Racism close to home, Part II

March 06, 2016

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.

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1 comments

  1. I'm glad you revisited this topic. Part 1 was well written but didn't quite gel for me. But here you are effectively making a point about something that I'd never thought of before.

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