Members of UC Irvine’s Asian-American fraternity Lambda Theta Delta put their racial ignorance on display last week when they released a video of a student wearing blackface. The college community, which caught wind of the video this week when a YouTube user reuploaded the deleted video, is predictably outraged.
The video includes four Asian-American men dancing to Justin Timberlake’s “Suit and Tie” to promote the spring induction of the fraternity’s new recruits. One man in blackface plays the part of Jay-Z. It is the very definition of bad taste. I watched as much of it as I could stomach and cringed during the worst of it.
With their racist antics LTD is carrying on the long and horrid tradition of campus racism, which is its own genre of racial antagonism. C. Richard King and David Leonard broke down the history of college goers partying in blackface in the pages of Colorlines—in 2007. King and Leonard describe the “ghetto fabulous” parties of yore as a reactionary aggression toward demands for “political correctness”—but what’s going on seems to be just as much the result of endemic racial ignorance.
Such incidents are especially egregious at a campus like UC Irvine, where Asian Americans are 49 percent (PDF) of the undergraduate student population and black students are just 2 percent. Within the University of California network UC Irvine’s has for years been the campus with the highest percentage of Asian-American students.
To their credit, the fraternity issued an actual apology, as opposed to the disingenuous non-apology-apologies that so often follow such offenses.
BCP: Your poetry is very personal. Was it, or is it, hard to go to those personal places in your mind and heart? For example, your poem “Do The Right Thing” is powerful and sad. Being told, “you ain’t even Black” by Spike Lee, one of the most influential Black directors of our time, must have been horrible. When reading it I felt its last line deeply: “the missed free throw feeling in my chest.”
AM: Thanks for your words about the poem. You’re absolutely right; some of the poems in Mixology are very personal. “Do The Right Thing,” in particular is open about its intention in a way that some of the other poems (“Language Mixology” or “This Be The Verse,” for example) are not.
Because the poem is so personal, I almost took it out of the book. I’m not comfortable sharing information in that way because I’m not really big on the “this really happened” aspect of poetry. It works for other poets, but it feels like a limitation to me.
The thing is, I don’t think the truth (in the “this really happened” sense) should get in the way of a good poem. The poems should be emotionally honest and true to the poet’s intent, but there are different kinds of truth, if you see what I mean. I’m not adverse to embellishing a moment to write a better poem. But in the case of Do The Right Thing—meeting Spike Lee and having my authenticity questioned all at the same moment—no embellishment was needed.
BCP: As a mixed-race person I really appreciated references to skin politics throughout the collection. Can you explain what you mean when writing in Colloquialism “Bad to be black, worse to be a mixed indetermination”?
AM: I’m sure you have probably experienced a version of what inspired that line. Some mixed-race people have the rare ability to be whatever “other” is out of racial fashion at the time. When I was kid in Southern California, there was (and still is) tension between the Latinos and whites. Through the lens of that tension, everyone thought I was Mexican. When I moved to Indianapolis, issues of race revolved around black and white, so I was seen as being black. After 9/11 I was magically mistaken for Middle Eastern wherever I went. For a couple years after 9/11, I could count on being taken out of the security line at the airport for an enhanced search.
The thing is, I have identified as black my entire life. I don’t recall ever having conflict or confusion about it. In the last 10 years or so, I’ve given a different kind of consideration to what it means to be mixed race. It’s much more complicated than my original “I’m black” manifesto might have suggested.
In the part of Texas where Colloquialism is set, there is a whole different template for race. Latino Texans and white Texans live together uneasily but are acutely aware of each other. So the white Texans and the Latino Texans both knew I wasn’t Latino, but neither could tell what I am. There was something very dangerous in that ambiguity. Especially since everyone in Texas seems to have a gun.
What bothers some viewers about the Shit X Says to Y meme is that it targets only white women. Critics have said of Foti in particular that it is always sexist when men use women as the brunt of any joke. But privilege does not work in debits and credits, whereby your lack of cultural power as a gay person is paid back by your stores of cultural power as a man. A white woman can be racist to an Asian man, just as a straight black woman can be homophobic to a gay white man. These videos are important because they ask all viewers – regardless of what power they have and what power they lack – to reconsider if their best friendship with non-white and gay people grants them licence to cross the line.
Yet this doesn’t change the fact that though white men started Shit Girls Say – to poke fun at white women – the backlash is against white women. Shit X Says to Y generalises these women as the only ones who possess a desire for intimacy or approval; that desire which bulldozes over the very real fact that, when differences in identity are at hand, there are parts of our friends’ lives that we can never understand. Love doesn’t conquer all. Still, it’s unfair to put this burden squarely on them. The lack of a Shit White Men Say to Y meme (or Simply Shit White People Say to Y meme) is uncomfortable proof that we always prefer lampooning women than men.