A generation ago, whites made up roughly two-thirds of the population in this rarefied Los Angeles suburb, where most of the homes are worth well over $1 million. But Asians now make up over half of the population in San Marino, which has long attracted some of the region’s wealthiest families and was once home to the John Birch Society’s Western headquarters.
The transformation illustrates a drastic shift in California immigration trends over the last decade, one that can easily be seen all over the area: more than twice as many immigrants to the nation’s most populous state now come from Asia than from Latin America.
And the change here is just one example of the ways immigration is remaking America, with the political, economic and cultural ramifications playing out in a variety of ways. The number of Latinos has more than doubled in many Southern states, including Alabama, Georgia and North Carolina, creating new tensions. Asian populations are booming in New Jersey, and Latino immigrants are reviving small towns in the Midwest.
Much of the current immigration debate in Congress has focused on Hispanics, and California has for decades been viewed as the focal point of that migration. But in cities in the San Gabriel Valley — as well as in Orange County and in Silicon Valley in Northern California — Asian immigrants have become a dominant cultural force in places that were once largely white or Hispanic.
“We are really looking at a different era here,” said Hans Johnson, a demographer at the Public Policy Institute of California who has studied census data. “There are astounding changes in working-class towns and old, established, wealthy cities. It is not confined to one place.”
Many of the immigrants come here from China and Taiwan, where they were part of a highly educated and affluent population. They have eagerly bought property in places like San Marino, where the median income is nearly double that of Beverly Hills and is home to one of the highest-performing school districts in the state. The local library now offers story time in Mandarin.
But the wealth is not uniform, and there are pockets of poverty in several of the area’s working-class suburbs, particularly in Vietnamese and Filipino communities.
“This is kind of ground zero for a new immigrant America,” said Daniel Ichinose, a demographer at the Asian Pacific American Legal Center. “You have people speaking Mandarin and Vietnamese and Spanish all living together and facing many common challenges.”
[W]hile I believe Asian privilege is a real thing, it certainly didn’t protect the seven people murdered when a racist opened fire on members of a Sikh gurdwara in Oak Creek, Wisconsin last August. In fact, post-9/11 Islamophobia has imposed an experience of racism on South Asians in the U.S. that is quite distinct from that experienced by other Asian Americans. Increasingly, South Asian Americans are profiled less as model minorities than as terrorist threats.
And for Laotian Americans, privilege must feel like like a foreign concept. Almost all of them were driven out of their homeland and into the this country since 1973 by a now-exposed secret war waged by the U.S. The American war strategy included running 580,000 bombing raids. This is the equivalent of one planeload of bombs every 8 minutes, 24-hours a day, for 9 years over a country about the size of Utah. The detonations were bad enough, but so much unexploded ordinance is left behind that one third of Laos is considered contaminated.
The experience of Laotian Americans is mirrored in many ways by that of immigrants who came to the U.S. from places like Burma, Vietnam, and Cambodia to flee war and political repression. They know horrors few American-born Asians can even begin to imagine.
Privilege is also a tough word to describe the situation of many Filipino immigrants in the U.S. Many were encouraged to migrate by the Philippine government because it is managing so much foreign debt that debt service is their single largest expense. The terms of the loans made from organizations like the International Monetary Fund have imposed austerity measures, including wage freezes, cuts to healthcare and
education, and privatization of water and electrical service. Filipinos often leave to survive and to provide for their families abroad because the Philippine economy just can’t afford them
Yet, for some of us, the privileges, though conditional, are real. I recall growing up in Hawaii, profiled as Japanese American in a school system in which we were expected to succeed, and in which Japanese Americans were over-represented among authority figures. I surrounded myself with friends who didn’t share in the protection afforded me by my light skin and Japanese surname. We felt one another, but they suffered the kind of racism reserved for those profiled as problem minorities – Native Hawaiians, African Americans, and darker skinned immigrants from Polynesia and the Philippines.
Yet when the time came to be held accountable, I almost always escaped the worst punishments. In spite of doing poorly in school, I was passed from grade to grade, even tracked into college prep classes. I was considered a troubled child with potential where my often much more talented but darker skinned friends were perceived to just be trouble.
Today, without the benefit of a college degree, I have twice been a foundation executive and now work for a think tank. Now, I’m not going to say I didn’t work as hard and try as mightily as the next person, but in order to try I had to first get through the door. Those doors remained open to me when they would likely have closed to others because I lived under the cover (and intense pressure and scrutiny, mind you) of model minority stereotyping.
Reflecting on all of this I realized, part what makes being Asian American so complicated is that Asian privilege is really white privilege, conferred conditionally on some of us in order to maintain white power. If that’s true, we’re being used. And if being used, even lightly, is what this is about, the question is, are we really in control of how and over what damage that use might do to us and to others?
So let’s get real for a moment. Asian America is made up of over 45 distinct ethnic groups speaking over 100 language dialects. Among these groups, some, such as Hmong Americans, are among the poorest in the U.S. by ethnicity.
Moreover, statistics concerning our success exaggerate. The reality is that larger Asian American family incomes result in part from a larger number of earners per household. Asian Americans actually trail whites in per capita income. And the most successful Asian American ethnic groups—the Taiwanese, Indian, Malaysian, and Sri Lankan American minorities—include a large share of members who were drawn to the U.S. as business investors or highly skilled workers. That means that Asian Americans are by no means representative of Asians globally. U.S. immigration policy plays a role in constructing the Asian American “race.”
But regardless of the disadvantages some of us face, many Asians do enjoy privileges beyond the reach of other people of color. That might explain why some Asian Americans are bought into model minority stereotyping. Their attitudes mirror many on the right whose response to Asian American protest against Asian stereotyping goes something like can’t you people take a compliment?
But this Asian complicity with the stereotype is dangerous. Why? Consider this.
As I’ve pointed out before, the model minority stereotype originated as a tool to leverage white resentment toward the Civil Rights and Black Power movements. In the midst of widespread black protest, the Asian model minority debuted in the media as evidence that racism will fall to quiet hard work, self-sacrifice, and compliance with authority. The model minority was contrasted with “problem minorities” in order to undercut support for reform. Between the lines, the suggestion was that black culture, not white racism, was the reason for black poverty, and black protest, for that reason, was neither legitimate nor helpful to black people who would do better to fix themselves than to try to fix the country.
Yet Asian Americans have prospered, and more, some would argue, than other people of color, as a result of desegregation, voting rights reforms, and programs like affirmative action. When we play into “problem minority” racism we threaten these gains.
Now, I get that the relatively small share of the U.S. population that is Asian American makes us less a threat to white racial domination than, say, Latinos or African Americans. And, for that reason, when Newt Gingrich refers to “entitlement junkies” and Mitt Romney disparages the 47%, they don’t have us in mind. But, we ought not kid ourselves. Dodging these attacks doesn’t make us safe.
Asian Americans may be only 6% of the U.S., but Asians are a very large percentage of the global population. And Asian countries such as China, Pakistan, Iran, and North Korea are considered threats to American posterity. Playing to racism by exaggerating that “threat” is becoming a popular strategy of elected leaders trying to win political points with an increasingly resentful public.
The combination of xenophobic Asia-bashing and model minority stereotyping makes Asian Americans targets of resentment. And certain realities are causing that resentment to rise.
Privilege without power makes us vulnerable. To build power in a country whose racial demography is tilting against whites, we would do best to build bonds of cross-racial solidarity with other people of color. To do that, we must look beyond our common suffering and accept accountability for the privileges that divide us.
By Guest Contributors Nicole Soojung Callahan and Shiuan Butler
About two months ago, my husband came home from a haircut and said, “Did you know that Hair Cuttery has a line of ‘Asian-inspired’ hair products by Cibu? They have something called ‘Geishalicious Shampoo.’” I went to Cibu International’s website to check out the rest of their products, and could hardly believe the awfulness of the names: Miso Knotty Detangler. Mousse Lee Volumizer. Spring Roll Hydrating Cleanser. Ancient Veil Oil Mist. Hi-Ya! Keratin Reconstructive Conditioner. Dry Kwon Do Dry Shampoo. Wok This Way Sculpting Sauce. Take Out Clarifying Shampoo (with a picture of a take-out box on the bottle). It was as if a bunch of people had all gotten in a room and brainstormed as many Asian stereotypes as they could, and then named beauty products after all of them.
(Pictured above: Cibu International’s (l-r) Wok This Way Styling Sauce, Sashini Thermal Shine Solution, Miso Knotty Detangler, Ancient Veil Oil Mist, and Ancient Serum Argan Oil Treatment. Provided by Nicole Soojung Callahan.)
Cibu is part of Ratner Companies, which also owns nearly 800 Hair Cuttery, Bubbles, Salon Cielo, Salon Plaza, and Colorworks salons in 19 states. Cibu’s product names are all based on reducing Asian cultures to a handful of food and martial-arts references, tasteless puns, and fetishizing Asian stereotypes. As if the names aren’t bad enough, Cibu’s Facebook page also includes a picture of a staff member dressed in an “Asian costume,” fans laughing at “me love you long time” jokes, and a horrible cartoon ad featuring a naked geisha on her knees, hands behind her back, with the ad copy “Seduced by Geishalicious.”
(Pictured above: deleted images from Cibu International’s Facebook page. Provided by Nicole Soojung Callahan.)
After participating in a comment thread on Cibu’s Facebook page in which many women of color, as well as white women, chimed in to express their concerns about Cibu’s offensive names, I began communicating with Cibu’s brand manager. Our discussions were cordial—though she called me a “radical”—she voiced some openness to changing the Geishalicious name at some point in the future, when existing stock had been sufficiently depleted. But there was no openness to changing other names. In the meantime, Cibu had deleted several critical comments from their Facebook page, including my friend Shiuan Butler’s. The brand manager told me it was because she did not want “[her] brand hijacked by negativity.”
At this point Shiuan suggested that I start a Change.org petition to encourage Cibu to change all of their names, not just Geishalicious. I didn’t think Cibu would listen, but I did think they should know we weren’t alone in finding their names offensive. With some advice from Shelby Knox at Change.org, we settled on the petition wording and uploaded it on January 28. Miss Representation, Katha Pollitt, Shelby Knox, Disgrasian, Angry Asian Man, Lela Lee, and many others signed and shared the petition. By February 6, the petition had garnered over 1,100 signatures—well beyond our wildest hopes.
On February 7, I received an email statement from Diane Daly, Director of Public and Community Relations at Ratner Companies, which she asked me to share with the petition signers: “Over the last several weeks, we have heard from numerous people expressing their objection to the names of some of our Cibu International hair styling products. Many have said they find some of the names to be offensive and racially insensitive, especially to Asians… [W]e deeply regret and apologize for any offense that we may have caused, both to our clients and to those who are concerned about the inappropriate depiction of peoples and cultures… Therefore, we have decided to embark on a process of transitioning out of the current product names and reintroducing them with new names.”
While we are glad for Cibu’s willingness to change, we know that this change would never have come about without public pressure. Just the day before Cibu’s announcement about the name changes, the company was still “liking” derailing statements made by some of their Facebook fans, such as, “I think racism takes on many forms. I also think that playing the race card as a knee-jerk reaction is dangerous and offensive.” Even after Cibu and Ratner Companies committed to renaming their products, several of their more enthusiastic fans just couldn’t let go—you can read their grumblings about “ultra-political-correctness” and how “some people need a life” in Cibu’s February 7 Facebook announcement about the change.
Yet, however reluctant Cibu may be in making these changes, Ratner Companies still took a positive and important step in promising to transition to new product names after hearing from over 1,100 people from all over the world. Many others recognized this and commended Cibu for their decision. One stylist wrote that she was thrilled with the change:
[A]s a stylist who is Asian in ethnicity the Asian theme is tacky and offensive. It makes me uncomfortable to tell people the name of the Cibu products I use on their hair. I can not express how happy I am to hear you break out of the glamorizing and fetishizing of the Asian culture as a whole. From the bottom of my heart, thank you so much.
We hope that Cibu and Ratner Companies will seek out, listen to, and involve a diverse group of employees, consultants, and consumers as they choose their new names—and that Asians and Asian Americans are a part of that group, especially if Cibu plans to pursue another “Asian-inspired” theme for their products. In the meantime, we want to thank everyone who signed the petition or wrote to encourage Cibu to reconsider its offensive branding—this change would never have happened if so many people hadn’t taken a stand against racism and harmful stereotypes in marketing. Many of us will be watching with great interest to see how Cibu proceeds with its rebranding.
While this was not the first petition I have created (my previous one protested an article stereotyping Asian women’s vaginas by 8asians) this was a wonderful learning experience, and best of all I got to meet fellow activist Asian sister, Nicole! (Thank you to T.F. Charlton for connecting us!)
I first became motivated to act when Cibu deleted my comments on their Facebook fan page immediately after posting. I had already thought of creating a petition. But with that one act, I was truly inspired.
In one of Nicole’s emails to me, she wrote that she felt as though she had “zero power over these people or their company.” I quickly disagreed: I explained that I had previously created a petition and that petitions can be powerful statements and a catalyst in changing a company’s policy by leveraging the power of individuals. It’s a perfect strategy in this day and age of viral, social-media activism.
Nicole—even as a busy mom and student—quickly created the petition, which T.F. Charlton, Shelby Knox, and I all briefly edited before it was posted. Before we knew it, our petition had exploded to several hundred signatures within days! I agree with Nicole that Ratner Companies’ recently released statement is absolutely a direct consequence of all those who signed and shared our petition.
The statement from Cibu makes us feel hopeful. However, we won’t be content until we see that they have truly replaced all of Cibu’s horribly racist product names. We certainly hope that they hire diversity consultants in their new rebranding process.
You can sign the petition here if you haven’t already. If you’ve already signed, thank you! Feel free to share widely.
ETA: As of this post, Ratner has still not changed the Cibu product names — and hasn’t given a timeline for when they will. Please reblog this far and wide—and please sign the petition, if you haven’t done so—to let the company know this isn’t OK!
Shiuan Butler is a writer and relationship coach. She speaks and leads workshops empowering women’s relationships and sex lives. Find out more at www.shiuanbutler.com.
Nicole Soojung Callahan is a mother, Korean adoptee, writer, grad student, and publications director at a nonprofit. The story of her reunion with her sister was published in Somebody’s Child: Stories About Adoption (TouchWood Editions, 2011). Email her at nikki @ jhu.edu.
On January 9th, I wrote a story titled “Calling Asians Racist Slurs on Fast Food Receipts is Now a National Trend” about a growing number of incidents where fast food workers identify customers on receipts with a racist slur, or in this latest case, a drawing. At places like Starbucks and Jamba Juice the person taking customers’ orders is suppose to ask for the customers name to ensure they get the correct drink in a more efficient manner but as Angryasianman.com reports, that’s not always the case:
Last month at a Starbucks Coffee location in Alpharetta, Georgia, two Korean customers — who are not native English speakers — discovered that their barista had identified them by drawing “chinky eyes” on their drinks. You know, where they usually write your name? OH NO THEY DIDN’T. Yes, they did.
You cannot tell me those are both just two random squiggles on those cups. I’m told that the customers immediately complained to the store manager, who did not defend the drawings or offer some kind of bullshit explanation, but simply apologized. And that’s it. Oh, sorry for the racist way we run our coffee joint.
The caricatures were drawn at a Starbucks in Alpharetta where 72% of the population is white, while Asians make up 13.7 of the population, according to 2010 census data.
—Jorge Rivas, “Starbucks Barista Draws “Chinky Eyes” on Korean-American Customer’s Cup,” Colorlines 2/8/12