes in his new book The Rise of the Ku Klux Klan: Right-Wing Movements and National Politics, hate groups come in all forms, sizes, and levels of formal organization and have played a role in American race relations for over a century.

However, with the election of Barack Obama as our first non-White President, the current recession and economic insecurities confronting many Americans who had been comfortably middle-class up to this point, and the continuing uncertainty of institutional trends such as globalization and demographic population changes, many Whites understandably feel a little destabilized these days.

It is within this context that many Whites see an opportunity to rail against what they perceive to be the “invasion” or “taking over” of their country by those who are different from them — immigrants and non-Whites. Most recently, this has taken the form of post-election racial incidents and of subtle and non-so-subtle forms of immigrant bashing.

But as many sociologists such as my blogging colleague Jessie at Racism Review and other observers point out, this upsurge in racial intolerance is different because with the advent of internet technology and the proliferation of social networking websites, the message of White supremacy is being broadcast much more widely to a growing audience of White Americans feeling destabilized. The following video report from ABC News last year summarizes this emerging trend (about 3 minutes long):

A recent MSNBC article goes into more detail about this trend of racial/religious extremists using internet and social networking websites to spread their message of intolerance:

Militants and hate groups increasingly use social networking sites such as Facebook, MySpace and YouTube as propaganda tools to recruit new members, according to a report by the Simon Wiesenthal Center. The report released on Wednesday noted a 25 percent rise in the past year in the number of “problematic” social networking groups on the Internet. . . .

Rabbi Abraham Cooper, associate dean of the center, said Facebook recently removed several Holocaust denial sites, including one that featured a cartoon of Adolf Hitler in bed with Anne Frank, whose diary written in hiding from the Nazis in Amsterdam is among the best known stories of the Holocaust. . . . He pointed out a YouTube user whose racist content has caused his postings on the site to be taken down repeatedly, but he simply creates a new user profile, or channel, and posts the material again.

Extremist groups are also setting up their own social networking sites, the report said, picking out one called “New Saxon,” described as “a Social Networking site for people of European descent” produced by an American Neo-Nazi group called the National Socialist Movement. Other groups have created online games such as one created by an Iranian organization and called “Special Operation 85 — Hostage Rescue,” and one called “Border Patrol” in which the player has to shoot Mexicans, including women and children, as they try to come over the border into the United States.

I’m not here to say that we should ban or further restrict such websites or other forms of internet, communication, or media technology just because they allow people to spread messages of hate and intolerance more easily than would otherwise be possible (although I urge the administrators of such sites and internet services to take quick and decisive action to remove such blatantly offensive material, as per their stated policies). In other words, the technology itself is not to blame — it’s how technology is used.

With that in mind, I hope that those of us who oppose such racial and religious intolerance will make full use of such websites and technologies to counteract messages of hate with our own messages of understanding, tolerance, acceptance, and peace. This very site is my own attempt to do just that and thankfully, there are plenty of other sites and efforts toward promoting greater racial diversity and respect as well.

In fact, a homemade furniture commercial hosted on YouTube that has apparently become an internet sensation shows us that racial tolerance and capitalism can coexist together and that yes, it is possible for all of us to “just get along”:


June 24, 2008

Written by C.N.

Video Project on Interracial Couples

I received the following announcement from a reader who is looking to publicize his video project on Asian American interracial couples and about Asian Americans in the media. As always, links are provided for information only and do not necessarily imply an endorsement of its contents.

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Here are two 30 minute shows I have on YouTube (see link below). I discuss the obstacles & oppositions that interracial couples face (my wife is African American & we have a beautiful daughter) and I also interview people on the street & ask their opinions of interracial marriages.

The second video is of NC’s only Asian Anchor/Reporter, Julie Luck of Fox News. As an Asian male I find that we are still a scare sight in the media and when we are rarely seen it is often as a kung fu fool or in a negative stereotype. I discuss those issues along with issues that are unique to Asian Americans in the media.

The channel I am on reaches 200,000 homes all around our city and surrounding counties. We find that fifty percent of the callers and people who stop us on the street are supportive & the other half are negative. I hope with Asian activist like yourself we can change perceptions and create more opportunities for Asian males…maybe we’ll see an Asian James Bond, Indiana Jones, Batman or President of The United States!