Sunday, March 06, 2016

Racism close to home, Part II

Photograph from the "Persuasion" series
My junior year of high school, I made friends with two seniors -- friends of my sister's, really, who I managed to co-opt by the desperate accident of looking for people to sit with at lunch on the first day of school. I'll call them Ted Zhang and Damon Chen for the sake of privacy. I got to know them pretty well over the course of a semester, because every morning Damon would drive up to my house, Ted in the passenger seat enthusiastically bobbing his head to whatever throwback mixtape was in the CD player, and I would clamber up into the back seat, like I was just the kid sister being picked up for school.

The first thing I noticed, from the day I sat next to them in that crowded cafeteria, was that they looked alike, but had ways of speaking and acting so different that sometimes they seemed like fraternal twins half-trying to disavow their blood. All those mornings we rode to school, Ted did most of the talking. He'd casually toss around comments that I'd wince at or say "come on" to, things like "I raped that test," "Chink," or frequent uses of the N-word. Sometimes I wondered if I was out of line for telling him off after one too many "slanty eyes" comments (after all, wasn't I less Asian than he was?) but I figured there was something universally reprehensible about most of the phrases he used.

He kept on using them, and I kept on calling him out--ineloquently, between the choked-back laughs of my shock--and Damon kept driving, with the hint of a grin playing at the corner of his mouth.

I remembered junior year and those morning drives with these guys, who I haven't seen since I left Redmond, because of thinking about the way we use language and what it says about how we think about race. In my earlier post I may have oversimplified racism.

I say this because when I think about the way Ted spoke, the way he tossed around racial slurs in those winter mornings and then went to our AP US Gov class in the afternoon to learn about civil rights, I don't think that prejudice--at least not prejudice in that moment, in the moment's intention of saying it--laced every word he used. I'll never know for sure why he used the N-word at random times, whether to provoke a reaction or out of habit or what, but he never said it with malice.

I feel similarly confused when I remember a brouhaha that erupted on my dorm's floor my freshman year of college. It was sparked by some (also male, also Asian) floormates whose use of language could be careless, obnoxious, and offensive.

It was easy to condemn their language. It was more difficult to condemn them. They, too, were my friends.

One thing that confuses me about the offensive use of language by friends is that they're usually minorities themselves. I don't have any white friends who would ever consider tossing around racial slurs in casual (or even non-casual) conversations, and when I think about which of my parents is the more careful with language I know immediately that it's my (Caucasian) dad. This caution is probably a good thing, the natural behavior of inheritors of a past (and present) of unjust privilege.

So what about the Teds?

Their offensive language use is inextricably linked to masculinity. Author Michael Dyson said, "When you think about American society, the notion of violent masculinity is at the heart of American identity." So here's a thought: when Ted used offensive language, and when other Asian guys I know toss around the N-word to greet their friends, it's not because they have some long-standing beef with African-Americans.

It's an instinctual response to a racist, sexist society that perceives African-American males as paragons of hyper-masculinity while seeing Asian-American males as effeminate. (Although this connection first appeared to me in the context of Americans of East Asian descent, I think an argument can be made that it also applies to Americans of South Asian descent; Thangaraj's Desi Hoop Dreams says, "South Asian American men are not usually depicted as ideal American men. They struggle against popular representations as either threatening terrorists or geeky, effeminate computer geniuses.")

In his 1996 opinion piece in the New York Times, writer David Mura wrote, "In the movies, as in the culture as a whole, Asian-American men seem to have no sexual clout. Or sexual presence...In fiction, when East meets West, it is almost always a Western man meeting an Asian woman...And where does that leave Asian men?" (who are straight and gender-conforming, it's worth adding--check out an excellent article in Everyday Feminism).

Unfortunately, things haven't changed much twenty years on from Mura's piece. Depictions of Asian-American men still tend to follow the same tired tropes. Although there's more awareness of the issue (and projects like Persuasion, a photo series celebrating Asian men and attempting to break down the stereotype of femininity), Asian-American men still face a media and society that conveys harmful stereotypes. One journal article discussed how Asian-American college students reported confronting several stereotypes, including sexual inadequacies, interpersonal deficits, and unflattering physical attributes.

So what do you do? A crisis of masculinity, created either by being in homosocial group situations or, more broadly, a nation where conventional masculinity is highly prized, means reaching for any means of establishing masculinity possible. In some cases, appropriating "blackness" is seen as an answer. This is rooted in age-old perceptions of African-American men as, in the words of Occidental College professor Lisa Wade,

"more masculine than white men: they are, stereotypically, more aggressive, more violent, larger, more sexual, and more athletic...Likewise, Asian people are feminized.  Both Asian men and women are seen as somehow smaller, more passive, the women sweeter, the men less virile. These are cultural stereotypes derived from the particular history of the U.S."

In a press release in 2014, the American Psychological Association discussed a study showing that young black boys are perceived as older and "less innocent" than whites of the same age. This has had horrific implications for the safety of young African-Americans, and it has also reinforced the link between blackness and archetypes of tough, violent masculinity. Saying the N-word to greet friends, sagging your pants, singing along to gangsta rap -- these choices to "act black" or seem "ghetto" (both also rooted in highly problematic assumptions) are reflective of an aspiration to masculinity.

The transgressions of people like Ted, of course, went beyond saying one word; it was a whole way of speaking, when the three of us were in the car, that indicated there were no lines too sacred to cross. In retrospect, this kind of attitude seems aggressively masculine (or at least stereotypically so). Girls are raised to be "nice," to think about what people's reactions may be to any given action, to perform countless tasks of emotional labor.

In contrast, the unfortunate saying "nice guys finish last" aptly summarizes a common social perspective on "niceness" and masculinity; whereas inoffensiveness is prized for girls and even a marker of femininity, it can be (particularly in homosocial groups) stigmatized for boys. In short, saying purposefully offensive things translates to "I give no f**ks," which we associate with masculinity. It explains a lot -- why I sound like more of a jerk when I'm the only girl in a large group of guys, why guys who in private might be kind and sensitive say highly questionable things when they're mainly surrounded by male peers.

All this also makes eradicating the kind of racist language I hear all the time from Asian male friends that much harder -- because they live under the specter of racism too, not the hands-up-don't-shoot brand but rather a racism that tells them they are less of men, and that whole thing is tied up with sexism too. What should I say, then, when "Don't say that, it's rude" is not enough? "Don't say that, you're stronger than succumbing to outside pressures to strive for an image of violent masculinity in order to fit in with your male peers or reclaim a sense of sexual agency our stereotypical media representations and racist society have stolen from you?" It just doesn't roll off the tongue. I wonder what Ted would have said, if I had said that to him when I was a high school junior in the back of the car. Probably rolled his eyes and told me I was overthinking it.

He added me on LinkedIn a few days ago. I was interested to see what he'd been up to in the years since we last talked. I scrolled through his profile, saw that he would be graduating college next year, and then looked at "Interests." 

Economic empowerment? Education? Hmm, I thought, never knew he was into that stuff. Somehow I'd just assumed that he'd still be the same Ted I'd known when I was 15. I kept reading the bullet points on the Interests list. Human rights? The environment? Damn, I thought. 

And then, another interest that made my eyes widen:

Social Action and Civil Rights.

Thursday, March 03, 2016

Racism, close to home

Kam Chancellor (Seattle Times)

I'll freely admit that I don't really follow sports, but the headline "NFL Star Visits Gym He Wants to Buy, Employees Call the Cops On Him" caught my eye because it happened in my hometown of Redmond. Growing up, I walked past the RAC (the gym Chancellor was looking to buy) frequently on my way to QFC or Starbucks or the Bella Bottega movie theater -- a part of the landscape I thought of as home. The recent event with Kam Chancellor puts into stark relief that racism, too, was -- and is -- part of that landscape. 

In his monologue at the Oscars, comedian Chris Rock repeatedly asked, "Is Hollywood racist?" He finally answered his own question with the line, "You're damn right Hollywood's racist...Hollywood is 'sorority racist.' It's like, 'We like you Rhonda, but you're not a Kappa.'" What he termed "sorority racism" stands in contrast to more obvious and extreme forms of racism, like burning crosses in someone's yard or making vast and unsubstantiated criticisms of minority populations (cough Trump's "they're not sending their best...they're sending...drug dealers, rapists" cough). 

You could just as well substitute "Redmond" or any other similar suburb for "Hollywood" and get the same answer. Because the thing is, the folks I grew up, and their parents, would never attend a White Pride rally or fly the Confederate flag or advocate segregation in our schools. In fact, every year, we had an assembly to celebrate Martin Luther King, Jr. Day, with students of all ethnic backgrounds trotting out touching speeches and poems and songs. 

And yet in this same place, I heard white boys in the hallway greeting each other with bro hugs--and then the N-word. A tenth grade classmate broke up with her Caucasian boyfriend after he wore blackface and sagging pants to dress up as a "thug" for Halloween. We (and I say "we" because I was guilty of this too) tossed around words like "ghetto" more than the brunch ladies of this Saturday Night Live sketch without any consideration of the problematic context of the word (Clutch Magazine: the word "has become synonymous with...stereotypical black, urban or hip hop culture"). 

What makes all of this so hypocritical is not just that we purported to be educated and smart and good, the types of kids to take AP classes and do great MLK assemblies and vote for Obama. What makes how we behaved hypocritical is that we all benefitted from everything we implicitly disparaged. We laughed at Ain't Nobody Got Time for That and Motherfucking Bootleg Fireworks and Hide Yo' Kids Hide Yo' Wife -- and somewhere in between our laughs, eked out, "That's so ghetto." We could use phrases like "Yaaaasss queen," call someone's "eyebrows on fleek," even do a wall twerk at a party and it would be "cool" and "hip" instead of "skanky" or "ratchet." I have never been followed around a store, stopped by a police officer, or worried that my name would be a liability on a job application ("white-sounding" names are 50% more likely to get called for an initial interview).

Simply put, the rules are different for white and Asian kids in the 'burbs. And somehow, we never found ourselves pushed to confront this uncomfortable, unfair truth -- at least, not while I was in high school. Sohum Chaudhary, who was a grade my senior in high school, shared out the link about the Kam Chancellor incident saying, 

"Many still think Redmond can't be prejudiced since a lot of minorities are moving in to the area. Even minorities here express anti-blackness and believe in the stereotypes pushed by the media. I hate to call out the robotics club that I put countless hours into back in the day, but when I went back to mentor at Exo, I was appalled. Some kids were throwing around the word nigger like candy, laughing at black things because they're "ghetto" or some bullshit, remaining completely ignorant to the struggle of POC largely in part to living a comfortable life in this white-washed suburb. [...] One time a black man in a suit was walking down the street near Redmond Town Center. An Indian man walked by him and told the black man that it's his fault that the Indian man gets pulled over often. My brother at the time was 13 or so and witnessed the event. He went up to black man immediately and told him, "I apologize for my people," and they had a good laugh at the irony of a minority telling another minority it's their fault for getting pulled over. An employee that I work with made a joke a month ago (mixed Asian). I couldn't find my headphones in the employee storage space. He said maybe a black guy stole it and chuckled. I said why black. He said do you ever see anyone other than black people stealing stuff on the news. I explained that it's the media that's pushing the stereotype and that's not the case in reality."

At Berkeley, an African-American student-athlete posted in one of the largest student Facebook groups about having the police called on him while he was sitting in his parked car. He powerfully called out the student community for cheering on black students on the court or on the field, then calling the cops on them in their neighborhoods.

And frighteningly, a thrift store in downtown Redmond owned by a black businesswoman, From Rags to Riches, received a bag containing a KKK robe and rope. The owner's son said in the Redmond Reporter, "This isn't the South. For this to happen here, it's crazy."

Racism isn't over. Saying the N-word "ironically" doesn't make you a cool hipster. Our use of language cannot exist outside of our world's pre-existing structures of power, which are still inextricably linked with countless things -- gender, socioeconomic status, sexual orientation, nationality, and the color of our skin. And when you use racist language or dress up as a "thug," you don't challenge those structures. You reinforce them.

Time and time again, I have reinforced existing structures of power. Probably, at some point or another in your life, so have you. None of us are perfect. Much of our prejudice is learned over the course of years of absorbing unquestioned influences. But identifying the insidious kind of racism that exists behind the white-picket fence and the picture window is the first step to building the kind of world that doesn't see Kam Chancellor as a threat.