However, the powerful effect of white people’s touchiness on this subject should not to be underestimated. In fact, I think it goes hand in hand with the threat of violence in perpetuating racism.
For instance, racial inequality nowadays relies more heavily on the intimidation and violence of the war on drugs and immigration enforcement than on the terrorism of vigilante groups. But, racist immigration and drug enforcement policies are founded on the widespread popularity of racial stereotypes that falsely criminalize black men as the source of the illegal drug problem in the U.S., and immigrants of color as drains on our economy. In other words, ordinary prejudice is as much a part of the oppressive equation for communities of color as violence and intimidation, and the fact that these ordinary forms of prejudice are expressed through major public institutions is possible because we deny that these stereotypes are grounded in prejudice at all.
We need to marginalize ordinary racist stereotypes and behavior, and this starts with calling racism out, even when those guilty of it get touchy because they are unable to recognize their acts as racist.
But, why so touchy?
At the risk of sparking a sh*t storm, here are a couple of proposals.
First, I think white people get bent out of shape by the label racist because being able to wield it means that, at least culturally speaking, people of color have power we haven’t traditionally had, specifically because of racism.
For generations even looking at a white person in the wrong way could get a person of color fired, harassed, terrorized or even lynched. Going as far as lodging an accusation of any kind against a white person could spark a race riot.
But socially conscious people of all races fought and even died in order to end the white cultural, economic, and political supremacy that led to this kind of intimidation and violence. Today, the degree to which we are empowered to speak out against racism is a measure of the erosion of unjust white power and privilege that was achieved through these historic efforts. When white people react defensively to people of color involved in the audacious act of calling them out for racism, they are, albeit usually unconsciously, struggling to reconcile themselves with lost white privilege.
That’s my first theory.
As a person of color, the fog of racism surrounding this president is obvious to me. While I believe that he has not done nearly enough to address racism and has done all together too much in the way of ignoring human rights, I also see that he doesn’t get some of the credit he deserves because his record is distorted, both by detractors and by those who unfairly hold him to a higher standard because of his race.
But, as an Asian American, I also see how comments that suggest that black people are especially irresponsible play out in other communities. Among Asian Americans, many of whom have internalized the lie that says that Asians have done well in the U.S. based solely on being exceptionally responsible, the effect can be especially powerful. Too many of us overlook the legacy of Jim Crow and slavery in the U.S. We don’t understand how different that experience is from that of Asian Americans, much less the way Asian Americans have benefited from the Black civil rights struggle. And we’re not alone in that. The irony of internalizing negative racial stereotypes amongst a community targeted by negative stereotypes only brings into stark relief a much wider spread and growing problem of anti-black racism that our president singling out blacks for lectures about personal responsibility only serves to feed.
We are still both separate and unequal by race. In 2012 the New York Times reported that 43 percent of Latinos and 38 percent of blacks attend schools where fewer than 10 percent of their classmates are white. And the poorer the students, the worse the segregation. Meanwhile, due in no small part to Roosevelt-era federal programs that excluded blacks as they invested in building the American middle-class, a persistent and worsening racial wealth gap between blacks and whites continues to plague black families. This presents an unfair and often insurmountable barrier to opportunity in a society in which the most powerful indicator of success is your parents’ financial status. Yet, too many of us, more all the time actually, believe that the problem of black poverty is black irresponsibility.
The president’s comments worsen this problem. Why? Because they aren’t just heard by or meant for black people. They’re also acts of political theater, meant to play in public. And to the broad public, our liberal black president singling out blacks for lectures on personal responsibility undermines the credibility of legitimate black complaints of persistent racism, even as it feeds the damaging stereotype that there’s a particular problem of irresponsibility in black communities. And, as I said before, those stereotypes are strongest amongst those of us who aren’t black, and that can cause people who should be allies to become enemies.
Kochiyama’s life in social change is inspiring, both for its longevity and for her willingness to take on the most controversial causes. She is, perhaps, most famous for her association with Malcolm X, and for the photos of her holding Malcolm X in her arms as he lay dying after being gunned down in the Audubon Ballroom on February 12, 1965. But there was much, much more to Kochiyama’s activism than her sojourn with the Organization for Afro-American Unity. She fought for Puerto Rican independence, provided support for social and political prisoners, and was instrumental in the fight for reparations for Japanese American internees.
But the importance of Kochiyama’s story doesn’t end with her personal history. For while she is no doubt a remarkable person, she was not alone among Asian Americans of her generation in her commitment to social justice. Throughout her story we are reminded of others who struggled alongside her, of the the Asian American movement of the 1960s that was inspired, in part, by Japanese American internment, exclusionary and blatantly racist immigration laws, the Vietnam War, and exploitation and discrimination of Asian immigrant workers. That movement gave birth to the phrase “Asian American” as a statement of inter-ethnic solidarity, and it stood against unjust wars and with the movements for African American civil rights, workers rights, and immigrant rights, and for multiculturalism, open enrollment in colleges and universities, and diversification of university curricula. That movement gave us Asian American studies, and Asian American studies has allowed us to create a record of our history, in our own words.
The fundamentally conservative nature of the marriage contract is why, I think, younger conservatives are growing more supportive of same sex marriage. Extending marriage rights to LGBT people does little or nothing to address the structure of oppressive family laws and values in society. It also does very little to change the core of the conservative agenda which is, fundamentally, about power and control. This is evidenced by the fact that young conservatives are increasingly supportive of same-sex marriage at the same time that they continue to be champions of austerity who are deeply opposed to public funding of critical safety net programs. And many are terrible on issues of race, equating black and brown people with destructively out-of-control sexuality, crime, and government debt. So their attitudes about LGBT people may have changed, but their worldviews remain pretty much the same. They’ve just let monogamous same sex couples off the hook for certain societal problems, which is essentially what they’ve been doing all along for heterosexuals who marry.
What appears to be leading to this “success” with young conservatives points to another of my concerns. By presenting LGB (I’ll leave off the “t” here) people as basically conservative in our demands, the most mainstream faction within the LGB movement is subtly positioning us as a model minority. And it’s working. Where once attacks against LGB people relied heavily on messaging that mirrored prejudices historically used against people of color (morally debased sexual predators and criminals seeking anti-American special rights), LGB people are increasingly understood to be all-American and fundamentally non-threatening. The sales job basically seems to revolve around the idea that if you let us in, nothing really changes. And, based on the demands at the center of this agenda, this is, to a degree, true.
Also troubling is my sense that the current strategies ignore something about marriage rights that ought to be obvious to anyone excluded from them, especially when that group is arguing that being excluded has real, material consequences. That is, that we are arguing to be able to use marriage as a shield against wrongs that no one, regardless of sexual orientation or marital status, should suffer. No loved one should be excluded from survivors benefits and pensions, end of life decision-making, hospital visitation, and the many other family rights reserved for married couples. And when we argue that being able to wield this shield is a right we deserve because we conform with the values of good people, that shield can become a weapon against those who are still excluded.
A March 14 Media Matters story entitled How Chris Hayes’ Show Differs From Other Sunday Shows In One Chart offered this info-graphic to support their contention that Hayes’ weekend TV political magazine, Up, “has provided much-needed diversity“ of race and gender to television political programs.
Now, I’m not trying to minimize the accomplishment indicated by the graph. In fact, some of those “diverse” people who appear on Up are friends of mine. But uncritically trumpeting these numbers is indicative of a problem with the media and how it addresses race that even shows like Up are often guilty of. Here’s what I mean.
The “diversity” Media Matters lauds is far from robust. For one thing, the people of color represented in this graph are, in the vast majority, black. That’s not a problem in and of itself until you consider how those who are not black are represented on Up.
ChangeLab pulled the transcripts of seven weekend political programs televised between January 1-June 30 of last year. The shows included Face the Nation, Meet the Press, State of the Union, This Week with George Stephanopoulos, Fox News Sunday, Up with Chris Hayes, and Melissa Harris-Perry.* Over this six-month period, these seven programs aired 169 episodes.
In those 169 episodes, Native Americans were never mentioned at all. They weren’t just left off guest lists. Words to describe them were never used. Now you might argue that the way these shows define “politics” is at issue here, and not a conscious bias against Native Americans, but the impact is the same. By leaving Native Americans off the agenda, we contribute to one of the most insidious means of conquest of Native America – making Native Americans disappear. We make native people disappear in many ways, not least by imposing blood quantum restrictions that lead to tribal termination, and by treating native people and their issues as if they are irrelevant to contemporary (non-native) American life.
This disappearing act was as evident on Up as on every other Sunday show, making Media Matters’ “diversity” virtually meaningless to Native Americans.
[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.
You may prefer to simply avoid all the arguing, especially since it’s over a bunch of lies. If so, allow me to share. The video is of some really angry guys in an argument with the Senator because, in spite of McCain’s pandering to white nationalism in ads that promise he’ll “complete the dang fence,” undocumented immigrants, at least according to said angry gentlemen, keep coming, and they’re coming to steal valuable benefits like welfare, social security, and medicaid.
The argument should serve as a demonstration of why Republicans should avoid inviting unwanted guests to their (Grand Old) party just because they’re short on the political equivalent of green bean casserole and artichoke dip. Once invited, it’s hard to get them to leave. In fact, since they’re not really there to make friends, they have nothing to lose in taking over the joint.
But while I found McCain’s frustrated reaction mildly amusing, I was much more interested in this town hall argument as a strong example of the irrationality of racism.
The angry guys attended the meeting to give Senator McCain a hard time. And why? First, they want a fence and tougher enforcement. Senator McCain, at least according to his own report, won $600 million in appropriations in order to build a section of fence (or maybe it’s a banana). But they want more because they believe a flood of immigrants is still coming over the border.
The reality, as I’m guessing you know, is that this isn’t true. Net immigration from Mexico is about zero at the moment mainly because of our bad economy. The lack of jobs in the U.S. is what’s keeping Mexican workers at home where, I’m guessing, it’s easier to be unemployed in a place where you’re not being demonized and persecuted.
The fact that workers are staying home in Mexico should tip us off to an obvious fact about Mexican undocumented immigration into the U.S. That is, that undocumented immigrants aren’t coming to get “stuff.” They’re coming to work.
Brittney Cooper: “Of course it is. I don’t care if they are ‘pals’ on the tour. Every Black Girl who has been a white person’s “African American friend” knows what that sh*t means. Let me count the ways she might have impersonated Serena. Wear a tennis outfit with flashy colors (bright green, bright pink, all black), put on some big flashy earrings with big hair, get your serve up past 125, hit record numbers of aces in match. Hell, win double digits in Grand Slams. But mocking her through T&A in whiteface = #racism.
Scot Nakagawa: This is just ridiculous. To parody the body of someone who has so often been the target of racist rants (comparing her with a gorilla, for instance, while remarking on how black women just are naturally ugly), and criticism and exoticization in general of her curves is more than ignorant. She’s done it twice to much criticism now. I’m guessing it’s just willful racism or at least prideful ignorance.
Time to shut that sh*t down, Stella McCartney. Is this who you want as a brand ambassador?
You know we at the R love us some Scot Nakagawa. His organization, ChangeLab, just published a study on Asian Americans and racial justice movements.
In order to better understand the racial position of Asian Americans, and how Asian American identity functions in the realm of racial politics, ChangeLab conducted in-depth, confidential interviews with 82 Asian American organizers, leaders, intellectuals, and artists working in the racial justice field throughout the United States. We also talked to five non-Asian American racial justice leaders doing promising work that cuts across all communities of color. Our informants represent some of the strongest, most influential racial justice efforts taking place across the country today, including some of the most prominent Asian American organizations. We asked a series of questions about Asian American racial identity, Asian American attitudes toward other people of color, approaches to racial justice work, and gaps and challenges in the field. Following is a summary of our initial findings.
This is a time of great racial confusion, with divergent views of what justice means.
There is a lack of clarity about what racial justice means in this political moment. The problems of structural racism are dense and vast, yet rather than pushing for transformative change, most efforts today seek to protect the gains of the Civil Rights Movement against rightwing attack. The prevailing framework of liberal multiculturalism limits the political terrain for fighting back to questions of representation. This leaves underlying structural problems unchallenged, or worse, reinforced. In this environment, Asian American organizations face pressure to elbow for political clout in a zero-sum game of racial inclusion. Some argue that advocating for the rights of Asian Americans constitutes a racial justice strategy, regardless of the impact on other communities. Others believe that there can be no justice for Asian Americans without justice for all people of color.
Many Asian Americans don’t think about race.
The dominant view among our participants is that Asian Americans do not think about race at all. Many attributed this to the racial position of Asian Americans, and to how the political right has manipulated ideas about Asian Americans. There is a belief that in particular, those Asian Americans with class privilege have internalized the model minority myth along with the notion of American individualism. Some noted how harmful this was to Asian Americans who have no resources to identify and address their own experiences of racial discrimination, and no understanding of the roots of anti-Asian hostility. Many participants said that low-wage Asian American workers have the highest level of race consciousness.
“Asian American” serves less as a political identity than as a demographic category.
On the question of Asian American identity, participants expressed concern that the Asian American construct represented an awkward coalition of ethnic subgroups, and not a racial group with shared experiences and political interests. People said that deep disparities in power and access within the Asian American or API coalition created too much fragmentation to allow for meaningful political unity. Particularly since 9/11, certain South Asian and Muslim communities have faced a level of targeting and alienation that has driven them to organize outside of the Asian American or API construct. In addition, many progressive Asian Americans hesitate to identify as Asian American, because of political disagreements with the most dominant expressions of Asian American identity.
Various factors contribute to whether people identify as Asian American.
Those who do identify as Asian American tend to be younger, later generation, or living in geographic areas where there is no single, dominate Asian ethnic subgroup. Some described how the media and technology served as a way for isolated Asian Americans to find a sense of identification with one another.
Check out the report, available as a downloadable PDF.