Thursday, August 7, 2008

An Easily Overlooked Racism?

I have been reading Asian American writings and experiences dealing with race. Blogs, books, and articles, though of course, I'm still quite a newb in learning about racism against Asians, are all eye opening and revealing of my ignorance on a lot of things. My lack of knowledge about racism against Asian Americans is fed by the Myth of the Model Minority, the prevailing stereotype that Asians are super smart, quiet and submissive, hardworking, and have assimilated in to (White) American culture. I think most Americans have bought into this myth, making racism perpetuated against Asians very difficult to notice at first, because it seems they "have it so well."

In Frank Wu's book, "Yellow: Race in America Beyond Black and White," He exposes the myth and shows how it allows racism against Asian Americans to be overlooked. Possibly one of the greatest uses of racism against Asians is casting them as Perpetual Foreigners, as unable to really be American. As Wu writes in the chapter of his book on the subject:

"Where are you from?" is a question I like answering. "Where are you really from?" is a question I really hate answering. "Where are you from" is a question we all routinely ask upon meeting a new person. "Where are you really from?" is a question some of us tend to ask others selectively. For Asian Americas, the questions frequently come paired like that. Among ourselves, we can even joke nervously about how they just about define the Asian American experience. More than anything else that unites us, everyone with an Asian face who lives in America is afflicted by the perpetual foreigner syndrome. We are figuratively and even literally returned to Asia and ejected from America.

Like a lot of racism, it is rooted in a contradiction. Asians are supposed to be the Model Minority, they're supposed to show Blacks and Latino's how to act as minorities. Yet Asian American's continual casting as foreigners in media, books, conversation, etc., does nothing but present them as outsiders, or, "the other." So, even with their supposed, "almost whiteness," that comes from the Model Minority Myth, there is the negation of that but how Asian's are actually treated.

Looking back over my life now, I can think of numerous occasions where I and others I know gave life to the myth of the perpetual foreigner. Here are the most vivid accounts I have:

My earliest memory of this is when I was around 6 or 7 and we were vacationing in Orlando at a friends house. Wheel of Fortune came on and all the kids (5 of us at the time) were watching it with my dad. It was team Wheel of fortune and so there were two people for every color. There was an Asian American team and, wouldn't you know it, they were the color yellow. But even worse than that when my dad cheered for them he would say, "The Japs! The Japs!" And my siblings and I began to repeat happily, thinking we were just cheering for the team, not realizing we were using a terrible choice of words, and creating ideas of how one thinks of Asians as foreigners. And then I remember walking into the kitchen to get a drink and my mom saying my dad shouldn't say that because it was racist. I'm pretty sure that was as far as I thought about it at that moment, but now, it is interesting to reflect on.

Earlier this summer, I was talking to my 10-year-old brother about an Asian American actress who plays on "The Suite Life of Zack and Cody." She had recently had her own Disney Channel Original Movie, and I think I said something about why did Disney make their original movie starring and Asian person a Kung-Fu movie. My little brother replied that she wasn't Asian in the movie. I said, how could she not be Asian. And he said, She was an American from California. I think I realized then how quickly the stereotypes of others become in embedded in us. So, anyways, I told him that Asian's are Americans too and most Asians in America are born here, thus they are just as American as we are.

In the Spring semester at school, the Musical Theater Department put on Thoroughly Modern Millie, which was overflowing with racism in its portrayal of Asians. I must say, I was thoroughly upset about the whole thing. First, the guys playing the Asians, I believe they were supposed to be Chinese immigrants, had white face makeup and slanty eyes. I couldn't help but think that if they'd dressed in blackface, surely there'd be an uproar (Of course, they are putting on Ragtime this year, so we'll see how they handle that-- they're already sending out emails about how they want the black students to try out for roles because there aren't many black people in the musical theater department *eyeroll*). That wasn't the only bad thing about the musical, however, the villian was a white woman pretending to be Asian who pronounced her L's as R's, and said she used soy sauce to clean a stain. Of course, she also treated the two Asian immigrants who worked for her as if they were stupid, and the silently and humbly submit in front of her, though behind closed doors they argue in Chinese (I guess it was real Chinese), with subtitles projected above the stage. And then one of the Asian men falls in love with one of the white women in the musical, blonde hair, blue eyes, you know the deal. At the end of the musical, they get together, as if his reward for working hard and being submissive, for being mistreated, is the gift of white womanhood, the pinnacle of creation. So yeah, I was pretty pissed about that whole thing.

Finally, I recall clicking through a friends Facebook album and seeing her dressed up in white makeup and slanty eyes, with a straight black wig on. Yes, it made me sad because she's a pretty cool person, but even pretty cool people can be complicit in racism.

All of this, on top of whats in my own heart, and my own struggle to fight against the stereotypes and negative imagery that I want to apply to Asians. I remember when I would "pretend", as a child, to be "Chinese" (Which was synonymous, at that time, with anyone Asian), pulling my eyes back and chanting, "Ching chong, ching." It feels terrible now to acknowledge this, but I'm sure there's more I can't remember and I must be honest with myself about how I perpetuate racism so that I can stop myself when I see it. So, yes, there is a long way to go, but I'm certainly learning a lot about how important it is to have our eyes open to the varying forms racism takes so we can stand up for justice regardless of who is being treated unfairly, because in the end, it affects us all.


Qatfish said...

(BTW, I think part of the post is missing.)

Thanks for this post. I love Frank Wu's book.

I've been recently watching some Margaret Cho videos, and I love her anti-racist humor. One of the things she talks about that really seems to get the audience thinking was her childhood dream of becoming an actor. But what female Asians could she look to as role models? "Maybe someday... I could play an extra on 'MASH.' Maybe someday... I could play Arnold's girlfriend on 'Happy Days.' Maybe someday... I could play a hooker in something."

In one of her videos, she talks about how she loves Merchant Ivory-style period movies, but she could never get a part in one of those except as an extra in an opium den.

"I get offered movie roles all the time, and I say, 'No! No, I don't want to play a manicurist! I don't want to play a really pissed-off liquor store owner, I don't want to go nowhere with a chicken under my arm, I don't want to play an exceptionally good student, I do not want to get off a tour bus and take numerous photographs, I do not ever want to utter the phrase, 'Welcome to Japan, Mr. Bond.' I don't want to write down all my memoirs about being a geisha! [...] I do not want to be in any musical where there's gonna be a helicopter! What it is is that I CANNOT RUN UP A WALL!"

And the perpetual foreigner lurks in a lot of these roles.

She's Still Thinking said...

Hmm, where does it look like part of this post is missing? I've never watched Margaret Cho before, I will look into her.

Qatfish said...

The next to last paragraph says:

Finally, I recall clicking through a friends

Clicking through a friends... what? :)

She's Still Thinking said...

Oh ok. I fixed it. Thanks!