Racial Diversity and its Limits: What One Experience with Asian American Students Might Tell Us About Teaching Race

The following was posted recently on the Race Matters in the Classroom Blog of the Wabash Center.

I was horrified to discover that Dylann Roof regarded Asians as inherently racist and thus possible allies to white supremacist causes.  That opinion received little media attention, except for spotty clusters throughout social networking sites.  And while Roof’s assessment of Asians is nothing short of galling, I also found them disquieting; it was the words of a white supremacist mad man that had uncomfortably recalled a specific set of experiences in my course  “Race, Politics, and Theology.”  Read more…

What is White? The 2020 U.S. Census and Race


Take a look at the proposed U.S. Census question regarding race and ethnicity. The category for White is interesting. The nationalities listed as examples for White are historically rich. There was a time when Italians and Germans, among others, were not necessarily (or fully, genuinely) White and American; English nativism was widespread. So when and how did these nationalities/ethnicities become mainstream White? Will there ever be a time when the Census lists Chinese, Lebanese, or Ghanan as White? (The Lebanese were White at one point in U.S. history, but that’s a story for another day.) If that were to happen, then what social conditions would facilitate that? Would it even feel right if Whiteness expanded to include non-white persons? (Would non-white persons even want that?) This all begs the question: What exactly is White?

*Image of the proposed question for the 2020 Census is from a Pew Research Center report.

Originally posted on Tumblr.com, June 2015

“I IDENTIFY AS BLACK”–Rachel Dolezal. But what exactly does it mean to be Black (or White, Asian, or Latino/a)? What the Asian experience of passing as White might teach us.

I have been following l’affaire Dolezal with fascination over the past week. I get why she can no longer be the head of the NAACP in Spokane, WA. Her identity deception chips away at the kind of integrity one expects in a leader of any organization, especially one like the NAACP. But part of my fascination with all of this is whether the uproar over Dolezal would have been muted had she been forthright from the very beginning with her desire to identify as Black. But from the reactions I’ve read in the media, it sounds like this goes beyond the fact that she was being deceitful. But that leads us down the road to some thorny conceptual questions. What exactly does it mean to say one identifies as Black (or with any other race or ethnicity for that matter)? To identify as Black couldn’t mean that one is Black in some essentialist way. I think there has been enough convincing research that points to the fact that there really isn’t anything biological about race; there’s no gene marker, for instance, for Black, Asian, White, or Latino/a. And being Black can’t simply be about skin color. If that were the case, then how dark does one have to be to count as Black, or how light can one be to still be considered Black? The history of African Americans passing as White Americans is indicative enough of the arbitrariness of racial identity in relation to skin color. Dolezal apparently frequented tanning salons in Spokane to achieve a darker-skinned hue, but if that is all it takes to be Black, then half of the folks on the Jersey shore this summer should count as African Americans.

If it’s not about biology or skin color, there are those who say they are Black as a way of indicating a particular shared socio-political history and/or cultural practices. But that way of defining Black identity has its problems too, since not all Black persons understand themselves as Black in a historically and culturally uniform or singular way. To think otherwise is to fall into the trap of what the Vanderbilt University religious ethicist Victor Anderson calls “ontological blackness.” Blackness can’t simply be a function of the same historical and cultural experiences. Being black for some will mean one thing, while being Black for others will mean another. For some African Americans, their identities are forged in the memory of the civil rights movement. For others, a new found affluence may be more definatory of what it means to be Black. To some extent, I think President Obama has been caught in the middle of these often times competing understandings of Black identity.

What about ancestry? That’s a little more challenging, but even that can’t be the defining feature of Black identity. Let me illustrate with the situation of multiracial persons. If you are of multiple races and ethnicities, how should one identify, racially speaking? Let’s say you are a quarter Swedish (your great grandfather was from Sweden), does that mean you can go around saying you are Swedish? I’m not so sure. Yes, it is (sadly) true that the one drop rule has been in force in American society for a long time so that if you had a sliver of Black ancestry you were simply Black. But that underscores the problem of defining race based on ancestry. How much ancestry is required? My parents are both Korean, but what if I discovered some Chinese ancestry in my family tree, then what? (Given the history of Korea, I wouldn’t be surprised.) We like to think that there is such a thing as racial and ethnic authenticity, but that perpetuates the fiction that racial, ethnic, and cultural purity is true when in reality the human experience is a story of inter-mixing.

If there is no one, essentialist or defining conception of Black identity, then does that mean that anyone can be Black? What I’ve found intriguing about this week’s discussions on Dolezal is that even though many see race and ethnicity as social constructs, many are somewhat reluctant to embrace racial identity swapping–it just doesn’t seem coherent. For instance, I think if I were to one day go around like Rachel Dolezel and start identifying as Black, a lot if not most folks who know me (strangers even) would think it really weird, even if I did so for a sustained period of time, adopting particular Black cultural forms and adjusting my appearance. So what does our discomfort with racial identity swapping suggest?

I don’t have a comprehensive answer to that question, at least not one that I am willing to defend to the end. But I have an initial thought that I think is worth considering, and it may be helpful to turn briefly to a dimension of Asian American experiences with racial identity, particularly, in relation to whiteness.

A common experience for many (not all) Asian Americans is the question that is often asked of us by non-Asian Americans: where are you from? That question irks many Asian Americans (it irks me for sure) because it perpetuates a feeling of foreignness even if you have lived in the States for most if not all your life. For that reason, I know many Asian Americans who work hard to be “American,” doing what it takes (whether consciously or unconsciously) to be less foreign–to assimilate, in other words. So, in a manner of speaking, there are plenty of Asian Americans who have passed for Americans, which is, in a way, code for White, since that is the majority culture many Asian Americans seek to assimilate into. Surprising? No, since that, to a degree, is the American immigrant story. However, what I am trying to get at here is the idea that Asian American passing as “American” is not simply a free choice of identity construction. Rather, it is a socio-politically layered choice, and more so given that White America has welcomed this kind of racial passing for Asians (though it has often been framed within the model minority conception, which, at the end of the day, indicates that Asian assimilation into the White mainstream, has been far from fully salutary).

That identity construction, especially when it comes to race and ethnicity, is wrought with socio-political baggage, whether we are aware of it or not, provides an important evaluative lens for the Dolezal affair. I’ve heard commentators note that African Americans would not be able to identify as White as easily as Dolezal has been able to identify as Black. Again, this recalls the tragic history of African Americans passing as White–the very idea of passing implies that one is trying to get away with something that otherwise would be rejected.

The fact of the matter is that being a particular racial and ethnic identity in America is never simply an expression of a particular cultural way of life. Being a particular racial and ethnic identity is a reflection and expression of particular socio-political as well economic realities. More specifically, the kind of racial and ethnic identities we embody (or desire to embody) tells a story of the kind of advantages, opportunities, and privileges we are afforded (or not afforded) in American society.

In that way, while I think the social construction of racial identity may mean that there is no objective definition to Black identity or any racial and ethnic identity for that matter, that doesn’t mean that one can be whatever racial and ethnic identity one wants to be. There is, therefore, an important difference between, on the one hand, being really into the cultural forms of particular African American communities and being in solidarity with the racial struggles of African Americans and, on the other hand, wanting to be (and being) African American.

While there is no one way of being African American, we continue to live in a society in which blackness has particular social, political, and economic meanings and ramifications. If a White person desires to be Black and has the capacity to opt out of that identity at a later time, then that person cannot be Black in the way that most Black persons are Black. A White person’s identification as Black, then, is just another way for such a person to exercise her social privilege in a world where whiteness has its advantages.

No matter how sincere Dolezal’s identification with blackness–however she understands blackness–ultimately, it comes off like a fetish. Isn’t this why some Asians are somewhat put off by non-Asians who are seemingly obsessed with all things Asian?

Originally posted on Tumblr.com, June 2015

Aloha the Movie: Why Genuine Racial Diversity is Often Illusory in American Society

I’ve posted before about the problem of perceiving Asian simply on “looks”–being Asian is not simply a function of physical, morphological features. So my dismay with the casting of Emma Stone in Aloha may seem a bit off the mark. But not quite, since her casting by Cameron Crowe is a good, crystallizing example of how white racism and privilege operate in American society, especially in relation to Asian Americans. I think this is what so many within the Asian American community have come to see in the Aloha affair.

To be more specific: I don’t want to get too hung up on the fact that Emma Stone is white, and the character that she portrays is half Asian. If the controversy is simply about looks, then it’s a misplaced controversy. Take this for whatever it’s worth, but my daughter is half Korean, and there are times when she looks more like her mother than me, and I often think, am I even related to her? (I am, so don’t let your imagination run wild!)

But the more fundamental problem with the whole Emma Stone business, as I see it, is how whiteness has become the paradigm of ethnicity and race in America. This reality is in many ways so subtle that we hardly think of it, and that’s partly due to the way class, race, and history intersect in American life. But what is subtle and often times feels rather normal becomes apparent–shockingly apparent–when something like the Aloha movie comes along and stirs the emotions. What I’m trying to say is that the real crime with the movie is that it does not allow Asian Americans to be represented on their own terms. We see this all around, and so Cameron Crowe’s movie is hardly unique in that regard; it’s a mainstream Hollywood problem.

We live in a society in which diversity, especially racial and ethnic diversity, is increasingly accepted and celebrated but with strings attached. Diversity is great, so long as you talk, dress, and walk like everyone else, and by that I mean white middle/upper middle class sensibilities. (Mind you, many Asian Americans have bought into this racial paradigm, a.k.a. assimilation, so there’s plenty of culpability to go around.) The phenomenon I am calling attention to is what the idea of whitewashing is trying, in part, to illumine, and why mainstream American society struggles so much with modes of cultural being that do not fit nicely within long-standing notions of citizenship and plain old neighborliness. (Hence, the anxiety, in certain quarters of the U.S., over English as a fading “national” language and the rise of immigration, among other matters.) Then, on the other end of the spectrum, there is the happy embrace of diversity so long as it is relegated or confined to a specific geography, say, in Chinatown, little Manilla, little Saigon, or wherever. For many in mainstream America, racial and ethnic diversity is something to go and experience, on a service trip to Nicaragua, or on a weekend jaunt to an ethnic enclave for some so-called authentic ethnic food. Then, after the experience, you go home, back to the norm. But this kind of diversity is just another form of racial and ethnic marginalization, making particularities static and stereotypical. What’s especially pernicious perhaps is that it renders such particularities invisible, and only visible when there’s a desire for an experience of diversity.

Diversity with strings attached is particularly true for biracial persons. And this is why the Aloha movie strikes a particular chord, especially for me. That whiteness is the controlling racial and ethnic paradigm means, at the very least, that racial and ethnic “irregularities” are problematic; they don’t fit nicely into definite and majority-defined identity boxes. In this respect, the prevailing norms of society set up the identity game in such a way that folks who are biracial in particular are pressured to pick a part of their racial make up and elevate it as the primary definition of themselves. I see this with my young biracial kids–they are half Asian and half white, but I find that folks are uncomfortable when I say they are simply of mixed race. For lots of folks, it’s seems more coherent and intelligible to say they are Asian American, with a white mother. At any rate, the point I am trying to get at is that Cameron Crowe with Aloha seems to have fallen into this biracial bog by moving in the other direction, that is, by making the main female character of Aloha essentially white by casting Emma Stone (in other words, by rendering her white, with Asian ancestry). But we know that Allison Ng is quarter Asian and quarter Hawaiian, making casting choices a little more complicated, or one would think. Apparently not so for Crowe, however. Ng is a half step closer to being white, so why not a white Emma Stone for the part, with a muted acknowledgment that she is biracial. White or half white/half Asian–same difference, isn’t it? Besides, that makes biracial persons, particularly Amerasians, if I may use a slightly old fashioned category, more palatable, less foreign, and more relatable to mainstream white America (which is important, unless we were talking about a martial arts themed film).

Allowing and respecting the right for biracial persons to represent themselves on their own terms–now that sort of approach would have made the casting of the movie more interesting and would have been one small way of resisting the racial “norming” of biracial identities. More startling and gutsy would have been if Columbia Pictures, Scott Rudin Productions et al. decided from the very beginning to hire an Asian American or biracial Asian director and casting director etc. and empowered them to make decisions collectively about casting. That could have injected some creativity to the movie, at least at the start of production, even if it ultimately turned out to be a dull, lifeless movie.

Originally posted on Tumblr.com, June 2015

Do Asian Americans have a Race Problem? Asians and African Americans in Baltimore, Ferguson, and Beyond. 

NPR: Baltimore Unrest Reveals Tensions Between African-Americans And Asians (April 30, 2015)

One dimension of the Baltimore protests in April that has received little media attention is the looting of some Asian American businesses during those protests. This piece from National Public Radio fills in some of that reporting gap. Asian American business owners also experienced looting in Ferguson. And of course, many Korean Americans remember quite vividly the kind of looting that took place in L.A.’s Koreatown in 1992, in response to the Rodney King incident. The looting against Asian American businesses in Baltimore, I think, should once again push Asian Americans to think more seriously and soberly about our often fraught relationship with the African American community.

Let me be clear. In what I am about to write below, I am in no way insinuating that Asian Americans are purposefully setting out to profit off of African Americans. Many Asian American business owners are decent, honest, and hard working persons trying to make it in the U.S.

But considering how some Asian American businesses fared in Baltimore, it would be irresponsible of Asian Americans to ignore the kind of question that we don’t seem to want to discuss more openly in a sustained manner (at least in my opinion). The question is this: are Asian Americans insensitive and perhaps willfully ignorant of the problem of race in America, specifically racism against African Americans? To the extent that some African Americans in Baltimore involved in the looting of Asian American businesses suggested that those shops deserved to be vandalized underscores the urgency of the question.

Now of course, no one deserves to be vandalized. What I am trying to call attention to, however, is whether the looting that took place against some Asian American businesses in Baltimore and beyond is symptomatic of a kind of racial tone-deafness among some Asian American small businesses and Asian Americans more generally. I realize that I may be embarking on some very sensitive territory here, but again, it’s a topic that Asian Americans need to discuss more openly as far as I’m concerned.

So let’s start with this proposition. So long as Asian Americans continue to open and operate small businesses in poor and working class African American neighborhoods–laundromats, liquor stores, convenience stores and so on–then Asian Americans need to be a greater part of the neighborhoods in which they do business. Many Asian American businesses owners do just that, but many do not as well. To those who don’t, it’s just not good enough to show up in the morning and then leave at the end of the day without being meaningful participants in the life of that neighborhood. That may be asking a lot from folks who are simply trying to make a living, but it’s not really and shouldn’t be seen as an added burden. Otherwise, we should hardly be surprised if Asian Americans doing business in these communities are perceived as contributing to the economic exploitation of African Americans. If this proposition doesn’t resonate among Asian Americans business owners, then I encourage them to ask why. And in doing so, I am encouraging all Asian Americans to think about racism, whether at the unconscious level or not.

Here’s a reality check: Asian Americans are not immune to racism. By racism I don’t just mean racism against Asian Americans. I don’t want to understate the the persistence of discrimination that many Asian Americans experience routinely. But as much as we need to make more visible the kind of subtle, often covert racism Asian Americans are subject to, we also need to face the reality that we can (and do) dish out the same to others.

One thing that concerns me greatly is the extent to which Asian Americans may be reinscribing, knowingly or unwittingly, patterns of bias against African Americans, especially against economically disadvantaged African Americans. The social forces that may facilitate and bolster such reinscription are complex and varied. In a book chapter that will be coming out later in the fall, I attempt to parse out one possible social force. Specifically, how the desire to assimilate or gain recognition as a peer (or, simply, to “make it”) in mainstream, middle class America, coupled with the actual rise of Asian American educational achievement and economic affluence, can too easily create a false sense that Asian Americans can be a part of American society while being apart from the larger American narrative of racism.

I may post more details about that chapter when it is published in a few months. For now, all I want to emphasize is the following. An attitude that Asian Americans need to guard against is that racism is not an Asian American problem but the problem of others, specifically, between White and Black Americans. But the reality is much different. There’s certainly nothing wrong with wanting a good education and living a comfortable life, but so long as you live in the U.S., you cannot insulate yourself from racism. The challenge is discerning how you and your community are plugged into it. That Asian Americans continue to experience discrimination is one way we are plugged into the narrative of American racism. (On that front, there is a good deal of research that strongly suggests the purported integration of Asian Americans into the mainstream has far from eliminated racism against Asian Americans.) But we also need to think more about whether Asian Americans are plugged into that narrative as racists or unwitting perpetrators of racism.

Coming back to the more specific instance of Asian American businesses in economically challenged neighborhoods of color, here’s a revised version of my earlier proposition. Inasmuch as Asian Americans are part of the American narrative of racism, how Asian Americans conduct business in a particular community of color without regard for that community’s history can reinforce and perpetuate patterns of bias against that community. That’s why doing business is never simply a “value-neutral” act. Business is never just business; this applies to Asian American businesses as much as non-Asian American businesses. Such is the reality–the historical reality–of American society.

A few statistics from from a 2012 Pew study should raise hard questions for Asian Americans. The study finds that 61% of Asian Americans say they get along “pretty well” with whites (26% say “very well”). In comparison, 48% of Asian Americans say their group gets along with African Americans “pretty well” (15% say very well). The Pew study then reports that “Korean Americans have an especially negative view of group relations with blacks.” Only 39% of Korean Americans surveyed say they get along “pretty well” with African Americans (and just 4% say “very well”). From these statistics, I wonder about the extent to which Asian Americans are becoming/have become more socially disconnected to African Americans. Whatever the causes of that disconnection, may it not be the case that greater the disconnection, the greater the insensitivity to the kind of racial legacy and realities African Americans face on a daily basis? Let’s resolve to have this conversation in a sustained, honest, and open manner.

Originally posted on Tumblr.com, June 2015

Can a Non-Asian Out-Asian an Asian? Questioning the Idea of Ethnic Authenticity

Can a non-Asian out-Asian an Asian?
There are a number of issues intertwined in that mouthful of a question. One issue that interests me especially is whether racial or ethnic identity can be assumed by anyone. After watching the “New York” episode of A Mind of a Chef (2012), again (!), I was, this time around, struck by the phenomenon of Ivan Ramen. (Above, David Chang of Momofuku fame discusses ramen with the famous Ivan of Ivan Ramen of Japan and now in Manhattan).
In the food world it seems fairly acceptable for white chefs to cook so-called non white food (aka ethnic food) and vice versa. And, being able to cook a food “outside” one’s own ethnic or racial background seems to be a kind of desired challenge and personal and professional achievement among ambitious chefs. I have no qualms with this; in fact, it reminds me that ethnic and racial culture is malleable and that there are significant limitations to the way most people approach the concept of cultural authenticity.
But if the world of food helps us to see how ethnic culture does not (or need not) solely “belong” to a certain group of persons, can this also be possible for ethnic identity? Is ethnic identity just as malleable as ethnic culture? A white person may be adept at Japanese cooking, but can a white person choose to identify as Japanese? I guess it would depend on what we mean by ethnic identity. If it is defined primarily in cultural terms, then shouldn’t a non white person who embodies a number of Japanese cultural practices be entitled to identify as Japanese if she wishes? Unless being Japanese (or some other ethnic and racial identity) is more then a set of cultural practices. But what would constitute “more then?”

Originally posted on Tumblr.com, February 2015

Racial Aesthetics: How Asian Can You Look to be American?

Racially or ethnically specific baby dolls from the company that makes the American Girl line of toys–apparently very popular, at least based on the lines that form in front of the midtown storefront (in Manhattan) during special events. (My 3 year old daughter seems to like these dolls a lot too.) I get why the American Girl company made these baby dolls, and I get why some kids and their parents prefer them over the “traditional” American girl doll (traditional meaning white). In other words, it makes sense for a little kid to have a doll that looks like her. But there’s the rub. Do these dolls look like an Asian American kid or a Latina child? The doll on the top left is suppose to appeal to Asian American girls–note the “almond eyes” description. My daughter has that one. When I first saw the actual doll, my initial reaction was, okay, maybe it looks Asian. But then when I saw the picture of the doll next to the Latina doll (see the picture top right), I began to wonder what the American Girl company is trying to do with these dolls.
Both dolls on top look pretty much the same. Am I completely off the mark on that? Perhaps more interestingly, the top two dolls don’t look all that dissimilar to the one on the bottom right, which is suppose to the Caucasian doll.

I was more amused than anything else when my daughter received her American Girl baby doll. The doll, especially in relation to the picture of the other ones, is a tad funny looking. Amusing or not, the dolls do reflect, I think, the kind of racial dynamics at play in American society. On the one hand, the increasing sensitivity to difference and the affirmation of diverse identities. On the other hand, respecting difference within the context of whiteness. The latter dynamic is the more subtle and covert dimension of the American experience of race and can be studied in the comparison of the American girl dolls.

My feeling has always been that American society is quite willing to embrace racial and ethnic differences but under certain, often unspoken, stipulations. This observation is not entirely original; we all probably can observe what I mean by flipping through a magazine or watching some commercials. Black is beautiful, but not too black please (Halle Berry, anyone?); nothing wrong with being Asian so long as one doesn’t look too Asian (read: foreign). Perhaps that explains, in part, the popularity of skin whitening and eyelid surgeries among some Asian and Asian American communities. Looking and being different is fine, even to be celebrated, to the extent that difference is modeled after and conforms to “white” standards of aesthetics and “mainstream” or “traditional” American values.

I have nothing against American Girl dolls; my daughter loves playing with hers, and a lot of other girls seem to adore them too. Nothing wrong with childhood joy. But these American Girl baby dolls are indicative of powerful racial forces in American society. An Asian American girl playing with an Asian American-esque baby doll–why not? Empowering, isn’t it? That she can play with a doll that looks more like her provides subtle affirmation of who she is. But what kind of message is covertly communicated when the doll that supposedly looks like her looks more like the white doll, the main difference perhaps being the color of the dolls’ hair? How about this as a possible message: It’s great to be Asian American, but not too Asian American. To be one of us (i.e., American) is to be more like that other doll, white and whatever social and cultural meanings that may be presumed and affirmed with that whiteness. Is this all too sinister? Or, is a baby doll just a baby doll?

Originally posted on Tumblr.com, June 2015