Brothers at the Duke University chapter of Kappa Sigma held an Asian-themed party last week. And it was oh-so-incredibly racist.
It all began with the circulated email invitation. It was as if someone had taken Full Metal Jacket, The Good Earth, Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and every episode of Charlie Chan and ground it with a mortar and pestle, and then placed the resulting smooth paste in a beaker over-top an open flame in order to distill the very essence of purified anti-Asian racism. To wit (these and all other images courtesy of Asian Student Association at Duke, which added the arrows and commentary to the original images):
The woman locking lips with the mostly-naked man in the coolie hat may or may not be dressed as a prostitute.
And, of course, no “Asian-themed” costume is complete without a peace sign.
Let’s be totally clear: this shit is racist.
It’s offensive for a whole host of reasons. First of all, this shit perpetuates degrading stereotypes of Asian/Asian American people and our culture; stereotypes that have been historically used to denigrate and dehumanize Asian people since we arrived on American soil. Y’know, the “good ‘ol days” when we were referred to as “Chinamen” and mocked for that r/l slurring in our accented speech moments before we were raped and lynched.
This party also underscores the Other-ization and marginalization of Duke’s Asian American students, who are as much a part of the Duke community as the members of Kappa Sigma. And finally, it encouraged widespread yellowface by non-Asian students who think that becoming and being Asian is as simple as a quick wardrobe change. Asians are people. We are not a costume theme.
In the wake of the party, student organizations at Duke organized a widespread campus flyering of the above images — a public shaming of the brothers of Kappa Sigma for their behaviour. They further called for Kappa Sigma to lose its fraternity charter, which it had only had returned to it last year after a 10-year hiatus when it was forced to operate unofficially due to violation of on-campus rules governing fraternities.
“Upon learning of the deeply damaging effects of our email to our fellow students, we should have completely canceled the aforementioned party,” the email read. “The Duke Community in which we exist is one that we see too often as divided, and while our actions have brought attention to and widened that divide, it is our sincere intention to work to contribute to a United Duke.”
Meanwhile, there has also been on-campus backlash against the response by the Asian Student Association and other organizations, specifically criticizing the use of Facebook pictures in their public shaming campaign. Some have argued that the ASA has unfairly targeted partygoers, rather than the organizers of the party. Writes one commenter on the ASA’s open discussion on the topic:
Now while I agree with the intentions of this event, I do not agree with how ASA or the initial creators of the flyers executed them. First and foremost, I don’t think it’s EVER be okay under any circumstances to violate another student’s privacy. I’m certain that no one asked for permission or consent regarding these more or less compromising photos.
To this I say — if you participated, you are culpable. The women in the above photos didn’t trip, fall, and stumble into some racist Asian get-up. No one subjected them to a reverse mugging, and forced a pile of coolie hats into their unwilling arms. No on is secretly standing behind that girl up there and demanding that she hold that peace sign up or know the full wrath of a taser. These people knew the party’s theme, and they chose to attend anyways. They put together their racist costumes of their own free will. They implicitly permitted their pictures to be posted to the Internet by Kappa Sigma. There can be no legal expectation of privacy here, and thus no violation of it.
Others on the ASA open discussion have criticized the public shaming campaign by suggesting that the Asian American community is “too angry” about this party. Writes another commenter:
I’m just disappointed by the lack of maturity with which this situation was handled. Was KSig’s initial email offensive? I’d say yes, definitely. Is it indicative of a more widespread issue within our campus culture regarding stereotypes and cultural sensitivity that needs to be addressed by the student body? Absolutely. But should we be protesting against one of (truly if not the most) internationally affiliated IFC fraternities on campus for their “racism?” I’d say that’s not only extreme, but also missing the point, and an action that only begets disproportionate backlash and knee-jerk reactions from both sides. I am all for creating a more accepting and tolerant atmosphere on this campus, but let’s start by doing so collectively and working together, not by singling out an individual group, which is got us into this whole mess in the first place.
I get it. This public shaming campaign is ugly. But, racism is ugly. It’s visceral and nasty and painful and often times violent and sometimes deadly. Y’know what happened when Dr. Martin Luther King marched peacefully in the Deep South for civil rights? He got hit in the head by a goddammed rock. Y’know what happened to the three Cornellians who drove down from Ithaca to join the movement? They were lynched on the side of a deserted highway. Sometimes anger is the only rational response to have.
Look, I do not condone any potential responses by the ASA that have been, themselves, racist or sexist. But I also cannot sit by and support the argument that Asian Americans (or any minority group) should respond to racism with only “a measure of calm”. Sometimes it takes time to find the strength to be the better man.
This isn’t just some party thrown by some dumb kids. I mean, yes it is, but when I see those coolie hats and loinclothes, I see what kids at an esteemed school of higher education think of me, of my mother and my father, of my sister and my future children. I see how they see my skin and my culture and my people. This isn’t some stupid prank — this is (at least metaphorically) racial violence: the willful and deliberate misappropriation of a person’s very identity and being for another’s transient and drunken amusement and debauchery.
Is it not a second form of racial violence to tell a people that, in the face of that cultural and racial violation, their own emotional reactions are invalid?
I agree that the Asian American community of Duke must find a way to forge a positive and constructive outcome from this incident. And already, they have: there has been an outpouring of support from Duke’s other minority groups, including the on-campus Black Students Alliance, National Pan-Hellenic Council, Lambda Phi Epsilon (a national Asian-oriented fraternity), and the Students of the Carribean Association. In my own undergraduate days, another incident of anti-Asian bias was what inspired me to join my local Asian American organization and eventually pursue a minor in Asian American studies; and it all came from a first spark of anger.
I await to see what happens next at Duke. But, I do know that parents should think twice before sending their kids to this school.
Angry Asian Man reports that a prolific Android app maker has created a “Make Me Asian” app that takes a photo from your mobile device and allows you to slant your eyes, add yellow spray paint to your skin, and throw on some clipart Fu Manchu moustache and rice paddy hat. And voila — you’re now completely indistinguishable from every other Asian, right?
Screen caps of the “Make Me Asian” app. The resemblance to Asian people is uncanny.
The app description claims:
Have you ever wondered to present himself as a person of another nationality? You can imagine, for example, Chinese or Japanese? No? Then immediately take your phone and download it amazing Android-application called «Make me Asian».
This is just a fun app lets you indulge you and your friends! You can for a few seconds to make himself a Chinese, Japanese, Korean or any other Asians!
Features “Make me Asian”:
almost instantly, you can make yourself or your friends by representatives of Asian nations, such as Chinese or Japanese;
the opportunity to photograph people and process the captured images, or upload a photo from the gallery and work with it;
the results obtained can be shared via the social network Facebook, email or MMS.
These dumplings are totally more authentically Asian because of the use of that "Asian"-looking font! The only way they could be more authentic is if the website also had a Flash player looping some mandolin music when you click in...
Ever wonder where those ubiquitous pseudo-Asian “chopstick” fonts that are routinely used to mimic Asian languages come from? Jeff Yang tackles the history of this typeface, and the casual racism that arises from its usage, in his latest article: Is Your Font Racist?
The roots of the font seem to be an attempt to emulate the swashing brushstrokes used in Chinese calligraphy. “But of course, the problem is that they were drawing these fonts, not painting, and following pen conventions rather than brush ones,” he says. “That’s why you get these stark daggerlike shapes, that to the untrained eye, may look like ‘Asian’ script” — but which in reality simply signify a generic exotic, non-Western aesthetic.
Since they were first invented, chop suey/chopstick fonts have been used in a broad-spectrum manner to represent faux Asian culture, often paired with extremely stereotypical representations of Asian people. (“You’ll see caricatures with slanted eyes and buck teeth,” says Shaw.)
Given the unpleasant associations of the typeface, why did so many Asian eateries end up adopting it? “In many places it’s become a signaling device,” he says. “Fail to use this kind of lettering and you run the risk of being overlooked. If your sign is something really nice in Helvetica, people might go, ‘Is that really a Chinese restaurant?’ So there’s a commercial incentive for takeout places to use this typeface. And not just Chinese restaurants — I’ve seen Japanese, Korean, even Indian restaurants use this style of type, which of course makes absolutely no sense.”
This final paragraph also brings to mind the entire practice of naming one’s Asian eatery with stereotypical names, in addition to using a yellowface font. How many Asian restaurants and grocery stores include some combination of the words “Golden”, “Lucky”, “8″, “Jade”, “Palace”, and “Dragon”? Of course, unlike font choices (which is ideally arbitrary), the choice to name one’s business is often based on an English translation of a Chinese name that has been chosen to invite fortune and prosperity. But one wonders: if Chinese restaurant names are so stereotypical as to inspire multiplerandomChinese restaurantname generators on the Internet, is there a specific naming tradition (and associated imagery, e.g. dragons, pandas, cherry blossomes, etc) that have, themselves, become a Asian cultural signifiers? Further, is there a commercial incentive to Chinese restaurant owners to perpetuate these stereotypical names in order to signal their eatery’s Asian authenticity and thereby attract non-Asian clientele looking for their next Far Eastern fix?
The popular consequences of such stereotypes is a collection of cultural icons and imagery that are used by both Asians and non-Asians alike to evoke the East; and, the popular usage of these signifiers by Asians helps to maintain a sense of authenticity while assuaging any concerns over the casual racism of these icons. The long-term consequences are most galling when some enterprising businesses, hoping to titillate their clientele with exoticism, puts together a potpourri of Orientalist signifiers to build their own authentic-Asia-from-scratch. Take for example, Zynga’s new Jade Falls Farmville add-on, a vomitous blending of every East Asian icon one can imagine (irrespective of ethnicity), complete with dragons, pagodas, cherry blossoms, fishing boats, and even a shiba dog. This is cultural yellowface, at its finest.
It's a cornucopia of Chinese cultural appropriation! An orgy of Orientalism!
The question remains: if members of the Asian community are in part contributing to the perpetuation of certain stereotypical Asian cultural signifiers, which are then used and abused by non-Asian enterprises to exoticize the Far East, how do we break the cycle? Do we discourage Asian business owners from falling into the stereotype? Do we put an intra-communal moratorium on chopstick fonts and “Lucky Dragon” restaurants?
I must have a really juvenile sense of humour, because every time I hear the phrase "airbender", I think about farts.
I don’t know nothun’ ‘bout “Avatar: The Last Airbender”. Seriously. I haven’t seen so much as five seconds of the cartoon. Heck, I generally avoid Nickelodeon products like the plague. Maybe that makes me a bad fangirl. I don’t know. But that’s also why I’m like a year late on blogging about the racial controversy surrounding this movie.
What I do know about Avatar: The Last Airbender is what I read about on Wikipedia. The show sounds a little bit like an updated version of Dragonball. Basically, Avatar is set in an Asian-inspired fantasy world where people are capable of manipulating the four elements: earth, air, fire and water. The main character of the show, named Aang, is an Avatar — which makes him special in a way that the Wikipedia articles fail to adequately explain. From there, it seems as if Aang (who starts out with an Airbending ability), and his animal familiar – a flying… buffalo… — embark on some crazy adventures to learn how to manipulate the remaining three elements and take out a genocidal Fire lord person.
The internal monologue of this creature: "why do I live???"
The point here is that Aang, and many of his friends, are supposed to be clearly Asian. In fact, the Avatar world is based on many East Asian (and particularly Buddhist) concepts of chi, martial arts, and reincarnation. Not having watched Avatar, I was a little skeptical of exactly how obviously Asian the world of Avatar was — until I read that in Season 2, one of the characters learns to manipulate the fifth element: metal. The idea there being a fifth natural element, and that it is metal, is a uniquely East Asian idea. So, colour me convinced — Aang and his friends are Asian.
And as any parent of colour will tell you, finding shows and toys that help reinforce positive racial identification is quintessential. As CNN demonstrated in their updated Doll Test, kids rapidly internalize racial stereotypes of good and bad from TV and movies, particularly when they aren’t exposed to any other explicit discussions of race. When kids see images on television of good, smart kids being overwhelmingly White, while bad, dumb kids are overwhelmingly Black, they make connections between personal attributes and skin colour that alter their perception of the world. Hence, when kids are shown images of identical dolls differing only in skin tone, they will associate lighter skin tone with positive attributes and darker skin tone with negative attributes. This occurs regardless of the child’s own skin colour; in the CNN doll test, even Black children demonstrated preference towards lighter-skinned dolls. What remarkable self-hate these children are learning at the ages of 2 and younger — and all because of the dearth of positive, minority protagonists in children’s shows and toys.
No child of mine is going to grow up thinking that they are ugly or stupid because of their race. If and when I am a parent, my kids will not get blonde-haired, blue-eyed Barbie dolls for Christmas. I’ll probably be the parent who buys their kids the Jade Bratz or the Quick Kick G.I. Joe. My future children will watch Ni Hao, Kai Lan until their eyes bleed.
I want my kids to think that the original Power Rangers was all about the Yellow Ranger -- all them other Rangers were just backdrop. She got the coolest Zord anyways -- saber-toothed tiger versus a frickin' stegasaurus? No contest.
So, I can only imagine how valuable a show like Avatar: The Last Airbender is to today’s Asian parents, who use shows like these to instill some measure of racial self-esteem in their children.
And I can only imagine their disappointment rage when they learned that the live-action feature film based on the show, called just The Last Airbender (because, of course, the term “Avatar” is now inextricably linked to blue cat-people), was going to star a virtually all-White cast. Both Aang and Katara, the male and female protagonists, are played by unmistakably Caucasian actors (even though Katara is actually brown-skinned in the cartoon). The studios did the same calculus here that they did for other American remakes of classic Asian films (including The Ring, My Sassy Girl, and The Departed): there’s a belief in Hollywood that while Asian stories will sell, Asian faces won’t. These film executives are sending the message: “Asians simply aren’t familiar enough — not “American” enough – for White movie audiences to relate to”.
So you end up with White-washing of Asian movies and the take-home message, yet again, that Asians aren’t good enough to be the heroes. We’re neither good enough to play romantic leads nor are we heroic enough to have elemental energy-balls shooting out of our hands. Is it any wonder that kids are colourstruck?
To add insult to injury, apparently minorities aren’t good enough to play heroes, but we’re totally bad enough to play the villains. Not like I really know anything about Avatar, but from what I’ve read, the Fire Nation = the bad guys. And lo and behold — the folks behind The Last Airbender have no problem casting people of colour in the roles of the evil Fire people. Cliff Curtis, who is of Maori descent, plays the Big Bad Firelord Ozai. Aasif Mandvi and Dev Patel, two Asian Indian actors, play Firelord Ozai’s right-hand man and his son, respectively.
Which means that TheLast Airbender is going to be two hours of eye-candy schlock, reinforcing the same tired message to kids: White = good and heroic, and Brown = evil and genocidal.
And, while we’re on the subject, Prince of Persia (set to hit theatres this Friday) is yet another example of the White-washing of American cinema. I first saw the trailer for this movie in the theaters, and I literally (and I do mean literally — electroman can attest) yelled out to the screen in front of a crowded theatre audience, “What the FUCK?!? Jake Gyllenhaal‘s not Persian!”
Jake Gyllenhaal has apparently mistaken being Persian with being almost criminally ungroomed. "Defy the future"? How about, "defy all sanity"?
You can’t fake your race with a bottle tan and four weeks of facial hair growth, Jake! Gemma Arterton, who plays the love interest of the Prince of Somwhere-That-Is-Clearly-Not-Persia, is British (although, at least she, unlike Jake Gyllenhaal, uses an accent to sound vaguely… uhm, Persian-ish?). And again, the White-washing of the cast is reserved only for the movie’s protagonists: Ben Kingsley, one of the most famous Asian Indian actors around, plays the primary villain of the movie.
Really? Way to ruin the first computer game I every played, Disney. Thanks, but no thanks. I think I’ll be boycotting that one, too.
Dear Jake Gyllenhaal: I think I just learned how to quit you.
Act Now! Join me (and a whole bunch of other angryAsians) in boycotting The Last Airbender when it hits theatres this July 2nd, and in boycotting Prince of Persia this Friday.
So, Hallowe’en occurred this past weekend. It is my favourite holiday of the year, and 2009 was, without a doubt, the best Hallowe’en of my life. Electroman dressed as the Joker, and I dressed as Harley Quinn. A couple of friends of ours were Joker henchmen, and we staged a robbery of the house party we attended, complete with BB guns, Smile-X gas, and fake money. Later in the evening, we put on several killing scenes for the party-goers — flash mob style — wherein either I or electroman would stab or shoot one of the henchmen, and he would die bleeding out from his chest. The fake blood was so realistic, a couple of horrified partygoers honestly thought I had just lost my little mind, and wanted to call an ambulance. It wasn’t just Hallowe’en, it was Hallowe’en-apalooza.
But, no party goes off completely without a hitch, I suppose. At this house party, we also encountered a live example of a White person in blackface. Another group, whom none of my friends knew (this was a pretty big house party, being thrown by a friend of a friend), came in a group-themed costume — they did the cast of Napoleon Dynamite. Those of you who are Napoleon Dynamite fans might know where this is going.
Apparently, there’s a character in the film called “LaFawndah”, who turns out to be the Internet girlfriend of one of the characters in the movie. There’s supposed to be a “ha ha” moment because some dweeby White guy starts dressing (and behaving) like a gangsta rapper and has a tall, statuesque Black woman as his new significant other. Here’s a picture of this character:
So, at this party, the cast of Napoloen Dynamite included a White girl dressed as this character. I don’t have a good picture of her, but a friend of mine took a picture of the cast standing around, including an image of the girl; while her face isn’t in view, you can see the brown makeup liberally applied to the girl’s arms.
Jesus, people, what is up with the racist Hallowe’en costumes? It is not cool to wear makeup to specficially alter one’s race or ethnicity; it is offensive to people of colour because it specifically mocks and exaggerates race-based physical features in a manner demeaning and derogatory to racial minorities. I mean, consider how this girl also wore a black wig (which hardly resembles the hair of the main character) and a butt prosthetic to mimick the large rear end of Napoleon Dynamite‘s LaFawndah. How is her costume not a stereotyping of Black women? Just don’t do it, people. It’s not cute.
Sadly, I didn’t see this person (or her costume) while I was at the party. I actually didn’t even know anyone had dressed up as the cast of Napoleon Dynamite, although I did see Napoleon himself walking around. I was out on a beer run when the cast won the group costume contest at the party (we were told later that many of the partygoers had voted for us — our group theme was better, anyways). But, had I seen this girl, I definitely would’ve given her a piece of my mind.
Thankfully, electroman did see her. And he did tell her all about herself. In fact, I think he told her that the costume was offensive. I think she apologized. I bumped into him as he was leaving the altercation, and soon after that we left. I wasn’t told about Miss Blackface until we were in the car.
But either, way, people. Intention is irrelevant. Colourface is wrong. Thousands of people manage to come up with creative and awesome Hallowe’en costumes that aren’t racist; so what’s wrong with you that you feel the need to go there? If you feel the need to liberally apply skin darkening makeup in order to achieve your costume, either your costume sucks and/or you should maybe do something else.
Or, don’t start crying with some lame apology when people call you racist.