Asians Behaving Badly: Tufts University

(Hat-Tip: Asian Pacific Americans for Progress)

In a way, on-campus student body elections are a telling glimpse into how important political strategists and marketing people are for politics; every fall semester, we get to see just what happens when a bunch of folks try to run their very own campaigns for campus senate/assembly/etc. Twenty, even thirty, bright-eyed and bushy-tailed wannabe politicians (who think being an elected representative will look great on their law school apps) break out the Crayola chalk and colourful Xeroxs to advertise why they deserve your vote for student representative.

I’m no stranger to the whole process. Electroman ran twice for Cornell University’s student assembly. Once, as a freshman representative, he garnered the most votes of anyone in the race (a vote total virtually unheard of at the time, too!) — all with a risque campaign slogan (“Give a Damn!”) a willingness to skip every class he had for two weeks, and an expensive oil-based chalking that remained on the sidewalk long after the votes were cast (courtesy of yours truly). After his first term as a freshman rep, Electroman gained greater notoriety running as an At-Large representative, the hardest race for student reps to win because they couldn’t limit their campaigning to a single college, but to the entire student body (thus they required a greater number of votes in general in order to win). Electroman came in second after a guy named Uzo (there were four At-Large seats total, so Electroman still got elected in)– and let’s face it, it’s pretty hard to win an on-campus race against a guy armed with buckets of chalk whose name is “Uzo”.

Like a microcosm of real world politics, the name of the game for on-campus elections is distinguishing oneself from the pack. “Uzo” had a distinctive name, Electroman had a great campaign slogan, and others performed on-campus stunts like driving around  in a car emblazoned with his name bassing popular hip-hop music as students left class. One guy campaigned on an all-gyro (yes, the Greek food) platform.

And some minority candidates, seduced by the circus of student campaigns, go racial.

Cornell Republican candidates delighted in writing racist articles in the on-campus student newspaper version of Fox News, attacking Cornell’s minority program houses and lambasting African American studies professors. One Asian American candidate capitalized on the popularity of the movie “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon” and adopted the campaign slogan “Crouching [First Name], Hidden [Last Name]” (which, when put together with her actual name, sounded disturbingly like an advertisement for an all-nude strip club).

And this year, at Tufts University, one freshman Asian American candidate named Alice Pang, in her zeal to be elected to the school’s student Senate, put up posters with the campaign slogan: “Small Person. Big Ideas.”  Next to Pang’s photo, she also wrote “hurrah!”

tufts-posters1

Clearly, Pang is trying to distinguish herself with a play on her status as a vertically challenged person. “She’s little,” says the slogan, “but she’s oh-so-smart!” Sadly, if that’s not an Asian American stereotype, I’m not sure what is. Ms. Pang’s poster manages to conjure up images of the working stiff, brainy Asian model minority, while simultaneously jamming a short joke in there for good measure. To top it all off, she’s got the inexplicable “hurrah!” — which I’m tempted to believe is a reference to the infamous “Yatta!” catch-phrase of Heroes‘ Hiro Nakamura.

So, if I were a politically conscious Asian American, I’d probably be pretty pissed about Pang’s poster. But, I wouldn’t do do what In-Goo Kwak, another freshman at Tufts University, did.  

I’m not sure if Kwak thought Pang’s poster was hysterical or offensive, but he and a couple of his friends made a parody poster that they printed up and posted around campus.

tufts-posters2

Kwak’s “slogan” is “Squinty Eyes. Big Vision.” and instead of “hurrah”, Kwak has written “kimchi!”, a traditional Korean dish. And, rather than include the “Vote on Thursday” information that Pang has below “2013 Senate”, Kwak wrote “Prease vote me! I work reary hard!”, complete with “r/l” slurring.

Okay, first of all, yes this is a clear  parody of Pang, who shouldn’t come out unscathed in this whole fiasco. But, this is an offensive, racist, parody that only adds flame to the fire. Rather than articulate why Pang’s posters play on racial stereotypes of Asian Americans to distinguish Pang from the crowd of students vying for a seat on the Senate, Kwak came up with a deliberately racist poster that he circulated to the entire student community. The poster is funny — if you think that anti-Asian racism is hilarious.

Kwak defended his poster in an article on Inside Higher Ed

“Though this was a satire of [Pang’s] poster, this was not a personal insult in any way,” Kwak said. “I thought it would be funny to satire the oppressive environment of political correctness at Tufts. I think it’s unhealthy that people feel afraid to express their views. One of the Asians on my hall saw the poster and showed it all over campus and eventually the director of the Asian American Center contacted me, but not one of the students who found this offensive contacted me directly. Instead, they had someone else do it.”

[…]

“People are so afraid to talk about this or to express their support of my poster because they’re afraid of getting in trouble with one of the groups on campus,” Kwak said. “And this is happening on a college campus, where people should be comfortable sharing their views. I mean, I was [comfortable]. I put my name on the poster in big letters. There’s this taboo against the discussion of racial issues. I’m not going to be afraid to talk about them, and I’m not going to back down.”

Arguably, Kwak’s explanation is worse than his poster. Rather than to acknowledge the racism of the poster, Kwak takes a line from the playbook of student Republicans. He’s a martyr for the First Amendment, claims Kwak. Because, really, why shouldn’t he be allowed to spout racist bullshit against his own community in Xerox form?

The problem with that argument is that it’s a no-holds-barred red herring. No one is telling Kwak that he can’t put hatespeech up on a hallway. In fact, university campuses remain one of the few environments where students and faculty have relative freedom in exploring and publicizing unpopular ideas. But, while the First Amendment protects a person’s right to spout unpopular speech, it does not protect you from public mockery and condemnation over the content of that speech (or, by extension, the “fear” of being publicly mocked as a result). The First Amendment establishes a marketplace of ideas, not a provision that the least popular (and most hateful) idea be allowed to exist free of criticism.

So, Kwak is no martyr for the First Amendment. His second charge is that his critics are cowards, who are unwilling to confront him on why they think his poster is offensive. Yet, Kwak was apparently unwilling to write an email to Pang, telling her why he thought her posters were worthy of parody; instead, he took the indirect route of mocking Pang publicly rather than to confront her privately and directly. (Kwak now claims he apologized to Pang directly, but Pang hasn’t commented on the whole fiasco, so maybe Kwak is making that up.)

If he wants direct criticism, here’s my direct criticism. The “squinty eyes” reference is a direct reference to the monolid eyes of Asians, and has been used countless times in schoolyard fights to denigrate Asian American children. Miley Cyrus, one of the Jonas Brothers, and even two entire sports teams, has been put on-notice by the Asian American community for mocking the so-called Asian “squinty eye” — so turning the “squinty eye” thing into a joke made by an Asian American against an Asian American not only conjures up painful memories of racism that many Asian Americans faced as children, but also appears to validate the “squinty eye” slur by making a public demonstration that an Asian American does it and finds it funny.

Secondly,  I only presume that Pang’s inclusion of “hurrah!” is a veiled reference to Heroes and “yatta!”. But for all I know, maybe Pang’s favourite word is “hurrah!”. Maybe her middle name is “hurrah!”. Maybe she’s got warm, fuzzy memories of her mother rocking her to sleep with lullabies where every lyric  was replaced with “hurrah” and now this word encapsulates Pang’s entire reason for being. Who knows, and bottom line, who really cares?

Kwak includes “kimchi!” as his random word. Not “toast!”. Not “winnebago!”. Not “scissors!” nor “venison!” nor “minestrone!” nor some other non-racialized word. No, Kwak chose to use “kimchi!” — a food that has clear references to Asian culture, and as a further emphasis that the poster is designed to mock Asian-ness as much as it is designed to mock Pang. And finally, Kwak uses the “r/l” slurring which makes the poster a clear insult towards Asians by using a joke that has been employed ad infinitum against Asian/Asian American people. What racist comedian and wannabe morning shock jock hasn’t honed their “r/l” slurring as the basis for a sketch where the punchline is how weird Asian Americans are?

There’s been a series of responses from Tufts on the whole fiasco. The on-campus Asian American student group organized a group discussion on Postergate, while Linell Yunagawa, director of the Asian American Center, released a statement by email to the student body:

“Many Asian/Asian Americans and individuals of other racial backgrounds have been angered, hurt, and offended by these posters,” Yugawa wrote in a letter co-signed by directors of other groups at the university, such as the Latino Center and the LGBT Center. “The posters not only mocked an authorized campaign poster, but used negative and racist stereotypes that correlate with the discrimination and dehumanization of Asians. These posters go beyond affecting one individual or group, but offend all who have an understanding of how racist stereotypes impact our lives.

“Some may argue that we need to ‘lighten up’ and/or ‘reclaim’ the stereotypes and words that have harmed us and our communities. While it is one thing to mutually engage in this type of conversation, it is another to post stereotypical and racist language that is open to interpretation and hurtful to many. We cannot truly know how the content of these posters have triggered members of the Tufts community.”

I’m squarely in the “this shit is racist” camp. And, while I don’t expect that Kwak is going to receive any sort of formal action for his racism (nor am I certain that it would be appropriate), Kwak is being soundly denounced around the Asian American blogosphere for his apparent enjoyment in playing the anti-Asian minstrel for the non-Asian student body of Tufts University. In effect, Mr. Kwak’s only punishment is being called a moron publicly and by total strangers, in a far more extreme and expansive form than he perpetrated against Ms. Pang. And I think that’s punishment enough. The Asian American community should not be tolerant of anti-Asian hatespeech, whether emerging from within or outside the community; and while Kwak is free to say whatever the hell he feels like, I hope he understands that he will not be protected from looking like a jackass for spouting jackassery.

And Mr. Kwak, my friend, right now you look like a jackass.

Fan Secret Identities and APIA Vote

Just a quick note: become a fan of Secret Identities: The Asian American Superhero Anthology and APIA Vote on Facebook!

Bao Phi on Race, Violence, and Police Brutality

Hat-tip: Racialicious

Bao Phi writes about the little-known stories of victims of police brutality. Here’s an excerpt:

We all have our fears.  Some of these fears are consciously and subconsciously taught to us by society, some of them may be reinforced by personal experience. And these fears are absolutely impacted by race, gender, class, sexual orientation.  Those of us who are people of color, women, from poor and GLBTT communities have the added fear that if we are victimized by violence, we will be harmed more than helped by law enforcement and the criminal justice system.

Take the case of Michael Cho, a 25 year-old artist who was shot 10 times and killed by two La Habra police who claimed he was unresponsive to their demands and was threatening them with a tire iron.  However, Michael Cho was physically disabled and found it difficult to walk quickly, let alone threaten two police officers.

Or Marlo and Romel Custodio, who were shot with tasers and beaten by 8 San Jose police officers for allegedly possessing less than half an once of marijuana, and who were cooperating with their arrest.  They managed to call their 50 year-old mother, Marilou Alvarado Custodio, who was violently restrained when she arrived on the scene, her head repeatedly banged into a squad car’s door.

And “The Quincy 4,” young Asian American activists who were brutalized by Boston police as they returned from an engagement party.  They were talking to a state trooper in the parking lot of a supermarket when a police squad car rolled up and without warning they were pepper-sprayed and attacked.  One of the victims, a young woman named Karen Chen who is just above 5 feet tall, was tackled and beaten by three male police officers, giving her a black eye and numerous bruises.  Not only were the police officers unpunished, they filed false charges of resisting arrest and disorderly conduct, of which a Boston judge found them guilty and sent one of these young people, who had done no wrong, to prison.

Unfortunately, we don’t have to look far for incidents involving police brutality.

Read the full column here: Fong Lee, and Violence

Act Now! Bao Phi, along with other artists and poets, are putting on a fund-raising performance for the family of Fong Lee, a Hmong-American boy who was shot and killed by a police officer in Minneapolis, Minnesota. Proceeds from the performance will go towards legal costs for the Lee family. Here are the details:

UP IN ARMS: A Night of Hip Hop and Spoken Word to Honor Fong Lee and End Police Brutality

Saturday, October 3rd, 8 p.m. (doors at 7:30)
Kagin Commons at Macalester College
1600 Grand Avenue, St. Paul, MN 55105

Featuring performances by Magnetic North (NY), Nomi of Power Struggle (Bay Area), Michelle Myers of Yellow Rage (Philadelphia), Maria Isa, Blackbird Elements, Guante, Rodrigo Sanchez-Chavarria, e.g. bailey, Tou SaiKo Lee with PosNoSys, True Mutiny, Shá Cage, Kevin Xiong with Pada Lor, Tish Jones, Maipacher, Logan Moua, Bobby Wilson, Poetic Assassins, Hilltribe, and special guests. Tou Ger Xiong and Amy Hang will emcee and DJ Nak will be on the one’s and two’s.

$5-$10 suggested donation.  All proceeds go towards legal costs for the Family of Fong Lee.

Heroes, Season 4 Episode 1

Yes, I’m already a week behind on blogging about the latest season of Heroes. Blah.

Heroes is noteworthy for being one of the few shows on primetime to feature a multi-racial cast of characters. With the generally abysmal representation of Asian American faces on television (although Jee of 8Asians notes the growth in number this year), series regulars Masi Oka (playing self-described “hero” Hiro Nakamura) and James Kyson Lee (playing Hiro’s buddy Ando Masahashi, the show’s original straight man who later developed superpowers) were — and perhaps still are — among the most identifiable Asian American faces on television.

So, it’s hard to understate the disappointment I experienced with last week’s season premiere.

Hiro possesses arguably the most powerful ability of all the Heroescharacters: he is capable of bending time and space to freeze time, teleport himself and others across the globe, and to go backwards and forwards in time to change history. Hiro had the makings of a true bad-ass. Indeed, I don’t think I got greater chills from Heroesthan when a future version of Hiro appears before Peter Petrelli –insightful, confident, clad in black, wielding a ninja sword, and speaking flawless English. Future Hiro was the promise of what Hiro could be: a righteous, ass-kicking good guy.

Instead, what we get is Masi Oka’s best impression of a bumbling idiot.

Hiro Nakamura is little more than a walking stereotype. Perpetually clad in a short sleeves white dress shirt and black tie, Hiro represents the Japanese working stiff meets child-like imbecile. Despite his awesome powers, Hiro is an incompetent superhero, and has been indirectly (or directly) responsible for setting in motion the events that lead to the rising of a Big Bad in at least two of the last three seasons. Four seasons after his first appearance in the series premiere, Hiro is still obsessed with an infantile definition of the “superhero”, striving to emulate the heroes of his mangas and imported comic books. And though Hiro should be considered the powerhouse of Heroes‘ good guys, he’s relegated to secondary status perpetually living out minor story arcs of irrelevance and impotency. Hiro is an Asian Billy Batson, and no one ever takes Captain Marvel seriously.

And while this might be a good place to start a character, after four seasons, I’m wondering why none of Heroes‘ writers have let Hiro Nakamura grow up. Last week’s season opener showed Hiro struggling with more of the same: trying to force himself to be a hero, while dealing with his powers not working properly. Didn’t we see this already last season? Oh, and maybe he’s dying, but even here Hiro’s more concerned with hooking Ando up with his sister than with dealing with impending death.

Meanwhile, Ando’s developed an abilities amplification power but spends the season opener pining after Hiro’s sister, Kimiko (as well as falling on his head while trying to save a cat). Does he get the girl in the end? Well, sort of — apparently, Kimiko doesn’t date Ando because Ando once spilled a slushie on her dress. Hiro goes back in time, takes a slushie for the team, and lo and behold, Ando and Kimiko have been doing it like rabbits ever since. I’m sure that plot point sounded a lot better on paper.

Meanwhile, what’s up with Kimiko? When we first met her, she was the frustrated and undervalued daughter of the Nakamura household, infinitely more competent running the family business than Hiro but never in line for the job. She was kind of a strong character in her own right, exasperated by her idiot brother and trying to do right by herself. Sure, she was a bit of a dragon lady, but at least she wasn’t taking crap from people. Now, we see she’s as flaky as a schoolgirl, whose affections are literally as capricious as the aim of a falling slushie? Disappointing and cliched are just two words I would use to describe this latest turn of events.

I’m still waiting on the kick-ass Asian American superhero on Heroes. It could be Hiro. It could be Ando. It could be Mohinder. Shit, let’s give Kimiko a power if there’re going to cheaply these days. But let’s get one APA superhero on this show who has a power that a) he can actually use (unlike Hiro), b) doesn’t turn him into a power-mad villain (unlike Mohinder), and c) doesn’t render him a sidekick (unlike Ando).

I’m not exactly holding my breath.

NY Times: On Paper Sons

The New York Times had an excellent article on the “paper son” phenomenon that hugely impacted Chinese American immigration into this country. Here’s an excerpt:

“When we think about illegal immigration, we think about Mexican immigrants, whereas in fact illegal immigration cuts across all immigrant groups,” said Erika Lee, the author of “At America’s Gate: Chinese Immigration During the Exclusion Era, 1882-1943.” The book traces how today’s national apparatus of immigration restriction was created and shaped by efforts to keep out Chinese workers and to counter the tactics they developed to overcome the barriers.

The current parallels are striking, said Professor Lee, who teaches history at the University of Minnesota. And though some descendants of paper sons do not make the connection, many others have become immigrant rights advocates in law, politics or museums like this one, which hopes to draw a national audience to its new Chinatown space, designed by Maya Lin.

“In the Chinese-American community, it has only been very recently that these types of histories have been made public,” Professor Lee said. “Even my own grandparents who came in as paper sons were very, very reluctant to talk about this.”

[…]

“To get into the U.S. under the laws back then, I had to pretend to be another person,” Mr. Hom wrote. His father had bought him immigration papers that included 32 pages of information he was to memorize in preparation for hours of interrogation at Ellis Island.

Such cheat sheets were part of an elaborate, self-perpetuating cycle of enforcement and evasion, historians say. The authorities kept ratcheting up their scrutiny and requirements for documents, feeding a lucrative network of fraud and official corruption as immigrants tried to show they were either merchants or native-born citizens, groups exempt from the exclusion laws.

Read the full article here: Immigration Stories, From Shadows to Spotlight