Tuesday, January 20, 2015

Asians and Race Relations

Quiet long weekend. We had no classes on Monday in honor of Martin Luther King, Jr. Day.

There are two things that have been on my mind: 1) the way race and racial issues are presented to elementary school children/being Asian and 2) job anxiety. I think I will talk about the first one today and the second on Friday.

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1) The way race and racial issues are presented to elementary school children, and Asians + race relations.

I am Asian, so I never feel completely sure of whether or not I should speak about racial issues. After the non-indictment of Officer Darren Wilson, my sister posted this article, "Why Asian Americans Might Not Talk About Ferguson", which I thought well explained the weird position that Asians occupy in racial relations in the US.

I've been thinking about this problem in reference to elementary school because I have corresponded a few times by email with my fifth grade teacher, whose class I enjoyed immensely, and she mentioned that the students are going to write their MLK speeches this week; that is, speeches pertaining to Martin Luther King, Jr. and his ideas. That reminded me of how those speeches and presentations went down when I was in elementary school.

Caveat: Dr. King was incredible and amazing, and in no way do I want to discount the importance of the experiences of African Americans.

That said, it always struck me as strange that, in a town where the two biggest minorities were Latinos and Asians, whenever we learned about race it was in terms of black and white--or, often, black v. white. I remember one year, a class sang a song that went something like "everyone is black or white" and I just looked at my other Chinese friend. Where did we fit in that picture?

We are taught in elementary school, over and over, that Racism is Bad. That slavery was a massive crime and a disgusting shame, that voting rights are important, that calling people racial slurs is worse than saying "hell" or "damn." And then in middle school I get friends asking me to "do a Chinese accent" or random kids yelling "Konnichiwa" at me.

In high school I never considered going to Asian club, even laughed at the idea of having a club for Asians. We all made the same jokes--dating an Asian guy would be like selling out to your parents, band and AP classes are just Asians and whites, sushi/noodles/pot stickers/boba. My closest friends were pretty much all Asian girls, like me.

College has made me think about race to a greater extent than I have before. Race is scientifically baseless, but has such strong cultural legacy that it is still useful as a way to group together experiences.

I've encountered several comments about Asians that may or may not be Racist. "Let's not be like those Asian girls who just drink boba and eat sushi all the time." "The Koreans are the most exclusionary ethnic group on campus." "People in Okada don't mix with people outside of Okada." "Why are all the grad students from China?" "Do Asians fight over the bill so they'll be able to call in favors later, like getting into music conservatories or something?" "Are you insane or just really Asian?" "Goddamn Asian tourists."

My initial reaction is defensiveness, a desire to pull back, to play down my own Asianness. Which shows that the perception is that being Asian is an undesirable trait. If you "own being Asian," then there must be something the matter with you. You're exclusionary, stuck up, awkward and creepy if you're a guy, airheaded and cutesy if you're a girl.

Hm. As I type this post, I find myself getting angry. That's because I do not want to be thought of as exclusionary, silly, and cutesy. I want to be thought of as someone substantial and reliable and level-headed. Maybe it is only idiots and bigots who subscribe to these stereotypes of Asians, but it certainly feels as though I have to disown my race (and gender) in order to be taken seriously.

Which is ridiculous--or should be ridiculous, anyway. And yet--even in my beloved hall, watching "Avatar the Last Airbender" is cool but watching anime is freakish, and "Asian tourists are the worst."

I read a study that says that on the warmth-competence matrix, Asians fall under the category of "competent" but "cold" along with rich people, Jewish people, and female professionals. These are groups that are perceived as untrustworthy, to be envied, to be harmed under societal breakdown (see: the Holocaust).

Perhaps, then, my attempts to distance myself from my race and gender are valid as a survival strategy. That does not mean that they are not also cowardly and entirely too influenced by societal pressures.

That still does not address why issues of race at my elementary school were framed in ways that alienated the two largest minority groups or why issues of race basically never came up in middle school (except one drama teacher calling me out for acting out the stereotypical Asian parent for a skit). Or why I have thought so little about this until now.

Some questions, then:
  1. How can race relations be framed in a way that more accurately reflects local demographics?
  2. More broadly, how can we ensure that everyone's voice is represented?
  3. Do people in groups with bad reputations owe it to the group to embrace their identity and make it a thing of pride, or are we allowed to save our own skins?
  4. Is it time to dismantle race as a social marker? Is that even possible?
  5. Can I punch the next person who assumes I can't speak English?

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